Pushing the cart was boring, exhausting work. Blessedly, Julius had us on a sort of rotation, where some of us could get a break. There seemed to be some vague math involved regarding our strength and vitality stats, and how often we were on break. However, having even lower stats then moved the needle back up on how often I was pushing – maybe Julius was hoping I’d get another natural strength or vitality point.
The long and the short of it was, Arthur and I were on break together, and he was taking me hunting! This wasn’t the first time he’d let me shadow him while hunting, helping me blend into the environment, learning what tricks I could without having any skills to back it up.
Usually, I was using a short bow like Arthur’s. I was keeping very quiet on the existence of longbows and crossbows, not that I knew how to make them. Turns out, these short bows, with their poor weight pull and strength, were the best humanity had figured out. After being penalized just from suggesting pulling all the lightning out of a body to kill someone to Artemis, I wasn’t about to start importing improved weaponry to Pallos. For all I knew, I’d get penalized every time one was used.
Arthur got massive use out of his short bow though, skills making up for what materials failed to provide. Made me wonder just how much stronger people would be with good weapons and good skills.
Today though, today I was hunting with my fire. Almost in a primitive, girl vs nature way.
“Won’t always have a bow.” Arthur said. “It’s easier to learn how to burn living creatures when they’re your dinner, and not someone trying to kill you.”
I’d instinctively tried to burn Swimmer and the rest of the mercenaries back when they tried to kidnap me, but Arthur was right – I didn’t have any experience ‘properly’ burning something to death. From my memories, I recalled it being a particularly terrible way to go.
And I had thought fireballs were so cool. Bah.
However, I set my teeth together and moved on. Being a healer meant that I’d seen all flavors of horrific injuries. Being a Ranger meant that I’d seen all sorts of creatures dying, monsters preying on humans being slain. This was just the natural next step – practice for if, when, I needed to apply my flames to defend myself again.
I suspected somewhat that Artemis had put Arthur up to this, a way to gently ease me into using my flames lethally.
We got ready, which consisted of me rolling in the dirt to help camouflage myself, so I’d blend into the ‘native’ looks, then grabbing all manners of local plants, carefully sticking them to me, weaving them into my clothes and hair, in a way to help me blend in, merge with the undergrowth. In all my times hunting, I’d never been offered a [Disguise], [Hunting], or [Tracking] skill – Maximus said it was because they were rolled into [Ranger’s Lore], and I could feel the skill working as we prepared, letting me know that if I stuck plant A on my shoulder, it’d look wrong when I was lying down, and to instead put it on my hip.
“Ready?” Arthur asked.
We took off on a loping run, to get away from the Argo and the rest of the team huffing and puffing over it – they’d scared everything in a large radius around them, and anything that wasn’t scared off was too big game for me to try and tackle.
I ran directly behind Arthur, which was the only way I could keep up with him. My eyes kept wanting to slide off of him, to keep checking the rest of the horizon. They kept telling me that “this was just more landscape, I should look at the rest of the landscape, keep my eyes peeled, be vigilant for other monsters”.
Arthur’s skills at work. I was getting a bit better at seeing glimpses of him now and then, almost always during the night when [Eyes of the Milky Way] gave me an unfair advantage, as Arthur’s attempt to blend into the night was soundly defeated.
[Oath] stated “First, do no harm.”. However, it operated off of my thoughts and feelings, to a certain extent, and non-sapient creatures didn’t make the cut. If I was a vegan of some variety, they might’ve made the cut. Skills were weird. It was even harder since it was a self-created skill, that I had nobody to bounce it off of, nobody to compare. Maximus didn’t even have a similar skill that he knew of that he could compare it to – he just guessed off of what he knew, off of basics that the entire System seemed to work off of.
Arthur slowed down, and I slowed with him, then he crouched down. I faithfully mirrored him.
He pointed at some scat.
“Deer.” I whispered to him, familiar with this game of his. He nodded, a beaming smile of approval splitting his face. It wasn’t just Artemis that enjoyed teaching me things.
He pointed to some animal tracks that I’d completely missed – I needed more levels in [Ranger’s Lore] – but once I had the start of them, I could follow them, starting to see more.
Fresh deer tracks.
Arthur hung back now, letting me track the deer, proving what I’d learned from him. We followed the trail for some time, before Arthur roughly grabbed my shoulder, pulling me back.
