“First, name. Level. Stats.” Julius ordered.
Swimmer promptly answered all the questions. I looked over. He looked like he was both metaphorically, and physically, sweating. Good.
I mustered some energy together. “Julius, heads up.” I said. “If you hurt him, I’ll need to defend and heal him. I don’t have the energy to right now.”
Julius looked at me, face morphing from enraged to concerned. He nodded.
“Alright, I’ll keep that in mind. You.” He said, poking Swimmer with his foot. “Keep in mind that I’ve just gone from ‘poke you with the sword’ to ‘run you through’, so don’t think you’re in a better spot now.”
“Now, why were you hunting our team?”
“Your team!?” Swimmer cried out, terrified. “Nobody told us we were hunting a Ranger! We were told to bring back a runaway girl.”
Julius looked like he wanted to poke Swimmer more, but thought better of it.
“Why? How did you find her?”
“We figured out she was heading north, and Virinum’s the first town north. We got a hair sample, and waited here. The pay was amazing, so we just waited. Heard about a healer girl in the market, I have a skill that helps with smells, confirmed on smells, confirmed by a description of her looks, confirmed on skills and name, so we watched and waited. She had that big fellow with her – we assumed she was shacking up with him for protection or something – and when the two got separated, we struck.”
Kallisto, that bastard. He’d never hear the end of it from me. By the look on Julius’s face, he’d never hear the end of it from Julius either.
“How did you get her hair?” He asked.
“We had to steal it from her parent’s house. They were completely uncooperative. Said she’d taken her chance, that she’d run away, and she’d make it or not on her own skills, and they weren’t going to help anyone trying to bring her back. Had to sneak in while they were gone to get some hair and clothes for a scent.”
Go mom! Go dad! My feelings towards them was complicated, to say the least. On one hand, they basically tried to force my life with an arranged marriage to Kerberos. I didn’t appreciate that in the slightest, and was still sour about it. On the other, I did love them, I knew they loved me, and I recognized that, as ill-guided as it was, they were trying to do what they thought was best for me. Almost every person in Remus got married, arranged by their parents. Even most people in the army were married! Artemis was the exception. Artemis, and a few priests, and most Rangers for that matter. In retrospect, I realize they had tried their hardest to get me a “good” future by their standards. Someone my age – not someone nearly twice my age. Someone they put effort into, not just any old person. Someone that promised a secure and safe future, almost no matter how badly things went, it was hard to lose that type of generational wealth their family had.
They just failed miserably on the character check. Or maybe Kerberos could be charming in public. Either way, in spite of their best efforts, their real attempt at trying to improve my life, it wasn’t for me, and here I was.
I hadn’t realized until now that they, if not supported my running away, were ok with it, and waiting to see what happened, of all things. Bizarre. I guess Artemis was more of an influence on them than I expected, or maybe she’d primed them with her runaway talks. Or maybe they figured “Ah, she’ll come home when she’s ready to, and someone dragging her back won’t help at all.”
One day I’d need to have a real talk with them about all this. My emotions were complicated regarding it, and coming down off of the kidnapping high was doing me no favors in sorting them out. I’d keep sending them letters, letting them know I was ok. It was the least I could do. They had earned it.
Then again, they’d never ask me or try to convince me to runaway – it’s like being a comedian. Only people that do it in spite of being told not to succeed. Either way, it sounded like I’d get no grief from them.
I felt my heart swelling with love, and with that, more hate towards Swimmer.
More than a bit of hate was bleeding over to Kerberos.
Julius continued to interrogate Swimmer, hardly flinching when he described the fights against me, how they’d worked together to break me, physically and mentally. My mana was being restored at a good pace, and I healed my limbs one at a time, crying in relief, curling up to Artemis. She continued to hold me, stroking my hair as she glared murder at Swimmer.
Lumberjack was lucky he’d died quickly. I think if Artemis had the full story, he wouldn’t have died nearly so fast. I started to breathe fast, rapidly, panting. He was dead. He was gone. I needed to burn that damn axe, but it was over. I was safe.
Julius and Maximus met and talked, clearly comparing notes on the stories being told by the adventurers.
Julius pulled me aside, and asked me for my version of the events. I told him everything.
