The sentient grape vine went silent for a time. Aubert de Villaine pondered on the past, and only later did his deep voice return. “I did whatever I could, employed whatever methods possible, to beat Jayer. Have you seen the fruit of my vine? These are the product of my life’s work – three hundred years of study, of trying to understand. Every grape is already fermented in to a self-contained dollop of wine. You have tasted Jayer’s Cros Parantoux, so I invite you to try my own creations. Tell me if I’ve finally surpassed the man.”
Lan Jue was surprised by the sudden shift in topic. He looked on as three vines, thick as a man’s arm, stretched towards them.
The grapes situated on these vines were different from normal grapes. Those came in bunches, while de Villain’s fruit came only one per bud. Each twinkling, amethyst-hued grape was about as large as an infant’s fist. They looked delectable.
Three dropped from the vine, and fell directly in to the hands of the vineyard’s visitors. Immediately, the heady scent of wine filled the air. The savory, mellow fragrances alone were enough to make them feel drunk. Tentatively, grapes were brought to mouths, but when they took a bite they did not find fruit. Instead, a gush of fluid burst forth and down their gullets. It was wine, a big gulp of wine in every grape.
Their taste buds were in overdrive. The intense flavors filled their mouths, stimulating every cell. It felt like the taste was invaded one’s whole body. Thankfully, all three of the Skyfire Adepts were…. practiced enough in the art of drinking that they needn’t fear getting drunk.
The Wine Master was the first to sense something amiss. But where Lan Jue and the Pauper’s faces had changed from the wine’s flavors, the Wine Master’s expression shifted for a different reason. As he watched, his companion’s flesh darkened until they were purple – the same tint as the grapes they’d imbibed.
“There’s a problem with the grapes!” The Wine Master flourished with his right hand and, in a flash of silvery light, his astrum truncheon appeared in his grip.
“No. I have used my own condensed life force and protogenic powers to create these perfect grapes. They are absolutely the pinnacle of grape farming. But grapes, you see, require fine fertilizer. After years of research I’ve found the best kind, and it may surprise you to find that there is no better fertilizer than human remains. Now that you’re here, and you’ve seen all of this, perhaps we’ll just have you stay. The wine didn’t get you drunk, as was my hope, but you still don’t have the power to face me.” Aubert de Villaine’s voice had grown murderously cold.
A thick purple light hung over the hillside. The massive vine waves erratically, pulling in all directions until it’s buried roots were exhumed. The sentient plants jerks and twisted until it assumed the shape of a man, made of bark and grapes.
By now, the Wine Master’s skin had also begun to darken. He heaved a long grunt. “Lan Jue was right1, you aren’t even in the same class as Jayer. Your heart is poisoned – only interested in instant gratification and quick success. Your spirit was only ever interested in money, and that is why you were never able to understand the art of making wine. Even with all your talent, you will never be the greatest god of wine.”
A silvery bubble of energy surrounded the Wine Master and his companions. In response, dozens of slithering grape vines exploded from the earth all around them. They were a deep purple in color, and wrapped together to form a hideous face, frozen in an expression of rage. More appeared, and struck out at the protective bubble surrounding the intrepid travelers from all directions. There were so many that they blotted out the sky, turning everything purple.
“I have already used my protogenic powers to close this place. Even with your interspacial capabilities, you’re stuck here. The fruit of a god of wine is special, you see. It would kill a normal man – he would drink himself to oblivion. For Adepts, it reduces your Talent. One grape, diluted in water, can make a thousand bottles of the best Romanee-Conti the universe has ever known. But you – you are great lovers of wine, are you not? Wouldn’t contributing your bodies to create such a splendid wine be a fitting end? You dare to look down upon my creation, to claim it inferior to that farmer’s Cros Parantoux, so consider this death my gift.” Aubert’s voice was haughty, and full of venom.
The Wine Master fixed the vine-man’s ‘face’ with a glare. “Indeed, you are inferior. The fruit of a god of wine is fine, but it cannot compare to the true love and devotion a vintner has for his harvest. These grapes have no love, just rage and greed. You can sense it in the aftertaste – it’s fetid. You said it true before – there is no way for you to ever surpass the late Henri Jayer.”
