I lifted my knife one last time, and dropped it, clattering to the floor. I collapsed crying as well. I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t end his life. Artemis picked me up, held me as I cried, comforted me. It was humiliating to be crying in front of Artemis. Why was that? I don’t know; I was too upset.
“I’m sorry Artemis!” I blubbered, “You’re right, I can’t do it! I can’t kill him in cold blood!”
“Shh, shh, it’s ok,” She rocked me. She picked me up such that I was facing away from Damonus as she rocked me, comforted me. A sickening splat came from behind. I knew what had happened. I didn’t want to think about it. “Let’s go to the baths. It’s a good place to soak and relax after all of this. We can have a lovely chat.” I didn’t want a lovely chat, but the baths sounded nice. I could cry in peace, and nobody would notice.
I was being carried around crying a lot these days. I didn’t like it. No more crying for me. I had been broken out of my kiddy naivety; I had a glimpse of how nasty the world really was. Fantasy world this was, fantasy land it wasn’t. Childhood was fun, but unlocking the system ended up locking away being a kid. We went down a few streets, and I wriggled my way out of Artemis’s arms to walk on my own. I expected the world to look different. I expected that darkness and evil would be coming around every corner. There was nothing of the sort. The vendors were still cheerfully selling their food, brightly painted signs advertising all sorts of wares that could be found. Kids still ran up and down the grey zone, making an obstacle course out of barrels and crates, swinging down ramps and ropes. Runners still sprinted by on their runs, and street kids still eyed unguarded purses. Given what fate awaited them otherwise, I really couldn’t blame them anymore. Not that I would relax my vigilance, but had a better understanding now.
We made it to the baths, stripped, and went in, finding a spot of our own in the swirling impenetrable steam. I saw Artemis’ body, covered in scars all over. I couldn’t help but stare, and she noticed.
“This one here,” she pointed to a jagged streak under her breast, “was from a selkie. Thought it was a normal human at first – that’s how she got so close. I noticed the fur a hair too late. These ones,” she pointed to a huge string of medium-sized cuts that made a pair of treads from her waist to her shoulder, “were from an Abelisaurus. Nasty thing broke through our formation and tried to eat me whole. Armor, vitality, and a defensive skill, and it still nearly ate me in one bite. Thank Solaris for teammates.” I was horrified. I was fascinated. Her skin was a tapestry of all of the nasty things in the world that considered humans lunch, and an epic tale of survival. I looked closer. I couldn’t find more than an inch or so of unmarred flesh.
“What about your nose?” I asked. “Why is it a different color?”
“Well, lost it a few months ago. Healer patched me up, got me a new one.”
“Wait, healers can restore lost noses?” I asked, incredulously. I didn’t believe her, but at the same time, her nose was a different color, and there was magic here.
“Yeah, it’s the defining skill of high-level Light healers.” Artemis said. “Weren’t you listening earlier?”
The steam helped hide my blush.
“How did you get this one?” I asked, touching a streaky-looking scar on her leg.
“HA! You just had to pick that one. Your dad gave that to me when we were kids! We were just playing around, ‘Soldiers and Formorians’, and he got me good with his makeshift spear.” She paused, reminiscing. “I beat him like a rug for that.”
Artemis gave a deeply contented sigh as she sank into the water. “That’s the other half of life as a mage, fighting every day. Things fight back. Monsters don’t want to die any more than you do.” I reflected on what Artemis was saying as I started to wash my hair. It was sticky and matted. Why was my hair sticky and matted? I hadn’t been playing in the mud. There were bits in my hair. I tugged one out as Artemis started to move quickly towards me. I looked. I realized. “Not in the bath!” Artemis cried out, conjuring a bowl in front of me right as I lost my breakfast. And lunch. And possibly last night’s dinner. Yup that was last night’s dinner.
A cry of disgust came from somewhere deep in the steams of the bath, as a small rock was thrown my way. Traditional. Deeply unappreciated at the moment.
We cleaned up as I was shaking, and Artemis did me the favor of washing the rest of my hair for me. I didn’t want to think about what was being cleaned out. Today had been harsh enough, and I just let myself luxuriate in the nice, clean (ItIsCleanDoNotThinkAboutIt) bath, steam rising up all around us.
“I’m sorry.” Artemis apologized, as she splashed more water over my hair and ran her finger through it. “I’m used to all of this. The blood, the guts, the killing. I wanted to show you what the world was like, but I forgot just how sheltered people are in the towns. I forgot you’re just a kid. I overdid it. Sorry. I owe you one.” I turned and gave Artemis a big hug, forgiving her. It was nice hugging Artemis. Even the scars that crisscrossed her all over weren’t unpleasant, just texturing.
“Why do you have scars on your body, but so few on your face?” With how dangerous everything was, I had a hard time believing that she had dodged every single headshot.
