I woke with a jump up to a pillar of lightning striking the observation tower in the middle of Verdant Village. A roar of thunder, a blinding clap of lightning, and I staggered around blindly, ears ringing. I fortunately managed to dodge the latrine hole, and leaned up against the walls of the cell to stop myself from falling over.
After a few moments to recover, I stood up. I could see the orange glow of flames behind some buildings, and there was a lot of yelling and shouting, people running around all over the place. The sound of steel on steel met my ears, and I decided that there was no way I was going to get caught here, and that I’d take my chances that nobody was watching me. What would they do to me anyways?
First, gotta see what’s going on. [Flashlight] to the rescue! Alright, time to escape, forget trying to be subtle about it. The walls seemed to be a bust – or not. They were holey, but solid, and I couldn’t fit myself through the holes. The door was just a simple door, and I was locked in by bamboo stopping the door from swinging out, like a barricade.
Hang on, could it really be that easy? Let me see. I stuck my hands out through the holes in the cell, and got a terrible grip on the bar. Inch by inch, I wiggled it out, slowly moving it piece by piece. This would take way too long under normal conditions, but the flames were rising, and screams of pain and agony were joining in on the clashing of steel, the crackle of flames, the cacophony of shouting. I had time to break out.
Yes, it was that easy! The bar fell out of one of the sockets, planting itself in the mud, still half-locking me in. That was enough for me to force the door open a hair, and squeeze out. Freedom! I turned to run away from the action, and paused.
People were hurt. People were getting hurt. People needed help. Was I just going to leave them? [Oath] was silent on the issue – it was a damn literal thing at times.
I struggled with the question, shifting from foot to foot as I debated.
They were bandits.
They were human.
They had kidnapped me.
They were in pain.
There was no time for a debate, just action.
My feet turned, and I found myself once again running towards a fire. I was totally going to get offered a [Fire Rescuer] related class at my next evolution. The screams were getting louder as I ran towards the action, and I turned the corner to a scene of butchery.
What immediately caught my attention were the gaping holes in the walls, blown in by some massive force. There was some sort of fight going on, much further away from me, but it didn’t seem to be headed by way. Much closer, and something I could actually manage, were people on the ground, thrashing and screaming. I ran over to the first person I could find, someone lying relatively still. There were dozens of people who needed help, and I wanted to start off easy.
I rolled him over, only to see his chest was a gaping, bloody mass of gore, eyes glazed over. He was dead. It hit me then, really hit me, that people were dying here, that this wasn’t an accident scene, but an attack of some sort. This wasn’t some accident, this wasn’t a candle being forgotten about, this wasn’t a random lightning strike, this was direct, visceral murder. And I had thrown myself into the middle of it, blood on my literal hands.
I threw up at this, dry, heaving sobs with a backlight of Verdant Village burning, crescent moons rising, bathing the scene in their crimson light, forest throwing crazy shadows. Someone ran towards me, stumbling, falling near me. [Centered Mind] brought me back to reality, [Oath] demanding I help. I shuffled over to the man who’d fallen, seeing a slim arrow coming out of his lower back. I grabbed the arrow, and unceremoniously yanked it out of him, tearing out a hunk of flesh from its barbed end. He started to scream and thrash, arms like whipcords. I fell back, and realized I should’ve probably killed his pain first. I went up, and hit him with a [Deaden Pain], then a fast, horribly inefficient [Detailed Restoration]. He started to slow down, but he was looking pale and green, deeply sick. His eyes started to bleed, and I realized there might be more to his injuries than I initially thought.
[Attack Bacteria] got me nothing, then I had a sudden, terrible thought. I tried [Cure Toxin], and got immediate, violent purchase, draining over 700 mana in a single skill. I waited a moment or two, trying it again, finding huge amounts of mana draining again. I checked my mana reserves. 669/2140. From escaping, and saving just one person. I looked around at where I was. There were dozens of people on the ground, some still moving.
I’d never manage to completely heal everyone. Thoughts for later, there was someone else to heal. No [Deaden Pain] here, I needed every last bit of mana I had, insane regeneration be damned. Stopped his leg bleeding horribly. Another with a gut injury, patched up the worst, need to see him again later. Another arrow, this person dead. Those arrows were poisoned, no doubt about it. More, and more. Some screaming for help, some thanking me when it was done. Everyone running away, flames petering out. They never got the momentum needed to be a full blazing, a raging inferno. A body, I dimly recognized as Gregorios. A woman grabbing me with one arm, screaming at me to heal her as she bled from the stump of her other arm. No mana left. I tried anyways, small spurts of [Detailed Restoration] trying to get enough arm left. She started to shake me, harder, then softer, life slowly dripping to the ground. An arrow skimmed past me, taking her, mercifully ending her.
What had been the point of trying to save her, if she was just going to be snatched away from me anyways?
The sound of fire and steel were vanishing, leaving the deadness of ash. Ash in the air, ash on the ground, ash covering all. Ash was the connection to death, ash was the finality, the last remnant, and coated in ash I found Iola, injured in a half dozen places. I ran to her, sliding in to get down and near faster, quickly assessing what had happened. [Detailed Restoration] on the injury most likely to kill her, still out of mana. My regeneration was at 4,358 points per hour, but in devastation like this, it wasn’t enough, not nearly enough.
