We’d left Sheep’s Ford behind a few weeks ago, and my training continued as we traveled along the road to Virinum.
I was running by the wagon when I heard a low rumble, like far-off thunder.
A second rumble, like thunder non-stop.
“Hey Artemis, quit it with the bolts. You’ll scare everything away!” I tried to score some points on Artemis.
She popped her head out of the wagon, startling me. I’d assumed she was on the opposite side of the wagon.
“Bolts? I’m not casting any bolts.” She said, as the rumbling got louder.
“Heads up everyone, something big coming!” Artemis yelled back. The horses got pulled off to the side, Origen dropped down and held the reins. Julius and Maximus jumped out, holding weapons. Kallisto was still inside, but from the bumping and thudding noises it sounded like he was putting armor on – or waking up from a nap. Arthur was nowhere to be seen, but he wasn’t seen if he didn’t want to be.
The thudding continued to get louder and louder, and around the bend came a monstrosity that had my jaw drop from the sheer absurdity of it.
A T-Rex was my first impression, but it was much smaller than I thought one would be. Maybe T-Rex’s were smaller than I thought, maybe this wasn’t a T-Rex. A middle-aged man with a military look and a beard the color of a dusky evening sky was riding on him, using leather reins and saddle, with dozens of bags and knick-knacks hanging off, swaying as he went. He was dressed in leathers, like guard leathers, and a Ranger’s eagle was pinned on his chest, sunburst instead of a circle around it. All normal, well, as normal as things got on Pallos.
No, what was stretching my belief to the breaking point, what was having me wonder if this whole Pallos thing was an intricate dream, was the entire getup were all brightly tie-dyed colored, a riot of colors that hurt the eyes to see.
I pinched myself, putting all my might into it. Only thing to do really.
Well then. This was going to get interesting.
“Hail the wagon!” The man on the dinosaur called, dinosaur slowing to a walk instead of a thunderous roar.
Julius exited the wagon, suddenly in a nice uniform, Ranger badge pinned to his chest. I eyed him suspiciously. That was a ridiculously fast costume change, and why was he in semi-formal getup? The other dude did look like a Ranger, sure, but he was on his own, and he had a sunburst eagle pin instead of a circle eagle pin.
Julius saluted formally, and I got a sudden education.
“Sentinel Bluebeard.” He called out with a clipped, precise voice. “What can Ranger Squad 4 do for you?” He asked.
Bluebeard brought his dinosaur to a full stop at this, saying “Whoaaaa” like you would a horse, did a double-take at Julius, threw his head back, and laughed.
“Ha! The local Ranger squad! Nice to meet you!” Bluebeard acrobatically leapt off his dinosaur, and landed in front of us. “Got time for lunch?”
Julius nodded stiffly, and I was getting the sense that his question wasn’t really a request. Everyone else started coming out, again dressed in nice clothes with their pins on. I eyed them suspiciously. They were never this well dressed or well behaved. However, I wasn’t about to open my mouth and potentially ruin things. Questions, so many questions for later.
We set up lunch, and Bluebeard contributed to the pot – fresh fruits and vegetables, a rarity on the road. I discreetly used [Identify] on him.
[Warrior]. Highest level I’d ever seen – higher than Artemis by a good chunk. I suppressed a whistle. Didn’t want to let him know I’d been peeking. What was the dinosaur?
[Abelisaurus]. I squinted hard. Seemed to be the exact same shade as Bluebeard, but I wasn’t entirely sure.
We settled in to a nice meal – dinosaur fortunately not thinking we were on the menu – and started chatting.
“What’s up with her?” Bluebeard asked, pointing at me. I bristled at that, but I was clearly the odd one out, being half their age and not wearing the Ranger’s uniform.
“She’s a local, hanging-on with us.” Julius answered, giving me a Look. “Powerful healer, and we’re down our frontlines.”
“Really? Does she have a [Restoration] variant?” Bluebeard asked Julius. I pouted internally. Would it be so hard to ask me instead of Julius? It was my skill after all!
Julius looked at me, and I could see him struggle internally. On one hand, he wanted to listen to the Sentinel’s request-order. On the other, he wanted to protect my secret, let me speak for myself. At that moment, I decided I’d follow Julius into hell. Or Hel. Or whatever the afterlife was here.
