I’d never had such a good night’s sleep, and when someone was shaking my shoulder, I sleepily brushed them off.
“Give me some more time…” I sleepily muttered into my pillow. I wish I could ask for a few more minutes, but timekeeping. I needed to invent timekeeping. After sleep.
The incessant hand on my shoulder left, and I let myself drift back off to sleep, only to be rudely picked up and dumped on the floor.
I cracked open my eyes, to see Artemis, who had her hands on her hips, looking peeved.
“Get up already! You’ve slept in for ages! The sun’s high up!”
Fuck. I was delaying everyone. The cold rush of panic from possibly disappointing everyone else woke me up better than a [Greater Invigorate] could.
I started to rush to get my armor on, when Artemis gently grabbed my arm.
“Do it right. It’s better that we’re a moment late, with our gear on properly, than it failing in a fight.”
I took a deep, calming breath. Ok. I can do this.
Slowly, carefully, trying not to tremble at the thought of what was to come, I got everything on. Armor on, belt on. Almost half of the blood restoration potions were with me, with the remainder locked away in a chest. “Because the only time we’ll need them is if you’re nearby.” Artemis explained, helping me get them on, showing me how to quickly release them.
That was morbid. Why didn’t we buy regular healing potions as well?
Right, because they were practically useless.
Heart pounding, I made my way to the wagon, where plans were being finalized, weapons checked, runes flaring with power as they were turned on and off, being tested.
“Ok, any last-minute questions, adjustments, anything?” Julius wrapped up. We all shook our heads. We knew the plan; we knew what needed to be done.
“Potion time.” That got a grimace from everyone, with Origen pretending to gag. I eyed my potions suspiciously. I wonder if [Deaden Pain] would help?
My regeneration was crazy, but I wasn’t going to risk a single point of mana right now. Down the hatch they go.
They each had their own unique blend of terrible. Rotten eggs would be a luxury meal after that. Raw coffee beans a delightful treat. Hákarl the pinnacle of food.
Gagging, desperately drinking water and making retching noises, I wasn’t the only one. Julius had the only stoic look, but from how the lines around his eyes were tightening, I suspected it was more to look good in front of his team than any enjoyment of the foul concoction.
“Alright. I’ll signal the guards to begin.” With that, Julius vanished, a swirling of leaves the only indication he’d been there a moment ago.
Part one of the plan: Ash was a good idea. The town’s main industry was clay-related, and to fire clay, you needed ovens. Lots of ovens. To fuel the ovens, you needed wood, and at the end of the day, there was a ton of ash left over. Normally this was recycled back out as fertilizer, but we stepped in. We requested the guard’s help collecting the ash, moving it upriver, and having them dump the huge quantity into the river.
In spite of how slow everything had been, due to the lack of clay, there was still enormous quantities of ash. Some clay still got fired, ovens still cooked food, and when word got out that we wanted ash to deal with the monster, it was suddenly easy.
Julius made it back after about 15 minutes. “It’s done. That guard up there,” He pointed to a guard on the wall. “Will signal us if the monster leaves the water, and what direction it left in.”
We were hoping it’d leave on what I arbitrarily called the right side. That side of the river had the road, and we’d be able to get to it much faster. If it left from the left side, we’d need to leave from the eastern gate, the loop around back south, through brush, to get to where it left. Not impossible, but not easy.
We spent what felt like hours, waiting tensely. Artemis paced. Origen was stoic. I kept bouncing my knee, getting the occasional glare from Kallisto and Julius over it. The fact that the river beneath us – we were waiting on a bridge, roughly halfway between the two gates – only just turned grey with ash, implied that my sense of time was horribly off. I looked up at the sun. Yeah, my sense of time was horribly off. We’d been here maybe 20 minutes, not hours.
I have no idea how long it was before the guard on the wall started frantically yelling and waving his arms, pointing to the direction I’d arbitrarily declared “Right”. With that, we were off like a shot!
Origen was driving the wagon, with me up front with him. Artemis was hanging off the back, to better do her thing.