“You.” Iola snarled at me. “This is your fault. You led them to us.”
“Led who? Let me heal you.” Iola tried to sit up, and somehow, even with the tiny amount of strength I had, I was able to push her back down, to lie down while I used [Detailed Restoration] as fast as I could to try and keep her together.
I stayed, because there was no more screaming. No more men crying out for their mothers, no more women begging to be saved. Their cries had turned to ash, ash that was continuing to clog the air, cloy my lungs, and punctuate the end of this farce.
I don’t know how long I sat there, trying to bring Iola back from the brink, when the crunch of boots on burnt bamboo came from behind. I whirled around, hand on my knife still at my waist, and saw a spear coming for me.
“Elaine!?” A sudden cry, and the spear veered off to the side, nicking my shoulder. The voice was familiar, he clearly knew me, but who was it?
“Hey Artemis! Elaine’s over here!” The Ranger shouted.
“Alright, if you’ll just move to the side, I can finish off this bandit.” Kallisto, that was his name.
“No.” I said, looking at his eyes behind his helmet.
“Excuse me?” He asked in disbelief.
“I said no. I won’t stand aside.” I had a filthy tunic, a knife, a healer class, and no mana. He had more than twice my level, a full set of well-used armor, a large shield, a spear in hand, and a sword at his waist. There was only one way this could end.
“Explain.” He said curtly, pointing the business end of the spear in my direction. Some of the other Rangers showed up at this time, watching.
“My self-created Oath. I swore I’d do no harm. I swore that I’d protect my patients. Right now, she’s my patient, and I’ll do everything I can to protect her.” My words and voice were much calmer than my knees, who were busy betraying my true emotions. [Calming Aura] and [Centered Mind] were working overtime keeping me from collapsing.
I got an amused chuckle from some of the other Rangers. Kallisto stopped pointing the business end of the spear at me. “And what do you think will happen next?” He asked.
“I dunno. I really hope it doesn’t start with ‘murder Elaine’ though.” I said.
All five of the Rangers there – I didn’t see Arthur, and with his bulk, he was impossible to mistake – suddenly tensed up. I felt an arm go around my chest, as a knife – my knife! Was held against my neck.
“I fucking knew it.” Iola said. “I knew you were a fucking spy. Nobody’s as dumb as you are. I should have slit your throat right then and there on the road.” Iola tightened her grip on me, knife once again gently pressing into my throat. “You damn government dogs just can’t leave us in peace. All we wanted is to be free! And yet, here you are, unable to leave us be, murdering us in our sleep. I hate you.” She spat at that.
“Relax, I’ve got this.” Artemis’s friendly voice rang out. Artemis! I was saved!
“You sure?” I identified Julius’s voice.
“HEY! Pay attention, or your little friend gets her throat slit! She’s good at healing, but not that good, and she’s out of mana! So listen up! You’re going to stay there, and we’re going to walk out. I see any of you move, she’s dead.” Iola was waving back and forth, trying to put me between any and all of the Rangers at the same time.
“Healy-bug. You’re free from your Oath at this point, right?” Artemis asked.
I will only take up a knife to defend myself or my patient. Defending myself from a patient – well, she wasn’t a patient anymore, not after threatening to kill me.
“Yes!” I gasped out, barely being able to get a breath out from her restricting arm.
What did she mean by that? Damonus, who bred wind weasels. Damonus, who took out my dad’s eye. Damonus, who Artemis insisted was a threat, and not to leave threats behind.
Damonus, who Artemis tried to get me to kill. The act she insisted was needed to become a mage.
Was I now Damonus? Was the warning that I was going to be killed in cold blood? That seemed likely, but not what Artemis wanted to tell me.
Ah. “Free yourself. You’re only independent if you can fight for it.” That was the message. I closed my eyes as I felt myself being dragged back. I only had one chance at this. What to use, what to use.
“You’ve got me?” I asked.
“Shut up!” Pain exploded in my head as Iola headbutted the back of my head. Nothing spare for a [Deaden Pain].
“Always.” Artemis said, with such conviction I knew it to be true.
My mana was regenerating fast, but I had one last trick up my sleeve. Well, in Iola’s hand, but same thing. My knife. It was my knife, and it still had the Arcanite in the pommel. The Arcanite attuned to me. Grabbing mana from Arcanite felt different for everyone. For me, it was like breathing in, and breath in I did, filling myself up with mana. It wasn’t a ton – just a few hundred – but it was enough.
It was a habit to say skills out loud, to let people know what you were doing, to stop people from getting ideas, or getting worried. It wasn’t needed. I pictured Iola’s knife-hand as corrupted, preventing healing from happening in the rest of her body, from letting me heal others. My skill wouldn’t work otherwise. It was close enough to the truth for my skill to find purchase, to work.
I started with [Deaden Pain], to give myself an extra moment of time. [Remove Tissue] removed a hair-fine slice of wrist, initially not noticed by Iola, bloody hand falling to the ground.
She did notice the rock that Artemis threw at her, accelerating to absurd speeds from her skill. She tried to dodge, to slit my throat, finding a stump where her hand used to be. An explosion of gore, and I was desperate to be freed from her dead grasp.
[*Ding!* Your party has slain an [Experienced Maid] (Earth, lv 166)// [Bandit Leader] (Fire, lv 75)]
“So.” Artemis started. “Fancy meeting you here.”