“Kallisto, Arthur, you're with me and Artemis on collecting bodies. Origen, Maximus, Elaine, you’re on wood-gathering duty.” Julius ordered us, as we started to clean up the mess from the battle.
We grabbed some axes, and headed into the woods. As much as I gave the physical stats grief, and didn’t spend much time or energy on them, my 20 points in Strength let me swing an axe like I was a fit woman on Earth, never mind that I was a slightly athletic teenager currently. We were chopping and gathering wood, when my thought process caught up to what I was doing.
“Why are we chopping wood?” I asked. It was a mark of how well I was being trained that I just followed orders.
Maximus swung the axe with grace, while Origen was, well… like he was chopping wood.
“We need to burn the bodies. Black Crow has their soul, but their body will attract monsters otherwise. A few here and there – the poisoned ones that Arthur hunted down – will be fine, but we can’t leave a stack. Otherwise monsters show up, monsters might think there’s good eating here, and in a year, we have a monster extermination problem.”
We hauled the wood back, building a pyre. Goblin bodies, so ferocious in life, looked like malnourished children in death. We stacked them, Artemis, Origen, and I respectfully, the rest just throwing their bodies on the heap. Crimson eyes promising murder just hours ago now gazed into nothingness, green skin marred with an angry spiderweb where lightning had coursed through them.
Artemis patted me on the shoulder, interrupting a stream of thought that was about to start going down the morality path. I realized I had tears streaming down my face.
“Just remember. They were sneaking up on us, trying to kill us. Nothing made them attack us. Nothing made them cram through that opening in our fort. Nothing we did pushed them, forced them to try and attack us. That was all on them.” She gave me a big hug from behind, squeezing me hard.
“You’re alive, and unhurt. I’m alive, and unhurt. Thanks to you, we’re all alive and unhurt.” While I didn’t quite have warm fuzzy feelings going through me, it staved off the darkness slowly starting to creep across my heart.
We stacked the weapons on top of their bodies.
Artemis passed me a torch. “Here. You’ll feel better being the one to send them to a peaceful place.”
I wasn’t sure how right she was, but I took the torch anyways, lighting the pyre. I bowed my head as the flames licked up, reflecting in my eyes, washing the scene in a fiery red. The flames on the pyre matched the flames in my heart – in turmoil, swaying one way, then the next. I sent a wish, a prayer, that White Dove would take them somewhere nicer, a place where they didn’t feel the need to try and murder others. I hoped Black Crow didn’t need to take any of them, that they went gently.
The fact that they all died in battle suggested that Black Crow was laughing, enjoying the grand bounty. His messengers would probably feast tomorrow.
Was it their nature to kill? Or were there outside influences, reasons that pushed them to a point of desperation, that gave them a powerful need to try and murder travelers? Would they farm if they could? Or did they just find it easier to rob others?
I was a healer. I was supposed to bring people back from the brink of death, not push them over it.
But I didn’t push a single person, goblin, or otherwise near-intelligent creature off the edge. I did pull some people away from the brink, not that they had been all that close. And nothing about healing said I couldn’t defend myself.
Fuck, this was a lot to process, a lot to think about.
All questions for another day. Right now, me and mine were healthy and alive, and no goblins had been left alive to cause a problem.
“Good work everyone.” Julius called us to attention as the flames were burning lower. “Question time. Do we stay here for the night, or do we move on?”
“Move on.” Arthur immediately voted.
“Stay.” Kallisto and Maximus said, practically in unison.
Artemis was doing some muttering to herself, before voting on “Move on.” Origen just shrugged, not caring.
“Elaine. You’re the deciding vote.” Julius told me.
Me? I had a vote? Why wouldn’t Julius decide? I thought about the issue, and rapidly realized something – I had no knowledge of the arguments for, or against, the merits of moving or staying.
“I’ve got nothing.” I said. “I don’t know enough to have a good vote.”
Artemis cracked a smile at me. Julius nodded, accepting my ‘vote’.
“Alright, we’re moving. Arthur – “
“Yeah, yeah, scouting. I’m always the scout. We need more than one.” The bear-man complained, getting to his feet. Julius narrowed his eyes.
“Reins. I’ll be scouting. Artemis is in charge while I’m not around.” Julius surprised all of us, and from the look on his face, he was slightly regretting his impulsive order, designed to one-up Arthur’s complaints, but signing himself up for a night of scouting anyways.
Undeterred, he pointed at one of the walls that Artemis had erected earlier.
