Chapter One Hundred and Thirty Six – 136
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H34t R3$!5t4nce is level 26!
F17e R3$!5t4nce is level 25!
Congratulations! You Have Reached Apprentice Tier with Fire Resistance!
Felix held back a scream as his nerves revolted within his flesh. The hand he'd held over the brazier had blackened and charred under its punishing flames, and Felix cradled it gently against his chest. Fumbling with his satchel, he pulled out a small red vial, uncorked it with his teeth, and poured it over his arm. The sensation of ten thousand needles against his skin consumed Felix, but he'd been through this several times now. He clamped down on his desire to shift about and watched. Some off the blackened skin flaked and sloughed away, while bloody rivulets dripped down his wrist. In their place new skin and muscle formed, fresh and pink and extremely tender. But it wasn't enough. Grunting in annoyance, Felix fished out his last potion and poured it on as well, until the pain was replaced by a terrible itching.
Arm more or less restored, Felix stood and took several steps away from the brazier, grateful to escape the ever present haze of heat-induced pain. His Heat Resistance may be at level 26, but a sharp uptick in temperature sent fissures of hazy agony, like a steel file against his fingertips.
With luck, I'll have this all resolved today. Felix took a deep gulp of air and grimaced as he exhaled. The room smelled of smoke, char, and strange magic. Not for the first time, he considered his...appetites these last few hours.
The room around him was bare of literally everything. He was lucky that Zara could deliver on some of those Uncommon monster cores, because he'd run out of furniture in the first hour. Aside from the brazier before him, the room was covered only in the results of his training. The rugs were scorched and the walls were speckled with divots where his acid had dissolved them. Sections of the room were still iced over from his Mantle experiments, though most of it had melted by that point.
After breakfast, Felix, Vess, and Evie had pushed Zara for more information about this "visitor" she had mentioned. Though the Naiad had also assured them that she would take care of it, the three of them were alarmed that someone may have followed them from the sewers. It was clear they had followed them for some time at least, as the increase in his Abyssal Skein Skill was testiment to someone actively searching for him over the course of an hour. Someone that had exceptionally good Perception or a powerful Skill, strong enough to oppose his Void Skill.
The temptation to rush to a window and look was overpowering, but they went to their rooms instead. Zara had confirmed that there were multiple layers of wards laid into the area around her mansion, some overlapping other houses nearby too. As they had suspected, the scripts had some targeted elements, but mostly they were passive wards to distract, disrupt, and obfuscate her property. The Chant, apparently, allowed more subtlety than standard System Skills.
Zara had said the visitor had been dealt with, but Felix wasn't taking chances. He and the others had returned to their rooms to practice what they could and hone themselves while Cal and Harn ironed out the details with the Naiad.
Felix had practiced with Lightning Resistance at first, utilizing a spare dagger Evie had on her. Just like in the Labyrinth, Felix channeled his Reign of Vellus to push on the blade and causing lightning to arc across its metallic surface. Holding onto the steel sent that same lightning through himself. It hurt, but it was the gentlest pain he'd experienced in a while. The experience with sundering and combining Acrobatics had given him a new tolerance, but this was something else. The pain increased as Lightning Resistance increased in level, each time jumping by a significant margin, until he ran out of steam around level 6.
Felix had run out of energy. Of the essence he'd stolen from the Acolytes, most of it had gone to developing his sigil work in the library. Now it had finally been depleted.
As an experiment, Felix picked up a chair in his room and used Ravenous Tithe upon it. It burst into smoke and was sucked into his body. Startled despite himself, Felix focused within and saw that a small amount of energy swirled into existence above his core.
"The Skill never said my target had to be alive. Just that I 'claim' them, whatever that means. What am I even absorbing here?" Felix looked around himself with his Manasight flared to full. The room was a shifting swirl of ambient power, something he usually ignored like looking past the dirt on an unwashed window. It was everywhere. In everything. "Am I just...taking their Mana, then?"
He tried again, this time watching closely.
It took Felix two more chairs and an ottoman before he could spot what was being eaten. The Mana of the inanimate items was being leeched out quite clearly, but there was also something more...ephemeral being taken. He didn't know what it was, only that there were gaps in the flow of Mana as it was pulled into his core. Each time, nothing was left of the object itself.
His experimentation proved that he could absorb this essence from almost anything that had Mana and whatever that invisible aspect was; though if it was present in wooden chairs, Felix was sure he'd find it in plants or rocks or something. The only downside of using it on the inanimate versus monsters was Felix had devoured the entire room before he'd even gotten close to the same amount he'd gotten from the Common monster cores Rory had provided.
It also proved without a doubt that the limit on his use of Ravenous Tithe had lapsed once he had hit level 10. He wondered what it would be capable of once it reached Apprentice Tier.
Using the essence stolen from the room around him, Felix dove head first into his training. He tried repetition and reliving several choice memories regarding his various resistances, as well as attempting to feed the essence directly to each Skill he was raising. The last wasn't too successful, but he didn't regret the attempt. If it had worked it would have been amazing. As it was, Felix's Skills increased apace as he devoted himself entirely to the task. He had dawdled long enough, hoping for a more laid back, peaceful life in Haarwatch. He was about to enter a Domain that was very likely corrupted by the same dark passenger that was buried in his lawn, and who knew what he would face before it was over.
