Several weeks passed. We camped in the wilderness. Visited small villages scattered throughout, solving problems. Sometimes the problems were of a critter type, some beast preying on cows that they couldn’t quite catch. Sometimes it was more an internal type, diffusing an argument before it could turn ugly, before it turned into a generational blood-feud. We met up with some other travelers, joining and leaving as time took us. Artemis continued to put me through my paces, and I could feel and see myself getting stronger, getting fitter. I always could run for hours, but now it was more on me and my body, and less me leaning on my skills. The Autumn equinox came and passed, the only real change we noticed was the weather getting a bit rainier. I loved warm climates.
We were a few days out from Virinum, camping out in a small forest. I handed my dishes to Kallisto – he was still on dish-duty – and flopped back, looking up at the stars.
They were gorgeous. No matter where I’d been on Earth, there was light pollution, making it hard to get a good look. Sure, there were pictures of the sky, but nothing – nothing – beat the visage of the full night’s sky, in all its unspoiled splendor.
One by one everyone else finished up their dishes, handing them off to Kallisto, who good-naturedly grumbled under his breath about it.
“Hey Elaine.” Arthur started, pulling out a mushroom from his pouch. I bolted upright, mouth contorting into a wide grin. Lesson time! I leaned forward.
“What do you have there?” I asked, looking over the mushroom, absorbing every detail. It was teal, with pin-point salmon-colored spots scattered throughout.
“It’s a full-mushroom.” He said, passing it to me. I gingerly held it in my hand. I felt a tingling sensation start in my fingers, where I was holding it, slowly spreading down through my palm.
“It tingles.” I commented, twisting and turning to get a better look by the light of the fire.
“Yeah.” Arthur said non-committedly.
“Why’s it called a full-mushroom?” I asked, curious. Name like that, had to have a story behind it.
“Because if you eat it, you’ll be full for the rest of your life!” He threw his head back and roared with laughter, at some mysterious joke I didn’t get.
What I did get was that this mushroom was powerfully magic. Never have to eat again? Never have to worry about food? I probably could still eat – nothing would make me give up mangos – but not needing to?
Perfect! Down the hatch!
I tilted my head back, throwing the mushroom gently up and into my mouth. Julius’s arm flashed over my, faster than a striking snake, knocking me back down from the slipstream. My head exploded with pain hitting the ground, and I could see stars.
“Idiot.” Origen said. Yikes, a precious word from him as an insult?
I sat back up, rubbing my head. Arthur was laughing his ass off.
“Arthur! Not funny!” Julius yelled at him. “Elaine! You thick dumbass. This is one of the most poisonous mushrooms around! You’ll be full the rest of your life because you’d be fucking dead!” Julius yelled at me. My shoulders slumped, I looked down. Not a fun prank. Lesson very much learned – those were incredibly poisonous mushrooms.
Shaking off my near-death experience, and life-saving by Julius’s hands, I changed the topic.
“Who’s turn is it tonight?” I asked.
“Mine!” Arthur enthusiastically called. There were groans around the circle. I mentally groaned, but said nothing.
As we travelled, the other Rangers realized that the stories I’d told that night weren’t the end of my stash – they weren’t even the beginning! I could literally tell stories for a week straight, and have more, and [Recollection of a Distant World] had been helping me, drawing more knowledge out, making the stories crisper, fixing my singing when I sang a song, improving my recall.
It nearly came to blows when deciding what stories I’d tell around the campfire, and to forestall Julius “fixing” the problem by un-inviting me, I came up with a rotation system. Everyone got a night where they could ask for a favorite of theirs, for a song sung again, or for something new. It worked well enough.
Arthur though, he was obsessed with Achilles. Without fail, he’d ask for the Iliad, and I’d recited it so many times I could probably do it in my sleep.
“What would you like?” I asked, knowing the answer before I said anything. I asked anyways. Maybe this would be the night I was spared.
“The Iliad.” He pronounced, not a single moment of thought. I shook my head at the predictability. I took a deep breath and started.
“Rage! Sing, Goddess, Achilles’ rage….”
I started belting out the Iliad. While everyone complained, it didn’t stop them from listening, drinking every word, more like a well-known beer than a fine wine.
Origen was working on re-upping the soundproofing enchantments on the wagon, and I was about a third of the way through when a lethal Artemis rock went whizzing by, inches from my face. My concentration broke at that, and I yelled at her.
“Hey! Watch it! That almost hit me!” I protested. I’d been more generous in the past, but dozens of fired projectiles with no results had me a little less understanding.
Homer’s spell broken; Julius glared at Artemis. He didn’t like things interrupted more than anyone else.
“You know the rule…” He started.
“Yeah, yeah. I shoot something, I check what it was. ‘Since I clearly thought it was something, it should be my responsibility.’” She recited, getting up.
“Right, where was I?” I checked. Skill helped with telling the story, not remembering my place in it. [Lost and Found], strangely enough, did help with me ‘losing my place’, and I was following that thread when an almighty lightning bolt went off in the bushes.
“Attack!” Everyone – including Origen – yelled out, as Artemis came sprinting back to camp.