“Good thinking on the Eagle in flames. The guard promptly got us, asking us what the fuck was up with that. You being with Kallisto, his usual habits, and knowing you had fire, we put one and one together pretty fast. Otherwise it would have taken us ages to find you, the trail would’ve been cold, and this could have turned out much worse.”
He paused, looking at me.
“Elaine, are you ok?”
I thought about it some, Artemis’s arms wrapping around me. I shrugged.
“Maybe. I’m getting better.”
Julius’s eyes turned cold and steely.
“They’ll pay. Kerberos will pay as well. Nobody- and I mean nobody, not a Sentinel, not a Senator, forget slimeballs – attacks a Ranger and gets away with it. What do you want done?” Julius asked me.
I shuddered. Artemis to the rescue!
“Julius, you can’t ask her that.” She said.
Julius frowned. “Artemis, if she’s a Ranger, she needs to be able to hold her own. She needs to make the hard choices.”
“Oh nonsense.” Artemis snapped back. “Her skill binds her to only make one decision. Or do you think asking for someone to be executed will slide past ‘First, do no harm’? Look, there’s no real question on the events, or the guilt, right?”
“Right.” Julius agreed.
“It’s easy. Kill the last two, stick their head on a pike, call it a day.” Artemis suggested. “See watch.”
“Artemis, wai-“ Julius was too slow, as Artemis threw a blindly fast rock at Swimmer, who was still lying down. She followed it up with a burst of lightning, blinding and deafening me from point-blank range.
I blinked, clearing my eyes, ears ringing. A quick shot of healing, and I could properly hear again.
“Elaine, I know you can hear me because you’d heal yourself immediately. You probably won’t be in the situation, but if you need to do something that Julius isn’t going to like, make sure you do it before he orders you not to.” She sighed dramatically. “Unfortunately, I won’t be able to get the second one.”
Julius finished blinking the bolts out of his eyes. “Artemis!” He yelled at her. She tightened her hold on me. “Hey, you didn’t order me not to. You know I don’t like leaving threats behind.” Julius was hopping mad.
“You know not to murder prisoners! That shouldn’t have to be an order! I order you not to murder our last captive in cold blood. Let’s head back, I think we have the full picture.”
“Hang on.” I said, wriggling out of Artemis’s grip. “Prick had some of my stuff. Stole it off of me.” I said, rolling over the extra-crispy dead body. Large hole through the chest. I looked on the other side. Even worse on the front, where the rock had exploded through. Ewwww.
Whatever. I’d seen enough damaged, injured, and dead bodies at this point to be somewhat numb to death. I grabbed his pouch, and opened it up.
My earrings! They were on top, and it took me a moment to process what was under them.
Pearls. Dozens of pearls. All different shades of soft pink to white, all large and white and shiny. Artemis popped her head over.
“Wow, he sure stole a bunch of stuff from you. Good thing you managed to find those pearls again.”
Julius stalked off to where Idiot Mage was being kept. “I heard nothing!” He yelled back.
I glanced at Artemis. “You know, Idiot Mage’s still back there.” I said.
“Nah. I gotta stick with you for now.” She said, wrapping her arm around me in a sort of side-hug. “Going to stick with you for the rest of the trip for that matter. Can’t let my little healy-bug get hurt.”
I leaned into her, appreciating the sentiment.
“Don’t hurt Kallisto too much. I did agree, and really, how often are we actually attacked when in town?”
Artemis rolled her eyes.
“Fine, fine, I’ll go medium on him.”
“Hang on, I gotta do something.” I said, reaching back into the wagon, finding Lumberjack’s axe. I looked at it, the dread instrument that’d broken me, shattered me. I focused on it, willing it to burn.
And burn it did, hot, fiery. It burned until there was nothing left but a red-hot axe head and ashes. Couldn’t quite get my flames hot enough to melt iron or steel, whatever it was.
Julius and co showed up, Idiot Mage walking along, hands bound together, binding back up to his neck.
“Back to Virinum we go. We’ll hand him over to the guard once we’re there.” He said.
“Sorry.” Idiot Mage whispered to me.