He had to be ready.
At some point, Zara or one of her servants had left him with ten Uncommon grade monster cores. Those went into the rotation, and he'd only managed to consume a single one before he'd finally hit Apprentice with Fire Resistance.
Pulling himself from his thoughts, Felix checked his other notifications and let out a quiet, satisfied sigh.
L!ght&1ng R3$!5t4nce is level 2!
L!ght&1ng R3$!5t4nce is level 25!
Congratulations! You Have Reached Apprentice Tier with Lightning Resistance!
Mana Manipulation is level 22!
Dual Casting is level 23!
Acid Resistance is level 25!
Congratulations! You Have Reached Apprentice Tier with Acid Resistance!
Acid Resistance is level 26!
Acid Resistance is level 27!
Mantle of the Long Night is level 23!
Cold Resistance is level 23!
Mantle of the Long Night is level 25!
Cold Resistance is level 25!
Congratulations! You Have Reached Apprentice Tier with Mantle of the Long Night!
Congratulations! You Have Reached Apprentice Tier with Cold Resistance!
Ravenous Tithe is level 21!
He'd done it. Finally. The next step in healing his broken Skills, and he'd bumped all of them to Apprentice Tier. It had been utter agony, so painful despite his level 49 Pain Resistance, but he'd persevered. And it had only been...Felix blinked at the clock on the wall.
"Six hours?" He hadn't realized he'd become so engrossed. It felt as if he'd resurfaced from deep underwater, or as if he had just gotten over a bad fever. His skin tingled and his mind felt more alert than normal. Was that an effect of Ravenous Tithe? Or simply strain from prolonged Skill use?
Shaking his head, Felix decided to take a small break. After all, he still had to find Zara and question her. What did she know of the Labyrinth? Of the Maw itself? Felix almost wished she knew he had a piece of the Maw inside him, have it all in the open so he could ask about ways to fix it. To cleanse himself. But he'd seen her face when she'd mentioned the corrupted Domain, the disgust and the touch of hatred in her eyes.
Would she help me? Or kill me?
Pit had retreated to a corner to practice his own Skills. Mostly Frost Spear and Wingblade, though he employed Poisonfire occasionally. That one was hard to level, it seemed, at least in a non life threatening situation. The monster cores helped, as Pit had proven himself able to eat them. After eating one of the cores, the chimera had gained a sizable boost in a few random Primary Stats, but was either unwilling or unable to eat more at the moment.
Pit's Rake is level 23!
Pit's Frost Spear is level 24!
Pit's Poisonfire is level 16!
Pit's Cold Resistance is level 23!
Pit's Wingblade is level 25!
Congratulations! Pit Has Reached Apprentice Tier with Wingblade!
Felix pet him as he passed, letting the tenku struggle on. His Companion was determined to get stronger as well.
Felix eased out of his room and made his way to Vess and Evie's quarters. As he stepped closer, he heard a gleeful squeal and shout, and the unmistakable sound of laughter. Their door was open and within stood Evie, wearing only a sweatstained jerkin and pants, holding out her arms in triumph.
"Yes, yes! Be in awe of my splendiferous new form!" Evie spun about and Vess clapped her hands together, a wide smile on her face. Evie turned smoothly toward Felix and grinned. "You see before you a newly minted Apprentice Tier warrior!"
Felix laughed as his Eye confirmed it. She exuded the aura of someone solidly in the Apprentice Tier. "So Zara pulled through. She got you those Essence Draughts quick, huh?"
"Quick?" Evie cocked an eyebrow. "Took the last four hours to process that stuff and push myself into Apprentice. Where've you been?"
"Felix has been in his room," Vess chipped in. "From what I could hear, it sounded like he was fighting the walls."
Felix grinned, not embarrassed in the least. "More like myself, but yeah. Had to...shore up some weaknesses before we make our run at the Domain. Have we decided on when we're doing that, yet?"
Vess sighed. "Not as of yet, no. Cal spent two hours hashing things out with Zara and making plans. She has not yet deigned to share the details."
"Keepin' it close to the chest," Evie agreed. "Probably for the best, all things considered."
"Enough of that! Tell us! What are your three Formations?" Vess clapped her hands again and focused on Evie. "You had your Body and Mind completed already, yes?"
"Oh yeah. For months now." Evie started fiddling with something before her eyes, poking and swiping at thin air. "Damn Guilders cut off supply of Essence Draughts though, so I was stuck coolin' my heels at half Formation."
She waved her hand toward Felix and Vess each, and a blue box appeared before his eyes.
"She gave me an Uncommon Essence Draught called a Mandrake's Cry for my last Spirit Tempering. Gave me the options of Resonance, Howl, or Shatter. Told me to pick Resonance, so I did." Evie shrugged. "Cal trusted her. Nodded and everythin' so I hoped for the best."
Evie grinned. "Now I got a Harmonic Stat unlocked too."
"That is wonderful!" Vess got to her feet and hugged Evie. "Which one?"
