Tolosa had been relatively relaxing - for me. Pushing the Argo to town hadn’t been any fun, and had the guards make fun of us – until we explained the why. That sobered them up quickly, and had gotten us looks of respect for surviving an attack – Arthur doubly so for doing it without shelter.
Kallisto helped me set up a similar healing agreement with another merchant – although this time it was simple advertisement for him, and patients paid what they could for me – and Artemis and I spent time yo-yoing between doing that, and the baths.
The rest of the team didn’t have it nearly so relaxing. There was some thief around that the guard just couldn’t catch, and unlike my library-antics where the Rangers didn’t care because I wasn’t causing any damage, and the guard only cared because it made them look bad, this thief was causing problems.
As a result, Julius, Maximus, and the rest spent the week running around, talking with people, laying traps, and generally tearing their hair out. It was made extra-hard by the fact that the army recruiters had stepped up, becoming much more aggressive with their recruiting, which had the general population feeling fairly sour towards us.
Their sourness didn’t extend to the “discount healing” though, and Julius had praised me for some good PR. My very full coin pouches were the real reason why I’d been so aggressively pursuing healing. When I got to Perinthus, I was going to drown myself in mangos. Empty out my storage chest to store more. Convince Julius that it should be a standard part of our rations. They were healthy fruit after all.
Artemis and I were mostly useless at this sort of investigation, and it didn’t seem like either her firepower nor my healing would be critical. Time off for us! Carefully not laughing as Origen pulled off half his beard in frustration – it wouldn’t do for us to rub it in that we weren’t helping all that much on this case.
I sent another bland letter off to home while relaxing.
Dear Mom and Dad,
Still traveling with Artemis and the rest of the Rangers. It’s a ton of fun. Very safe. Nothing to worry about.
I realized I forgot to tell you about my new, second class! I’m a Fire Mage now! It’s useful for camping and cooking. I also got an eating-related skill – Fuel for the Fire.
We’re in Tolosa right now, and Kallisto’s been helping me find people to heal. I have lines now!
We’re heading towards Perinthus, where there’s going to be so many mangos! I can’t wait! I’ll see if I can get some sent with my next letter.
I hope Kerberos’s family isn’t giving you too much grief.
Love you two a ton!
Your loving daughter,
They managed to catch the thief on the second-to-last day before we had to leave, which meant everyone else got one and a half day’s worth of vacation. The last day arrived, and we all showed up at the Argo, new, not-as-well trained horses hitched up.
Well, everyone but Arthur.
“He’s probably hiding somewhere; we should just get going.” I said.
Julius took a half-hearted swat at me.
“No Elaine. We wait for everyone. He hasn’t checked in or anything. He knows what to do. At the same time, no emergency signal.”
Our fearless leader frowned, thinking.
“Artemis, stay with the Argo. Lightning bolt if Arthur shows up again. Maximus with Elaine. Origen and Kallisto with me. Sweep the town, see if we can’t find Arthur.”
I piped up.
“Given how, uh, distinct, Arthur is, shouldn’t we ask the guards for some help? They could help us search faster.”
Julius nodded, acknowledging my idea, then shook his head.
“If we start to get desperate, yeah, we’ll ask them. Let’s see if we can clean up our own mess first before embarrassing ourselves.”
“How will we know to stop?” I asked, trying to make sure we were all on the same page.
Right, made sense.
“15 coins that we find Arthur drunk in a ditch somewhere.” Kallisto offered.
Origen raised his hand, indicating that he’d take the bet.
“I want in on that!” I said eagerly. I’d dumped most of my coins into my chest inside the Argo – and the fact that it was mine and not just borrowed while I was hanging-on still made me kick my feet in joy – and if I lost a few coins, oh well. It was fun to gamble!
I was responsible about it though – I considered that I’d spent 15 coins having a bit of fun, and I could afford to lose them. If I got anything back, it was a bonus. No gambling problem for me. Nope.
Although, if I wanted to, I could afford one hell of a habit. Hmmmm….
We split up, me following Maximus around, constantly turning my head.
“So, errr… not to ask dumb questions, but what am I looking for? Obviously, Arthur, but is there anything else I should be looking for?” I asked.
“You basically got it. Arthur, or anything irregular.”
I pouted at him.
“I’m too damn short to see ‘anything irregular’!” I grouched. “Not in these crowds.”
Maximus shrugged at me.
“Well, keep an eye out for Arthur anyways. He’s tall enough that even you could see him. Squirt.”
I stuck my tongue out at him. Real mature of me I know.
