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Chapter 5


“It is difficult to explain what a Virtue truly is to someone who hasn’t held onto one themselves. Pinned it down with their Will as they sheered it away from the chaff of whatever herb, rock, weapon, beast, spirit, or even person it belonged to. Yes, you read that right, Virtues can be found among the civilized beings of the world too. How do you think we discovered them in the first place? It certainly wasn’t from sending our minds sifting through leaves and crystals like desperate beggars, searching for a pittance, a shred of power we could use and grow. No, the first Virtues were torn free of the spirit in blood and anger, the prize that the stronger took from the weaker, taking and building upon it even further.”

—Black Virtues, Lucina the Butcher,The Age of Tyrants, circa 3748

Nothing made sense anymore. 

Not the world that he had found himself in. Not the state of his body and soul. Not the few scraps of memory that he had recovered, telling him that supposedly a millennia passed from when he last remembered himself. A length of time that should have been an impossibility to live through with so little to show for it. But now, as he stared at the reflection in the mirror before him, the last two hours a complete blur, he wondered just how much more he could take before he finally broke.

This…this isn’t…isn’t me, this isn’t the man that I remember being, he said for what had to be the thousandth time as he stared at the gaunt, misshapen features that the reflection held, the differences between it and what his mind told him it should be just dancing at the edge of recollection. Even aside from my riving, I…I wasn’t that…this young, of that I’m certain. But how old was I truly? I…have no idea. Certainly not old. Maybe not even middle-aged. And my hair… my hair wasn’t so pale and white.

Yet as Vincent looked into the mirror, it most certainly was now, fresh and clean after the bath he’d been given, its shaggy, shoulder long length appearing as a cross between a dull grey to a lustrous white.

Could it be because of my riving? Vincent wondered as his thoughts wandered down the familiar tracks that he worn into his mind since he’d been given the mirror, ones that had always taken him back to the very same place he’d found himself since he’d first awoken. 

Which was to say, a complete and utter state of confusion.

I…I need to stop, he finally announced inwardly, forcing his all too weak hand to gently place the mirror on the nightstand beside him, before pushing it even further with his fingers, so that it would be firmly out of reach. I need to stop before this consumes me completely. I…I need to find some control.

But with the mirror finally relinquishing its hold on Vincent’s focus, it left him with nothing else to do but once again take in the room before him, a place that was noticeably different than the common area tirage bed that he had first awoken in. Now he had the comfort of his own privacy inside one of the few recovery rooms that Ayre’s clinic had available for its patients. Just large enough to be serviceable, the room was adorned with a simple bed, a nightstand, an iron tub, and another small table beside it.

A room that was to be Vincent’s home and entire world for the next week.

Or perhaps the rest of my life, however short it might be, if things happen to go awry, he added, a sense of anxious trepidation flowing into his mind as he considered what awaited him in the near future and how he had managed to arrive at this point.

Having been stunned beyond words after his discovery of how much time had potentially passed from his last memory, Vincent had earned a fair bit of concern from both the Menders as they tried to figure out exactly what had happened to him. In fact, it had taken both Theo and Ayre unsuccessfully prodding Vincent with their Will, and thereby triggering his Insight’s defenses, for him to snap back into focus. Yet even so, the fragmented and potentially unreliable memories that he’d recovered was the last thing that Vincent wanted to talk about as he came to, even if it was abundantly clear to everyone that something had gravely disturbed him. Fortunately, that is where Vincent’s situation and identity as an Ascendant, even a fallen one, came into play, for when he abruptly changed the subject, neither of the two menders said anything about it, even if it was clear that they wanted to.

Unable to help but feel somewhat bad about the unknown authority that he wielded, Vincent still made sure to take full advantage of the next hour that followed afterwards, asking the men every single question that he could think of. During that time he had learned that not only was an Ascendant in fact the local culture’s terminology for an Incarnate and Mender as being a Healer, but he also discovered specifically where in Everness he was. That being within the city’s public clinic, deep within the slums that bordered what they had called the Great Everness Reservoir. The very same body of water that he had fallen into. 

