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Chapter 13


“It is easy for those not on the path who have witnessed Incarnates duel to think that battle is merely a test of physical might and one’s skill in wielding magic. That whoever wins is simply the stronger or more capable of the pair. However, in practice, nothing could be further from the truth. For while indeed physical prowess and magical aptitude are important factors, it is the unseen exchange in such duels that truly dictates the outcome, the battle of Will against Will.”

The Will of Steel, Gordon Meeks, The Age of Tyrants, circa 3732

“Are you sure you’re going to be okay? Or do we need to stop for a bit somewhere?” Vincent queried in a low whisper as he led Theo through the crowded alleyway, the enticing scent of food all but consuming his senses and causing his mouth to water.

Not that he was exactly in the mood to really enjoy a meal if they had stopped with the way the morning had gone so far.

“I…uh, we don’t. I mean, yes. I think…I think I’ll be okay,” Theo answered back much but not all of the earlier panic and worry in his voice having vanished since they’d made their escape. However even so, the young mender’s voice was still pitched low and his movements were clearly anxious as he constantly checked over his shoulder. “I’m sorry. That was the first time I ever…ever was so close to fighting Ascendants. Well, or close to it. It…it wasn’t at all what I expected. N-nothing like the fights in the slums. Even then, I usually see them after the fact. If you hadn’t been there, then, well…”

“Don’t worry about it,” Vincent replied as he struggled to take in a deep breath, the rapid movement over the last half hour being almost more than his frail body could handle. “And truly, if you need a moment, we can find somewhere to sit.”

“No…no, really. It’s fine,” Theo stated as he finished another anxious scan and let out a sharp breath before motioning for Vincent continue leading the way through the press of people around them.  “Come on, let’s get out on the street and out of here. I’ll…I’ll feel better once I have some space to breathe.”

Giving the man a nod, Vincent then did exactly that as he turned to lead them out from the alleyway, his hunched stance and walking stick buying him a couple hand widths of extra space from the crush of people. As he moved however, Vincent couldn’t help but feel a pang of guilt about the anxiety that he saw in Theo, which despite how he otherwise may have looked was still in fact crossing the line of childhood and adulthood.

I never even thought to ask how old he actually is, Vincent wondered idly as he ambled his way forward to the best of his ability. Seventeen or eighteen maybe? Certainly not older than that. Old enough to have had the chance to learn of the realm, but clearly not experience all that much of it.

Yet despite that lack, it hadn’t kept Theo from giving Vincent a great deal of desperately needed context once they had escaped the immediate vicinity of the chaos and why they had needed to make such a frantic escape in the first place.

That reason being because Vincent had publicly slapped down what was in effect two nobles who happened to each belong to some of the most powerful Ascendant Dynasties in the city.

Now in any other situation or time, defending himself the way he had would have been a perfectly acceptable thing to have done. Brawling publicly in the streets, no matter the circumstances, was generally something that didn’t happen within Everness, regardless of social status. However over the last month that had changed, all thanks to a feud that had broken out between the Azurewind and Ironsong houses. Unfortunately Theo, nor anyone outside the two families, knew precisely as to what exactly started the feud, save that the cause had been on some sort of expedition outside of the city and had resulted in multiple deaths for both families. 

Whatever it had been however, it caused things between the two families to instantly sour with everything from long standing business agreements, partnerships, and even friendships fraying almost overnight. Nor did the spiral end there, with tensions building so high that they erupted in a brawl that saw the better part of a block wrecked with dozens injured. An event that despite the supposed best efforts of both families didn’t stop there either, with the younger members of both families not only continuing the feud but accidentally escalating it when they seriously injured other a whole host of Ascendants and Dormants in the process.

The former of which took to the offense with markedly less restraint and escalated once more, killing, or critically wounding almost all of those who participated in the brawl in the first place. 

Understandably such an event only served to drive tensions even higher, to the point where the Duke of Everness publicly sanctioned both of the two families and ordered them to get the situation under control. Even more than that he promised unpleasant outcomes to anyone, regardless of how they became involved, if they were caught disturbing the peace again. Unfortunately, as Theo had impressed upon Vincent it was a warning that had been followed through on several times already, with transgressors having been sentenced to varying lengths of imprisonments in the city prison.

Something that anyone with an ounce of sense very much wanted to avoid.

“…and it’s has affected more than just our nerves in walking the streets,” Theo replied after Vincent asked to know more of the feud, figuring that if he could get the teenager talking and thinking of something else that it would calm his nerves somewhat. That and also fill in more of the countless blanks that he still had about the city. “And that’s because of the partnerships that both families had with one another. The Azurewind clan, as they are formally known, control practically all the water and air bound trade to and from Everness, while the Ironsong Dynasty on the other hand have incredible influence over almost all matters of trade, mining, and industry. Since they began fighting they’ve refused to do any business with one another, which has about screwed everyone who depended on that trade and work to earn a living.”

“And no one has tried to go and fill that gap?” Vincent asked, gradually finding it more and more difficult to both pay attention to what Theo was telling him as well as take in all the sights and sounds around him. Their journey had long since taken them out of the cramped food stall packed alleyway and onto the main thoroughfare filled with dozens of others as they walked deeper into the ever busy merchant district.

