I blinked in surprise, in confusion, the lump in my throat growing and changing. I wasn’t being kicked out? I was being asked to formally, properly join? I’d be able to call myself a Ranger?
“Now, I know it’s a big decision – you’d be locked with us for the remainder of the trip, you’d need to attend Ranger academy once this route was over, and it’s a long commitment, which –“
I cut him off by giving him one of my patented “crushing” hugs, hurting myself more on his armor than really giving him a good squeeze, but I think the message was clear.
“Yes! Yes! Yes I’ll be a Ranger!” I said around the lump in my throat, eyes threatening to cry happy tears. Julius pried me off of him, and solemnly took the Ranger badge off his chest.
“Elaine of Aquiliea. Wear this symbol with honor, wear it with pride, a sign of protection of the citizens of Remus, and honest deeds bravely done.” So saying, he pinned the badge to my chest.
I swelled up with pride as everyone surrounded me, patting me on the back, the shoulders, rubbing my head.
“Congratulations!” Kallisto said.
“One of us! One of us!” Artemis chanted in a silly way, making the smile splitting my face ear-to-ear threaten to crack my face in half.
“Welcome.” A rare (Less rare these days) word from Origen was a welcome treat.
Arthur was surprisingly silent, but instead he picked me up, and launched me into the air. Flying! Flight! At long last! I made all sorts of incoherent happy noises as I went up. I wasn’t worried about the way down. I had full faith in my team – and I could really say that now, they were my team – and they caught me on the way down.
Maximus was a bit of a kill joy, but I didn’t care.
“Boss, this is technically against the rules –“ He started. Our fearless leader cut him off. “Fuck the rules.”
Artemis leaned against the wagon, lines of inscription and mana lighting up as she took one last, deep draw off of it.
“Elaine, hop on!” She said, a platform of stone rising up in front of her. I hopped on, staying on my hands and knees to get a better grip, to be more stable, as she lifted the stone slab – me included – on a brief twirl around the sky.
Oh my gods. I was fucking flying. Not under my own power, but I was soaring through the sky.
Ok, I was like 20 feet off the ground, going in a small, fast circle, but I was flying!!! “Weeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee.”
It felt way too short, and for once, it probably was – only like 8, 9 seconds of flight – before Artemis put me down, new sheen of sweat on her face.
“I thought you said you couldn’t fly?” I asked.
“I can’t. That blew through most of my mana, and it only gets worse as you get heavier.”
Julius clapped his hands. “This is all well and good, but why don’t we get back inside the town? I’m sure you all have things you’d like to do.”
I saw the light go on in everyone’s eyes. The monster was slain, the problems were gone. We were at a real town. Vacation time!
We all piled into the wagon – we really needed to name this at some point – as Julius took charge, and started to drive it back to town. As we neared the town, he shouted behind him, into the cabin where we all were.
“Quick reminder, tomorrow morning we’re doing our after-action analysis. Today though, enjoy yourself.”
Enjoying ourselves would be much easier with energy, and with my insane regeneration, I was full-up again on mana. I hit everyone with a [Greater Invigorate], and we all looked bright-eyed and bushy tailed as we got to the gates. Some enterprising clay-miners (there was probably a fancy word for what they did, but I didn’t know what it was) had already left with large baskets and shovels and were heading down to the river. Some people in just swimming clothes were sprinting towards the river as fast as they could, pushing and shoving.
Why did they want to swim so badly? They could’ve been swimming in the river this whole time.
Ah. Might be diving for treasure. All the people the monster killed, their stuff might be at the bottom of the river, and they were trying to dive for it.
This seemed to be a good moment to check what levels I got from that fight. That fight had been something, and I was eager to see what I got.
[*Ding!* Congratulations! [Calming Aura] has reached level 107!].
[*Ding!* Congratulations! [Calming Aura] has reached level 108!].
[*Ding!* Congratulations! [Calming Aura] has reached level 109!].
[*Ding!* Congratulations! [Medicine] has reached level 106!].
[*Ding!* Congratulations! [Medicine] has reached level 111!].
[*Ding!* Congratulations! [Healing Aura] has reached level 107!].
[*Ding!* Congratulations! [Healing Aura] has reached level 108!].
