Chapter One Hundred and Eighty Five – 185
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Felix tried to calm down, wrangling the nest of vipers that writhed in his chest. He tried to think calmly, to strategize. His Manasight flared and details were picked out in the tunnel. The floors were relatively smooth and the walls were coarse and pockmarked from excavated ore. Dusty brown and grey-black vapor swirled everywhere, threaded through with various metallic hues from the ores that studded the walls. It was like standing in a shimmering night sky, while before him the miners crowded back, threads of green-gold life Mana coiled about with crimson blood Mana.
The old man, however, blazed like the sun.
Orange fire and golden light Mana vapor hurtled through his aura, suffusing the green-gold and crimson of his Body so much that the latter was barely visible. The sense of solidity and control Felix garnered from the man was astounding. In many ways, he reminded him of Zara. But he couldn't be a Master Tier combatant...could he?
Name: Charl Hornsworth
Lore: Humans are multitudinous on the Continent. They are statistically weaker than most Races, especially at lower levels. This Human appears to excel at the redirection of force.
Strength: Agility and Dexterity far higher than average for their level.
Weakness: Slightly lower than average Strength for their level.
Aside from Hornsworth's information, Felix's Voracious Eye snagged the man's advancement. He was only at the upper end of Journeyman, a far cry from the last few Initiates he'd fought, yet not nearly as Skilled as Felix had assumed. How was he kicking Felix's ass? The man was like fighting a river, if said river had a sword made of fire.
Hornsworth raised a bushy grey eyebrow at Felix and tapped his foot. Felix snarled and dove back in, pushing Unfettered Volition for all it was worth. Visceral frustration mounted with each missed strike, each dodged advance, mutating swiftly into a burning rage that burned at his Mind.
Peace! Trilled Pit from far away. Calm!
But it wasn't time for calm; it was time for action. Rolling beneath Hornsworth's horizontal sword sweep, Felix snapped a claw at the man's leg in the hopes of hamstringing the bastard. Yet the leg was gone before he connected, and his opposite boot caught Felix in the temple. The kick wasn't particularly hard, but it rang his bell, and Felix had to hurl himself ungainly to the side to avoid the Initiate's flaming follow up.
Felix propelled himself into the wall about ten feet distant, cracking into it hard enough to make his own Health drop several dozen points. He looked back, stilling his head as if to encourage his vision to stop swimming, and saw that Hornsworth was once again standing still. Waiting.
What a jagoff, Felix grimaced. He got back to his feet slowly, watching the Initiate for any sudden movements. The man was impossible to predict. Then something caught the edge of his perception and Felix suppressed a grin.
From the darkness, a spiked chain shot out at the old man. Snaking through the air like a living thing, it altered direction twice as it wove toward the Initiate, moving faster than most anyone in the tunnel could track.
Harnsworth slid through her attack without even looking at it, and when Evie's chain changed direction, he simply lifted his sword and deflected the chain into the ground. He had to look to do that, at least. Evie ran through the rubble, twirling her chain with renewed fervor. She seemed almost as pissed off as Felix felt.
Felix frowned and watched them, hoping to see some way past the man's impeccable defense and trying to bank the fury that was building up within him. Which is how he noticed that the miners were slowly beginning to lessen in number. At first he feared that they had somehow hurt them, but when he spotted two more of the Untempered workers vanish into the darkness he realized what was happening. Thangle was Obfuscating a few people at a time and getting them out.
The Gnome's a genius.
And he wasn't alone.
Evie ducked low as a silver spear shot over her head and straight into the Initiate; the projectile, unseen until the last moment, was barely avoided. A terrible screeching sound shredded the air as his breastplate and left pauldron were scored by the arcane missile, but he wasn't impaled. The spear instead slammed into the ground immediately behind the Initiate.
"Thangle!" Felix shouted and rushed the old man. As expected, the Initiate wove around Felix's lunge, turning the man's own kinetic energy against himself and hurled him through. But this time, Felix managed to grab hold of Hornsworth's fluttering red cloak. Yanking hard on that, he slowed himself down and pulled the Initiate off balance. The man took two steps and re-centered himself easily while Felix fell heavily to the ground, which was not exactly the result he was hoping for; but it was good enough.