Hang on, I knew what the afterlife was, so—
“Yes, she does.” Julius finally answered. Rats! I was going to answer and bail him out!
“Nice!” He turned and looked at me, stripping away all my secrets, looking into my soul. I looked away – I couldn’t take the intensity of the gaze.
“Mind topping off my heals?” He asked.
“Wha-“ I started to ask what he meant, when Maximus jumped in, wrapping an arm around me. We were all getting along together, but this was awfully familiar behavior!
“Of course, she’d love to! For a small price. She’s independent! Free healing for us, a few coins for everyone else!” Under his breath, into my ear, he hiss-whispered to me.
“I’ll explain everything later. Just imagine a full-body heal on him, and do it.”
I didn’t get the urgency, but I went over to Bluebeard and healed him anyways. He looked perfectly fine, but [Detailed Restoration] did take, and I lost a few dozen points of mana.
[*Ding!* Congratulations! [Detailed Restoration] has reached level 79!].
“Ahhh, thanks! What do I owe you?” Bluebeard asked.
“What’s her name?” I asked, pointing to the remarkably well-behaved dinosaur.
“Katastrofi!” Bluebeard said animatedly. “She’s an Abelisaurus, we’ve been partners for decades! We’re bonded. She gets experience, I get experience, and vice-versa.”
“Can I pet her?” I asked. This wasn’t quite asking for payment, but I was getting there. Dinosaurs had always been ferocious problems, something to take up arms against or run and hide from. A tame, mini T-Rex? I was in dreamland, surfing on a brontosaurus as it plodded its way through the country.
“Sure!” Bluebeard was cheerful when it came to his pet dino.
I handed my dishes off to Kallisto, and we went over to Katastrofi, and like that, the ice was broken. Everyone but Artemis wanted to pet her. Artemis continued to stay far away, giving her the stink-eye.
Nobody had asked, and Bluebeard hadn’t volunteered, so I asked.
“What are you doing around here?”
Bluebeard looked down at me and chuckled. “How much do you know about Sentinels?” He asked.
“Well, you’re like super-Rangers, right? Work alone, do heroic things like Gideon?”
“Close! Locals are able to solve most of their own problems. Rangers travel around solving just about everything else. When there’s a problem Rangers can’t handle, for whatever reason, a Sentinel gets called in to solve it.” Bluebeard kindly, but arrogantly, explained.
“So, you’re better than a whole Ranger squad?” I innocently asked. Five pairs of eyes glared murder at me.
“Ehhh, yes and no.” He answered. “I’m specialized. I hunt down high-level Classers that are causing problems, bring them to justice. Speaking of, has anyone heard rumors of Fire-Foot Felicity?” I’d never heard the name, and from the shaking of heads, neither had others.
“Darn. Ship-thief – she sneaks into boats to steal their goods, and has some sort of skill that leaves fiery footprints in her wake – everyone’s too busy dealing with the fire to chase after her. She’s given two Ranger squads the slip, so I’m now trying to find her.” Bluebeard explained.
“Cool.” I said, not really having anything at all to say. “Why the… interesting… color scheme?” I asked, gesturing broadly to the riot of color.
“It lets people know that she’s tame, and gives people second thought before throwing skills at her. Otherwise, dinosaur on the road? I’d be killing attackers every other day.”
Seemed reasonable. Now, for the grand finale, the big question, the reason I’d been buttering him up.
“Can I ride her? As payment?” I pushed my charm to the max, wide-doe eyes, charming smile. Julius face-palmed, while Origen looked smug. Artemis had a look of slowly dawning panic, while Bluebeard looked amused.
“I see why you let her tag along!” He chuckled. I was torn. On one hand, I wanted to shoot him a withering glare. I was with them on my own merits, not because I was “amusing.” On the other hand, I really, really, wanted to see what it was like to ride a bloody (mini) T-Rex!!!!
The part of me that wanted a once-in-a-lifetime experience won out, and my smile remained, although I could feel it straining somewhat.
“Ah sure, why not.”
YES! I did my best not to shout and jump for joy like an idiot – I didn’t want him to think I was too immature to do this.
