The fact that I’d given the oh-too-perfect elves a moment’s pause at my numbers was deeply satisfying. Serondes was the first to recover.
“Has to be a restriction skill, and narrow in scope.” He thoughtfully tapped his lips. “Mind sharing?”
“Eh. The full details I’d like to keep to myself, but yeah, it’s when I heal.”
“You sure you can’t tell us? I’ll brew you up a drink!” Aegion tried to ‘tempt’ me.
“Are you trying to bribe her or threaten her?” Serondes snorted.
That got a weak chuckle out of me and Awarthril, even Kiyaya gave a little barking laugh.
“We should sit down.” Awarthril said. “It’s cozier.”
We sat down around the table - how did they get this while camping? - and I eyed the spread.
Cheese, dates, grapes, fruits, breads and sandwiches, a jug of wine, fine glasses to drink out of - courtesy of Serondes, I was sure - and more were spread out on the table. I’d been to parties with worse food, and these elves were casually camping out in the middle of nowhere.
“Cordamo!” Aegion yelled as we were sitting down, and the snake, faster than I could process, practically snapped into his hand, curving like a bow.
Actually - the couatl was the bow, as a shimmering light extended from his head to the tip of his tail. Aegion summoned a large, nasty-looking arrow, and aimed the bow straight up. Barely spending a moment to aim, he loosed the arrow, Lightning crackling as sparks flew away from him.
“Show-off.” Awarthril commented, grabbing a nice cheese. “Three medium Arcanite says it lands on your barrels again.”
Aegion squinted up into the sky where his arrow had gone.
“I’ll take it.” He said, hurrying over to his barrels, brewing his noxious drinks.
“So Elaine! What are your total stats after the buffs?” Serondes asked.
“Hmm? Oh. Uhm.” I did some quick math, adding my [Oath]-boosted stats to my total, and throwing in [Nectar] to boot.
“Around 850,000.” I said, tallying them all up. I hadn’t quite realized just how high they were getting. I’d break a million stats soonish.
And to think, when I’d unlocked the difference between 16 stats and 24 stats was gigantic.
“That’s frankly amazing.” Serondes gave me his full attention, and I preened a bit under his gaze.
“No kidding.” Awarthril agreed. “Sorry about all the yelling earlier. Serondes here,” She made a little jerking motion, which I recognized as her kicking him under the table - and his pained yelp attested to it connecting. “Occasionally forgets that we’re a team, and need to discuss things together. Still. Tell you what. We could use you, if nothing else than to make Shimagu nervous, and reveal themselves. Only Shimagu with wills forged out of the hardest crystal will see a healer who can kill them by accident, and keep their cover.”
Awarthril gave me an encouraging gesture as she spoke, and I grabbed a tasty little cucumber sandwich. Real food! Tasty, tasty bread! I hadn’t had anything more complicated than roast monster, supplemented by the occasional random fruit or berry in months! And here the elves were, casually having a whole feast laid out while they camped. Good stuff! I had to figure out how to make this my reality when I was back in Remus, doing Sentinel stuff.
The taste and the flavor exploded in my mouth, reviving long-dead tastebuds and neural pathways. My tongue almost had a seizure, it tasted so good and fresh.
Also, her little gesture sent me into an absolute tizzy. She likes me! She cares! NO! I’m reading way too much into this!
“Aren’t you worried about a Shimagu taking one of you over?” I asked what I thought was the obvious question.
Serondes gave me an almost affronted look. Awarthril just looked confused. Aegion actually responded.
“Um, no? Why would we be? There’s no way they’d try to take one of us over.”
That seemed like an entirely foolish oversight, but I wasn’t about to start arguing or digging deeper into it. However, my image of the perfect elves had broken. They had a serious hubris problem.
I looked around the campsite. They were completely out in the open, no measures taken to hide or conceal their campsite’s presence. They honestly seemed to believe that nothing was going to attack them.
With an almighty thud, a pterodactyl landed in the campsite, half-landing in the fire, one wing knocking over one of Aegion’s barrels. The foul smell emanating from the spilled barrel almost put me off my lunch.
Then again, I’d been dealing with spiders and other creatures of the Below Levels for months, and real food? I had no issue powering through the smell.
“Ha! Pay up! It landed on your barrels!” Awarthril crowed out in triumph.
“No way! It totally landed in the firepit! One wing hitting one barrel doesn’t count!”
Both of them turned to Serondes, who sighed at being the tiebreaker.
“It didn’t land in the barrels.” He said. “It clearly landed somewhere else. Awarthril, it’s quite a stretch to imagine its landing spot was the barrels, in spite of a wing landing on it. As such, I must rule in Aegion’s favor.”
