Chapter One Thirty Nine – 139
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Unfettered Volition is level 19!
Less than a minute later, they arrived at a tangled intersection of tunnels, at least thirteen by Felix's count. Most were not large enough for a Human to walk down, but there were at least five that were. Water spilled into the intersection from some of the southern passages, pooling just long enough to stink before they sluggishly shifted to the north. The sound was like thick mud splatting into a bog, loud and intermittent, but was not enough to cover the distinct clatter of metal on metal.
Of pained cries.
Felix shared a cautious glance with the others as he and Harn both leaned outward, attempting to stay flush with the tunnel wall. They had lucked out and were about twenty feet up from the ground, out of direct line of sight from those below. Magelights had been tossed about the room, steady orbs that lent an even lighting to most of the area. The floor of the intersection was uneven stone and dark sediment, segmented by several streams of thick sludge, and atop it all was rank upon rank of redcloaks. Felix counted thirty of them, three Initiates leading squads of nine Acolytes each. He passed that onto Harn with the only handsign he'd picked up.
<Three zero bad. Three big bad,> he signed. Harn smirked but nodded.
Apart from the intimidating number of Inquisition members, there was the source of the whimpering cries. Sixty-five men and women were chained up together in the center of the redcloaks. Felix picked out their faces, quickly matching them against his memories of the crowds at the gathering.
A squat Initiate hollered from the far end of the chamber, the same direction Felix was feeling the greatest concentration of that pulsing heat. The Nym's eyes were drawn toward the man, and like iron to a magnet, snapped onto what stood beyond him. There was an enormous fissure in the stonework, a gaping crevasse that exuded a sense of foul power. It was a familiar dissonance that chewed on the ends of his nerves. It looked solid, but quivering, like rock turned to flesh turned to jello. As he watched, what was clearly the Domain entrance rippled and...breathed. Felix could see a steady exhalation of dark fumes, Mana vapor that was fouled with a familiar stain.
The Maw's corrupted touch, he grimaced. Now that they were so close, Felix could feel his core flare in tempo with the Domain, almost like it was syncing up. What have you done now, monster?
There was only silence from his unwilling passenger.
Now that he was looking at it, Felix noticed that the area closest to the Domain was tinged a slight red and covered in a creeping moss. Small plants sprouted here and there, each rigid stalk permeated by the same twisted sense of power in miniature. It was as if the Domain was...spreading.
Is that normal? Or is the shell failing already? Felix clenched his jaw.
People began moving. The Acolytes, faces covered by their sallet helms, yanked on the heavy chains. Several Haarwatch citizens were pulled off their feet with startled yelps.
"Stand up, dogs!" snarled an Acolyte. "Time to answer for your sins."
"No!" wailed a rotund Dwarf, his shoulders thick with muscle. "Ye'll not be doin' this!"
The Dwarf yanked back against the chains, but couldn't best the Acolyte's Strength. The redcloak simply hauled on the chain, towing the Dwarf (and the four others connected to him) forward. With a grunt, the Acolyte punched the struggling Dwarf across the jaw, the sound cracking through the tunnels. A meaty crunch. The Dwarf fell limp.
"Any else got something to say?" A nearby Initiate demanded, and his body briefly lit up with an orange glow.
Only whimpering and heavy breathing could be heard.
Felix clenched his jaw, trying to figure out how to do this. The redcloaks were clearly already throwing people into the Domain. The Haarwatchers were chained up in groups of five, their shackles linked by heavy chains that an Untempered Human would likely have trouble moving alone. A few even had metal collars, for some reason. Three Acolytes moved forward, lifting the unconscious Dwarf and pulling the rest along. Up toward the Domain.
Felix pulled back from the opening and whispered at Harn. "We gotta do something. Fast."
"The Domain. There is another entrance." Harn muttered.
"You weren't sure?" Felix gaped at the man, but he only shrugged.
"Language is tricky. I ain't built for it. Coulda swung either way, ya know?" Harn tilted his head back. "C'mon."
Felix gave a frustrated glance back at the opening, before they both crept backward toward the others. Felix gave them a quick rundown of what he had seen.
"They're relaxed, not expectin' resistance," Harn pointed out. He cracked his own neck. "We could take em out."