Maximus, Julius, Kallisto, and Arthur were all on foot – they were significantly faster than the wagon was when they pushed themselves – and they moved together as a team down the roads emptied by the guards. Soon they were out of sight.
We picked up speed after we turned a tight corner, ending up on the main road south, path cleared by shouting guards. There was some cheering – the mighty Rangers off to slay the monster got good press – but I was too nervous to appreciate it, eyes fixated on the gate rapidly looming up, my heart pounding in beat with the horse’s rapid hooves.
Too fast, we were through the gate, and I could see what was going on; get a good look at the monster that’d been causing so many problems. A vicious monster that looked like a small plesiosaurus met my eye. The head and neck were the same, the body both fat and sleek, like a seal’s, with a tail almost as long as its neck was. Kallisto and Maximus were baiting the creature towards them, away from the river. Arthur was nowhere to be seen, and Julius was on a type of overwatch, slinking around. He was waiting until we’d done our part before jumping in.
We made a turn towards the river, and a second turn to run next to the river, mud flying from the horses’ hooves. Thank goodness for dashboards.
It was now Artemis’s turn to shine. While most of the ground was mud and clay, there were some rocks in the ground, and in the river. As we slowed down to a trot, Artemis was raising crossed spears at an angle, closing off the monster’s path of retreat back into the water. The monster could bust through if it wanted to, but it’d mean impaling itself on a half-dozen nasty, barbed spikes. The hope was it’d pick another direction to flee in, one that didn’t involve submerging itself in water.
As she raised what sounded like the 5th or 6th spike – I couldn’t see – Kallisto and Maximus moved in to engage the monster. I should [Identify] the monster. [Nothosaurus]. Fuck that was the highest-level creature I’d ever seen. Kallisto was using his standard spear and shield, while Maximus was using some strange double-headed spear, whirling it around like a quarterstaff.
The monster snapped and bit, as Kallisto performed amazing feats of athleticism to dodge most of the blows. Occasionally, the monster’s head would snap forward so fast that he’d take the blow on his shield, using the momentum to roll back instead of just falling. Maximus would move in, get a blow or two in, and as the monster turned to attack Maximus, Kallisto would get a stab or two in, drawing the monster back to him.
Maximus could dodge, but he had no shield. A direct hit would be a terrible problem.
None of the wounds looked particularly bad or deep, and the occasional buster arrow from Arthur wouldn’t even fully penetrate, falling out after a moment or two. They had to be poisoned, and I hoped he was using something strong enough to have an impact.
Note to self: Ground is littered with sharp, super poisonous arrows. Caution required.
Julius finally saw an opening, and moved like the wind. He wasn’t using a shield either, instead holding onto a pair of short blades, slightly curved at the end. He moved in, and the distance, along with the potions boosting my Vitality, let me just barely let me see him run past the Nothosaurus, blades against flesh. He ended the run next to the wagon.
“Elaine!” He called out.
“Sir!” I answered.
“Out of the doorway!” He yelled. I jumped up, moving out of the way of the wagon’s front entrance. Julius jumped on, blitzed into the wagon and back out, holding a single, larger serrated blade. Without explaining why, he jumped back down, and immediately went for another blow.
That one worked a bit better, leaving a thin red trail on the monster’s side, head snapping to the side, trying to catch Julius. The monster’s snapping jaw was faster than Julius, causing me to bite my nails, but he bent backwards, dodging the blow as he moved out of the way, managing to get away cleanly.
I started sweating at that. Maximus was at least well-armored. Julius – Julius was incredibly fragile.
We swung the wagon back up, onto a small hill, while we watched the fight continue. Artemis popped up, holding a bag full of sharp ceramic pieces, some like little balls with sharp edges everywhere, others clearly remnants of broken pottery repurposed into projectiles.
She took a careful shot, checking her range, then a flurry of shots started to come from her. These were doing damage, and the beast roared in agony as the first barrage hit its side, cutting deep bloody grooves into its thick hide and blubber.
