Chapter One Hundred and Ninety Seven – 197
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After Thangle and Evie jury rigged the wheels together, and Atar helped Felix attached Pit to the wagon, they were off. Pulling the ten foot wagon filled with people wasn't much of a chore for the beefy chimera, and Pit took to it quickly. Felix ran ahead, acting as a potential vanguard for any incoming monsters, but also as a magnet to hopefully pull them away from the relatively vulnerable group. Yet they encountered no more Revenants, nor their unfortunate big brothers. A side effect of his Primordial magnetism, he supposed. They'd already attracted all that there was in the area.
 
Reaching the camp was a non issue. Within a half hour they were through the gate and offloading their newest residents.
 
"Vivianne, if you please, they all need to see Portia," Vess explained, nabbing the field medic from the crowd. "We did what we could with tonics, but--"
 
"Ach, of course. Come come, it's right over here."  The Dwarven woman led the small procession, flanked by Merk, Stellis, and Heva to the Healer's Ward. Those three needed almost as much attention as the rescued Dusters, but it wasn't anything a good night's rest wouldn't fix. Cade had been dismissed by Evie at some point, too. As far as Felix was concerned, he could go back out there immediately. The only problem was his team wasn't quite as keen for it: Evie got hauled off by Cal for something or other, Atar was entirely too tired to "go traipsing about the Dust without sleep," which only left Vess.
 
"Well," Felix started, undoing the straps and buckles that had secured Pit to the wagon. "If you're up for it, Vess, we could go back out? I've got energy to burn and I don't want to let the redcloaks ahead of us, not to mention the Guild."
 
Vess smiled, flashing that dimple he'd come to enjoy. Purely platonically, he told himself. The Platonic Ideal of dimple. That was it. "Are you asking me to go fight monsters with you as the sun sets, Felix Nevarre?"
 
Felix glanced at the skyline, and indeed, it was beginning to turn a faint, but decidedly rosy hue. "I suppose I am. I could use the help out there. Those Ghouls are no joke, and, well," he hesitated. Somehow she had gotten closer to him again. Her footwork was incredibly deceptive. "I-uh, can't carry this sword and fight at the same time, right?" He hefted his Fang and let out a weak laugh.
 
Felix's forced mirth was broken apart by the frown that passed over Vess' face, and he knew he'd said something very dumb. He knew it the moment it left his mouth. He just didn't know how to walk it back. And before he could figure that out, the looming figure of Darius Reed, Hand of the Duke himself appeared out of the lengthening shadows. He was dressed in a fine suit of clothes, rich cloth woven with half a dozen protective enchantments. Felix's Manasight could practically smell him at this point.
 
"Lady Dayne. It is good that you are back. We must continue your training," his dark green eyes raked over Felix with distaste. "Away from any...corrupting influences."
 
Vess, for her part, gave the Hand a withering look, but still she nodded. "Perhaps later, Felix Nevarre."
 
And he was back to being alone.
 
"Good job, Felix. Great job." He'd never been this bad talking to people before coming to the Continent, let alone women. On the other hand, his last relationship hadn't ended on the best of terms. Felix shook his head, banishing the thought. These aren't productive thoughts.
 
He went to see Zara. Or tried to, at least.
 
After his weak attempts at utilizing his Intent in Skill manifestation, any success was great and he wanted to speak to her about his newest...achievement. Sure it was just an embarrassing fizzle of energy, but hey, he did it! Sorta! But Zara's quarters were locked and she was nowhere Felix could sense or spot.
 
He was able to find Keru, her bright kingfisher Companion, who was perching in the highest rafters. It took some doing, but Felix made it up there without too much fuss and asked the puzzling creature to let Zara know he'd been looking for her.
 
The bright avian gave him a tiny shrug when he asked when she'd be back. "The Mistress moves in mysterious ways."
 
Unable to study or train in his usual ways, Felix almost accosted Rory for more sparring, but knew he was busy with their volunteers. Training regular folk from zero to 'able to survive contact with giant mouth monsters' was a big task, even for him. He was too restless to sleep and with his Endurance he didn't have to, so he did what he'd been meaning to for days now.
 