“Artemis. Bring down that wall.” He thought a moment. “Leave the rest up. Who knows, maybe someone will use it as the start of an outpost.”
We packed up our gear, throwing it into the wagon, a mimicry of the first night where we’d fled from the mention of the D-word. I copied my original role, hopping in the wagon early, putting gear away as it was thrown in.
The D-word. That’s what I was calling Dragons in my head now, to stop another slip-up. I wasn’t sold on them being able to hear me say their name, but I was in a land of magic, where the impossible was every day. The others didn’t seem to know much about the D-word, but nothing- nothing – had shaken Julius like that, so we weren’t asking, and he wasn’t volunteering.
We got everything packed away, Arthur awkwardly climbing into the driver’s seat, wood creaking in protest as he settled down. Artemis muttered to herself, head cocking back and forth, before finally seeming to make up her mind. She put her hand against one of the wagon walls, streaks of power lighting the wagon’s interior up as she drew mana from it, crumbling a hole in one of the earthen walls big enough for the wagon to go through.
“Alright everyone, huddle up.” Artemis called out. An indistinct noise came from the front. “Alright, fine, everyone near the entrance so Arthur can listen in as well.”
I was curious, but Artemis was the boss right now, so we all went near the front of the wagon, making sure the door was open. We were all in a rough circle, with Arthur’s back being the only thing that showed through the door.
“What’s up?” Kallisto asked. Origen raised a single eyebrow, indicating his curiosity. Knowing him, there was probably a complete essay’s worth of questions depending on the exact angle of the eyebrow. I didn’t speak fluent Origen-ese, so I had no idea what it was being said.
“After-action summary. What went well, what didn’t, thoughts on the fight.” Artemis started.
“We didn’t do one last time.” Maximus pointed out.
“I wasn’t temporarily in charge last time.” Artemis bit back.
I thought about sassing Artemis by saying “Temporarily.”, but decided against it. It was hard enough suddenly being in charge, without everyone giving you grief over the first thing you tried to do. So instead, I decided to be helpful.
“My healing range being hands-on is a problem.” I started. “I needed to be right up close and personal, I’m slow and you’re all fast, so Maximus needed to not only have no armor on, but be bare-chested so I could touch him to heal. I’m completely vulnerable, and anything remotely related to being in the action means someone needs to cover for me.”
Maximus grunted assessment. “You were useful, you were helpful, don’t get me wrong. You also weren’t make-or-break in that scrap.” I opened my mouth in protest, and he held a hand up, forestalling me. “You’re worth more than twice your weight in gold after the fight. In a fight, it was like my back was to a civilian who needed protection. It limited my movements, it forced me to fight defensively. You tried to cover for me at one point, but Julius already had me – it forced Artemis to intervene, and she’s our last-ditch move.” He paused, and kept going.
“Now, I don’t want you to feel bad about any of that. You did what you were told to do, you’re braver than almost anyone I know. Heck, at your age, unarmed, no armor, there’s no way I’d have run towards goblins like that.” He patted me on the head. I had mixed feelings on that.
“Kallisto?” Artemis continued.
“I was too slow getting my armor together. Origen finished suiting up at the same time as me, and he’s our utility. I’m focused in this; I should be faster than him.” Nods of agreement came around the circle.
“Right. I think instead of sparring, you should practice getting your armor on and off. I know you did that during training, but it seems like you’ve been slacking.” Artemis took a deep breath, preparing to give feedback on herself.
“For me. Generally I get shit for being on a hair trigger, tonight it paid off in spades. Saved Elaine, created the walls to stop it from being a disaster, [Chain Lightning] worked like a charm- all in all, I was the model of perfection. You should learn from your betters.” Artemis tossed her head at that, short hair flowing in agreement.
We made some booing noises at that, with Arthur being a bit more vocal.
“Check your damn targets on that [Chain Lightning]! I was almost roasted!” He complained.
Artemis laughingly held her hands up. “Alright, alright, the real analysis. [Chain Lightning] was probably overkill, although it did end the fight. Arthur, you’re practically invisible, I won’t hold back on skills because you might be there. I drew more from our reserves than needed – or allowed – and I let myself get over-drawn and exhausted. If there’d been anything else, I wouldn’t have been able to help.”
The discussion continued a bit, more pros and cons weighed, analysis of what went right, what went wrong, how we could do better in the future. I could practically see us growing closer, growing stronger. If someone had a teamwork skill, it’d be leveling up.
Wait, levels! Time to see my loot. I rubbed my hands in anticipation, mouth splitting into a toothy grin.