“I get most of those removed. I simply couldn’t have anything marring this beautiful mug of mine.” Artemis replied flippantly, in a faux-fancy voice. “I keep a few important ones as a reminder, and this one,” she gestured at a nasty-looking jagged one. “I haven’t had time to fix yet.”
“How do you remove a scar?” I asked, fascinated. This was all new to me!
“Well, you need a Light-based healer, and a Dark-based healer. Sometimes you can get both in one healer, but they’re rare. Darkness healers removes the scar and scar tissue – and sometimes you’ll heal again without a scar, but that’s a coin toss, and you’ll lose every time – and the Light healer is to make sure it heals properly.”
I thought Artemis said she didn’t know what Dark healers did. I guess she only knew some of it…?
We spent more time in the baths, people coming in and out while we soaked, letting the tension and stress of the day melt away. If Artemis was anything at all like me (which I was seriously doubting at this stage), the baths did good things to her mental health after a round of fighting and killing. Speaking of.
“Artemis, why did you decide to kill him in the end?” I couldn’t say his name.
“Because he was a threat to your dad. I don’t leave threats to my friends alive.”
“How could he be a threat?”
“Remember the story of Indomindus the Slave and his quest for revenge?”
Of course I knew it, everyone grew up with the story, along with Nautus the Sailor, and Saguitus the Archer.
“How does that – oh. He would be mad at dad, and might come back later. But most people dad arrests don’t come back and try to kill him!”
“Maybe so. I’m around this time, and I’m not leaving anything to chance. I can’t get them all, but I can get this one.”
Dark philosophy. I didn’t agree.
We must have spent another hour or two relaxing in the baths. I was just letting my thoughts wander, and I suspect Artemis was actively [Meditating]. I guess she could sit still! All good things must come to an end, and eventually we picked ourselves up out of the baths, toweled off, got dressed, and headed back home.
I still smelled a bit.
It was getting dark, and the moons were just starting to rise. I shivered. They were full again, and while I had adapted to most things in this world, the sight of a pair of ferocious red eyes glaring down on me every night still set my teeth on edge. They were watching. They knew everything. Artemis looked up at them, and frowned.
“You as well?” I asked.
“Yeah. They don’t sit right with me. They’re not natural.” Artemis replied, walking along the road. “I’m kinda surprised you picked up on it. Most people don’t.” We walked a bit more, Artemis deep in thought. “You know, I’m going to be around a few days while my squad has some time off. How about I help you get your general skills up?”
“Would you? Thank you THANK YOU!” I was jumping up and down in excitement. Training from Artemis! “I’ll have to check with mom if she’s ok with it. Hopefully I won’t be too busy with chores.” I worried over it.
We made it home, and dad was still alive, hurray! From the sounds of it, that wasn’t a given when we left. Dad was still getting the stink-eye as he hurried around the house doing the thousand and one little things needed to keep it going. Mom had her arms crossed, wooden spoon slowly tapping. She must have a spoon related skill if it was still intact.
We all settled in for dinner after some time, and mom, dad, and Artemis spent ages catching up. I listened, fascinated, hearing about a life and a world I never knew existed. All three had come from the same village, but Artemis ran away from home when she was 15. She wouldn’t say why, but apparently went bright red and offered to do all of the cleaning up when mom alluded to it. Apparently, it had caused quite a stir. We were regaled with tales of trading with selkies, outwitting goblins at their own game, baiting dinosaurs, dealing with rogue classers, hunting down bandits, and occasionally, just occasionally, cleaning out slimes. My eyes were shining as I heard all of the adventures. Life as a Ranger sounded grand, but then I remembered the blood and the gore earlier, and I connected the line of scars on Artemis with the story of how the Abelisaurus nearly ate her. I shuddered. There was clearly a lot more to her stories than she was telling. Was she – was she trying to protect mom and dad as well? The idea boggled my mind.
“So Julia,” Artemis leaned back, patting her stomach, having eaten enough food for five rowers. “I’m here for another day or three, and I’d like to train up Elaine here a hair.”
“You’re not training Elaine how to fight. No. I forbid it.” Mom was still on the warpath earlier from dad.
“But Julia– “
“Don’t ‘But Julia’ me! No means no.”
“But – “
A glare cut Artemis off. Artemis, slayer of goblins. Artemis, eater of dinosaurs. Artemis, lightning-danger. What was this power, and how did I learn it?
“I just want to help her with her general skills.” Artemis said very quietly and very, very quickly.
“Oh, well why didn’t you say so earlier? Of course, you can help Elaine with her general skills.” Mom asked cheerfully, thunderclouds on her face gone.
“I was trying to! You wouldn’t let me get a word in edgewise!” Artemis protested the unfair treatment. Heh. It was nice to see someone else get yelled at for once. Artemis caught my smirk, and shot me a look. Ooooh no, I was in for it now.