Chapter One Hundred and Eighty Six – 186
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Riding atop Pit, Felix found himself with time alone. The tenku could easily outpace the load-bearing avum, so the man took point and ranged at least half a block ahead. Their paired senses were a good early warning system. He needed time to think, away from people and especially that Alchemist.
The events at the mine had opened his eyes, in more ways than one. Felix fingered the charred edge of his linen tunic; there was little of his sleeves left, and the front was half burned away by that fire wall trap. But along his left side there was a long gash. The skin below still had the pucker of a scar, a cut even his Essence enhanced regeneration hadn't been able to heal yet. Hopefully it'd finish healing soon.
That Initiate was so fast, he mused. But it hadn't just been Agility aiding the man; his Skill at Dodge or something like it must have been high. Not to mention his Long Sword Mastery Skill. It was like attacking the wind.
The encounter had gone a long way toward proving Harn's advice true: stats were no substitute for Skill. Felix had often coasted on his superior stats, which allowed him to ignore some of the level discrepancy of his opponents. Adding in the strong Apprentice Aspects he'd formed had only let him lean into his "style" of fighting. Rush and punch and use a spell if he could think of a clever option. He knew he couldn't fight this way forever, and their teamwork in the Domain had shown him how effective it was to have allies in the battle as well.
Reign of Vellus!
The shattered remains of a clay roof tile sat twenty feet away, one among many from the ill-kept buildings around them. Felix's outstretched hand crackled with remnant discharge, and his chest heaved. His Skill had not just shattered the tile, but the cobbles beneath it were obliterated as well. He'd made a two-foot diameter pot hole deep enough to gut a car.
Just a roof tile, he chided himself. Get it together, dude. What if that had been some innocent bystander?
His emotions were...just a huge mess. Nearly an hour after his last fight, Felix's heart was still racing at the slightest noise. He felt waves of anger at the redcloaks, and agony over the deaths he caused and over those he couldn't prevent. Hate boiled above it all, a simmering stew that jabbed at his self-control. He had to get a grip.
Is it the Maw? Is my dumb new Race influencing me? Felix would be an idiot not to consider them connected, but he was certain there was something more to this. He'd killed before, but today it felt...normal. Casual. And when he kept throwing himself at the Initiate, the thought of retreat hadn't once entered his mind. If Thangle and Vess hadn't used their Skills to help me drive him off, I might be dead now.
Ravenous Tithe had proven more useful than he anticipated. He'd been able to weaponize it thanks to his friends, but they wouldn't always be there to set up such a combo attack. Frankly, he had to get a handle on all of his Maw-touched powers. Sovereign of Flesh had tons of potential, even aside from forming armor and claws or upping his Health and Stamina regeneration; but there was more to learn, more to practice and perfect. It cost Essence to use, but as long as he had enemies he'd have fuel, and if they ever ran out he could always start eating the furniture again. Voracious Eye was the only Maw-influenced Skill that had yet to show potential beyond the obvious. However, an Analysis Skill that had no range limit and could ignore most Status-hiding Skills was extremely useful, regardless of other benefits.
After his fight against that Initiate, he needed to leverage all of the advantages he had. Not to mention, Ravenous Tithe could eat the traces of the Maw that were proliferating across the city. The stupid Alchemist was right. He was sloppy and poorly trained. He needed to be better--to be more--fast.
"What was that?" Evie asked as her wagon came closer. A miner was actually driving the team but she perched atop the bench like a captain aboard his ship. Her voice was eager. "Something attack?"
"No, nothing. Just--" Felix waved his hand. "Nothing."
Evie sat back with a disgruntled frown on her face. "Ugh. This is boooring." She shifted herself a couple times before returning to standing, unsuccessfully fiddling with the sword strapped to her back. "And this damned thing is driving me batty. Can't you hold it?"
Held on by a pilfered baldric was the ornamented longsword of the first Initiate they'd defeated. The corpses of the others had been looted before they'd left the mines, likely the result of the quick thinking Initiate that had also freed all the Acolytes. It was stylized with a flame motif as all such blades were, the holy symbol of the Pathless centered on the hilt itself. Felix had looked at the sword multiple times since they had found it, noting it was enchanted in some way to produce flame, but he'd refused to actually touch it. Was unable to, really. His Long Sword Mastery was still broken, along with most of the others he'd managed to learn. He wouldn't even be able to pick up the Initiate's sword without spasming.
"You know I can't. Not yet," Felix said. "Besides, I know less about swords than most. Why not use it yourself?"
"A sword? Pfah! It can't even bend! Swords can't compare to chains, Felix," Evie laughed. The miner beside her just stared in confusion. She gestured to the sword. "You want it? It'd probably be good to like, light a forge or something?"