"You think?" Evie asked, startled. "Thirty redcloaks against four of us?"
"They're not waiting," Felix hissed. "They're gonna try and burst the Domain as soon as possible. And who knows what is happening to the people thrown in."
"Monsters'll kill em soon enough," Harn said softly. "Haarwatch's Domain's too much for anyone below Apprentice Tier. We wanna save em? We move now."
"We barely handled one Initiate before," Vess pointed out. "What's different now?"
"I got my full Formation, Vess. And we got Harn and Felix. We can take em," Evie stated, giving them a shaky smile. Felix could feel her emotions wobble between confidence and fear, an echo of his own. "We gotta, right?"
Felix looked at them, meeting each of their eyes. Fear was there, yes, but so was conviction. They were all in.
"I've...got a plan," Felix said, and started etching a diagram in the muck of the tunnel.
As the next group was pulled up the slight incline toward the Domain, Rafny tried to fight off another wave of hopeless dread. She had been struggling against it all day, escalating from panic when the redcloaks burst into the gathering to darkest fear as they'd been rounded up and forced into armored wagons. They'd been left in those stifling boxes for hours, ringed by Acolytes with enchanted pikes. Then they moved again, and this time when Rafny saw light it was morning and she was being dragged back into the sewers.
Burn you Elle, Rafny thought without heat. Why're you always right?
Eldruna hadn't wanted Rafny to attend the gathering, but with Heva so dead-set the weaponsmith couldn't bear to let her go alone. The Hobgoblin was younger than Rafny by a decade, despite looking older, and the gruff Dwarf always had a soft spot for her. Not to mention that if something happened, her daughter Mahria would never let Rafny hear the end of it. Oveh, she...well, she needed looking after ever since the attack. She hadn't handled the loss of her husband and home very well.
Someone yanked on the chains, and Rafny winced. Her arms and wrists were bruised where the manacles cut into her, so heavy that even though she had above average Strength it was still difficult to move. She watched with horror as another group was dragged above, the dread shifting toward sparking hate as an Acolyte casually slapped of them. Rafny had figured they were being led down here to die, but she hadn't imagined this.
"They're taking them, oh gods, they're taking them too," Oveh whispered. Her face was covered in muck, just as all of them were, her hands over her mouth merely spreading more of the sewer's filth over herself.
Heva gently put an arm against Oveh's, the nearest she could manage to a hug with their chains. Rafny could almost see the weight bowing her shoulders. "Rafny, what can we do? We won't survive the Domain!"
"Hold fast, I'll--I'll think of something," the Dwarf promised. "We just need an opportunity."
Yet the weaponsmith had no ideas. The Domain was entirely too strong for the Untempered, and she might only survive a few moments longer, chained as she was. If she could access her Skills then...but the collars cut her off from her powers. Rafny was the highest leveled person it the room, save for the Initiates, though there were perhaps one or two other fighters mixed in. All of them had been collared though. If she could get the key from one of the Initiates, then perhaps they'd have a chance, but their group was firmly in the center of the prisoners. She had no clear shot.
Blighted redcloaks! Siva, please, if you still look down upon us. Send us your aid. Rafny wasn't much for praying, but she'd been raised on the old gods by her traditionalist parents. In the face of greatest adversity, she knew of only two solutions they'd approve. Fight or pray. Someone ahead moved up, and she grimaced as the manacles ground against her wrists again.
For now, praying was all she could do.
A sound to her left drew Rafny from her dark thoughts. It was metallic and resonant, echoing from the darkness of one of the several tunnels that fed into the intersection. Shorter than most present, she could only see it throught he gaps in the crowd. Three Acolytes, the nearest to the passage, turned and drew their weapons.
"Sirs! We have contact to the south!" An Acolyte reported to the Initiates. Rafny saw two of them straighten up from across the chamber.
"Who walks before the Inviolate Order?" Another Acolyte barked. "Name yourself!"
No words. Just steady steps in the darkness, coming ever closer. The Acolytes huddled nearer one another, perhaps instinctively as the sound grew louder.
And then there was light.
Two pale, silver flames appeared, each wrapped around the length of twin metallic axes. The fire cast upon a figure wearing a set of full plate armor, complete with boots and full helm. It was the frog's mouth helm, in fact, that Rafny recognized. That and the axes.
