Chapter One Hundred and Ninety One – 191
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Morning light was a strident gold that filtered through the mansion's large, south-facing windows. Aside from it's central location and relative luxury, Eliza DuFont had chosen the place for its exposure to morning light. For two hours each morning, the rising sun streamed through the windows and illuminated her entire sitting room, where it glinted on the gold inlay of her polished ebony desk.
Eliza ran her gauntleted hands over the smooth surface, the touch enchantments allowing her to take a measure of relief from the cool wood. It was going to be another hot day, she knew. The mansion had a few enchanted fans that kept the air circulating, but her Acolytes were having trouble with most of them. They'd started malfunctioning. Something about shoddy scriptwork.
"--need to move," Inquisitor Rutger was saying. "The commoners in the Dust Quarter have claimed the mine already. One of the few where the wards haven't completely fallen into disrepair! We should gather the rest of our forces and march on it!"
"And what? Hold a position behind enemy lines? Because that is what they are, whatever you may consider them," DuFont said. "Those gathering under the Fiend's banner are not our allies, and we should expect considerable resistance. If what Initiate Hornsworth told us is accurate, they have at least a few capable combatants, one of which has an unknown Body transformation Skill. Four of their fighters tore through our Acolytes and three Initiates! Not only that, but I know for a fact that Harn Kastos is aiding them, among others."
Rutger's quietened, though his cheeks were still splotched with red. Not all Guilders were famed, but the Onslaught was well known in this corner of the Heirocracy. "So we give up the mine? We need resources!"
"I didn't say we give up. We have to leverage our strengths," DuFont pointed to an expertly crafted map of the city and surrounding areas. One of many that Eliza kept stored away. "We control three other mines, though they're not protected by their wards. We dispatch Acolytes to defend the miners and draw what we can, funnel it to our smiths for repairs."
"We don't have enough miners," Inquisitor Daur said, while DuFont groaned inwardly. "None of the Sunrise Quarter are really fit for manual labor."
"Not to mention, the merchants are complaining that recent Revenant attacks have proven our men are unreliable," Inquisitor Rutger said. "They're demanding more Acolytes as guards."
A few days ago, a wave of Revenants had somehow penetrated into their defenses, coming close but not quite close enough to killing some merchants. Now the people who were so eager to strike out on their own found their priorities shifting and had started setting up shop in their designated areas. A deft handling of the situation, if I do say so myself. DuFont smiled inwardly, but presented a neutral face to her fellow Inquisitors. Acting was a fantastically useful Skill.
"Pissants," scowled Daur. "Without us, the beasts would have killed the entire quarter already."
"Regardless, we should redouble the guard around the more important civillians. Pull them from the westerly side of the quarter," DuFont said. "It's mostly servants and low crafters there. Grab any that aren't pulling their weight. They can serve better in the mines."
Inquisitor Heuthorn smiled, his face an accordian of wrinkles. His eyes, however, were like daggers. "A proper suggestion. I'm impressed, Eliza."
DuFont spread her gauntleted hands and smiled. "Why thank you, Clovis." She emphasized his first name just a touch, just enough for him to notice. "I do try."
"But why not use the easier resources to hand?" Heuthorn continued. "We have our suspected heretics in hand. Use them in the mines as well. If the monsters take them, then so be it."
The others grumbled pleasantly in agreement, while Eliza fumed. Several of those "heretics" were her own people, those in her network that had followed her as she left the Guild. "As I've said before, taking men and women seemingly at random will cause an uproar. Your list names crafters, servants, minor nobles, even quite a few of the mercenaries at hand. Gutting them all would strike a blow to us from which we would not recover."
Heuthorn shook his head and smiled in a way that even his wrinkles looked condescending. " Eliza. You are unused to the way things are done. You have accomplished a great many things in these dire times, but we need to follow the tenets of our faith. Order, Strength, Purity. We--"
A trilling noise interrupted the man's pontificating, and four blue windows opened before each of them.
"What in the--?"
