Chapter One Hundred and Ninety Nine – 199
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Felix and crew returned just as three other squads were heading out. Felix hesitated near the gates, watching as newly minted Tin Ranks and those with a bit more experience stood at attention. Those that had come here earliest, who were first to by thrust into the fire, they had come out Tempered Apprentices. Iron Ranks in all but name, there were only three and each led a team of nineteen Tin Ranks.
"Keep to the southwest, where we've seen new herds of mouthers gatherin'. Don't go too far south or east. There's larger monsters out there, things called Ghouls," Karp was saying. The man's bald head shone in the light of the mid-morning sun. "They're strong. You see em, don't even think of fightin'. Run fast." Murmurs spread through the recruits, but it was light. Karp grinned through his bushy red beard. "Alright. Ready? I don't care. Move out!"
The three squads all saluted. It was a mish-mash of styles and enthusiasm, but it got the point across. Karp started shouting orders to each of the Iron Ranks in the lead, and the squads filed out of the gates.
Felix stood there as they passed, and, to his surprise, the rest of his team hadn't left. They all spread out behind him, watching in the same manner. Bemused, he put it out of his mind. Instead, he focused on making eye contact with as many of the passing fighters as he could. His experiments with his...influence, he supposed, had yielded certain results. Felix nodded, once. A wash of stirred symphony spread through their Spirits, a tiny ripple in unsteady seas. Yet backs straightened and chins lifted as the squads passed.
It's something, he insisted to himself. He couldn't be out there, protecting everyone that fought. If his presence made them feel more confident? He could do that, gladly.
As the rest of squads left and his own Tin Ranks were dismissed, Atar caught Felix's eye. "It's strange, you know."
"What is?"
The two of them had started crossing the wide, busy courtyard. Folks of all ages were scurrying to and fro on various errands and tasks, or, in the case of a wild knot of screaming children, just enjoying the morning's relative coolness. The summers there were turning into real scorchers.
"How you act around all of them," Atar gestured vaguely at the crowd. "You actually seem like you know what you're doing."
Felix laughed. "I don't. Just trying my best, like everyone else."
The both of them tried looking for Zara again, but she was still gone.
"You seem upset," Atar noticed. "I won't lie, I do wish she told someone her whereabouts. I'm told she's quite talented with sigaldry and I'd love to pick her Mind."
"I'm not upset, I'm worried," Felix clarified. "We're falling behind. We can't afford to let the Inquisition gain the Authority over Haarwatch."
Atar rolled his eyes. "They've got a small army, Felix. All we've got is a bunch of rough commoners that're barely beyond Tin Rank. We'll never keep up with their Contribution, even if you were out there all day and night. The only thing we can do is find the Nest, and Cal already has people searching."
Felix grunted. He knew Atar was right, he just didn't like all the waiting. Most people also couldn't wipe out dozens of Revenants a day like he could; should he and Pit go back out there?
"Oh no, I know that look," Atar said.
"What look?"
"The one where you start suggesting increasingly dangerous and unlikely tasks and then we all almost die," Atar scowled. "No no, I'm still tender from the last one."
The blonde fire mage looked around, his curled hair still well-coiffed despite hours in the field. "Let's...yes. Let's go see this Hector you've been telling me about. If I can't pick Zara's brain, then another Inscriptionist will do nicely."
"Hector? He's a good guy," Felix said, and Atar started guiding him in the direction of the wall. "But he's probably busy—"
"No way to know if we don't try," Atar grinned.
"I suppose," Felix allowed. So off they went.
Construction of the wall had passed from Felix's hands a while back, one of the refugees with a similar Skill taking over for him. He'd heard they were doing very well, but it was slower going. Felix almost wanted to hop back in and finish the job, but it was good for grinding Skill levels for the Dwarven woman. He'd be a jerk if he just swooped in and took over.
Near the wall was a tent, purposefully temporary so that it could be relocated every couple of hours. It was fairly large, as tent's went in Haarwatch, but it needed to be in order to hold a collection splintering wooden tables, each utterly covered in scrolls and reams of parchment. Hector was there, bustling about a large stone with an inscription stylus in one hand and a hammer in the other. Surprisingly, there was another person there too.
"Alister?" Atar said with a smile. "I thought you were still at the ward."
Lord Alister Knacht looked far different than when Felix had first met him. He still had the wavy dark brown hair, but his face was covered in the rough scratch of a two week old beard. On a teen like Alister, that was still pretty patchy though. His wide smile was guileless as they approached, but Felix didn't miss the dark circles and gaunt cheeks.
"Atar. And Felix," Alister raised a well-manicured eyebrow. "I would have thought the two of you would be hunting until evening."
