Julius strode through the hallways of Ranger Headquarters, badge pinned prominently to his uniform, cape billowing behind him. The same cape that meant he wasn’t thinking of fighting. A subtle detail. For every Ranger out in the field, there were two support personnel at HQ, managing money. Politics. Paperwork. Bureaucracy. Quartermasters. Armorers. Inscriptionists. Healers. Alchemists. Dozens of other professions that acted as support. Add in that most Rangers were in the field, and it was a rarity to see actual field Rangers at Headquarters. The badge was useful, clearing a path through the hallways, everyone giving him a clear hallway to walk through.
A slow smile flitted across his face. It was nice to be properly recognized, to be given preferential treatment. Sure, Rangers got preferential treatment in many places, but it was often over the top, as often as it was hostile. Here? Here it was just right. The smile vanished as he remembered that half the reason he was given so much clearance was a number of Rangers were twitchy after spending so much time in the field, and some didn’t have the restraint of Artemis.
There was no use being right if you were dead.
Julius made it to the imposing doors of the Ranger Command, straightened out some non-existent creases in his uniform, and handed off his sword to one of the guards stationed outside the door. He locked eyes with the guard.
“They’re a bit busy right now.” The guard said.
Julius nodded, saying nothing, settling into parade rest. Arms at exactly the right position. Legs at exactly the right position. Just clear enough of the door that it’d miss him when it opened.
It was possible command was in a meeting. It was possible they were slacking off. It was possible that whatever Sentinel was acting as the tiebreaker today was delayed.
The Ranger Command had an interesting composition. Two were members sent by the Senate, to oversee the Senate’s interest. In theory, they could be appointed by the Senate. In practice, it was two Senators that were interested in the going-ons of the Rangers. It was relatively dry work, not great for political advantage or maneuverings. Rangers, and Sentinels, stayed neutral, and fought hard to stay that way.
Two members were from the Army. Sure, Rangers were part of the Army, but the Army command proper wanted a voice in what Rangers did. By the same token, there was a ‘former’ Ranger on the Army Command council.
The remaining four slots were all ‘former’ Rangers, which was to say Rangers with enough leadership, foresight, desire, and political savvy to be selected to serve as one of the commanders.
Lastly, a Sentinel, whichever one was really bored, or got caught, listened in on meetings, and acted as a tiebreaker. In theory, they knew things well enough to see the big picture, to properly align everyone’s goals, to see the greater good when the four Rangers clashed with the Army and the Senate. In practice, most of the time they didn’t want to be there, and could break ties in a capricious manner. Personal power didn’t translate well to good leadership, administration, or governance. Strangely enough, that encouraged command to work together, to not be at the mercy of whichever Sentinel was present that day.
Julius wondered who’d be acting as the tiebreaker today. Not Night or Sky. Night was responsible and interested enough, but wasn’t seen during the day, and Sky was too disinterested and too fast to end up as the tiebreaker. It was unlikely to be Acquisition either, since the Senate representatives strongly disliked him being around.
Something about their purses being lighter every time he was around.
Julius had no illusions that he’d ever end up as a Sentinel. Ending up as a member of Command was a distinct possibility, one that could be advanced from today’s meeting – or forever barred to him.
It all depended on one teenage girl. Every round was strange and unusual, interesting events occurring. Every round, Julius thought he’d stop being surprised at what the next one would throw at him.
After an indeterminable, irrelevant length of time, the door opened up, the eight members of command on a high table in a semi-circle, Ocean lounging in the high chair in the middle. There was some shuffling of scrolls, as the Command brought themselves up to speed on Julius and his team. Each person had a slightly different banded set of colors on a scroll, marking who it belonged to. A set of thirty scrolls had the same coloring.
That could only be Artemis’s record.
The council was feeling harmonious today, Julius noted as he looked around. The four Ranger commanders were scattered throughout the seats, instead of being all together on one side. Good, no political undercurrents that could foul him up.
“Julius, welcome, congratulations.” One of the Ranger commanders said. “You’re the 3rd team back. Thank you for your time reporting. Let’s hear it.”
Julius saluted, perfect to the last inch. A Ranger’s Ranger.
“Sir! Casualty report: Three dead, and one, well, acquisition.”
Julius mentally winced at that. First sentence, and it was already going off the rails.
