Chapter One Hundred and Ninety Four – 194
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Later that day, Pit couldn't really confirm what he had meant just before he'd zonked out. The tenku seemed as confused as Felix was, although happy enough. Whatever had exhausted him had worn off and he was back to his over-excitable self again. Felix moved on. He had an imbalanced Skill and an idea of how to fix it, so it was time for training.
Zara had given him some advice when he approached her with what he'd done already, linking Meditation and Deep Mind to his Bastion of Will. She nodded as if that made sense. When he admitted to the veins of extreme emotion that had infected the Skill, she had grown more concerned.
"Is this an effect of the Primordial?"
"I can't see anything else that would cause it," Felix said. "Each time I pull the red haze from the air around me, or when I devour a Revenant, the effect stirs. Grows stronger. It's reached a point where it's affecting my thinking, and I can't have it."
She said what he planned, what he'd already accomplished somehow, was done, but rarely. "The effects could be deleterious, but only if one mismatched the Skills. You have the benefit of your Affinity: if you can hear the commonalities between them, then they will link. The more commonalities the less the reduction in power, and if they are common enough you may even experience a brief surge in capability."
Armed with that knowledge, the next few days passed in a blur of activity. Everyone was in a hurry to go out and win the Quest, but many didn't even have armor or spears. Those that could went out and hunted the Revenants, typically the more capable Iron and Bronze Ranks among the crew. The Coldfire's were hard at work, they and their apprentices up for twenty hour days just to furnish everyone. However, because of the wait, it offered Felix time to hone himself.
Meditation and Deep Mind took some doing, the first requiring him to keep his Skill active as long as possible, or during heavy fighting. He'd long since been able to keep Meditation working during fights, but for things like the Ravagers he had dropped it completely. When Felix had arrived on the Continent, he had been given a choice of Born Traits; he had chosen Keen Mind, which provided him with perfect recall for events up the thirty days prior. Since then, he'd benefitted greatly from his memory, but only recently he learned of a way to cheat the System, in a way. But burning Essence with his core, he was able to fuel his growth through repeated actions in memory. The more he diverged from true events, the greater the cost of Essence, but it was so very useful. It was also exhausting and extremely terrifying. The creatures that could challenge him now were among those beasts he'd never wish to see again.
Regardless, Felix bit the bullet, burned a healthy portion of Essence, and cast himself back into his memories of his worst fights. The bloodiest, down and out scrapes he'd been in, the ones that still made him flinch to think about. He avoided revisiting the Dread, as powerful as it had been; it had too much in common with the Maw. He'd faced little that would threaten his mental defenses that wasn't Maw related. He was left with only a single choice.
He'd reappeared in the humid garden deep in the Archon's Domain. Herbs, roots, fruits, and all manner of plantlife flourished down there, but that sickly sweet scent of blood Mana filled the air to bursting. The details were foggy as the memory was outside of his thirty day limit, so it was more hazy collection of impressions than life-like recreation. He recalled that the plants around him were things like bellock and aram root, strange plants with stranger details he'd never really explored. Maybe Aenea would know more about them.
Then he saw the golden form of the Archon, flanked by his two grey-metal Arcids. Felix diverged from his memories, conjured an Arrow of Perdition, and charged for the bastard. It went about as well as he expected. The Archon cleaned his clock, repeatedly. And when Felix was broken and bloody on the ground, as the memory and Essence dried up around him, the constructed jerk slammed his Mind with those eye-fires of his and sent him spiraling into darkness.
Felix was wrenched out of the memory so hard his head snapped against the concrete floor beneath him. With a snarl, he tried again. And again. Two entire days were lost to his reenactments, not to mention the time it took to harvest more Essence. But his efforts yielded fruit.
Meditation is level 50!
You Gain: +5 WIL, RES, REI
Deep Mind is level 50!
You Gain: 10% FEL, AFI, ALA
Reign of Vellus is level 54!
Unfettered Volition is level 48!
Wild Threnody is level 45!
Corrosive Strike is level 46!
Dodge is level 48!
Armored Skin is level 54!
Arrow of Perdition is level 22!
Dual Casting is level 37!
Abyssal Skein is level 30!
The Archon was tough and he never managed to defeat the memory of him, but he proved to be powerful motivator. The recollected hate in the constructs eye-fires kept his Mind on target, despite the pain. They had to take care of the Quest, so that they could be ready for him.
He ran out of Essence quickly on the first day. Revenants were getting rarer around them, gathering closer to the city center, so Felix had been forced to consume what was around him. There was little Essence to be found among inorganic matter, Felix had found, so he'd had to enter one of the abandoned, junk filled warehouses nearby. There were many, the Dust Quarter clearly having seen better days. He'd eaten all of the scrap metal and rotting wood, and detritus that he could find, and only barely had enough to continue for a few hours. As a bonus, the warehouse was now empty, and he'd let Cal know. More refugees were diverted there for temporary housing.
