Chapter One Hundred and Forty Three – 143
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"They are Guilders," Harn confirmed, his hand shielding against the bright midday sun. Felix knew it wasn't a real sun, but it was just as hot and bright. "Musta been their path we've been followin'."
"That means they came in the same entrance though," Evie said, her voice sharp and hissing. "Did the redcloaks let them in? Are they part of the plan?"
"That...doesn't make sense," Felix said with a frown. "Why involve the Guild, the only people capable of stopping the Inquisition?"
"Maybe they've been in here longer than the redcloaks were out there?" Evie suggested.
"Say that is true," Vess jumped in. "Then the Guild also came into this Domain, using a secret back entrance instead of the normal one. Why?"
"Good question," Felix said. "And I think we need to talk to Zara about what the word 'secret' means. I'm not sure she knows."
Vess smiled and Evie rolled her eyes. Harn grunted, though Felix was willing to believe that was his version of laughing. Felix checked the wardstone at his belt, bringing up the item's description.
Name: Ward of the Willful Eye
Type: Wardstone (enchanted)
Lore: Designed to withstand harmful environmental effects such as caustic or dissonant elements for a maximum period of six hours.
Shell of Harmonius Will VII - A Song of protection that diverts dissonant environmental hazards. Has no effect on direct attacks.
Chanters Intent II - The Harmonic Song of a Chanter was used to enchant this item, and it bears their Intent. +20% Effectiveness of Shell.
Time Remaining: 4 Hours 52 Minutes
They'd bonded the stones shortly after entering the Domain, and the clock on them had started ticking down. But it was ticking down a bit faster than anticipated, as they had spent perhaps forty minutes moving from the entrance to their current location, and had lost over an hour of duration.
"Listen, I don't trust what's happening here any more than the rest of you," Felix said, and gestured to the wardstones they all wore. "We've got less than five hours...glasses, sorry, five glasses until the protection on these wardstones fail. Maybe the Guilders are trustworthy, but likely they're not. Either way, we need to see what's in that keep and kill whatever monsters we can't avoid. This'll get two birds with one stone."
Harn nodded. "Agreed. We'll move closer, observe."
"Take em both out if we can," Evie said, a sharp look in her eye. Vess clucked her tongue and nudged her friend with her elbow. "...Or help, or whatever."
Vess' smile was thin lipped and troubled. It was clear to Felix that she did not like the idea of harming Guilders. Felix didn't either, if he were being honest with himself, but he'd do what he had to do. Something terrible was happening in the Domain, something he could feel would have crawled into their skin if not for their wardstones.
"Wait," Vess said, crawling closer to the ledge and peering outward. "Look, by the far forest."
A dark smear moved in the distance, and at first Felix though it was some sort of odd river; then his eyes adjusted and he could make out the approach of nearly a hundred loping humanoids. Their flesh was mottled with rust red and pale yellow, their arms long and tipped with overlarge claws. Stranger still, each of the figures carried something on its back and it varied from the corpses of other monsters to piles of dirt and leafy plants. At the same time as he saw them, a rattling dissonance drift to him on the breeze, setting his teeth on edge.
"Are they carrying bodies?" Vess asked.
"Food for later?" Evie asked and Harn shook his head.
"Better hope not," Harn said. "That'd mean they're smart. Gimme a beast horde over a half dozen smart monsters."
Name: Manawarped Revenant
Lore: Corrupted by the Maw's vile blood, these humanoids were once Humans, Elves, Dwarves, and Hobgoblins, among others. Their form has been infected and altered, instilling them with a deep and unending hunger.
Strength: Enhanced coordination as a group
Weakness: Poor Intelligence and Willpower
"Shit," Felix said and shared the information with his crew, flipping his Voracious Eye screen toward all of them.
"Noctis wept," Vess gasped, holding her hands over her mouth. "The prisoners..."
"Ain't the prisoners," spat Harn. "They were just thrown in, and I've seen enough bones to know they died quick-like. This is somethin' else."
"What's the Maw?" Evie asked, and Felix very nearly bit his tongue off in surprised anger. Stupid mistake. He should have just read it aloud.
