Chapter One Hundred and Ninety Eight – 198
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Ilia blinked, slowly, so as not to disrupt her Mask. Quite separate from the face she wore on missions, it was one of her most advanced Skills, something taught to her by the Matriarch of the Sworn and few others. A volatile ability, not entirely tethered to the rules of the System in ways that confused her. That made it powerful, if unreliable. However, she had little recourse for this mission.
 
Ilia had considered simply removing her dark face and walking bare before the enemy...but She had already seen her true features. Far and above all other violations of her Body and Mind, that had sent Ilia into a rage. The face of the Sworn were held sacrosanct,  hidden once they reached their majority and never shown to another. Were the Sworn every revealed, they needed only to dispose of their dark face and walk away. A stranger. But now...it was no armor, no camouflage--could not be--until that woman was dead at Ilia's feet.
 
Infiltrating the Drum Tank had proven as easy as breathing. For an expert such as Ilia, it was almost an insult. Ilia posed as a washerwoman, having barely survived a monstrous raid on her tenement. No survivors. The rubes ate it up. She dwelt within the inn for nearly four days before the redcloaks attacked, ingratiating herself with the hostess and people within. When the violence began, she had a wagon ready and waiting for them all. The hardest part of the ruse was convincing that idiotic Goblin to think it was his idea.
 
Now she clung to the rafters, her tattered but clean clothes wrapped around her limbs. While the rest of the refugees had been sent to the healer's, Ilia had slipped away. Adept ranked Stealth was hard to counter in a group such as this, and the only one who might have spotted her was distracted by a pair of pretty eyes. Boys and their brains, they were easy to fool every time.
 
She had ghosted into their command center and, once her perch was achieved, had wrapped her form in shadow. Below her, warriors and mages wandered in and out, training and talking and laughing boisterously. Ilia had little clue why they were in such good spirits, but it gnawed at her. The pervading mood of the city was despair, and for good reason. Monsters were everywhere and the safe spots were dwindling fast. This pathetic hive of good cheer was as much an abomination as the scaled beasts that stalked the streets.
 
Relatively quickly, important people began to gather. At first some strapping warriors and a few potent mages, all of them pushing close around a set of tables that had been crudely joined. Atop the table were placed a series of overlapping maps. From her vantage, Ilia could read them easily and she smiled. Marked down there were considerable notes that her employer would find engaging. Scout movements, notes on resources acquired, tactical information that should prove useful were the Inquisition to exterminate these fools.
 
A warrior stepped from another door, dark of skin and massive in stature. Behind him was their slender leader, the treasure hunter Calesca Boscal. She gestured everyone closer just as the final arrivals appeared.
 
"Harn, Evie, excellent. We can begin," she said.
 
That flighty girl blinked and look around. "Is Zara not here?"
 
"She had other engagements," Cal shrugged a single shoulder. "Took her out of camp."
 
"Is that safe?" Evie asked. "We saw the Inquisition trying to snatch people up."
 
Some outraged chatter began, but Cal slashed her hand and silence returned. "You think some redcloak is gonna take a Master Tier? She'll be fine. We, however, need to hear more about what happened. Tell us about the redcloaks and these new refugees. Most importantly, did Felix's tactic work?"
 
Ilia narrowed her eyes and tucked herself further into the shadows. The witch had left; that was good news for her continued stealth. Just the same, it tore at the burning pit in her Spirit, the one she'd had ever since the Sorcerer had "gently" forced the Sworn away from her manor. Only her uncommon Will and a small fortune's worth of elixirs had brought Ilia back to anything resembling normalcy.
 
"--swarmed him, just him for the most part. He's like a magnet," the little Aren was saying. "Let us take most of them out with minimal danger, but we only encountered a group of around thirty. Dunno if it'll be good against a bigger amount."
 
"Ye'll have to continue to test," a Dwarf said, one Ilia recognized as Roarin' Rory, a Guild trainer. Curious. Why is he here and not at the Wall? "A good Taunt Skill can do the same as this. Had we an Adept Tier Taunt Skill among us we could handle hordes a hundred strong. For this plan to work, he needs--"
 
"We know, Rory," Aren said, exasperated. "But there's another issue, aside from the Inquisition. There's a new kinda monster. They're big, and they're strong."
 
"Tell us everything," Harn grunted.
 
Ilia leaned forward, ready to learn.
 

 
"Breath in slowly, and let yer new Skill guide ya," Harn said. They had retreated from the tactics meeting to train, but the warrior had plopped down in the middle of the sandy arena. He'd glared at her until she'd done the same. Now he sat before Evie in a simple tunic and short pants of all things. It was wrong. The man was built for armor and that was all. He...bulged in normal folk clothes, for all that he wasn't much taller than her. Even just sitting cross-legged on the sand he felt like a boulder, or an anvil. "Let it pull ya into yer core and then unfurl its strength, pouring yer attention through it." He held out a hand, and without hesitation Evie took it. "Watch."
 
