Chapter One Hundred and Forty One – 141
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"Movement ahead, captain!"
"Vanguard, secure the room!" Shouted the Bronze Rank Captain Elwick. He turned to the rest of them, his squad of ten and growled. "Everyone else, double-time!"
Atar V'as grunted as he forced himself to move faster. The eight others around him did the same, though perhaps with less anguish considering most of them were Journeyman Tempered. They had all been running for miles, and while Atar wished he could groan and protest, his constant training had taught him the futility of pushing back on these matters. Guild leadership expected obedience in their recruits, and if Atar wished to progress any further with his goals, he had to at least pretend to listen.
At least now they were doing something.
It had been hard to sit idly by, watching the Inquisition tear up the city. Atar was a foreigner in Haarwatch, to the Heirocracy itself in fact; yet after only a few short months he found that he utterly despised the nation's faith in the Pathless. The belief in gods was anathema to how he was raised in Te'thys, and that the Heirocracy even had an organization such as the Inquisition was profoundly disturbing to the young fire mage.
Yet sit idle he had. Despite his desires, the Elders had specifically told the rank and file to stand down, to wait within the Eyrie for further orders. Those at the Wall were likewise restricted, though for a better reason. Early this morning, a wave of monsters had surged from the Foglands once more. It was relatively low in number, perhaps only three dozen, but they were all significant threats. High end Tier I monsters that took the Tin Ranks on the Wall considerable time to whittle down.
But he and the rest of the Guild had little else to do. Told to sit on their hands, the 'whys' of that decision still haunted Atar, because he saw no benefit in it. If they had confronted the Inquisition, the Guild could have leveraged their Charter over the city and stayed the zealots' hands. But for all Atar's hopes, nothing came of that line of thinking; instead he had watched, powerless, as hundreds of citizens were carted away to some Inviolate Order bunker.
Then the order had come; the squad he belonged to were to be escorted into the Domain, where they would secure something Elder Teine needed. Further details were held back from them until they were within the Domain itself, but Atar was beside himself with joy. Aside from the training potential within the Domain's confines, it would allow him to prove the location of the Butcher. Once found, Teine was sure to give him priority on resources and access to the scriptorium held within the Spire. He had even tried to see if he could invite others to aid them. More help meant a faster turn around, right? Teine had refused to consider it, however.
"You I can trust, Atar. You and my other apprentices. An outsider, no matter how skilled, is not worth the risk," Elder Teine had said with a small smile, his disdain for non-Guilders evident. The risk, whatever it was, had not been explained.
Sorry Felix, I tried. Atar felt a bit guilty about that, but then Felix hadn't really held up his end of the bargain yet either. The frustrating man had been hard to find for days now and had provided no instruction on those strange, vile sigils. I'll just have to figure this out on my own. Like always.
"What is taking so long?" Lilian hissed from beside him, strain clear in her voice, and Atar raised an eyebrow at her. "What? We've been traversing this gods-cursed sludge chute for hours! I'm sweating through my gambeson!"
"It's barely been a glass, dear cousin," Alister smoothly interjected. He fell back to run alongside them both, the exertion clearly not a problem for the noble scion. He gave her a piercing look. "You should really invest in Endurance, Lilian. Or at least learn to suffer in silence, like Atar here."
A dim-witted guffaw came from behind them. Atar rolled his eyes as Dabney plodded forward. "Spells don't help much now, do they Atar?"
"If I were to waste my Mana on it, yes I could easily best you all to our destination. Since I'm neither a fool nor an impatient idiot, I'll remain quiet and prepare myself instead," Atar focused his eyes forward and kept running. "I suggest you all do the same."
Dabney growled his irritation, but a sharp bark of laughter from Alister quashed it. For his part, Atar tried to ignore them all.
