Chapter One Hundred and Thirty Seven – 137
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Felix watched Vess carefully. He'd slowly built up to the revelation, giving her his life story and explanation for his high stats, and large amount of Skills and Titles. He'd hoped the weirdness of his existence would somehow soften the impact of the last bit. Judging by the heiress' reaction, Felix didn't do a great job at that. He looked at Evie, who was picking at her teeth with a small knife.
"What?" she asked.
Felix blinked and gestured at Vess, who sat with her head in her hands on the chaise. Evie's mouth made an 'O' shape and she sidled up next to her friend.
"Vess, you uh, you handlin' this alright?" Evie said lightly.
"I know it's a shock, especially considering everything I'm sure you grew up with," Felix said. "But honest, I'm just a normal guy from Fort Lauderdale. I mean, that's in Florida, but I'm still really normal. Like the most normal. I'm not planning an insidious reign of terror or anything. Not really sure I could even manage that. I ate at the same deli every day for a year because it was ten steps closer than any of the alternatives. I spent more money on sandwiches and blueberry muffins than I did on some of my bills, and they were bad sandwiches."
"What about the muffins?" Evie asked.
"They were fine," Felix shrugged and looked at Vess. "But does that sound like a demon from Ages past?"
"Felix, I...You are from another world, yet your Race is Nym. You have extraordinarily high stats, too many Skills, and weird Titles. You are a monster, Felix." Vess raised her eyes and met Felix's own. "But you could have run away, back in the Foglands."
"What?" Felix asked.
"I heard you and Magda speaking, the morning before we left for the giant's camp. She gave you a map with directions back to Haarwatch, said you could go," Vess explained. Evie looked at Felix with a curious expression.
"You stayed with us, though. You risked your life for people that were not only strangers, but, to you, people from another world entirely," Vess huffed a small laugh. "And now you're doing it again. That is...remarkable."
Felix didn't know what to say to that. In the moment, he hadn't felt it had been much of a choice at all.
"No, I do not fear you, Felix," Vess continued. "Nor do I think you mean any of us harm."
"Well, that's a relief." Felix managed to fight off the flush from his cheeks, disguising it with a cough. That's me. 100% nice guy. No dark secrets here, no sir.
His conscience was a jerk.
"Evie, how long have you known?" Vess asked the green-eyed fighter, who still leaned against a bed post.
"A week or so? Felix told us once we found each other again." Evie sat down on the chaise next to her friend. "You're sure you're okay?"
"It is very strange, I'll admit. But it answers many questions that hover around you, Felix." Vess gestured vaguely at him. "You are very mysterious."
Felix shrugged apologetically. "I don't try to be. I honestly had no idea what people would think of me, and the more I learned about my Race and the world in general, the more cautious I grew. Secrets felt safer."
"You're not wrong," Evie said. "I dunno if Magda would have killed you if you'd been upfront about all this, but she wouldn'ta let you help. That's the truth of it."
Felix sighed. "That's the mental math I did as well."
"Now, we shared ours. I feel it is only fair that you do as well." Vess gestured to the blue window that still hovered in front of her. "What are these Formations you have? I've not heard of any of them."
"Same for me," Evie smirked. "Spill, Felix."
"Uh sure," Felix started, but hesitated. "I Tempered myself under some rough circumstances so I'm not entirely sure what any of these mean, but I have some guesses."
He brought his Formation up in front of him.
"My Moving Mountain Body was Tempered with Essences of Liberation, Mountain, and Inevitable. It's...it seems to be about relentless movement, breaking through obstacles by sheer force. Or maybe weathering them. I'm not sure," Felix shook his head. "It appears to favor my uh, heavy handed approach to fighting, giving my Body extra heft and durability."
"So that's why chairs creak under you," Evie quipped. "Here I just thought you'd gained a few pounds."
"Ha ha," Felix fake laughed. "You joke but if this increases each Tempering, then at some point I'm worried I'll fall through the floor."
"Wait, these sound like rather rare Essence Draughts. How'd you get them?" Vess asked with a confused frown. Felix clenched his jaw and quirked his lips in embarassment.
"Ah, they were yours," Felix said.
"What?" Vess said. "How?"
"Magda fell into the Labyrinth with them and it was my only option," Felix was quick to explain. "I wouldn't have survived otherwise."
Vess waved her hands. "No, that's not why I am confused. Those were Dragoon Essences, harvested from powerful monsters the order had hunted down. You should have been hurt by imbibing them on the run, without the proper ritual to counteract the withdrawal symptoms."
Felix scratched his head and shrugged. "Magda mentioned withdrawal too, but I didn't notice anything. I felt jittery for a while, I think, but that was it."
"Curious," Vess pursed her lips. "I--my apologies. Please continue."
Felix hesitated a moment longer, before diving back in.
"Uh, my Dawnwalker Spirit is one I don't really understand. I Tempered it with the Immolation, Chiaroscuro, and Beacon Essences. If I had to guess, it reminds me of a lighthouse. Just a feeling I get," Felix shrugged. "It's pushed forward my Harmonic Stats quite a bit, though. So perhaps something to do with them?