I knew more than to verbally say anything. I looked back inquisitively, to see a serious face, finger over his lips. He slowly pointed. I followed his finger to see what he was pointing at.
Ah. The deer. I’d almost ran smack into them without noticing, I’d been so focused on the tracks.
Arthur indicated to me, letting me know that the ball was in my court. I looked at the deer. Older, male. A perfect target.
The deer was in-range of my flames, but the closer I got, the shorter distance I’d need to have flames travel, the less chance he’d get to notice and run, the higher chance for success.
We crept closer and closer, until I got as close as I thought was possible. I had no weapon with me, just my trusty knife. This was all about using fire.
I breathed in, breathed out, sharpening my focus, letting the world around me fall away. I could do a large cone, a massive burst of flames, or I could have fewer, hotter flames – the power and control required were the same.
I decided on wider flames – they were more likely to hit, to cause some damage, instead of a lucky dodge resulting in nothing.
I mentally prepped myself. This was going to be ugly.
But it wasn’t all that different from using a bow. Was it?
I pointed – an almost completely useless gesture, apart from getting part of me that much closer to the deer – and let out a torrent of flames at the deer.
The deer screamed as flames licked over it, and took off running, the smell of burning hair and flesh filling my nose with a disgusting smell. [Vastness of the Stars] helped – a low cost of mana for an improved quality of life – as Arthur and I took off running after the deer.
It was hurt, badly, that much was clear. It wasn’t so hurt that it fell over and died, but it was going slower than normal, screams of agonizing pain ripped from its throat.
It would’ve stabbed me in the heart, hurt to the quick hearing its pain if it wasn’t for [Vastness], if it wasn’t for [Center of the Galaxy].
Arthur decided that me chasing a deer down for possibly hours wasn’t a good use of our time, and loosed an arrow while on the run after the deer. An impossible shot for a human from Earth looked easy to do coming from Arthur, and the deer slowed down – not dead, not even lethal poison. If I was a betting girl – and I was these days – I’d say Arthur used the same poison he’d used on the adventurer’s mules.
The deer slowed, and I caught up, blasted a stream of concentrated, hot flames at its head.
To my horror, felt at the edges of [Center] but not invading my mind, not impacting me like it should, blessedly not causing me to stumble and fall, the deer survived that, screaming in pain and agony, eyeballs oozing around charred flesh.
“Knife.” Arthur told me, and I drew my knife, advancing on the deer, hoping to slit its throat or stab it somewhere vital.
‘No stopping power’ indeed. Maximus hadn’t been kidding.
A short tussle later, and I got a notification.
[*Ding!* Your party has slain a [Deer] (Wood, lv 36)].
Arthur put his hand on my shoulder.
I closed my eyes. Was it? Were flames the best choice for me, something that killed slowly, painfully? I still think being a mage was correct for me, but I should look into switching elements. Something that wasn’t as nasty as fire was. I should have a long talk with Artemis and the rest of the team about this. Maybe be a Lightning mage like Artemis.
We brought the deer back, and by that, I meant that Arthur effortlessly picked the entire thing up, slung it over one shoulder, and took off, with me needing to spend all of my effort keeping up with him. The advantage of physical stats once again made blindingly obvious – he had the same, if not longer, reach than a mage, could go on almost endlessly like a physical fighter, and had massive lethality from poison. Compared to shrimpy me, who was good for a short while in a fight, then couldn’t keep up on a run.
I was having some minor regrets about my build.
I shook my head. I was comparing myself, a teenager with less than a year’s real experience, to Arthur, in his physical peak, that had been doing this his entire life from the sound of it. Apples to apples, not apples to whales.
We set up camp after another long day of pushing the cart along to Salona. No more lazing about while the horses pulled! We hadn’t seen hide nor hair of them after the attack, and the smart money was on them being dinosaur scat at this point.
Arthur, Maximus, Kallisto, and Julius were the main force behind moving the Argo, while Origen, Artemis, and I leaned in and put in effort, but we knew it was more to show that we were all in it together, less than any real contribution to the movement. Sure, with Kallisto’s strength, he could probably get the wagon moving on his own, but it was easier for all of us to work as a team.
Julius had also said something about teamwork.