[*Ding!* Congratulations! [Detailed Restoration] has reached level 99!].
[*Ding!* Congratulations! [Detailed Restoration] has reached level 103!].
[*Ding!* Congratulations! [Greater Invigorate] has reached level 101!].
[*Ding!* Congratulations! [Centered Mind] has reached level 100!].
[*Ding!* Congratulations! [Deaden Pain] has reached level 76!].
[*Ding!* Congratulations! [Deaden Pain] has reached level 81!].
[*Ding!* Congratulations! [Vigilant] has reached level 104!].
[*Ding!* Congratulations! [Oath] has reached level 102!].
[*Ding!* Congratulations! [Oath] has reached level 105!].
[*Ding!* Congratulations! [Running] has reached level 69!].
[*Ding!* Congratulations! [Running] has reached level 70!].
[*Ding!* Congratulations! [Learning] has reached level 100!].
[*Ding!* Congratulations! [Shadow Healer] has leveled up to level 91! +1 Free Stat, +3 Mana Regen, +2 Magic power, +2 Magic Control from your Class! +1 Free Stat for being Human! +1 Mana from your Element!]
[*Ding!* Congratulations! [Light of Hope] has leveled up to level 128! +1 Mana, +3 Mana Regen, +1 Magic power, +5 Magic Control from your Class! +1 Free Stat for being Human! +1 Mana Regen from your Element!]
[*Ding!* Congratulations! [Light Affinity] has reached level 128!]
[*Ding!* Congratulations! [Dark Affinity] has reached level 91!]
[*Ding!* You’ve unlocked the General skill [Ranger’s Lore]!]
[Ranger’s Lore: An elite soldier of the Republic of Remus, you have been inducted into the Rangers. Somehow. Marching. Digging. Wilderness survival. Fighting. These, and the hundred and one other things a Ranger needs, are together in this skill, for as long as you are a Ranger. -512 Mana/Hour]
[*Ding!* Congratulations! You can now advance your class!]
[*Ding!* WARNING: Once you start advancing your class, you must pick an advancement.]
Yes! Sweet, sweet, glorious level-loot. Leveling this much gave me a rush, like a high. I needed a word for it. Julius sadly distracted from my mad internal cackling by asking us. “Alright, everyone who leveled up, raise your hand.”
All of our hands went up in the air. Success!
“I got a new skill!” I proudly announced.
“[Ranger’s Lore]?” Kallisto asked.
“Yup!” I proudly wanted to show it off.
“What mana burn rate did you get it at, per day?” Maximus asked.
I did some quick math, which mostly consisted of me re-arranging my display to show per day consumption instead of per hour consumption.
“12,288 mana regeneration per day!” I proudly stated, sure I had a high score. The higher the burn rate on a skill, the more powerful it was. By the same token, the higher the burn rate, the lower your mana regeneration would be. It was all a trade-off, as was nearly everything with the System.
The long low whistle out of Arthur confirmed that was, indeed, a ridiculous number.
“You’re a Ranger now Elaine. I can’t make you take it, but you should take it.” Julius suggested.
I dumped [Lost and Found] for it.
The governor was waiting for us as we arrived.
“Success?” He asked. We were all grinning maniacally, high on success, but I guess he wanted verbal confirmation.
“Success!” Julius, being the boss, got to be the one to say it. The governor quickly whispered in someone’s ear, who went off like a shot, as fast as any courier.
“I’d like to invite you all to a feast at my villa this evening.” The governor said.
My stomach gurgled, reminding me that the amount of skills, and mana, I’d burnt through would require a feast’s worth of food. I nodded my head furiously, noticing that Artemis had already broken into the dried pork. She caught my eye and passed me some.
“We’d love to.” Julius, my savior!
People scurried off, as we went to park the wagon by the guard’s barracks.
“Nice of him to feed us.” I said conversationally to Julius. Arthur snorted.
“If we hadn’t killed the monster, you can be sure we’d be politely thanked for our efforts, and been left to fend for ourselves.” Arthur rudely educated me. I looked at Artemis. She nodded in confirmation.
“Success is rewarded. Failure isn’t exactly punished, but we’d get the cold shoulder.”
“Even if we worked just as hard?” I asked.
“Yup. Sucess is easy. Failure comes after a lot more work and effort.” Julius pointed out.