Vess' silver spear sat between the two of them, one prone and the other holding aloft a flaming sword. His mild voice belied the intensity of his gimlet eye. "Do you seek forgiveness, child?"
"Not really," Felix grunted. "Thangle! Now!"
An instant later, both the spear and Hornsworth vanished from Felix's senses and he thrust his hand outward until he could feel the tingle of active magic. "Mine!"
A tiny stream of Mana surged into Felix's channels, a chaotic mix of ambient earth, fire, and shadow. At the same time, the space before him imploded with the sound of a screaming gale, and the Initiate was thrown backwards.
The old man's legs and right arm were torn up, the enameled metal scored so deep that in some places it was cut righ through. Blood welled along his limbs and Hornsworth gasped a series of pained breaths through his mustache. He looked up at a Felix as the young man got to his feet.
"How did you--"
"Vess! Thangle! Again!"
Another spear tore from the darkness and plunged into the earth, yet before Thangle could cast his Obfuscation circle again, the Initiate leaped aside and ran. The old man vanished back out through the rubble in moments, his insane Agility blasting past all of their Perceptions.
Felix stood a moment longer, fists up, worried that he'd come back. When seconds turned to minutes, he figured it was safe enough. The wave of relief that spread through Felix at that moment was nearly enough to send him to his knees.
"Twins' teeth, that greybeard was spry," Evie said from the nearby darkness. "Did he put you through a wall?"
Felix grunted in annoyance and ignored the question. "Thangle, did you get everyone out?"
"Almost," the Gnome said, and Evie jumped about a foot into the air.
"AH I hate that!"
"My apologies," Thangle half bowed to the woman. "There are a few people still farther back that I couldn't reach without making myself far more conspicuous."
"Alright, Vess? You good to lead the rest of the miners out?" Felix called out.
"It will be done," she replied from near the blocked off entrance and soon Felix could hear the heiress' voice calling out for the miners to follow her.
"Awesome job with the evacuation, Thangle," Felix grinned. "I wish I'd thought of it."
"My pleasure," he replied, though his face betrayed his emotions. "I will admit being so close to danger is not...not a usual happenstance for me. I was happy to be of use."
"With illusions like those, I've got scads of ideas for ya," Evie said with a laugh. She clapped the Gnome on the back hard enough to stagger him, which only made her laugh more.
Felix's fight or flight response felt keyed up, and it was all he could do not to pace with the excess furious energy. His emotions still felt amped up, super charged by just...everything. Forcing himself to breath deep, he let his transformation Skill fade away. Being ready for a battle didn't help his nerves at all, and he could reactivate it quickly if needed. The pain of the transition helped clear his head too.
Nothing like seared nerves to really find your center.
Felix turned toward the deeper darkness of the tunnel, where more dislodged stone was built up into small ramparts down its length. Something was moving back there.
"Felix?" asked a familiar voice, followed by a squat Dwarf limping along with the help of a tall, willowy middle-aged woman. He smiled despite the bloody ruin of his leg. "Took ye long enough, lad."
The first thing they did was free the miners.
Well, no. The actual first thing Felix did was curse loudly when he discovered that all eight of the captured Acolytes were missing. The chains had been melted. There was little wonder as to who was responsible.
Great. More recurring villains. Felix scrubbed his face with his hand. My life is a Saturday morning cartoon show.
Part of him--a dangerous, minor part--wanted to chase after the slippery Initiate and--he wasn't sure what. Something violent. The jerk had basically toyed with him and it rankled. Still, helping the miners took precedence. Felix had to remind himself of that several times over the following half hour as he helped free the miners and ensure the area was secure.
The first bit was easy enough. Felix sent Pit flying high into the sky, keeping any eye out for any approaching redcloaks or Revenants, while Evie spent some time flitting about the upper levels of the industrial facilities surrounding the mine. It was the second part that had proven...challenging.
Most of the miners wore manacles and chains, and those were easily broken. Common iron and steel was relatively simple to break considering his Strength, though doing so without injuring the very much squishy people wearing the manacles was quite the endeavor. And yet, harder still were those who wore elision collars.
