I got woken up by a herd of angry bears invading the wagon. I yawned, stretched, gave myself a shot of [Greater Invigorate]. Sleep gone, I fully opened my eyes and confirmed that yes, it was Arthur, and no, I wasn’t about to be mauled to death by an angry bear. After all I’d survived, that’d honestly be an embarrassing way to go. Give me an epic out if I’m going to go down.
Everyone else filed in, and I made myself, and my sleeping supplies, compact and out of the way – mostly by sitting on all of them. See, a chair! Not me being lazy. Artemis saw my mad dash and subsequent look, and rolled her eyes at me. I stuck out my tongue, and Julius brought us all to order.
“Right, we have a solid plan on how we’re going to lure this thing out. Now let’s plan the actual fight out. Artemis, are you able to pen it in?” Artemis shook her head.
“It’s all clay and mud around the river. There’s not enough stone to make a cage, and I can’t conjure up that much material, even with unrestricted access to the wagon’s reserves. I could make a clay cage, but Origen could bust through, forget this beasty. Only person it could trap is Elaine.” I pouted at her around a loaf of bread, but couldn’t really argue.
“Instead, I propose we….” Artemis started to detail her plan, as we all leaned forward. After much back-and-forth, checking skills and capabilities, hammering and refining the plan in our fires of invention, we had a solid, working plan.
“Alright everyone. Today’s our prep day. What do we all need? Artemis, you first.”
“Town of Clay. Hoping to pick up some ceramic projectiles, they’re better than a straight rock, especially if you can convince someone to make it sharp.” Artemis said.
My eyes widened in surprise. That was clever! I’d have never thought of that, but then again, I wasn’t the Earth-mage. It was like having an arrowhead vs a slung rock.
“Arthur?” Julius was going around the circle.
“More buster arrows. This sucker’s big, and I doubt normal arrows are getting through its hide.”
“Right. Maximus, Origen, unless you two have something more pressing, finishing Elaine’s armor is top priority.” The two shook their heads in denial of having anything better to do.
“Kallisto?” Julius continued asking around the circle.
“Well, there are a great number of very lovely ladies who –“ Julius cut him off.
“Right, you’re with Arthur.”
That was the whole “Travel in pairs unless you have an emergency signal” bit coming into play again.
“Lastly, Elaine.” I perked up at my name. “You’re with me.” My face fell, shoulders slumped. “Meet back here before nightfall to get everything sorted. Dismissed.”
Glumly I got up, following Julius out the door. I’d wanted to spend the day with Artemis, instead I got grouchy.
“So, what are we up to?” I asked, no longer able to hide my curiosity as we travelled down the white zone.
“Potions. You know exactly what you can and can’t do, and I need you around while we’re buying potions, so you can tell me if you can substitute for one or not.”
We kept going down what could only be Virinum’s main street. It looked a lot like Aquiliea in so many ways, including the scent of the sea, but where we had colorful riots of colored clothes, they were more muted here. Instead, thousands of tiny, fancy painted frescos were commonplace, on almost every wall and on every building, carved out of the clay the town was so famous for.
We stopped by a store with a giant fresco, showing a man stirring a bubbling cauldron over a controlled fire, with dozens of colorful seashells showing different liquids inside. An apothecary.
We entered to see a bored-looking young man, skinny, with the physique of someone whose idea of heavy-lifting was two potions at once, behind the counter. Dozens of colorful seashells segregated by color, size, and type, with little pictures denoting what each potion had, were on display behind him. A muscle for a potion to briefly increase strength, a foot for speed. The riot of color that was missing outside was in this apothecary.
I wonder what towns that weren’t on the seashore used?
“Can I help you?” It must be an apprentice potion-maker, the master wouldn’t sound so dull and bored in his own store.
“We’d like –“ Julius started, only for bored-dude to interrupt.
“Wait, don’t tell me. Either a fertility potion, or an impotence potion. Right?” He said, not bothering to get a response. The fires of anger deep in my chest warred with embarrassment. Me, with Julius? Ewwwwwww.
Julius’s eyes tightened, and his lips pursed. His hands dipped to his belt, and for a moment I thought he was going for his knife – a bit of an extreme overreaction, but hey, I’d help him hide the body.
Sadly? He grabbed his Ranger badge, and slapped it down on the counter. With a cold, clipped voice that I’d only heard when he caught Artemis nearly braining Arthur, he said.