"It's...not important," Felix extemporized, and even he knew that answer wasn't going to fly. So it was to his great relief that an explosion of fire bloomed above the ruined keep. Everyone's eyes snapped forward, and the wind carried the sounds of screaming and discharging Mana Skills. Several figure scurried atop a wall, fighting off waves of Spawn and a few other varieties.
"Ain't gonna last much longer," Evie said, pointing at the line of running Revenants. "Those're headed straight for em."
Another, smaller explosion hit one of the rounded towers, and silhouetted against the flames was a familiar figure. Felix squinted, able to just barely make out finer details. A man in red robes with a curled mop of blond hair flung bolts of fire out into the monster horde.
Fields of Flame!
A torrent of fire burst from Atar's outspread palms, catching alight the disgusting Spawn before him. Six of them charred instantly, burned up by the powerful fire, while five more reared back in pain and fear. It was what he loved most of all about fire: it was effective.
Atar had grown immensely since the Foglands. His spells had improved by leaps and bounds, but so had his Endurance, Strength, and Vitality. He was proud to say that he was level 32 and closing in on 33. The Apprentice Formation his mentor had helped him achieve was responsible for much of his growth.
His Body allowed him a near immunity to mundane fire, though magical fire was another thing entirely, save for his own flames. It also allowed him to utilize Strength Ignition to greater effect, especially after the Guild had accelerated the physical training regiment begun under Magda and Harn. He was, at this point in his advancement, at least the equal to an extremely fit Human in his prime. An Untempered Human of course, but that was...fine, he supposed.
Though his Body seemed lackluster, that was to be expected; it was Tempered with a Common ranked Essence Draught. It was his Mind and Spirit that were more impressive, and of greater concern to the magically leaning Atar. His Mind focused on his scriptwork and his authority over his own thoughts and mental processes. Since Tempering, Atar had found cognition, memory, and retention of knowledge to be far simpler. Still requiring effort, but like night and day compared to before.
His Spirit focused once more upon his chosen element: Fire. It boosted his abilities that utilized that element of course, which most of Atar's Skills did in some way. It also aided in Mana regeneration, enough that Atar was no longer constantly beseiged by Mana depletion headaches. A handy feature, as they had been fighting non-stop since their arrived in the Domain.
After the brief blip in that...nowhere space, they had arrived in the moss-covered forest of the Domain. It had lasted less than a second, but many of them (not him, surely) had felt shaken after the experience. Like someone had walked over their grave. The fire mage had even heard Captain Elwick muttering "that shouldn't happen," which, all things considered, was not a great sentiment to overhear.
Strangely enough, the very air in the Domain felt...off to Atar. It was a high summer heat, but the sizzle he felt against his exposed skin was more than that. He tried to verbalize it to his friends, but they seemed to brush it off, as did the captain.
They gathered themselves and marched on, fighting wave after wave of monstrosities. Spawns, Knights, and even creatures called Rooks that best resembled the idea of a bird; that is, if the idea was all bone spikes and mouths attached to paltry wings. They were easy enough to drive off or kill, at least, and their group was not lacking in area of effect Mana Skills.
The way was a fight, but the Journeymen handled the greater beasts and even some of the lesser creatures as well. There were six of them, after all, not one that wasn't strong in their chosen Mana Skills. This left the Spawns to the Apprentices, and the combination of defense, support, and offense between the four of them proved effective even when fighting two or three of the Spawn in tandem.
They cut a swath through the strange forest, a forest that some of the Journeymen seemed worried about. Atar gathered that it had not been here before, but that wasn't too strange surely? He'd heard that Domains shift slightly over time.
Eventually, after perhaps an hour, they had spotted the keep. It was usually the first staging ground from this entry, he'd been told. Kept secure so that new arrivals could regroup and set out into the Domain for training or resource gathering.
That had not been the case.
As the flames dissipated, Atar threw himself to the side. An explosion of ice rocked the battlement before him, shearing through the remaining Spawn.
