Chapter One Hundred and Eighty Nine – 189
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"What do you mean, you're unavailable? Developing your Intent is paramount, Felix. You cannot afford to be lax with the Chant."
 
They were in Felix's tiny closet of a room. Well, Felix was in the room while Zara stood in the doorway and Pit loomed behind her like a horse-sized bouncer. She patted his beak before staring back at Felix. For his part, he gave her an apologetic shrug as he grabbed a set of linen clothes that had seen better days. These will do.
 
"I know. It's not that. I've got to clear up my Skills. My first meeting with the Maw led to several of my Skills being broken. I've fixed a lot of them, but I still have a few left."
 
Zara shook her head. "Avet's eyes, broken. How could that happen? There's no record of this--" She stopped mid-sentence, registering Felix's confused stare. "Nevermind. Are they your Mana Skills?"
 
"No. Most of them are Body Skills, weapon masteries and one Mind Skill." Felix flexed his hand, just imagining the jolts of pain whenever he used them.
 
"Body Skills?" Zara's tone was incredulous. "Why waste your time? You've proven yourself well capable without weapons of any kind. Your transformation Skill alone is terrifyingly effective. What need do you have for a sword?"
 
Felix opened his mouth, then closed it. "It's more than that. I feel...I feel like I'm in pieces, somehow. I need to be whole."
 
Felix looked up again to see Zara regarding him levelly, her bright blue eyes curious. While his Affinity could sense nothing that the Naiad didn't wish to give away, she seemed genuinely concerned. "I see. How has your core developed? I think that may have a lot to do with these feelings."
 
"What?"
 
"Your core. You should be in the Actualization Stage at this point, yes?" Zara eyed him impatiently, before realization dawned. "You're Unbound. You have no idea. Night." Zara held up a hand and placed it near Felix's body. "May I inspect your core?"
 
"Uh, sure."
 
Zara's ochre palm touched Felix's tunic, right above his belly button, and he felt a gentle pulse of aquamarine power sweep through him. It was like getting blasted by those air conditioners above the doors of a convenience store; chilly but benign. Felix observed Zara's face instead, watching as her expression changed rapidly from pinched concentration to surprise.
 
"You've already condensed into the Ring Stage? And--you have strands forming?" Zara shook her head ruefully. "I had expected accelerated developments, but this..."
 
"What are you talking about? What's the Actualization Stage and Ring Stage? Is that--are they a Tier thing?" Felix asked.
 
"No, it's--damnation. I should have told you of this already, but you were so capable. I had assumed---regardless. The core," Zara stepped back and gestured. A ghostly image formed of her Intent appeared before them, a small glowing speck in a dark void. "All cores start the same. It is a mote of energy that sits in your center and radiates System energy throughout your Aspects. It is the interface between you and the System itself. This is the Mote Stage. When enough energy has passed through that speck of power, it will begin to branch through your flesh, forming channels for the System's energy to better travel within. This is the Vein Stage and is quite important. Typically this happens around level 15 to 20, as that's when most gain the requisite stats to jump start the process."
 
Felix thought back, thinking on his time in the Foglands around those levels. He recalled the burning sensation he'd continuously felt within him from the outset, whenever a Skill leveled or he'd earned more stat points. Was that his Mote Stage?
 
"Which stats?"
 
"Intelligence and Willpower are key, but Endurance and Vitality are also important to endure the process," Zara eyed him. "Most would need at least 15 in each to make the most of the Vein Stage. Do you recall this occurring?"
 
Felix thought back to the near death by hypothermia that had netted him his Fire Within Skill. It had all the earmarks of what she was talking about. The events then had edged out of his perfect thirty day recall, but he could remember well enough. "Yeah. My stats were in the twenties and thirties at that point."
 
"That--to be expected of an Unbound," Zara said. Her breathless interest in this conversation was a strange departure form her usual kind mystery. The image between them had become a body of pulsing veins, looping throughout the torso and spooling through each limb and even head. "Once your channels have formed they take a while to settle. Once they do, the use and expulsion of Mana vapor becomes far easier. At that point your core should have grown into its next stage, called the Visualization Stage. This is where you begin to conceptualize your power."
 
