Julius clapped his hands, bringing our attention to him. “Listen up everyone. We’re walking into a problem, and it’s going to be a big one. Virinum hasn’t had a problem in months, if not years – their town guard is top-notch. Whatever this is, it’s going to be bad. I need to hear from everyone if you’re not top-shape, and what you need to be top-shape. Artemis, report.”
Artemis snapped to attention, the normal playful look on her face evaporating like a snowflake in summer. “Sir! I’ve just finished recharging, and the wagon’s reserves are nearly full. I’m as close to top shape as possible.”
Julius said. “Good. Kallisto. Maximus. Arthur. Origen. Elaine. In order. Report.”
Kallisto yawned. “Top shape, no issues.”
Maximus shot a look at Kallisto. “I’m low on mana, and Elaine’s gear isn’t quite finished.”
Arthur stretched – the only direction he could go was sideways, the wagon wasn’t tall enough. “I’m missing a few exotic poisons, I could always use more arrows, and I’m down to a dozen buster arrows. All in all, close to peak.”
Origen spoke up. “I’ve only inscribed part of Elaine’s armor. One day.” Translation: Strangely enough, that was close to everything. He just needed one more day to finish up.
I added in my two coins to the discussion. “Sir! I’m not fully armored as has been mentioned. I’m also close to a class-up.” At that last note, Origen rose his hand, indicating that he was also relatively close to a class-up as well. Ah, normal Origen, at last.
“Alright, thanks all. Everyone, gear up with what you have. Whatever this problem is, it’s not cold, but it’s not flaming hot. Either way, I don’t want to be caught flat-footed. Elaine, only gear up in armor sets that currently fit you. Ill-fitting armor is worse than no armor.” I nodded at that, as we all tried to get dressed in the wagon.
The wagon was big – it could hold all of us, our gear, extra supplies, and in theory, another person. It was nowhere near big enough for seven people to be changing into armor at the same time, especially when one of those seven was the size of three people. Much cursing, swearing, and general complaining occurred as we tried to suit up. Julius would have pulled me aside if there was room. There wasn’t, so he chatted with me quickly, ducking as Artemis almost brained him with her greaves.
“Remember Elaine – you’re with us, but don’t claim you’re a Ranger.” He reminded me. Yes dad. I rolled my eyes but nodded my agreement.
We were fortunate that the horses were insanely well-trained, and kept plodding on the road to Virinum while none of us were in control. We arrived at the gates, only for a well-dressed man, clearly insanely fit once in life, but gone slightly to seed, surrounded by a squad of guards hurried out to meet us.
“You’re the Ranger squad?” He asked, looking over us. His eyebrow quirked up as he saw Artemis, and nearly went flying off his face when he saw me.
“Yes. What seems to be the problem, governor?” Julius asked. Everyone had their serious game-face on, ready to leap into action at any moment.
“It’s terrible! Some sort of monster has taken up residence near the river grates. We’re unable to clear the grates of debris, and we’re not able to harvest any clay!”
Strangely enough, that broke the tension, relief in the air. I wasn’t quite following why, but Kallisto and Artemis both started stripping their armor off. Maximus gestured at me to come over, and I did. He started speaking softly to me, while Julius and the governor kept talking.
“Alright Elaine, we’re not going to be fighting today, or probably even for a few days. Why don’t you take your gear off, and we’ll work on finishing up your armor, k?”
I started to shuck what little armor I had off, hearing the tail end of the conversation.
“..poison. Either doesn’t eat it or doesn’t do anything. Usually lives in the water, so arrows aren’t doing much. Ate our best monster tamer. That was a real mess, dealing with the Tamer's now-untamed creatures. Smart enough to avoid harpoons from the scorpion - we can't get it close enough. Rams the gate if someone is on the other side trying to remove debris. It won’t be around for a day or two, someone gets cocky, and then it grabs them, drags them down to the bottom of the river.” The governor was giving full account of the monster. I shuddered. I didn’t want to be anywhere close to that.
Artemis finished getting her gear off in record time, and shot off, like a child trying to dodge chores. My eyes widened in realization. The baths! She knew where they were, I didn’t, and it’d been weeks since I last had one. I finished throwing off what little armor I had, unceremoniously dumping it in the back of the wagon, and shot off after Artemis. I’d probably get grief for dumping my armor and chasing after Artemis, and get called Artemis’s pet again. I didn’t care.
Bureaucracy saved me. Artemis had gone the short distance to the gates, but the guard weren’t letting her in. I arrived mid-conversation.
“It’s insane! I’m going to need to fight whatever gods-knows-what monster you have! There’s no way I’m blowing my mana now!” Artemis’s tone was outraged, as she threw her hands up in the air.
The guards were sweating, but held their ground. “Ma’am, we’re very sorry, but no Classers as powerful as you are allowed in the city with that much mana. There’s no exception for ‘Ranger needing to slay a monster’. I’d love to let you in, really, but…” The guard trailed off, nervously swallowing.