Together they fell. It felt like slipping into darkness, into a...blankness so complete it broke apart the meanings for light and shadow. Did that make sense? Evie would have gasped at it, had she the breath. But she was nothing. Thoughts, sensation alone, yet an iron grip held her tight and pulled her down.
 
Evie really wished she hadn't agreed to do this, but Callie and Harn had insisted it was the next step in building her strength. "Actualization Stage," they called it. She'd already sorta visualized her core, but her power had been brought so high and pushed far by the circumstances of the Domain. Not to mention the rewards for destroying a dangerous Domain filled with abominations.
 
Focus, Harn sent. His thoughts vibrated through the nothing here. Not sound but---like his Intent. Somehow she knew he was pointing at something, even though she couldn't see a lick.
 
Fine, she sent back. She focused.
 
Before her appeared a speck in the black, one that, without warning became everything around her. Evie fell to her knees--I have legs!--and looked up. All around her was a vaulted stone room, circular and rising hundreds of feet into the air. Tall, slitted windows opened up onto daylight outside, and around the rim were level after level of open balconies. The balconies and everything around her, was packed full of armor and weapons of all varieties.
 
This...
 
She stood up, and peering over the racks of polearms she could see the very center of the massive room. There was an impossibly huge anvil, easily the size of a house, so tall she couldn't see its top. It dominated the center, and rang out with the regular crash and chime of a busy smithy.
 
What is this?
 
Welcome, Evie. Harn appeared beside her and gestured outward. He was still wearing those short pants. Welcome ta my Armory.
 
This is your core? But you're not a smith! Evie didn't understand.
 
No, but I know the trade well enough. Your core is about the 'who' and the 'how.' Harn poked her in the chest. 'Who' you are, 'how' you plan ta grow, and 'who' you plan ta be.
 
Plan to--I'ma be Evie for as long as I can figure. She scrunched up her nose at the constantly ringing anvil. Can you shut that off?
 
That's my core, so no. Your just not listenin' enough. Harn grabbed her shoulders and spun her so she faced the anvil. Focus. What do you feel?
 
Feel? I feel everythin'! The ringing is stabbing my ears, the impact of the hammer is joltin' me, even the Mana is...Evie paused. Mana? What Mana? Yet she felt it, coursing along the hair with each strike of the anvil. A wave of power that was just a touch out of her range.
 
You feel it, huh? Harn grinned audibly. Evie didn't even need to turn around. Good. Now watch this.
 
Something shifted in the Armory. Where once it was simply a normal, if huge gallery of death, now it shimmered and pulsed with hidden light. Golden radiance, tinged slightly with blue, tore around the room. And in the center...Evie shielded her eyes. It was too bright, far too bright. It was heart of a burning forge, brighter than any daylight, and the heat of it flash scalded her everything.
 
AHHHHHHHHH!"
 
Evie fell over. Her back thumped softly against the sand, and when she opened her eyes, all she saw were the distant rafters of the warehouse. The torchlight filled them with flickering shadows, but it was blessedly dim. She groaned.
 
"Haha, you'll be fine," Harn chuckled. Chuckled! He reached over and helped Evie to her feet. "That's Actualization. Bein' there. Seein' it, feelin' it. Think you got it?"
 
Evie yanked her hand away from Harn's calloused mitt. She grinned at his challenge.
 
"Anythin' you can do, I can do in spades, Harn Kastos."
 
"Show me," he grunted.
 
Evie activated her newly evolved Skill, Beyond The Pale, and with a baited breath she fell inward. It was a short fall, or seemed to be, nothing like the languorous drifting Harn had displayed. Within seconds, they splashed down.
 
Splashed? Evie looked at the ground, a sort of textureless black and brown that twitched beneath her eyes. Above it, rising all the way to her knees, was water, clear as glass and cold. The water spread everywhere, in all directions.
 
Good. There's water. What else is here? Harn said. You've already visualized this, so you know. Just make it more.
 
Evie frowned and pushed, making her thoughts tighten. Lashing them down and forcing them together. Her core was this, she knew it. She could feel it, a burning cold at her center, a wild movement out of sight.
 
The sound of raindrops made her open her eyes.
 
They fell, fast and ferocious, the heavy drops that ripped autumnal leaves from trees and stripped branches bare. The knee high water crashed all around her, the rain impacting so hard it sent splashes as high as her chest, soaking her in an instant.
 
Cold. Freezing cold.
 
A cloud loomed above, huge and mighty, a rainstorm to end all others. Silent lightning flickered through its purpled belly, and rain fell down as a wall of shadow. Below it all, a chain the size of most buildings writhed and snapped, weaving between the raindrops.
 
It's just like I imagined it, she said. Just a little...fuzzy.
 
Great, Harn clapped her on the back. Now. Do it better.
 
Evie gave him a look, one that Harn was likely used to; the look of a long suffering student just utterly tired of his shit. He was, unfortunately, immune.
 
Evie rolled up her sleeves.
 

 
The hunt went well enough. Neither Evie nor Thangle had been available to join him, and Felix wasn't about to go bug Vess just before dawn. He still felt dumb about what he'd said, so the more distance from that debacle the better. Fortunately both Atar and the Tin Ranks were ready to go. Pit had mostly been sleeping anyway, his default setting ever since he'd grown into his big boy body. Felix imagined it took a lot of energy to keep the tenku moving.
 