Felix had encountered the artifacts right before he dove into the Domain and he was aware of their use. They cut off a person from their core, somehow, as well as drained their Mana to extremely low levels. He had no idea how they worked, not even what sort of Mana they were built out of, as they were blank to his Manasight. Empty spaces where the ambient Mana in the air just didn't go. The people wearing them, irrespective of gender, age, or level, all looked completely wiped.
Felix soon found out why. As he touched the collar, he felt a jolt of...not electricity or fire, though it felt deceptively like both. Instead it was numbness that sped up his arm before petering out near his shoulder. He'd found the key to the collars on Salazar's corpse, but Felix couldn't take them off without gripping them in some way. So he gritted his teeth and did it anyway.
It was unpleasant. The numb sensation spread the longer he was in contact with the awful thing, and even in the five or six seconds it took him to unlock and remove the collar, the sensation was able to cover about three-quarters of his body. It felt like a weight on his core as well, though simply touching the metal didn't cut it off; he'd have to have the wretched thing on for that to happen. When he pulled the first collar off, he got a better look inside the thing. Where he'd been expecting smooth metal Felix instead found twisted spikes flecked with red. The miner he'd taken it off of groaned in relief, and tiny droplets of blood welled up around their neck.
"Are you okay?" Felix asked, as the miner slouched so completely he was worried they'd lost consciousness. "Can you stand?"
A bone-weary nod from the miner put Felix at ease, and with help the man was on his way. Felix moved down the line. Each of the freed miners were Skilled with wards, something they learned on the job apparently. The Inquisitors had come upon them before they could enact the defenses that the mines usually employed. Wards typically meant to deter monsters from the mines or mountains, but could, with a little tweaking he was told, provide an extra oomph against others as well. Not deadly, but certainly enough to take some of their fight out of them. The majority of the freed miners went off to work on that, though it seemed slow going.
Felix was unlocking the last of the elision collars when Rory found him again.
"Lad, let me introduce ye proper to my friend," Rory said as he hobbled up. Someone had found him a length of wood he was using as an impromptu cane. His leg was cleaned and bandaged up, work of the woman at his side. "This is Aenea Ty'lel, former Bronze Rank Alchemist for the Guild and a damned good friend. Aenea, this is Felix Nevarre. A stray I helped train a bit."
"Just a bit," Felix agreed. He couldn't help returning Rory's crooked smile, though his own was awkward. The numbness from the last collar still shivered through him. He dropped the collar in his hand and shook it out, trying to return some feeling to it before taking Aenea's outstretched hand. It was slightly limp, but he could feel calluses on the pads of her fingers. "It's nice to meet you, Aenea."
"Nasty things, those collars," she said, looking down her nose at the pile of the spiked restraints. "It's pure barbarism to place such a device on anyone, criminal or not."
"They're not fun, I agree with you there. Even touching them makes me numb," Felix said, still wiggling his fingers. "I'd rather throw them into one of those smelters."
Aenea tilted her head slightly. "Interesting. You will not keep them? It's how enemy combatants are typically restrained."
"Ah hm, I see your point. I'll have to let Cal make the decision on them, I guess." Felix waved his hand as if to banish the topic. The collars were unnerving and not what he wanted to talk about. "Do you two need help? I'm just about done here--"
"Nay lad, nay. We are lookin' to head back to your camp though," Rory said.
"Yeah, Cal mentioned that her scouts were to bring you back. You're more than welcome to join us on the return trip. Vess is telling me we'll have to take as many of the wagons as we can to supply the crafters, so there'll be plenty of places to sit."
"Good. Thank ye, Felix," Rory sat atop an upended barrel and sighed heavily. Seeing them both in the daylight now, fading though it was, Felix could tell that the both of them were exhausted.
"How long has it been since you slept?" Felix asked.
"No more than four days," Aenea chimed in. "Alchemy waits on no one, sleep deprived or not."
Four days isn't so bad, if you've the Endurance for it. Felix figured he'd be able to stay up for a week solid by this point, though he doubted he'd be of any use by that point.
"I went to visit Aenea a couple days ago. Social call," Rory grunted and shifted his bandaged leg. "The damn city went hairier than Yyero's backside while I was there, and we just managed to make it out of the Eyrie before it collapsed."
"Siva favored us. Favored you, Roridan."
