Chapter 39 – Sheep’s Ford
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Julius sighed and rubbed his eyes. “A problem for another day. First off, we need to teach you how to defend yourself, then figure out how to work you into our formation. Ok, to start-” Julius was interrupted by Artemis storming over.

“No. Absolutely not.” She was thunder and fury.

“Artemis, she needs to know how to defend herself!” Julius protested, suddenly no longer the fearless team leader.

“Yes, she does. But not from you. You know how to fight like a speedster. You know how to lean on your stats, and you’re a great team leader, but you only have one style. She needs to learn how to fight like a mage. She needs to know how to fight when disadvantaged on stats. You rely on your fighting skills to help you know what to do, which doesn’t help someone with no skills. I’d bet one of the first things you’d say is ‘just trust in your skills, they know what to do.’ You’d break her in half, and spit out the chunks. No. I have experience as a trainer. I’m the mage, I know how she should fight. I’m teaching her.”

Julius held his hands up in surrender. “Fine, fine, she’s all yours, on your head be it.”

Artemis turned to me, a demon’s grin on her face, mad laughter practically radiating from her.

“Is there any chance that-“ I tried to save myself.

“Nope!” Artemis cheerfully interrupted. “You’re all mine now!”

 

 

“My first question to you,” Artemis began, slowly pacing around me, examining every inch, stripping away every secret with those lightning green eyes of hers. “is ‘What do you know about fighting?’ Any secrets from beyond this world?” I thought about that some. Not terribly hard though.

“Absolutely nothing. Besides don’t fight.” I said.

“Don’t fight eh?” Artemis mused over that. “Yeah, that’s about right. You especially, you don’t want to be in a fight. You have no skills for it, no stats for it, and no stomach for it.” Each word was like a boxer’s punch – weighty, but with some soft padding on it. Didn’t stop them from hurting.

“However, you do have the heart for it, which is the most important part. Now, normally I tell mages to get a grip, hit them with their strongest spell or skill if they have it, and run away if they don’t, until they do. You’re a bit special. I’ve never trained a healer who needs training to be on the front lines. So, first rule for you.”

She stopped pacing, turning to look right at me, boring into my very soul. “Don’t fight. If it looks bad, run. Run to one of us. Run into a stream. Climb up a tree. Yell. Flash your [Flashlight] skill. Do anything and everything needed to not be in a fight in the first place. Everything else – all the other training we’re going to do – will be based on you being cornered, on not having any other choice, or we’re throwing you in because we’re desperate. Rule 0 though – Don’t fight. Understood?”

I nodded to show my understanding. Artemis glared at me.

“You need to be verbal Elaine. This isn’t fun and games. Say things, don’t assume I can see that you’re nodding. Good way to get someone killed.”

“Yes Artemis! I understand!” I shouted out, with as much vigor as I could. I heard Kallisto break into laughter. I flushed with embarrassment, but kept steady.

“Very good. Alright, the rules say we can’t dictate other people’s skills, classes, or stats, and that we have to work with what we’ve got. That being said, you’re going to be putting your free points into Dexterity, Speed, and Vitality. Strength’s going to do almost nothing for you – we just can’t get it up high enough with everything else to make a difference. With that being said, at some point I’ll be throwing you to Julius, so you can learn a tiny bit of his style – it suits a low-strength build. I’ll have to consult with Maximus for more ideas.” Artemis thought a bit more, then nodded.

“Right, we’re going to start with standing.”

“Standing?”

Artemis then rearranged me into a particularly strange way, half-squatting, legs burning.

“Whyyyyy” I groaned out, fire spiking through my thighs.

“Because it’s good for you!” Artemis cheerfully replied. Sadist.

“Don’t give me that.” Artemis scolded me. Mind reader! Help! Not even my thoughts were safe! “Arthur would be 10 times worse. Do you want me to hand you over to him instead?” I shook my head, redoubling my efforts.

How to stand. How to run. How to fall. How to do push-ups, burpees, jumping jacks, sit-ups, and a dozen other exercises I thought I knew how to do, but turns out I didn’t. I still hadn’t seen a single weapon, punch, or piece of armor, but I knew enough to shut up and let the expert work her magic.

Arthur eventually came back with some game, some sort of small dinosaur, and there was much celebrating at the hot, fresh food. I devoured my share ravenously, eagerly inhaling each bite. Tasted a bit like gamey pork.