TERRITORY-WIDE QUEST ALERT!
"Trackless avert," Daur whispered as he read. The three older men all shared a look, each of them paler than the last. A sudden slamming on the table made Daur and Rutger jolt.
"Just as I predicted," Eliza said, her face serious and intent. "We take that Authority, and we take Haarwatch."
"This is more than the Guild ever had," Rutger mused in wonder. "That was merely Provisional Authority."
"We'll be able to oust the Sorcerers from the city, from the entire Territory," exclaimed Daur. "Our job, done. We could return home." The longing in his voice was palpable.
Heuthorn held back, his eyes flicking across the alert rapidly before it disappeared by itself. He met Eliza's eyes with reluctance writ large across his face. "...Very well. We search for this Nest."
"Agreed!" Eliza bared her teeth, and the man's frown deepened. It wasn't a smile so much as the visage of a hungry predator, one that promised a grisly end for those that crossed her. "This is what we must do..."
Inquisitor Heuthorn was seething.
Rutger had become quite proficient at spotting the old man's moods, and it often had served him well. It was easy to see in his stance, his step, and in the way his aged face tightened across the eyes and chin. Acting when the elder Inquisitor was in a proper mood was an important aspect to Rutger's personal success. If the younger Inquisitor had normally encountered Heuthorn in such a mood he would have made all efforts to avoid the man.
That was significantly harder to do, however, when said man was waiting in his rooms.
"Inquisitor Heuthorn," Rutger managed as he closed his door, though not before shooting a withering glance behind him. The Acolyte standing guard outside had not mentioned any visitors. She would pay for that lapse. "How may I be of service?"
"That woman will be the death of us," the Inquisitor hissed. Rutger didn't have to guess as to who he meant. "This is a new high of stupidity, even from her."
"The race for Authority? How so, sir?"
Heuthorn gave him his own version of a withering stare, and Rutger felt the hair on his neck stand up. An aura, barely leashed, brushed against his senses. His vision swam. "Even you are not so foolish, whatever you may pretend. This race is important, yes, and we must gain the Authority. But what if we fail?"
"Fail?" Rutger gasped, his vision steadying. "The city is broken. Who else has enough strength to oppose us?"
"The Guild still stands, though they're preoccupied by the Wall for now. This Quest will change that. And the Fiend," Heuthorn snarled the name. "He will no doubt pounce. Do not forget, reports have him defeating that Primordial in the sky."
Rutger paled, but shook his head. "You don't truly believe that was a Primordial, do you sir? Whoever this Fiend is, there is no chance he would survive against--"
"I believe it was powerful, regardless of its pedigree. The Fiend must be dealt with, sooner rather than later. This will be easier with System Authority, but we do not have enough men." Heuthorn said. "I no longer care to play DuFont's childish games. Take those we've held in reserve. They must reach the Waystone in Setoria and request reinforcements."
Rutger's heart quickened, and a smile bloomed across his jowls. "At once, sir."
"Take this," Heuthorn said as he removed a golden amulet from his neck. It glinted in the morning light, depicting a white spire rising alone upon a field of crimson. "Ride swiftly. This life or death, Inquisitor. Either we control this city, or it burns to the ground. There is no middle."
Screaming filled the air within the dim chambers. Nestled deep within the interior of the Wall, he was far from any patrols or proper Guilders. All those save his new guard were training or manning the battlements. Ulfred Teine supposed they were fighting something or other, though he couldnt' be bothered to check. The monsters outside the Wall had little interest to him.
He was more concerned with the corruption within the city.
"Who made you?" Teine asked the small device in his hands. It was a small, solid rectangle, only slightly larger than his palm, made of a dark blue metal. Had it been only that, it would have been unremarkable, easily dismissed by anyone. But to those with the highly attuned senses of a Gold Rank, Master Tier mage, it was hard to miss the telltale hum of Mana held in abeyance. Teine flipped the device over and for the thousandth time, sent his senses questing withing its casing.
Mana spun out of his core, a collection of twisting gears and shimmering sigils, tearing up through his channels and into his eyes.