"Rory mentioned that to me," Felix nodded. "He said there were some who saw their cores as vaults in the earth, or a forest of trees, or whatever."
 
"Precisely. Rory should know a bit about this, as it is key to an effective combatant. Once you've visualized your core, its form becomes affixed and rarely changes, but it allows you to benefit more rapidly from the influx of energies." This time the image changed to show a core that looked like a swirling ball of ocean water, except more...ephemeral than actual liquid. More energy poured in from the sides before being siphoned back out. "From there one must accumulate power from the ambient Mana all around them, pulling it into their core and expelling it from their channels. This is usually done passively thanks to Mana regeneration, so the more you use your Mana the faster you can cultivate this power. After that comes the Actualization Stage, where the visualization of your core becomes more concrete and nearly real. Someone at this stage should be able to mentally delve into their core and experience it as if they had physically entered the space." Zara let out an exasperated breath. "This is where I would have guessed you were, based on what you've told me of your capabilities. But you're a whole stage ahead."
 
With another gesture, the image once again changed. Now the water had vanished, instead forming into a replication of Felix's own core. It was a ring of thick, liquid-like fire that spun in the center of two dozen revolving Skills.
 
"Pit helped me," Felix admitted, meeting eyes with his Companion. Pit let out an excited chirrup. "When we fought the Ravager King he helped me spin my core to manage the influx of monster Essence and Mana. After that I lost half my Mana pool and then this all happened." He pointed at the ghostly image.
 
Zara pointed to the ring of blue-white flames, crackling with lightning. "The Ring Stage, where your power condenses into a more potent form, will typically reduce your available Mana pool. But what you lose in available Mana you gain in might as each Mana Skill now carries an extra boost. You've noticed that, yes?"
 
Felix nodded. He certainly had noticed his Skills were hitting harder than before.
 
"This is concerning, however. That you have broken Skills at this stage," Zara shifted the image of Felix's core, an impressive snapshot she'd somehow taken with whatever ability she'd used. It focused on a half dozen Skills that shone with fitful lights. "The Ring Stage of your core will introduce...complexity in combining Skills. The further along your advancement moves, the more set in stone your existence becomes. The greatest of us, those that are Grandmasters and beyond, they are immutable and nearly ageless. But gaining new Skills? Altering their old ones? Nearly impossible."
 
"Nearly, though," Felix said, jumping on the word. "And I'm nowhere near that level."
 
"No, you're not. But you are advancing rapidly, and in ways that confound me. The Ring stage should not be reached until you're an Adept and have enough Mana and significance to force the transformation."
 
"Significance?"
 
"A consequence of power. The more you attain, the more...weight you have in the three Realms."
 
"So the Ravager King helped me, then," Felix said, feeling a surge of grim satisfaction. "And I imagine the Larval Ravager and Queen Ravager didn't hurt."
 
"No, they certainly did not. Your manner of acquiring power is something I haven't seen before, but strength does not come without a cost. Beware of how you proceed, Felix. The path ahead of you is wild and untested." With that, Zara spun on her heel and left his room.
 
He sat there a while, thinking on things. Ultimately, however, he had already made up his mind. Zara's advice was well meant, but Felix couldn't wait any longer. Now was the time. He was done messing around with broken Skills.
 
The next day, Felix was back in that warded room, again.
 
"Hopefully ye don't burn the walls down this time, eh?" Rory said, slapping the walls that still bore faint char marks. "What're you plannin' to do about monster cores? We're right short of them at the moment."
 
"Don't worry, just chalk the ritual. I've got the rest covered," Felix assured the man, while within his core a stormy nebula of writhing, iridescent smoke raged. In preparation for this, and despite Zara's protests, Felix had gone hunting. Over forty Revenants had died before he'd felt he had enough to work with, and even then Felix killed another dozen. Just to be safe.
 