Felix went to go see the Alchemist.
 

 
Tired as she was from the day's hunting, Vess was in far better repair than the newer recruits. Watching them stagger away from the wagon had let her feel like the Bronze Rank combatant she had become. It was always a surprise, seeing where she had been only a few short months ago. Like nothing else, it illustrated the depths of the trials her life had undergone.
 
Trials that she would crush, utterly.
 
However, she was tired. Her Stamina regeneration was good, but it still took time to recovery completely. But when Felix asked in his adorably stilted way to go with him, she, well--she was a woman who knew her own mind. Of course she would go. Protecting the populace from the devastation of monsters was her calling after all, and she'd never turn down training. Going  with Felix--alone--was just a...just an unexpected bonus.
 
And then he ruined it.
 
Even still, Vess might have still gone. The lure of training was strong, and that Ghoul had been powerful for its level. Much like Felix himself. Yet the Hand had revealed himself, as he was annoyingly wont to do. He actual training, which Darius was continuing, took precedence over a dangerous solo hunt. He was more than happy to remind her of that. Often.
 
"Your father would be appalled to see you risk yourself on a dangerous task. You are a lady of standing, Vessilia," Darius proclaimed. "It is not proper to be conversing with that creature."
 
Blood and ashes. Can you not leave it, for a single day? "What have you against my friends, Reed? What vexes you so much that the vaunted Hand cannot gather the fortitude needed to stand shoulder to shoulder with commoners?"
 
"Commoners are fine, they are people the same as us. These refugees are worthy of your efforts. He is not." The man didn't even stop walking toward the warehouse he had claimed as their own. If he had his way, the man would have had her sleep and take her meals there too, but Vess had put her foot down. "By focusing you upon his task, you have grown lax on your true training. You do not need foreign influences, not at this late stage. We will return to the circle, where you will practice your footwork and your kata. We have far to go until you are ready for the Ring Stage."
 
Vess swallowed the vitriol she wanted to spew. Arguments against the Hand were pointless at best, and dangerous at worst. He was in charge of her well-being since her father, the Duke of Pax'Vrell, had learned of the botched, not-so-secret rescue attempt in the Foglands. More than that, she'd known the man since they were both little more than children, and he'd always been like this. Dismissive to those of lower station. Holding those with less power in a certain amount of contempt.
 
This time, he was also wrong.
 
She felt at her core, her Elemental Eyes diving deep. Within her stood a mountain, covered in snow, bathed in light of everlasting day and caressed by the winds of a thousand distant places. She stepped within the temple built atop the peak, an edifice of diminutive towers and complex carvings that matched the etchings on her Spear of Tribulations. Lesser peaks surround her temple, those closest rising furthest above the carpet of clouds below. Each peak was a Skill, honed and built upon by blood, sweat, and tears. She'd only achieved Actualization recently, but the chill of the heights of her core space felt as real as anything she'd even experienced.
 
Ring Stage. I'm on the cusp of it, I know it.
 
She'd advanced fast in the short months she'd been in Haarwatch. Far more quickly than the Hand had expected. He'd almost been mad at her for her progress. The nerve of the man.
 
For now, there was little else to do but bear with the Hand's restrictions until her father released her from them. She was the Heir of the Duchy, and her role was set. But she could help those around her here and now. She would show the Hand, the world, how strong a Dayne could be.
 

 
While Pit was sent off to get himself food and rest, Felix spent time with Aenea. He had, apparently, proven more of an annoyance than anything else however. The woman seemed determined not to teach him a thing, despite her nebulous promise. Technically, she had agreed to allow him to observe the process of making the Elegiac Tonic, but she never given her word to teach him any of it. A twist of the knife that she reiterated to him three times.
 
So, instead, Felix turned his Mind and Born Trait to the task and had to infer everything he could.
 
Herbalism is level 23!
Voracious Eye is level 46!
 
Felix kept his Essence burning the entire time he watched her, letting the information she unwittingly revealed by slowly parsed by his Mind while his preternatural memory recorded it all. He mimicked her hand motions, much to her amusement, and with permission even grabbed a few items and copying her methods.
 