We spent a few hours combing streets one at a time, the anxiety in my chest slowly getting worse. Most drunks had woken up by now, were off the street, continuing with their lives. I kept glancing back vaguely in the direction of the Argo, hoping to see flickering Lightning.
We kept searching, and suddenly, with a voice that made my heart leap into my throat, I heard Arthur!
“Elaine! Maximus! Over here!” He yelled.
Maximus started laughing his ass off. I pushed my way through a few people to see what was so funny.
Arthur was looking less-than-pleased in a crowd of about a dozen men, surrounded by Legion soldiers.
“SILENCE RECRUIT.” Bellowed a short Legionnaire, in full armor, chest coated with all sorts of medals. I eyed them. From what little I’d been taught so far; I didn’t recognize a single one.
“You have all signed up for the glory of the Legion! Rejoice, a new career awaits you!” He continued to yell, pitching his voice so it sounded lower than his normal timbre. I started cracking up as well, seeing why Maximus had found this so funny.
“Did you tell them Arthur?” Maximus said.
“Yeah! I woke up without my bow, surrounded by these idiots. Won’t believe a word I said. I was this close,” Arthur put his fingers close together, with only a small gap between them. “to busting out myself. But Julius would never let me hear the end of ‘be nice to the Army’ and ‘keep the Rangers looking good’, and so on and so forth.”
“SILENCE!” Napoleon-Complex yelled, poking Arthur with the butt of his spear. “Your lies will not change the fact that you’ve signed up! You were found drunk, with no friends nearby, no family! We will make something of you, a glorious soldier! One day, you might join the ranks of the elite, the Rangers, but you must start at the bottom!”
Maximus took out his badge, flashing it at Napoleon-Complex. “Hi. Rangers here. He’s one of our teammates. Please let him go before there’s a problem.”
Napoleon-Complex managed to somehow look down on Maximus, in spite of only being my height.
“Fool! You will not trick me with some fake counterfeit! The Rangers are like Gods, sent down to walk among us! They are handsome! They are strong! They are the elite of the Republic! The ground shakes where they walk, the heavens split when they speak! You are the most average-looking man I have ever seen, there’s no way you’re a Ranger. This fine man here,” He pointed to Arthur, towering above him in spite of being several feet back. “has the potential! And I will bring it out of him!”
Somehow Napoleon-Complex managed to get that all out in a single breath, almost spraying spit as he spoke.
Maximus quite possibly strained a muscle as he rolled his eyes. I hit him with [Phases] just in case he had.
3 mana spent. Either topping up old injuries decaying, or he’d managed to strain his eye.
“Elaine, go to Artemis, get her to signal urgent, then get everyone back here. This could get ugly.” Maximus told me.
I saluted him – properly, just to rub it in Napoleon-Complex’s face – and took off like a shot to where Artemis was hanging out with the Argo. Happily, my stats let me properly run and use the White lane.
I got there without further incident, and informed Artemis what was going on. She shot up the signal, and before long, everyone was present.
“Elaine. Report.” Julius said, seeing just me without Maximus or Arthur, and making the obvious conclusion.
“Sir! Arthur’s been conscripted into the Army. The officer won’t listen to a word anyone says. Arthur’s a hair from violence, and is hoping to resolve it non-violently. Something about getting an earful from you otherwise.”
I then repeated everything the officer had said.
Kallisto brightened up.
“Boss, I have the perfect plan!”
Julius looked Kallisto up and down, then groaned.
“I know exactly what your plan is, and I hate that it’d probably work. Do it.”
I looked around, but nobody seemed to want to explain the plan, and I wanted to try and fit in, so I just went with the flow.
Kallisto geared up in everything – full armor, helmet, badge. Turned on his inscriptions, glowed with power. Kallisto was always heroically good looking, and he had taken it up to 11.
As we walked back to where Maximus was, Ranger Eagle prominent, it suddenly clicked what the plan was. I side-eyed Kallisto. Really?
We got to where Maximus and Arthur were, and just in time.
“Prepare to march!” Napoleon-Complex said. “Forward, -“
“Halt!” Kallisto roared, striding forward.
“Sir Ranger!” Napoleon-Complex kneeled down towards him. “It is my greatest honor to meet you! There have been people impersonating your greatness in the city – like that man over there!” He pointed toward Maximus.
I suppressed an urge to roll my eyes. Artemis didn’t. Julius facepalmed, as Origen let out a hearty laugh.
“Holy shit he’s just as bad as you said.” Artemis said.
“You mean my teammate!?” Kallisto barked out. Napoleon-Complex paled a bit.
Kallisto cut him off.
“And why is another one of my teammates surrounded by your soldiers!?” He roared.
