Chapter One Hundred and Forty – 140
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Felix felt the fear burn in his gut, like a fuse. As the stone cracked further, it was clear the Domain was spreading, pushing itself...or being pushed, maybe. The corruption he sensed as a sick, fungal rot washed over him again, a funk in his nose even as the increasing volume of jarring discord rattled his inner ear.
Pit cooed at him internally, conveying his own agitation. The tenku had been converged since Felix had conceived of the plan. He was a trump card Felix was happy he hadn't had to play.
He toggled his notifications.
Reign of Vellus is level 35!
Mantle of the Long Night is level 26!
Cloudstep is level 10!
Arrow of Perdition is level 8!
Solid gains, he mused, distractedly rubbing at his sore chest. The Initiate had done a number on him, knocking his Health down to 60% with his fire and blade. If he hadn't utilized his Mantle of the Long Night, the heat and flames would have made him collapse in pain, let alone the actual damage. Luckily, Felix had been able to overwhelm the zealot before he could marshall a proper defense. Last thing Felix wanted was to face someone with that magic armor Skill again.
"What's beginning?" Evie asked, her voice strained and out of breath. "Don't be cryptic."
"No, I--" Vess stepped up, crossing some of the distance between them as she stared at the Domain entrance. "I feel something too. The shell, it is weakening."
The heiress turned toward the prisoners, some of which were only just now pulling themselves up onto their feet. Felix noticed more than a few were giving him strange glances, though they flinched when he met their eyes. He heard whispers pass among a few of them.
"It's him...the lightning..."
Oh damn. Felix closed his eyes and sighed.
"You there," Vess called, pointing out a taller Orc in the crowd. His dark, purple-green skin was bruised with lighter shades all down his arms, but he held himself tall under the noblewoman's gaze. "How many have they thrown into the Domain?"
"Too many," the Orc grated. Felix noticed a collar was tight around his thick neck, that in fact more than a few of the prisoners wore similar collars. "Five, six groups?"
Evie gasped, and Felix felt his stomach clench painfully. That was perhaps thirty or so people, lost already. Felix glanced back at the Domain, watching the entrance shudder slightly as if in time with a massive, unseen heartbeat. Could they save them? Or were they already dead?
"You're wasting time," said a familiar voice, and Felix turned back around to see the Dwarven weaponsmith Rafny finish rifling through the remains of an Acolyte. She was methodically going through their pouches, a task made harder by her manacles. "If you're planning on saving them, that is."
"Rafny?" Harn said, stepping out from the press of bodies. "How'd you get caught?"
"Poor life choices, maybe--aha!" Rafny said with a flourish. A key made of a dark metal was in her hand, it's tip looking oddly pronged. She ignored her manacles and moved her hands around her collar, feeling blindly for a moment before they could hear the sound of a metallic click. The collar opened and dropped from her neck. Rafny took a deep, steadying breath as if she'd been swimming and just come up for air. "That's a lot better."
"You need help with those...?" Harn gestured at her manacles and the Dwarf sighed and nodded. Harn's axe was as precise as a scalpel, shearing them off her wrists in no time.
"Thanks, Onslaught," she smiled gratefully up at him, far less gruff than she had been with Felix. "Can you help everyone else?"
Harn nodded and moved to the next prisoner, an older Hobgoblin woman that didn't take her eyes off Felix. He broke their manacles just as quickly. People began to bunch up, pressing closer to the bloody warrior in a panicked effort to get free. Harn was clearly tired, he had just fought upwards of twenty five opponents (Apprentice Tier notwithstanding), and the press of close to fifty freaking out people didn't allow him to swing his axe. Not unless he wanted to kill them.
"Everyone! Stop!" Felix shouted, and found his voice louder than ever before. It startled him a bit, the force he could push with his diaphragm, but scared the prisoners more. They froze. "We'll cut your chains soon! Please form a line and Harn will see to you!"
