Chapter 288 Lunchtime
Cracking her neck, Ilea appeared outside of the dungeon. The others were already around, two of the elves sleeping on their bedrolls, the fabric looking more luxurious than any sleeping bags she had ever seen, even on earth. Each had chosen a dark color, either because of their status as Cerithil hunters or to be a little camouflaged. Ilea noted it wasn’t night, Terok and the brown haired elf called Neiphato adding ingredients to a black metal pot hanging over a small fire. It smelled, like food. Nothing particularly good but she doubted any of them had an assortment of spices with them.
“Thought you guys just eat human meat.” She said, walking towards the two. Elfie wasn’t around but she assumed he was somewhat close by. Perhaps he was still exhausted from their conversation a week ago.
Neiphato looked at her, realizing she was talking to him and not the dwarf. He gulped, “Some do like human flesh. Yes. Especially lower leveled ones with little muscle are considered a delicacy. We do eat other things as well. Some have even sworn off meat.”
“Any of them actually go through with that?” Ilea asked, crouching down over the pot and sniffing the broth.
The elf looked at her and nodded, “I believe so. The ones I knew countered their lust for meat with more hunting and killing. I do not think it makes sense.”
She chuckled, “How’s the map Terok?” The dwarf hadn’t talked yet but even in his armor she thought he looked tired and worn. He had risen to level one ninety three at least. Not yet at two hundred but close enough.
“Ilea… that city is bigger than you think. A month was not nearly enough time.”
His voice was soft, careful, “You can have another then or two.” She simply replied.
Terok stumbled backwards, nearly falling on his ass, “What? I thought our partnership ended if I didn’t manage… and you… you just tack on another month… or two? Do you have any idea how stressed I’ve been the past weeks… I tried buying a map of those Saurians but they hadn’t even started working on one, confused at the very concept.”
“And you didn’t think I was joking? I just thought to give you a bit of a push.” She said, honestly confused at his interpretation of her comment from a month ago.
Terok just shook his head and walked off, “I need a little time.”
She didn’t know if she should feel bad for stressing him out that much or if he was apparently too stupid to gauge her interest in the map and his work. Partnership. She chuckled, finding the elf looking at her, blue eyes reflecting some of the light coming from the fire. “Neiphato right? Elfie told me you might be stronger than you let on.”
He looked away, “I can see how he thinks so.”
“You’re not going to elaborate?” Ilea looked at him, no answer coming any time soon, “Hidden talent? Can turn into a hideous tentacle monster? You get stronger when you eat people… vampire maybe? Literal big dick energy?”
Looking at her with annoyance, he finally reacted, “How can you be so casual about all this? Haven’t you been fighting Centurions for weeks now? How often have you brushed death?”
Ilea smiled, “Against the Centurions? Not often… they barely get any hits in anymore. The Miststalkers are another story… I’m constantly close to death there.” She sighed, “Not what you wanted to hear I know. I like this, love it even. To fight and challenge myself. I don’t take it all that seriously, otherwise I’d be as dark and gloomy as Elfie.”
Neiphato seemed to have calmed down again, “Elfie? You do not wish to speak his name?”
“I don’t know his name. Why are you out here then? Cerithil hunter, cursed one… why cursed? Because you went into a dungeon? Forbidden by your government or religion?”
Neiphato sighed and checked to see if the two other elves were asleep, or out of earshot, “Cursed because that is the status bestowed upon those ignoring the oracles’ orders. One of their most ancient rules is to steer clear of dungeons. The overwhelming mana density and resulting damage helps painting a convincing picture.”
Ilea nodded, trying not to show her surprise at all the information he was willingly giving away. Perhaps she had found an elf not quite as secretive as Elfie, “Giving me this information… wouldn’t you think the oracles aren’t happy with it?”
Neiphato snorted, a grin revealing the sharp teeth in his mouth, “Human… trust me, they couldn’t care less about me, you or anything but magic itself. That is why I am here. You have saved our lives, spared us when they were yours to take and even found us a wise teacher. Something we sorely needed…,” He was quiet for a moment, “May I ask why? I believe our kind has not been benevolent towards yours, or any creature for that matter.”
“Magic itself. Are they like really high level mages? To answer your question, Elfie was around and I didn’t want to deal with you. As to why I saved you… your sorry asses were getting handled by monsters. I would have done as much for any sapient being.” She said.
Neiphato opened his eyes a little wider, Terok in the meantime joining them again, continuing his cooking in silence, “They are of magic itself. I know little of it and they are secretive. It is forbidden to even ask such questions, not that I haven’t tried. It is their inaction that led us to today after all.” He paused for a moment, looking at Terok, “To think you would save a being just for the sake of it. Is that what all humans do?”
Terok laughed at that, answering the question for her, “No. Most of them would sell you to a monster if they could. She’s different one that one. Soft and naive or perhaps thinking herself a saint.”
