Chapter One Hundred and Thirty Four – 134
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The spread at Zara's house was impressive, nearly filling the twenty foot long table it had been laid out upon. Unfamiliar meats, cheeses, and baked goods were piled high, and Felix didn't wait to tuck in. Harn was only happy to assist. Felix gave him a run down of their situation between bites, but had to start all over when a red faced Evie and hard-eyed Cal came through the doors. Vess followed only a short while after.
With all three of them talking, Felix was able to put away the food far faster. Pit ate even more than Felix, taking two bites for every one the Nym could manage. The food soothed some deep sort of ache in him, something that Felix was only aware of once it had disappeared. He had pushed himself hard the past twenty four hours, and his body was reminding him that it needed more than a little light reading.
By the time breakfast was over, the explanations and follow up questions were done. Harn looked concerned but interested, which Felix expected. But Cal...she had gone pale during their story, specifically the part about a corruption in the Domain. She had badgered them all for every tidbit of their conversation with Zara, of their interactions with the Inquisition, and, not surprisingly, of Felix's newly revealed experience with a dead body in a back alley.
Each answer sent her emotions shifting from anger, then disgust, until finally they settled on a dull sort of dread. Felix was sure no one else noticed it, but his Affinity was working overtime and feeding him the rapid-fire beat of sharp-edged anxiety within Calesca Boscal. It was very different from her usual steady confidence. He didn't like it, at all.
Perhaps minutes after the final round of questions and suppositions, Zara swept into the dining room, followed by three Hobgoblin servants. The servants immediately began to clean up the ravaged corpse of breakfast, whisking away platters and soiled dishes with a speed born of what Felix assumed were highly specialized Skills.
"Good morning to you all," Zara smiled at them, displaying her sharp teeth. "I hope that morning repast was to your liking, and trust that you have shared all pertinent information regarding my request?"
The group nodded and Cal cleared her throat. "We have, Zara. But I have some questions that need satisfaction before we go any further."
"Of course, Cal. That's to be expected." Zara nodded and sat down in a chair at the head of the table. "I'm ready to answer any questions you may have."
Cal frowned. "What do you mean when you say there is corruption in the Domain?"
"I mean exactly that. It's a perversion in the natural order. A...flaw in the melody, as it were. There is something within the Domain that is altering it on a fundamental level," Zara explained. "Soon it shall be too much for the scripted shell to further contain."
"How can you know this?" Cal asked. "How can the Guild not know this?"
"C'mon Cal, that seems obvious," Harn said.
"I wanna hear it from her," Cal said before taking an unsteady breath. "Please."
"No need for that. For your assistance I'll gladly tell you," Zara took a sip of tea that one of the servants had placed before her. "Thank you Melle. As you well know, I was a Guilder for many years. I was the Archivist, one of the keepers of knowledge in the Eyrie. As a function of that position, I was privy to many secrets the Elders would have rather kept locked away. Piddling things, usually. Debts and grudges. But I also know that Teine, the Elder of Spirit in charge of magical research in the Guild, has engaged in reckless experimentation before. I know that something had gone terribly wrong during the Foglands operation. I wasn't involved in the decision to send our people out there, but I was aware of the attempt and was briefly included in the recovery process. I know that the threat of the Frost Giants, while not fictitious or overblown, were a convenient cover for something worse. Something that had started before the Risi ever found you all."
Zara and Cal had locked eyes. She leaned forward, pressing her elbows into the tabletop. "I know of the terror at the center of the Labyrinth."
A quiet pulse of unease spread through the group, though it was perhaps more eagerness in the others. Felix, on the other hand, felt his stomach lurch as he tried to keep himself breathing normally, naturally.
Deception is level 16!
"The ruins were built by the Geist, an artificially Lost Race. Since they were only brushed by the Ruin, more is known of them. Although highly Skilled and proficient in a variety of areas, records of their civilization note two core competencies: their architectural brilliance, and their intensely realistic illusions."
Cal shuddered. Evie put a hand on her shoulder and squeezed while Cal collected herself. "Yeah. I know about those."
"Forgiveness, Cal," Zara's voice softened. "This must bring back terrible memories."
"I can handle it," the treasure hunter grunted. "Say your piece."
"Very well," Zara leaned backward. "The Geist clearly made the Labyrinth. I've read the reports given by many of the survivors, and what I know of them confirms this. The reason they made it, now that is a different knot altogether. The Geist were craftsmen, whether that was architecture or illusion, but nothing in their known history was built frivolously. The defenses are too strong, too varied for simply defending a treasured artifact. Clearly, whatever the Labyrinth held, it was of utmost importance that it stay contained. But that strength was likely too much, based on the preliminary reports I've secured. It was strong enough that I fear it could have affected others from within its cage."