"Oh auh, no ma'am. No," the miner said and affixed his eyes forward. "Swords ain't for the likes a me."
"What? Any idiot can use a sword. I have it on good authority--mine--that it's last owner was the biggest of butts."
"I ain't even Tempered, ma'am," the miner protested. His voice shook ever so slightly. "When the monsters came we...we hid. People died and we hid. I know minin' and ore and that's it."
"Could always change it up. The city's different now. We need more hands to fight back against the monsters. The Fiend here can't do it all alone," Evie said, gesturing at a frowning Felix.
"I could never, I ain't--"
"You sure got a lot of excuses though, huh?" Evie laughed. "Tell you what, when we get back to camp, you can ask Bodie or Harn to see if they'll train you up. They've got a good eye. They say you're good, then hey, you're good. If not, you go back to mining and you can't say to never tried. Yeah?"
Felix watched, bemused, as the Evie bullied the man into speaking with Bodie. Yet despite his reluctance, Felix felt that same bright thread of hope weave through the man's Spirit. She keeps saying she's no good with people, but what was that?
Pit turned his head to look at Felix, fixing him with a large, liquid gold eye. Echoes of the aggression and hate that still roiled around Felix's Spirit made their way onto the chimera, but he only returned a calming trill. He'd come a long way from his unthinking aggression when they'd first met, and that understanding spread between the two of them. There were little to no secrets between the Companions.
I think it's because you're so big. Too lazy to get mad. Pit blew a raspberry at him. How'd you even do that, mentally?
Pit just trilled a song-laden laugh back at him.

They made it to camp without further complications, despite the onset of nightfall. Felix couldn't put his finger on why, but not being attacked was more unnerving than an ambush. At least an ambush would have cut the tension. Instead, Felix rode Pit into camp more taut than a bowstring, and just as ready to snap. The loud noises of the makeshift gates being drawn open and the shouts of the Tin Rank guards all grated at his senses. When the crowds rushed at them, it was all Felix could do not to have Pit shove his way through everyone.
Which was unfair. The citizens in the camp were excited to see them return, but more importantly, dozens of familes were related to those who worked the mines and they all wanted good news. The miners with them all hopped down to the ground, including their new prospective Tin Rank, each rushed by tens of folk. The hubbub swelled as miners shouted out for missing family members as even more in the crowd called out for word on their loved ones.
It was chaos, and Felix couldn't stand it.
"ALRIGHT!" Felix's enhanced Endurance helped his voice ring out like he had a megaphone, so loud he almost startled himself. "These men and women have been through a lot! Let them settle in before you tear them apart!"
Silence hung over the crowd and more than a few looked at him with worried expressions. Felix could feel his eyes shining again, something that was happening more and more. The quiet stretched as the miners pushed through the crowds, and, thankfully, Vess saved him.
"We have a list of all those found at the mine, alive or dead. It will be posted to the main board in a quarter glass!" Vess held a scroll above her head for emphasis, and the crowd, struck still for Felix, began to reluctantly disperse.
"Very well done, Lady Dayne," Cal said. She emerged from the crowd like greased smoke, as if the press of people were little more than a beaded curtain to her. "A wise move to collect their names. I'll see that it gets posted."
Vess handed the scroll over to Cal with a smile. It was one of her politician smiles, just a bare showing of teeth and warmth in the eyes. "I thought it prudent to get a tally of who was working in the mine, especially considering their concerns for their families."
"Wow, Vess. I didn't know you'd done that," Felix said, still atop Pit. The tenku cooed in a complimentary way, though Felix wasn't sure if it translated. "That's...glad you're on the team."
Vess smiled again, but it was wider this time. It felt more natural. "I am sorry I failed to mention it. You were dealing with other issues at the time."
"Oh uh, don't worry about it. But thanks."
"Get me off this damn chicken wagon!" Rory shouted from nearby, and the smirk that had crept across Cal's dumb face turned into a beaming grin.
"Is that you, Rory?" She moved to the wagon and helped the injured Dwarf to the ground. "Oof! You've gained some weight, old man!"
"Someone has to! Look at ye! Skin and bones!" Rory gathered the treasure hunter up in a tight hug. "I've missed ye, Callie. Been only a week and it's felt like a lifetime."
"I know the feeling," Cal groaned through the Dwarf's crushing embrace. "Ah, you have guests. How rude of you not to introduce them."
Aenea and her husband had descended quietly behind Rory as they had conversed, though Cal clearly hadn't missed them. Felix was certain she was simply being polite. Aenea tilted her head slightly at Cal.
"Aenea," Cal shot back. "You lookin' for work?"
"I'm looking for my family. That is it, for now," the Alchemist didn't quite huff. "If you'll excuse me."
Cal let her go, but Felix saw a shine in her eye that he hadn't spotted before. If she were a cartoon character, he had a feeling she'd have two big dollar signs in her pupils. "Rory, what a wonderful surprise."