"My--" Felix cleared his throat and paused again. "My Godeater Mind..."
There was a lump in his throat and his chest thundered with his rapid heartbeat. Felix mustered his Willpower and attempted to impose it on himself. His heart slowed, but his nerves remained.
"What manner of Essence produced it?" Vess prompted, her voice quiet. As if she sensed the delicate nature of the question, she didn't press or insist. She let the question hang, a gentle offer.
Evie snorted. "Yeah, that's a bit much, right?"
Vess looked at her friend with a touch of annoyance.
"What? He's got a Formation called the Godeater. What Essences could make that!" Evie laughed. "So much weird stuff happens around you, Felix."
Felix chuckled, more than a little nervous. "That's been my takeaway so far, yeah."
He took a breath.
Here goes nothing.
A sudden piercing sensation swept through Felix's mind, sending him collapsing to the floor. It was short as it was sharp, over in seconds. Felix looked up to see the other two leaning heavily against the chaise and shaking their heads.
"Twin's teeth, what was that?" Evie asked.
"That felt..." Felix began, but Vess cut him off.
"The wards. Some of the wards have fallen. Look!" Vess to the window, one which faced the street. Beyond Felix could see the flashing detonation of sigils upon the air itself, burning away like a fuse. He blinked.
She can see Mana too?
Vess was right, of course. The echo of the severed wards still shrieked through the air, sweeping outward in an almost visible shock wave. The three all stumbled to the windows, and what they saw made Felix's blood run cold.
The street was filled, aboslutely chock-full, of redcloaks.
"Holy shit," he whispered.
Armored figures marched down the boulevarde, moving from house to house in smaller groups and banging on gates. Some rode on Avum, the bird-lizards draped in red cloth and metal barding, forming ranks of cavalry that sent a pulse of dread through Felix. A figure, nearly six and a half feet tall walked down the center of the street, proclaiming loudly. Only after the woosh of the failed wards faded could the three of them hear the man.
"--order of the Master Inquisitor, by the power invested in him on behalf of the Heirophant Herself, we proclaim heretics within Haarwatch! The city is overrun! We demand that all residents step outside their homes and allow us to search you and your property for evidence of heresy!" The figure paused and swept his head from side to side. "Come, faithful. Let us end this, quickly."
Almost as if on cue, the Acolytes at a nearby manor bashed open the gates and rushed into the grounds. A similar scene played out all down the street, as far as Felix could see.
"They've invaded the entire neighborhood," Felix whispered. "Are they hunting for us?"
"There," Vess pointed at a group of redcloaks kneeling on the ground. They weren't dressed in armor as the rest, but thick, overlapping robes of white and red. They seemed to be inspecting it. "They're looking at the buried sigils. If they were not looking for us before, they will be soon."
As one, the redcloaks turned toward Zara's estate. They gestured with emaciated fingers at the wrought iron gate, and a squad of Acolytes surged forward. Orange light flared as the two in the lead raised shields embossed with a fiery sunburst, and they charged headlong into the gate.
Chaos. The moment the Acolytes touched the gate, the air was ripped apart by the screaming sound of discharging Mana. Waves of purple-white and orange burst outward onto the street, immolating several Redcloaks and flash freezing the others.
"Halt!" Cried the tall figure, someone Felix's Eye pegged as a full fledged Inquisitor. He held up an amulet, fashioned in the same sunburst as their armor. The amulet began to glow a brilliant gold, and Felix heard a series of strident chords. He exchanged a look with Vess, and saw Evie tilting her head slightly. Felix could feel the vibrations still a moment, as if being marshalled close, and then a single plucked chord sounded out.
The air around the Inquisitor rippled, spreading slowly at first but gaining speed. When it hit the gate, it was like an eight foot wave that washed into the gathered wards and scripts. A brilliant discharge of purple-white and orange Mana was sent in random directions, streamers that froze stretches of cobbles and burst heated the air. Then, with a whooping blast, the gates were blown off their hinges completely.
The Acolytes charged again.
"We gotta go, now!" Evie hissed.
The three of them turned and rushed out of the room. Felix sent a worried pulse of intent toward his Companion, but Pit was already waiting in the hallway, his Dire Hound disguise back on and his hackles raised. He had a bulging leather satchel in his mouth.
"Callie! Harn!" Evie hollered as they took the stairs four at a time. "We've got a problem!"
"We know!" Harn growled, his body once again covered in his scratched silver armor. A large pack was on his back, presumably filled with monster cores. "Zara says there's a way out downstairs. We're goin' now!"
They all ran down the hall, heading toward the back of the manor. The place was larger than Felix had anticipated, but certainly too small to hide from the Inquisition. His mind raced as he tried to figure out a plan, but nothing came to him. All he could think to do was run.
"Come!" Zara appeared from a side door off the kitchen, waving urgently to all of them. "Down here! Quickly!"
The five of them plus Zara fled down another set of stairs, this one made of solid stone. The room below was a wine cellar of some sort, filled with barrels and racks of dark bottles. Several servants were gathered here already, each of them wearing cloaks and packs. Zara replied to Felix's silent question.
