Chapter One Hundred and Ninety – 190
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"My work is not poison! How dare you!"
 
Aenea's voice pierced the morning and sent more than a few heads turning their way. Felix gritted his teeth and moved further from the door of the woman's new space. She'd been gifted some prime real estate along the second warehouse's northern side. Insider were bare counters and rough shelving units still being mounted to the walls. A number of her assistants were bustling around the space, setting jars and containers onto racks and ledges, dusting the space, and generally setting up for business. The woman herself had been elbow deep in some unmarked crates, slowly pulling out a number of leaf-wrapped bundles, but now she had her arms akimbo and a righteous sneer.
 
"I didn't say poison," Felix growled. "I asked what—exactly—you put into that draught. Though, judging by your reaction I'm certainly not less suspicious!"
 
"You mewling child, I've been distilling my concoctions since before you could string two words together! I told you there would be physical side effects, I told you that's why most people don't use that potion, but you had to go ahead and drink it! I'm not the one at fault here."
 
Felix fought off the urge to scream, but only just. This confrontation wasn't going as he'd wanted. True he had been angry about everything, but after he spent too much time on the chamberpot he had retreated to his Bastion of Will to think. Within the fortress of his Skill, perspective was a bit easier to manage and he'd cooled off considerably. He'd come to Aenea's space in order to politely ask her some questions. It had devolved quickly from there.
 
"Look," Felix huffed a breath and tried to settle his thoughts. That caustic anger was bubbling over, but he steeled himself against it. "Just tell me what the side effects of the potion were supposed to be. Can you do that?"
 
"Can I--? In my sleep, Fiend," Aenea sneered. "As I told you before, that's an Elegiac Tonic, a draught of the Common rarity that allows insight into Skill interactions. It's made of simple, easily found materials that do not interact well with mortal constitutions. Side effects of imbibing it are fever, vivid dreams, and nether distress."
 
"Nether distress."
 
"Including but not limited to the runs, vomiting, excessive sweating, foul discharge, irri-"
 
"Okay, I get it," Felix said, feeling his face heat up. He'd had most of those, just not a fever. Most of it had run its course already, his Vitality proving enough to combat it. "Vivid dreams, how does that work?"
 
"In your sleep," Aenea snapped. "Taken too close to sleep it will interact with the flow of your Mind and has been known to produce intense dreams. As I told you, it is a Common ranked daught for a reason, just as no one ever really uses it. But you insisted."
 
"So nothing like losing consciousness or...or increased aggression?" Felix asked, more tentatively than he'd wanted.
 
"What? Of course not. The ingredients have no such effect, no matter their permutations. If you've experienced either symptom, it's not my work at fault," Aenea said. Her shock at his question felt genuine and his newly sensitive Affinity confirmed it.
 
"You're positive? Nothing that could incite a rage or anything like that?" Felix pressed, staring at the woman's eyes as his Affinity raked her Spirit. "Nothing?"
 
Aenea stiffened as he leveraged his Affinity, her cold expression turning absolutely hostile. "No, you fool! And if you knew anything of alchemy you'd know it yourself!"
 
"Then show me," Felix said.
 
"What?"
 
"It's clear you don't like me, for whatever reason. Show me your process, reassure me, and I'll get out of your hair." Felix spread his hands, palms up. "I'll never bother you again."
 
"You're a bruiser. There's no place for you in my workshop," Aenea sniffed with disdain before eyeing him critically. "Do you even have the Herbalism Skill?"
 
"Yup," Felix smiled in a way he hoped was pleasant, but feared was more like baring his teeth. "Level 17."
 
Aenea laughed, unkindly. She started to unpack her crate once more. "Pathetic. You'll never learn anything with such a low informational Skill."
 
"I have an Epic ranked identification Skill."
 
Aenea froze in place, one hand hovering above the box. Her face shifted through a few very amusing expressions before settling on guarded curiosity.
 
"Show me."
 

 
Two hours later, after accurately identifying all of the ingredients she had to hand, including some relatively rare ones, Felix secured a promise for Aenea to show him the process of making the Elegaic Tonic. She claimed they were out of some materials, but they'd have more the following day. She would send for him when it arrived.
 
Good enough for him. He'd seen more than enough to know the woman had plenty of poisons and strange roots in her possession. Voracious Eye had told him that he was right to be worried...but there was a growing certainty that he was going about this all wrong. He truly didn't think the tonic was the cause of his issues.
 
On the other hand, he had gained quite a few Skill levels.
 
Herbalism is level 18!
...
Herbalism is level 24!
 