Apparently when his abduction by the Shadowed Hand had taken an unexpected turn, it had resulted in all of them falling into a sewage and waste aqueduct in the upper districts of the city, the journey through which eventually cumulated in his dumping into a purification reservoir. A place that as he all too clearly remembered ended up with his unexpected encounter with the Deepchewer and the battering that had followed afterwards. It was at that point in Vincent’s line of questioning that things took an abrupt turn, if at least from his perspective, because no sooner did the topic of the Deepchewer’s death come up, did Ayre assure Vincent that the bounty of his kill had been reserved for him.

A bounty which in effect had secured him the very opportunity that now lay before him, or if not that, then the security that he needed to ensure that he had a good chance in surviving it.

Yet even so, it is another sign that the world has changed drastically around me, Vincent thought, his eye shifting over towards the misshapen lump of black crystal that rested upon the table beside the tub at the foot of his bed. A crystal that according to his insight held a substantial amount of the death and shadow mana that he had sensed within the Deepchewer’s core in his short lived contact with it. That…crystal, or that heart as they called it rather, shouldn’t be possible. How is it that it has so much Shadow and Death yet no Aether mana? 

However before Vincent could fall into yet another pitfall that lurked within his mind, there was a knock at the door leading into his room, followed by its gentle opening, revealing both Ayre and Norin standing in the hallway beyond.

“Hello again, Ascendan—I mean Vincent,” Ayre said by way of greeting, tripping over his words as he belatedly remembered Vincent’s earlier request to drop the title they’d affixed to him. With how far his body and soul had fallen, it wasn’t like it was even an accurate description anymore. “Everything you’ve requested is ready, may we bring it in?”

“Y-yes, of course, thank you,” Vincent replied immediately, feeling relieved to have the interruption, his attention leaping from the dark crystalline heart to both Ayre and Norin. 

Not needing any further invitation, the two then promptly strode into the room, the withered looking Mender immediately stepping to the side to hold the door for Norin who Vincent saw was carrying an exceptionally large platter. One large and heavily laden enough that the dwarf needed two hands to carry it as he carefully navigated his way through the doorway, his eyes then falling upon Vincent.

“On the bed would be perfect,” Vincent replied to the unspoken question, having learned from context since he’d awoken that the man was a mute. Though whether that was related to the stone that covered his body, or something else entirely, was still a mystery. “I’ll need to finish it before I start purging my melds.”

It was a statement that caused both of the men to visibly pale, the sickened grimace on Norin’s face telling Vincent more than words from the dwarf could ever say.

“Um…yes, about that,” he Ayre say a moment later, his words arriving at the same moment that a pungent and deeply sulfur like stench reached his nose. “But I really, really must be sure. Are you sure that you don’t want us to find something of better…quality for your efforts? I’ve no doubt that we would be able to procure something more palatable if nothing else, certainly more than just…this.”

“Thank you, Ayre, but no, as…unappealing as it might be, this is exactly what I need,” Vincent answered with a shake of his head as he mentally instructed his Insight to shut off his capacity for smell, the single whiff from the platter’s contents enough to convince him to do so. “I should be able to take what virtues I need from what you’ve brought and use them to…carve away the dead anima covering my spirit. Truthfully, I can’t think of anything better to even ask for.”

“Ah, well, if you…insist then,” Ayre replied, the mender’s tone still sounding vaguely doubtful and hesitant. “In that case then is there anything else you need before… before we leave you to your efforts?”

“Nothing that I can think of now,” Vincent said with another shake of his head, already having asked if the man had any life mana to spare. But unfortunately all they had were a handful of motes remaining after they had healed his injuries, an amount barely enough to heal a single broken bone, let alone what Vincent needed it for. “Unless something changes, I’ll just need another platter tomorrow, then another once a day, every day afterwards, until I’m finished.”

If I ever finish, Vincent couldn’t help but add mentally immediately, watching the two men stare back at him with clear doubt and hesitation on their faces.

“Very well then,” Ayre said, once again looking like he wanted to say more as both he and Norin retreated back to the doorway, but decided against it. Instead he looked at Vincent once last time and nodded to him. “Good luck with your mending, Vincent.”

And then he and Norin were gone, the door to Vincent’s room then closing shut with a thump and leaving him alone once more.