“Katastrofi. Friend. Friend.” Bluebeard gently coaxed her. She turned to me, and lowered her massive jaw in front of me, mouth slightly open. Her teeth were like swords, curved and vicious. Her breath was awful, clear indication of a carnivore washing over me. She sniffed a few times, a soft growl escaping her, the sound of it roaring in my ears. I nearly lost my nerve then and there – how insane was I!?
[*Ding!* Congratulations! [Centered Mind] has reached level 99!].
[*Ding!* Congratulations! [Calming Aura] has reached level 105!].
“Alright, first you grab this strap here like this…” Bluebeard talked me through climbing the intricate ropes and harness, all while Katastrofi patiently stood there, slowly shifting side to side. I scrambled onto the top, got seated on the saddle, and was queen of the world.
[*Ding!* Congratulations! [Learning] has reached level 96!].
Normally I’d be ecstatic at getting a level in [Learning], BUT I WAS RIDING A DINOSAUR!
Sure, Bluebeard was behind me, steering, but it was exhilarating, empowering, to be on top of a multi-ton killing machine, heads and shoulders and an entire body above everyone else, feeling every lumbering step vibrate through me. Words didn’t do the experience justice. Excitement! Fun! Adventure! We lumbered in circles for a few minutes, with me whooping and yelling in excitement, having the time of my life.
“Can I try to heal her?” I asked as we took another step bigger than I was tall, as I felt power and strength rumble through my entire body.
“Sure, why not.” Bluebeard shrugged. I put my best effort forth, but my skill felt slippery – that was the only word for it - and only a few points of mana trickled away. Was she in perfect health? Or was [Detailed Restoration] not for animals? Or could it be something else?
What would be needed for me to become a [Beast Tamer] myself? Forget that I was full up on classes, I wanted to know. I’d probably start with some small monster that I raised and tamed myself, something like a wind weasel, just… like… Damonus…
With that memory, with the thought that his life was on track, could’ve been something like Bluebeards when it was cut short, it was like a bucket of ice went over me. I shivered, no longer enjoying myself, and Bluebeard seemed to pick it up. He let me off, and I turned to him.
“Thank you.” I said formally, saluting him the way I’d been taught.
“You’re welcome!” Bluebeard helped me off, looking carefully around.
“Your utility should be an Inscriptionist of some sort, right?” He asked. A muscle spasmed in Julius’s face. Origen stepped forward and nodded. Bluebeard looked at him critically.
“Laconia? Must be, with those tattoos. Hey, mind giving my harness the works? Been awhile since they last got touched up.”
Origen didn’t say anything, verbally or not, he simply stepped forward and started looking intently at the setup around Katastrofi. His eyebrows twitching in a way that’d be muttering under his breath to anyone else, he started working his Inscriptionist magic. Or skills. Whichever one it was. I had too much [Medicine] in my head to try and learn yet another branch of magic, and if I was, Inscriptions wouldn’t be it.
Fireballs. Maybe beast taming. A cute, magical dinosaur.
Origen worked his magic for an hour or so, then stepped back, satisfied. Bluebeard took a look, and hauled himself back on.
“Strong work Son of Laconia. I’ve spent enough time here; I need to be heading out.” Bluebeard waved back, and started to head out, Katastrofi creating earth-shaking booms on every step.
“Good hunting!” Kallisto shouted after him. In just a few minutes, the sound of thunder was just a distant memory.
“Arthur.” Julius said.
“Yeah boss?” Like a magic trick, Arthur appeared in the middle of our group. I’d seen it a dozen times, and I still jumped at a mountain showing up. Like, if he was there all along, I wouldn’t be able to see Artemis. Did he just show up there? Did he move at light speed? Was he under the ground or something? So many mysteries!
“Why didn’t you say hi?”
“Well, I figured someone should hang out, keep an eye out, just in case. You know.”
We all gave him a flat look at that. We all knew why he hadn’t shown up.
Arthur tried a bit of a recovery. “Plus, he’s the Hunting Sentinel. I mean, you know…” He trailed off.
Artemis snorted. “Just because he’s what you’re striving to be, doesn’t mean you can’t say hi. Who knows, maybe he’d give you some tips.”
“Well, I was trying to see if I could evade detection from someone with as keen senses as him.”