The upshot of all of it was at the end of the day, we were all exhausted and sweaty, and the lack of a nearby river made it all the worse. At least it wasn’t summer or anything like that, although we were creeping further and further north, and it was getting warmer the further north we went.
We set up camp – campfires made easy thanks to me being a mobile flamethrower – and chowed we down on the fresh deer, courtesy of Arthur and I.
As I was playing with the campfire’s flames, manipulating them in various ways – much to Origen’s angry body language as I was making cooking all the more difficult – I got a notification, my earlier experience along with this play pushing me over the edge.
[*Ding!* Congratulations! [Firebug] has leveled up to level 31! +2 Free Stats, +2 Mana, +1 Mana Regen, +3 Magic power, +1 Magic Control from your Class! +1 Free Stat for being Human! +1 Strength from your Element!]
[*Ding!* Congratulations! [Fire Affinity] has reached level 31!]
[*Ding!* Congratulations! [Fire Conjuration] has reached level 31!]
[*Ding!* Congratulations! [Fire Manipulation] has reached level 31!]
Kallisto and Origen decided to spar, which was more practice for Origen than Kallisto.
“Elaine, are you full up and able to heal?” Kallisto asked.
“Yeah, why do you ask?” I said.
“Because we’re hoping to go hard, like a real fight. Just not going for lethal blows. Should help us level up faster. Having you on-deck and ready to heal in case we make a mistake, or land a hard blow, makes it possible. What do you say?”
“This is a bad idea.” I said. “You should stay safe.”
“Excellent idea!” Artemis said. “I bet Origen does at least one terrible blow!”
“How do you judge that?” Maximus asked. “I’m game, but we’d need a judge. Otherwise we argue if a blow’s terrible or not, and that just causes bad blood.”
“Elaine can be the judge, right?” Artemis glanced at me.
“Heck no. I object to this whole idea! I’m not helping.”
“Plus she’d just agree with you.” Maximus said.
“No betting on this.” Julius cut in. “Kallisto, Origen, ready?”
“Ready.” Kallisto said.
Origen nodded seriously, not taking his eyes off of Kallisto.
“Hang on, -“ I protested, only to be cut off by Julius.
With that, Origen lunged at Kallisto, who stood there solidly, waiting for Origen to commit to an attack before moving his shield in the way, solidly holding his ground, poking with his spear to keep Origen honest.
Origen was the third-weakest on the team physically, but even that was stronger than most guards. It was a testament to the sheer ridiculousness of the rest of the Rangers that he was near the bottom.
Made me wonder – Origen with all of his enchanted armor and other extras he had VS any one of the Rangers without their Origen-supplied enchanted gear. Who would win? It’d probably be close – Kallisto was so far ahead by virtue of the fact that he was only defending with enchanted armor. If he had to land a blow, that’d be a different question.
The fight, semi-predictably, ended in a draw, with neither side landing anything that could be remotely called a terrible blow. I healed both of them of the minor scrapes and bruises, sighing in exasperation.
“Really? Do you really have to go that hard?” I asked them, mostly rhetorically.
“Good practice.” Origen said.
“Yeah.” Kallisto agreed, panting with exertion. “Good to practice against someone who’s not holding their blows back. We should do this more often.”
“This is a terrible idea! What if you’d taken a blow that I couldn’t heal!”
“That’s why they weren’t aiming for the head or neck.” Arthur rumbled. “You can heal anything else in time, and it’s not like there’d be so many blows, or people, that you get overloaded.”
I growled in frustration, and threw my hands up.
“Fine! Whatever! I completely disagree, but whatever, I can’t stop you.”
“It’s good experience for them.” Maximus butted in. “The added stress, the fact that it’s live and ‘real’, almost no-holds-barred fighting, means they’ll level faster as a result. Means they’re more likely to survive a fight.”
Blah. It all made sense, and I was conflicted. On one hand, yes, they were improving, they weren’t at risk of serious harm. On the other hand, I was being asked to endorse people hurting other people, actively, not in self-defense, which is where my current line was drawn. Hunting? Absolutely. Defending yourself? Of course, I was no pacifist, who insisted that non-violence at all times was the way. Hurting someone else? My current line.
But this was sparring, this was self-improvement. This was helping survival. I shouldn’t have a reason to be against it now, did I? This would take some more thinking, but my mind was slowly- oh so slowly- being changed.
I just hope it led somewhere that I could live with at the end of the day.