Chapter One Hundred and Eighty Eight – 188
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Five Days Later

 
Acid splashed outward in a fluid arc and Felix damn near squawked in angry surprise. His chest felt like a swarm of angry bees were trying to escape him, and all he had to stop them was a net. His Intent wobbled and Corrosive Strike lost all cohesion.
 
Still, the training dummy was only made of wood. It was blasted apart by his unarmed blow. The torso shattered into jagged chunks, splattered haphazardly with the remains of his conjured acid.
 
"You need to control it, Felix," Zara said, appearing at his elbow. She tapped his chest with a strong, ochre finger. "This is why I had you all rest that first night, why I've banned your Revenant hunts. Your emotions affect everything you do, even when you're not working with Harmonics. Too volatile, to unbalanced, it will spill out and deform your working. You need to center yourself."
 
Felix glanced down. Green acid dripped from the pieces of the training dummy, wood that was sizzling away rapidly under the power of his conjured acid.
 
"Your last confrontation was days ago," Zara stated. "Why are you still so angry, Felix?"
 
"I-I don't know," Felix said, and the admission was like a sour pit in his gut. Zara hummed contemplatively to herself.
 
"You need to find out why, and to control those emotions. Focus, Felix. That is the only way forward."
 
Zara left him, moving onto Vess in the nearby sand pit. All three of them (four if he included Pit) were working on the fundamentals of what Zara taught them. Vess was doing better by far. She executed her kata, moving her spears in a series of dizzying patterns that was hard to focus on, and he couldn't sense her emotions spill over at all. Which was unfair, frankly. She had unlocked Resilience and Might previously, before they had even met, and after the Domain collapsed she'd earned Felicity, Alacrity, and Evasion. All new to her, and she had yet to unlock Intent. Despite all of that, Vess' spear thrusts began to take on a ghostly shimmer.
 
Goddamn it, Felix groused. He was happy she was figuring it out, he supposed, but it was frustrating. Can't even hold my damn Skill together.
 
They had been trying to weave their Intent into their standard System Skills. Zara said that it was the easiest way to get used to using the Chant, that by tying it to Skill use at first would help craft the pathways needed to proceed in the art. And she had emphasized 'art'; the Chant had no codified rules except those intuited by Chanter. Apparently the Grand Harmony changed--frequently.
 
"Think of it as an improvised, Master Tier concerto. Its beauty and power is in its spontaneity. One could repeat the same notes, but never quite recapture the same essence. Hmm?" Zara had explained.
 
Except by focusing on their Intent (even for those who had yet to unlock it), they had somehow bypassed the passive aid the System provided with regards to Skills. Previously when Felix had used his Intent, it had been in a more abstract manner, conveying his wants for the movement of Essence and intangibles rather than using it in place of his Skills. What Zara was teaching them was...it was two orders of magnitude more difficult.
 
Whereas before Felix could execute a Corrosive Strike in his sleep, now he had to consider the move from the ground up, start to finish; he had to shift his body, flex his muscles, and direct the Mana through his channels all at the same time. On a conscious level! Needless to say, Felix had been failing at it, almost as bad as Evie. He could hear her nonstop curses from across the warehouse as she fought with her spiked chain.
 
"C'mon you dirty, burnin'---no! Not that way!" Her voice was followed by the clink-clatter of her chain hitting the sand.
 
At least I'm not the only one. Pit's not doing much better either. The tenku was attempting the same training as they were, but was having trouble the same as Felix. He took some comfort in that, but still eyed Vess' capable moves with a bit of envy. With a grunt, he took hooked the strap of a waterskin with his foot, tossed it up into his hands and took a long swig. He wasn't exactly winded, just frazzled, like his concentration was slipping a bit. Zara had said that is one of the side effects of using the Chant. Mental conditioning was necessary, and those of weak mind would not find much use for the art.
 
He toggled his Harmonic Stats.
Harmonic Stats
RES:
178
INE:
420
AFI:
128
REI:
145
EVA:
65
MIG:
75
ALA:
251
FEL:
55
It wasn't enough to simple develop his Intent. Above all his other Harmonic Stats, that one was the highest--which only made his repeated failures more frustrating. No, Felix and the others all had to focus on attaining or developing their Affinity as well. His own was decent, but not in line with his Primary Stats or even top three of his Harmonic ones. Still, he figured he could hear the Grand Harmony well enough.
 
He was wrong. Zara had made that painfully clear.
 
All Felix could hear were snippets, tiny sections of a greater symphony that was so alien it made his ears bleed to perceive it. Literally. Zara had somehow opened a connection to a small portion of the Grand Harmony, and Felix had been blown back on his ass. Like a cartoon character in front of a giant subwoofer.
 