“Rangers. She’s my teammate. Apologize.”
All the blood seemed to have left bored-dude’s face, as he jerked from the badge to Julius’s face, and back again.
“I won’t say it again. Apologize.”
Julius snorted, not happy, but realizing pushing it further would lead to no good. The store tender looked at me, and I gave him my best withering glare. He jumped, warming my heart. Good. He knew where he was in the pecking order.
“Alright, I’d like 7 of each Strength, Speed, Dexterity, and Vitality potions. Elaine, you can handle most poisons, right?”
“Yeah. Not that I think this beast has poison.” Julius nodded at that.
“Agreed. Better safe than sorry, but in this case, I think we’re safe. Now, for thoroughness, general healing?”
“Probably weaker than my healing aura.”
“And that’s permanently on, right?”
“Alright, skipping that one…”
We examined and rejected dozens of different types of potions, all of which I either replaced, or we didn’t have a visible, practical use for. In the end we got a set of stamina potions, which overlapped with my [Greater Invigorate] – “because in a pinch, you need to save your mana, it’s too useful not to have extras of, and you can’t reach everyone at once.”, almost 30 blood restoration potions. “The more specific the potion, the stronger. We need to shore up your weakness, and these can last awhile.”, and a few other miscellaneous potions.
Buying the potions was easy. The idiot behind the counter gave us a price, Julius Looked at him until he was trembling, and the price went down. The intensity of his gaze went down slightly, the price went down, and the process rinsed and repeated until we had nearly half-off the price. Good negotiations!
I wonder if Julius had some [Bartering] skill variant. Julius gave me a heavy pouch full of coins to hold, then he vanished. Not a minute later he was back with a flurry of wind and a second pouch, and we completed the transaction.
Why was I even along for this trip?
All in all, it was nearly 70 potions we were hauling out of there, and I discovered a more nefarious reasons Julius had brought me along.
As a mule.
Loaded up with most of the potions carefully packed in small bags, I felt like a walking cargo tunic.
No, walking cargo tunic was all wrong. Waddling cargo tunic. There we go.
“Are you sure I should be carrying these? They were expensive! We need them!” I did my best to worm out of work, and to not feel so damn stressed about carrying the absurd amount of very expensive potions. In delicate seashells.
“Yup! Elaine, I trust you. You won’t break a thing.”
I sweated and cursed under my breath. I just know he could’ve taken them all himself.
“If you could not mention the thing with the discount, I’d appreciate it.” Julius mentioned off-handedly, as we turned another corner.
“Ooooh?” I said, with barely disguised glee. Blackmail material!
I got a Look. I really, really, should never, ever play poker.
“While we could commandeer things we need – especially when dealing with an immediate threat to the town – it leaves a bad, bad taste in people’s mouths. That directly translates into more problems for Rangers down the line. So, I strongly discourage everyone from doing it. If they knew I did something similar, even if it was just to teach him a lesson, it’d erode that order. I don’t need my orders eroded.”
Fine, fine. I was still tagging along by their good graces, and Julius was the boss.
“Do you think he’ll get in trouble for selling the potions so cheaply?” I asked, curious.
“Probably. That was more on him for having no spine. Remember,” He said, getting a sly grin. “did I actually say anything?”
I half-laughed as I thought back on the interaction. Julius didn’t say anything – he just looked displeased.
We arrived back, and carefully, carefully, put the potions away.
I was putting the last potion away when Maximus popped back in, holding a complete set of armor.
“Elaine! You’re here! Great, come with me, I need to see that your armor fits properly.”
Maximus had carefully measured me when we were first starting on this project, but apparently it might need some fine-tuning.
We left the wagon, entered the barracks, and found a spare room. Maximus showed me how to put the armor on. The laminar vest went on first, barely covering my shoulders. The thick skirt made of leather strips went on second, over the bottom of the vest. No metal strips on mine - deliberately a hair lighter for easier movement. A thick belt went on over that, where pouches, knives, and the like would live. My sandals stayed, but greaves went over my shin, while vambraces covered my upper arms.
Heavy leather gloves were a normal part of the outfit, but I still needed direct contact to heal someone, and awkwardly trying to find a patch of my bare skin to connect was so much harder than just touching them. So instead, I got fingerless gloves.
