Chapter One Hundred Thirty Five – 135
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The soft scratch of a quill on parchment filled the room, competing with the smell of newly ground ink and aromatic lavel tea in the cramped space. Eliza DuFont finished a sentence with a flourish and sat back, a sigh on her lips as she regarded her office. While quite large, they were nothing compared to the Elders of Spirit, Mind, or even Body for all that the pig used it only to store his weaponry. It was, perhaps, only fair. Her personal power in relation to theirs was less, and their authority on Guild affairs was considerable. Only Fairbanks, that pompous git, could gainsay them without repercussions.
As the Elder of Acquisition, she had a say in the Council and on matters of import and export for the small city. That included the Verdant Pass and regions beyond, as well as the formerly unknowable Foglands. It was the last that should have sent her star rising in the Eyrie; the acquisition and distribution of resources of untold variety and potency? It was the dream she'd held when they had first assembled the original operation, the one that she thought dead when communication was lost with the outpost. It was ironically brought back to life by the damn Shieldwitch, a thorn in her side if there ever was one. The musclebound idiot had even cleared the eternal fog and dispelled a hefty warding illusion. The Foglands, and all the power it represented, had been within her reach.
And then the Inquisition had arrived.
The damnable Redcloaks had locked down their city while the Guild was still sending exploratory expeditions into the Foglands. Now, as the rate of monsters began to surge once more and the zealots barred her gates, Eliza's authority had been cut off at the knees.
"Tsk," she clucked. In her pique she had spilled a few drops of ink over the letter she was composing. With a flick of the wrist and flare of Mana, the parchment shot into the air and dissolved. She'd have to start over.
Eliza leaped to her feet, her inscribed gauntlets sparking with bright yellow Mana. In the same motion, she cast her senses around the room, washing the area with her power. She blinked, her fists faltering.
"Ilia? Siva's breath, what's happened to you?" Eliza gasped.
Before her, the shadows melted, dissolving into the battered form of her Sworn agent. Her leather armor was scuffed and torn, and her hair was wild beneath her hood. Blood dripped from somewhere on her person, pattering onto the polished floor.
"Something...something's done in my head," Ilia whispered. She stumbled forward, barely catching herself against Eliza's oversized desk. "It rose...the lie's opposite, the...."
Suddenly she was there, in front of Eliza, gripping the Elder by her gown. DuFont flinched, but didn't shake the Sworn's iron grip. She could only stare into eyes that looked all too Human, washed clean of the usual opaque whiteness.
"Sunrise. The sunrise did it," she hissed, and drool spilled from her mouth. "There's rats in the walls, DuFont."
"Unhand me, Ilia," Eliza snarled. "Or else I'll put paid to your morning. Good or ill."
Like a wilting flower, the assassin drooped, her hands going limp as she fell backwards. Eliza figured she'd have fallen to the ground had her rear not hit the Elder's desk. She appeared broken, somehow. Whoever had done this was strong, that was clear, and the thought of it sent a thrill of fear down DuFont's spine.
"I slipped out--through the black," Ilia's head had fallen onto her chest, and her tattered hood covered her features. "Barely-barely...it sang a...it clutches at me."
Eliza couldn't help it: she took a step back. But the Sworn wasn't finished.
"Sunrise has them. Has them in its grip and hidden. Held tight. The girl..." Ilia's quiet voice slithered out of her throat. Eliza regretted her retreat. Now she had to lean forward to hear, despite her Perception.
"Sunrise...? The Sunrise Quarter? The heiress is in...who has her?" Eliza asked, her heart racing. Perhaps this was a good thing, despite appearances. Perhaps this was leverage....
"Sharp--the sea. The sea," Ilia wheezed. "But I saw it. I saw him."
"Him? Who did you see?" Despite Ilia's unnerving condition, Eliza was growing tired of this. She hadn't paid to listen to a madwoman. "Who has the Dayne girl?"
A heat returned to the Sworn's muddy brown gaze as she turned it on the Elder, and Eliza flinched.
"Felix. The blue-eyed cockroach."
The waters roared in the large chamber beneath the city, filling the air with a fine mist that cooled the warm summer morning. Khorun Katan stared wordlessly around himself as four Inquisitors and two dozen Acolytes dredged the dark pool below the bridge, looking for evidence. Before him, two char marks stained the broken bridge, a structure that had been torn up in multiple places by the advent of clearly implacable forces. The Master Inquisitor knelt and ran his naked hand along the stone, the carbonized markings coming off against his skin like charcoal.
"Initiate Creel had two Acolytes with him," Inquisitor Maldis informed him, standing slightly to his right. "We show no other sign of their bodies. They could have been taken as hostages, or--"
"Sound the Echo," Katan ordered.
