We wandered back as Artemis and Dad caught up.
“So, how’d you end up here? I thought you’d live in Cow’s Crossing with Julia until the day you two died.”
“Well, it all started when Dodranus came back from the woods, yelling about…”
Artemis and dad were going at a good clip down the main roads, while I was struggling with the grey zone obstacle course. I was tempted to put a few points into speed and dexterity to give me a boost, but no, I needed to save them, I should be flexible. I had been able to get some stat points through my own effort, and I guessed, but I wasn’t sure, that the higher they were, the harder it would be to get more naturally. I climbed up a barrel, jumped onto a crate, and slid down a hanging rope as fast as I could, doing my best to keep up with dad and Artemis as they blazed forward. I didn’t usually push myself so hard, and today I was rewarded.
[*Ding! * You have gained +1 Dexterity]
Oooh, it’d been awhile since I got a stat point naturally like this! Pushing myself was doing good things for me! Although dad and Artemis were getting away. There was a blessedly clear stretch of road in front of me, just a few people on it. I started to jog, then to run, putting forth my best effort.
[*Ding! * Congratulations! [Running] has reached level 2!]
[*Ding! * Congratulations! [Running] has reached level 3!]
Hurray, progress! My mana was dropping for some reason, something that hadn’t really happened before.
A woman with her three kids yelled at me as I dodged around her. “HEY! Slow down! Don’t run here!” Whoops. Well, I was just about out of mana anyways, and I had caught up to dad and Artemis, just in time to earn an approving look from Artemis, and a death-glare from dad.
“Elaine. I’m a guard. You can’t do that sort of thing in front of me.” Dad cuffed me, I tried to duck. Ouch. I rubbed my head, glaring.
“Ah, leave her be. I’d try to get away with using the grey zone as a fast lane if I could.”
I got The Look from dad that promised A Talk later on. I was impressed, he managed to get The Look to work with just one eye so fast! The reminder that he had one eye sobered me up from the exhilaration of running so fast.
“Anyways Artemis, to wrap up the story: The local garrison got overrun by the goblins, and we all fled. Elaine here” he turned to me, putting a protective hand on my shoulder “was born on the road to Aquiliea. We’ve been here ever since.”
That explained why I was born out in a field, and not in town. It might also explain why I didn’t seem to have grandparents. Seemed to be a bit of a sore subject the one time I brought it up, and I wasn’t going to prod the bear, especially with the amount of trouble I was already in.
We made our way home, and predictably, shit hit the fan.
“ARTEMIS! It’s so lovely to see you again!” Mom hadn’t noticed dad’s eye yet. I slinked in, hoping to stay out of sight.
“JULIA! It’s been way too long!” Artemis aggressively went in for a hug, picking mom up and spinning her around.
“How on earth did you find us? After Cow’s Crossing was ransacked, we thought there was no way we’d ever see you again!”
“Well, I was out and about, murdering the local rampaging wildlife, taking a break in Aquiliea, when I heard that a Guardsman Elainus got injured. I thought to myself ‘Hey, I know a numbskull Elainus who wanted to be a guardsman! This is pretty close to Cow’s Crossing. It’d be just like him to get hurt fighting a wind weasel of all things. I gotta check this out’. Lo and behold, it was Elainus! Using his head as always!”
Mom’s face was doing interesting things. It started off delighted, fell to sad, moved to horror, skipped anger completely, went directly to enraged, then decided that concerned might be the right move.
“Elaine?” My mom asked, far too sweetly. Uh oh. That was the ‘barely repressed rage disguising itself as nice.’ She came over to me and started patting me everywhere, checking if I was hurt with the expert feel of someone who had done it a dozen times. “I just want to make sure, are you completely ok?”
This felt like a trap. I knew it was a trap. Dad had always drilled integrity and honesty into my head though, and so like one possessed, knowing it would lead to my doom, my traitorous mouth opened with a “Yes mom, I’m fine.” DAMNIT! There was no reason for her to hold back anym-
My train of thought was derailed as mom gave me a massive hug, practically sobbing “Thank goodness you’re ok! I was so worried!” Her hug intensified. Artemis had a look of unholy glee on her face. What was I missing? Besides air. I needed air. “Mom…. Breathing…. Help…” Mom let me go, spun towards dad, and like a skill was used, she was suddenly holding the dread wooden spoon as she walked threateningly towards him.
“Elaine, why don’t you take Artemis to the baths? I’m sure she’d like to rinse off after all that time in the wilderness.” She asked oh-too-sweetly, pointing the spoon at dad. Artemis’s face fell at this. Why would she not want to go to the baths? They were lovely.