Atar laughed. "Ah too boring for me, plus this one got tired."
"How the mighty have fallen," Alister quipped, before he hobbled forward on a cane. The noble hadn't recovered nearly as well as Atar, it seemed. He gave Atar a tight embrace. "Glad to see you safe."
"I was never in trouble. Felix would barely let me kill a monster or two," Atar said, joy in his voice despite his words.
"I mean, maybe two," Felix admitted. The mages met eyes and shook their heads. "What's going on out here?" He looked between Alister and Hector. "Sigaldry lesson?"
"Of a sort," Hector admitted. He had hung back as they talked, but now he stepped forward and shook Felix's hand. "Your friend was giving me a hand, and also telling me about the unique glyphs you saw in the Domain."
"Yes yes, the, what did you call it, Atar? Butcher's Sign?" Alister said, nudging the mage.
"Oh, hah, I did postulate that it might be called Butcher's Sign," Atar said with a blush. "But it has a name. Profane Sigaldry."
Felix had shared that with the fire mage a few days ago, when the two of them were comparing notes on the singular language they had found in the Domain. Atar was such a sigil nut that it had been a good way to pass the time while he finished convalescence.
"Profane Sigaldry," Hector said, as if tasting the word. His mouth twisted. "I don't like it. And from the way Lord Knacht described it, I don't think I'd like to use it at all."
"It's not safe to use though. I wouldn't try it," Felix warned. "We're all way better off using the sigils you got there."
"As you say," Hector nodded. "Did you come for questions? Or did you wish to help?"
"Help?" Atar asked. His arm had snaked around Alister's waist, holding him close and keeping the man propped up at the same time. "How can we help?"
Hector waved at the block of stone he was working on. "I'm trying to set up wards in several prime stones, and then we're installing them into the wall. Once complete, it will allow us to apply a number of glyphs into an overall array, swapping out effects that are all keyed to the wall itself. It's a continuation of what we discussed the other day, Felix."
Felix nodded. He'd stopped by Hector's whenever he could, but with everything else going on his schedule was getting more and more hectic. Hector had introduced him to the concept of a massive master array, one that could be modular and changed relatively easily. It was something Hector had developed himself, and Felix barely understood despite his Skill levels. "Is that all? Just more wall defenses?"
"How do you mean? I thought this was a priority?"
"Oh no, it is! It is. But I've been working with your wife," Felix said and Hector grinned. He knew how she felt about the "Fiend" and found it very amusing. "And I noticed her Apprentices are making a lot of low level tonics and tinctures. Things most folk can use easily, and that we can make quickly. Is there something we can make with sigaldry in the same vein?"
"No," Atar stated bluntly. "Sigaldry is for those with the knowledge to turn it to their ends, for those who are capable of strength. Most of those here are either Untempered or know next to nothing of the Etheric Arts. They can barely use their own Skills, limited as they are."
Alister tried to laugh but it turned into more of a wince. "He's...not wrong. Sigaldry is a difficult art to learn, as is the Mana Manipulation one needs to utilize its benefits."
"What about something that would work remotely?" Felix suggested. "Something that could explode, like a remote Sparkbolt?"
"Felix, we can't do that," Atar said.
"What? Why?" Grenades would be so useful, Felix thought. "They'd work wonders against the Revenants, especially with how they like to pack together."
"What I believe your friend means to say," Hector explained, "is that sigils can't work that way. Sigils lose effect the moment they are disconnected from their array or direct line of power. You'd need a power source to ride along with it. To do that, you'd need monster cores. And no one can afford to throw monster cores away by the hundreds just to maybe have enough power to take out a single beast."
Hm. That is tricky.
Everyone soon started working on the wall inscriptions. It was brute force work and tedious, needing to be accurate as well as strong enough to break the stone properly. Felix helped quite a bit, moving through one stone after another. He also was volunteered to replace the stone in the wall. That, at least, wasn't too hard. He lifted the four by four foot block with a simple conveyance of Shadow Whips and his own Strength. They wrapped around the top and around the sides, steadying it and evenly distributing the weight. Everyone was impressed and Felix was quite proud. He'd learned it from an infomercial.
But all the while, Felix's Mind didn't give up on the idea of making grenades. Or at least something that could be used to even the odds for so many weaker fighters. A force multiplier.
He new connections drove the effects of any array, both the literal drawn connections between sigils and the more ethereal kind. So wasn't there a way to keep the bomb connected to your core when you threw it? Set it off when it lands with a pulse of Mana, then terminate the connection?
