Chapter 291 Inquisitive Fox
Ilea found the quick visit to Tremor had lifted her spirits somewhat. Perhaps fighting everyday with absolutely no interaction was too much, even for a hardcore introvert like her. Maybe it was the task she had agreed to take on, finding books and maps about the lands surrounding Tremor. While Ilea quite enjoyed having her life drained repeatedly, taking molten metal baths and fighting unending numbers of Centurions, change was welcome after a certain amount of time.
Landing near Penumra, she made her way towards Hallowfort. The town looked the same as always except for the fact that there were two sentries standing at the end of the bridge instead of the usual one. Ilea waved as she walked up to the dark ones, both in heavy plate armor. One had a massive curved blade on his back and the other a hammer whose head looked to be too heavy to lift. Is there really anything like that in this world. “Greetings, strong one.” She said and bowed lightly, the guard turning towards her.
“Warrior of ash.” A voice responded, the big figure bowing a little in response. Her Veil wreathing around her body identifying her as an ash wielder at the very least.
“Hey, can I try to lift your hammer?” She asked, stepping a little closer.
The guard looked at her for solid ten seconds then turned its head towards the other guard who nodded. The hammer was handed over as if it was a mere plaything. Ilea had her auras active and some of the gained stats had already been invested into Strength. With all the buffs she had a nearly six hundred percent boost to her strength and it showed. “Impressive.” The dark one simply said as she held on to the thing, lifting it up above her head.
Fuck what is this thing made of. She was sweating when she handed it back. “What metal is this?”
“Pure obsidian. Several weight enchantments have been placed on it. Your level being higher I assume you have some investments in other status modifiers too.” The dark one said, sounding out a guttural chuckle.
[Warrior – lvl 223]
Ilea nodded, “Impressive hammer.” She said and smiled. While she might be able to swing it, the weight definitely made it too unwieldy for her. I’d like a hammer. Nodding to the two, she turned around again when the other guardian’s head sunk. “May I check out the sword as well?”
She grinned when his mood immediately improved, the big curved blade immediately handed over. Fuck, these guys could be disarmed with a simple request to hold their weapons. Then again their literal arms probably could dish out some damage too. The blade was lighter by far, well balanced at least as far as she could tell. A black sheen was on the blade and she tried swinging it at the air twice. Her dexterity likely allowed for the swings to look impressive, to an amateur swordsman but the dark one laughed when she handed it back.
“You should not use swords any time soon ash wielder.” It wasn’t an insult, she was pretty sure about that.
“I don’t plan to. It’s a well crafted weapon dark one.”
“You honor me.” It said and bowed, Ilea mirroring the gesture. She liked most of the dark ones she had met so far, at least the bulky steel obsessed ones like most of the guards and Goliath.
Maybe someday I’ll end up just like them. Guarding some village I chose to retire in. Not in many years at least. “Why are there more guards?”
“Feynor on the move.”
She nodded and bowed again, leaving towards the city. And two guards instead of one would deter them? She wondered. Neither of them looked terribly fast either, a simple fly or teleportation spell would allow anybody to bypass them entirely. Thinking of the only place she knew to hold books in Hallowfort, Ilea made her way to Catelyn’s shop. “The Hunter’s Den.” She murmured when she stood outside.
Opening the door, she rung the bell. A minute passed until the fox appeared out of nowhere, standing on her four feet on the big table situated in the center of the shop. “Welcome to… oh it’s you. Hey you leveled again! Still hunting knights?”
“Centurions this time.” Ilea replied, still unable to identify the fox.
“I don’t buy metal. Ask Goliath.”
“You told him about the cake?” Ilea asked, smiling as she put away her helmet.
“You did. Well it’s alright, I’ll try to find some for you once I go back. At this point it might take a long time.” She said.
Catelyn purred, “Worth waiting a thousand years for that.”
“You know you could just go south and get all the cake you want.” Ilea said and chuckled, “With all the gold you have.”
“Your kind does not do well with ours human. I’d be hunt down, as much is known.”
Ilea snorted. It wasn’t a real suggestion anyway. The fox seemed to be intertwined with this town too much anyway. She could certainly get her a place in Ravenhall or with the necromancers. Both them and Claire would probably agree to have the powerful dark one amongst them. “Wouldn’t take your power to convince them otherwise. Mine is probably enough already.”
“I believe your power will soon match my own. Do not underestimate the hate one species can hold for another, the hate one can hold for the unknown.”
Ilea nodded, “I get it. Hey I didn’t come for a philosophical discussion. Do you have maps of the north on sale, nothing too complicated. Maps as well as perhaps books, history related would be best I think. All about this territory.”
“Have you found a survivor perhaps? Of times long past?” Catelyn asked.
A shrug was her reply, “Perhaps I did. Why would you care?”
She purred again, “Why? Because I care about things awakening near this town.”