Surprisingly, to Felix at least, they listened. The whispers started up again though, centered around that Hobgoblin woman, but Felix blocked it out. He turned to Rafny and descended the slope leading up to the Domain entrance. "Rafny, what are those collars for?"
The Dwarven weaponsmith was already freeing the Orc who had spoken earlier. His name was Etrik, according to Felix's Eye. She gave Felix an appraising look before answering. "Elision collars. Chokers. Cuts off the core."
Etrik took a deep, relieved breath as his collar came off and nodded appreciatively to the woman. She handed him the key. "Go Etrik, unlock the others."
"Yes, ma'am," he said and stomped off.
"Cuts off the core? As in you can't use Skills?" Felix asked.
"Right. Also drains your Mana, keeps it artificially low. Makes people weak, even after they've been released. Easy to capture again." Rafny hawked a glob of phlegm into the putrid water nearby. "Bastard redcloaks."
"Damn," Felix muttered. "That's diabolical."
"Dia-what?" Rafny asked.
"Nothing," Felix looked at the prisoners, many of whom where openly sobbing and hugging one another. He glanced around the cavernous intersection, noting again that fully half of it was covered in the creeping flora from the Domain. "This is bad. We can't let this get worse."
Vess nodded. "It is straining already."
"What're you talkin' about?" Evie asked, stepping closer. "I don't feel anything."
"Neither can I, but this shouldn't be happenin'," Harn said with a gesture at the crimson-stained growth. He'd managed to free the rest of the prisoners in rapid succession. "Somethin' is wrong with the containment shell."
"The Domain?" Rafny asked, her face growing pale. "What's happening?"
"It's weakening," Felix explained. "Something's been done to it. We think the redcloaks are trying to break it open."
"But that would mean a monster horde, in the middle of a city," Rafny gasped. "Why?"
Evie shrugged. "No clue why. We just gotta stop it."
"We have to go in," Felix said, looking at the entrance. He turned back to the others, conviction in his gaze. "We can't waste anymore time."
"That's mad," Evie whispered. "You heard Callie! We go in alone, we'll die."
Felix looked between them all. Harn grunted in thought while Evie balked. Vess had paled, but clenched her jaw and nodded. The weaponsmith put up her hands and backed away.
"That sounds crazy, kid," Rafny said. "The Domain is tough, meant for people with far more---"
"Wait!" Harn hissed, his helmet cocked to the side. "You hear that?"
Everyone silenced, straining. Distantly, Felix could hear a soft but steady thumping coming from the southern tunnels. It was hard to identify at first, but not for some.
"Guilders," Vess said, summoning her silver spear to hand. "I recognize that march. Standard gait for quick travel."
"They're close," Harn growled. "But I can't feel em yet. Damn walls."
Rafny swallowed. "We have to run, then. If the Guild is involved with this, none of us are safe. Heva! Oveh! We have to go!"
"Can you lead them out of here?" Felix asked and the weaponsmith glanced over the crowd before nodding. "Harn, can we send them Cal's way?"
"That's a lotta mouths," Harn said, but his expression softened a bit as he looked over the faces looking about them with fear. "But yeah. Can't say as I got a better idea."
"Good. Rafny, get them to the Dust Quarter, northwest corner. Look for the third warehouse passed the disused cartwights," Felix explained to the Dwarf before turning to everyone. He raised his voice. "Everyone, you have to leave this place. Danger is coming. We'll hold them off but you must follow Rafny here to safety."
"I just wanna go home..."
"Is it more redcloaks!?"
"We can fight!"
"No, you can't!" Felix tried to protest over the clamor. The way things were going, the Guilders were gonna hear them. "I don't know how many are coming, but they're all Tempered. You can't--"
"--Kick their asses!"
"...Avet's teeth I'll show them--!"
"They're fools," Evie whispered. "What could they possibly do?"
"Might overwhelm em," Harn suggested with a shrug. "For a moment, at least."