“I’ll go into detail on the acquisition later.”
“We started off with our team freshly made two years ago, as is normal. For Artemis, Origen, Arthur, and Maximus, I went and talked with all the former team leads and teammates I could, to get an idea of their capabilities, and any quirks I needed to look out for.”
At Artemis’s name, three members of the council made a sympathetic noise. Julius let some of the tension in his chest relax. Sounded like he wouldn’t need to explain Artemis’s antics to Command. Then again, he did have a line in his budget for “Artemis-related incidents”, so it shouldn’t have come as a surprise.
“We performed a series of light operations and sparring against Team 6 to get some idea of teamwork together, then we boarded the ship to the start of our route.”
Julius closed his eyes, dreading the next part.
“Alexander let being a Ranger get to his head. Not sure if it was the pressure of training that stopped it from happening earlier, being in a team finally letting a lever go, or something else. Wouldn’t listen to us telling him to relax, to rein it in. From all accounts we can make out, he got drunk on the ship, and decided to test himself against a storm. In full armor. In the middle of the night.”
Ocean gave a sardonic laugh at that.
“Hell, I’d only try that sober.” He said, waving his hand. “Carry on.”
Julius felt tension bleed out of his shoulders, a huge weight lifted from him. If Ocean, the strongest Water-based human in existence, blessed a sea-based loss, Julius was in the clear.
“We traveled down, tackling some lighter problems we normally wouldn’t, to help shore up our teamwork. This is how Icarus fell.”
“No matter the fight, no matter what we were against, he insisted on going in first, in diving deep into the fight. He expected us to cover him, made us change our plans around him, forced us to fight badly to try and keep him alive. Kept laughing it off when we told him to knock it off, to fight as a team, with the team.”
“Injuries started to pile up on him. I stopped taking low-level fights, to try and preserve him. Origen did his best, some of the healers we saw helped deal with his injuries. Didn’t matter, he refused to stop, even picking fights we had no reason or business to pick. It wasn’t until his accumulated injuries were so bad, where he was constantly waking up in a pool of blood, that he realized he’d gone too far. By that time, no matter how many fields Origen set up, no matter how many of our reserve potions we poured into him, no matter how many villages I checked for a healer, we couldn’t stabilize him. He died of his wounds, after thirty battles.” The fact that most of the battles were minor, were unneeded, was left unsaid.
There was a solemn moment as everyone bowed their heads. Icarus had been something of an idiot, but not as bad as Alexander. He’d gone down swinging.
“There were some, shall we say,” Julius coughed awkwardly. “low-level Artemis incidents. Nothing worth a major report on, but I was quickly seeing why her file was so thick.”
“We arrived at Aquiliea shortly after, and we get to the unusual portion of our round.”
One of the Army commanders snorted. “The fact that you only have one ‘unusual’ portion is in itself unusual.”
Julius tilted his head in acknowledgement.
“Artemis has some friends close enough she considers family there, and it’s where I met a girl called Elaine, one of Artemis’s friends. Thought nothing of her at first, as she marched up to us and demanded to know where Artemis was, then was off like a shot.”
“She showed up again, and we all formally met her, after we heard she’d single-handedly, with all of her physical stats being sub-20, dove into a burning building to rescue a slave. One she had no relationship with.”
“Where’s this going?” One of the Senators grumbled. One of the Ranger Commanders shushed him, a gleam of pleasure in his eye.
“Unusual portions of a round often start out mundane.” The Commander said.
“After a few days of recovery, it turned out she got, at 14 years of age, [Detailed Restoration]. Managed to completely heal herself from her burns and injuries. Impressive, worth noting that a powerful Light and Dark healer was being developed in Aquiliea, but I still just mentally filed it away as ‘just another thing.’” Julius continued his report, his body perfectly still, head turning to lock eyes with each member of Command one by one.
“We left a few days later to hunt something on the road between Aquiliea and Virinum. Turned out to be a nasty set of bandits, one that the textbook solution was extermination. That was a textbook operation, shock and awe, with Artemis demonstrating why she was so well tolerated. I don’t even think the rest of us were honestly needed, but it made it a bit easier on her.”