“But Julia” she whined.
“But nothing Artemis. Unless you want me to share with Elaine that one time when – “
“Hey Elaine let’s go to the baths!” Artemis practically tripped over her words in an attempt to get them out faster. What was that all about? Well, I was briefly free, so I grabbed my nice birthday knife, attached it to my belt, and was out the door with Artemis as a medium-sized explosion went off behind us. Gotta be cool, walk away from the explosion without looking.
“YOU SAID SHE’D BE PERFECTLY SAFE!” The all-too-familiar noise of wooden spoon on flesh met my ears. Some quite mutterings – dad defending himself – came to my ears, but I couldn’t make out what was being said.
“I DON’T CARE ABOUT YOUR EYE! THIS IS ABOUT ELAINE!” The sound of wood attempting to re-arrange bones met my ears.
Artemis looked like she was missing out on the greatest show ever. “Ah well. Come on Elaine, I seem to remember you wanting to be a mage, and I have some errands to take care of. Let’s go.”
We started to wander back through town, and when we got to the intersection with the baths, I tried to pull Artemis down it. She rebuffed me though, with a “First thing I did when I got here was to spend two days soaking in the bath. I’m all set for now.”
We talked about magic, and I finally got what really distinguished a mage from someone with really good skills. “A mage has one or both of the following skills: A conjuration skill, or a manipulation skill. A conjuration skill lets you directly create the element, while a manipulation skill lets you move it freely. Watch!” With that, Artemis’s hair started to rise around like, creating a crown of hair. She started a one-woman lightning show, bolts of lightning curving around her, going from hand to hand. Artemis started dancing with lightning in the street, drawing the gaze of everyone present. Slow sways as lightning danced around her. A fast jig in tune with the lightning. A slower, sensual dance. All that and so much more. I might die again one day. I might properly lose most of my memories then, like I should have. But the sight of Artemis dancing in the street, lightning swirling around her playfully, would never, ever leave me.
All good things must come to an end, and as fast as lightning Artemis’s jig came to a close. I think I had figured out what the ‘manipulation’ portion of being a mage was.
We continued walking through the streets, although I had no idea where we were going.
Right before we made it there, I realized – we were going to the jail. Why were we going to jail? Artemis introduced herself at the door, showed the guard a badge with an eagle in flight on it, and we were quickly inside. Artemis vanished deeper inside, and came out with Damonus.
Damonus was a sad, quivering mess as Artemis brought him out again. “Alright Elaine, you want to be a mage, right?” “RIGHT!” I responded with as much enthusiasm as I could muster. She knew I wanted to be a mage! This seemed like my chance! I thought I needed meditate and to class up though, why were we in a jail buying a slave? And why did we buy this one specifically?
“Alright, the moment of truth. Elaine. I need you to kill Damonus.”
The world fell from around me as I processed what Artemis was saying with horror. I needed to kill Damonus? Why? He was just a young teenager! He was in chains! This wouldn’t be self-defense by any stretch of the imagination, this was cold-blooded murder that Artemis was trying to get me to perform! Was this some sort of test? It seemed like a test. But it was a pretty horrible test, of course I wasn’t going to murder a chained-up kid in cold blood.
“No! Murder’s wrong.” Almost as an afterthought “And illegal!” A rancid smell came over me, and I realized that Damonus had pissed himself. I wrinkled my nose in disgust.
“You want to be a mage, right?”
“RIGHT!” Fireballs and flying! Adventure awaits!
“How do you think most mages get experience?”
That was a bit of a stumper. From what I understood, you got experience by doing things that your class wanted. [Chef]s cooked, [baker]s made bread, [fishermen] got fish. So, extending that logic, mages… maged? Cast spells? Casting spells seemed right.
“By… casting spells?” I ventured, much more hesitantly than I felt.
Artemis had a pitying look on her face. “By killing things Elaine. Monsters, animals, monsters in human skin, and sometimes, rarely, sometimes just people. It’s like a [Warrior], or a [Soldier], or a [Ranger]. We kill things. It’s not nice. It’s not pretty. But fighting and killing are the fastest way for most classes to level, even if they’re not combat classes. I bet you got a ton of experience in that fight your dad was in, even if you didn’t do much.” I flushed in embarrassment of that memory.
“Please don’t kill me, please, I’m so sorry, I’ll never do it again, please please please.” Damonus was begging as hard as he could. I felt my heart soften.