Rory waved the words off. "Regardless, I was in the right place at the right time to save some folk. Most went off to the Wall, hopin' to link up with the rest of the Guild. Aenea and her team decided to come with me to yer camp."
"Team?" Felix asked, looking around. He'd though they were all miners and laborers, but it had been dark and hectic in the tunnel. Rory gestured out toward where Evie and some miners were loading a wagon. Six young women, each in multicolored smocks and dark aprons, were inspecting the contents of an opened crate nearby. The miners moved around them, clearly annoyed. "I see."
When he turned back, Rory gestured at Felix to come closer. He looked to Aena, but the woman seemed to be studying something in the distance with peculiar intensity. Frowning, Felix bent low and Rory spoke in a low voice.
"Keep it between ye an me. Crafters don't get loose from the Guild often, and usually it requires a lot more dismemberment. To have an Adept Alchemist and her six Apprentices? It's a windfall, lad." He grunted at Felix's still uncomprehending face. "I keep forgettin' how much ye don't know. Just keep it close, yeh?"
"Sure, Rory," Felix said. He understood that Alchemists were pivotal in creating Essence Draughts so that folks could Temper, but apparently that put a lot of value on their heads. "What do you mean, 'got loose?'"
"Hmph. I would have thought your people a little more knowledgeable, Roridan," Aenea sniffed. Felix looked up to see her staring down at the both of them. "The Guild lost their Charter. Any binding Oath sworn to them has been nullified."
That explained little to Felix, but he nodded as if it did. He could always get clarity from the others later. "I see."
Aenea snorted. "A poor liar as well as a sloppy commander. Tell me you didn't teach him to fight, Roridan."
"Excuse me?" Felix stood up and stared at the woman. "We just risked our lives to save you--"
"And did a piss poor job of it. Your technique is sloppy and your teamwork is abominable. Perhaps if you'd have worked together, you could have captured these men instead of murdering them," Aenea said, pointing at the corpses piled unceremoniously on one of the empty wagons. They were all draped in their own red capes.
That familiar rage swelled from within Felix's chest, though this time Pit didn't try and stop him at all. "Listen, lady, I don't know who you think you are, but--"
Pit's words dug at Felix's attention, pulling him up short. He realized he was only inches away from the Alchemist and let himself settle back on his heels. "We have company."
Rory got to his feet pretty quickly for a man with a bum leg. "Inquisitors?"
Felix tilted his head, listening to Pit. With a heated glance at Aenea, he offered a smile to the Dwarf. "Friends."
Reinforcements had arrived.
Led by Kelgan and Yan, more than thirty Tin Rank volunteers had marched the distance between the camp and mines. It wasn't far, thankfully, which meant they had arrived before dark had settled on the city. Being nearly mid-summer, they had close to two more hours before night truly arrived and the danger from roaming Revenants multiplied.
"Killed a lotta the bastards. Good," Yan said by way of greeting Felix. "Our scouts reported more redcloaks nearby, but they scarpered. I assume you're the reason, hm?"
Felix gripped the man's hand and Kelgan's. Unlike Yan, the spearman was tall and lanky with a full head of light brown hair and an even fuller beard. A no-nonsense spear of plain steel was in his grip, the handle well worn. An actual weapon as opposed to Vess' conjured ones. Kelgan grinned at him. "Felix."
"Kelgan. Yeah, we had an Initiate get away. Must have met up with them and changed their plans." Felix shook his head. "Which is good because this place is rough. You got anyone that can change wards? I'm about to have a look but I'm not exactly an expert."
"Oh? You're in luck. We've got--" Kelgan began, but was cut off by a panicked shout.
"Where is she? Aenea!"
The Alchemist's stern face lightened considerably as a man with curly brown hair and a well trimmed beard pushed through the other Tin Ranks. He was wearing a rough helm and leathers, but he moved as if he'd never worn the gear in his life.
Hector rushed to Aenea and took her into his arms. "You're alive! Thank the gods!"
Kelgor leaned toward Felix with a smirk. "We've got him. Some sorta scriptie, wouldn't let us leave until we agreed to take him to his wife."
As annoyed at the Alchemist as he was, Felix found himself cooling off just a bit as the two of them embraced and put their foreheads together. He tried not to listen in, but his Perception was a curse at times. His ears clearly snagged on Hector's voice saying "the Fiend," followed by a startled look from Aenea. At Felix.