So on he went, clearing warehouse after warehouse, eating everything he could. He cleared so many their camp could never secure them all. If nothing else, people were able to breath again. After weeks of living on top of one another, Felix figured it would be a help. In fact, the mood in the camp had lightened considerably after the Quest, his little speech, and now more living space. It no longer felt like walking through the third act of a really sad movie; people had life in them once more, smiles, if for only a little while.
He had to do more.
With Pit's help, Felix fought with his Bastion and drew two more Skills to house themselves within it. It took more effort from both Felix and Pit, almost as much as it cost him to hold the Bastion together, but they finally connected them: Reign of Vellus...and Oathbinding. He had considered his other Skills, but these five seemed the most...appropriate to strengthening the Skill and himself.
Fire Within is level 60!
The Skills etched themselves, brilliant light erupting from the last two faces of his pentagonal tower. As they did, his Bastion shifted. Like a puzzle settling into place, chunks of landmass and stonework sealed themselves, more solid once again. The veins of red didn't disappear, but some how merged with the landscape.
A towering cumulonimbus cloud, as massive as any he'd ever seen, manifested above his Bastion. Lightning chased itself through it, lashing across the sky and down onto the guard towers in a constant, almost rhythmic fashion. Azure glow, traced by the faintest of gold, spread from those points of impact and through the walls. The dark stone became traced with those colors, as well as the marbled red of volatile emotions.
Atop the tower, a single, thin spire formed. Shimmering silver light gathered atop this needle, wobbled until tendrils of power began spinning outward, until with a sudden clap of silent thunder a thousand silver threads shot in all directions. Lightning struck these lines and crawled across them briefly before fading.
Bastion of Will is level 56!
Bastion of Will is level 57!
Felix hurled himself into the sky, tentatively trusting his Bastion not to hurt him, and looked down at his creation below. His dark fortress sat amid a silver web like a squat spider. Lightning crashed all around him, but it had calmed, striking with an intermittent pulse at all four corners of his fortress.
Not...not bad. His imaginary body panted, still catching his breath after hurling around so much power. From this distance I can barely see the red veins.
But his fortress was not the only thing that changed. Nearby, the forest beyond the walls had become gorged on power, growing wild and huge. Trees stretched taller than his walls, and mysterious winds shook their branches. Past that, to what Felix always though of as south, the acidic sea swelled. Waves crashed, too far to hear, but big enough to see from miles away.
Time to go for broke.
Felix had considered his Skills as deeply as he could. He'd included Oathbinding for the reinforcement of it's binding aspects. The accumulated connections to others and places and things was an anchor, he hoped. He'd chosen Reign of Vellus for much the same reason, except that Reign was Tempered with the Essence of Gravity. The Pull of Significance. It was another weight, and Felix felt it latch onto his Bastion as if all of its pieces was being yanked inwards. He needed to hold it all together, because the next step was where things got dicey.
He'd Tempered his Bastion with the Essence of Sever. He had been in a...weird place when he'd chosen his Temper in a fit of pique, but there was more there than rebellion against the annoyances of the System. Break The Ties That Bind, his Essence stated. His Bastion was a fortress, a citadel to protect his Mind and Spirit. But defenses weren't always passive.
Sometimes you had to fight to protect.
The silver threads atop his tower illuminated with a steady argent glow, onto which Felix focused his Affinity. Picked out among his false world were hundreds, thousands of connections; small strings that tied grass to soil, rock to wall, metallic veins to...nothing? The marbling that had infested his Bastion did not begin in the Skill itself. Instead, they trailed off into a darkness that was a hard right turn from his Skill.
Pit, if you will. Felix asked and his Companion answered. A cry rang out, similar to what he had done before, and Felix followed its vibrations along the improbable path of his trespasser. Onward and out, Felix's senses emerged into the darkness of his core space, where the threads of crimson were far easier to spot now that he was looking. They sped, straight as arrows, directly to his core.
Directly above his core, to be specific.
Echoes of the Maw. Shit. Felix groaned. Of course.
The ruby-red drops of Primordial energy floated above his core, legion even though many had clumped together and congealed into larger blobs. They spun quickly, but their power unspooled across his core like a cloud. He was practically infested with it all.
Bastion of Will!
An excruciating shearing sliced across Felix's Spirit and Mind. Even his Body trembled in the distance. The severed lines from his core into his Bastion whipped in the empty space, lashing about before retracting like injured tentacles to the array of ruby power.
Bastion of Will is level 58!
Bastion of Will is level 62!
He flared his Bastion in tandem with his Fire Within, and a wave of blue-white lightning rippled through his core space. Wherever the wave hit the red, the Primordial power recoiled and pulled back atop his core. Skills that were becoming enmeshed in the web of volatile emotions were cut free, suddenly shining brighter than ever before. Like the noon sun coming out from behind a cloud, Felix's core space was inundated with brilliance as each of his revolving Skills gleamed in the dark.
The cloud of vermilion dwindled away, until it was a mere haze around the Echoes of the Maw.