He did some experiments. Felix carved the sigil for light on a palm-sized rock. When Felix pressed Mana into it, it flared with light. He threw it a few feet away, then released a cloud of Mana vapor form his channels, willing it to connect to the stone. Through some careful poking and prodding, Felix was able to corral his Mana vapor until it bathed the stone once more. The stone lit up.
Mana Manipulation is level 43!
Invocation is level 20!
But that was hard. Felix was sweating and he had nearly a thousand points of Willpower. Still, it was proof of concept; he just had to make it easy enough for anyone to do it.
"Blighted Night!"
A muted boom sounded nearby, and Felix looked up from his experiment, letting the crackling cloud of his Mana fade away. Atar stepped away from a tiny plume of smoke, wringing his hand and dripping blood from a cut on his face. The smoke was coming from the new block they'd been inscribing, and with gentle fingers, Hector reached in and brought out an unevenly sized spherical gemstone. It was dull and lifeless, and cracks crazed its entire surface. It was a monster core.
"Another one ruined," Hector sighed. He placed the cracked monster core on a nearby table. "We're running low on these. I don't know how long we'll be able to maintain any sort of ward."
"My apologies, it was unresponsive to the array, so I tested it with Mana. I--" Atar began.
"No need. I should have warned you. These cores are nearly depleted. They were all Calesca could spare for our meagre defenses. If these arrays activate, then we have perhaps thirty seconds of decent protection before we're left with just a stone wall." Hector sighed.
"Almost empty?" Felix perked up at the news. He stood and walked to the collection of small monster cores Hector had set aside. "I have just the thing for you, I think."
"What? You can't put Mana in them, I just broke them doing that," Atar said.
Felix ignored him and reached out for the nearest core, gripping it and guiding a flow of Essence from his core. Slowly, with far more care than he used with his two new weapons, Felix allowed a stream of Essence touch on the core. With an internal lurch, the Essence was yanked out of him, pulled into the core until the thing began to shimmer with captured light. Sagging slightly and rubbing at his wrist, Felix placed the core back on the table.
"What did you do?" Hector said, his eyes wide. He lifted the core and held up. It shined even brighter in the light. "This was nearly empty."
"I infused it with more Essence," Felix said. "Glad it worked. I can do it for the rest if you like?"
"Ye-yes! Please!" Hector practically shoved the remaining cores at him. "As many as you can!"
Atar laughed, a touch bitterly. "Yet another thing you can do, Felix. When, exactly, will you stop surprising people?"
Felix just grinned at the mages and got to work.
The hours burned by as a new facet was added to his routine. Felix would hunt and gather Essence, and then he'd come and infuse the cores in the wall. It was solid work and an additional task to take up the stretch of hours when his team needed rest. Felix fought, he inscribed, and he concocted in Aenea's shop as well. Over the course of four days, they had proven Felix's strategy dozens of times over. No matter the concentration, the Revenants were drawn to him. Moths to a flame.
The Ghouls continued to appear, and in greater numbers. Felix had only fought them one at a time, luckily, but that would likely change soon. Zara still hadn't returned, but everyone was frightened by their growth. The Revenants were already too much for most to handle alone, and more than one team had been lost when a Ghoul had stumbled across their path.
That hadn't sat well with Felix, but there was little he could do. He just trained all the harder, killed the Revenants faster, and tried everything he could to speed up their production of tonics, tinctures, and his own personal sigil project. He'd made significant progress, but had to push himself harder and harder each time.
Invocation is level 25!
Apprentice Tier!
Mana Manipulation is level 45!
Theurgist of the Rise is level 57!
Tracking is level 19!
Voracious Eye is level 47!
Corrosive Strike is level 47!
Dodge is level 49!
Wild Threnody is level 49!
Dual Casting is level 44!
Abyssal Skein is level 35!
Cloudstep is level 24!
Influence of the Wisp is level 43!
Mantle of the Long Night is level 38!
Shadow Whip is level 39!
Stone Shaping is level 44!
Wrack and Ruin is level 42!
Arrow of Perdition is level 24!
Alchemy is level 27!
Apprentice Tier!
Herbalism is level 29!
Apprentice Tier!
No rest for the weary. Felix was tired. He'd driven himself to the edge, over and over again against the Revenants and whatever Ghouls he could find. He was getting better with his weapons, but in his exhaustion he'd returned to the brute style he'd favored most of his time on the Continent. His training sessions with Rory felt like they dissolved beneath the weight of Stamina and Mana loss.
But he had so much to do, and the clock kept ticking. It didn't matter that he couldn't see it, in fact that made it worse. How soon would the Inquisition take the Nest? How much farther had they to go? They had to be stopped, no matter what.
He forced himself to his feet.

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