Chapter One Hundred and Eighty Seven – 187
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Their rooms were located on the relatively small second floor of the main warehouse. It only took up the back quarter of the building, as the rest were empty rafters supporting the roof. A set of long stairs, exposed to the air with only a thin railing for safety, so steep and narrow he had to converge with Pit to navigate them. Felix supposed OSHA regulations weren't really a thing on the Continent.
"This is you," Evie pointed out the second room from the stairs. "You get prime real estate. Probably because you're so scary."
She laughed as she said it, and even Vess joined in which teased a relieved sigh from Felix. He could always count on his friends to give him a hard time. "Alright thanks. To both of you. The fight today was...I'm glad you were there."
"Ah we got yer back, you glow-eyed idiot," Evie said, punching him on the shoulder hard enough to bruise. His Song of Absolution absorbed the pain while still letting him know it hurt a little. Resistances are weird.
"Where else would we be?" Vess asked. "I shall not see this team broken more than it already is; in time I hope that Atar will make a full recovery as well."
"Me too," Felix said, grabbing the door latch. "I'll see you both in the morning."
The two of them walked further down the hall and Felix allowed himself a moment, just a second to watch them walk away. Even through armor, Vess' form was...sinuous. Stop it. She's like eight years younger than you, Temper-rejuvenated or not. He looked to be in his early twenties, but he'd been nearly thirty (and looked it) only a couple weeks back. Hitting Apprentice Tier had revitalized his entire Body. Yet his Perception betrayed him, focusing his hearing on their moving conversation.
"Where is my room? Darius tried to have us placed in a separate lodging, I refused, and Cal put her foot down. Said there was not enough space to, ahem, 'accommodate every idiot with a rank.'" Vess laughed lightly, like a set of resonant bells. "I do like her."
"She's a peach," Evie said dryly. "You're up near me. Though I gotta apologize beforehand."
"Our rooms are way in the back, sandwiched between Harn and Yan. You cannot imagine how much the both of them snore," Evie groused.
"I have never heard Harn snore," Vess said.
"That's cuz he usually sleeps with his helmet on in the field. It's got a sound blocker or somethin' on it. Believe me, it's bad."
What are you doing? Felix admonished himself, spooling his Perception back in. Eavesdropping wasn't something he wanted to make a habit, no matter how often he had to do it in the field. Eavesdropping on his friends was a magnitude worse. Grumbling to himself, he unlatched his door and walked in.
The room was small, to say the least. It barely had room for a bed and a thick, heavily locked chest at one end, and a thin path leading around both. There wasn't a chance Pit would fit in here, not the size he was now, and his convergence would last less than an hour at a time. A whine of sadness pealed through his chest and Pit sent him a series of sense images, snatches of memory of the both of them cuddled on cots and beds and on the bare floor of the Nymean Temple when they'd first met.
"Good memories, bud, but I'm not sure there's a bed out there that could fit the both of us," Felix said with regret. "I think you'll have to bed down near the training area. Okay?"
More whining happened, but Pit didn't fight back as they walked back down the narrow stairs and they parted. With a flash of light Pit soared out into the empty air above the training area, catching the attention of a few of Cal's original crew, speckled with a smattering of new faces.
Stupid Zara. With my Endurance I could go for like, a week without sleep. At least a week, I bet. Felix trudged back up the stairs, into his room, and practically collapsed on the straw-filled mattress. Felix growled into the thick padding beneath him. This is such a waste of time. I need to train, not...fall asleep...
He was out before he finished the thought.
His sleep was fitful.
Dreams plagued him, filled with the images of men and women in white-enameled armor crawling on the ground. They were bleeding heavily from wounds on their neck and chests, but still they cried out. To him.
Felix ran from them, unable to bear their eyes and words. But he came into the city proper, where Revenants tore apart wagons and houses, places filled with fleeing survivors. They were ravenous and did not care of it was a man, woman, or child, only that it bled.
Horrified, Felix fled to the roofs of town. From there he could see the sun setting over the sweep of mountains in the Foglands. But there, on the horizon, a giant made of gold and fire beckoned to him. A giant with fires for eyes and a helmet for a head, it grasped Felix in its enormous mitt and squeezed.
Felix gasped awake to blinding light. For a moment, he thought of that golden gauntlet rising up all around him and his heart raced. But it was just sunlight. Small holes apparently perforated the ceiling, just enough to cast the slanting light of dawn on his face. He'd slept for the entire night, though his dreams hadn't made it particularly restful.
Felix rolled to the edge of the bed and considered his hands. Younger than they were months ago, they were still his. A few scars here and there from dumb accidents when he was a kid. Calluses along his palm, though his knuckles were strangely unblemished. He once punched a made straight through his armored chest, and there was no evidence of it on him.