Might as well get right to it then, before I lose my nerve, he thought while turning his attention towards the still steaming platter that Norin had deposited before him, eyes slowly playing over what the other part of his bounty had brought. 

That having been the other two crystalline hearts that had once belonged to the two men who had abducted him.

A fate which as far as I’m concerned right now, was too generous for what they deserved, Vincent thought as he stared at a still steaming flank of dark, oily meat that centered the platter, its size easily half that of his head. Beside it, arrayed in a line as to their shape and sizes, was a collection of wicked looking teeth, their pointed tips, and serrated sides perfect for piercing and slicing through flesh. Then lastly, completing the experience that was before him, Vincent’s attention drifted to a long and thick looking length of tongue that had been coiled in on itself and speared with a skewer so that it simply didn’t roll off the platter in transit. It was a horrific presentation as a meal went, but after some consideration as to how Vincent would even begin to mend himself, how he would get rid of the dead anima covering his soul, he soon realized he had an answer.

That being the Deepchewer itself.

Despite having only touched it for the briefest of moments, it had been enough for Vincent to get a sense of its being, to see what virtues the creature’s soul had manifested upon its physical body in addition to the mana that it absorbed. Many of them, as was common to most living things, were useless to him, simply being too weak or esoteric for what he needed at the moment. However, on the other hand, there had been a few virtues that were practically perfect for his situation, their serendipitous presence one that he wasn’t about to let go to waste.

Taking a deep breath in preparation, Vincent then reached out towards the platter with his right hand, the one whose fingers still had a decent amount of dexterity and finesse available to them. Or at least enough so that he was able to not only pick up one of the razor sharp teeth but do so without cutting himself in the process.

Oh, how far have I fallen, Vincent thought mournfully while pinching the tooth as hard as he could between his first two fingers and thumb, worrying even then that he would drop it. Ever since he had first discovered the severity of his situation, or better put, had the time to even begin considering it, he had immediately shied, if not thrown himself away from it, all while locking away the incalculable sorrow and rage that it threatened to unleash. But that had been then. That had been during a time where he could justify bottling up his emotions so that they wouldn’t interfere as he desperately tried to find out what had happened to him. However now that time had passed, and he was forced to actually acknowledge what he had lost.

Which was to say every single step he’d ever taken on the Path of Incarnation, everything that he had so painstakingly built up over his life. Yes, his soul melds were a part of that, a substantial part even, but yet even so they paled in comparison to what he had truly lost.

My Nexus, the strength of my body, the light of my soul, and the connection between both, Vincent thought as he closed his eyes to look inward, into the all too empty void that separated his physical body and that of his spirit, the two connected by an all too weak looking silver tether. It was a void that shouldn’t have not only not existed, but at the very least should have also been occupied by a brilliant well of energy at its core.

Yet no matter how hard Vincent looked or wished differently, not only was there nothing there for him to find, but it was as if he had never even been on the Path of Incarnation, on the path to melding both body and soul into one singular entity. There was no damage he saw that might have hinted at what happened, no floating dregs of anima, mana, foreign Will, or even tattered virtues of any kind to give him a clue as to where a lifetime of painful effort and sacrifice had gone. No, instead as he looked within himself, all he could see was a blank canvas, no different than any would-be aspirant looking to begin their first steps in the endless journey. 

It’s as if…it was all simply taken away, leaving me to start once again from nothing, Vincent thought resignedly as he gradually pulled his Will away from the void between his body and soul and reopened his eyes, seeing the tooth still clenched between his fingers. And I mean truly nothing if I manage to survive mending myself. 

Vincent’s whirling mind paused for a second as he directed his Will towards the tooth, enveloping the grey-black shape in its entirety.

No, maybe not nothing, he corrected himself afterwards. I still have my Will and my knowledge. Or at least enough of it that maybe I can make better choices this time around. Stronger choices.

The thought immediately sent a wave of peace surging through Vincent’s mind, filling him with a deep burning resolve that he knew he would need in the days to come. Breathing a sigh of relief at the sensation, Vincent then pulled on the tooth with his Will, having easily found the lingering echo of the deepchewer’s soul he needed, a move that caused it to promptly dissolve in his grasp.

And just like that, his path started anew once more.

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