Zara hummed to herself as Felix flopped backward. He was a sweaty mess after his extensive efforts in his core space. His Companion flashed out of his Spirit and nuzzled his face, eliciting groans of affectionate annoyance. The boy had utilized the tools to hand to imperfectly side-step the issue he was experiencing, but he'd failed to notice a critical development. Even now, Zara could sense it, brewing in his Aspects.
What will you do when you find out, Felix? Zara tapped her lips. How will you face it?
Zara, at least, was very interested in finding out.
"Wait, so System Authority is irrefutable?" Felix asked. A day after his core diving, Felix and a small group of fighters had gotten clearance to approach the city center. Other groups were forming up at the same time, each heading in a slightly different direction to begin engaging the monsters. Armor and weapons were mostly available to everyone who volunteered, and squads had been formed among those eager to claim the Quest's rewards.
Felix felt good, less emotional to be sure. A quick flare of Fire Within confirmed his Echoes of the Maw still had not moved, but nothing else had changed either. The influence within his Bastion remained. Nothing he attempted had removed the red metal from his fortress and lands, but with his Mind calmer he at least wasn't worried about going off the handle.
Today was a test though. Could he devour more Revenants and keep the Echoes in check?
At the moment, they were all walking along the river Ianus, close to the edge of the "safe zone." The Revenants still hadn't made much headway across the river, but that was starting to change. Scouts had reported more activity on the far side, though few of the monsters risked the river. There were things in the river, Felix knew.
"Yes and no," Vess explained. She looked at all of them as she spoke, including their entire squad in the conversation. "System Authority is nearly absolute. It doesn't give you the power of life or death of the citizens necessarily, but you may alter defenses, access resources, even set terms on Duels. Once set, they cannot be broken. Like an Oathbinding."
"So everyone with Authority is ranked the same?" Evie asked. "If I get this thing, does that mean I can beat up your dad?"
Vess gave Evie a mock serious look before laughing. "No. Authority is not only ranked based on how much Territory you control, but you only have it within your Territory. If you travelled to someone else's Territory, even if they had Provisional Authority and you had the greater rank, you would be under their dominion."
"So no storming the capitol and tweakin' the Heirophant's nose?" Evie frowned and Vess shook her head with a smile. "Ugh. Then what use is it?"
A strangled chuckle came from behind them, and Felix let his Perception encompass the rest of them. Thangle was walking in the middle, stifling a shocked laugh, but was flanked by a couple Tin Rank volunteers. They all looked just as startled at the subject of conversation, though Atar rolled his eyes in the far back. Felix supposed only some of them had gotten used to Evie's outbursts.
Felix had been instructed to make a squad of his own for testing his plan, but Cal had gone and made the announcement public. That meant most of the morning had been spent sifting through ambitious volunteers, trying to find someone to fit his team's fighting style. Frustrated, he'd just selected a few of the people he'd met before.
Cade and Sellis, Orc and Human women respectively, each bore martial weapons and heater shields in addition to their new Apprentice Tier armor. Merk and Heva, on the other hand, were mage types without any proper weapons aside from a dagger at their waists. The mages were adorned in lighter leather armor, not quite as encompassing as Evie's own, but more protection than Felix had on. And heater shields of their own, of course. Atar simply wore his newly repaired armored robes, an expensive set the smiths couldn't replicate.
The Tin Ranks were still raw, having seen only a little more action since the last time Felix had seen them, but all of them had Revealed their Omens. Felix was still unclear on what Omens really meant, other than the vague and mostly useless "indicator of fate," but it meant extra stats each level. He couldn't argue with that, and he brought them along to help them toward Apprentice Tier as quickly as possible. Aenea had even furnished their team with a collection of Iron Rank Essences, something she extracted from the ore apparently. Felix had been too busy to have her teach him yet, though she also appeared to be avoiding him.
A problem for another time.
From above, a piercing cry echoed outward. Intent jolted through Felix and he snapped his eyes forward, across the river.
"Burn me," Atar said at almost the same time. He pointed. "Here they come."
Roaming aimlessly through the burnt out and shattered husks of buildings, the sightless monsters perked up the same time Atar spoke. There had to be at least ten of them, and every single one pivoted and stared directly at them.
C'mon beasties. Let's go.
A living avalanche of rust red and putrid yellow, they came, loping across the bridge at wild speeds. Bugling cries filled the air, and more poured from nearby side streets. Ten, fifteen, twenty more. A few even leaped directly into the river, taking the shorter path.
Felix could feel the others shift, his friends in anticipation and the newbies in fear. "Shields up! Arms out! Protect your neighbor and you'll be fine," he shouted.
"Trust the Fiend!" Evie yelled.
Felix spared her a withering glance, but she just smirked and batted her eyes. "Well? Gonna fight or stand there, blue eyes?"
Sovereign of Flesh!
The sound of a dragon's roar shook the air as Vess unleashed her own Skill, and Felix rushed in.