“Morons! Shit for brains! Try thinking with your head, not your ass!” Artemis had a few more choice words, and while I was no great shakes with people, I could see their lips thinning, stances hardening. They didn’t like being challenged; they didn’t want to take risks.
But I knew guards. Dad was a guard, I’d grown up around them, I’d gone on patrol with them. This I could handle.
“Excuse me.” I cut through Artemis’s tirade. To her credit, she actually shut up, perhaps realizing this was getting out of hand.
“First off, I’m Elaine. Hi, nice to meet you.” I waved at them cheerfully. “My dad’s a guard in Aquiliea! I love being around guards. You guys do a great job!” I said the last part with as much cheer as I could, forcing a smile onto my face. Not my best effort, but they weren’t looking nearly as tense.
“I know you can’t let Artemis in, but could you get the Captain on-duty so we can ask him?” I asked sweetly.
“Elaine, this is dumb, we should just-“ Artemis tried to come up with her own plan. I cut her off.
“Look, they’re not allowed to let you in. Full stop. The Captain’s the only one who can do that.”
“And me.” The governor loomed up behind us. I hadn’t even noticed him approaching. “Really guys? You’re going to give the Ranger team a hard time? Would you like to try and slay the monster yourselves instead, hmmm?”
The big boss showing up and throwing his weight around got us in the town faster than one of Arthur’s arrows. Speaking of arrows, she did her best impression of one as she sprinted through the town, weaving through the streets with practiced ease, as I scurried along, trying to stay on her heels.
Artemis, like a rat who knew where the cheese was in a maze, skidded to a halt in front of a large building that could only be the baths. Entry fees were paid in a rush, filthy clothes peeled from our bodies with a disgusting squelch, and then…
Bliss. Pure bliss. Steam swirled and danced around us as we sank into the baths. Hot water soaking into our sore muscles, our battered bones. The omnipresent slow current taking layers of grime away with them, revealing skin that hadn’t seen the light of day in weeks. I let myself fall under the water, running my fingers through my short hair, feeling it shake loose.
I broke free into the steamy air, a long, deep sigh of contentment escaping my lips. I just floated there, free and happy, letting my worries wash away. No chores. No exercise. No dirt. No rain, no mud, no orders, no horse smells, no dumps in the woods. Just pure bliss, delivered in a thousand tiny waves.
We must’ve been there for hours. It felt like minutes, seconds, snatched away too quickly. Artemis eventually started to haul herself out, while I stayed behind.
“Come on healy-bug. We gotta go back.”
I made an inarticulate whining noise. Instead of arguing with me, Artemis grabbed a leg, and towed me out. It was fun, apart from the occasional dunking.
We dried off, and eyed the grubby rags formerly known as our clothes.
“How do you usually handle this?” I asked. This couldn’t be new, and thinking on it, I had no spare clothes.
“With aplomb.” Artemis replied, wrapping the towel around herself, grabbing her money pouch, badge, and walking out. I stared after her, then realized I was about to be left behind.
“Wait!” I cried out. I mimicked Artemis, wrapping a towel around myself, grabbing my all-too-light pouch, and running after her.
This sucked. I felt so vulnerable being out like this. I imagined everyone staring at me, some hungrily, others laughing at me. I tried to copy Artemis, head held high, not a care in the world. It was hard.
[*ding!* Congratulations! [Pretty] has reached level 96!].
[*ding!* Congratulations! [Learning] has reached level 99!].
I caught up to her, and pressed up close behind her, hoping she’d be distraction enough. Twist, turn, twist, and we were in front of a shop, pictures of tunics burnt into wood in front of the store.
It looked closed, but that didn’t stop Artemis knocking on the door until someone showed up.
“What? We're closed.” He asked grumpily, then properly took in our appearances. Artemis flashed her Ranger’s Eagle.
“You know what. I don’t want to know. Come in.” The tailor decided that practically naked Rangers showing up after sunset wasn’t worth asking questions over.
Artemis got herself a half-dozen men’s tunics, so defined by the fact that they ended at the thigh, and didn’t have a long skirt attached to them. I copied her, emptying the rest of my money pouch for a single tunic.
I felt a hole in my heart as my last coin left my pouch. Not because I was broke – no, I felt despair because if we encountered mangos here, I wouldn’t be able to buy them. I needed to drum up some cash – preferably in time to go shopping here. Plans for another day.
We headed back to the guard’s barracks, and I was thanking my lucky stars I’d stuck with Artemis. I’d have no idea where any of this was, or where we were even staying, if I got separated. I should probably stick with the group until we had our ‘home base’ in a town next time we arrived at one.
We arrived at the barracks, and found a room that’d been assigned to us. A bed! A real bed! Sure, it wasn’t top of the line luxury, but when you’ve been sleeping on wooden floors with a woolen blanket, a real bed, a real mattress, and a real pillow were the height of luxury. Well, mattress and pillow were loose definition by Earth standards, but they met the Pallosian definition.
My head hit the pillow, and I was gone in seconds.