Why did that make him feel uneasy?
High Endurance, high Vitality, and Sovereign of Flesh were all answers as to why such things were possible. And with training, even stranger feats were waiting for him. He hoped. They had to be.
Felix clapped his hands and stood up. "New day. Plenty to do."
He could focus on his fears when he wasn't so busy. Or never. Never was good too.
The morning was relatively calm, in spite of everything in the city. Zara was doing something in her room, no one knew what, but it left Felix with some time before her lessons. He focused on helping with the rest of the wall, pushing his Stone Shaping further and further. His progress with that Skill had been growing rapidly since he had begun using it to build things, and it made Felix wonder why that might be; the Irontooth Ape—Balfur—he took it from used it to rip up columns of solid stone, but he doubted they ever built anything. It wasn't the only shaping Skill he'd heard of, however, so variants must have existed. Regardless, by the time he had managed another length of wall, the Skill had leveled twice.
Stone Shaping is level 42!
Stone Shaping is level 43!
"That's fine work."
Felix was leaning against a pile of debris that had yet to be cleared, idly inspecting the smoother aggregate of his newest wall section. He'd been getting faster at composing and shifting the stone, and with the last level up he felt his control notch up by just a touch. The stone was no longer a rough, ungainly mass of compressed stone and earth and felt more uniform throughout. He turned and saw Hector, Aenea's husband, with his hand to his chin in thought.
"Oh? Thanks. I'm trying to figure out how to make it stronger though," Felix said, pointing to a section in front of them. "Gotta get the, uh, granules smaller. Not sure how to do that other than brute forcing it."
"I've no Stone Sense nor am I even a mason, but this looks like to stand up to an army," Hector said with a smile. "A small one."
"One without ladders, yeah," Felix laughed. He stood and stretched his lower back. He didn't get sore much anymore, but it never hurt to stay limber. "The stone comes from pits on the opposite sides, so at least there's a bit of a trench to deal with. If the Revenants come for us, we'll have a fighting chance."
"And the Inquisition?" Hector asked, his expression darkening. Felix had to remind himself that the man's wife had just been trapped and nearly killed by the redcloaks.
"I imagine the powerful among them could just jump over this," Felix nodded. "I know I could. But even building higher wouldn't solve that; too many Skills to account for, according to the others."
"Do you still wish for the wards you inquired about earlier?" Hector asked, his voice a touch rough.
"Absolutely. That would help solve some of those issues. But you said we'd need monster cores to power it. I don't know what our supply is like right now," Felix began, but the man cut him off.
"I've already spoken to Cal on that. She said she has what we need to set up a standard array, enough to ward away most enemies for a short period." Hector pointed at several spots on the wall. "Here and here we'd place the siphons and condenser glyphs. We'd leave it inert until we faced attack, otherwise we're wasting power for no purpose."
"Alright," Felix nodded. "Not that I'm complaining, but I thought you were skeptical about making it work before?"
"After speaking with my wife, I've--I've decided to make the attempt," Hector said with far more heat in his voice than before. "The things she told me they did, things they said." He growled something in another language Felix didn't recognize. "I'll see them burn before they touch my family again."
Felix patted the man on the back, earning him a surprised look. "My man. Just let Bodie know what you need and we can get it done. I'd like to watch too, if I could."
"Oh, certainly. For the Fiend, that is the least I can do."
Felix hesitated, trying not to grimace. "Just Felix is fine. I don't know why this Fiend nonsense started up."
Hector, easily in his mid thirties, gave him an uncertain glance before nodding. "If that is what you prefer."
"It is," Felix said and rubbed his hands together. "Where should we start? I think--"
He looked up and saw Evie standing on top of another pile of debris that was being cleared away. She was perched impossibly atop a stack of empty crates, like a bird. She pointed toward the main warehouse. "It's time!"
Damn. "I have to take care of this. If you don't mind, I'd like to look your work over later with you."
"It would be my pleasure," Hector said, bowing his head ever so slightly.
"Great. Thanks Hector." Felix trotted toward the main warehouse, excited despite the slight annoyance at not delving further into sigils with the Bronze Rank Inscriptionist. Then again, it was time to learn about Harmonics.
Magic. Real magic.
He was excited.
Zara had them all seated on a single bench stolen from the communal dining area, which they had to drag to a separate, closed room. Felix, Evie, and Vess spaced themselves evenly about, while Pit scooted behind them, jostling the bench with every step. Evie kept whispering things to Vess and laughing about something, giving Felix some uncomfortable flashbacks to high school, though he refused to abuse his Perception again. It didn't matter what they were talking about. Luckily Zara did something along the edge of the wall and it was distracting as hell. A series of brilliant, aquamarine sigils flashed across every surface, all at once, before subsiding to a vague gleam. Felix flexed his Manasight and saw the sluggish vapor of constructed Mana, though of a type he hadn't yet seen before.