"Resonance, I assume?" Felix asked. Evie nodded and gave him a sour look.
"Spoilin' my reveal? Tch," Evie gestured to the windows before the both of them. "Gives a goodly bump to my Mana regeneration, which between you an me wasn't top tier. My Mind was already Tempered before this, which is a shame considerin'. Used the basic Iron Essence Draught from the Guild. My Body though, the woman must truly be a wizard like you said, Felix. She had me drink down a half dozen vile concoctions and do a bunch of silly tasks to retemper my Body into this: Gossamer Steel. Grants me bonuses to Agility, Dexterity, as well as Strength and Endurance. It's absolutely perfect for my fighting style."
"Retemper?" Felix asked. Rory had mentioned sundering Tempered Skills, but that it was so painful it often led to death. "You didn't...did you sunder your Tempered Skills?"
"Oh, blind gods, no," Evie breathed. "I'm not nuts. Zara's techniques were more of an...alignment shift. Said my Formation wasn't solid enough yet, since my Spirit was Untempered, so I had some wiggle room."
"That's...Zara is full of surprises," Felix shook his head. "Is this sort of thing normal?"
"Not common, certainly," Vess said as she gently put her hand on Evie's shoulder. "And I am told it is excruciating."
"That's true and a half," Evie grunted, leaning into her touch. "Felt like my insides were on fire and my outsides were frozen solid. It's what took me so long."
Felix bit his lip, the memory of sundering his Skills sharp. Before the day was out, he'd have to handle that as well. The pain wasn't the largest threat, of course. He'd lose all the stat bonuses he'd just gained and possibly some more Health, Mana, and Stamina...more worrisome was what the Maw might attempt. Last time it had nearly escaped his Bastion and trapped Felix in a maze of false memories. This time...
"Your Formation is impressive, Evie," Vess smiled. "You're such a talented fighter, I was worried you'd be stuck with the standard Guilder foundation."
"Almost was. Iron through and through. Turns out the best thing the Guild could ever do for me was kick us out." Evie's smile was broad, but a little stiff. That wound would likely not heal for a long while.
"Ah," Vess smiled tentatively. "Since you've shared yours, it is only fair...."
A blue window slid over to Felix and popped up next to Evie's.
"Noctis wept, Vess! Are these Dragoon Formations?" Evie said, eyes wide.
"Yes. The same as my mothers, in fact," Vess said with a distant look on her face. "The Body is designed to handle the movement and leaping abilities inherent to the Dragoons, while the Mind is built for acclimating to the pace of battle. The Spirit itself, like many things the Dragoon's embrace, was stolen from the dragons centuries ago. It has a...myriad of functions."
Felix blinked at the pop-up and glanced at the two young women, easily discussing their Formations. He'd been told sharing your Status and advancement details was an act of trust, a show of faith that the other person wasn't going to use that information against you. He felt a sourness turn his stomach as he considered his own secrets and Status. He knew he couldn't be as trusting, at least not without some protections.
"Vess, I'd like to show you my Formation as well," Felix said, interrupting their conversation. "Sorry if I'm interrupting. I just realized that there's been a great deal of me that you've had to take on faith. If we're going into battle together again, I think we should be as transparent as possible."
Vess met his eyes, dark brown on his dark blue. She smiled, almost relieved. "Agreed. It is important to trust one another."
Felix could sense Evie's leering smile, but put it out of his mind. "I will have to Oathbind us...is that okay?"
"Yes," Vess said, though not without a touch of hesitation. She met Evie's gaze and the chain-fighter gave her an encouraging nod. "That is fine."
"Okay," Felix breathed, a smile coming to his lips. He put his hand out and Vess did the same. "I will share with you my Status, my Skills, even my Titles and in turn you must vow to not reveal this information to anyone except Evie, Cal, or Harn. Sound reasonable?"
"Yes, so far," Vess said with a curious tilt of her head. She didn't verbalize anything, but Felix could tell she was bursting with questions.
"Will you swear by your power, your level, and your Formation to keep this oath?" Felix asked, his memory guiding him on the right words to say. They sound a little stuffy, but he could feel their resonance with his Skill, like a tiny echo.
In Felix's vision, threads of silver emerged from nothing and looped around both of their wrists. Round and round it went, until they were bound tight. Sparks of blue and gold flashed at the edges of his vision, until the threads simply sank into their skin and disappeared.
Oathbinding is level 9!
An invisible weight settled across Felix's shoulders, as if he'd put on a backpack full of rocks. It faded after an instant, but if he focused Felix could sense its presence. He looked up at Vess who had hunched in a similar way.
"Too many oaths can weigh a person down," she explained before straightening. "I have taken more than most. But I knew that going in."
"Oh," Felix said, nonplussed. "What happens when you take on too many?"
"It can cause mental damage, from what I hear," Evie offered cheerfully. "Most people can't handle more than a handful of bound oaths. Though with your Mind and Will...you're probably gonna be fine."
"Oh cool, another thing to worry about," Felix groaned as he stood up, but smiled tentatively at Vess. "Here."
After making a couple choice edits, Felix sent his Status to both of them.
"This might take a while..."