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A note from Selkie

Chapter 99!

Hype!

 

This chapter marks the end of book 2 from Elaine's POV. Chapter 100 is from a completely different POV, and it didn't go over well. I wouldn't expect big things from it. If you only want to see Elaine's POV, come back Friday, when chapter 101 is following our heroine once again.

 

Either way, chapter 99 is clocking in at over 2x a normal chapter, so enjoy!

The Summer Solstice was here, and I woke up bright and early with the sun. Artemis still hadn’t enacted her revenge for the “bugs in the bedroll” stunt, and I knew she wasn’t the type to simply go “oh well, you got me, I deserved it, well done.” The suspense was almost worse than any revenge she could enact.

But today was the Solstice, the day of the Grand Ranger Meeting – or so I was mentally calling it.

“Reminder Elaine.” Julius said. “Meeting starts right after lunch, in That Room.

‘That Room’ didn’t have a name. It was the only unnamed room in HQ, and arguably, the entire building was built around it. It was a large amphitheater in the center of the building, able to seat hundreds, and the most important part of HQ was located there. The one part of HQ we’d all fight – and die – to defend, before letting it get ruined.

The Indomitable Wall.

Fortunately, that didn’t seem to be a concern today, and I happily skipped off to the baths for a good scrub. I wanted to be, to look, my absolute best today. The event was important enough to warrant it.

Blessedly, the solstice was the longest day of the year, which gave me the most time to get ready, to be prepared. Unfortunately, the rest of the city was also partying, the solstice being the main summer festival.

The long and the short of it was, everything was crowded, and most things were a bit more expensive. At the baths, I wasn’t able to get a little cubby to store my things, so I just brought my tunic with me in the bath, carefully balancing it on my head.

Washing while balancing my tunic, pouch, and more, on my head, was a real challenge. Fortunately, I wasn’t the only one with this problem, and I teamed up with another teenager in the same position to fix the problem. I held both of our stuff while she scrubbed, then we traded, and she held our stuff while I scrubbed.

Perfect!

We left, said goodbye, and I was off through the streets, trying to stay as clean as possible. [Veil of the Aurora] saved me – and a half dozen others – from a cart going a bit too fast down the road, through a cow pat some other animal had left. Thank the goddesses. I did not want to re-do the baths.

There seemed to be a [Beautician] class, or at least a few stores – run by women! Although owned by their husband – dedicated to purely makeup and cosmetics. I’d considered splurging on a session for the upcoming event, but when I saw the “Summer Solstice Spectacular Sale” price, I’d decided to simply buy some makeup and apply it myself. Bonus – I could avoid lead and other metals I remembered were toxic, although I didn’t know all of them. One day I needed to work on being able to cure heavy metal poisoning, else I’d go stark raving mad – literally. I acknowledged I was already a little crazy for doing this Ranger thing. The target audience was the wives and daughters of the richest citizens and senators who had literally millions of coins. The price had been outrageous before I discovered that it was the price measured in rods, not coins. Hence, doing it myself. I had the practice. I was going to look good.

Not perfect. Not bombastic. Not the star of the show or anything. Just – good. [Pretty], not beautiful.

I made it back, got ready. Got my fancy tunic that I could imbue skills into – my flaming dress, I thought of it.

“Hey Artemis,” I said, popping into her room, seeing her put on the last pieces of armor, fancy red cape with no helmet. “how do I look?” I gave a short twirl, letting some flames flicker over the dress.

She glanced over at me.

“Wow! You look great healy-bug!” She said, getting up, making a move as if to hug me, then changing her mind. Didn’t want to mess up my outfit, which I appreciated.

[*Ding!* Congratulations! [Pretty] has reached level 124!]

[*Ding!* Congratulations! [Pretty] has reached level 125!]

Awww yes. [Pretty] levels.

“What do you think? Ranger Badge or no?” I asked, badge in hand, miming putting it on my chest, over my left breast.

I had no concerns about Artemis getting revenge on me today. It was in good fun at the end of the day, and today was too important, had too much meaning for the two of us, for horseplay. Artemis sucked the air through her teeth.

“In your shoes, I wouldn’t.” She held a hand up to forestall any complaints I might have. “You’ve earned it. You deserve it. You have the right to carry it. But you’re going to be in front of everyone today – every Instructor. Every Ranger in Team 0 and Team 1. Every Sentinel. Half the recruits. You’re already going to stand out like a sore thumb – I checked, you’re both the youngest recruit this year by three years, and, no surprise, the only girl. Wearing the badge will only make you stick out more, and people who would otherwise leave you alone might be tempted to measure themselves against you, to ‘prove’ to themselves – or think they’re proving it to others – that either they belong, or you don’t.”