If it was humanly possible to do so, I think all the blood would have left Napoleon-Complex’s body. As it was, it was a good thing he was already kneeling, otherwise he would have fallen right over.
He slowly toppled over. Ah. He’d fainted entirely. I rolled my eyes, and walked over to him, hitting him with [Phases], just in case it was something bad. Nothing happened. I eyed him suspiciously. Was he faking….?
“Hey Julius, while we’re here, might as well get the rest of the people conscripted free. I doubt many, if any, of them are here voluntarily.”
“No. Elaine, I’ll explain later.”
I pouted at him as Arthur was freed, an exhausted-looking second-in-command fumbling to make everything happen fast enough.
“One last thing.” Julius said to the second-in-command. “Tell the idiot over there to stop wearing fake medals. Next time, we won’t overlook it.”
A deep, weary sigh came from the poor second. It told of uncounted attempts to persuade, of cleaning up messes, of being in poor favor and assigned to this commander. I felt bad for him. He looked down, checking that Napoleon-Complex was still out cold.
“Sure you can’t arrest him for that?” He asked hopefully.
Napoleon-Complex twitched visibly.
“Sadly, he’d get out fairly quickly, and probably be all the more miserable for it. You’d end up bearing the brunt.” Julius said apologetically.
Second’s eyebrows moved a bunch, doing some mental calculations. I glanced at Origen. Another Laconian? He divined my question, shaking his head.
Second’s shoulders slumped, sadly said. “You’re right. Well.... good hunting, I suppose.”
We left at that point without further incident, and ended up on the road, only delayed half the day all in all.
“What was up with letting the conscripted stay?” I asked Julius, lying on my sleeping bag on top of a pile of pillows, reveling in the fact that we had horses again, that I didn’t need to push the Argo, that I could just laze about during the day. Even Artemis hadn’t seen fit to put me through my paces. That probably wouldn’t last long, but hey! I’d take what I can get.
Julius was of a similar mind, having arranged blankets and pillows to form an impromptu bean bag of some sort. Arthur was on driving duty – punishment for being caught drunk, and rounded up. Something about having more personal responsibility when allowed to go solo with a signal.
“How much do you know about the Formorians?” He asked, answering my question with another question.
“Not much. People keep talking about them like they’re the big, bad, scary thing, but nobody really expands beyond that.” Shrugging was kinda hard from my position.
“The short version is – they’re a race of massive, ant-like creatures. Not particularly smart, but strong. Fast. Vicious. And always pushing in from the west. There’s a massive battlefield out there, where we’ve dug in, where the Legions go. All except for the 3rd Legion. The Formorians aren’t particularly smart. Not only are they unable to negotiate or even communicate with us, they simply throw themselves at our entrenchments in massive waves. Makes it easy to pick them off.”
“At the same time, they’re strong. They’re powerful. And they’re almost unending. If the fortifications at Gibraldrian fall, the Formorians would sweep across Remus. We could try to build a new set of fortifications, but they wouldn’t be as strong, and we’d have a fraction of the humans to man the walls – while the Formorians would have more land, more territory, to grow and develop, and be able to send more at us.”
“In short, we live on the knife’s edge. That’s why there are Rangers, and not an army squad at every town. If the Legions are desperate enough to move towards conscription right now, it means we’re in serious trouble at the front lines, and the commander is asking for more troops.”
“Now, it’s possible that the idiot back there was just trying to make his numbers to make himself look good – he was certainly pompous and arrogant enough. Just in case though – I didn’t want to interfere.”
I digested that for quite some time.
“They should let women fight as well. Double the number of people that are able to be there.”
Julius nodded in agreement.
“Aye. The stubborn old gits in the Senate and the Legion Command haven’t. There’s an interesting phenomenon. High vitality allows you to live long – much longer than someone without it. As a result, people with high vitality have longer to make it to positions of power, and once they get there, last longer than people without high vitality. The older you are, the more set in your ways you become. The natural result is you get a bunch of old relics in the Senate and in the Legion Command, set in their ways. A lack of flexibility might kill us all, and it wouldn’t surprise me if the wall fell before they changed their mind.”
“At the same time, part of their logic is ‘women are needed for children, men aren’t, so let men have the dangerous roles and stop women from being soldiers.’ I hate the logic, it feels wrong, but there is a long-term appeal I can see behind it.”
“Part of the reason I was assigned to this squad is I’m much more open-minded. Hence Artemis.”
The woman in question waved at us, lounging about like a cat – boneless and liquid.
“Speaking of Artemis, do you want to handle what’s different about this leg of the trip?”
“I hate this part of Remus. Not nearly as tamed as it should be.”
“What’s wrong with it?” I asked.