With good grace in defeat, Awarthril handed over some Arcanite to Aegion. He didn’t revel in his victory or rub it in, just pocketed the gems with a smile.
Serondes gave a sharp, long whistle, rapidly changing the pitch by small amounts in a musical rendition. As he whistled, the carcass of the pterodactyl started to fall apart into pieces, breaking up into choice cuts. Without a single motion, simply a thought, each piece of meat was pushed up and wrapped by Lava emerging from below it, slowly cooking the remains.
It took me a moment to fully process what had happened. Not because the actions were strange, but due to the sheer skill involved.
Aegion had, somehow, spotted a high-flying pterodactyl. He’d made a snap-shot at it, perfectly timing it with his skills and abilities to not only hit the bird, but also overcome any defenses or evasive maneuvers it would make. Not only that, but he’d accurately managed to predict how and where it’d land at the end of its trip, neatly delivering dinner into our campfire.
Literally. The only way it would’ve been more perfect is if it could just stay there, and end up fully cooked.
The level of skill and prowess was mind-boggling. I decided to recenter myself with more mundane activities - and possibly work on [Butterfly Mystic].
“Hey Serondes!” I called out. “Mind sharing how you cook things? I’m often cooking with my Radiance magic, I’m curious how you do things.”
He looked pleased to be asked.
“Well, it’s not terribly difficult. See, for each slice I estimate how thick it is, then I estimate the temperature and the time needed to cook the slice how I’d like. Then, I…”
I listened, enraptured as Serondes explained how he cooked things. It wasn’t anything special, but I liked the sound of his voice, and I was curious if I’d learn anything. Plus, [Passionate Learning] might get a level. Although, that was fairly ambitious, considering how high the level was. It wasn’t that easy to raise a level 300+ skill, no matter how many multipliers I had going.
Like a well-oiled machine, Aegion walked from cooking slab of meat to slab, shaking a mix of spices onto the pterodactyl steaks. Serondes, his musical voice never pausing, opened up the Lava cookery to each one, just in time for the spices to hit.
Sadly, I didn’t get a level out of [Butterfly Mystic]. That would’ve been too easy.
“Right! Let me clear this all off. Thanks for dinner Aegion!” Awarthril said, busily bussing things off the table. They didn’t have a wagon or anything, where were they putting it all?
I watched Awathril put a full plate directly into a crate… then some bread, and a jar of jam. She reached in, and grabbed plates and silverware, seemingly grabbing from the same spot she’d dropped the other food in. An idea sparked.
“Is that a dimensional crate?” I interrupted Serondes to ask, with no small amount of awe. I ignored the frown he shot my way. Dimensional rings were one of the first things I’d hoped to see in Pallos, and I’d had no luck whatsoever.
“Hmmm? This?” Awarthril asked. I nodded furiously.
“Oh, it’s just a Spatial Box. It’s not a particularly good one, just a 60:1 compression ratio.” She said, giving the box a light kick. I had no doubt that she could utterly pulverize the box if she wanted to, Spatial magic or not. “We couldn’t afford a better box with a 200:1 or an epic one with a 4000:1 ratio, so we’re stuck with this piece of junk. Why, do you have something better on you?”
My jaw must’ve been catching flies, because Aegion tossed something real tasty inside.
“He shoots! He scores! The Titanderby champion returns!” He crowed, throwing his hands up in the air, doing a little running dance around one of the Lava-slabs.
I instinctively bit down on what he’d tossed, the candy bursting in a sweet explosion of flavor. I started munching on it full-speed.
“This… is really good?” I said, puzzlement in my voice. How were his drinks so bad, and his candies so nice?
Aegion acted wounded, dramatically clutching his curly horns with one hand, and the other placed over his heart like a Shakespearean actor.
“Oh ye of little faith! Of you who don’t believe in my beautiful delicacies! No words could wound me more!”
“Oh lay off her.” Awarthril said. “You practically poisoned her the first time you gave her anything, it’s a miracle she didn’t run away.”
Aegion went back to working his dubious magic on the barbeque we had going, as Awarthril turned back to me.
“How do we keep getting interrupted?” She asked rhetorically. “Now, about that storage item…?” She asked, with all the hope of someone with too much stuff, and not enough space.
I shook my head.
“I don’t have one. Heck, until today I didn’t know they existed!”
Awarthril’s face fell, and she shrugged philosophically.
“Ah well, it happens.”