“Goblins.” She yelled out, getting back to camp.
I’d been dumping some points into Vitality, and with the increased perception, I was able to just barely follow what happened next, Xaoc, God of Chaos, enjoying the confusion.
Maximus, master of all weapons, grabbed a pot and jumped up, armed and ready. Artemis kept running to the wagon, slamming into the side and touching it. I saw veins of power light up, glowing and moving through the wagon as she breathed in, and stomped her foot down. At that, earthen walls started to rise all around us, except for one gap, large enough for two men to hold.
Maximus moved to that gap, and almost immediately was beset upon by goblins. First time seeing them here. They looked just how I imagined – small, ugly, slightly mishappened creatures with snarling jaws, bright red eyes, and a vicious streak. Julius showed up next to him, spear in hand, and the two started fighting the goblins.
“Artemis! One load!” Julius cried out. I had no idea what that meant, but it clearly meant something to Artemis, who contributed by throwing the occasional lethal pebble into the growing crowd of goblins trying to break into our make-shift fort.
“Elaine! On Maximus! Heals!” Artemis called out from her vantage.
I moved, while seeing what Kallisto and Origen were doing. They were throwing on armor as fast as possible. Arthur was nowhere to be found – how did he hide so damn fast, in an enclosed space!? The occasional goblin who fell, choking on their own spit, blood pouring from their eyes, with an arrow in them attested to Arthur’s contributions, but given that the arrows seemed to come from all around, it was hard to tell where he was.
I ran as fast as I could up to where Julius and Maximus were holding the line.
“Tunic off!” I yelled. I still needed direct contact to heal someone, and while that wasn’t normally a problem, there was no way I was getting skin contact on people moving that fast. My best bet was a hand on their back. Julius and Maximus complied, ripping their tunics off when they had a chance, and I darted forward, touching them quickly, hitting them with [Detailed Restoration]. It was terribly inefficient – I didn’t know exactly what I was healing, where I was healing, what the problem was, or any of that, so it sucked down hundreds of points of mana, when focusing and doing it properly would probably only do a few dozen.
I turned off notifications. No time for them, I’d see what I got later.
Julius was moving so fast I couldn’t process or follow what was happening, nor did I think I could reliably get a hand on him, so I focused on Maximus, who’d somehow lost the pot and was holding onto what only goblins could call weapons.
Well, goblins, and Maximus.
He took a nasty hit to his shin, dropping to one knee. I immediately fixed him up with [Detailed Restoration], knowing exactly what I needed to fix, then hit him with a [Deaden Pain]. He didn’t need to know about pain if I was able to immediately fix him up.
Up, down, left, right, Maximus was showing me what it meant to be a physical Ranger, near the peak of human existence. I’m sure Julius would show me something similar, if he wasn’t so damn fast there was only a blur.
As good as they were, they were only two, and a half-dozen goblins could fit in the passageway at once, crawling, standing, stabbing, foul blades heading towards us. Maximus took another bad injury, stumbling, my hand no longer touching him. I leaned forward to hit him with another heal, to bolster his reserves with a [Greater Invigoration]. A goblin took the chance, lunging towards me, rusty death heading for my eye.
I had faith. I kept going, leaning into it, being rewarded as a lethal whizzing went past my ear, his (her?) head blowing up in a spray of gore. I hit Maximus with [Greater Invigoration], healing his leg at the same time.
“DUCK!” Someone yelled. We hit the ground, and Artemis, with a voice I’d never heard, laced with power, announced her spell, the doom of goblins.
With that, a surge of lightning came from her, hitting the front ranks of the goblins, bouncing back and forth between them, arching back to hit goblins in the back, hiding goblins, goblins we couldn’t see. Goblins dropped, ears smoking, as Kallisto and Origen jumped over us still crouching, taking a stance together, shields locked, spears between them. A shield-wall of two, but given that the earthen walls were on either side, a shield-wall of two, heavily armored, was all that was needed.
Julius slowed down enough for me to get a look at him, dirt, sweat, and blood mixed all over, several shallow cuts bleeding. I stepped over, touched him with a [Detailed Restoration]. He nodded appreciatively, then stepped back, carefully scanning, looking for something. Artemis was standing on top of the wagon, having somehow climbed up there, looking utterly drained and exhausted. I wanted to give her a boost of [Greater Invigoration], but the adrenaline was leaving me, leaving me shaky.
“Look alive Elaine. Artemis’s walls are good, but the sneaky buggers might try to break through one. Here. Take that wall over there, and watch it. Yell if you see something.” Saying that, Julius started to jog over to the fighting, at a reasonable, non-superhuman pace.
I leaned against the wagon, shaking, watching the wall in question. The smell of lightning was thick in the air, the clashing of blades and snarls of goblins fading into the distance.
“Healy-bug.” Artemis croaked out, sitting down on top of the wagon, legs dangling off to the side.
“Yeah?” I asked back, Artemis clearly wanting something.
“Catch me.” She said, sliding off the wagon like a ragdoll.
Ack! I needed more warning than that! Artemis fell on me, tangled set of limbs falling together in one heap.