Magic came alive, all around him. It had a taste, a smell, a texture that changed with every passing moment. But Teine did not revel in the sensations, but instead focused. Within the casing of the device were hundreds of miniscule inscriptions, each of them in a wild, unnatural script that had once burned his eyes to even perceive. Now it merely sent shivers through his flesh, involuntary flinches from the dread Truth of it.
What is this language? This script? Teine had never seen its like, which would suggest it was new...but there were too many things lost to time for him to make that assumption. The script had weight, significance that things newly conceived could rarely claim. For all his research, all his dissection of the runes, he'd only parsed the bare minimum of their meanings. Something held him back. Something he was missing. "What made you?"
The man he'd taken this from had been maddened by the wounds he'd received in the Foglands. Wounds from some sort of dire beast in the Labyrinth beneath the ancient ruined city. It was an Elf by the name of Pen or Pell--it no longer mattered--they were long dead by that point. Teine rarely bothered with unimportant facts. The device gave off an energy, a crimson corruption that trailed it like a smokestack. His Manasight could perceive it, but thankfully he was one of the only possessors of such a Skill; lesser ranked Elemental Eyes and the like would not--could not--notice the delicate traceries of power.
So no other Elder noticed how many Guilders had been infected by this power.
Returning from the Foglands had marked many of them, and not for the better. In order to study them more, the High Elder had allowed Teine to secret them all away into the Domain, where he could pursue their treatment...and his own experiments.
The screams, which had drifted into hoarse, muted cries, began anew. Tch. The beast must have regenerated its vocal chords. Teine glanced over his shoulder at the monster, the Manawarped Revenant he'd strapped to his examination table. Much of its blood and viscera had been taken out, but still it lived, even thrashed weakly. Remarkable.
He ignored it for now. It wasn't going anywhere, after all.
The device. It was an impossible thing, flowing with the echoes of a discordant power he'd never before encountered. It was the start of all of his plans. All of his failures.
How was he to know that the corruption that stained the Guilders was of Primordial stock? Powerful, unpredictable, and vicious, Primordials were said to be the bane of life itself. They were exceedingly rare in the world, named enemies of the gods themselves. The only one he'd ever heard of had been spotted in the deep sea, thirty years ago. None who witnessed it survived.
Teine leaned backward and groaned. With shaking hands, he took out a hardened leather case, flipped the top and tossed back a glittering violet potion. It tasted of sour milk with a hint of raspberry in an attempt to hide the flavor. He truly wished Aenea had survived. That he had to live with an Apprentice Alchemist now, of all times, was a true tragedy.
Everything hurt on Teine, from his leg to his face. After the Night-cursed Primordial had ripped its way out of the Domain, he'd been buried under a city of rubble. His favored inscriptionists had died instantly, crushed to paste, while he had expended every ounce of Mana to keep himself breathing. Sixteen hours he had spent beneath the earth. He frowned, forcing the thoughts from his mind.
There are more things afoot than my injuries.
Primordial or not, Teine had found a remarkable power within the corruption. He'd used it in the Domain, experimenting with the flesh of those who were changing piece by piece. Then he had left his experiments, driven back to the city for entirely too long. Something had changed within, something he hadn't accounted for, and an actual Primordial had emerged. The corruption that emanated from his device was the key to that power. He just had to unlock it.
He knew of the Harmonics, knew of the heresies that the church tried to keep covered up. The corruption was somehow counter to what the old religion called the Wild Song. It fascinated him in ways the magic music of cultists never had; before him was a path to the pinnacle, one he had long searched for. Though it felt jagged, perhaps broken, Teine knew glory was at the other end. Immortality.
Had he the fortitude to take the leap?
Silence filled his chambers. Teine looked up from his desk, noting the varied desks and tables, each filled with carefully penned notes and vials of bubbling liquids. It was cluttered, but clean. Sterile, as he liked things. The Revenant had fallen completely silent.