Something to do with water...
"Good. Now that we are settled, let us begin," Zara proclaimed as she walked to the other end of the room. The benches had been pushed back against the wall, so there was as much open space as possible. Zara faced the three of them and considered them with a grave expression. "What I share with you now is not to be repeated to anyone not under Oath. Do you understand?"
Felix narrowed his eyes, but nodded, as did the others. With a few terse words, she extracted a binding Oath from all three of them. Manasight still going, Felix observed as the silver thread of the oath shimmered into existence and tied onto his Spirit. A faint weight settled onto his shoulders before fading from conscious awareness. Vess and Evie both squirmed a bit.
"As I've explained to Felix previously this is all supposition at best, but it is believed that all of Creation originated from the sublime vibrations of the Grand Harmony. A Chanter uses those vibrations to change the shape of our world." She gestured and from nowhere a brightly plumed kingfisher alighted on her outstretched hand. "Keru, if you would demonstrate?"
"As you wish," the bird chirped, before taking wing. He flew in a tight spiral before her, faster and faster, until he vanished with a startling pop.
Felix leaned forward, eyes wide. In the place of the strange bird was now a series of concentric circles etched with a diaphanous light, dozens of them stacked within each other. Zara stepped forward and touched the outermost edge, and pushed.
The entire array began spinning, each circle rotating flipping over and over like the most complex gyroscope he'd ever seen. Then Zara gestured again, and the circles replicated themselves twice over, until all three gyroscopes spun so hard they began to hum.
"These are the three Realms, as accepted by modern scholars," Kara pointed to each one in turn. "Corporeal. Cognitive. Ethereal. Each corresponds to one of the three Aspects: Body, Mind, and Spirit. This is not unintentional. When Grand Harmony begat the System, it is believed to have done so with Intent."
"Wait wait, you're saying this big noise I keep hearing is alive? A god?" Evie asked, looking at the others for support. "Thinkin' music?"
"Of a sort. The Grand Harmony is the totality of Creation, Evie. What we ascribe as Intent may have been simply a result of unknowable interactions between forces so titanic they would shake this nation apart were we to name them. The Ancients may have known, those Lost, but modern thinkers are acting on hints and intimations at best." Zara spread her arms somewhat helplessly. "And the 'noise' you've been hearing sounds as noise due to your lack of Affinity. Had you the requisite stat, you'd find it far more palatable."
"Palatable? It sounds like a goose honkin' half the time," Evie grumbled. Vess, however, tilted her head up a question in her eyes.
"How would one unlock the other Harmonic Stats, then?"
"Ah, a very good question. Felix, would you answer this?" Zara turned to him, as did the others.
Felix looked up from considering three spinning...orbs of circles and blinked. "Oh, I got mine from finished quests, or from Tempering Skills. Is that the only way?"
"A deed of import is required, though what that deed is can vary from person to person. The importance has more to do with its personal significance than System significance," Zara tapped her lips before baring her sharp, sharklike teeth. "The Grand Harmony seeks Resonance with your Aspects. That is how you have all gained what stats you have."
Zara returned her attention to the spinning orbs, and they each phased into one another, until one sat in the center while the outer two fully breached it until they crossed themselves. A Venn diagram with a circle atop it. "The Grand Harmony is in all things, but to perceive it properly one must have unlocked Affinity. To truly harness it, one must have unlocked Intent."
"Yet I heard it way before I unlocked any Harmonic Stats. The moment I integrated into the System it was there; that and the Maw's godawful droning," Felix said. He hadn't known it at the time, but now he couldn't escape it. He experienced that jarring dichotomy on a lesser scale with every breath; those motes of ruby light and his Maw-touched Skills all gave off echoes of discord, while his core was bathed in the System's harmonics. "Is that because I'm Unbound?"
"Intriguing. Perhaps influenced by your nature, or maybe the Primordial's unhealthy interest in you. The Unbound of the past were able to do things most were not; miracles, if the tales are to be believed." Zara shook her head ruefully. "We have no hard facts from those times, so I'll have to start with what I know and we'll work from there, hm?"
Felix nodded while Zara shook her head ruefully. "And for all this to make sense, one must know some context. The names and details of Harmonic Stats."
"Noctis' wept, yes," Evie groaned in relief before whispering to the others. "This is like listenin' to a seer. Dunno what's up and down anymore."
"Evie," Vess chided.