Zara passed her eyes over the group, making sure she had their attention. Felix feared she would stop at him, but she didn't. He had started to sweat.
Does she know?
"This creature's corruption infected the Guilder team. I assume subtly at first, yes?" Her bright blue gaze landed on Cal.
"Yeah," Cal admitted, her face pale again. "It...they found something. A beast in the fog. It was twice the size of an avum. Except it was shaped like a massive weasel, only covered in erupted bone spurs. Horrible thing."
Cal clenched her jaw. "Something had nearly killed it, and the damned quill pushers wanted to study it's body. They kept it alive, keeping it from dissolving, and pulled it into the center of the compound."
Cal's voice roughened, and she forced the next words out. "It took days before anything happened. The scholars more reclusive than before, leaving the protection teams almost completely alone. Everyone thought it was the dark and the fog getting to em. No one suspected the monster samples were contaminated. The scholars went first, then their scribes and porters. Anyone who made contact with it." Cal swallowed, more unnerved than Felix had seen her since the Risi camp.
"With it's blood." Zara stated. Not a question at all.
"Yeah. The blood was...bad. Sick. It drove em mad, then it...changed them. We had to put em down." Cal looked up at Zara, an odd glint to her eye. "You're sayin' this is happening here?"
"Yes, that is what I fear. I have known what the Domain feels like for has changed, the vibrations it sends out are twisted from true in subtle ways. Subtle for now. That corruption is growing. Of that I am completely certain."
"That is somethin' that needs to be stopped," Cal agreed, but she clenched her jaw so hard her temple pulsed. "But you expect us to do that? The things that...their blood--how do you expect us to fight that?"
"I have some protections for that," Zara said, and with a wave of her hand produced a triangular stone the size of her palm. The amulet was a deep blue color and shaped with criss-crossing ridges. "One of these, attuned to your Body, Mind, and Spirit will ward off the corruption for a time."
Name: Ward of the Willful Eye
Type: Wardstone (enchanted)
Lore: Designed to withstand harmful environmental effects such as caustic or dissonant elements for a maximum period of six hours.
Shell of Harmonius Will VII - A Song of protection that diverts dissonant environmental hazards. Has no effect on direct attacks.
Chanters Intent II - The Harmonic Song of a Chanter was used to enchant this item, and it bears their Intent. +20% Effectiveness of Shell.
"Damn," said Harn. "That's useful."
"Less than I'd like, I'm afraid," Zara admitted. "Under normal circumstances the ward would last six hours. In an environment as hostile as the Domain...I fear it will be less. Perhaps far less. The corruption we speak of is degrading the Domain's shell. I imagine it would make quick work with as lesser ward. The only advantage I have here is the inclusion of Harmonics, which should counteract the corruption's nature."
"What about our own enchanted items?" Evie asked. "Will they be affected too?"
"These wards will protect the whole of your person, including anything worn upon it. Once it fails, however," Zara snapped her fingers. "Your Rank I enchanted armor will likely be destroyed in short order."
"How long will it take to clear this 'threat'?" Cal asked.
"I don't know," Zara replied, with no little annoyance. "I truly wish I did. The danger grows with each passing day, but I have been unable to determine how much of the Domain has been corrupted. It is clearly hungry, however and once the Inquisitors have sentenced their 'heretics' and pushed them into the Domain, it will likely be too late. The shell will burst with that influx of power, and this city will be doomed."
"So you're sayin' our gear will get trashed, our lives are on the line, and we don't even know how long this will take?" Cal scoffed. "You better be makin' this interestin' then."
"Oh, I plan to," Zara agreed. "I wouldn't expect anyone to throw themselves into danger at my word. We have history Cal, but I know we have never been friends. Instead, I offer this."
The Naiad produced a small scroll and tossed it to the treasure hunter. Cal caught it easily and unfurled it. Felix watched with interest as Cal's eyes went from half-lidded apathy to wide-eyed startlement. He couldn't see the contents from this angle, but that didn't matter as Zara started listing off the items.
"In addition to having rights over everything you collect in the Domain, I will give you enough Essence Draughts to bring each member of your crew to their next Tier. They'll be uncommon rarity, the best I can procure during this lockdown. I will also personally assist Evie in completing her Apprentice Formation. I have quite a few notes on her current advancement that I know could be improved," Zara smiled wide. "And a payment of a dozen Uncommon monster cores will be given to each crew member, to aid them in expanding their power for the future."
"Damn," repeated Harn. "Yer loaded. How's that?"
"I've done well for myself," Zara gestured at the manor around them. "But all of my wealth means nothing if I cannot keep this contained."