“This is where I was surprised again. Elaine was present, healing everyone she could. The very people that had held her captive a candle ago, she dove into fire, flames, and lightning to save, even though any errant twitch from either side would end her. Even more impressively, when Kallisto was facing her, trying to execute the bandit leader, she stood up to him, fully knowing what her fate likely was for such a stunt, and said ‘no.’ Long story short, bandit leader died, Elaine lived, and we get to the stranger part of the story.”
Julius took a deep breath. This had happened before, he reminded himself. This wasn’t totally unbelievable.
“Icarus’s death fresh in my mind, I offered her some pay to patch everyone up. She’d demonstrated the skills needed, and I wanted to keep everyone in top condition, not being worn down. Kallisto was particularly happy, given that he was not only new, but our only frontliner at this point, with Maximus acting as a secondary. That’s when she dropped her revelation.”
“She was god-touched.”
A clatter broke out at that, Ocean restoring order with a lazy wave of his hand, power rippling through the room.
“Method of god-touched? And which god?” One of the Ranger Commanders asked.
“Reincarnated from another world. Papilion.” Julius said. “A number of technical memories were gone, but all of her knowledge of medicine and biology were intact. Which pushed her down the route to being a healer.”
The reincarnated from another world part was practically glossed over. The fact that Papilion, one of the big five, had been the one to touch Elaine? That caused an uproar, that not even Ocean was inclined to stop.
It got so bad that the guards opened the door a crack, peeking in, just to make sure another brawl hadn’t started. Seeing that the excitement was purely verbal, and that fists and skills weren’t being thrown around, they closed the door. Someone standing outside would hear them sigh with relief. Trying to break up a fight that your bosses had started did not encourage a long career, regardless of how right you were.
After a length of time that could only be described as a “short” fight, relative to the occasional week-long brawl that the Command could have, the room settled down again.
“Has she been seen by Priest Demos yet?” One of the Senators asked.
Julius shook his head.
“I wanted to report back first.”
There was some quick discussion, followed by a pronouncement.
“She should see Priest Demos as soon as possible for a full debrief.”
Julius nodded, not expecting anything different.
“Continuing on. We encountered the standard set of monsters and fights, nothing special, and Elaine started to show some glimmers of being a useful hanger-on, like many teams temporarily pick up and put down. Nothing terribly special, nothing to make any real mention of.”
“We arrived at Virinum next, where Elaine immediately proved her worth. We had a nasty, over level 400, dinosaur that was occupying the river, eating the locals, and generally making a standard nuisance of themselves. We hatched a plan, and executed it, nothing special there.”
“What was special was after Kallisto took a bad hit, one that would be lethal, Elaine, still with virtually no physical stats to her name, and no real skills to help her stay alive, charged into the fight, within range of the monster, to heal and stabilize Kallisto. It wasn’t that she was suicidal, nor did she have dumb fearlessness. No, she knew what she was doing, she was well aware of the risks, the threat to her life, and ran in anyways.”
“Monster was driven off, not quite killed, and Arthur and I harried it to death. Nothing special.”
This was it. This was the moment that could make or break him.
“We arrived back, to see everyone patched up, Elaine having worked hard. She ran over to us, and was able to bring Arthur and I back to fully healed. That’s when I saw it, that’s when I decided.”
“Elaine would be, without a doubt, the most powerful healer in a generation. And I don’t mean just in her age group. I mean across the entire republic. Heck, as of today, if you told me she had the title already for close-in healing, I’d believe you. Her ranged healing needs work, but she’s getting there.”
“Rangers die. Rangers die a lot.” Julius said, setting the background, catching himself chewing absent-mindedly on his lower lip. Stopping that. “We’re extremely unattractive for healers to join us, due to the danger, the low pay, the unstable lifestyle, and a dozen other factors.”
“You get paid more than enough!” One of the Senators exclaimed. He was quickly shushed by the rest of Command, with Ocean throwing him a dirty look.
“I had a vision. Not a divine one, just a personal one. Healers with Rangers. Keeping us alive. Expanding our ranks. Getting more of us around. Shorter rounds, fewer problems, more of us alive. I took a gamble.”
Julius paused taking a deep breath.
“I invited Elaine to be a full Ranger with us. She accepted.”
Another argument. More yelling. Much more subdued than the last one, but that was a low bar to clear.
Julius held his hand up futilely, wanting to expand further. Ocean eventually recognized him.