Evie still wouldn't shut up about it.
 
Felix shook his head and considered the sectioned-off area before him. It was sand, as were most of the training pits the crew had installed in the main warehouse, and lining it was a thin, shoulder-high wall of shaped stone. That, he had made. It was high enough to block most casual Skill usages but not so high they couldn't see over it and into the rest of the warehouse. After the fight with the Inquisitors, Felix hadn't felt comfortable dropping his guard, even there.
 
The wooden dummy he'd broken was slowly piecing itself back together as inscribed sigils flashed in the morning light. But it was too slow. The array detailed in the training dummy was a basic thing, no more efficient than the siphon array on Zara's lamps back at her manor. Former manor. Rubble-formerly-known-as-manor. The thing would take at least fifteen minutes to reconstitute, time that Felix didn't want to waste. With a minor effort, he hopped over the shoulder-high wall and walked to the other side of the warehouse.
 
To the arena.
 
Over the past week, aside from getting a grip on Chanter magic, Felix had focused on his other Skills as well and practiced them in the larger arena that had been built up near the edge of the Gauntlet. Those fights had proved themselves as a powerful outlet for the passions that stirred his veins. Hitting someone with a big piece of metal or wood was cathartic in a way that he had never truly appreciated until Rory had goaded him into the arena. Getting beat up was a small price to pay for working out his frustrations.
 
"Back at it, Felix?" Trendle asked, his curled mustache almost twisting in glee. He gave the impression that he'd been simply passing through the area, but it was clear he had been waiting for this. Felix knew the crew couldn't bear to miss a chance to gamble. "I'll get the boys! They won't wanna miss another fight!"
 
The large man ran off, surprisingly speedy for a mage. Felix's mouth was a grim line. Trendle was support, much like Portia, focusing on Amplification magic to aid his allies. Felix had only seen its like once before, from Lilian in the Domain. Alister's cousin, the one who ran away along with Dabney, the earth mage.
 
Thoughts of the Domain soured Felix's mood further, so by the time he reached the arena he was even more ready to work off some steam. Nodding at the man at the edge, Felix pushed open the side gate and strode into the sand-filled space. He had put a lot of effort into developing his broken Skills; there were only six left and nearly all of them were weapon mastery Skills, so it was less a matter of how and more a matter of Endurance.
 
Breaking a Skill was like breaking a finger; everything he touched hurt him, though only in the specific sphere of influence described by the Skill. Simply holding a weapon would send pain through him, pain that Felix had to acclimatize to, until it was simply background noise. Then the Skill would level, the pain would escalate, and he'd have to start that process all over again.
 
Felix crossed the arena, a wide sandy circle approximately forty feet in diameter, and up to a rack of weapons. All variety of violent implements were here, each of them blunted and battered from many hours of use. They all had Beginner Tier siphon arrays etched into their hafts, but it was rare they weren't used for a long enough time to fully self-repair. Without hesitation, Felix grabbed a training long sword, feeling a current of electric pain spasm through the muscles and bones of his hand and forearm.
 
"Ungh," he grunted, but that was all. Sweat beaded at his temple, but the level of pain was manageable, even with his Long Blade Mastery on the cusp of Apprentice Tier. A shock of concern echoed through his chest, but Felix sent back a sense of well-being, feigned though it was. I'll be fine, Pit. He could sense the tenku warily settle back into his own training. Determination burning through him brighter than the pain, Felix spun and marched back into the center of the arena.
 
And he began to move.
 
Rory had taught him the basics of each martial Skill over the course of the week, keeping him busy whenever he wasn't driving himself into the ground with Zara's lessons. He'd fumbled his way through each of his broken Skills, notching up the agony with every improvement he wrestled from Beginner Tier. Luckily for him, relative to Apprentice or Journeyman, the Beginner Tier levels moved swiftly. The biggest hurdle was the last one: level 24 to 25. His Long Sword Mastery had been stuck there for two days now, it, along with Parry, lagging behind all the rest.
 
Axe Mastery is level 25!
Blunt Weapon Mastery is level 25!
Long Blade Mastery is level 24!
Parry is level 24!
Staff Mastery is level 25!
Intimidation is level 25!
 
He was so close to being ready to combine them all.
 
While his broken Skills netted him nothing for hitting Apprentice Tier, it was a necessary step for what came next. However, due to Felix's dedication, a number of his non-broken Skills had improved as well, some even gaining the bonuses his broken Skills could not.
 
Small Blade Mastery is level 25!
Apprentice Tier!
You Gain: +3 DEX, AGL, STR
 
Thrown Weapon Mastery is level 25!
Apprentice Tier!
You Gain: +3 DEX, STR, PER
 
Unarmed Mastery is level 45!
Corrosive Strike is level 43!
Unfettered Volition is level 46!
 