“At the same time, some of the Instructors might approve of the gall, of you being unafraid, of proudly flying the flag in face of adversity. It’ll earn you brownie points there.”

I frowned. Damnit. Politics of some flavor or another was rearing its ugly head.

I shook my head.

“All the Rangers are wearing the full fancy armor, right?”

“Right.”

“Yeah, I’d stick out in a way I don’t like – not wearing the standard uniform. I’m not sure on all the politics and implications, but I don’t see it ending well.”

Artemis patted my shoulder.

“Good call.”

We had a small lunch – no crumbs, juice, or anything that could possibly make a mess massively restricting what I could eat – then headed off towards That Room.

We entered, and I got another look at the room. I’d taken a peek earlier just to get an idea, so I wouldn’t be overwhelmed and look like a country bumpkin the first time I entered, so I wouldn’t gawk around awkwardly and possibly embarrass the rest of the team. I’d do them proud.

There was a central oval, with the Indomitable‎ Wall against one skinny edge, on a platform. Rows of stone benches filled the rest of the central pit, all facing towards the wall.

Or facing away from the wall, if you were a monster like that.

In circles around the central pit, steadily rising rings of seats were present, like, well, any amphitheater.

There were, appropriately, 24 teams. I imagined there was one team for each skill the average human had access to, although the existence of a team 0 threw that for a loop. There were 16 rows of benches, with an aisle in the middle. 12 rows for the 24 teams, and the remaining 4 rows for command, support, Team 0, and other important VIPs that snagged one of the coveted “central” seats.

The non-central seats were for the legions of support staff. The farrier, the quartermaster, the horse trainer, the armorer, everyone’s favorite person, the paymaster, the janitors, the scribes, the healers, the Inscriptionists, and the legion of other support staff that meant we could roll in, get a full set of food, armor, rations, a wagon, trained horses, pay, not bother with politics, have a route set for us, new, well-trained recruits to join the team, and just go.

Graduates of Ranger Academy, those who’d completed everything, were in the audience as well. Their time would come, their names would be called.

Additionally, people who wanted to, could buy tickets to the event, and from what I’d heard, the tickets were pricey. Anything to up our meager budget, and with not a whole lot of early afternoon events, this was a place for movers and shakers to meet and mingle, usually of the martial type.

Tickets were free for widows, for children whose father’s name was written on the wall.

I was in the row with Team 4. Julius. Artemis. Kallisto. Maximus. Arthur.

A copious gap where Origen should be.

A less-obvious to me, but still present, gap where the two members of the team who’d started off with the Ranger, but had died before I got a chance to meet them, should be. It wasn’t that there wasn’t room for them, less so that they didn’t have a psychic presence in my mind the same way Origen did.

I looked around the room as other people came in. I was an “extra” on Team 4, but I was far from the only extra around. A number of women were scattered through the benches where the teams were located, wives to Rangers. One bench even had three kids, solemnly lined up, with the smallest, cutest little togas on them.

Bold move that. By custom, by tradition, only people who were on the rounds could claim a spot in the lower seats, and the presence of the kids indicated that they were traveling with their dad around Remus.

A few people of all shapes and sizes were scattered around, people the Ranger team had recruited in the field, and had simply never left. Like I was, when I was first picked up by the team. Without a doubt they were all heading to the Academy after, the only difference between us was I’d been offered a position as a full Ranger. I was glad I’d decided to not wear the badge – right now I blended in, wasn’t making a fuss.

There were a few animals scattered around. A hawk, on a Ranger’s shoulder. A bear, fur gleaming metallic, given wide berth – even on his own team’s bench. A protoavis, hopping from foot to foot.

The larger dinosaurs had been left outside, a concession to the size constraints inside the area, their sheer danger level, and the practical fact that they couldn’t fit through the door.

Twenty chairs were present on the stage before the Indomitable Wall, along with a podium. I eyed it, glowing lines of inscriptions all around it.

“Twenty coins says there’s a sound-amplifying enchantment on the podium.” I whispered to Maximus, who, while not a betting man, could always be suckered into something System related.

He rolled his eyes at me, but to his credit, didn’t swat at me. My hair was too well done for anyone to mess with it.