He liked Alister, quite a bit were he to be honest, but his cousin and friend were grating at the best of times. Alister was kind and he...he was at least proficient with his rapier and a bevy of Mana Skills complimenting his offensive style. Dabney was a goon, strong but thoughtless; he likely had chosen the greatsword due to style over any proper ability. Atar knew he had Tempered with Great Weapon Mastery, but his lack of Agility was remarkable. Dabney was focused on defensive Mana Skills in contrast to Alister, utilizing earth Mana mostly. It was clear that the boy had attained Elder Teine's tutelage with gold rather than talent.
Lilian, however, was specialized in augmentation, a rare form of Mana Skill that was highly coveted but rarely manifested without an excessive amount of luck or coin. Yet instead of using that status to push her to greater heights as Atar would have, she coasted. That lack of drive soured Atar's feelings toward her. Given the option, she'd rather sleep than train. Of all of them, Atar understood her the least.
Within minutes, Atar's flagging Body cried out in relief as their destination appeared around a bend. Closer they came, and Atar noticed a hole in the wall that looked as if it had been melted. Like someone had shifted the stone to form a crude passage connecting a tunnel higher up. It was a strange detail, but no stranger than any other of these poorly planned underground tubes. The mage hated it down there, the wet and cold a pervasive antithesis to his Skill set.
Thankfully, they emerged swiftly out into a wide open chamber, an intersection of many sewer tunnels of all sizes. A wave of indrawn breath moved through the squad as they entered, and it took Atar only a moment to see why.
Dim magelights flickered above, highlighting a field of corpses. Mingled with the crimson light of the Domain entrance and some strange flora, the chamber resembled an abattoir rather than a sewer. Bodies in mangled armor were strewn about in all directions, often in pieces. White enamel was smeared with dark, clotting red and at his feet Atar spied the rounded remnants of a skull. It was buried in the fetid muck, and as he drew away, the suction of his boot tilted the face upward.
They had died screaming.
Highest Flame, what happened here? Atar pushed down his gorge, fighting to keep his composure as fear surged up through his belly. Last thing he wanted was to embarrass himself before Elder Teine.
Indeed, the Elder was already here, somehow beating the squad despite leaving after them. He was, in fact, already arguing with someone else in the intersection. Atar blinked as he realized that a contingent of the Inviolate Order had poured out of another tunnel at almost the same time they had.
"--were headed to reinforce the guards over this unreported entrance into the Haarwatch Domain," the Initiate was saying, his body language stiff and unwilling as the Elder loomed nearby. "We had received word that our people were under assault by an unknown force--"
A slender hand was held up, cutting the Initiate off as if he were an errant schoolboy. Elder Teine was not a large man, but his Master Tier aura was a force of nature, and Atar could sense the man leverage it against the zealot. Much as the mage disliked the redcloaks though, he had to hand it to the Initiate; had that aura been directed at Atar, he wasn't sure if he'd even remain standing.
"Reinforcement for guards?" Elder Teine asked sharply, gesturing to a pile of discarded metal nearly sunk into the muck. "Explain, then, why manacles and chains are here. Such things are typically for prisoners, no?"
The Initiate paled but refused to break eye contact. "I--You will have to take that up with the Master Inquisitor, sir."
"And indeed I will. For now, you're neither wanted nor needed here. Begone," Teine snorted and stepped away, back toward Atar's squad. "Zealous clods."
Atar watched the Initiate pause and seethe at the Elder's words before slinking back to his Acolytes. The group gathered around him and fell into a quiet but intense discussion. After a few moments, they retreated back down their tunnel, leaving the Guilders alone.
The Elder walked the short distance toward them, and the entire squad from Captain Elwick to the dullard Dabney all straightened their stance. Atar saw a strange expression linger on the Elder's face, one that appeared equal parts concerned and gleeful beneath his silver goatee.
What does he see when he looks at us? Atar wondered, sparing a glance for Alister and the others. When he looks at me?