“Have you been following me?”
A purr again, “No. I have better things to do than follow you to places long forgotten little human. What I did however is see that you are wearing armor forged with Stonehammer steel.” She hopped off the table and walked towards Ilea, “Word of an ash wielder reaching Vineyard Cave has not reached me so I can only assume you have found another place to get that steel from. You don’t strike me as one to buy it. And the information you seek. It strikes me as odd that you would have waited so long. Helping someone out seems like a possibility.”
Walking around Ilea, Catelyn then appeared on the counter next to the bell, sitting up to be near Ilea’s face. “You are not a deceiver. If you have awoken someone from a time long past I would like to meet them.”
“To evaluate the danger?” Ilea asked in turn and the fox smirked.
“Yes. That as well. First and foremost to establish contact. If they are reasonable they could join our town as another powerful ally. Before they reestablished their long dead empire or join the Dark Protector and his forces.”
“Sounds like this has happened before.” Ilea smirked.
The orange fox sighed, “Words of a young human. Some of the people guarding this place have been kings or warlords before the great change. Others legendary adventurers or champions.”
Ilea crossed her arms, “What’s the great change? Goliath mentioned something similar before.”
“It is confusing… to think a people like yours, to keep records about all and everything. Would not teach their children of the light. Well… your kind does not live long. Thousands of years ago the mana in the north changed, the whole world I speculate. Some have confirmed it, coming from far away, others again denied it. Many theories exist to be sure. Us dark ones profited greatly, finding many new places to dwell, many more of us being born.”
Ilea nodded, “The mana density changed. That’s why the north is the way it is today. It was more like the human plains before this great change happened?”
“When light was no more. The stars aligning differently.” Catelyn added.
A lunar eclipse maybe? Or a meteor or something. Ilea theorized but it was an event from long ago. No librarian or scholar she had talked to ever mentioned it but to the dark ones it was apparently an important event.
“You were born before that?” She asked but the fox shook her head.
“No. Few remain who have been there. Goliath… yet he dwelled in his smithy then as he does now I am sure.” She chuckled, “What did you find then, Ilea of ash. Kalin? Rhyvor? The red church? Or perhaps even the Old ones?”
“What would that information be worth to you, one blessed by fire? To meet whom I found.”
Catelyn grinned but shook her head, “It is gold that you want?”
“Information seems worth more, coming from you.” Ilea suggested.
“Good. A trade then. What would you like to know?”
Ilea thought about it, “The names you mentioned, who are they? Kalin and the others.”
“Old powerful empires, kingdoms or organizations. Little is known about them, little matters now. Time has come and gone but secrets still remain, artifacts and perhaps even those powerful enough to survive.”
“What about the old ones? That seems a little too ambiguous to be an actual thing.” Ilea asked.
“Perhaps it is. One of your librarians might know more about them. I believe it is simply a way to describe those of great power that could not be assigned to one place or organization. Others believe them an actual group, a hidden alliance of sorts. Not that we don’t have enough real ones to go around.” Catelyn explained.
Ilea nodded, “Ever heard of the Golden Lily?” She thought it was worth a shot, even so far north.
The fox pondered for a while, “I have, yes. One of theirs has come to look for trade, two maybe three hundred years ago. I remember the name because it was a human. Rare for your kind to be that powerful, to come this far north.”
Ilea nodded, “I’ll tell you who and what I’ve found if you share what you know about them.”
“I have little to share. A female I remember. Above level three hundred… three twenty maybe? Mage… her armor was made of steel I have yet to identify. As if made from wood but I knew it to be steel.”
“What did she want?”
“She sought information on the territory, on dungeons, technology, ruins and monsters.”
Not so different from me then. “In what context did she mention the golden lily then? Do you know anything about the order itself?”
Catelyn blinked, “She used the name when introducing herself. A possibly powerful ally to the south I believe she said. Well they never returned. I assume she died somewhere out there. Humans tend to be arrogant, especially at that power. No offense meant to you ash wielder.”
“Oh no I definitely agree. Don’t think it’s a human exclusive though.” Ilea replied. A powerful ally to the south. So it’s at least big enough to be considered an ally to Hallowfort? Doesn’t really change anything. I myself could be a powerful ally to this town. Human arrogance. I get it.
“It is not.” Catelyn simply stated. “I will try to find more information but it is long ago and we have little knowledge of humans and their dealings. Too far away to get information.”
“Irrelevant as well.” Ilea commented, the fox shrugging. “I have found the king and queen of Rhyvor. Maro and Elana Invalar.”
Catelyn literally burst into flame for a second before calming down again, “Rhyvor. Good. Not the worst. They are alive… where are they? What are they doing?”
“Stuck in a dungeon until I clear out a bunch of triple mark undead.”
“Triple… I will not risk helping you. I hope you understand.” Catelyn said.