"We're practiced at this. It's not the first time the Inquisition has knocked down my door," Zara said with a grim smile.
"That...does not inspire confidence," Vess replied, her voice dismayed.
"How do we get out?" Cal asked, focusing on the situation at hand. "Where's the door out?"
"Here," Zara gestured, and the bare stone before them transmuted into a metal doorway. "This leads down into the sewers."
"Again?" Evie complained quietly.
"You must run, head to your base and gather your people," Zara gave Cal a worried frowned. "We have to be ready to move before they sentence their prisoners. I had thought we had a week, but now...we must act quickly."
Cal didn't hesitate, instead reaching forward to clasp the Naiad's wrist. "We've an accord, Zara. We're not backing out now, just because some redcloaks are gettin' frisky."
A muffled boom sounded upstairs, and the tromp of booted feet thundered above.
"Go. I'll keep them busy, give you enough time to get out of here." Zara stepped aside as the door opened, the scent cold and earthy. She handed Cal a leather satchel of monster cores. "Take these, before I forget. Give each of your people one, and only one."
"Very well, be safe Zara," Cal said before heading through the door. Harn grunted at her as well before following, the others close on his heels.
Felix was the last to leave, his eyes lingering on the Naiad's own. She reached out and grabbed him by the shoulder as he passed.
"Something moves in the Domain already. You can feel the heat, can you not?" Felix's eyes went out of focus, trying to sense what she mentioned. Zara squeezed his shoulder bringing him back. "Trust in the Grand Harmony, Felix. Listen to the echoes inside of you."
Zara smiled at him, covering her sharp teeth with her lips. "May Avet's gaze avoid you, child."
Felix wasn't sure what to say, so he only nodded and stepped into the sewers. The door closed behind him, plunging the path into utter darkness for a brief moment. Felix had to flex his Manasight to reestablish the hidden glow of the world.
The Corporeal Realm, I guess.
Before him was a long set of stairs, hewed of uneven stone and spiraling down into the deeper dark. He hurried down them, and within seconds found the backs of his friends as they gathered at an intersection of tunnels. Five paths converged here, and the sound and smell of rushing water was strong. Distantly, Felix could feel a sense of heat, pulsing almost due west. It scratched against his senses like a scouring pad.
Zara was right.
"Which way do we go?" Evie was asking. "I'm all turned around now."
Harn took off his gauntlet with a muffled click, and held his bare hand up into the air. After a moment, he lowered it and pointed to the right-most tunnel, where the sound of rushing water was the loudest. "That way. We should be able ta get into the Dust by sticking ta the northern passages. Come up in the storm drains near the Ianus."
"Good. That's what we do then," Cal ordered, looking at them all. "If anyone gets separated, then stick north as best you can."
Everyone stopped and looked back. At Felix.
"What is it, kid? We gotta move," Cal asked.
"We have to go to the Domain. Now." Felix said. Cal and Harn exchanged a look and Evie frowned.
"Why? Shouldn't we get help?" Evie asked.
"Felix, we need to get back to the warehouse. Get the rest of our team and train up," Cal said. "We can't go chargin' into a Domain without prepping, or without a full team."
"I know, but the Inquisition found us. At Zara's, no less! They have to know that something is up," Felix pointed out. "What if the redcloaks already know about our plan? Or the Guild? What if they're waiting by the time we get there?"
"All the more reason ta come back ready," Harn grunted. "You think yer strong enough to face a handful of real Inquisitors?"
Felix clenched his jaw. "If we go now, they won't know what we're doing. Who knows what they may find out in Zara's house?"
"Going now is walking into danger with our eyes closed. We aren't prepared with supplies or in the right mental space to assault a normal Domain, let alone one that's been...corrupted." Cal held up one of the wardstones. "This is all that'll keep you safe in there. Just this rock."
She tossed one to each of them. "We can't go in without a full contingent. And even then, we can't stay long."
"I--I can feel something. Something is happening to the west, something that feels like--" Like a burning, fizzling, buzzing in his head. A static cry just outside of earshot. "The Domain is west of here, right?"
Vess nodded, followed shortly by Cal.
"I think something bad is happened at the Domain. Right now." He met Cal's eyes, his own pleading. "We have to do something. At least check it out. What's the point in preparing if the redcloaks burst the Domain before we can even get in there?"
"Zara did mention that they're movin' quicker than she thought," Harn muttered. Cal looked at him thoughtfully, her expression sour.
"Vellus burn me, but alright," Cal groaned. "Harn, take them. Scout ahead. I'll go back to the warehouse and gather the team. We'll meet back at the edge of Dust and Sunrise in six hours, right?"
The trio nodded, followed slowly by Harn.
"All of you, if you get there and something is happening...don't be stupid. Hold back, wait for reinforcements." She handed Felix a rolled up parchment. "Don't die. You, memorize this."
Felix unrolled the scroll and looked it over thoroughly. It was a map of the sewers, a path leading to the secret entrance of the Domain. "Got it."
He rolled it back up and handed it over.
"Don't make me regret this." Cal shook her head.