Aenea didn't stop him.
 
The ingredients were extremely common, according to the Alchemist: Pale Lace, a weedy flower which apparently grew everywhere, even in dense urban environments. Agatha's Curse, a thick, fibrous vine that is normally indigestible. And Delta Blossom, or Null Bloom, different names for the same flower, blue with yellow striations. Felix had seen them all before, scattered about the Foglands when he'd arrived, but he'd never had an Analyze Skill high enough to know they could be combined into anything. He ground up the Blooms and Pale Lace together, but soaked the vine in a solution of water and some sort of oil called Origin's Tears. Aenea didn't bother telling him how that was made either, but he'd figure it out eventually. After the vine had soaked, he was to remove it, dry the vine, and break it apart with a mortar and pestle. Somehow the oil kept the needed effects from washing or evaporating away with the water. Then he had to mix all three powdered herbals together with one part grain alcohol to four parts purified water.
 
Aenea let him copy her as she went through the motions, but after the second example she switched to simple Health Tonics. Elegiac Tonics were useful only to the desperate (him). Health Tonics, on the other hand, were easy to make from simple materials and in high demand. In the ten minutes he fumbled and checked his motions, and before he'd even made one concoction, she produced seventeen Health Tonics.
 
Despite Felix's Born Trait and impressive Mind Aspect, he still fumbled the dismount. Not once, not twice, but six entire times. Each failure simply widened the Cheshire smile on Aenea's face and made Felix want to try all the harder. The trick ended up being the drying of the Agatha's Curse. He had to use fire Mana to draw the moisture out of it without disturbing the oily Tears. Once Felix realized that, on his ninth attempt, he got what he wanted.
 
Congratulations!
You Have Created An Elegiac Tonic!
 
New Skill!
Alchemy (Common), Level 1!
Beneath the eye of an Adept Alchemist you have flourished, discovering the path toward alchemical enlightenment! Increases the efficacy, durability, duration, and potency of all alchemical creations by a minuscule amount per level.
 
Okay, not the most stellar of Skills. But still, could be useful. Felix grinned, more to himself than anything. "Thanks Aenea. That's all I needed."
 
"What?" She seemed confused, even a little angry even. "You had me show you to make the tonic and that's it? You're not even going to bother to learn the Alchemy Skill? With an Epic ranked Analyze Skill you are wasting it on martial battles. Utterly wasting it."
 
"Oh, no," Felix waved his hand when he realized what her concern was. "I already learned Alchemy."
 
"What? When?"
 
"Just now."
 
"Just...now," Aenea scowled, glancing between him and his impromptu workstation. She lifted up the tonic he'd left there for her, and her eyes widened. "After two glasses, you simply...learned it?"
 
"Yes," Felix said, a smile threatening the edges of his mouth. He clamped down on it. Seeing her flustered may be mean, but it was kinda fun. "Is that not normal?"
 
"How?"
 
"Perfect memory," Felix tapped his temple. "Makes repeating things faster. Easier, in a way. But mostly it was because I saw how you used fire Mana to dry out your marinated vine. That little revelation netted me the Skill"
 
Aenea insisted that they keep going. By her own admission, she found Felix intriguing. A far cry from the derision and suspicion she'd been treating him with, but Felix wouldn't have stayed for any of those reasons. Her good opinion of him wasn't exactly high on his 'Need To Have' list, but he had inadvertently found the craft itself fascinating. So many details, so many seemingly insiginificant steps that combined into a greater whole. It reminded him of sigaldry in that way.
 
And he had nothing better to do.
 
This time, Aenea taught him to make a Health Tonic. It was more difficult than the last by far, but the materials were plentiful, easy to replace if he screwed it up. This time Felix failed fourteen times before he finally got it right.
 
Alchemy is level 2!
 
"You've just gotten much more interesting, Fiend."
 
"Thank you?"
 
After that, he was put to work, mostly with the woman's Apprentices. Aenea was far too busy to actually teach him anything, but she had asked that he try and learn everything he can from her people. Felix went with the flow, and once Aenea left, learned that her Apprentice were all pretty cool. From a distance, he had assumed they were all Human and all female, but that clearly turned out to be wrong. He made a mental note to keep his Voracious Eye activated as often as possible.
 