"Soo, was the trip here as uneventful for you as us?" Felix asked Yan.
"Eh, we saw two or three Revenants, but none that got close. Either they were scared or are getting smarter. I don't like either option, because I know they're not scared of us," Yan said, spitting to the side. "These Tin Ranks have about as much killing intent as a clutch of field mice."
Felix couldn't argue with that. Though they had volunteered for the trip and training, the three dozen men and women were looking around the work yard, clearly unnerved. It was obvious that most of them hadn't seen a dead body until very recently, especially when a few kept looking between the dead redcloaks and Felix.
Things fell into place quickly after that. The Tin Ranks started patrols of the area and generally helped the miners clean up and get the place going again. A lot of the volunteers were family members of the miners, so once some tearful reunions were complete, everyone was moving with a pep in their step that Felix hadn't seen since arriving at camp that morning.
Hector turned out to be a treasure trove of knowledge. He was a Bronze Rank Guilder, damn close to Silver too, but only in a singular area: sigaldry. The wards the miners mentioned were harder to parse and alter than anyone had anticipated, and though Felix's sigil Skill was Legendary, it didn't help him brute force past the fundamentals he'd yet to learn. Hector made short work of it all.
"The central glyph is writ large, a combination of two or more sigils and acts as the core of any array. Secondary sigils will orbit this glyph, with tertiary sigils branching off from there. Each one, as you no doubt know, is a modifier on the original glyph." Hector was remarkably amenable to explaining his process to Felix once asked, though some of the finer points didn't make sense to him yet. He filed away the sigils and arrangement of the wards in his memory to study later. "Changing these allows us to at least provide a minimal barrier to any people that might try and approach the mine. At least ones without a ward key."
"Fascinating," Felix said. The written form of magic was something that filled him with a sense of wonder, even after seeing it countless times in the past few weeks. "Could we erect something like this around the camp?"
"It would be expensive," Hector said. "Monster cores or someone acting as a Mana battery would be needed. Here, the mines' wards are designed to pull from the city-wide net of energy siphons. Old scripted paths that flow up the mountains to absorb as much ambient Mana as they can handle."
Hector nodded. "Its usually just enough to maintain the Wall and general defenses, but for some reason the Mana in the city is...strange. Caustic, almost."
Felix pursed his lips at that, but didn't comment. How was he supposed to reply? 'Watch out, you might fall into a coma at some point, but we're not yet sure'? He couldn't see that going over well.
Using Stone Shaping, Felix raised a few more short walls to block off alleys between buildings and other access points. With Rory's guidance, they were able to turn the one way in and out into an easily defensible, certainly deadly path. They planned to keep operating the mine, after all. Yan and Kelgan were going to stay on for now along with the Tin Ranks, to provide protection as well as escorts for each shipment of ore that would go out. Their crafters would no longer be without material, iron at least.
Food and drink were being parceled out by Yan as Felix and the others mounted up to ride back. Pit decided to walk on the ground with them, and it turned out, was strong enough to carry Felix in that manner. It was weird to get used to the tenku's loping gait, but his Dexterity was high enough, he'd manage.
Arrayed on the wagons were his friends as well as Rory, Aenea, and her husband. A few of the miners came with them, those that had family back at the camp, and those who weren't sure if their family had lived or died. The last group was particularly heartbreaking to listen to, as Felix's Affinity kept feeding him their emotional state and it was best described as whiplash. Happy to be free of the redcloaks, followed by fear that their wife or child or parents were gone.
More than that, it forcibly reminded him of his own family, gone farther than most. A world away, at least. Where were they now? Did they miss him? Felix hoped that they had found some sort of closure, because he was certain that there was no way back to Earth. Not in this life.
Unbidden, their voices echoed in his Mind, recollected sounds but vivid just the same. Damn magic brain, he cursed. If he'd been alone, maybe he'd have embraced it, looked to see where that rabbit hole led. But sitting atop a chimera and padding through the abandoned ruin of a monster-filled city was neither the time nor the place.
"Let's get moving. I'd rather not be out here when it hits full dark," he said. "C'mon, Pit."