Voracious Eye is level 44!
 
Not bad for two hours of work. Perhaps when she showed him the process he might even learn some sort of alchemy specific Skill too. Brief, childish dreams of besting the Alchemist at her own gig flitted through Felix's head, but he dismissed them quickly. He learned fast, but specialization was a real force on the Continent. A generalist like him had no chance against someone steeped in their craft.
 
Which is why right after the Alchemist Felix headed directly for the smithy.
 
The married owners of the Coldfire Forge were busy at work, the both of them toiling away at their workbenches while apprentices rushed about working the bellows, grinding and polishing, and all the other million tasks for which they were responsible. Most of it was a mad scramble that made little to no sense to Felix, but it was lively if overbearingly hot.
 
A hot forge in the middle of summer is probably a bad idea for most people. He at least had respectable resistances, but Felix could still sense the sweltering, moisture-sucking air that barely swirled in the shop. Weapons and armor of all sorts were being made at a furious pace, with stacks of short swords, pikes, and simple iron breastplates being laid out along side the large room. Every once in a while, a few teens wearing linen tabards would rush in, pick up a load of one and rush back out--carefully.
 
Felix had asked about it on previous visits. With the ore recovered from the mine and now being regularly supplied to them, the Coldforge's were cranking out sets to equip their influx of Tin Rank volunteers. All of the weapons and armor were Apprentice Tier rank, of Uncommon rarity, and would lasts longer than anything of lower quality. Both Rafny and Eldruna had a number of Titles that helped them with production speed, quality, and even managing the temperature of the forge itself. Rafny was a Journeyman Weaponsmith while her wife Elle was an Adept Armorsmith, the true talent in the family.
 
"There ya are! We almost had to hunt you down! Your armor and weapon are ready."
 
Felix waved slightly at Rafny who was pointing to a table set opposite the Tin Rank equipment. There, nestled atop a collection of other weapons, was a set of half-plate made to his specifications. Felix had been able to sneak in some time for them to take his measurements, and they'd promised him results by the end of the week. Now that he could wield weapons again, he was eager to take them up on the offer.
 
One of the assistants led him to a changing room, which was more like a leaning pile of tetanus waiting to happen. With a curtain. Felix made do, however, and in short order he had the armor on. It had been lightly enchanted to fasten itself once it was on him, another technique of Elle's. He just had to feed it some Mana and all the ties and clasps secured themselves.
 
Mana Manipulation is level 38!
 
When Felix emerged from the back, he felt...different. More capable somehow. The armor was heavily plated down both of his arms and chest, but left his midsection less protected with thinner, overlapping plates to increase flexibility. Dark, thick leather pants went from his hips to his mid-thigh, which was where the oversized greaves and knee protections took over. His fists were both covered in thick, durable seeming gauntlets, and the whole thing gleamed silver. Aside from his bronze coated boots that is, but those weren't part of the overall set.
 
"Oh, don't you look a sight!" Felix just about blushed as Evie emerged from the opposite end of the forge, decked out in her own set of leathers. She was clapping. "Bright and shiny as a crown!"
 
"Shut up," Felix grinned and gestured at her own armor. "You wearing a new set? Again?"
 
"The last set had problems in the weave," said a calm, kind voice. Elle stepped into view, redheaded and curvy and all of four and a half feet tall. She was eyeing Evie like the girl was a prize mare. "You don't feel any binding, Ms. Aren? Pinching?"
 
"Naw, it's fine! Just like the last one was fine, really."
 
"It was not fine," Elle insisted, her voice friendly but now there was heat present. "It would have failed most spectaculary, and knowing you, that would have been at the worst possible time."
 
"Hm, she's got your number, Evie," Felix said, unable to help his smile. Evie responded with a rude gesture that Felix had picked up from some of the rougher Goblin traders. Apparently Evie hung with the same sort of people. "Elle make sure you reinforce the hip area."
 
"Shut up," Evie laughed. "You get a weapon to go with your shiny new plate?"
 
Felix held up the belt and sheathed long sword in one hand while gripping a barbut style helm under his other. "Wanna give it a test run?"
 
"Didn't know mind reading was a Skill you had," Evie said with an eager grin. "Arena?"
 
"Uh uh, here. You fight in the back," Rafny came up, wiping her hands on a dark cloth. "I need to see how that blade works out, and Elle can make any adjustments to your armor."
 