He had thought previously Apprenticing beneath Sig'nyh Kel'lyv, Grandmaster of the Desert's Fire, would have engendered some goodwill for him, but Atar had found nothing but a constant struggle to prove his own worth. Elder Teine was a self-professed believer in authority by merit, and only those who demonstrated their capabilities deserved resources. Atar had hoped, nay, expected favoritism, and when it was not forthcoming he found himself rather adrift. It was such emotions that had tied him to Alister, a scion of a noble House that had also been expecting an easier time.
"Something dark has occurred here. A force appears to have ambushed and utterly destroyed a contingent of the Inquisition," Elder Teine took a deep breath and exhaled as if savoring some sweet scent. Atar smelled only the putrid rot of sewage and the stale blood of dead men. "It is fascinating, is it not?"
"Sir?" asked Captain Elwick, rather tentatively.
"Who, exactly, went up against the redcloaks? I'm missing something here, I know it." Teine drummed his fingers against his lips. "Some look crushed, others stabbed, while more are simple severed in twain. But by whom? Eh? And this!"
Quick as a flash, the Elder of Spirit blinked through the air, reappearing upon the slope leading into a crevasse filled with a shimmering red light. He ran his hand across the crimson-tinged flowering plants and mosses that grew upon the slope, clearly spreading outward from the Domain itself. "The Domain spills outward. We've repaired the sigils twice already, and still it spreads."
"That's from the Domain?" Lilian asked Alister in a whisper. "I thought it was a desert or something?"
"Hush," Alister hissed.
"How're there plants and stuff coming out of a dusty desert?" Lilian kept asking.
Elder Teine stood up next to the crevasse and held out a hand, feeling the yielding membrane of the Domain flex beneath him. A groaning came from the crack in the wall, as if the stone were protesting his very touch. "It is my great sorrow that I cannot check on this myself. I must ask this of you, my dearest Apprentices and Journeymen. Someone killed these men and women and those same someone passed into the Domain. Or perhaps, something."
The Elder clapped his hands delightedly. Atar narrowed his eyes at the man. He was...enjoying this, Atar realized.
"Yes yes yes! You're all agog at the possibilities, as I am!" Elder Teine walked down the slope again and fixed Captain Elwick with his steely gaze. However a wide, somewhat manic smile marred the authoritative effect. "Captain! You must lead your squad into the Domain and find out if it was indeed monsters from within that escaped. If that is the case, you are to capture one for study. I must know what happened!"
"And if it not, sir?" The Captain asked and gestured around them. "What if was truly a Human or other Sentient Race that did all...this?"
"Then kill them or capture them. I'll not have unauthorized people using my--our Domain, without repercussions," Teine's smile was crooked this time, and his eyes drifted down the line. "All of you are here because you're potential is great among the etheric arts. All of you were chosen by me for the power you may one day wield. But without my guidance, that power may never come to fruition. Without my influence, you will toil in obscurity for countless years, wasting your youth as you struggle to merely survive. Yet I can make you thrive, make you soar above the others in the Guild. You must only listen to my orders to know the proper way.
"You must Oathbind. Here. Now."
Atar's breath caught in his chest, and he flicked a confused glance up and down the line. What?
"Secrets abound in the Domain, the Captain here can attest to that," Teine put a hand on Captain Elwick's shoulder, and the man nodded with pride. "He has kept the Guild's secrets well, as have all of my Journeyman Guilders. Now it is time for the Apprentices to make the same Oath. Are you ready?"
"I am, sir!" Alister had stepped forward without hesitation. Atar could sense that Dabney was about to move and did it first, moving closer to the Elder and nodding his agreement.
"I am!"
"Me too!"
"I am," the final voice said, high and nervous. Lilian's face held everything Atar's heart was practically screaming.
Elder Teine's smile turned comforting, and his eyes twinkled as he placed a hand on her shoulder. He was the very image of a kindly grandfather. "You need not be scared, Lilian. It is a light burden I place upon you, one you need not even think on after this day. You have but to agree to never write or speak on what you see or experience in the Domain, not with Guilders or any others, even among yourselves once you have left its confines. If you betray this trust, then your Skill levels, your advancement, and your life itself is forfeit. Do you agree?"