“I know it has a sound-amplifying enchantment on it, it’s not my first time here.” He drily pointed out.

“Ah, right.” With great effort, I suppressed the urge to fidget. This was not the time, and I could not screw up my outfit.

The last of the crowd was shuffling in, and slowly, as the appointed time arrived, a hush fell over the crowd.

A single drumbeat, one stick hitting stretched hide. Bam.

Bam.

Bam – Ba-ba-duh-duh-dum.

The sound of drums slowly came in, more and more of them, beating a solemn beat. Fifteen men filed in, all dressed in the standard Ranger armor, red capes with no helmets. All had the Ranger Eagle on the chest, but in two different ways.

The first eight men had the circle, with a pair of laurels surrounding the circle. The indicator of Ranger Command, the eight men who oversaw the entire operation. Four Rangers, promoted to command. Two sent from the Army, however they saw fit. Two from the Senate, however they worked it out.

Behind them marched another seven men, this time with a sunburst around the Eagle. I recognized Bluebeard marching along.

Arthur whispered in my ear, pointing to them in turn.

“Hunting. Bulwark. Sealing. Sky. Nature. Destruction. Ocean. Magic, Night, Brawling, and Acquisition aren’t here it seems like. Their seat is still open for them if they do make it.”

Command marched to the stage, each one stepping in front of a chair, then in a single, smooth, coordinated motion, pivoted and turned around. I raised an eyebrow at that. Even the Senators pulled it off? My bet was ex-military. Could be lots of practice – this was the event for Rangers.

The Sentinels made it to the stage, to their seats, but weren’t as coordinated, simply turning around as they each made it to their spot. Made sense – they were all busy men, and didn’t act as a unit.

One of the Commanders stepped up to the podium.

“Welcome, to the Ranger Convocation!”

A loud cheer broke from the crowd, myself included.

A fairly long speech came from the Commander, followed by three more speeches. Acknowledgements of accomplishments. Thanks. Praise to the Senate. That one I bet was to get more funding, and/or propaganda. I carefully schooled my eyes, not rolling them. No bets on the people on stage having enough vitality boosting their perception to see everything that was going on, and probably taking mental notes.

The speeches were, somehow, incredibly boring, and I somewhat filtered them out. I stayed looking at the stage – it’d be the height of rudeness not to – but I was drifting away.

The speeches were boring.

It was only when the Indomitable Wall was mentioned that I snapped to, paying attention again, checking to see exactly what had just been said.

“… and now, it’s time to carve the names onto the Indomitable Wall.”

An old, powerful looking man from one of the VIP seats stood up, and walked to the stage, each step careful, measured. Placed slowly but firmly, exactly where he intended it to go.

The drums started to play again, a slow, solemn, melancholy beat. Each name said here, said now, was a life cut short in defense of Remus, a peak warrior killed. This would be, in many ways, their only remembrance, their only legacy. A name, stated. A phrase, uttered. A carving, in a stone wall.

Then we’d move on. People would frequently visit the wall, but as time went on, fewer and fewer people would come for a specific name. Soon, they’d just be an engraving that eyes would wander over, maybe widening as they noticed they held the same name as a fallen, or in awe at the sheer number of names carved.

It was not a small wall. There was not a lot of spare room.

“Team 2.” The Commander announced.

The man, who I could only assume was the leader of Team 2, got up, and with the weight of the world on his shoulders, marched up to the stage, got behind the podium, and faced the crowd.

“Lucius Viducius Draco.” He called out.

We bowed our heads, reciting in unison.

“Brave Ranger. Your time to rest has come. May White Dove take you to a better place. Your deeds will not be forgotten. We will remember you.”

The man who’d walked up to the stage tapped on the wall, and the name of the Ranger appeared in the next open spot. A powerful, high-level [Stonemason], able to carve names with a tap. The perfect class, the perfect skill, the perfect level, for here and now.

Another name. Another recital.

A pause.

Team 2’s leader got down. Only two dead. A success.

Team 3’s leader went up next. He was young to be a team leader.

Too young.

There was nobody else on the bench.

Seven names were recited. A near-miss from a full team wipe. Given how badly the last man looked, given how he was shaking, the haunted look on his face, the thousand-yard stare in his eyes, for all practical purposes, it was a full team wipe.

Team 4 was called next, and Julius took the stage.

“Alexander.” He called out, meeting the eyes of the audience, scanning through each of us, back ramrod straight. Not backing down.