Having transitioned gradually from the simple tenements and townhomes that they had first traveled through on the way out from the slums, the city before Vincent now all but towered before him, covered in obvious, if not gratuitous wealth in some cases. In one glance he saw a row of towering apartments easily twenty stories tall overlooking the market square, the stone that they’d been built from looking absolutely immaculate without so much as a crack. In another glance, he saw rows and rows of shops, catering to every single need imaginable. From books, to curios, to food, to weapons, and armor, Vincent didn’t doubt that if he did a circuit of the entire square he’d be able to find no fewer than three stores to cater to any specific need he had. Which was something he made a mental note on, knowing that it was only matter of time before he’d be back here with the intent to shop. More than just his surroundings too, Vincent also noticed a similar change in the people as well, with the majority of them bearing fewer manamarks, at least those in the case who were clearly not Ascendants. It was clear that access to cleaner mana, or at least the absence of dark mana, made a notice difference in how it physically affected people’s everyday appearance.

“Of course they have,” he heard Theo answer back as his attention wandered from place to place and person to person. “But that’s where Father says politics comes into play. Anyone looking to take advantage of the work shortage still needs to respect all the other guilds and consortiums that have allied themselves with one or the other. Lest they find themselves blacklisted. I mean, things have always been tight back at home, but I’m glad we don’t have to worry about that. No one ever complains about getting healed.”

“No, they definitely don’t,” Vincent agreed, if only out of practical, firsthand experience. “I imagine that the Hand’s civil war amongst themselves doesn’t make things any easier either.”

“Oh, no. It certainly doesn’t,” Theo stated with a sharp shake of his head. “But at least in their case, they’ve kept it largely amongst themselves and in the shadows. Even then though, it’s safe to say that the city has been riled up lately. Hopefully it takes a turn for the better sooner than later.”

“Hopefully,” Vincent agreed, finding that he shared the exact same sentiment, having had far too much excitement for his tastes since he’d awoken. “So, are you feeling any better now?”

“Given that someone hasn’t yet fallen from the sky to find us, I think so,” he replied after looking around for several seconds before turning to look back at Vincent. “But if you don’t mind me asking a question…what you did to them to stop the, uh, disagreement, in the first place? It…wasn’t something permanent, was it?”

“No, not at all,” Vincent replied with a shake of his head. “I used a Will technique on them that I remembered. One that allowed me to overpower their own Will and still the mana within them. The only lasting effect they’ll have will be bad headache, but that’s all.”

“Really? That’s it?” Theo asked, looking particularly amazed at what Vincent had said. “That’s…all it took for them to just…fall over?”

“Well, I wasn’t exactly expecting them to do that, but yes,” Vincent replied with a shrug. “Normally the technique is used to disrupt or temporarily halt an opponent’s ability to wield mana, hopefully long enough to gain an advantage. But that’s only if the other person fights back and their Will is up to the task. If it isn’t…then you could pretty much seize all the mana and virtues within a person’s heart for yourself, making it do whatever you want.”

“That…that sounds deadly,” Theo replied, his voice full of awe. “I…I had no idea such a thing was even possible. I thought Ascendants just fought and fought…until, well…”

“Until one of them carved the other apart in a bloody mess?” Vincent finished when it was clear where Theo was going, earning himself a nod in response. “Sometimes, yes that might be easier to do. But sometimes not. When fighting against another Ascendant the battle is mental as much as it is physical. Body against body. Skill against skill. Mind against Mind. Whichever one gives up first is what spells the end.”

“I see,” Theo replied with a nod of understanding that quickly turned into a curious look. “Is that what you did to the Deepchewer then? None of us saw so much as even a mark upon it, and yet…it was dead as anything could ever be.”

“It was,” Vincent replied, mentally calling upon his Insight to replay the details of that exceptionally brief exchange. “Though I was lucky to catch it by surprise…if nothing else. It’s Will was certainly stronger than those two back there, that and the fact that it held death mana. Some aspects, just by their very nature, are more lethal than others…as it found out.”

“Well, I can’t say were unhappy about that, but I’ll be sure to mention that to my father, you know, just in case,” Theo replied, his head turning abruptly as something caught his attention, his face turning a note more serious afterwards. “Ah! We’re almost at the first stop already. This one is an apothecary. Good place to buy from, but damned if it’s at all organized or easy to get through. Once we get in there, you’re going to want to stand as steady as you can out of the way and try not to touch anything if you can help it. Last week a bundle of Bronthorn was just left out on a table amid a bunch of other herbs and I brushed it with my hand. Left it numb for the better part of two days. And that’s with pulling out all the nettles.”

 “Uh, okay,” Vincent answered feeling suddenly hesitant at Theo’s warning and the abrupt change of mindset that it required. “Anything else?”

“Not for this store,” the teenager said as he reached out to take Vincent’s elbow, using it to help guide him to the edge of the street with purpose, ignoring the muted curses and scoffs of exasperation as they cut slower walkers along the way off. “But I suppose this is a good time to ask how you feel about dogs. Really…really big dogs. The next store after this one has four them, and well…they like to lick.”

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