With a jerky nod, Lilian acquiesced. The others followed suit, and cursing to himself all the while, Atar agreed as well. Mana built up around them, colorless and vibrant in the strangely lit sewer, and it rushed between the five of them. A flare of crimson light at the Elder's hip joined with the binding, as if sealing the ritual itself.
In moments, it was done. Atar could barely feel it at all.
"Wonderful," Teine smiled. "Now we can move onto the more exciting parts of this endeavor."
The Elder of Spirit beckoned all ten of them up the slope and toward the Domain entrance. Atar hustled so he could stay in the front. He didn't want to miss any of this.
"Whomever finds and traps the beasties that did this heinous act will be rewarded a set of Epic Essences for their next advancement," Teine grinned as gasps swept through his people. "If it turns out that people are behind this, then their capture is also grounds for reward. Dead or alive."
He paused a moment, as if thinking. "I'd prefer them alive. Much more fun that way."
Despite that dire proclamation, the murmurs were even more excited this time. Atar could hear several of the Journeyman Tiers whisper excitedly about winning the Essences, and he felt butterflies in his stomach. It would be difficult to out perform his Journeyman squadmates, but for a chance at Epic Essences for his Journeyman Formation? Atar was up for that long as the other Apprentice Tiers were with him. If his exhaustive training in the Guild had taught him anything, Atar knew his limits now more than ever before. He needed Alister and the two annoyances attached to him.
Atar caught Alister's eye and nodded. Alister grinning back at him and shrugged, before nudging him with a sharp elbow. Atar suppressed a wince and smiled back.
Alliance made, I hope.
"Ah I can see that you're all eager to begin! Excellent! I shall--" Teine stopped short as a panicked voice caught his attention.
"Sir! Elder Spirit, sir!"
Everyone looked over at the tunnel they had only just recently traversed. A woman wearing a Tin medallion and sweat soaked leathers stumbled to a stop at the base of the slope. She gulped great breaths of air and was sweating so much it looked like she'd gone swimming.
"Well?" Teine snapped. "What is it? Can you not see I'm busy?"
"I'm..sorry...sir. The Master...Inquisitor has...destroyed several...blocks of the Sunrise Quarter," she gasped. "Personally, sir!"
"Pathless forfend," Captain Elwick gasped.
Atar's eye widened, but it was nothing compared to the reaction of Elder Teine. The silvered Guilder had frozen and stared up at an angle, as if he could see directly through the stone itself. And perhaps he could, mused Atar. Whatever he did, the Elder's face grew pale and his breathing erratic. Quickly he spun and regarded the Domain behind them, reaching out and sliding his fingertips across the invisible membrane that prevented his access.
"Sir?" Captain Elwick ventured. "What is going on up there? Sir?"
"You must all go, now," he said, his voice flat. "Enter the Domain."
For a moment, no one moved at all. Atar traded glances with Alister and even a few of the Journeymen. Then the Elder turned toward them abruptly.
"Did you not hear me? Go!" He roared, and Lilian was almost bowled over by the sheer volume of his shout. "Now! Captain Elwick, accomplish your goal. The glass has turned, we haven't much time."
Licking his lips and swallowing at that, the Captain nodded and ordered them forward. "You heard the man! Let's go!"
One by one, they pushed into the Domain, the not quite liquid surface of the entrance parting around them with no resistance. Atar hung back, for all that he was in the front before, unable to take his eyes off Elder Teine. The man was staring up again, but this time he was fiddling with some sort of device at his waist. A strange vapor poured from the small construct, colored a deep, rotten red that reminded him viscerally of...of the Domain itself.
"Atar, get a move on," Captain Elwick said, and Atar jumped in surprise. Fixing his hair he cleared his throat and nodded at his captain.
"Of course, Captain. Right away."
The both of them entered at the same time.