Kallisto had an idea as we were eating. “You know, we never have enough money to properly supply ourselves.” He started off. My ears perked up.

“We have plenty.” Julius said.

“Yeah, but we could have so much better stuff if we could just use what we confiscate.” Kallisto said.

“You know the rules. Down that path lies problems.” Julius said.

“We could have properly upgraded gear. Enough Arcanite to keep everything constantly fueled. And I know a way how!” Kallisto triumphantly pointed to me.

“Elaine!” He pronounced.

“Me?” I pointed to myself, unsure.

“Yes you.”

“What about me?”

“Well, you’re not a Ranger. You’re a guest, staying with us. And it’s not unheard of for Rangers to split the loot with tag-alongs that are helping them. So why don’t we split the loot with you, say, 80-20, enough to keep our bosses happy, then you can buy us things we need!”

Artemis, Arthur, and Maximus chimed in with appreciative noises. Julius’s forehead wrinkled.

“It’s awfully close to being a problem.” He hedged. The idea was getting to him. “Although Kallisto, you just want more money for the brothels. And Arthur, you’re just chiming in so you can pay bards to write more songs.” They both looked guilty at that.

I surprised myself by speaking up. “No.” I said. I got looks all around.

“Look, on one hand it smells. Sure, it might be following the letter of the law, but everyone involved knows the spirit’s getting violated. I’m not quite following why it’s a problem, but who knows if they’ll decide it’s close enough, and penalize us anyway? Also, I’d like to formally join up one day, and I don’t want to risk it.” That last part got a cheer from most of them. Artemis looked as pleased as a mother hen.

“If you really want to split with me, 10-90. It looks fair, it smells fair, I get a bit of extra money,” I stuck my tongue out at Kallisto, who’d looked crestfallen at that. “and a bit of extra supplies possibly ends up here. After all, it can’t be much worse than – “ I was interrupted by Artemis jumping in.

“Yes, great idea!!” She gave me a “shut up right now” Look, and I realized with a start the gifts she’d gotten for us might not have been kosher with Julius. I shut up.

“I probably don’t want to know what that was about. Fine. Elaine, while you travel with us, we’d like to offer you 15 in 100 of whatever loot we get that doesn’t belong to someone else. Do you accept?”

“I accept.” I said, as formally as I could. The sun was setting, and we decided it was time to turn in.

Nighttime was split into three shifts. “Used to be four.” Arthur confided in me. “Problem is, moment you’re down from eight, needs to be three shifts. Less sleep for all of us.” I wasn’t allowed to be part of a “full” watch yet – I was just an add-on for two other people.

Like this, we passed our days, time flying by like a sparrow, trotting along like the horses pulling the wagon. Skipping like Artemis made me do, instead of traveling comfortably inside the wagon. Travelling in the day to our next location – usually with me running by the wagon, working on [Running] and general fitness. Artemis had a particularly sadistic exercise where I needed to sprint ahead on the road, touch a rock, and sprint back – repeatedly. Who knew, even with magic being active made a difference. “The base body matters tons for skills and levels.” Artemis lectured me. “It’s why we’re stronger than some monsters – goblins and the like – at the same level, but weaker than other monsters – like most dinosaurs – who are the same level as we are.”

Setting up camp in the evening. Telling more tales around the fire. Learning how to fight from Artemis. Learning Ranger lore and knowledge while on watch. We practiced having my [Flashlight] on, flooding the area with light. We practiced with it off. We tried [Greater Invigorate], and that was a blessing for everyone involved on watch, although Julius muttered something about “not getting used to it.”

[Vigilant], [Flashlight], [Identify], [Learning], [Calming Aura], [Light Affinity], [Centered Mind], [Privacy], and [Greater Invigorate] all leveled up as we travelled along.

A few weeks went by, and we were well into fall, although heading north, so it balanced out, when we reached the village of Sheep’s Ford.

“Ok team, everyone here knows the drill, except for Elaine. So we’re all going to get the full lecture, for Elaine’s benefit.” Julius started out, as we turned the corner and saw the village in the near distance.