“Brave Ranger. Your time to rest has come. May White Dove take you to a better place. Your deeds will not be forgotten. We will remember you.”

“Vel Icarus Aulus.”

“Brave Ranger. Your time to rest has come. May White Dove take you to a better place. Your deeds will not be forgotten. We will remember you.”

“Publius Origen Cicero.”

“Brave Ranger. Your time to rest has come. May White Dove take you to a better place. Your deeds will not be forgotten. We will remember you.”

I called it out like I’d called out the rest of them, tears streaming down my face. I thought I’d handled the guilt. No, it was still there, reminding me that Origen had voted against entering the town, that I’d basically dragged him there anyways, and he’d died for it.

Julius came down to the slow beating of the drums, as the remaining teams came up one at a time. His eyes were closed, fists clenched. It couldn’t be any easier for him to go through this, than for anyone else. Harder even. He was the one who made the calls, who was responsible for each and every one of their deaths. Was there something he could’ve done better? Could Investigations have only had three people in it, working as a single unit, to have given Origen backup, so he wouldn’t be traveling solo?

Would that have helped, or would the deadly miasma spewed out by Hesoid have claimed two Rangers, not one?

What if, what if, what if. The curse of command.

Some teams – like Team 0, Team 1, Team 8, Team 14, and Team 17 got off scott-free, not a single casualty.

Team 13 completely wiped, and one of the Commanders read off the list of all their names. It wasn’t mentioned if they had any tagger-ons, if there was a wife or kids who’d died as well.

No mention of how they fell.

Silence followed the last name called out.

There was no need to call for a moment of silence. We gave it naturally; they’d given their lives. The moment stretched into two, into four, into eight moments of silence. Not even the kids made a peep, not even a rustle of cloth.

One of the Commanders got up, and walked to the podium, the moment broken.

“I’d like to congratulate the new Academy graduates. As you hear your name, please approach the stage.”

“Trainee Acilius, approach.”

A man jumped up from the trainee section, and walked onto the stage. A handshake, a Ranger Badge changing hands, and he held his hands up triumphantly, new badge in hand.

A polite applause met this, and he jumped down, going towards an area that seemed to be marked off for new graduates.

“Trainee Alus, approach.”

It rapidly became clear the order was alphabetical, as one name after another was announced.

As names were called, I looked around. There was a whole section dedicated to Academy graduates, but some were getting uglier and uglier looks on their face. I suddenly realized – they weren’t necessarily graduates yet. They were finding out, here and now, in front of everyone, if they passed and were assigned to a team or not.

Ouch. Can’t find a nicer way to tell people they’d washed out?

 

“Now, it is time to announce the new teams for the following round.”

“Team 1. First, I’d like to congratulate Galenus, for his promotion to Team Leader. The remaining members of the team are as follows:”

He read off a list of seven names, a cheer coming from each one, all from the “already a Ranger” section.

Team 1 was the team assigned to the capital, and only the capital after all. It made sense that they were only the best. No raw recruits for them!

Name after name, team after team was announced. Julius was now Team 6, still a team leader. I let out a little sigh I didn’t know I was holding. They weren’t holding me against Julius – yet. Kallisto Team 8. Maximus Team 11.

Most of the time, when someone’s name was called, they yelled out, or raised their hand, so future team mates got an initial impression of them. They’d meet and mingle later, starting to get to know each other. Talk with former teammates. Get a read on the people they’d be spending the next two years with.

In Julius’s case, pay out a bunch of bets that he’d prevent an Artemis friendly-fire incident.

Artemis’s name wasn’t called. Neither was Arthur’s.

“It’s not there. Elaine, it’s not there!” Arthur said to me, growing frantically excited, but subdued, restrained.

“What’s not there?” I hissed to him. He just shook his head, muttering to himself.

The last few names were called. Mine wasn’t among them, not that I’d expected it to be. I had a slim hope that they’d just skip right over making me do Academy, and keep me as a Ranger.

“And now, something special. Ranger Artemis, approach the stage.” A different Commander had the podium.

Artemis beamed, and with what could only be described as “maximum non-military grace and decorum”, bounded up to the stage.

“Artemis has been with us for 14 years – an amazing 7 rounds. She’s survived every one of them, although, not without a few, ah, incidents.

That got a round of chuckles, and some cheers, hoots, and boos.