Of course, I should’ve known. With how Lun’Kat’s lair warped space, and was much larger on the inside than the outside, it should’ve been obvious that storage items, like the Spatial Box, were possible. Humanity just hadn’t figured it out, or, more likely, didn’t have nearly the levels needed to work such a magic.
Awarthril’s forehead creased in worry.
“But where’s the rest of your stuff?” She asked, looking me up and down like I was hiding a whole wagon under my armored skirt, or the egg I was holding would unfold into a tent.
“Lost some here, lost some there, this is literally everything I have.”
“No. No no no no NO! We simply can’t have that.” She said, grabbing my hand and pulling me along with her irresistible strength. “Since you don’t have your stuff, and I apologize for this if I’m wrong, can I take it to mean you haven’t had a good bath in some time, and your, ah, current odor is not your natural one?”
Please Papilion, Thanatos, White Dove, really, anyone, I’m ready now. Please let me just die of embarrassment. The hot elves think I stink. Send me a lightning bolt from the sky. Have the ground open up and eat me. This is a great time for a precise meteor strike exactly where I’m standing.
To be fair, after a few months in the tunnels, running, bleeding, sweating, and more, I wasn’t surprised that I was more than a bit ripe, especially since the armor had gone on and hadn’t come off the entire time. The only time I wasn’t shedding a stench was in Lun’Kat’s lair… except who knew when the [Tracks-be-gone] skill had ended? I’d assumed it was still running, but for obvious reasons I hadn’t tested it. Had I left a distinct scent all over her stuff? Was she going to sniff me out to kill me and retrieve part of her egg collection?
Was I going to get sniffed out and killed for leaving a stinky mess in her lair?
Thinking about it, they were the same level of badness - dead.
Or - had she known the entire time!?
I focused back on where Awarthril was pulling me. Serondes was coming along, Awarthril having grabbed his arm with her other hand, leading us to a small pond.
“Right, Serondes, one hot tub please.” She glanced at me quickly. “With walls.”
“My talents are more than just for making baths.” He muttered, as Lava started to rise around the pond and cool, hardening into rock. More Lava went under the pool, heating it up.
“Yes.” Said Awarthril sweetly. “Your talents are also great for cooking.”
Serondes opened his mouth to keep protesting, saw that I was hanging onto every word the two of them said, and closed his mouth.
“Should be all set now!” He said. “Elaine, just remember who made the bath.” He said, throwing me a roguish wink, spinning around with a twirl of his robes, and stalking off back to his barbeque.
Awarthril put a hand on her hip, wagging a finger at his retreating back.
“Ooooh, one of these days…” She said, leaving the thought unsaid. She turned back to me.
“Come on, let’s go.” She herded me into the lovely, pool-turned-hot tub, like a mother hen watching over her charges.
“Right! Let’s get that armor off, and get you a nice soak. Months without a bath? You must be dying in there, you poor thing.”
Awarthril managed to say all that without a shred of condescension, just pure mothering concern. She fussed over me as I put the egg down in a safe, warm spot, [Egg Incubation] helping slightly with placement and such, and started to strip the armor off.
I was fortunate that I’d delayed on using my [Mend Armor] for so long, even though that meant I’d spent time with broken armor, with a nice big puncture wound through the middle. Otherwise, all the clasps would’ve been dented, broken, or otherwise unusable to the point where I would’ve needed to be cut out of my armor. Which would make this whole embarrassing experience even more humiliating.
Still, I managed to peel my first gauntlet off, and then the stench hit me. I had to hand it to them, the dwarves knew their craft. At the same time, blood, sweat, random bits of spider and other crap had slowly, over time, infiltrated my armor, mixed with my tunic, and rotted. The smell made me retch, and even Awarthril wasn’t immune.
“Aggalgalglaglag. By the unchanging council that is foul.”
We looked at the slime slowly dropping off my wrist, a few sturdy threads of clothing trying in vain to keep it all together.
I sighed, then immediately regretted it as more noxious air entered my lungs.
“Ugh. Oh. Ugh.” Awarthril said, throwing dignity to the wind and pinching her nose. “I never thought I’d dislike my enhanced sense of smell. Elaine darling, I’m sorry for this, but…”
I didn’t even have time to blink before finding myself stripped naked and dunked under the water. Awarthril was fast. Benefits of being a physical classer, and a strong reminder just how out-classed I was.
“Stay there! I’m going to get you some soap!” She called out, vanishing around the bend.
While I wasn’t a huge fan of my bodily autonomy being violated like that, but I was in a bath.
A hot bath.
At long last.
I let myself settle down, the warm water loosening my muscles, then started to scrub.
I had a feeling I was going to be at this for a while.