“First off Elaine, you’re not a Ranger. So you can’t claim to be a Ranger, and we’ll be seven different types of mad at you if you do say you’re one. With that being said, you can say you’re under our protection. I sincerely hope you won’t need to. You can be alone only if you have some sort of wide-ranging signaling skill. For Artemis, it’s her lightning bolts. We can see them anywhere in town. Arthur’s also ok to be on his own, he has whistling arrows. You see a bolt, you see a whistling arrow, you go to them. Origen, Maximus, Kallisto – any of you have a new signaling skill, or construct?” That last one was directed to Origen, and they all shook their head in denial.

“Didn’t think so. Elaine, do you have a signaling skill?” He asked, with one part great formality, three parts ‘oh dear lord the paperwork and routine I need to follow’. I suspected that this speech was given exactly once at the start of their round, and never again.

“Yup! [Flashlight]!” I demonstrated, making a pillar of light inside the wagon. It got brighter and brighter, until it started to be an actual pull on my mana and people complained.

“Right” Julius paused to blink the spots out of his eyes as Artemis rubbed them. “When I feel more confident in your ability to handle yourself, you can be solo. Maybe. Your skill doesn’t make any noise though, I need to think about this more. Until then, you’re with Artemis. Origen, you’re with Kallisto, Maximus, you’re with me. Kallisto, if you sleep with another married woman, you’re doing the clean-up for the next week.” A groan came from Kallisto as everyone else laughed.

“So how does it work when we’re in a village?” I asked.

“Well, first we announce ourselves.” Artemis jumped in, taking the role of teacher. It was boring at times in the wagon, even walking by its side only had so much appeal. “We see if the village chief, or mayor, or whoever their head is, has any obvious problems they want to tell us about. Then we take a few days of ‘vacation’, but we do it in a really obvious way, saying hi and being seen by as many people as possible. If someone has a slightly more subtle problem, or one that’s not so easy, we find out about it.”

Maximus had a few coins to add to the discussion. “It helps that we’re seen as well. It reminds people that the Republic is still here, that they’re helping. Helps with local stability.”

“Is stability a problem?” I got looks from everyone implying I’d asked the stupidest question on Pallos.

“Do you live under a rock?” Arthur asked.

“No, under a metal roof.” I shot back.

“The slave rebellion of 4782. The uprising of ‘90. The revolt in ‘75. Bandits. Deserters. Do I need to go on?” Arthur bit back, no holds barred.

“There was that mess in ‘70!” Maximus had to chime in.

“Also a slave rebellion in ‘68.” Julius added his wisdom to the mess.

“We cleaned up that mess earlier this round.” Artemis added in. I guiltily remembered the diamond she gave me that I’d lost.

“Alright, alright, I get it. Stability good.” I was never going to let slip I’d been offered a [Revolutionary] class.

We rolled into the village, and it was almost as easy as Julius had described it. Artemis had always vanished to the baths the moment she arrived in Aquiliea, and I was completely prepared to be right behind her as we tried to find a local spot here to do the same thing. We got a spot that wasn’t quite as nice as the baths had been, but were a sight for sore eyes, and a major upgrade from a freezing stream behind [Privacy].

“Ahhhhhhhhhhh.” Artemis let out a long, content sigh as she lowered herself into a tub of hot water. “I’m never leaving here.” I looked at the supply of firewood we’d paid for doubtfully. We’d be leaving in a few hours. “Hey Artemis-“ I started, only to get interrupted.

“Sh sh sh. No. This is time for peace, and quiet. And for Listening.” She emphasized that last word strangely.

“Listening?” I asked.

Artemis cracked one eye open to look at me, then leaned forward conspiratorially. “Yes, listening. I wasn’t kidding when I said I’d gotten tons of information from just listening. Pair of women Rangers, here? No Kallisto trying to hit on them? No Maximus being social? No Julius and his stern look? We’re peaceful. We’re clearly relaxing. You have [Calming Aura]. If a woman has a problem, one that can’t be shouted from the roofs like a pimp forcing prostitution or something, it’s here she can go and talk with us. It’s here we can hear it, all with the excuse that we’re taking a relaxing bath, that we’re off duty. It’s here where you occasionally overhear interesting rumors. Secret is Elaine, we’re never off-duty. So relax the best you can, and Listen.

So, we did just that for three days. We heard no interesting rumors, we got no news, we didn’t get called for some major problem. We just let the dirt and the grime and the stress of the road wash off, and most of our spare coins washed out with them. The perils of needing to pay for everything.

[*Ding!* Congratulations! [Pretty] has reached level 95!].

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