Plan in mind, I quietly got up and strained my ears. It hadn’t been that long since we went to bed, and mom and dad might still be awake. If they got up and found me gone, I’d be in a world of trouble and hurt. Mom’s skills with her spoon had only grown with age, and there was no way dad would let me see Artemis after I got caught sneaking out.
I carefully sneaked across the room, dodging the table, putting each foot down carefully. Bless the [Stealth] skill, it had gotten me out of here more times than I could count.
The sound of distant voices from my parent’s room made me freeze, then whirl around and dive back into bed. I threw the covers over me, and pretended to be asleep, just incase. What I wouldn’t give for an acting skill right no –
[*Ding!* You’ve unlocked the General skill [Acting]!]
Chance! I reviewed my skills. Turns out, I wouldn’t give up any of my skills for acting right now. Welp. That’s what I get for tempting the System. The noise from my parent’s room died down – maybe it was just a bit of chatting before sleep – and I waited, heart pounding in my ears, for another 15 minutes or so. Alright, they seemed to be asleep. Ninja time!
I got up, and step by careful step, pausing at each to listen to the creaking wood, the gentle breeze, and for any sign of parental knowledge, I got to the door, and slipped out. Freedom! I started walking away slowly, a thief in the night, and as I left home in the distance, picked up my pace.
It was one of those beautiful late summer nights that drive the bards wild, that stoke the imagination. A warm breeze flowed through town, bringing the scent of the ocean. The stars practically spelt the word “Romance”, and it was a blessed double new moon. I clutched my pendant for luck, and strode towards the guard barracks like I belonged.
I bumped into Catonus of all people, out on patrol with another guardsman, Polyphemus.
“Catonus! My fourth-favorite guard!” I excitedly called out to him.
“Fourth favorite!? What do you mean?” Catonus protested. Polyphemus was more on point. “Elaine. Is there a problem?” He turned and walked towards me, eyes lasering in on me. People generally only called out to the guards when they had a problem, doubly so late at night.
“Nope!” I cheerfully walked over. “Mind if I tag along on your patrol?”
Catonus and Polyphemus looked at each other, and like they were in a mirror, shrugged at the same time. “Sure, why not.”
I jumped in the air; hands up high. “Hurray!”
I scurried over to them, tapping both on the arm, giving them a shot of [Greater Invigorate]. 1600/2000 mana left. Ah well, it’ll recover fast.
“Whoof. That’s getting pretty strong, Elaine! How high is your magic power?” Catonus asked, starting to walk down the street with Polyphemus, with me in tow.
“200! I put some points in today for it!”
Polyphemus raised an eyebrow at that. “Power healer?” he asked.
I stuck my tongue out at him. “Control healer!”
I got an awkward look on my face.
“Elaine, please don’t tell me that you’re sub-50 on any of your physical stats.” Polyphemus asked rhetorically. I was sub-20 on all of them. It must have shown on my face.
“Look, I know you want to be a healer, and there isn’t a guard that’s not grateful to you. But you can’t go through life with no physical stats! You spend your day moving your body, it’s what you do all the time! Skills are only used now and then; your body is used constantly! Please, please listen to me and put some points in your physical stats.”
Polyphemus was famous for being the trainer for all of the guards, one of the highest-leveled guards in town. His advice on levels, classes, and stats were considered some of the best, and getting his advice, for free, was quite a boon. However, he was a guard trainer. If I listened to him, I’d end up being the best female guard the town had ever seen. I’d probably also not be able to find a job, unless I got lucky and was hired as a bodyguard for some rich citizen’s wife.
At least, I assumed there was a job of some sort there. Hence my problem with listening to Polyphemus’s advice. Artemis was who I took advice from. If one day I grew up to be Artemis but-not-the-murder-part that’d be great! Day-dreaming (night-dreaming?), I noticed I was starting to fall behind. Drat! Gotta catch up.
“Hey Catonus, want me to use [Flashlight]?” I demonstrated the sweeping bright beam, showing off the fine-tuned spotlight to the wide-ranging glare.
“Sure! Why didn’t you use this earlier?” Catonus gave me a puzzled look. Whoops. I had been keeping [Flashlight] under wraps before, and only using it to sneak into the library. Ah well, I wasn’t doing that anymore, and the genie was out of the bottle already. Might as well be useful, and stick around more. I debated saying it was a new skill, which, in a sense it was. New to public use, new a few years ago…
It had been a long day, and doing a full night patrol was getting me yawning. Nothing was happening. I was concerned that I had screwed up, and I’d just end up thrown into the wild with Artemis tomorrow massively sleep deprived, when a cry of “Fire! Fire!” came up.
We all perked up at that – the cry wasn’t too far away, in the richer district where citizens lived. Catonus and Polyphemus were off like a shot, and I pushed myself as hard as I could, [Running] giving wind to my legs and [Flashlight] ensuring a clear path. I was still slower than the guards. A gentle red glow lit the sky, warmth belying its lethal nature. I rounded one last corner to find a rich, sprawling house with hungry flames licking at the structure, greedily devouring the building.
There was a heated argument in front of the building. A full brigade of men with buckets of sand and water were in front of the building, and more were rapidly forming a line to the river. A man I could only assume was the leader of the fire brigade was having an argument with a disheveled man. A woman and a few other people behind them were trying to organize their own water brigade, but it was a meager effort. I guessed these were the occupants of the house – the master of the house’s family, and a few slaves they owned. I caught the tail end of the argument.
“… won’t sell. No way.” The master of the house stated.
“The longer you wait, the lower the price. We’re now only offering 360 silver rods for the house and the land.” Brigade-leader responded.
“Why can’t we just pay you to put the fire out?” Master of the house argued back, throwing his hands up in the air.