“Afterall,” Maximus reasoned, “If you lose your fingers, you could just regrow one, then heal with that.” His cold logic made me shudder.
Lastly came the helmet. It wasn’t particularly comfortable, and I needed to cut my hair again to make it fit properly. Maximus then circled around me, muttering incomprehensible things, poking and prodding the armor. I could feel it subtly shift each time, adjusting tiny amounts to perfectly mold to me, to not be Ranger’s armor, but becoming something more.
Elaine’s armor. My armor. Fit for me, tailored like a second skin.
Maximus was wanting me to jump up and down in it, and I hesitated, feeling strangely vulnerable. Artemis popped her head in, saving me.
“Elaine, are you all set?” Artemis asked. Maximus opened his mouth, probably to say check #81 wasn’t quite done yet or some other esoteric bit of armor-fitting, but it was good enough for me.
“Yup!” I cheerfully walked out, unused to all the extra weight, glad I didn’t need to be jumping.
“Great! You’re all mine for the afternoon!” Artemis’s tone of glee deeply concerned me….
I was right to be concerned. I’d just gotten used to Artemis’s fitness regime. Now I had to do all of that – in full armor. I sweated. I slipped and fell in the mud. I cursed and groaned and was generally put through my paces in a brutal fashion.
Slightly more fun was learning how to activate the myriad inscriptions in the armor, causing it to glow with an otherworldly blue light.
“Mostly Speed and Dexterity buffs for my healy-bug. Vitality is a pain to buff, and Strength doesn’t do much for you. The magic stats are historically difficult to buff, and it’s basically never done. There’s a bunch of passive inscriptions to help with durability, which also directly translate to keeping you alive.” I practiced turning my buffs on and off, seeing my mana regeneration lower and go back up as I did. Neat.
“Also, to note, you have mage-armor there. It’s lighter and easier to move in than the normal, base gear – of which only Origen and Maximus wear – but the real secret is the Arcanite stones woven into it. Easy access to additional mana in a fight, hard to separate you from it. Unlike, say, someone grabbing your own knife.” I got a pointed look at that last comment.
“Armor’s on loan to you while you’re hanging out with us. If you leave, the armor’s gotta stay.” Perfectly reasonable. I had no plans on leaving – I was more terrified they’d kick me out.
We tuned the Arcanite to me – it wasn’t needed, but it helped – and it was back to fitness training we went.
I was spitting mud out of my mouth after having fallen for the dozenth time, close to breaking, when Artemis had some mercy on me.
“I know this is no fun healy-bug,” The twinkle in her eye made me doubt that. “But this is for your own good. You’re going to be running, in these conditions tomorrow, and you might save one of our lives as a result. Heck, it might even be mine! And we only have this one afternoon to get you in shape.” Artemis’s look turned gentle, the corners of her eyes going down. “You might be in the thick of things. You might die. I can’t let that happen, so I’m doing what I can to prevent it.”
I got up, caking myself in another layer of mud, and gave Artemis a huge, crushing hug.
“Ack! You’re getting mud all over me!” Artemis complained, with no venom in her voice.
“I know,” I said, muffled through her tunic, talking into her. “Now you gotta pay for a bath for me tonight.”
Artemis swatted at me for that, and I continued going through my paces with her with renewed vigor. Her little speech had driven just how serious this was, that while we were laughing and sliding in mud, this had real, practical applications.
A real, practical application, tomorrow.
Where failure on my part would mean someone died.
Training stopped being fun and games.
Artemis treated me to an hour or so in the baths as the sun went down, to help me relax and get clean before tomorrow. It didn’t matter, but it was nice, and that did matter.
We got back to the barracks, where I spent nearly an hour scrubbing and cleaning my armor, getting the mud out from all of the nooks and crannies it had found. I see why the Rangers weren’t constantly wearing their armor all the time, the maintenance was hell.
When I found where I was going to sleep for the night. Julius popped in, seashell potion in hand.
“Elaine.” He started. My heart rate started to slowly increase. I didn’t like the sound of this. “I know you sleep terribly, and since we’re going into a big fight tomorrow, I’d like to give you the option of a sleeping potion. Careful!” He raised the potion up, out of my grasp as I was reaching for it. “They can be addictive.”
I nodded eagerly, taking the potion from Julius. I waited a moment for him to leave, before removing the beeswax and cork plug, and downing the potion.
Sleep claimed me, and I never slept better.