Maximus was the current focus on the Nothosaurus, so Kallisto was moving in for a stab on the opposite side from Artemis’s lethal barrage. However, as it roared in pain, it suddenly moved faster, tail whipping at such a speed that it cracked, hitting Kallisto solidly on the side, sending him flying.
I screamed seeing it, and was immediately shut up by Origen, who hit me, and pointed at Kallisto’s broken body, unmoving on the ground.
[Centered Mind] kicked in, reminding me what I was here for. I took off, [Running] giving wind to my legs, moving faster than I ever had under the influence of both the potions, and the glowing runes carved into my armor. I looked down at the ground, legs burning, arms pumping, keeping an eye out for discarded arrows, nearly rolling my ankle as I stepped awkwardly to skip over one. My direction and speed weren’t terribly well thought-out, as a few more of Artemis’s broken pots given one last chance at glory went whizzing past me, causing spurts of gore as they dug into the monster’s side. It roared in pain again, turning in the direction of the missiles.
Only to lock onto me, a small pest running roughly towards it. [Vigilant] screamed bloody murder – no shit - I felt my courage nearly break, but I continued. No skill buttressed me, [Centered Mind] wasn’t needed. I’d thought about this. I prepared for this. I looked death in the eye, with its snapping jaws and massive teeth, and kept going. Kallisto needed me. I’d defend him at all costs, bring him back. I needed to hear his crude jokes, I needed to see his heroically good looks. I needed him to find his way into the wrong beds, and be assigned all of the cleaning. I hated cleaning.
He’d be fine. He had to be fine. I kept my head down, running with all my might, one leg in front of the other. I wasn’t heading directly to the monster – I was still going to where Kallisto lay unmoving.
As the monster started towards me, Julius showed up on the far side, edge of his blade glowing green. A mighty slash from heaven to earth came from him, and the side of the monster split like never before. A heartbeat behind him, and Maximus planted his spear through the monster’s rear flipper, into the ground.
The monster roared, a sound so loud it caused me to stumble, hands over my ears, nearly falling on the slick mixture of mud and blood. Yesterday’s practice saved me, and I turned my near-fall into a slide, ending up near Kallisto.
A loud thudding noise was getting nearer, the monster moving at full speed, but I didn’t look. I had faith. Instead, I evaluated Kallisto.
Fuck the evaluation. I put my hand on the back of his neck, one of the only pieces of exposed flesh I could find. [Detailed Restoration] on his head, focusing on his brain, his spine, the important parts. A second [Detailed Restoration] on his heart, his lungs, keeping the pathway between the two open. I glanced at my mana. 1693/2450. I relaxed. That wasn’t nearly close to my full output.
I rolled him over, seeing him gasping for breath. Still hurt, but alive, and I had some time to evaluate. The thumping got louder, and I turned my head to check. The monster was heading right for us, running away from Maximus and Julius. It’d run over us all the same.
I heaved, trying to get Kallisto up, falling. The mixture of blood and mud was much more liquid here, there wasn’t a way to get a good purchase, and there was a suction force, keeping him stuck. I grabbed, heaving, trying to get him up and moving. We were seconds away from finding out if my healing was stronger than getting run over by a several ton rampaging monster. The ground was muddy, I liked my odds. Just needed to hold my breath.
Fortunately, I didn’t have to find out, as Artemis sent a bolt of lightning to its head. It didn’t seem to do much, but it made an annoyed noise, turning slightly away, a burn mark near its eye. I guess that’s why Artemis was using rocks, and not lightning. The beast trampled past us, so close I could’ve reached out and touched its fin.
Immediate crisis averted, I focused back on Kallisto, pumping [Detailed Restorations] into him. He was pale, so pale, and not waking up.
I fumbled at my belt, missing the proper release, having a half-dozen of the precious seashells fall, getting stuck in the mud. I grabbed an easy one on the top, popped the cork off, and held it to Kallisto’s mouth, forced open by my hand grabbing his lower jaw.
I looked at him, doubtfully. It might be a risk with my mana, but the fight seemed to be wrapping up. [Greater Invigorate] with almost 500 mana put into it – leaving me with 300 left – and Kallisto shot up with a gasp.