There was silence around the table, each of them absorbed in their thoughts. Felix considered what he knew of the dangers the Domain represented, as well as the wealth that Zara was offering. He needed to consider his Journeyman Tempering sooner rather than later as his Skills kept rising, and the monster cores would only be beneficial to that process, at least for him.
More importantly, if what Zara said was true, then the Maw had a hand in all of this. Or at least, remnants of its power. The beast the Guilders killed  was clearly one of its twisted children, those Geist it had mutated with its power. Felix felt a responsibility to do something about that...but also felt a distinct fear. How would this affect his bloodline progression? Would it--
A thought struck him, like a lightning bolt. Could Zara cleanse him of the Maw? Permanently?
"What's the win condition, here?" Felix asked. He looked up at the others, some of whom were giving him questioning glances. "We go in, we destroy the corruption somehow, and then leave? Simple as that?"
"I doubt it," said Vess. "Nothing about this seems simple. Do you have a way to cleanse the Domain?"
"For that, I will have to teach the both of you," Zara said. "We will come to it soon enough. But first I must hear your answer, or else there is no point in continuing. Will you aid me? Will you aid this city?"
Cal looked to Harn, who gave a slow nod. Then she panned to the others, Vess and Evie, and both were quick to agree. Her final glance was to him, and Felix drummed his fingers on the table in contemplation.
"In addition to everything else, you'll teach Vess and I about Chanter magic, right?" Felix looked to Zara and she nodded. "As long as we Oathbind this agreement, I'm in."
Cal's eyes lit up and she turned a sharp smile of her own on Zara. "Exactly what I was thinking. Will you agree to that?"
Zara laughed. "I would expect nothing less."
They quickly hashed out the details of the oath: Zara was to provide all that she had stated to their crew, while they would do their best to eradicate whatever threat lay within the Domain. Secrecy was paramount, and the condition of keeping this information to themselves was part of the oath as well. They were going up against two strong organizations, after all. Neither the Guild nor the Inquisition were going to like them getting involved.
A few seconds later, all of them stood in a circle, hands held outward toward the center. Everyone was familiar with the process by now, but Harn shook his head when he was told to begin.
"Naw, let the kid do it. He has more claim in this oath. It'll lend power to it, too."
So Felix, feeling a bit self-conscious with his low level Oathbinding Skill, began the process. He repeated the terms, the contingencies, and the consequences.
"...we swear by our power and advancement."
As each word squeezed out of his chest, Felix saw those sparks in his vision once again. Blue and gold, they sparked among his allies' faces. After sensing these sparks so often, Felix thought he finally had an idea what they represented. It was an intrusion of the System, interacting with Felix's own strange abilities. Instead of fighting them, Felix let them swell across his sight.
Oathbinding is level 2!
Oathbinding is level 3!
Felix could feel the last remnants of the two Acolytes vanishing from his core, their stolen essences fueling his growth. Then thick strings of shining silver light unspooled between their outstretched hands. The strings stretched from palm to palm, connecting, binding each of them to one another.
Oathbinding is level 4!
The sparks kept flashing, and the silver string kept going. Secondary and tertiary connections formed along their arms and shoulders, complicating their connections. Until the space between them all was dominated by a complex web of silver cords, each string vibrating with a giddy joy that Felix could only let wash over him.
Oathbinding is level 5!
Oathbinding is level 8!
The silver web burst outward, spreading in all directions in Felix's sight, arcing over the curve of the world itself. The vital frequencies shook him to the core as Felix sensed their oath affecting and being affected by far more than just their own will.
For the briefest of moments, he sensed a smile. Small and broken, but bright against an unending black.
Then it was gone.
"Gauuuh," Felix gasped and stepped away from the group. The light of the oathbinding was still shimmering above their hands, distracting everyone but Vess to his immediate right.
"Are you--?" She began, but Felix waved her off.
"I'm fine," Felix swallowed a lump in his throat and felt Pit nudge the back of his leg. He accepted the comforting touch. "I'm fine."
"Hoo, that was burnin' intense," Evie said as she shook her hand. "Didn't look any different, but the last one didn't feel like that."
"Now that we're in agreement," Cal said quickly, drawing Zara's attention. "I imagine you have some more details, yes?"
Zara nodded, appearing slightly off-kilter from by the Oathbinding herself. She blinked her eyes clear. "Yes, of course. We have much to discuss."
"Good," Cal gestured out of the dining room, and Zara swept forward.
"You have the run of the house," she said as the two departed. "Just stay inside. There is a persistent visitor outside my wards. Someone seems inordinately interesting in you three."
Felix, Evie, and Vess shared a look.
"Don't worry," she said, her shark-like teeth bared. "I'll take care of it."