“Whyyyy.” I moaned out, crushed under Artemis.
“Wanted. Down.” Artemis breathed out.
I’d had enough of exhausted Artemis, and I hit her with a [Greater Invigoration], draining the last of my mana as I did so.
“Whoop! There it is! Exactly what I needed! Thanks healy-bug!” Artemis jumped up, full of energy. I was still mushed, feeling bruised and used, giving Artemis the stink-eye. She stretched, looked at me, and grinned.
“Hey, it’s not being paranoid if you’re right!”
From my lying position, I flipped her the bird.
After some time, almost everyone came trickling back.
“Where’s Arthur?” I asked, looking around, trying to suppress the panic rising inside of me.
“Hunting down the last of them.” Kallisto answered, voice laced with exhaustion.
With that concern out of the way, I looked at him and Origen, encased in armor.
“Do you need any healing?” I asked, doubtful that anything could’ve made it through. Kallisto shook his head, but Julius overrode him.
“Everyone, get some healing from Elaine. We have a healer with us, we’re going to take full advantage of it. Elaine, I want the works. [Detailed Restoration], [Cure Toxin], [Kill Germs], and if you think you can spare it, [Parasite Removal].” He cocked his head, thinking. “And anything else you think we might need.”
“[Attack Bacteria], [Parasitic Remover]” I muttered under my breath, everyone lining up, Arthur somehow showing up to be first in line. How did he do that!? He was supposed to be hunting goblins!
Arthur guessed Julius’s question. “Almost all dead boss. One or two might have escaped, but they’re not a threat to even a lone farm.”
I touched him, skills barely having any impact.
“And for you, dear Arthur,” I began. “A heart. For courage!”
A stormy look came over Arthur’s face at that reference, while hoots and cheers came from everyone else.
Origen was next, and [Detailed Restoration], [Cure Toxin], and [Attack Bacteria] told me in no uncertain terms that he’d been hit, and goblins had nasty shit on their weapons. I glared at him.
“You were hit. You were hit more than once, and you just wanted to walk it off? No. I’m here to heal you. None of this tough-guy stuff, it’ll just get you killed one day. I lost my best friend that way. You will show up for healing after a fight.” I continued lecturing him, not caring that he was heads and shoulders taller than me, able to break me in half like a twig, even though he wasn’t fighting-focused. Julius just raised an eyebrow at me, but let me say my thing. Good. I would’ve steamrolled over Julius in the same way.
Artemis came up next, lips twisted in an amused fashion. “Hang on.” I said. “I’ll be right back.” Saying that, I popped into the wagon, looking around. Where was it – ahha! I came back out carrying the item, getting raised eyebrows all around.
I touched Artemis, healing a minor bruise or two, before giving her the item.
“For you,” I started. “A pillow. So you can land on something else when jumping off the wagon.” I shot her a death glare as the Rangers gave her grief. Julius decided to join in on the fun.
“Artemis, sounds like you’ve been slacking on your physical training. Maybe we should do some practice jumps…”
The look on Artemis’s face went from promising murder, to thoughtful, to giving me a nod, acknowledging that the payback was fair.
Maximus came up, needing almost no healing. I’d been healing him the entire fight.
“For you, Maximus, a weapon.” I said, handing him my knife. Julius interrupted.
“Elaine, no. Drop it. That’s a matter between me and him, it’s not your place.”
Chastised, I healed up Kallisto without a word. Artemis’s mouth was twitching, and I just knew she wanted to join in on the verbal roasting.
Julius was last, making sure his whole team had gotten patched up first. He had a few nasty-looking cuts, and I gave him the full dose.
To my surprise, [Parasitic Remover] got a solid grasp, and my eyebrows went up. Remembering what he’d said, realizing we had the time for it, I threw up [Privacy] around us, gauzy barrier snapping around us.
“Elaine…” He started off dangerously. I held up a hand to forestall him.
“You’re the boss, I know. [Privacy] is up so I’m not undermining you, or showing you up in front of everyone. I need to talk with you.”
The frown vanished, replaced with an intense look.
“My [Parasitic Remover] got solid purchase on you, I must have destroyed hundreds, thousands of parasites just now. You’re not the cleanest. You have some nasty habits. Now, I’m not here to berate you on those, but they do have consequences.”
The frown was back, but it wasn’t the leader being displeased, so much as the patient unhappy to hear about lifestyle issues.
“How do you know it’s that?” He pouted.
“I don’t know for sure. I just know nobody else has the problem, and the two are likely linked.”
His eyebrows furrowed as he processed.
“Should I expect any further problems?”
“Well, not from the current session. You might have an interesting day or two, but for the most part, if anything, you should feel tons better.”
His look softened.
“Well, I appreciate you telling me this privately. A note for you – I appreciate you covering Maximus. Try not to place yourself in a position where others have to cover for you. Covering other people good. Making other people cover you? Not so good. It changed who we had to cover, and that’s...” Julius trailed off, but held his hand flat, rocking the sides up and down. I got the message.
I dropped [Privacy], and we rejoined the group. Artemis cocked her head at Julius, who just shook his head back.