They had ranged a bit more northerly this time, pushing a little closer to the Drum Tank. He'd been told that Jacinda and Ignatius had been taken along with many others at the inn, and damn it, he wanted to know more. Atar had protested at first, but Felix wasn't exactly keen on hearing it. The fire mage was left the option to either go back alone or continue onward. Thankfully he stayed.
 
They encountered several dozen Revenants, all of them zeroing in Felix within seconds of sensing him. Felix made sure to lure them far enough away from the rest, with Pit strafing them with Frost Spears and Wingblades. Even so, stragglers took their chances against the relatively weaker Tin Ranks.
 
Cade made short work of many, her Apprentice Tier sword slicing off hands and heads with equal gusto. She was a born warrior and she was the only one of them fully tempered into Apprentice. Strictly speaking, she was an Iron Rank the way Guilders figured it, but she stuck with the rest. A mother hen with her chicks, almost.
 
Stellis was following in her footsteps, though she had embraced earth magic. Rocks erupted around her and tangled feet as she swung her heavy flanged mace, or piled onto her weapon to increase its weight at a critical moment. Sort of like Evie's Trait but it was relatively minor and over quickly.
 
Merk was a tiny dervish of scripting fury. The tiny Goblin was getting faster and faster at scrawling glyphs and sigils around her, typically drawing a circle whenever they stopped and flinging green-gold sigils in the general direction of monster groupings. The others had learned to stay out of their way, as they inflicted a limited paralysis, but when it hit the Revenants it caught perhaps three times out of ten. Though when it did come through, everything piled onto the defenseless monster without mercy.
 
Heva, meanwhile, was enjoying tips and tricks from Atar. As a fellow fire mage--if a fledgling one--the guy had taken a liking to her. It was almost sweet, if wildly out of character.
 
"Yes, now release," Atar said. A whisper thin thread of glowing orange Mana flicked outward and bisected a Revenant's knee. The creature let out a honking scream and fell to the ground, before being silenced permanently by Cade.
 
"I did it!" Heva gasped, her matronly features lighting up in an equal mix of wonder and horror. "Dear, dark Noctis. I did that."
 
"Don't think too much on it. They're here to kill you," Atar stressed. "Kill them first."
 
"R-right. Of course."
 
Felix didn't like what this invasion had done to many of the people he'd seen, living their peaceful lives around the city. Sure it wasn't always safe, but so many folks lived peaceful lives. Now they were either dead, cowering in fear that they soon would be, or they were fighting and killing to ensure they never would cower again.
 
Well, when you put it that way, brain, I don't think I mind as much, Felix sighed.  Who was he to judge when he'd done the same, just to survive? When he was likely to do worse, in the coming days?
 
The Drum and Tankard Inn was a charred husk when they arrived. Felix felt his gut clench to see it, and the Echoes of the Maw trembled and vented their clouds of contaminated rage. A few pulses of his Bastion sent its influence reeling backward, but his own fury remained. The place was nothing more than a collection of charred matchsticks, and most of the once-busy market square was the same. Fire had gutted the Dust.
 
Pit landed next to Felix and nuzzled close, a similar sadness reverberating between the two of them. He'd spent time in this place, helping these people, talking to them. Living with them. Felix didn't see any bodies, but he was sure more than a few died in the struggle. Why were they like this?
 
Atar knelt by the ashes, some of them still glowing with heat. "This was man-made. There's fire Mana threaded throughout all these buildings. A normal fire would've dissipated by now."
 
"So the redcloaks burned the buildings down after they took all the people," Felix muttered, his voice too thick for his own liking. He swallowed. "Why? Why bother burning it down?"
 
"So they can't come back," Cade said with conviction. Her jaw clenched and tusks quivered as her Spirit roared. She was just as angry as he was, if not more so. "It is something done upon the grasslands. Burn their homes, so that they might never return. Then they are yours."
 
"Jesus."
 
"They needed our mine, right?" Atar pointed out. "Wasn't that because their mines were dangerous, or unsafe?"
 
"You're saying--" Heva started, though she stopped when Felix looked at her. He waved for her to continue. "--They're taking people to work in the mines?"
 
"They're taking people to die in the mines," Merk piped up. "The mines ain't just dangerous. The wards're down. They're lettin' in monsters."
 
In the distance, another gargantuan scream pierced the morning. Another Ghoul, and it was close. Felix was pretty sure he could take it, this time, but he looked at the others. All of them were getting tired. Their winding path had taken two hours so far, and it'd likely be the same to get back. If they ran into a Ghoul then, so be it, but he wasn't about to risk their lives for his own vanity.
 
Ravenous Tithe!
 
The lingering fire Mana pulled form the ruins, swirling into a near visible coil of orange radiance before disappearing into his maw. All around them, the charcoal ruins collapsed into greasy smoke. The Tin Ranks stared, but Atar didn't bat an eye.
 
They went back.

 

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