“It’s not the way we work. 355 rods.” Brigade-leader was cold. Prick. Letting someone’s house and livelihood burn down, extorting them. I had no doubt that they’d stand there with a full brigade, and happily watch everything burn down. Catonus and Polyphemus were watching, hands on baton, ready to handle things if they got violent – but not stepping in and making the brigade do their work. Bastards, the lot of them.
A brief lull in the argument happened as someone I had mentally labeled “The Wife” tugged on her husband’s arm, and started to fiercely whisper in his ear. I heard a far-off sound, like a call, a cry for help. Wait. That was a cry for help.
I ran up to Polyphemus, and got his attention.
“Hey, it sounds like someone’s still in there!” I said, practically stumbling over my words. “You need to do something!”
“Yeah, they mentioned there might be a slave or two still inside.” Polyphemus didn’t even bother looking at me, fingers still drumming on his baton.
“You need to save him!” I insisted.
“I’m not running into a burning building. Sorry Elaine, but no, it’s not worth the risk for a slave. Maybe if they negotiate fast enough, the fire will be out in time to save them. I wouldn’t hold my breath though, Sethos is a stubborn git.” I knew a dismissal when I heard one.
I heard the cry for help again, stronger, the prior note of fear turning into one of terror. Was nobody really going to do anything? Nothing at all was being done? Nobody cared? We were all just going to listen to this kid burn to death?
No. If nobody else was going to do it, I wasn’t going to stand by and say “Well, nobody else helped, so I wasn’t going to help either. Not my fault.” I had to do something. I had to try. I was terrified. I had to look at the fire. I had to see the heart of the fire, face my fear, let it wash over and through me. I could turn my inner eye, see the path it has taken, and only I would be there.
Checklist time. If I rushed this, we’d both die. Something for my mouth, stop the smoke. Water in general, keep everything wet. I had [Flashlight] to help me see. I could hear where he was. I had no idea of the layout. I had no idea what was burning. 1355/2000 mana left. Why did I Invigorate so much this evening? My regeneration was insane, but that was practically nothing. I tore a strip off my tunic, nobody paid me any attention. Wrapped it around my mouth, heart beating a million miles an hour. I was hyperventilating. I had a half-baked plan. I sent a quick prayer to Papilion, wishing for safety. 1344 mana left. Not the time for this.
I steeled myself. I stalled. If I didn’t go now I never would. I moved like the wind, rushing to one of the bucket brigade members with a bucket of water. I grabbed, lifted, thanked my strength for being enough for a bucket of water at least, poured it over me. Ignored the cries of protest. Dodged a grasping hand, dove through the front door.
Not burning here. Good. Deeper in. Flames. Burning. A closed door. An open door. A door with flames. Crouched over I ran further in, straining my ears, listening for a desperate cry. There, a yell. I turned, went through the open door. Flames to my left. Nothing to my right. Heat all around. I took a deep breath to yell. Mistake. Smoke. Coughing fit, bent over, heat getting to me. We can’t both die. I yell something. I don’t know what. A responding yell. Through another doorway. Flames in this door. I ran with every ounce of speed I have. A notification goes off. I disable notifications. Mouth dry. Useless rag.
Up to the door, burning beam on the ground. I jump over it. Land, stumble, fall to the ground. Cough, so much smoke. Realize my tunic caught on fire. Oh gods I’m on fire, I’m going to die. [Boost local Regen]. Centered Mind kicks in. Don’t heal. Won’t help. Stop the fire, stop drop and roll. Obey. Hyperventilating. Only alive because I’m on the floor. Breathing high up is death. Conflagration blazing.
A shriek of panic. Close. I see him. Four, maybe five. Too young. Room only has one door. Flames in the door. Burning beams above. I call out reassurance. No idea what I said. I start to run through the door. A mighty crack. I lose my nerve. I stop. Burning beam falls. Lands on kid. No time to think. Only act. I move, finding myself next to the kid. Arm pinned under burning beam. Strength too low. [Surgeon's Scalpel]. What to use as my Scalpel? Have nothing. No knife. Side of my hand. I slice down, large gouge of flesh gone. Arm still attached. Bone in the way. [Tissue Removal]. Slice down twice more. Messy. Better than dead. [Boost Local Regen]. Stops bleeding. Pick up unconscious boy. Smoke problem. I try to run, and stumble. No mana left. Use Arcanite. No knife. Fuck. Stumble through the first fire, legs cooking. Fall in agony, kid falls. We’re going to die. I can’t move. Death by inferno.
[Oath] pulses. My pledge. My promise. My vow. Must protect. Must heal. Must live. Found strength. Lifted, onto shoulders. Ran. So dark. Smoke hiding everything. No [Flashlight]. Wrong door. Trip on a chair. Wrong door. Right door. Exit behind flames. No choice. Through the flames, screaming, crying. Collapsed outside. Kid landed hard. Not moving. Not breathing. Cries of alarm, cries of amazement. Cold water pouring on me, screams ripped from my throat as it met hot elastic flesh. Catonus and Polyphemus kneeling protectively over me. Not me, I didn’t need it, save the kid. I remembered Artemis’s gift. Remembering earlier would have helped, it would have given me the extra burst needed inside. Sobbing and cries, from me, from the pain which just now hit. Used the gem. Gave myself mana. Everything on the kid looked bad. What part do I heal? Where can I help?
His arm, inexpertly hacked off? His head, matted in ashy blood? His legs and back and chest, all coated in burns of different sorts? Why was there so much yelling around me? Would it kill them to shut up? Thank goodness for passives, [Calming Aura] and [Centered Mind]. I’d be paralyzed without them. No, had to be his lungs. I didn’t have enough mana for a full shot of healing, and it only helped the body, it didn’t work miracles. Used my skill, and with nothing left to do, nothing left to give, I let darkness claim me.