That worked for Felix, so he shrugged and followed the smiths through a narrow hallway and out of the sweltering forge. Outside the sun was up and bright, but the sky remained overcast; they hadn't seen blue sky for a week, and the distant, sourceless thunder had continued. Yet it was still mid summer, and the cluttered scatter of industrial buildings in the Dust meant very little wind came through it. The back patch behind the rehomed Coldfire Forge was thin and weedy, despite obvious efforts to even it out. The summer sun and a steady stream of booted feet had baked it into a dusty, hardened expanse interrupted only by patches of wildflowers and a row of uneven stumps. Atop the stumps was a collection of rubble, makeshift targets to test out the smiths' weapons.
 
"New chain too?" Felix asked, Eyeing the spiked length around her waist. It was more compact than her usual, though he realized he'd never given it too much thought before. There was no way she would have been able to haul that length of chain around forever, so of course it had been enchanted. "Enchanted for what? Durability and to somehow shrink?"
 
"Durability yes. Same enchantment as my last one, actually, for all that I wanted a Journeyman weapon. Advancement ain't there yet, though. Raf said I'd barely be able to fight with it." Evie threw the smith a narrow side-eye. "But not shrinkin'."
 
"Ms. Aren's chains are enchanted to pull compact when not in use," Rafny explained. She and her wife were settling into low slung wooden chairs, clearly waiting to watch their spar. "Keeps it small, but doesn't clutter up the metal with unnecessary sigaldry."
 
"Unnecessary? If a shrinking array were possible, wouldn't that be better?" Felix asked.
 
"Yes and no. If you could get one to work it would be a benefit to Ms. Aren, I'm sure. But too much Mana interferes with the metal," Rafny said. Felix waited for more, but apparently that was all. He shrugged and gestured to the open area.
 
"After you, Ms. Aren."
 
"Uh huh, call me that again and I'll beat you twice."
 
They moved into the yard, which was no more than twenty by forty feet. Space was at a premium, though efforts had been made to secure another warehouse. The Revenants hadn't attacked them in a few days, for all that they were growing thick in city center, so they could afford it for now. Felix stretched himself, testing his range of motion. It all felt fine enough, but they'd have to see how it held up. He buckled on the sword belt and drew it.
 
The blade was simple, a cruciform style hilt with a hand and a half pommel. The blade was wide, with a fuller down the center that Felix remembered was to reduce the weight, and was sharpened on either edge.
 
"Fancy pig sticker. Can you do anything with it?" Evie asked.
 
"Let's find out."
 
Their clash was abrupt, though Evie's chain hit Felix before he could reach striking distance. The preternaturally heavy chain hit him in the right pauldron and wrapped around to rap against his back as well. He barely felt it through the armor, his resitances ignoring the pain, but Felix saw his Health drop by a single percentage. The chain was gone again before he could react, and all he could do was close the distance.
 
Unfettered Volition!
 
Felix unleashed his Agility, tearing up the hardened dirt beneath his feet as he propelled himself toward Evie. He could hear creaking but didn't pay it any mind; battle had begun, and he only had eyes for his target.
 
"Whoa!" Evie shouted before throwing herself upward. She cleared over Felix with barely a moment to spare, but his Skill enhanced reflexes meant she felt his iron grip on her ankle.
 
"Where're you going?" Felix growled. He hauled back on her, but her unnaturally light body sudden became a lot heavier and he misjudged his movement. Pulled askew, Felix could only watch as the woman twisted in mid-air and delivered two devastating kicks to his face and shoulder. "UNF!"
 
Felix slid to his hands and knees, while Evie tucked into an agile tumble before coming back to her feet. He frowned. His armor was good and had protected him from most of the chain-fighter's attacks, but it felt...restrictive. Like it was holding him back. It had an impressive range of motion to it, he'd felt that when he had warmed up, but it wasn't enough.
 
Evie whipped her chain about herself, spinning it up and over her arm and foot before shooting it directly at his face. Felix lifted his arms to block it, to smash it out of the way, but it hit like a cannon; the crash of the heavy chain and his own counter-force shattered his vambraces.
 
Armored Skin is level 52!
 
Shit! Felix snapped his arms out and grabbed the length of chain. Immediately he felt a force try and push at him, like the earth was trying to yank him into the ground. With a snarl he shoved back and Evie's head wrenched back as if he'd punched her. Then Felix pulled himself, jerking the chain with a single mighty motion and yanking Evie airborne.
 
Use your damn sword! He'd dropped the blade when he'd blocked her chain, so he scooped it up and brought it into a high guard. Evie, acrobat that she was, had already started flipping her body around to face him. Purple-white Mana formed in her free fist, forming slowly into a dagger of ice. She was ready.
 
Felix grinned.
 