“I’m aware she needs to go through Academy to be polished and fully accepted. She’s also aware of that.”
One of the Army commanders snorted.
“We have standards for who can join training. We could maybe, barely stretch to level 170 under ideal conditions.”
Julius grinned, a predator who’s seen prey step into his trap.
“In a year, she went from level 100 to level 180. Currently, she’s sitting around level 185 or so. Additionally, she has one of the most absurd boosting skills I’ve ever heard of.”
“Like Night?” Ocean asked.
“Yeah, but stronger and narrower. You know how it goes.” Julius replied. “She currently enjoys a roughly 9x multiplier to both power and control when healing.”
You could hear a pin drop at that. Julius seized the moment.
“Granted, her second class is lagging a hair, so I’d rate her effective healing at ‘only’ around level 350 or so, and she came from a control-healer route, so she’s hands-on right now. Working on a distance skill, and her second class has a lot of room to grow, easily giving her more stats, multiplying her further.”
“Now, if I may, I’d like to finish my report.” Julius said, none of the internal smugness he was feeling making it to his voice.
He had their full attention now. Oh, sure, it wasn’t like anyone had been slacking off, but he had maybe 90% of their attention, their minds wandering elsewhere at times.
“Further traveling and handling problems occurred as normal, with the only notable incident being an Ornithocheirus attack, which Arthur was able to survive out in the open, more or less solo. Thieves, monsters, dinosaurs, an idiot army recruiter,”
Julius plowed right through the Army Commander’s noise of protest. “and other such problems. Sadly, in the stretch to Perinthus, there was another friendly-fire incident involving Artemis.”
There was a bunch of groaning at that, and more than a few coins changing hands, one pouch soaring across the room. Julius raised an eyebrow, and Ocean didn’t look too pleased either.
“Fortunately, due to Elaine’s presence, the friendly fire incident was a speedbump, as she was able to almost immediately restore Arthur back to fit fighting shape.”
“Then we arrived in Perinthus.”
Julius closed his eyes, remembering the rows of bodies, the flies and crows in the air.
“Hang on, you didn’t skip Perinthus?” One of the Ranger Commanders asked.
Julius shook his head.
“No, Elaine was convinced we could make a difference.”
“Never heard of her in any of the songs.” One of the Senators remarked.
A smile cracked Julius’s face.
“We pissed off the bard something fierce. Not being written into the song seems to be her revenge.”
“Elaine was convinced her knowledge of disease and plagues was unmatched in Pallos. From what happened in Perinthus, I’m inclined to believe her. Within a week, while healing from dawn to past dusk every day, the sickest, worst cases, she’d solved the first plague. Three days later, we’d solved the source of the second plague, and nine days later the town was completely purged of disease.”
Julius thought a moment and added. “There was an incident with the 3rd, which resulted in an execution. Details in my written report.”
“To expand on my prior point. Elaine had knowledge of diseases, and disease reservoirs and sources, and we used that knowledge to work out that bad plumbing was causing the first plague, what we called the Vomiting Plague for its effects. The second plague was much harder, and Elaine kept complaining that it was making no sense how it worked.”
He closed his eyes, and leaned forward.
“I doubted her. If I hadn’t, we might’ve figured out it was a Classer causing the plague; that it wasn’t natural. It took him assassinating Origen for us to realize what was going on. We spooked him, both with some side-business we took care of, and Elaine’s speed at solving the first plague.”
“The fault is mine.”
A respectful moment passed, for a fallen Ranger.
“We came down like the fist of a god on the Classer causing the problem, then organized a full-scale effort to purge the town. I’m pleased to report that the songs are correct, and Perinthus is fully cleansed, and back to functioning properly.”
A brief moment of pause, of congratulation.
“The route through the Kadan Jungle was made almost perfunctory, with Elaine being able to handle every problem thrown at us. Snakes didn’t matter. Toads didn’t matter. Vegetation didn’t matter. Serpopards were the only real threat, and without needing to worry about the other problems, we were able to aggressively hunt them down around us.”
“That brings us to Massilix, and Arthur’s achievement.”
“Sea Serpent, roughly around level 950, was terrorizing the town. We took a look at it, tried to plan, then called for a Sentinel.”