“I see you’re back Terok. I’m glad.” Ilea said, a vicious grin on her face.
The dwarf shook his head, “At this point I won’t believe you will murder me for anything less than betrayal. Know that dwarves are similarly greedy, it’s just metal we want compared to your gold.”
How terribly cliched.
“Is gold not a metal dwarf?” Neiphato asked with a smile.
He pointed at the elf with the wooden ladle he had gotten out of nowhere. Ilea wondered if he had carved it himself. “Exactly, it is. Not a very hard one at that. Other than gold mages it’s difficult to guide mana through it as well. Now how would you compete in the ring with such a machine?”
Maybe not that cliched. Ilea thought, “So you’re obsessed with forging because you’re all into wrestling?”
“Not wrestling human… such a mundane activity. A battle between two dwarves clad in steel armor, steam rising as the crowds cheer them on to destroy each other. A marvelous sight, one I could only dream of joining.”
Ilea’s eyebrows rose, “You wanted to become a boxer? I did kick-boxing once. Been a while though, now I’m something else I guess. Is the leader of the dwarves the champion of the biggest tournament or something?” She imagined a tiny Terry Crews.
“Don’t be ridiculous Ilea. Being a good warrior doesn’t make a good administrator or king. It helps, certainly but only to get rid of competition.” He said and chuckled. “I was more interested in tinkering with my machine than actually fighting in it. Not that I dislike it but I lack a certain… vigor about it. You know what I mean.” Getting out of his metal suit, he tasted the soup and coughed.
“I know exactly what you mean.” Ilea said with a smile, grabbing the ladle and trying a bit of the stew as well. Fatty and too much spices. Surprised my poison resistance isn’t reacting. She was pretty sure she would’ve lost health if her self from two years ago would have tasted it. “Also I’m neither naive nor soft. Power allows for a certain freedom.”
He snorted, “Aye, I would still not save an angry child from a dangerous monster.”
Yes you would. Ilea thought and just smiled at him. She would too. If the monster was weaker than her then why not give the child another chance at life. If the monster was stronger, that was reason enough to face it.
Terok looked at the brown haired elf and huffed, “Don’t look at me like that, you would probably kill the beast and eat both.”
She couldn’t help but laugh, especially how the elf didn’t really deny any of it. “Don’t eat kids.” She said after calming down, “Or I will murder you.”
“Noted.” Neiphato said, “It is interesting. To learn about humans and dwarves.” He commented.
“We’re not exactly showpieces.” Terok chuckled.
“Neither am I.” Neiphato said, his voice silent.
“That food is rank by the way.” Ilea commented after a while. “Are you trying to become a poison maker?”
Terok pointed at her, “Young lady… I will not have you talk to the cook that way.” He smiled but somehow the joke struck something else in Ilea. She nodded and looked to the ground with a smile on her face.
I am young am I not? She wondered, Feels like I’ve been here for a decade already.
“Why do you fight the Taleen machines?” Neiphato asked, steering the conversation back to the initial topic. “Your race has no stake in this battle… or is it the same reason why you saved me and the others?”
Ilea thought about it and then shook her head, “I intervene when something is happening in front of me. I don’t think I’ll go hunt down every single Taleen machine because they attack a bunch of elves far away. Elves that would attack me on sight.”
“She likes the levels she’s getting. Plus they’re a challenge. Her mind is simple like that.” Terok whispered to the elf, quite obviously audible to Ilea.
“Maybe try not to offend someone as simple as me dwarf. Especially not because I saved your ass too, and I gave you new steel and places to explore… and an opportunity to evolve to two hundred. Also possible treasure from the Taleen and Rhyvor. Hey is there anything you’ve done to repay me? How’s that map looking?”
The dwarf pointed the ladle her way, metal eye zooming in on her as he squinted his other eye. He opened his mouth but didn’t say anything, speaking a moment later, “Alright you basically own me and saved my life a couple times but at least you have my glorious company. Also you can’t be left alone… giving away expensive and rare steel for free… to someone you’ve barely known for a couple days. Ridiculous.”
Ilea chuckled and looked at Neiphato, the elf lost as he tried to make sense of their conversation, “Hey do I have to remind you that that someone is you? Plus I just can’t help it… being a saint and all.”
“I bet you’ve murdered people… and you’ve stolen things. The very armor you have you ripped from some poor undead just trying to do their jobs.” Terok said, again cutting deeper than he probably intended.
Ilea found herself not caring much either way. “I did murder people. Some arguably innocent too… or at least not more guilty than myself. I’ve raided some places yes and the undead… well I’m sure they’re happy to have a day off after thousands of years of working.” She smiled, locking eyes with the dwarf who didn’t seem quite prepared for the answer, “What can I say? Even a saint isn’t perfect.”
“It is true then? You fight the machines for personal growth?” Neiphato asked, “Aren’t there less dangerous enemies out there? Of the beasts I fought the Taleen are fast and efficient for their level. Few weaknesses and a formidable defense. Centurions can learn too, unlike most mindless beasts.” He commented but Ilea waved him off.