Armored Skin is level 51!
Journeyman Tier!
You Gain: +10 VIT, END, STR
 
Armored Skin had been difficult not to Temper into his new Body, but Felix resisted. It was a good Skill, one that had doubtlessly saved his life hundreds of times, but he had different plans this go round. Better plans, he hoped.
 
As he swung the long blade around him, shifting through some of the basic stances Rory had attempted to drill into him, Felix considered the movements of his body. The difference in his Strength, Agility, and Dexterity were noticeable since this time the previous day. He had taken the plunge the night before and spent the massive backlog of unused stat points. Having 82 points in reserve felt good in some ways, but ultimately it was doing him no good.
 
He hadn't been fast enough, and while more Agility might not have let him counter that old bastard, it would have helped. So Agility got its day and got another 30 points added to it, while Dexterity got 10, and the remaining 42 points were split unevenly between Strength and Perception. Basically he balanced himself out, pushing each of his underachieving stats up past the 300 mark. It had been his stat allocation plan for a while now. At one point, he had briefly considered going for a more lopsided build--his Race and Omen certainly pushed him toward WIL and INT--but he'd found himself having to escape death too many times to put all his eggs in one basket.
 
Health:
1700/1700
 
Stamina:
1599/1624
Mana:
2389/2389
Body: Seed of the Unchained Mountain (Apprentice)
Mind: Godeater (Apprentice)
Spirit: Rising Sovereign (Journeyman)
STR:
306
PER:
300
VIT:
360
END:
326
INT:
481
WIL:
947
AGL:
313
DEX:
315
 
When he had accepted those stats, it was an experience, to be sure. System energy and what he'd been calling Primordial energy clashed in the worst way, and he got pumped full of both. It was like eating bad takeout, but then drowning it in bad booze. Felix was smart for choosing to do it right before bed, because he was useless for a couple hours after.
 
Now though, now he felt good. Better than good. Despite his failures with utilizing his Intent, there was a bounce in his step that he could only attribute to his stat increases. It almost let him ignore the pulse of knotted emotion that dug at his heart. Pushing his stats toward balance made his body feel like he'd gotten a tune-up; his joints felt smoother, his movements sharper and more precise. Felix had seen what an imbalanced build did and wasn't interested in the pitfalls.
 
For instance, Bodie was strong as hell but had garbage Agility and had to leap about if he really wanted to move quickly. Evie, on the other hand, had a fairly low Strength for her level but great Agility. She was speed focused, and most of her Skills and Titles were pointed in that direction. But she couldn't take a punch nearly as well as Vess, nor could she get much damage out of her chains without adding more velocity to the attack or cheating and increasing their mass with her Born Trait.
 
I still have no idea how that works. Felix pivoted on one foot, slashing perpendicular to the ground. He did it wrong, but he was close. He tried again. He'd asked Evie to explain it to him, but she had just shrugged and said 'dunno' and moved on. Par for the course for her.
 
"Felix! Again?" A voice to the side laughed, followed by the thump of heels hitting the sand. Felix finished his form and saw Rory striding over toward the weapons rack. "What'll it be this time? Ye wanna take more punishment from the axe or the hammer?"
 
A grin forced itself across Felix's face as his heart rate spiked. "Choose what you want. I'm here to finish the job, however that shakes out."
 
"Hah!" Rory barked a laugh before grabbing a long-handled warhammer from the rack. He hefted it onto his shoulder with an easy grace. "It'll shake out with me puttin' your head in the sand. Make no mistake."
 
"Fightin' words!" Shouted Trendle. At some point the man had returned, and this time about fifteen others were with him. The crowd had grown with each passing day, and not all of them were Cal's crew. Most were Haarwatchers, the newly minted Tin Ranks, all come to see the Fiend get trounced. "Make your bets, friends! Roarin' Rory or the Blue-Eyed Fiend! Who will win!"
 
Perhaps he could have pushed through these levels with his Memories, much as he advanced a few of his other Skills. But Essence fueled those exercises, and the only source of Essence was monster cores or running into the city to hunt down more Revenants. Monster cores were being used for enchantments and powering the new wards so that resource was out. As far as Revenant hunting, with his emotions in disarray, Zara had instructed him to stick close, to try and let his volatility dissipate and even out. It still hadn't.
 
So instead, here he was to let Rory beat him up again.
 
Felix ignored the shouting and cheers and bowed to the Dwarf who, other than a hundred years and forty levels on him, was barely half his height. That hadn't ever fooled Felix into thinking he'd be and easy opponent though. Even before they'd started sparring Felix knew the former Guild trainer had forgotten more about armed combat than Felix would ever know. Rory bowed in turn, a delighted smile on his face.
 