A series of sharp impacts clattered off the wall, some new creature having thrown large bone spikes back at them. Atar blinked through the haze of Mana vapor, the icy Skill's Mana passing into the visible spectrum, but not so much that he missed the massive foot long spike that had stuck in the ground between his legs.
He scrambled to his feet, and backed up until he was well within the confines of his team. When they had realized the keep had been overtaken by monsters, Captain Elwick had decided they would retake it. They needed a place to fall back to, and based on the enemies they were facing should have been easy.
They hadn't expected the cats.
"You think he got it?" Dabney asked, his dour face covered by a set of conjured stone armor. It made his voice reverb slightly in a way that Atar found intimidating...not that he'd ever admit to that.
"Julian's strong, but this thing ain't done yet," said Okar, one of the Journeymen and leader of their group. There was a coughing roar from beyond the purple-white Mana mist, and something moved. "Wall up!"
Julian, and Yvette, both Journeyman as well, conjured their defensive Mana Skills. Dabney's own Apprentice effort rose alongside it, stone bursting upwards at the same time as sheets of ice and metal overlapped it. Just in time, as the creature bashed into it, sending cracks spreading across the stone.
Atar looked out, his Sparkbolts at the ready, and assessed the situation again. There were easily three dozen Spawns roaming the courtyard, though they were hard to make out over almost permanent miasma of thick, greasy smoke down there. It was as if a thousand corpses were rotting away but never quite clearing entirely. Their second group had gone around the other side of the battlements the moment they'd arrived, hoping they could snipe whatever was dwelling down below from two angles. All Atar could hear of them was the occasional pop and sizzle of various Mana Skills going off. He hoped they were still alive.
The coughing yowl sounded again, and the rapid fire retort of heavy impacts sounded from the defensive wall. Atar guessed they had about fifteen seconds before all three Skills failed. Swallowing hard, he invoked his Crown.
Crown of Ignis!
A three pronged crown made of fire manifested above his head, while ten Sparkbolts appeared and began rotating around his head. A heady rush of inviolability thrummed through him, but his Scriven Crown Mind helped ease him from the precipice of vanity and hubris. He wouldn't lose himself to his own power...at least not for a while.
Beside him, Alister let build a crackling blue energy along the length of his rapier, and a script circle of yellow vapor spun around his free hand. "Be ready."
The crunch of gravel was their only warning before, a full five seconds early, a beast leaped down on them from above. Spikes of bone flashed down at them, shearing off sections of Dabney's armor and piercing Julian through his right shoulder. The Journeyman's screams were drowned out by the rumbling explosion as the walls failed, and another beast surged toward them.
Atar threw his arm forward, a flurry of Sparkbolts launching toward the airborn Razortail. Fiery impacts burst in midair, throwing the monster's leap off course and into the crenelated wall on their right. A mounting charge of energy hummed, and Atar turned to see Alister lunge forward and thrust his rapier into the Razortail's path. A tight cone of kinetic force discharged, halting the beast's advance for a brief, pivotal moment.
Atar spun away, back toward his own foe. The Razortail had climbed back to its feet and shook its large, wedge-shaped head. The resembled big cats in only the most superficial of ways, being bulky at the head and shoulders and slender at the back, with long, spike-filled tails. Fangs at least a handspan long glistened in the light of his Sparkbolts, the creature coughing another roar at him.
"Die vermin!" Okar shouted, his hands thrusting straight into the ground. The battlements shook as pillars of jagged rock erupted in a violent, zigzagging pattern toward the Razortail. Atar couldn't track whether the Journeyman's attack had hurt it or not, but it did jump back to launch a volley of bone spikes.
A wave of pure purple Mana swept outward, hitting all of the spikes but seemingly doing nothing to them. Yet as Atar flinched, each and every one of them missed his team, some landing within a breath of flesh. He glanced at Lilian, who stood panting a short distance away.
"Move, cretin!" She shouted at him, and Atar jumped and launched his remaning Sparkbolts at the Razortail. At the same time, Okar manipulated the stone again and shafts of irresistible force met it at the same time.
You Have Killed a Razortail!