Most of them were women and almost entirely Human, but there were two men in the group as well. Given how the Guild seemed to have a bit of a bias against non-Humans, Felix was even more surprised to see one of the men was an Elf. Said Apprentice approached him after his third hour. He was following another Apprentice around and watching her distill a Blindwart Salve, meant to cure basic aches and pains. It had become a favorite among the refugees, especially the older and infirm.
 
"You're different than I had assumed."
 
"Hm?" Felix had been copying the other Apprentice's preparations for the salve. He was grinding leaves in a mortar and pestle when he looked up. "Oh, hi. I'm Felix."
 
"I know. I am Vebranth," the Elf said. He had long blonde hair but it was tied back in a sensibly tight bun to keep it out of his face.  Like the other Apprentices, he was wearing a set of well stained, sturdy clothes, covered by a thick apron.
 
"Nice to meet you, Vebranth," Felix smiled absently. He had to be careful to mash the leaves finely but not too finely, or else the consistency got messed up. He'd messed up the ratio's several times by that point. Ugh, the precision is pretty annoying. "What're you talking about?"
 
"You're not as arrogant as I would have expected."
 
"Arrogant?" Felix was nonplussed. "Why would I be arrogant?"
 
"You are a warrior, aren't they all filled with pride?" The Elf raised a finely shaped eyebrow.
 
Did people pluck their eyebrows here, or did they just rely on Tempering themselves for beauty treatments? The thought rattled through Felix's Mind for a moment before passing, and he focused on the Elf's point.
 
"Okay, sure I guess. I'm not--" anything special, was what he meant to say, but that wasn't true, was it? Felix frowned at himself. "I try not to be a jerk, is all."
 
"Hm," Vebranth hummed, and it was a layered sound. Felix focused on it with his Affinity. It was a chime in the air that sent some wind Mana stirring.
 
"You're an air mage?" he asked.
 
Vebranth looked at him, startled. "How did you know?"
 
"Lucky guess," Felix lied offhand. "Also you're brimming with air Mana."
 
Vebranth grimaced and turned aside. "Some might consider it rude to stare so at their cores."
 
Felix nearly kicked himself. "Oh uh, sorry. It's hard not to notice these things, I guess. I'll make sure not to do it again."
 
"Hm," Vebranth smiled softly, perhaps a little viciously. "Just make sure you don't do that to Master Ty'nel."
 
Felix laughed. "Yeah, trust me. I don't need more reasons for her to hate me."
 
Vebranth turned out to be relatively helpful. The Elf showed him how to really get the most out of a mortar and pestle by rolling the pestle around the edges, utilizing more surfaces area. He also pointed out several flaws in his distillation process, things Felix had seen the other Apprentices do but didn't know enough to expect. The complexity of alchemy was a nightmare Felix wasn't sure he would have bothered to attempt were it not for his Voracious Eye and Keen Mind Born Trait. As it was, he barely kept up with the other Apprentices.
 
By the time Felix left the Alchemist's, an entire eight hour shift had passed and he had made a smattering of Beginner Tier Tonics and Salves. He even got to keep a few that he didn't screw up, which he planned to hand out to his Tin Ranks. They didn't do him any good, at least.
 
Alchemy is level 19!
Herbalism is level 24!
 
Felix wasn't sure whether it was the guided learning from the Apprentices, or the specialized equipment he got to use, but he had absolutely blazed through the Beginner Tier of the Skill. Typically those leveled quickly anyway, but this felt very fast. That said, his Essence collection was bone dry, and the lack of it made his core ache fiercely.
 
Felix stepped out of the shop and stretched until his shoulders and spine popped. It was late, or perhaps too early, but he had to hunt something, and soon. Dawn was maybe two hours away, but aside from that ache he felt energized. He was buoyed by his successes (few though they were). It felt good to create something even if most of what he learned were salves for feet and joints.  Something not...inherently violent. It was soothing.
 
He clapped his hands. Time to wake up the Tin Ranks and kill some monsters.

 

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