“You’re clearly not qualified to make such assumptions. We will see the truth of it once you’ve come to fertilize my fruit. My creation will sweep the universe, and all those who drink it will be drawn in. From them, I will chose the best to serve as nutrients for the next harvest. I refuse to believe that, with the addition of so many wine lovers, that I will not surpass Jayer! There will be more love for wine than that old man could ever muster. I can finally rid myself of his specter. You three are lucky – my first crop, I’ll remember you always.”
The skies darkened until it was a reach, deep purple – almost black. The vines, hundreds now, wiped ceaselessly at the silvery shell. Each vine shattered as it thrust itself against the Wine Master’s defenses, but with each strike the strain on the Cosmagus became more evident.
The Wine Master’s skin became increasingly darker in hue. It crept up his body, slowly overtaking the hand holding his scepter. He gave a bitter smirk. Never would he have thought that the greatest love of his life would be his undoing.
As for Aubert de Villaine, the great vintner, clearly his rage and jealousy had driven him to madness. A Paragon lost to anger was terrifying, for who knew how many innocents would lose their lives. This place had become a Babylonian purgatory.
In regards to cultivation, the Wine Master and Aubert were not equal. However, the difference was not enormous. In part, the Wine Master’s understanding of protogenic energies was deeper due to his experience with interstellar migration – something Aubert clearly had avoided. None of that power or knowledge could be taken from him.
But this place, everything around them, was under the complete control of Aubert de Villaine. He had created it from nothing, using the skills and knowledge of the Former Era. He even turned himself in to an enormous grape vine so that his connection to the land was deeper. It was largely for this reason that the Wine Master found himself at such a disadvantage.
Evidently, the new Paragon’s abilities were plant-based. In regards to combat, this couldn’t hold a flame to interdimensional Talent. Here, however, those specific attributes were cut off – interspacial powers were suppressed because the entirety of this place was under Aubert’s control. The grape’s fluids seemed to permeate down to their souls, and the Wine Master already at a distinct disadvantage, there wasn’t much in the way of resistance that they could offer.
In addition, Aubert was one of, if not the single oldest Paragon in the universe. By virtue of his age and experience alone, he had an advantage and he wasn’t the least bit interested in holding back. The Wine Master knew very well what sort of destruction a Paragon was capable of. The three of them were like meat on a cutting board. All de Villaine had to do was wear him down.
Over and over again, the protogenic-infused vines lashed at them. With each strike, the Wine Master’s shield dimmed. Once it failed, there would be nothing to protect them from Aubert’s murderous thirst. Not even the Wine Master.
Lan Jue looked on as the Cosmagus fell to one knee. His scepter dug in to the dirt, the only thing stopping the Avenue’s interim leader from falling to the ground. Tendrils of silvery light spread out from the butt of the scepter then. They were small at first, but quickly bloomed across the earth until it created a blinding lotus of glimmering light. It was dazzling, burning, and they could not look away. Each petal was its own self-contained universe, and they crashed and melded among one another.
Aubert’s precious pocket of reality began to disintegrate, unable to sustain itself against the Cosmagus frightening power. The flower blazed like a sun until, suddenly, it shifted black. It became an impossible black, that drank up everything around it – a black hole, perhaps a meter wide. Almost instantaneously, all of the vines assaulting them were atomized.
There was a flux of energy, and that one meter black hole surged to devour a thousand meters.
Aubert de Villaine, standing at two meters, found himself directly in the center. As the insatiable hunger of the black hole came crashing down upon him, his viney figure ceased to be.
However, then a violet light congealed around the edges of the anomaly, keeping it from growing further.
This was the Wine Master’s single most powerful skill. At the peak of his power, he was capable of devouring entire planets in it’s scope. It’s confinement at any level was a stupendous achievement, much less to this small size.
“Your resistance is pointless. This place belongs to me. Did you think this would be enough to destroy me? My roots spread all throughout this place. I am everywhere.” Aubert’s figured re-emerged from the dirt as more grape vines twisted to form a mirror image of the previous body.
The compressing power surrounding the terrible black hole strengthened. Gradually, the last-ditch effort of the Cosmagus was shrinking.
“All of your power merely makes things worse for you. The more you employ your Discipline, the faster my grape’s power permeates through you. There is nothing that can save you. With that wine in your veins, you’re demise is assured.” Aubert De Villaine’s voice was full of dark mirth.
To my knowledge, this is the first time anyone from the Avenue has used an Avenue denizen’s true name in public. I’m thinking this is likely a mistake on TJSS’s part – just an interesting aside.