Wild Threnody!
 
A tumultuous dirge poured from nothing all around them, and Felix felt his core surge with Mana. Unattributed Mana surged through his channels, pumping into his right hand and out of his body. Guided by his Mana Manipulation and his new Skill, the thickening vapor soaked immediately into his blade, and it began to glow a vibrant white.
 
"HUAH!"
 
"AH!"
 
Evie's ice met Felix's imbued sword and shattered, the Mana itself detonating somehow and hurling her lightened body back nearly the length of the yard. She landed in a sloppy roll and hit the low, metal wall with a clanking crash.
 
Wild Threnody is level 36!
 
"You okay, Evie?" Felix asked.
 
"Fine, fine," she grunted before getting to her feet. She seemed a little wobbly, but shook it off. "What was that?"
 
"New Skill. I can put Mana into my weapons now," Felix said with a wide, shit-eating smile.
 
"Gods damned...cheater," Evie hissed, stopping herself before she said too much. "How many Skills does that make? Fifty?"
 
"Actually I've been cleaning them up. Practically lightweight now," Felix said before tossing her chain back to her. It landed with a jangling thump on the earth. "You ready for more? Or you gonna call it quits?"
 
"You wish."
 
They began again.
 
Blows were traded back and forth, though Evie's build was well matched against Felix's own slew of advantages. Hard to hit, hard to grapple, as long as Felix couldn't pin her down she was almost impossible to fight against. For the fight he'd refused to use his Mana Skills, at least directly, since that wouldn't test his armor and weapons. But that didn't mean they didn't get their chance to shine.
 
Wild Threnody!
 
He'd used Mana straight from his core previously to imbue the weapon, but after sensing the pathways of his magic Felix had an idea. His Mana Skills occupied the same channels and used the Mana collected in his core, just the same as Wild Threnody. So why not combine them? This time he sent his Mana into Mantle of the Long Night, filtering his power through the lens of its arctic power before sending it looping through his pathways into his hand. Immediately, ice crusted over the blade and began to send contrails of steam in its wake.
 
Wild Threnody is level 37!
Wild Threnody is level 38!
 
Felix slashed the blade across Evie's chain, knocking it aside and leaving a purple-white haze clinging to the metal. She raised an eyebrow before pirouetting and sending her chain flipping around her back before it hurtled toward Felix's midsection.
 
Shouting, Felix poured more power into his blade. Ice cold Mana erupted from his hands and was greedily taken in by the long sword.
 
Wild Threnody is level 39!
Mantle of the Long Night is level 36!
 
The blade thickened with ice as purple-white Mana coated it, until the steel was no longer even visible. Spikes of jagged ice pushed outward at th hilt and along the back of the sword, adding weight to the weapon. Felix swung through several of his learned Forms, chasing after the ghostly afterimage of his opponent. She was a wraith, impossible to hit with his weapon Skill as underdeveloped as it was, but Felix was determined.
 
Yet when he finally did connect, it was only because Evie's chain shot out to tangle up his blade. The length of her chain spun around his blade and hands, crushing his gauntlets and yanking the tip of his sword to the ground. Evie danced forward, feet light as a ghost, her ice dagger formed in her free hand. With a surge of Mana, Felix poured more into the weapon, enough that even Evie's chain began to frost over. With a scream he lifted the blade up and slashed down with it. Evie dodged away, and when the blade hit the ground it didn't just fall.
 
It exploded.
 
This time, even Felix was tossed away from the point of impact.
 
Armored Skin is level 53!
Bastion of Will is level 54!
Wild Threnody is level 40!
 
New Skill!
Heavy Armor Mastery, Common, Level 1!
Extensive practice wearing heavy armor has granted you better knowledge of the makeup and utilization of heavy armor. 1% bonus to defense when wearing heavy armor.
 
When the ringing in his ears cleared, Felix found himself flat on his back, ten feet away. A dark-haired Dwarf was leaning over him with a thunderous frown on her face.
 
"You broke my sword."
 
Felix lifted his hand and found the pommel of his new long sword still there...but half the guard and all of the blade was just gone.
 
"Sorry?"
 
Rafny clucked her tongue and helped him to his feet. "That's a new Skill? What's it do?"
 
"Imbues Mana into my weapons," Felix said, examining his body. His gauntlets were shredded and his forearms were exposed and bleeding. The rest of him didn't look much better either. "Guess I used too much."
 