Rory eyed him but began to mark out the complex ritual circle around Felix. He had done this before without the ritual circle, but it had been wildly inefficient. Tons and tons of the Larval Ravager's Essence had been lost, only the bare minimum actually utilized to strength and build an evolved Skill. It had still netted him a Legendary ranked Skill, but what if he did it right?
 
Wearing his worn and torn spare clothes, Felix sat in the center of the circle and threw back a small vial of bright magenta liquid. It burned as it went down, diverting itself toward his core before rapidly spreading throughout his channels.
 
Oooh, that feels weird.
 
He'd grown in understanding since the first time, both through System-ingrained knowledge and observation. He knew now the cost of a backfiring ritual, especially one meant to combine Skills; it would be Mana intensive, nearly prohibitively so for most and that's if it went well. If it took a turn, as his first such attempt did, then someone could die. So when Rory finished the circle and went to activate it, Felix stopped him. "No, I've got it. No need to waste your Mana on this."
 
"Lad, don't ye test me. This is dangerous. Ye could--"
 
"I know. I know, Rory. And thank you," Felix grated out, his voice rough with unexpressed concern. "This should go smoothly, but if it doesn't you shouldn't be forced to pay a price."
 
"Daft boy," Rory groused. "I'm a teacher. This is what I do."
 
Without hesitating, Rory placed his hand on the edge of the ritual circle. "Begin."
 

 
It was....Painful wasn't quite the right word.
 
'Transcendentally awful' was more appropriate, if dramatic. Felix went through the process of breaking his Skills, bearing the agony of a piece of himself being savagely split apart. It was like ripping off his fingernails, just slower. And to music.
 
Axe Mastery, Blunt Weapon Mastery, Long Blade Mastery, all of his broken skills were torn apart and held together only by his Will. After a lot of thought, Felix chose Unarmed Mastery as the base for the new Skill he'd forge. There was a worry that he'd upset his Apprentice Tier Formation, but he couldn't imagine reforming all of his fighting Skills without his strongest one. He'd spoken at length with Rory about it, and the Dwarf had led the both of them to their newest arrival: Aenea the Alchemist.
 
Some hard negotiations led to him getting an alchemical draught meant to aid in combining Skills while maintaining the construction of what Aenea called the "seed Skill." Felix almost wished he'd had one of them back in the Domain when he'd cannibalized his Poison Resistance Skill. Regardless of those benefits however, it wasn't a well regarded creation, partly because of it's low ranked materials provided little help in the way of the sundering and combining process--it was still an enormously painful experience that most could not handle. And partly because of its physical side-effects which he was told in no uncertain terms were violently foul. Yet the low ranked materials meant it was easy to produce in camp, so Felix had to hope his Endurance and Vitality could withstand the aftermath.
 
He didn't miss Aenea's smirk as he left her rooms, however. Which only made him want to use the draught all the more, if only to prove he was stronger than her dumb craft.
 
Childish, yes. Satisfying? Also yes.
 
Unlike the concoctions Rory had told him about previously, the draught's effect wasn't to help break apart his Skills. He still had to do that manually and endure the blistering torment. Instead, it made his broken Skills glow intermittently along their severed edges, where the patterns were disrupted. The glow was supposed to intensify as his other Skills neared, outlining the potential places where they could bind. Whereas previously Felix had worked by sound and feeling alone, now he had something like training wheels. So after a deep breath, he'd chosen his seed Skill and got started.
 
With the draught it was far easier to sound their patterns and link the broken Skills together. Long Sword Mastery hooked into Small Blade Mastery, which intersected with Thrown Weapons Mastery and Axe Mastery. Staff and Blunt Weapon Mastery fused together easily, both of which used Parry as an intermediary to fuse to the Sword Skills. Blunt Weapon Mastery also had enough commonalities to link it to Unarmed Mastery, and the particular permutations of his own hand to hand combat let Small Blade Mastery tag along easily enough.
 