"To battle then."
 
Felix bared his teeth.
 
"Ah, wait, aren't ye forgetting something?" Rory slung his hammer into the ground, sending a spray of yellow grit into the air. He reached into a pouch at his waist and pulled out a length of black cloth.
 
Ugh. He had hoped Rory would forget. Felix walked forward and took the cloth from him, ignoring the man's wide grin. With a quick motion, Felix secured it over his eyes and tied it off. The Dwarf had insisted on using this ever since he found out about Felix's Blind Fighting Skill.
 
"Ain't no use in having a Skill that's under-leveled, Felix," he had said, and Felix had, stupidly, agreed with him. The beat downs that resulted were, to put it mildly, embarrassing. Felix walked back to his starting position, roughly. It was hard to be entirely sure.
 
"Now, we fight."
 
Cut off from sight completely and disallowed use of his Manasight on grounds of "bein' a sneaky cheat," Felix had let his Perception spool out from him. He'd gotten better at it over the past few days, but the added points to the stat made a noticeable difference. The world was a wash of textures, sounds, reflected heat, and wafting scents. Without sight, he had to focus, but that's where his Blind Fighting came in handy.
 
*CLANG!*
 
Blind Fighting is level 39!
 
Felix snapped his sword up into a high guard, deflecting a downward swing to the side as his Skill screamed at him. Using Blind Fighting wasn't like seeing at all, but instead felt like things burst into burning focus within a short distance from his body. Coupled with his upped Perception, Felix felt pretty good about his chances this time.
 
Then Rory got mean.
 
"Hammerfall!"
 
A series of strikes battered against Felix's defenses, so fast they felt simultaneous. He pivoted and swung his blade, angling it through Base Forms 1, 5, and 6. But it wasn't enough. A blow he couldn't sense swept his feet from the ground, and a second strike smashed into his thigh.
 
Sovereign of Flesh!
 
A spear of pain erupted along his legs as they snapped and transformed, instants ahead of the warhammer. The blunt weapon crashed against the thickened scales of his semi-summoned battleform, only dropping his Health by thirty points instead of the hundred it would have dealt. The transformation hurt more than the hammer.
 
Unfettered Volition!
 
Felix pushed away, sliding himself across the sand in a spray of confusing vibrations. Friction caught up with him and he rolled, coming to his feet and feeling thoroughly disoriented.
 
"I said no transformations, Felix!" Rory's voice was disapproving and dripping with threat.
 
"Ah, you said no full transformations," Felix said, sword at the ready. The Dwarf was a smudge of sound and smells to him, shifting ever so slightly back and forth. "That was just my legs."
 
"I thought you were a warrior, not a magistrate!" Rory shouted, advancing across the sand in a quick burst of speed. His hammer came up from below in swing that was so telegraphed that he'd have to be truly blind to miss. Felix stepped back, letting the weapon pass harmlessly in front of him, before moving into the Dwarf's guard and trapping the man's arm against his own leg.
 
"And I thought you were better than me," Felix said, at the same time slashing into the Dwarf's center mass. Metal on metal scraped his senses, and Rory grunted. Arm trapped between them, he lashed out with a headbutt, one that had laid Felix out before. But instead of hitting his solar plexus, the Dwarf hit nothing at all. Felix danced backward, sliding his feet through the sand.
 
"Ach, ye've got balls kid," Rory moved his hammer and touched his hand to his chest. At this distance, Felix could feel the faint heat given off by the man's open wound, small though it was. "But this ain't over yet."
 
The fight--apart from the cheers and jeers from the crowd--was as intense as any life or death battle Felix had fought in the Foglands. Rory held nothing back, not if it would help teach what he aimed for, and his lessons were almost always brutal. When it was over, though Felix had managed to get two more hits on the trainer, his left arm was broken in two spots and his body was bruised from head to toe.
 
"Match called in favor of Roarin' Rory!" Trendle's boisterous voice announced, and was met with a collection of whoops and cries. To Felix it was a wave of white noise that washed over him as he lay prone in the sand. He hadn't even taken off the blindfold yet.
 
He was far more interested in the notifications flashing before his eyes.
 
Blind Fighting is level 43!
The Song of Absolution is level 57!
Dodge is level 46!
 
Long Sword Mastery is level 25!
Apprentice Tier!
You Gain: ERROR
 
Parry is level 25!
Apprentice Tier!
You Gain: ERROR
 
He'd done it. Finally.
 
"That's a smile I recognize," Rory's gruff voice said from above. Felix tugged the cloth off his head and let his grin shine full force.
 
"I'm ready."
 
"Good. Maybe soon ye'll be a real challenge," Rory said with a laugh. "Now stand up. You're gettin' blood in the sand."

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