Onslaught? Here? She nearly gasped at the hope that bloomed in her breast. Why?
"Come no further, or you will be held accountable for crimes against the legal authority of the Inviolate Order!" The lead Acolytes spat, his short sword coming to his grip even as his shoulders quaked with obvious fear. The man did not stop, and instead swirled his twin axes like a Kivatii fire dancer. "Halt!"
The man in silver armor began to jog forward.
"Sir!" The Acolytes stuttered back before the booming voice of an Initiate took control.
"Form ranks! Candle and Lantern Squads assist!"
Twenty Acolytes peeled off from the prisoners as step by step, Onslaught advanced. Muck splashed outward as the warrior cleared the tunnel and entered the fitful light of the intersection, and Rafny's heart soared. Someone had come. Finally.
The Acolytes advanced as one, their pikes leveled and each of their bodies flaring with a range of orange and golden lights. The weaponsmith knew the Silver Rank Guilder could take the bastards, but she wasn't so sure about the three Initiates that were here. Indeed, her stomach dropped as one of them stepped forward and raised his hands. They began to glow with a golden radiance, but before it discharged, spears rained from the sky.
*KLANG! KLANG! KLAAANNGG!*
The Initiate dodged out of the way of two spears, but others found their marks. Two others were hit, one Initiate taking it in the shoulder and the other getting pierced by two different spears through his breastplate. Blood fountained as the latter collapsed to his knees, his chest sucking air.
"Ambush!" the original Initiate shouted. "Eyes up! From above!"
A woman dropped from a smaller tunnel nearly directly above them, her body covered in white-enameled armor that was vaguely similar to the Order's own. But she held a silver spear in her hands, this one chased with gold details, and as she fell she screamed.
"Spear of Tribulations!"
A swell of power was her only warning, and the Dwarf threw herself atop the others, dragging them all to the ground. The spears burst into cyclones of air Mana that shredded the accumulated muck in the tunnels, and sent sparks flying from the Initiate's armor. The one who had been pierced, however, burst into bloody chunks of meat and bone.
Rafny looked up from the ground and saw chaos.
The spearwoman was furiously battling one of the Initiates, her silver weapon clashing with the zealot's burning sword. The two of them moved in a complicate dance that Rafny had experienced too many times to not recognize. The young woman was well trained, her footwork more than a match for the Initiate's own. Meanwhile, across the chamber, Onslaught finally hit the rows of Acolytes like a reaping scythe. The Inviolate Order fell before his axes, some even getting tossed into the air by his Strength and momentum. The unluckiest were bisected by his blazing silver weapons. The Acolytes weren't helpless, however, and they had been trained to fight against greater odds. Shields were pushed closer, and a weaving of golden light permeated their defenses. Their pikes thrust forward in a wave, strikes coming from all around the warrior, trying to penetrate his weakspots.
Fools, Rafny thought with a grunt, lifting herself from her friends. The Onslaught doesn't have weakspots.
The pikes glanced off his armor, not even leaving scratches as a shimmer of silver, metallic vapor inundated Onslaughts form. The armor itself seemed to swell, increasing in size and thickness, turning his arms and axes into even more deadly instruments of war. The screaming was deafening, so loud in fact that she almost missed the thick, spiked chain that launched from yet another tunnel. It wrapped around the injured Initiate and tightened with a squeal of metal on metal.
The Initiate managed only that before he howled in pain and staggered to the side. It was like he struggled with a considerable weight even as the blades on the chain dug into his joints. Rafny got to her feet, slowly helping Heva and the others chained to them as well, but she never took her eyes off of what unfolded.
The Initiate was yanked to the side by a sudden tug, and out of the dark tunnel a figure began sailing through the air like a crossbow bolt. She moved fast, but it was clearly a woman, and she held up a fist that was covered in a purple-white haze. Before she landed that haze resolved into a foot long spike of ice.
She hit the Initiate, spike first, thrust into the space between his breastplate and pauldron. Fully opposite the open spear wound, and from the man's scream, Rafny guessed the hit penetrated. The woman began to stab mercilessly with the ice spike, until it was stained red.