The hardest to fuse was Intimidation, but Felix had no desire to lose a Skill when he could fold it into a new form of weapons combat; this is when the draught really proved itself. Fighting against the pain, strong despite the thrum of his Song of Absolution, Felix could barely see the flaring pattern of his new amalgamated Skill. Cool magenta light sparked along six of its edges, like a contrail of fireworks, before shifting and focusing on a single looping portion of the etched pattern. Felix thought he was seeing things at first, because the sparking was happening almost dead center in the pattern, and how could he affix something there? It all made a ton more sense as Felix realized for the first time that his Skills weren't flat etchings.
 
They were 3D.
 
The join was along the edge of Unarmed Mastery in the very center, and Felix could sense, as if from the outside of himself, that the raw force of his unarmed attacks could inspire terror in those who watched him. That was his way in. Once his view had rotating, securing Intimidation to it was relatively painless. Aside from the all the pain.
 
But then it was done.
 
Without the existential crises of a Primordial threat, it was all almost too easy. It was just him and the will to carry on. And Felix had plenty of Will.
 
But the thing about the process, about touching any of his Skills and sounding their patterns, is that the Grand Harmony was never far away. His Skills, as he perceived them, were visual representations of musical vibrations. Literal waveforms of light and sound that echoed with a unique and powerful melody. There were few other places that Felix felt as close to it as he did within his core space.
 
In stitching together so many of his Skills, it was a cacophony of reverberations that slowly resolved into a strident pattern. A song, more distinct than any person, and new. Felix felt the swell of chords lift him up, a wave that was cresting within the Skill he was holding together. Something was there, just at the edge of his Perception, twinging upon his Affinity like a half-heard whisper. So Felix reached for it.
 
For a moment, his Affinity snagged on an alien stretch of notes, a faint glimmer of sound so profound it felt like falling into a deep, dark pool. Chords like colossal footsteps shook him, while a million throats took up a call to glory. Music so wild it felt like his soul was trying to dance free of his body, and Felix's heartbeat was subsumed by the tempo of it all. It was...it was both sublime and utterly wretched.
 
It thundered through him.
 
In its wake, his Skills burst alight. Patterns that once only glimmered ignited into infernos as the rarefied vibrations filled his core space with golden-blue light. System energy. Without a single ounce of his Intent, a notification shook through him.
 
SYNERGY DETECTED!
 
The Skills Axe Mastery, Blunt Weapon Mastery, Long Blade Mastery, Parry, Small Blade Mastery, Staff Mastery, Thrown Weapon Mastery, And Intimidation Have Synergy With Unarmed Mastery!
Do You Wish To Evolve Them?
Warning! Evolution May Result In Death And Cannot Be Stopped Once Begun.
All Choices Have Consequences.
 
Continue? Y/N
 
The notification was hard to parse with the flare of power resonating through all three of his Aspects. The Essence within him rioted as golden-blue light surged into his core ring, but Felix directed it down into the flames as well, in an attempt to balance the influx. As he did so, tides of heated emotion wafted through him, hitching a ride along with the flood of power. There was nothing he could do about it, though, except endure.
 
Felix didn't need to read the notification, not really. He'd seen it before.
 
Continue! Yes!
 
Evolution In Process...
 
This better work!
 
It felt like pushing lead through a hose. Felix's Body felt heavy, his Mind dulled, and his Spirit dimmed beneath the onslaught of savage energies. System power hit his core in wave after wave of illumination, cascading from all of his ignited Skills, while the Essence of fifty Revenants was siphoned into those congealing flames. Discordant, atonal humming gave a cruel counterpoint to the symphonic majesty of the System, and the Skill bucked beneath Felix's Will.
 
Another swell of matched powers hit him, again, and again. Each time the evolving Skill was nearly rattled from Felix's grasp. Each time he nearly lost it all, as if it was refusing to fuse together.
 
"The further along your advancement moves, the more set in stone your existence becomes." Zara's words echoed through his Mind as he held on. "Significance....A consequence of power. The more you attain, the more...weight you have in the three Realms."
 