Artemis took a deep breath in pity. “Elaine, he tried to kill you, and he tried to kill your dad. You got lucky. You didn’t end up in the best-case scenario, but you ended up in one of the better scenarios. You’re unhurt. Your dad got injured, but he’s not life-threateningly crippled. Ever wondered why you don’t see beggars? Ever wondered why there are no farmhands that got in the way of a plow? It’s because they either die – quickly if they’re lucky - or they go into debt, then get sold as slaves. The only place that buys crippled slaves is the colosseum. If Elainus had died, or been crippled so badly he couldn’t work, you’d be lucky if this scum here had killed you. Otherwise your family wouldn’t be able to feed themselves, and either go further and further into debt to the point where you’re sold off as slaves to recuperate it, or you would have gotten sold off yourself earlier, so they could stretch their money longer, have more money, and/or have one less mouth to feed.”
I paled in horror as I processed all of this. Had we really come that close to disaster? All because of him? All because I was tagging along, and dad needed to protect me?
Artemis had no mercy. “Do you know what happens to pretty girls that haven’t gotten a class yet that are sold into slavery? A bit younger, you’d luck out and stay with your mom. Older, and you’d have useful skills that would make you valuable. You’re neither. Too old to stick with mom, too expensive to train in something. What takes little training? Odds are good that you’d get bought by a brothel, or by some rich citizen with disgusting tastes. You’d be forced to take a [Prostitute] class, and by the time your slavery terms were up, you’d have nothing. No family, no money, nothing at all. You’d get trapped working as one, day in, day out, until maybe one day you get lucky, and some greasy soldier decides to marry you. Depends if you had any kids by then or not. Failing that, the colosseum. You’re young, you have no strength or physical stats, it’d be a waste to train you. So, they’d put you in a group of a few other ‘worthless’ slaves, and send you against a single [Gladiator] to show off that he can kill a bunch of people at once. Or some rich brat who’s trying to kill people to level up faster, and cheap slaves are good experience for the cost. That was almost your fate. That’s what this jackass nearly made you.”
“So, take up that knife, slit his throat, and show that you have the mettle to be a mage. Show that you can kill the undeserving, that you can kill those who mean to harm you and yours. Show that you can grasp enough power to become independent.” I could feel streaks of water going down my face, my arms shaking, hands trembling.
[*Ding!* Congratulations! [Learning] has reached level 8!]
What an inopportune level-up. I was busy, I didn’t need the distraction.
I drew my knife, hands trembling madly as I approached Damonus, who was still begging, on his knees. I couldn’t understand a word he was saying, he was crying and pleading and supplicating as hard as he could.
“Please… No… Promise…. Again…” great wailing sobs came from him as he furiously struggled against his chains.
“Isn’t murder illegal?” I asked, suddenly finding a way out. “We should not do illegal things.”
Artemis gave me a dirty look which said she knew exactly what I was thinking. “He’s my slave now. I have the power of life and death over him. The same power of life and death that others nearly had over you because of him. Now do it cleanly. I don’t think you’re strong enough to get his heart, located here” Artemis pointed up from his stomach, indicating the angle I would need to take. “You should just slit his throat. Make sure to hit here and here” she continued pointing to the main arteries on the side of his neck “to make sure he dies quickly.”
I looked at him. I looked at the knife, trembling in my hands. Gods it was a thing of beauty. Elegant, glinting in the light. A smooth leather grip, with that Arcanite gleaming with otherworldly power. It was for me. It was for me to peel mangos with, and now it was being used to kill a kid in cold blood. I shook. I was crying as well. I took another step forward. I lifted the knife. I imagined a spray of blood, the light in his eyes going out. I lowered my knife. I saw the stage where slaves were auctioned, but instead of seeing it from the edge of the crowd as we were on our errands, I was on the stage naked. I heard the voice of an announcer “Next up, we have an 8-year old girl, no class, good health! Sold for 10 years of service! Starting bid of 30 iron coins!” My knife came back up. Heh. I was trembling so fast I might be holding three knives! I was going silly from the stress. I couldn’t see correctly anymore, too many tears in my eyes. I lifted my sleeve to wipe my face, Artemis caught me before I could stab myself. Right the knife. The knife that could end Damonus. The knife that would end Damonus. The same Damonus who was a kid. Who was pleading with me. Who had just made a silly, dumb mistake that anyone with an unusual class might make. Damonus, who had bullied kids. Damonus, who was someone’s son.
I lifted my knife one last time, and –