Teine put down his device and lurched to his feet. Cane in hand, he hobbled over. Only a few steps away from his desk--and the device--a notification flickered into being before him.
He read the alert and nodded. He'd been expecting this, ever since he'd heard the Charter had been torn up. The Guild only ever had Provisional Authority, while the Heirocracy gave them the power over the city. They'd never even been able to fully tap into the Wall's true defenses. And now that was biting them in the ass as the monsters kept throwing themselves at the city.
Those Wretches, strange giant otters, some sort of acid-spitting lizards. They didn't stop, and his people were getting exhausted. It wouldn't have mattered one way or another to him, but the constant fighting was depriving him of capabale assistants. One could not do proper research without at least one assistant.
Closer now, Teine spotted the Revenant's head. It had no eyes, no nose, only a wide, fanged maw that glistened wetly. Yet it's head was moving gently back and forth. Almost as if...
Teine's hand slammed into the creature's throat.
His Skill flared through his channels, pouring out of his mechanized core and into his jagged channels. Those hours beneath the earth had hurt his foundations worse than he had suspected, but it was more than enough for this.
A screen appeared before the Revenant. A blue notification screen, and it said something altogether different than Teine's.
TERRITORY-WIDE QUEST ALERT!
Protect the Nest!
The Nest is in danger! Your enemies search even now for the home of your people! They pose a threat to all life within the Nest! Seek out and destroy the threats, by whatever means necessary!
x1 Gold Chest
They can receive Quests?! Teine's eyes shot wide and the Revenant began thrashing with greater vigor than before. Dark fluid spilled from it's open chest cavity as organs squirmed and pulled back together. The thing was trying all it could to escape. To...It can understand the System?
"Shh shh shh," Teine whispered, placing his unharmed hand atop the Revenant's scaled throat. He squeezed, hard. "None of that."
Air Mana discharged from his palm, a simple spell for simple, clean results. Drained as it was, very little blood spilled as it's head detached from its body. He had no time to waste on this creature, not any longer.
He had a Nest to find.
"Read it to us."
Tipan could not scream. Something had reached into her chest and blocked it, a fist of ice that stoppered her lungs. Wurms, huge, segmented monstrosities undulated slowly through the earth around her, menacing her with their fire-bright mouths. Jaws like axe blades ate through the earth as water.
"Mortal," the tinny voice said again, and Tipan felt that pressure release. "Read it to us. Now."
"Te-territory wide Quest alert," she began, barely able to focus on the words for the immense, skeletal creature before her. It was tall, unnaturally so, covered in armor the shade of vomit, and fire burned from its face. She had seen others, two others, one normal height and the other impossible round; the both of them covered in armor, burning from within like Avet's own. Fear beat so deeply in her chest, awful and bright, that Tipan didn't notice she had finished speaking until another chimed in.
"Authority," it said, and it's bulbous, slate gray body shifted against a stand of trees. They creaked beneath its immense weight, despite being thicker than four Tipans could encompass.
"Territorial Authority," hummed the skeletal one. It's face, so far from the earth, was hard to make out in the shadows of the deep forest. She'd been sent to scout out the monster horde and...and these things had found her. They'd cut into her, so deep it felt as if she'd never stop hurting. Then the questions started. The only relief to be found was when the Quest alert appeared. Skeleton tapped its razor sharp fingers against it's bony thigh. "A Territory that stretches from the mountains..."
"...to the Sea," said the third creature. This one was approximately her sized, but colored like deep, loamy soil. "Master needs to know."
"Master trusts us to act," Skeleton said. "We cannot leave until we have completed our mission."
"Very well, but it will be made clear that I did not choose this path," the smaller one said, petulantly. "We must take care of the Human."
Skeleton turned back to Tipan, but the grotto had started spinning. Everything felt strangely warm, like she was cozied up against a well stocked stove. The heat moved, up her back and onto her head. Strange.
"It is already done."
Tipan's last thought was that the summer morning had grown unreasonably hot, entirely too quickly, before a Wurm tore off her head.
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