“Sorry? SORRY!?” I turned to him, furious, pushing off Artemis’s hands on my shoulders. “The only thing you’re sorry about is being caught! Abducting a girl, sure! Suffocating her, of course! Beating and torturing her until she stops struggling, why not! If I didn’t have a team, if I wasn’t a Ranger, you’d be merrily carting me off to Aquiliea, letting Swimmer carve out pieces of my face. The only – only – reason you’re still alive is I have a skill that’ll punish me if I burn you where you stand. You’re not sorry at all. You just hate that you got caught.”
My [Oath] was a tricky thing at times. Other times, it was crystal clear what needed to be done, as much as I hated it, as much as I didn’t want to do it. An Oath, a promise, a vow, isn’t just for when things are easy. It’s not just to cover the convenient cases. It’s always. It’s a way of life, no matter how much I hated him, no matter how much I despised him and wished Artemis would disobey orders and fry him.
He was a creature in pain. I swore I’d see him as such, and nothing else, when it came time to heal.
I grabbed him, and viciously imagined him being healed back to full health. I didn’t hit him with [Vastness], and I didn’t imagine it in a gentle way. I hoped it hurt.
Pain while healing was, after all, not harm. It was simply a part of healing. It was no violation of the letter of my [Oath].
[*ding!* Congratulations! [Oath of Elaine to Lyra] has reached level 107!]
[*ding!* Congratulations! [Oath of Elaine to Lyra] has reached level 110!]
I eyed my notifications. I probably could’ve gotten more levels if I’d forgiven him, and healed him with all my heart. Filling the spirit of the [Oath] would’ve helped.
Damn him though. I wasn’t in a forgiving mood.
Julius was chatting with the other Rangers, Maximus continuing to point a spear at Idiot Mage. I caught part of the conversation as I was invited in.
“I’m thinking of going to Aquiliea myself to handle this.” Julius said. “Artemis, you’d be in charge. I can’t have someone putting a bounty on a Ranger – no matter how unintended – and get away with it.”
I surprised myself by jumping in.
“No.” I said.
Julius turned to me, cocking his head.
“No, Kerberos is my problem. I’m not saying we need to let him off the hook, but he’s mine to deal with. I won’t be able to deal with him now – I don’t have nearly the speed or ability to travel alone like you do – but I insist I handle him. He’s my chain to break. I want to make him pay. I need to make him pay.” I paused, saying the next part with conviction, with hate.
“Don’t get me wrong. I will handle him.”
Julius eyed me.
“Fine. But I’m sending a letter back to Aquiliea, letting the local guard know. Him – and his family – are going to have to pay an incredibly stiff fine. Unless they’re extremely wealthy, it’s going to mean slavery for one or more of them, but not for terribly long.”
I looked down, kicking a rock. “They are disgustingly rich.” I muttered. Julius gave me a Look.
“And you still bailed on them?” He said, disbelievingly.
“Yeah. Kerberos was a prick. Not doing it.”
Julius gave a low whistle.
“I’d known the why, I just hadn’t quite realized all the details. Good on you.” He said, patting my shoulder.
We reached the gates of town, open for once at this time of night, manned by guards holding torches up high.
“Did you find her?” One of the guards called out.
“Yes. Killed most of the team that kidnapped her. They were moderately high level. Got her back in one piece.” Julius reported back.
There were some cheers, and some grumbling, as a bunch of coins changed hands. Really? Gambling on my life, my fate, if I’d be alive or found chopped up into a dozen pieces? I took a deep breath. I remembered the patrols I’d tagged along with. The joking nature that many guards had, even on serious cases. It was their way of staying sane. I was just another case, another “dead or alive” coinflip to them. I was alive, people were happy. I should just let it be, not be another victim who screamed bloody murder over the whole thing.
I was never gambling like that again though.
I was never going to be a victim again.
Artemis grabbed my hand, and steered me through the crowd, through the streets, until we’d found a bath that was still open. She guided me in, and we sank into the dark steam together, Artemis continuing to hold me, reassuring in her presence, letting me know I wasn’t alone.
I cried again, held by Artemis, the memory of the brutal beating going through my mind again. She reassured me, listened to me as I told the whole story again, running a hand down my arms as I mentioned them breaking, showing me that they were firm and whole again.
She was, more than anything, there for me, with me in the dark hour, a flickering beacon showing me light and hope.
I must’ve dozed off at some point, because the next thing I knew, I was waking up in the wagon, curled up to Artemis who was hugging me in her sleep, protecting me, shielding me.