Reign of Vellus!
 
The Skill responded instantly, hurtling from the far side of his core to besiege the stitched Skills with blue lightning. Kinetic force pressed them together, leveraging his Willpower from another angle. More importantly was the Tempered Feature effecting Reign of Vellus.
 
Gravity - The Pull of Significance
 
With every ounce of his Mana and Will, Felix held his resisting Skill together, even as his Essence slowly ran dry.
 
C'mon! You joined so easily! Fuse! Evolve!
 
A great distance away, Felix heard the sound of a single raindrop falling into a pool.
 
From nowhere, an irresistible fury welled up in his core, a film of blinding red that flash-soaked his entire core. His emotions, so carefully bottled up, overturned like a can of gasoline, igniting the fires all around him into an uncontrolled inferno. System power swept through him unchecked, and his nebula of Essence unspooled wildly into his core.
 
The Wild Song faded, the red only thickened, and all Felix could hear was screaming before his senses were inundated with sanguine radiance.
 

 
Felix woke on his own bed, fully nude, with a giant tenku on his chest.
 
"Ouuuufff, Pit!" He croaked. "Get off!"
 
With a confused warble, Pit shifted his immense weight to the side, which had the unfortunately consequence of tilting his straw-filled mattress. Felix's face mushed right back into the chimera, this time getting a mouthful of feathers.
 
"Pthaw pthaw!" Felix spat out a unique mix of fur and down, and pushed himself up. "What the heck?"
 
Sick. Hurt. I am helping. Pit's sending was infused with such a surety and warmth that Felix felt his anger melt away. You were angry. Mad. After ritual.
 
Felix only remembered snatches since he had chosen to evolve his Skills. Flashes of light and impressions of sound that didn't really make sense. He'd gotten so used to his perfect recall that it was disorienting. "What happened?"
 
Pit's grasp of language was increasing rapidly, but many things were beyond him. Instead, the tenku sent a series of sense images that showed Felix bursting from the small room in a fit of rage. He'd staggered around the warehouse, smashing through a set of water barrels and shoving...shoving Rory into a wall before Pit had tackled him to the ground. The images were hazier after that, but it was clear he'd been taken to his room.
 
I did all that? It had felt like watching a stranger with his face. Why? I don't--I don't remember doing that. Is Rory...I didn't hurt him did I?
 
No. Images of the Dwarf back on his feet flitted through their bond. You were angry. Hurt. Sick.
 
That anger again. It had never affected him this much before, though. Was this because of the draught? Felix remembered a surge of fury clearly at the end of his ritual.
 
"The ritual!"
 
Felix hastily brought up his notifications...and sighed in relief.
 
"It worked."
 
New Skill!
Wild Threnody, Epic, Level 35!
You have embraced the Untamed Chords, and the Songs of War have come to call. Mana, the lifeblood of all, is yours to command even unto death; any weapon you hold, whether it is an axe or your fist, can be imbued with the Mana of your core. Scope of imbuement increases moderately per level, mastery of chosen weapons increases moderately per level, Mana cost decreases slightly per level.
 
Untamed Chords? Songs of War? Felix frowned. He'd lost ten levels of his Unarmed Mastery, but gained ten with everything else. All things considered, it was a rousing success. More importantly...
 
Formation:
Body: Seed of the Unchained Mountain (Apprentice)
Mind: Godeater (Apprentice)
Spirit: Rising Sovereign (Journeyman)
 
My Body is unchanged since the last time. Felix slide around the bulk of his Companion, clambering to his feet. The draught worked. It had somehow left his Body alone despite the fact that Unarmed Mastery technically no longer existed. How, though?
 
He had questions, and he wasn't gonna sit on them anymore. I could have hurt someone because of that potion. Aenea has some explaining to do.
 
Felix had barely grabbed his clothes before a violent, painful gurgle ripped through his midsection. Swallowing, he reconsidered his options. He'd have time for Aenea in a little bit.
 
*GURGLE*
 
Maybe longer.
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