"Who are they?" Oveh asked, her vague eyes finally showing a measure of clarity. "Where did they come from?"
"Who cares?" Rafny grunted. "It's our opportunity. Keep your eyes peeled."
That was when lightning lit up the intersection, overwhelming the magelights with its intensity. It was thick as a tree, bursting from the slope leading to the Domain entrance, and a dark figure fell through it from somewhere above. He landed lightly, as if the lightning cushioned him somehow, and faced the last Initiate. From the distance, Rafny couldn't make any details out, but the man seemed to hurl something dark forward at the Initiate. Whatever it was hit the zealot's extended blade, and a burst of sizzling liquid was deflected to the side.
"Heretical dogs!" The Initiate snarled, before shoving the lead prisoner into the Domain's entrance. Strung together, the rest were sucked through as if something was pulling them. The Initiate grinned at the young man. "Too late for them!"
"We're saved," Heva whispered. Rafny looked at her, confused, but saw the old Hobgoblin's eyes were filled with tears. "I can't believe---He's come to save us, again."
"Who?" The Dwarf asked. She looked at the man's broad back, covered in a beige canvas jacket. "Him?"
A piercing crack filled the air, overwhelming for a moment the barrage of violence from the Onslaught, and the man leaped forward. Chips of shattered stone followed his feet as he sped through the air. But a spark of brilliant orange light emerged from the Initiate, and a golem made of fire and stones was conjured directly in the challenger's path. The heat was so intense Rafny could feel it from forty feet away, but then it was followed by a wave of utter, arctic cold that made them all shield their eyes.
There was a sound of frustrated screaming, and the sounds of physical combat. Metal scraped against metal, flesh hit flesh, and there was a terrible squelching sound from beyond the foundering golem.
"What was...an arrow?" The Initiate gasped. "GAAAAUUUUUH!"
To Rafny's surprise, the golem burst into a column of wildfire, scorching the ceiling and plant life for ten feet in all directions. An Acolyte, still guarding the prisoners, stumbled back from the pillar of fire, nearly dropping his pike. Taking the chance, Rafny leaped up and threw her manacle chain over his neck.
With her considerable Strength, she squeezed until she felt the man's gorget crumple and his face started to turn purple. With a sharp, final twist, a kill notification floated before her eyes. Wordlessly she dismissed it.
The other Acolytes rounded on her, their eyes wide and filled with rage. Two of them rushed at her.
A weak fire bolt hit one of them directly in the face, singeing his mustache, while the other floundered and fell. A stone club had shattered into pieces against his knees. Before either of them could recover, two figures fell on top of them, digging their fingers and activating Beginner Tier Skills against their eyes and mouths.
In seconds, it was over. Heva stumbled to her feet, her sharp nails coated in blood and spit from where she'd forced them down the bastard's throat. With a heave, she pulled a still snarling Oveh off the other Acolyte, the Dwarf's low level Stone Forging Skill leaving chunks of rock embedded in the man's ruined face and neck. Heva met Rafny's gaze and gave her a shaky nod.
Siva be praised, Rafny thought, stunned, but then was startled by another realization.
It had gone terribly quiet.
She looked back and saw the other prisoners looking around them in wonder and no little awe. Onslaught, his silver armor covered in blood that was clearly not his own, marched forward and struck apart another set of manacles with his axe. Rafny panned the room, noting the two women standing nearby, looking over the crowd. One was the chain wielder, her black hair wild from the fight and blood across her mouth, and she caught the Dwarf's eye and offered a red grin. The other was the armored maiden, her spear missing, who somehow did not look disheveled despite her struggles against an Initiate.
And standing above them, still on the hill near the Domain, was a broad shouldered young man that Rafny recognized. The boy Jacinda had recommended, the one Elle was still designing armor for...and his eyes were glowing a bright, electric blue.
"The Blue Eyed Fiend," she heard Heva whisper. Several other prisoners turned toward her and also began whispering.
"Vellus bless," Oveh said, her voice louder. "We're saved."
The tunnels around them suddenly shook, and the Fiend turned toward the Domain entrance. Were her eyes fooling her, or had it grown?
"We have to hurry," the Fiend said. "It's beginning."