The sounds in the nearby tunnels redoubled, growing louder far faster. It suddenly seemed like forces were coming toward them from two separate directions, now.
"That's not just Guilders," Evie said, her eyes wide. Harn sniffed at the air.
"Redcloaks. More of 'em," he said with alarm. "We gotta move, now."
The crowd still bickered though, ready for a fight that they couldn't win. Felix felt his skin flush in anger and frustration. They couldn't plan another ambush, not like this, and almost all of the Haarwatchers were liabilities. He met Rafny's eyes and her shoulders slumped in defeat. Felix couldn't stand it, and rage boiled in his gut.
"EVERYONE! GET! OUT!"
Lightning sparked to life around him, blasting upward into the ceiling as if he'd become a pillar of electricity. He rose up from the ground slowly, lifted by a shimmering pulse of kinetic energy wrapped around his legs. Pain burned at his Mind and Body, his broken Lightning Resistance activating beneath the torrent of bolts. Felix hadn't even realized he'd utilized Reign of Vellus, having only felt a bottomless rage that threatened to burst him apart at the seams.
"Run! Death is coming! Follow the Dwarf, or else die." Felix could feel his eyes burn a bright, brilliant blue and he didn't care. If that's what it took to get through to these people. "Go!"
There was a beat of silence as everyone's eyes were on Felix and the stuttering arcs of vivid blue lightning that shot off his body.
Then they ran.
Luckily, it was to the west, toward the Dust Quarter. Felix released Reign of Vellus and dropped painfully to the ground, nearly collapsing were it not for Vess. She caught his elbow and hauled him to his feet, and he found himself face to face with the heiress.
"That was..." Vess cleared her throat and smiled. "...well done."
The pain faded a bit as he looked at her smile. She has dimples, he thought. How have I never noticed that?
"Noctis wept, Felix," Evie said, slapping him on the back. He grunted in pain and disengaged from Vess' grip. "Went all Blue-Eyed Fiend, huh?"
Felix grimaced. He really didn't like that name.
"You certainly looked the part," Vess added without surprise at Evie's reveal. He hadn't mentioned that bit of infamy to the heiress, but figured Evie would have blabbed the first chance she got. "Now we must move ourselves."
The sounds were growing stronger as two forces converged on their position. Why, Felix had no clue. Perhaps one was back up, or maybe the Guild were coming to check on their experiments. All he knew was the insistent pulse of the Domain was growing stronger, and it sickened him.
"We're in a bad way, tactically," Harn said. "Tunnel's got the high ground. Whoever comes through can rain down Mana Skills or even arrows and we don't got a chance."
"We can't lead them to the survivors," Evie said. "So that way's out."
"We gotta go in," Felix repeated, and started up the slope toward the Domain. "We have to stop this before it gets worse. We don't have time to wait on Cal and reinforcements. Harn, can you enter the Domain?"
"Should be able to," he said slowly. "You sure about this, kid? We go in, there likely ain't no comin' back out unless we stop this thing."
Felix looked at the others and nodded. "The way this thing is pulsing, it feels like it's gonna burst in hours, not days. I might be wrong. Hell, I don't know what I'm doing half the time. But my gut says we go now, or we miss our shot."
"We don't know what's going on in there," Evie protested. "We could die, just as easy as those poor prisoners."
"Maybe," Felix said. "But we have to try. Right?"
"Do we though?" Evie replied, but her voice was nearly overwhelmed by the tromp of boots and the flair of a familiar sensation of power.
"That is the same as Zara," Vess gasped.
"Master Tier," Harn snarled. "We won't stand a chance."
"Welp, after you then," Evie gestured to the portal with an unsteady grin. "Seems like I changed my mind."
Felix swallowed and stepped up to the reddish film that filled the crevasse. He pressed his hand forward and felt it give, like big jello jiggler.
"Here goes nothing," he said.
Felix dove in, the others close behind.