"Aye, sir," Maldis snapped a smart salute and took a step back. Sheets of pale, unattributed Mana poured from the man in waves, soaking the charred markings before them. Soon after, a spike of music flared across the chamber, a divinely harmonious chord that shook the air itself with its majesty. Katan, so close to its epicenter, closed his eyes a brief moment to bask in the sensation. It was a uniquely uplifting experience, utilizing their god-given abilities in this way, an exultation of the Spirit.
We praise your hidden word, Lord Pathless. Let your holy music show us the Truth.
Flickers of green gossamer appeared before them, each hovering over the burnt outlines on the bridge. Yet, before they could coalesce, a fitful droning cut through the sustained chord, neatly severing the Inquisitor's control.
"Ah!" Maldis cried out, holding his left hand tight. Blood gushed from beneath his fingers, dark and rich with life Mana. "Something--I don't know what that was, sir."
Katan stood up, frowning at the floor. He'd heard such sounds in the past, but not since his Mortification.
The second time had the same result. The green, ghostly apparitions the ability usually summoned were absent, as if they had been scrubbed from existence. It was something Katan had never seen before, and it worried him. The moment that droning reappeared, the Master Inquisitor cut off Maldis' power; as the divine chord faded, so too did it's opposition.
Discord. Light above. Discord. Are they truly here?
"There's nothing left....Even their souls were, just gone." Maldis was shaken, and not by his wound. That had nearly closed up already; it would take a far more grievous injury to put down an Adept Tier soldier. "Sir? What is this?"
Katan still weighed his answer when the Acolytes across the room shouted excitedly. The Master Inquisitor smoothly pivoted his attention toward them, watching as they breathlessly hauled on a line made of hardened light and life Mana. Seven Acolytes strained against the weight, pulling with all their Strength, until inch by inch a creature was dragged atop the bridge.
It was a Veelo, level 38, mean, and easily the size of a carriage and a team of avum. It's massive, lamprey-like teeth jutted out like a clutch of sabers, while it's thick, muscular body and razor sharp scales gouged the stone bridge like it was made of wood. The creature was pushing toward a Tier Two beast, the classification for monstrous power that was roughly equivalent of a Journeyman Tiered sentient. It was dangerous, and as it lunged erratically, the Acolytes abandoned the conjured line and dove out of the way.
Khorun Katan gestured sharply with his right hand. There was a flash of brilliant, golden Mana and the Veelo's head separated from its body. A second gesture opened the creature's belly, flooding the bridge with its bright green and purple offal. The monster writhed and twitched for an entire minute, even without its head, digging deep furrows into the hard stone beneath it.
Once it's death throes subsided, Katan gestured to the Acolytes to begin the search. Inch by inch, they combed through the gooey mess spilled from the beast. Less than ten minutes later, one of the Acolytes shouted in alarm as a bright purple sack burst open, sending a secondary rush of hot, fetid liquid poured over their boots. Among the effluvia, however, was a charred and masticated corpse. It was practically unrecognizable were it not for the golden sunburst upon its mangled breastplate.
Creel. Katan felt a twinge in his heart, the tiniest bit of despair for a promising student snuffed out. The man had possessed an exceptional talent for the Pathless' arts. His death was a blow to all of them. Take him unto you, Trackless One.
"You were right, sir," said Inquisitor Maldis. The man's face was a bit green at the edges, but he'd clenched his jaw in admirable stoicism. "How did you--?"
"We have our ways, Inquisitor," Katan said with the smallest of smiles. "Now let us find who did this terrible deed. Join your call with the others."
This time, all four Inquisitors joined in sounding the fallen Initiate's Echo, and their combined effort finally drew results. A transparent green corpse formed before moving backwards through time, darting below water for several seconds before launching back up and into one of the waterfalls. They tracked his movements, noting as his burnt and ruined flesh began renewing itself. Katan sensed the Initiate had utilized one of the dire features of the order's Body Formation, inundating his flesh with pure light Mana. Typically a fool's gesture, or one of great desperation.
Did you fight it, Creel?
Physically fit and hale, if battered, the Inquisitors around them drew in a tight breath when a ghostly amalgamation of plates appeared around Creel's body. It was a Skill the order taught to all of its most promising children, one with which Katan himself was intimately familiar. Echoes of the Divine Shell. A defensive measure that was powerful even at Apprentice Tier, but grew substantially so with each subsequent Tempering. It would take a powerful force to break through such protection.
There was a flicker in the Echo.
"Hold," Katan ordered, and the apparition froze.
The ability to recall the Echoes of those lost was a great boon to the order, one that was divinely gifted to them Ages ago. However, the downside of the power was threefold: the first was that it was not a System Skill and could not be leveled or Tempered, while the second was that it placed a great toll upon the mental strength of all who employed it. The Inquisitors around him would likely be laid up for several hours, more if he dallied. The third and finally, it only ever showed the victim.