The yowling sounds of the other four behind him had fallen silent as well, and Atar turned to see Alister, Dabney, and Yvette crouched over a too still form. Yvette was crying and holding the limp and bloody form of Julian. The bone spike he'd caught in the shoulder had hit him at a sharper angle than Atar had realized; he was dead.
"Burning monsters," Atar cursed.
Screams sounded, human screams entirely too close. Okar stood forward, the strongest among their team and beckoned them close. Alister, Dabney, Lilian, and Atar moved in; Yvette pulled herself away after an agonizing second. Okar, tall and barrel chested with a full beard, put a large hand on Yvette's shoulder as she moved in. The slender woman shook it off with a glare.
"Ah...alright, keep your eyes out for the leader. We end them, we can at least make our sacrifices worth it," Okar's eyes didn't quite flick toward Julian's body. "Remember, Domain rules: end the leader, end the wave."
"Rules? Does this place even have rules anymore?" Lilian asked, fear hiding behind her sharp words. "These are not the monsters we were promised, and by the Captain's own admission, this is not the standard terrain of this Domain. What is going on?"
"The lady has a point," Atar agreed. "How can we be sure of anything?"
"Because I said so," Okar snapped, his beard bristling. "Now form up! We move!"
Atar grimaced, sharing the look with Alister and Lilian. Dabney had simply moved ahead, eager to please in his new vanguard position. He was one of two defensive specialists they had left, after all.
"These buffoons are as blind as we are," Lilian whispered as they fell into positions. Alister snorted.
"You want to risk it without them, dear cousin?" He arced a perfectly manicured eyebrow.
Lilian paled, which Atar didn't know was possible considering her light complexion. "N-no, I--"
"Quiet," hissed Yvette from behind. "Damn children."
Lilian's face flushed now, and Atar was right behind her, but Alister grabbed them both by the shoulders and led them forward. "Not the time, you two."
They moved on, walking the battlements of the small fortress and keeping an eye on the swirling death smoke congealing within the courtyard below. The ruins of a central tower barely peeked above the miasma, but Atar could detect no movement aside from the gentle swirl of the smoke. Soon, however, they reached a portion of the battlement that had been roughly used by weather and time. It had partially collapsed into the keep, blocking them from easily traversing the walls. The gap was nearly fifty span wide, Atar guessed. Well out of his range.
"We could jump it," Dabney suggested in his dimwitted voice.
"Not everyone here can. We turn back," Okar snarled, pushing through the Apprentice Tiers with a shove. "Circle around and meet up with the Captain again."
No sooner had those words left his mouth that the air was filled with a high pitched howl. At first one, then four, then dozens, all of them raised in a ululating, almost-Human cry. A pressure descended with those cries, one that pushed Atar and his friends to their knees. Even the Journeymen weren't unaffected, grunting in pain as they barely kept their feet.
"Wh-what is this?" Atar gasped.
The smoke below began to fade slightly as a stream of loping humanoids entered the keep's courtyard. They were a horrifying mish-mash of random features, but all of them were of a theme. Blue-green orbs dotted their oval faces, and rust red scales covered their hulking bodies in broad patches interspersed with sickly-yellow strips of putrid flesh. Atar used Analyze.
Name: Manawarped Revenant
Burning lot of good that did, Atar bemoaned. All he knew for certain was that there was no way they'd be able to overcome this many. Not without the rest of their team and even then...Even then, Atar had no confidence that they would survive.
"What a-are they d-doing?" Alister managed, as the pressure had not let up at all. The lot of them were nearly incapacitated simply by these creature's presence.
Forget fighting, Atar thought. If this keeps up, we'll be slaughtered.
The smoke below as clearing as the Revenants moved inward, toward the broken tower at the center. They carried bodies on their backs, corpses mostly, and most of them shuffled toward that tower. There was a guttural screaming of Spawns as dozens of them were shunted out of the smoke and away.
"Pathless forfend," Okar cursed.
Atar could feel the battlements shaking under the tread of three dozen toothy beasts, and he struggled to regain his feet. The Spawn only had one place left to go, and that was straight through them.