Zara wove her hands through the spinning construct, destabilizing it until it was an amorphous cloud around her fingers. With a deft hand, she shot it out once, twice, thrice and each glob of power zipped in front of each of them. Pit craned his head over Felix's shoulder, jostling him.
"Okay bud, calm down," Felix scratched Pit's face, right between his eyes. Before them the cloud of power had become a large aquamarine screen filled with pale, off-white letters.
Resonance - Affects mental recovery. Confluence of Intelligence and Willpower.
Intent - Affects influence upon the Harmonics. Confluence of Willpower and Strength.
Affinity - Affects empathy and connection with the Harmonies. Confluence of Vitality and Perception.
Resilience - Affects physical recovery. Confluence of Endurance and Vitality.
Evasion - Affects physical defense. Confluence of Dexterity and Agility.
Might - Affects feats of the Body. Confluence of Strength and Endurance.
Alacrity - Affects feats of the Mind. Confluence of Intelligence and Agility.
Felicity - Affects mental defense. Confluence of Perception and Dexterity.
"As you can clearly see, each Harmonic Stat is a confluence of two of your Primary Stats. Moreover, each stat affects one or more of your Aspects." As Zara spoke, words on each screen flashed. "Your Physical Stats are Strength, Vitality, Endurance, Agility, and Dexterity. Mental Stats are Willpower, Intelligence, and Perception. And Spirtual Stats, well, all of the Harmonic Stats fall in that category."
"All Harmonic Stats involve the Spirit?" Vess asked, a bit incredulous. "That is heavily weighted toward a single Aspect. Why?"
They got another shark-toothed grin from the chorister. "A wonderful question, and for which I actually have something of an answer. The Spirit is multifaceted and, frankly, not entirely well explored by modern scholars, but it reflects the Ethereal Realm." She once more conjured those three globes, overlapping two of them like a Venn diagram. The third she held separate. "This Realm sits between, among, above, and below the Corporeal and Cognitive. A connective skein between all things, it, much like Harmonic Stats, is a confluence of all things."
The third phantom orb settled over the two overlapping ones, centered on their point of connection. "Your Aspects are merely reflections of Creation at large, played out upon the small scale of your forms."
"As above, so below," Vess said in an odd tone. Felix glanced at her and she had the strangest expression.
"Exactly right. You are your mother's daughter," Zara said softly. Vess' face was almost aggressively neutral. "Quite right. The Grand Harmony is a pattern by which the entirety of Creation was made. That is what the ancients believed as far as we can piece together, but it is an incomplete picture. For instance, can any of you tell me how this works?"
She hummed a note, steady and solid, then descended it several octaves until a ghostly, orange flame appeared above her hand. It happened so fast, Felix hadn't even seen her expel the Mana vapor to produce it. The longer he stared at it, however, the more he realized that there was no Mana vapor. It was simply...there.
Felix looked in shock at Zara, who was grinning at them all as her little song died. The ghostly flame vanished.
"What was that?" Evie asked. She had half stood up when the flame appeared, for all that she'd faced down an entire squad of fire-wielders just the other day. "That wasn't...something was wrong with that, right?"
"Perceptive. Yes, it was a bare bones construct of the Chant. The tones I uttered were the framework for a spellform composed almost entirely of my Intent. Only a trickle of Mana was used, enough to fuel it, but the image you saw was provided entirely from my Intent."
"So you just, will it into being?" Felix asked.
"Yes and no. Intent is a framework, but Mana is the substance of it all. Mana is the confluence of all life, of all things, derived from the Ethereal Realm. It forms all things in the other Realms as well. It is the most direct and concrete example of the Grand Harmony. It also reinforces the System's vibrations, providing the meat and bones for everything to build upon."
Felix found himself nodding along. His Manasight had clued him into this early on; everything he saw was made of vaporous storms of power, Mana that he slowly began to perceive at varying states of solidity. There were very few places where he'd been unable to see Mana spooling in the air, but even then the physical objects around him were still composed of it. After all, if they weren't, he would have never been able to use Ravenous Tithe on them back at Zara's manor.
"Zara...you didn't mention any of this to me when we spoke before. What gives?" Felix asked. She had once claimed ignorance on a bunch of things that she was now answering fairly plainly.
"I was not entirely forthright with you, Felix. I could not be, not without an Oath. Not until you were all ready," Zara said, her tone apologetic. "Things are different now. Having passed through the belly of the beast and returned victorious, the lot of you have proven yourself remarkable. Changed. The consequences of your actions have echoed across your beings, and now you are all ready to learn what I have to teach."
Her shark-toothed grin between ochre lips was playful, yet still filled with a near-tangible danger. "Who's first?"
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