Ilea raised her eyebrows, “Well… I intend to kill them myself anyway.”
“Soon you will be able to meet such a challenge, I’m sure. Even I could try but without help. It would be dangerous. Impossible depending on the nature of those beings. How did you make contact?”
“I can get you in. As long as you have a teleportation ability but I think you just used it before.” Ilea replied.
“Good. I promised maps of the area as well as books. Can you get that before we go?”
The fox smirked, walking around her again, “Ilea child of ash. We rarely write things down. My mind is the best they could hope for. To learn about the north. When would you like to leave?”
“Soon, later today I guess. Thought to meet Goliath quickly. Anything else of note going on? Feynor are apparently on the move, whatever that means.” Ilea said.
The fox made an irritated noise, “Ignorant creatures. Without the Dark Protector they would have attacked long ago I’m sure.”
“What are they exactly and why would they attack Hallowfort?” Ilea asked. Other than Goliath she had little reason to care about the town. Most of the inhabitants were competent fighters, not comparable to a human city.
“Their physiology is similar to lizardmen with some important differences. The problem they pose is their almost fanatic belief of their own purity.”
Ilea sighed, “They attack and kill anybody that isn’t one of them?”
“Basically. Usually they stay further north, keep to their… rituals and worship. I don’t know what roused them but in the past thirty years they have been more and more active in these parts as well as further east and southwards.” The fox explained, “Well it should not be an issue. This town is well defended.”
“By you?” Ilea smirked, the fox doing the same.
“Precisely. Not just me human. Hallowfort is old, many of its inhabitants have lived here for hundreds if not more years. It is an oasis amidst the chaotic and dangerous lands of the north. The only reason they would strike is for misplaced notions of grandeur and pride. That is why I’m worried. Both sides would lose people. The dungeons take enough already.” She sighed and appeared on the table again, stretching and resting her head on her paws.
“Should you come across a war band, the town will pay you for information as well as your help in defending it, should anything come to pass. They will attack you one way or the other. Humans they hate most, next to dwarves and elves.”
Of course they do. Ilea was pretty sure their ancestors must have done something pretty vile to cause all of this. Or the creatures were just hateful and aggressive by nature or culture. “I’ll keep my eyes open.” She said, “So the Dark Protector, lord of edge, is forming an army to fight them?”
“That is an interesting title… they do own a lot of sharp swords… perhaps fitting.” She replied, “You are mistaken. The Dark Protector formed its army a hundred years ago. The war against the Feynor as well as clearance of dungeons to make living space for us dark ones has been going on for many decades.”
“Weird coincidence that the Feynor start looking south as soon as the dark army starts their war.” Ilea said.
“Perhaps. It is certainly part of the reason but not all. There are many groups involved, influential beings both dark ones and friends of the Feynor. Dwarves supplying steel and even humans I suspect. A war among other species… it is a profitable endeavor.”
Ilea nodded, “Any war is. Good to know I shouldn’t get involved. What’s your stake in all that?”
“My place is here. Hallowfort is one of the few places not torn apart by this conflict and I intend to keep it that way. Let them have their war. As soon as it ends there will be another. Perhaps the undead rise and fight the Taleen. Hallowfort will stand nonetheless.”
“You’re pretty confident in all this. The Taleen are focused on elven lands anyway, as far as I hear.” Ilea said, trying to get another angle on the story both Elfie and Neiphato had told.
The fox looked surprised, “It is true. A gruesome battle. Yet I fear what would happen should one side prevail.”
No further info but at least she agrees.
“To speak of more mundane things, an expedition is forming. Application can be done in the Abyss. I believe you have been there before. To delve into the Descent, to the fifth layer and beyond. Perhaps you might be interested.”
She smiled, “Thanks for the tip but I don’t have a good track record with expeditions. I think I’ll pass on this one.”
“Your decision. At least I hope more will return this time.”
“How come there are still people around if so many die up here all the time?” Ilea asked with interest. Hallowfort was by no means deserted but it was a rough environment.
The fox smirked, “That is precisely what makes this town so unique human of ash. A sanctuary if you will. For those sick of wars. Exiles, veterans or simply beings such as yourself. Adventurers I believe you call them. Explorers perhaps, pioneers.”
Ilea could feel the pride in her words. It reminded her of how Sulivhaan and Dagon talked about the Hand. They were the new elders now, at least until the lost ones showed up again. She didn’t dislike the sentiment, nor Hallowfort itself. Perhaps it was to the people of the north what Ravenhall was to the human plains. Sovereignty through power. The ultimate adventurer’s hub with just a little more freedoms and hopefully lack of prejudice than most other places. Ilea was sure Ravenhall wouldn’t fall, not against Baralia nor against the empire. Hallowfort though, she wasn’t so sure but looking into the near red eyes of the fox in front of her, she knew the battle for it would be vicious. Not a thing to miss. She thought, smirking.