“You’re alive!” I tackled him with a great big hug, knocking him back to the ground.
“Blah.” Kallisto spat out some leftover potion. “Elaine, please, next time, death is preferable to that potion. Just let me die.”
I laughed, the manic laugh of someone coming down off an adrenaline high, of knowing everything was going to be alright. Kallisto tried to get up again, wincing.
“Can I get a pain-removal skill?” He asked. I almost hit him with a full-body [Deaden Pain], when I had a thought.
I was trying to conserve what little mana I had left. What if I just deadened his sense of pain in his head? Would that work?
I gave it a try, and Kallisto breathed in relief, stress lines all across his face fading. Success! Skill upgrade! Work smarter, not harder!
The monster was vanishing into the distance, Julius hot on its heels. Maximus circled back, and was heading over, looking relieved as Kallisto started to stand up again.
“No. Down.” I insisted.
“I’m fine! You patched me up!” Kallisto said.
“I fix the major problems. You’re not fully fixed, and your sense of pain is off – not dulled, not redirected, not morphed, off. You wouldn’t notice Maximus stabbing you in the back right now, let alone something getting worse. Stay down until I say so.”
I crossed my arms, and I considered sitting on him to make my point. I decided potentially causing more damage wasn’t the right way to send the message about not causing damage.
Maximus and Origen showed up, and between the three of us, we hauled Kallisto over to the wagon, where Artemis was waiting, beads of sweat running down her face.
“Hey Kallisto, I know you want to get laid, but that’s not how you do it.” We all groaned at Artemis’s terrible pun. Satisfied that Kallisto was going to be ok, she followed up.
“Where’s Julius?” I’d been wondering that myself.
“He and Arthur are finishing off the Nothosaurus. He figured they needed just the two of them.”
I never wondered where Arthur was, since he was practically invisible half the time.
We spent a tense hour waiting, while I finished healing up Kallisto, giving him the A-ok to start moving again. Finally, we got the notification we’d been waiting for.
[*Ding!* Your Party has slain a [Nothosaurus] (Water, lv 412)]
An explosive breath of relief left all of us, and even more cheering as we saw Julius and Arthur show up again.
I rubbed my eyes, making sure they were working. Arthur, showing up in the wild, walking through nature without hiding? Julius was limping slightly, looking exhausted, drained and tired. Well, this was a job for me! I ran over, giving him a shot of [Greater Invigorate], and a [Detailed Restoration] for good measure. Almost all of my mana drained out at the last one, but that was probably due to my lack of focus, than any real injuries.
We dragged ourselves back over to where everyone else was, still around the wagon. Remarkably well-trained horses we had, I was never giving them enough credit. As we arrived, some muted cheers and celebratory noises were made, dampened by the sheer exhaustion weighing over everyone.
“Alright, alright, listen up everyone, I have a thing I need to say.” Julius calmed us down, grabbing our attention and the spotlight.
“Elaine.” He looked right at me, full-intensity, piercing gaze.
“Yes?” I held myself high, chin up, back straight, meeting his look. I don’t know what he wanted, but I was confident that I’d done well.
“Bit slow on the uptake. Gotta work on that.” Ouch. I continued to hold his gaze, not flinching away at the feedback.
“With that being said. You’re one of the bravest people I know. Your dedication to your teammates, and to healing, is second to none. Your willingness to work hard, to do what needs to be done, and commitment to what Rangers do, is top-notch.”
I swelled at the praise, hoping he wasn’t buttering me up for a scathing criticism, or was about to ask me to leave the team. A flash of panic went through me. Oh no, was he softening me up before asking me to leave? Did the governor not like a kid hanging-on, and threw his weight around? Was my usefulness done now that we’d killed the beast, and they were going to leave me here in town? It was entirely reasonable to leave me here.
“So Elaine, I need to ask you, formally,” Fuck. I knew it. I was being kicked out. I could start to feel a lump form in my throat.
“Will you join us as a Ranger?”