“Alright, we’re here, the horses are taken care of. You’re all free until sunrise tomorrow. Governor has a feast around sundown, feel free to show up, or not show up. Your call. Elaine, if I can borrow you for a second?” Julius asked.
Everyone but Artemis vanished, off to do gods knows what. Actually, I had a pretty good guess. Kallisto was going to try and find someone to chat up. Arthur was going to see if he could get a bard to write a song about the fight. Maximus was going to try and find an interesting Classer, or possibly get in a fight. Or do both. At the same time. Origen – probably wanted to find a tattoo artist for this latest triumph. Did he even have room left? Did it count enough for him to get a tattoo of it, or was this commonplace for him? Hmm.
“Yes boss?” I asked respectfully. He handed me a pouch full of coins. I hefted it, hearing a wonderful clinking of coins together, a solid weight of security.
“Payment for being a tagger-on healer during the fight. First payment for being a Ranger. Congratulations again.”
I smiled and thanked him. The double-pay was above and beyond, and we both knew it, and neither of us were going to say anything about it.
“Come on healy-bug. Let’s go!” The pixie-haired lightning mage called out to me. I scurried along, falling in behind Artemis, fully expecting we’d head to the baths again.
Which we did. Stopping at every. Single. Foodstand. Hot pitas. Mystery meat on a stick. Some cheesy concoction. Fish, so much fish. We’d buy a small meal’s worth at each stand, and eat it on the way to the next stand, slowly pinballing out way back to the baths. I was so hungry from this morning, and now that the excitement from being a real Ranger – me! – was wearing off, my stomach was letting itself be known again. I kept rubbing the badge, now pinned on my tunic, still not believing it was real.
We ate our way through town, me treating Artemis at some stalls with my pile of loot, Artemis buying me some extra tasty treats she thought I’d like. My stomach was a void, a bottomless pit that demanded more.
We made it to the baths, where I had my first dilemma. Normally, you went into the baths like a bath, leaving your things behind in a secure spot. However, I didn’t want to leave my nice new badge behind. I kept rubbing it and looking down, and I was standing in the pseudo-locker room, torn. Artemis saw my hesitation, and rolled her eyes.
“Like this healy-bug.” She said, weaving the badge intricately into my hair. “Julius didn’t say it, but do not lose that badge. We’d need to hunt it down, and, well, with your track record, maybe we should just permanently tie it to you….”
I glared at Artemis, offended. That’s not to say they hadn’t gotten a taste of [Lost and Found] working, and, well… if I was being honest, the criticism, and concern, was fair.
I breathed in and out, letting my annoyance go.
“Understood. I love this badge too much to let it go.”
“Good! Now scrub.” Artemis said, handing me a hardened sponge made out of, well, sponge. Turns out it was originally some seaside critter.
I made a whining noise, only to see a smile from the devil himself cross Artemis’s face.
“You’re a Ranger now. A junior Ranger now. Listening to your senior Ranger is natural, mmm?” She said, pushing the sponge into my hand, turning over in the water.
Damnit. I knew there was a catch!
Around sunset – not that we could tell in the steamy baths, but Artemis had a second sense for it – we hauled ourselves out, dried off, got dressed, and headed off towards the governor’s villa. We weren’t too interested in rubbing elbows with the movers and shakers of Virinum, but the food? The food was another matter entirely. We were the ones who’d been using skills, and as such, mana, the most, and while we’d raided every food stand between the barracks and the baths, the prospect of a feast with more food – that importantly, we didn’t need to pay for – was enough to make it our plans for the evening.
The villa was easy enough to find – big, grandiose, and a number of rich-looking people heading towards it, with all sorts of light sources floating around. I eyed what could only be called a floating lantern. Must be a skill of some sort. Must be expensive.
We arrived at the gates with our lead eating boots on, ready to do serious damage to whatever food was ready. We were stopped by the guards – not Guards, just guards – who didn’t recognize us.
“Excuse me, this party is for the Ranger squad, and prominent members of Virinum. You’re not on the list.” He said, giving us a smug and pompous look.
Artemis and I traded looks of disbelief. Disbelief had many flavors. Disbelief of bad news. Disbelief of incredulity. Disbelief of fact. It had many subtle nuances, many tiny ways of being different.