“Levels aren’t the only thing. They’re fun to fight… plus if I always try to find the easiest monster to level up, how will I face the strongest?”
Terok laughed out loud, spilling some of the stew before he calmed down, “See… simple minded.”
“Thank you.” Neiphato said and bowed to her, Ilea looking to Terok for help but the dwarf just smirked, “Your reasons do not matter to me. Every destroyed Centurion will help in the unending tide destroying our people. For every elf not acknowledging this I apologize and thank you instead.”
“It’s fine. Calm down mate. I didn’t actually mean the saint talk. You’ll be able to fight them yourself soon enough.” Ilea said, her ash moving to stop him from bowing. “Now why are you stronger than you seem? Come on… we shared plenty about ourselves.”
He looked around again and then sighed, his eyes closing before he spoke, “My domain… my clan. Some few are born with a gift.” He paused and than waved them off, “It does not matter. As soon as I reach the requirements I will change my class.”
“What? No what the fuck… what gift? Come on Neiph, show me. Whatever it might be I’ll survive it… I’m pretty sure.”
He was obviously uncomfortable but she didn’t let up. He would be fighting to the death after all, had been already and his choice to go against the so called oracles wouldn’t make for an easy life. “I am a wood creator.” He finally said, Ilea literally standing in front of him, her eyes leveled with his before she moved back and sat down again.
“That’s it?” She asked, confused why he would make it such a big deal, “I know a wood creator too. Young human. Fought one too at some point. Pretty powerful. Why not keep it and train the class? Your group could use a more ranged combatant.”
He looked at her, eyes going to Terok and then back to her, “What… my clan… did. With their powers but specifically wood magic. It is a cruel gift. Not one of life and creation, one of torture and death.”
The way he squirmed when he said those words made her think he didn’t just imagine or hear about it, he remembered it. She shrugged, “That is what they did with it. I’m an ash creator… do you think I just torture and kill with it?”
Terok weighed in, “You do kill a lot.”
“Fair enough. Well the point stands. You are you, not your clan or anybody else. Do what the fuck you want and if you have a good class you shouldn’t give a fuck about what they did with it. Shake off the control they still have over you, doesn’t seem like you had the healthiest of relationships to your family. Just my two cents.” Ilea ranted and noted Elfie landing a couple meters behind her.
Terok held up the ladle, “Look who’s back. You look fucked up, fell into a Shredder?”
She laughed at the frown coming from the elf as he walked towards them, “No Shredders so far north. Haven’t seen one at least.”
Ilea extended an ashen limb to check on him but the elf had a barrier around himself to prevent her intrusion. Suit yourself old man. Old elf… doesn’t have the same ring does it?
“What is this vile sludge you’re cooking up dwarf?” He asked, stepping next to the pot and taking a sip. Summoning different spices, he added more and more before finally taking out what looked like a dead rabbit, already skinned and gutted. Barriers appeared and it was sliced into small pieces, all of them lowered and joining the stew. The smell changed immediately, still spicy and strong but interesting now instead of just strong.
“Cooking one of your hobbies too?” Ilea asked.
“I have dabbled with it human. Though I dislike the time it takes…,” He took another sip and handed the ladle back to Terok.
And he never really commented on the food I gave him. Ilea thought and looked at Neiphato, the elf apparently not sure what to do with his hands as soon as he realized her stare on him. You’re not like that, beautiful wood mage, are you? Convinced and open. Curious and smart. Her arm shot up to block the barrier that suddenly appeared and moved towards her head.
“You’re here for the evaluation, are you not?” Elfie asked, looking at her. Terok appeared increasingly busy stirring the stew.
“A month has passed.” Ilea said, “As Terok says, the city is bigger than expected. Do you still want to do it?”
Elfie nodded, “It will be good to have someone evaluate their growth that hasn’t guided them all this time. The dwarf at least has levels showing his change but for them, the Guardians are not high enough to gain any experience worth to mention. Skill levels however…,”
“Well I’m happy to smash them into the dirt. Food first though and it seems the other two are noticing the change in fragrance.” She said, hearing them stir in their bedrolls. Elves… just thinking about food. My kind of people.
“After lunch.” Terok commented, taking a sip of the stew, nodding in approval at the taste. Handing the ladle to Neiphato, he tried as well. Stopping the elf from taking another sip, the dwarf took back the ladle. “Meat’s not through yet.”
“Doesn’t have to be… we talked about this Terok.” Neiphato sighed, “You already demand we drain the blood, at least don’t cook it through all the time.”
“You drink the blood so nothing is lost. Not like you care, the way you slurp it all up all the time.” Terok said.
Ilea looked at Elfie, the elf sighing before he stepped to the side, “After lunch.” He agreed and sat down, summoning a book Ilea hadn’t seen before.