Unless you cheated.
Katan reached out with his power, sounding the Spirit's Echo upon the fabric of the False Realm, what scholars foolishly called the Corporeal Realm. He infused it with his considerable Might and honed Intent.
The Echo strengthened and gained clarity. The once transparent form became more like smokey glass, detailed enough to show Creel's face, twisted in both fear and pain. Katan could sense the Inquisitors nearby had begun to sweat with the effort of holding the Echo. Expressions of relief washed over them as he took the Echo upon his own shoulders. It was a steady erosion of his mental prowess, but little more than a minor inconvenience at that moment. He'd been forged in far greater fire than this.
Katan held out his hand and called another note, one that sounded like the divine Pathless' own strident bell. A wash of power poured over the Echo, highlighting details on the Initiate and picking out a figure standing before him. The figure was composed of dim, shifting shadows and was pushing forth an object. An object that glowed bright gold, unlike either of the others.
It was a dart, and it was piercing Creel in the gut.
In the core.
"An Empyrean Arrow?" Maldis gasped.
"He was killed by one of our own?" Another Inquisitor hissed, outraged.
"No," Kata declared with a guttural snarl. "It was...corrupted."
The four Inquisitors looked again and scowled, almost as one. "I see it, blue flashes among the shaft. And the gold isn't right. It's not light Mana. Not the purity of the Pathless at all. How?"
Katan didn't answer, instead chasing down options through his impressively Tempered Mind. Scenarios and potential threats whisked by his consciousness, categorized and filed away within seconds but all for naught. The Master Inquisitor knew of no extant force or individual who could use their divine techniques; Skills that had been passed down to their order alone.
It is a mercy, culling this town, Katan bared his teeth at the shadowy figure. If we catch the head of whatever serpent this one belongs to, a blight shall have been eradicated.
Outside the Inviolate Order, none should hold such power.
Katan flexed his abilities again, enhancing the frozen image, pouring more and more of himself into the working, until the vaulted chamber was awash in a transcendent choral paean. The world quivered as the tempo rose, the enigmatic beat of the Shining Realm thrumming through them all in a mad dash.
He could feel the Inquisitors as they looked on in worship and reverent awe. Were he able to spare the effort, Katan would have admonished them. None of them were divine, or worthy of such awe. They were but Vessels for the Truth.
The form resolved itself, built before their eyes from swirling blue smoke and fire. It formed the shape of a man, without armor or weapon, just simple clothes. The man appeared powerfully built, but details were sparse. Little else could be inferred, for a rustling spike of dissonance trailed the man's form, disrupting the clarity of the True God's message.
Katan felt the strain on his considerable resources, and moved forward quickly. He pivoted around the man, and looked him in the face. Twin spots of ghostly blue fire blazed in the man's eye sockets, deadly and filled with a terrible, hungry rage.
"The Fiend," Katan murmured.
Before the others could gasp in alarm, the base of the burning man's neck ripped open and the image degraded completely.
The inquisitors fell forward with pained cries, and even Katan felt the sting of the backlash. The divine forces of the world shook through him, muddling his senses and perhaps his thoughts as well. How else could he account for the fact that he had seen, however briefly, rows of jagged teeth in the man's neck?
Unless...No, that way lies madness...
"Increase patrols in the Dust and Crafters Quarters. Push through the Wall and Sunrise districts as well. We must find this creature," Katan locked eyes with his subordinates. "Before it is too late."
The Inquisitors saluted, fist to chest, before flowing out toward the Acolytes. With so many heretics gathered up, the plan was moving apace and it freed up even more of his soldiers to hunt down this 'Blue-Eyed Fiend.' Which was fortunate, as the man's bizarre but powerful advancement was a threat to everything they hoped to accomplish.
It is no mistake that the Fiend was down here, attending that profane meeting, Katan wanted to spit, but decorum reined him in. He must be allied with the choristers and whatever those foul, heathens dared to plot.
They had caught most of the leaders, thankfully. Each of them would be put to the question, naturally, but the servants of the dead gods were hardy. Tough to break. Perhaps if they--
"Sir! Master Inquisitor, sir!"
Katan looked up to see an extremely nervous Acolyte saluting before him. They trembled so hard their armor practically rattled, and despite his dour mood, the hint of a smile played across the Master Inquisitor's face.
"Proceed, my child."
"There is a Guild Elder here to see you, sir." The Acolyte's face flushed and the words fairly tumbled from their mouth. Katan frowned.
"Which one?" he asked.
"She said her name was DuFont, sir," the Acolyte swallowed. "She claimed to have evidence of the...of the Blue Eyed Fiend, sir."
Khorun Katan, Master Inquisitor of the Inviolate Order, bared his teeth.