Mine was some hot, fiery outrage. How dare they! Couldn’t they see my badge, see that I was a real Ranger now! They were just looking down on me, rabble rabble rabble.
Artemis’s flavor of disbelief was fairly nuanced. Amused, mostly. A type of disbelief flavored with impending schadenfreude. She’d been through this a dozen times, and would go through it a dozen times more. I let her handle the talking this time, although I ‘helped’ by giving them the stink-eye.
“Yes,” She started. “I’m well aware. See, I’m not from around here. Neither is she. This little badge riiiiiiiight here,” She pointed to the Ranger eagle, prominently on her chest. “Is my entry ticket. Rangers, right?”
Disbelief, from the guards. Flavored with ‘can you believe the audacity?’ Artemis sighed, rolled her eyes, and shot a lightning bolt from one hand to the next, causing us – and most of the people nearby – to jump, and clap their hands over their ears.
“Look familiar? Perhaps from today’s fight, that I’m sure you were all watching from safely behind the walls?” Artemis gave them a Look, one foot tapping impatiently.
The guard, unable to meet Artemis’s challenge, looked at me, and seized the moment.
“Fine. But she can’t come in.” Artemis opened her mouth, no doubt to give another scathing retort, but I was on fire today. Mostly copying Artemis.
“See this badge riiiiiiiiiiiight here?” I asked, puffing out my chest, pointing at my shiny new badge that was all mine. “Says I’m a Ranger. I was out there, this morning, not safe behind the walls.” I stuck my tongue out at him, ruining the moment.
The guards were looking doubtful, and Artemis chimed in, thinking I’d done my part to stand up for myself. “Short pipsqueak, ran directly towards the monster 300 levels above her when he got hit. Hard to see the details of someone so short in armor when you’re sooooo very far away. Plus, and this should matter more to you,” Artemis leaned in, real close, and her voice became somewhat threatening. “another Ranger is vouching for her. Piss off.”
The guards were not inclined to piss off, not when they were, presumably, being paid good money to do so, but Kallisto swung by, arm-in-arm with a beautiful lady.
“I thought I heard the sound of my favorite lightning mage! So glad you came Artemis!”
With one more confirmed Ranger, and presumably whatever mover and shaker Kalliso had picked up giving confirmation by her simple presence, we were let in.
It was a wonderfully opulent party, and it gave me a brief flashback to Kerberos’s villa. I shuddered slightly at the memory, before perking up as we found the food.
Yummy, yummy food.
Artemis and I plowed through the offerings, making the barest hint of small talk to avoid being actively rude. It helped having food in your mouth, fewer people wanted to have a sustained conversation. We wolfed down food. We ate like we hadn’t seen food in weeks, like a pigs at a trough. We wouldn’t care what the food was, but there was so much of it, and it was so tasty, that we could afford to be picky, while still eating like we were breathing air. There were all sorts of interesting drinks, and with no drinking age, I sampled a few.
“Watch it Elaine, the drinks here are brewed by master [Brewer]’s, and are aimed at people with a high vitality. They’ll hit you like a truck if you’re not careful.” Artemis warned me. I carefully nodded, showing that I was absolutely not drunk at all. Just tipsy.
I saw Julius here and there, properly rubbing elbows with the high and mighty, looking like he wasn’t having the time of his life. Pitfalls of being the boss.
In this celebration of gluttony, my keen eyes were on the constant lookout for mangos. Those juicy, blessed fruit from the gods, my raison d’etre, my one true love. Not a single one here. Made me think about what the mango-seller had said, something about the supply being interrupted. Why had it been interrupted? Ooh, something that looked like pigs-in-a-blanket!
The party started to wind down, and Artemis, Julius, and I drunkenly headed back arm-in-arm-in-arm, our swaying mostly balancing each other out so we all remained stable and upright.
Ok, fine, it was mostly my swaying between the two of them, since they knew how to hold their liquor and I had gone a teeeeny bit overboard. Could I even drunk being cure? [Medicine] said yes, but it was a whooozy yes. Nah, no need, I was sober. Totally sober. Better not say anything though.
What happened next was fairly hazy. I remember getting back to the wagon, getting tucked into a sleeping bag of some sort. A peaceful, blissful night’s sleep.