Kallisto provided a nice distraction from that conversation.
“What I don’t get,” He started, washing yet another dish. “Is how you knew about the lady in Sheep’s Ford.
Julius sniggered, then threw his head back in a full-out laugh.
“I didn’t! I just gave you the dishes, and when you started doing them with no complaints, I knew the answer!”
That broke the silent tension that’d been omni-present ever since the amazing techni-colored dinosaur showed up broke at that, and we all had a good laugh at Kallisto’s expense, who was muttering about “entrapment”, and “next time I’ll bluff”, and other faux-dark expressions.
“Oh! Maximus!” I said. “What was all that about earlier?”
“Ah right. Lesson time Elaine. Artemis, if you’d be so kind as to give a demonstration for us as needed?” We all sat down in a little circle together, as Julius and Origen started packing up, while Kallisto kept cleaning.
Maximus straightened up, and assumed his “lecturer” position. He’d make a good teacher if he ever retired.
“As you know, some skills conjure the element, or the material, in question. Artemis, if you’d show us some Lightning please?”
Artemis dutifully made a bolt of lightning around her, moving so fast that it appeared to be a solid ring. I let out a low whistle. She was getting better and better – all of her practice was having results.
“Where does that lightning come from?” Maximus asked.
“Errr… Magic?” I hazarded a guess. I got an eyeroll at my poor attempt. Artemis was concentrating intently on her lightning, completely ignoring us.
“Yes, but no. There’s an entirely separate area of existence where all of the elements reside. When something’s removed with a Darkness skill, or otherwise removed because of a skill, it goes there. Similarly, anything that’s created from a skill, comes from there. It’s the grand exchange of how things work. Following so far?”
I nodded. Seemed easy enough.
“Now, for the most part, things that come in are rapidly brought back out. Artemis?” At that request, Artemis stopped her bolt, it winking out of existence.
“Fairly simple. Now, other material doesn’t get removed so easily. Artemis, if we could have a rock please?” Artemis dutifully conjured up a small stone.
“This won’t go away when Artemis stops focusing on it. It’ll stay. But!” At this Maximus raised a finger. “It won’t stay forever. It’ll slowly degrade over the next eight years or so into nothing. That’s why you can’t just wave your hand and make a building or town – you need to build it, or shape existing rock. It’s also why you can drink conjured water, but you’ll be a hair – just the tiniest bit, so small you couldn’t measure it – thirstier over time.”
“Ok. What does this have to do with me?” I asked.
“Your [Detailed Restoration] skill works in a similar matter. You restore the flesh, creating it out of nothing. However, slowly, over time, it starts to degrade. Now, flesh is a bit different, since the human body itself does a good amount of the replacing for you – only small amounts end up vanishing out, to potentially cause problems. That does mean, every once in awhile, someone who’s gotten their flesh restored needs a ‘pick-me-up’, to shore up any problems. You only need it once after a major heal, like 4-5 years after it’s happened, and just about any type of healer can manage it – but it does need to happen.” Maximus paused, thinking.
[*Ding!* Congratulations! [Learning] has reached level 97!].
“I know you did some major work on yourself – give it a try, see what happens.”
I focused [Detailed Restoration] on myself, like he suggested. I felt the skill take hold, and a single point of mana vanished.
“Well… maybe something happened. Or maybe that was a blister I healed.”
“Anyways, now you know. Another thing is – material that gets sent to this alternate realm, when it’s brought back, persists. It’s in such small amounts that it doesn’t really matter. Also, last thing to note – Sentinels, in the field, out-rank Rangers, by a large margin. Since they’re solo, they don’t have as many supplies, and they’re prone to hijacking Ranger squads if needed. That’s why we were so tense – we’re already a bit behind schedule, and we didn’t want to open our coffers or time to Bluebeard. Fortunately, he’s one of the good ones.”
“Why’s his beard blue?” I was curious, but I didn’t want to be rude and ask. Maximus seemed to know though, so I was going to plunge him for all the information he had.
“Copper. He grew up near a copper mine, got in the habit of stroking his beard with copper-dusted hands, and well, now he’s Bluebeard.”
Julius yelled at us to get moving – everything was packed up, and we were ready to keep going. I hopped up, and off we went! To Virinum! City of Clay!