[*Ding!* Your Party has slain a [Goblin Warrior] (Wood, lv 88)]
[*Ding!* Your Party has slain a [Goblin Raider] (Fire, lv 92)]
Several dozen more goblins, in a dozen different classes.
[*Ding!* Your Party has slain a [Goblin Skirmisher] (Light, lv 105)]
[*Ding!* Congratulations! [Calming Aura] has reached level 106!].
[*Ding!* Congratulations! [Healing Aura] has reached level 104!].
[*Ding!* Congratulations! [Healing Aura] has reached level 105!].
[*Ding!* Congratulations! [Healing Aura] has reached level 106!].
[*Ding!* Congratulations! [Detailed Restoration] has reached level 80!].
[*Ding!* Congratulations! [Detailed Restoration] has reached level 98!].
[*Ding!* Congratulations! [Greater Invigorate] has reached level 100!].
[*Ding!* Congratulations! [Centered Mind] has reached level 100!].
[*Ding!* Congratulations! [Centered Mind] has reached level 101!].
[*Ding!* Congratulations! [Deaden Pain] has reached level 62!].
[*Ding!* Congratulations! [Deaden Pain] has reached level 75!].
[*Ding!* Congratulations! [Attack Bacteria] has reached level 70!].
[*Ding!* Congratulations! [Parasitic Remover] has reached level 36!].
[*Ding!* Congratulations! [Cure Toxin] has reached level 82!].
[*Ding!* Congratulations! [Privacy] has reached level 68!].
[*Ding!* Congratulations! [Learning] has reached level 98!].
[*Ding!* Congratulations! [Oath] has reached level 101!].
[*Ding!* Congratulations! [Shadow Healer] has leveled up to level 89! +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! [Shadow Healer] has leveled up to level 90! +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 124! +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 of Hope] has leveled up to level 127! +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 124!]
[*Ding!* Congratulations! [Light Affinity] has reached level 127!]
[*Ding!* Congratulations! [Dark Affinity] has reached level 89!]
[*Ding!* Congratulations! [Dark Affinity] has reached level 90!]
I cackled in glee, seeing my levels go up, month’s worth of effort solved in a single evening. Thinking back on it, I immediately sobered up, a bucket of cold water poured over my happiness.
Creatures had died for my levels. Dozens of living, breathing, sapient creatures. What Artemis said came back to me. We hadn’t attacked them. We hadn’t made them attack us. It was self-defense, pure and simple. What was I supposed to do, strip naked and add salt and pepper to make myself tastier?
Argh. Nothing was simple. Give me people that needed – and wanted! – healing, and I was a happy girl.
What did make me light up a bit more was I was at 127 in my main class – a stone’s throw away from classing up again. It’d been years since I last leveled up my main class, and I was eager to see what was on the next floor of the library. Who knows, maybe it wouldn’t be rushed, and I’d have days to explore and read.
I’d kill for a library.
The joke felt like it was in bad taste at first, but I thought more on it. No, I’d actually kill for a library.
We fell back into our normal routine. Day after the fight, relaxing, recuperating, more analysis with Julius around. More running and sparring and pushups and burpees and other inventive torments from Artemis. Julius ordered Maximus to start re-fitting one of the former Ranger’s gear to fit me – he didn’t like me being on the front lines practically naked more than anyone else did. Maximus grumbled, but took my measurements and started re-shaping armor to fit me.
Artemis insisted that I get mage-armor, whatever difference that made.
We kept heading to Virinum as the rainy season came into full swing. Artemis had no mercy – I still had to keep doing all of the exercises she wanted, but now I was wet and muddy. Blessedly, I still had dibs on the wagon, and Artemis no longer slept in it, citing my nightmares keeping her up. The wagon recharged its lost mana, and before I knew it, one day we turned the corner to see the walls of Virinum.
A man sitting by the road stood up at seeing us, seemingly having performed the motion a thousand times. He came over and asked, in an exhausted, defeated voice.
“Are you the Ranger squad?”
“Yeah.” Kallisto answered.
“Shame, we’ve been waiting for the Ranger – wait what!?” The man did a double-take at Kallisto’s answer.
“I said yeah, we’re the Ranger squad. What’s going on?” Kallisto asked, but it was too late, the man whooping and yelling and running down the road to the town.
“The Rangers are here! The Rangers are here!” He yelled, jumping and waving his arms at town.
“Fuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuck.” Julius said, putting his head in his hands. “That’s never good.”