Ocean frowned at that, mostly because he would’ve been the Sentinel called in for such a task, but wasn’t.
“I gave Arthur my blessing to try and poison the monster, as he tries to poison most of the problems we encounter, usually to little success.”
A heartbeat passed, as the Command started to realize what happened.
“He managed a solo kill on the monster. Over 700 levels above him. Against a monster that, with all due respect, Ocean, I think you might’ve struggled with.”
Ocean grimaced, then nodded, recognizing that Julius had been on the scene, and had an evaluation, and that Ocean hadn’t been present.
“As a result, with Arthur’s stealth, his ability to survive in the wilderness alone, his prowess with the bow, and combat capabilities, with slaying the monster being his feat, I’d like to nominate Arthur for Sentinel. Potential title: Poison.”
The Command erupted into argument – again. The constant arguments were the norm here, and his news wasn’t actually all that special. Julius wished he’d been sentenced to the colosseum to wrestle a bear, rather than report to Command. The burdens of leadership.
Ocean rolled his eyes, and sent out a pulse of power through the room, cutting the current argument short.
“Discussions of Sentinels and promotions is for a scheduled meeting. Not for a report.” One of the Ranger Commanders stated. There was a bunch of nodding around the room, some slower, some faster.
“Continue.” A different Ranger Commander stated.
“The rest of the round had nothing particularly noteworthy. Artemis kept her hand in well enough – see scrolls 6 through 11 for full details - Elaine made us look good by opening practically free clinics, Maximus was a blessing who caused no problems, Arthur got a green class out of slaying the monster, and Kallisto managed to keep himself, and the rest of us, alive.”
“Let’s go back to Elaine for a moment.” One of the Ranger Commanders said. “You said she should go through Academy, to be ratified as a full Ranger. I don’t think this needs to be said, but everyone who goes out in the field needs to be combat capable – even our support personnel. Otherwise, bluntly, we already have all the healers we need at HQ.”
Julius nodded. Now wasn’t the time or the place to argue that the rules were wrong, that they needed an overhaul. First, proof of concept that a healer with enough combat capabilities was a massive asset. Then, maybe, an exception could be argued for healers not needing to be fully combat capable before going out into the field.
First things first though – Elaine.
“Elaine is combat-capable, but about as strong as you’d expect out of a typical support or utility class. Her secondary class is now a Fire mage, after her Light and Dark class merged into Celestial. She has an interesting restriction on combat – anything she believes is sentient, she can only defend herself. She can’t attack first. This extends to monsters like goblins, unfortunately.”
There was a round of muttering at that.
“If she’s so weak she can’t handle goblins, there’s no way she’s strong enough to be a Ranger, regardless of her healing prowess.” One of the Army Commanders frowned.
“True. However, she’s creative, and can work with her restriction. Shortly before the round ended, we discovered a small camp of goblins. We sent her in to exterminate them solo.”
“She got 10 out of 11 solo, doing such things as ‘tapping on them’ to get their attention, then running them through when they inevitably attacked her. Only goblin she missed was a goblin assassin we didn’t tell her about. Not full marks, but strong enough to qualify as holding her own. She has no problems defending herself when needed, she’s just reluctant to use lethal force when it’s not needed.”
Julius paused a heartbeat, letting it sink in.
“Kinda the opposite of Artemis, who keeps getting complaints about using lethal force when it’s not needed.” He said pointedly. “Imagine how much skinnier the file would be…”
More rounds of discussion.
“Let’s table this for another day. Julius, from everything we’ve heard, you’ve done an excellent job. Is there anything else you’d like to report, or are you all set?”
Julius paused a few moments, thinking. Thinking very hard.
“Artemis has told me that she’s planning to retire. Will probably need a conversation with you to formalize.”
One of the Commanders waved his hand, indicating he was dismissed. Julius got to the doors, opened them. Turned around.
In for a coin, in for a rod. It was the right thing to do.
“One last thing real fast…” Julius said, grabbing everyone’s attention.
Julius dropped the explosive idea, then fled. He heard the room behind him erupt into chaos as he dashed through the halls, glad to be out of there. One of the guards looked after him, open-mouthed, as the other one closed the door of the room.
That’s going to make me or break me. Julius thought, as he slowed his pace down, walking back to his room in HQ normally.
In for a coin, in for a rod.