"Used too much? You damn near blew a hole in my yard!" Rafny gesticulated at the practice yard. It was studded with patches of quickly fading ice, each surrounding shards of broken steel. "Hm, imbuing Mana though. That's hard to work around. Gotta account for tolerances, not to mention all that Strength you're packing....How much Mana are you putting into my weapons?"
 
"It's too new, not sure yet. But my max limit with Mana? It's a lot. I'd need something that can really put up with the strain." Felix gathered his power had stressed the weapon too much and that, coupled with the impact, had caused the explosion.
 
"We'd need better materials than we have, I'm sorry to say," Rafny said, spitting to the side. "Orichalcum or veridian would be good, but getting those out here is weeks at the best of times." She gave him a look. "These aren't the best of times."
 
"I'm aware," Felix said dryly. "Whatever you can do, I'd appreciate it."
 
"You better," Rafny grunted. "Go see Elle. She's got some ideas for a new set of armor since, well, this isn't going to work."
 
Felix had to agree, and as he started moving he could feel the joints catch and grind. He'd bent panel of the pieces, often just from the force of his own attacks. He stripped it off and carried it over to the armorsmith in a pile. Evie glanced at him as he did so, clapping him on the back in passing. Her own armor looked fresh as a daisy.
 
"Anytime you wanna go again, I'm free," Evie smirked. "That was a good fight. You're hard as hell to evade, Felix. You get any faster and I'll actually have to break a sweat."
 
"Thanks," Felix said, deadpan. Evie only laughed and walked back through the shopfront.
 
"Hm, those for me?" Elle asked as Felix set the remains of his new armor at her feet.
 
"Sorry," Felix said, unaccountably embarrassed. He'd just gotten the new set and already..."This one couldn't keep up, I think."
 
"So it would seem. I do not believe steel is the right material for you, Felix. You are too strong and move too quickly for it." She grabbed at nothing in front of Felix, tightened her fist and threw it to the ground. A shaky image formed from heat haze and smoke, slowly steadying into a holographic image of Felix himself. With a faint furrowing of her brows, the duplicate changed into different sets of armor, individual pieces shifting and rearranging around his form. "You're strong enough for Heavy Armor, but perhaps not strong enough for orichalcum or veridian, not in a full set. They're ridiculously heavy. Hmm."
 
*SLAM*
 
A young girl, perhaps seven years old, rushed out of the backdoor wearing one of those linen tabards. Her eyes, dark and intense flitted across the yard until they found Felix. She swallowed, then walked with determination toward him. His Eye tagged her as Amaya Ty'lel, gifted in Willpower and Intelligence and already level three despite her age.
 
A relative of the Alchemist?
 
"Um, hi? Can I help you?"
 
"Are you the Fiend?" Up close, the girl's expression seemed torn between terror and excitement. Practicing as Zara had requested, a quick check of her Spirit's rhythm confirmed the same vibrating emotions. Felix nodded without speaking and the girl's eyes widened and her breath quickened. Those vibrations he felt became a frenzy that only barely touched her face. "I have a message for you, from the Healer's Ward."
 
"Portia?" Felix asked, taking a folded note from her. It was sealed with a glob of green-gold wax and the impression of a tern in flight. Felix broke the seal, scattering hard bits of wax across the yard. "Sorry," he muttered to the smiths, and read.
 
Felix,
Come to the Ward immediately.
Your friends are awake.
~P
 
"Raf, I believe our time is done for now," Elle said. Her wife had just come over with a page of charcoal sketches.
 
Rafny rolled her eyes. "Tch, fine. You'll have to come back later to--"
 
*PING*
 
The sound was a trilling, high pitched note that made Felix wince. But so did everyone else, even the little girl. A blue box, bordered in gold filigree appeared before him.
 
TERRITORY-WIDE QUEST ALERT!
 
A Growing Scourge!
A Nest has been found! Manawarped Revenants have invaded and nearly overtaken the city of Haarwatch! They pose a threat to all life within the Territory, and potentially the entire Continent! Seek out and destroy the Nest, by whatever means necessary!
 
Rewards:
x1 Gold Chest
Territorial Authority
 
Felix barely finished reading it when the window disappeared with a descending note.
 
Quest Accepted!
 
He looked up and saw everyone staring ashen face into the middle distance. Slowly, Elle lifted her eyes to Felix's own.
 
"Blind gods."
 
The backdoor slammed open behind him and Felix spun, hands painfully shifting into talons. But it was Evie, and her eyes were manic.
 
"Felix! Now! Meeting!"
 
"Why? What's happening? What was that?" Felix asked, but Evie shushed him.
 
"Authority, Felix! Blood and ashes, didn't you read?! Territorial Authority!"

 

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