"Ain't it just?" Rory grinned through his beard. "But you tread careful, Callie. That one is proud. She might be cut loose, but she won't work for just anybody."
Cal waved the Dwarf's concerns off. "I'll be a proper lady about it."
"Who is she?" Evie asked Felix as he watched Cal and Rory drift farther away into the crowd. She leaned against Pit's haunches and ate some sort of beige fruit noisily. "Another crafter?"
"Alchemist, Rory says." Felix shrugged. "None of my concern, really."
"Alchemist? As in, maker of Essence Draughts?" Evie spat out chunks of her fruit. It was a bright orange inside apparently. "Noctis wept, but that'd be a boon."
"You're not wrong," said another voice. Felix turned to find two female Dwarves walking their way, one fair and the other dark. "I'd be excited to see what she could do for my forge, were she willing."
"Rafny, Elle," Evie said, hacking up a small piece of orange fruit meat. "Figures you'd come rushin'."
"Like a harnoq to a fresh kill," Rafny grinned with too much teeth. She looked up at Felix. "'Lo there, Fiend. Mind coming down to mortal level?"
Felix raised an eyebrow and hopped off Pit's back. He landed a few feet from the smiths and sketched a small bow. "Better?"
"Much. Now show me all the ore you brought us." Rafny rubbed her hands together, but her wife put her fingers on her bicep.
"Raf, don't be rude. We still owe this man a fitting for armor, do we not?" Elle's expression was one of warmth, despite the wear that was starting to show. Based on the amount of simple arms and armor he'd seen worn by the new Tin Ranks, they had been hard at work the past two days. "We had told you to wait for better materials, I do believe. Yes?"
Felix nodded. "You did. That was...well everything spiraled since then."
"That it did," Elle said, a little sadly Felix thought. "You've brought us some excellent ore, though. Simple and common, but the quality is outstanding. Enough to make plenty of Apprentice Tier weapons and armor for our new guards."
"Couldn't find some orichalcum in that mine, huh?" Rafny asked, now peering into the back of one of the wagons. "Or some mithral or veridian?"
"Quiet you," Elle said. "This iron will go a long way to helping everyone. But I think i have something we could make work for you, Felix Nevarre, if you'll let us."
"Oh, yeah, absolutely," Felix smiled. "I've been making do with, uh, nothing up until now."
"What about a weapon?" Rafny prodded, having obtained a chunk of ore and measuring it with her hand and eye. "I've never seen you with more than a belt dagger. Is that because you're Fiend powers?"
"My-my what? No. I never really learned how to use one," Felix managed, flustered. "Had to make due with my fists."
"Uh-hm, uh-hm, and what happens if your enemy is outside your range?"
Rafny fixed him with a glare. "Mana runs out eventually, yeah? Come see us tomorrow."
"He shall be busy tomorrow," another voice smoothly interrupted. Zara, wrapped in layered robes of orange and cream, appeared as if out of thin air. "If you'll forgive my intrusion, Rafny. Elle."
"Zara, of course. Send him to us when he's done, if it would please you." Elle flashed Felix and Zara a wide smile before leading her wife toward the wagons, where two dozen women were now swarming and cataloguing the ore.
"I'll make it a priority, Adeptsmith."
"Wow, just everyone's interrupting everyone else, huh?" Evie said, crunching into her fruit again. "Kinda rude."
"What is rude?" Vess asked, groaning as she stretched her arms above her head. The finely made armor she wore was showing some strain, but it still moved with her form as if it was made of cloth, rather than metal. "I assume it was Evie."
"Children," Zara admonished before giving them each a once over. She tutted her tongue. "I had planned to try and teach you some of what you desperately need to know before you turned in, but I can see the day has been...difficult."
"All of us?" Evie asked. "You teachin' me to sing?"
"If you wish, yes. You've touched on the Harmonics, you will be able to learn," Zara said. "Tomorrow. For now, all of you, go rest."
"What? I can go for days yet," Felix said with no little confusion. He hadn't felt properly tired since he woke up early that morning, and Pit echoed that sentiment.
"Did you fight?" Zara asked, looking him in the eyes. Hers were a bright blue, more electric than anything natural.
"Yeah, we just--"
"Did you kill?" She pressed.
Felix hesitated, though he wasn't entirely sure why. "Yes."
Zara nodded as if everything made sense. "Then go rest. I don't want to see any of you for at least six hours."
Felix looked around for some support but Cal just shrugged and continued issuing orders to the Tin Ranks around her. Evie slapped him on the back. "C'mon tough guy. I'll show you to your room. We're all near each other."
Felix threw a confused glance at the Chorister, but Zara's expression was steel.
"Fine. Sleep, then."