“I am pleased to announce that as of today, Artemis is becoming the rarest of Rangers. One retired with distinction. Everyone, please give Artemis a hand.”

Thunderous applause. Regardless of her reputation – although from the looks of it, being “twitchy and alive” was well-lauded, compared to “dead and anything else”. Then again, a whole 14 years of surviving as a Ranger? Artemis probably had seniority on almost all the other Rangers, and could rival entire teams combined.

And a Ranger, retiring, one taking it with as much grace as Artemis was? Yeah, it made people happy. It gave them hope, a reminder, that one day they too might be on the stage with thunderous applause, retiring happy, instead of being written onto the wall.

I looked at the wall. I looked at the one, only publicly retiring Ranger.

I didn’t like those odds.

Didn’t stop me screaming myself hoarse with cheers for her though. I wanted to be the loudest, damnit! She was my teammate, my mentor!

Team 4 had the blessed distinction of, yes, being the loudest, all of us having fresh memories of Artemis saving our lives. There were a number of scattered Rangers throughout, equally enthusiastic, former teammates of Artemis celebrating her accomplishment.

“Artemis, would you like to say a few words?” The Commander said, giving the stage to her.

“Of course! Thank you everyone!” Artemis said, to more applause.

This was going to take forever.

“I’d like to say it’s been the best time of my life, working with all of you. You gave me a home when I needed it. You gave me direction, and meaning. Thank you.”

“I’m pleased to announce that I’m starting up a school for mages, anywhere from just unlocked, to as far as they’ll go. You want your kid to be a mage? You want help becoming a caster? Come to the School of Sorcery and Spellcraft, and learn it all!”

I winced. Advertising? Really? Then again, when else would Artemis have a captive audience of some of the richest members of society, the movers and shakers of the Republic? A good chance to get her name out there.

The rest of the crowd didn’t have such a negative take on it, and her announcement was met with more cheer. I think she could’ve said anything, and been met with thunderous applause.

Artemis waved and jumped down from the stage, striding back over to where we were.

Arthur looked like he was going to have a heart attack. Pale and sweaty, hands trembling. I touched him, pulsing [Phases of the Moon] through him just in case.

Did they forget about him or something? Was he being fired?

Was he currently having a heart attack or something?

“Lastly, Ranger Arthur, please approach the stage.”

All the Sentinels got up at that. While they hadn’t been lounging – they were the pictures of military perfection – they hadn’t exactly been cheering and making a bunch of noise otherwise.

“Go on Arthur, you can do this.” I whispered to him, giving him some support. He’d paste me if he leaned too hard.

He took a deep breath, and with perfect, military precision, the type that would bring a tear to a drill instructor’s eye at it’s sheer correctness, he marched up to the stage.

“A Ranger. At least one round. The undisputed best in his field. A grand feat. An open seat. The ability to survive on your own. Powerful combat prowess. Able to move through Remus, solving problems.”

“Arthur, you’re a master of all types of poisons, and your classes, skills, and fighting style reflect it. You single-handedly slew a monster over level 1000, you can survive an Ornithocheirus attack in the open, have masterful stealth abilities, and are one of the best [Rangers] we know.”

I mentally snorted at the blatant propaganda, inflating the monster’s level.

“Arthur. We hereby name you, The Toxic Sentinel.” The Commander said, pinning a badge, with an eagle inside a starburst onto his chest.

A roar came up from the crowd, the sound of it making a physical, pressing thing.

I didn’t care all that much – I was screaming myself hoarse with the rest of them.

[*Ding!* Congratulations! [Ranger’s Lore] has reached level 134!]

[*Ding!* Congratulations! [Ranger’s Lore] has reached level 140!]

 

[Name: Elaine]

[Race: Human]

[Age: 16]

[Mana: 17210/17210]

[Mana Regen: 20721]

Stats

[Free Stats: 62]

[Strength: 118]

[Dexterity: 218]

[Vitality: 235]

[Speed: 220]

[Mana: 1721]

[Mana Regeneration: 2379]

[Magic Power: 1506]

[Magic Control: 2039]

[Class 1: [Constellation of the Healer - Celestial: Lv 187]]

[Celestial Affinity: 187]

[Warmth of the Sun: 158]

[Medicine: 184]

[Center of the Galaxy: 160]

[Phases of the Moon: 187]

[Moonlight: 104]

[Veil of the Aurora: 146]

[Vastness of the Stars: 135]

[Class 2: [Pyromancer - Fire: Lv 62]]

[Fire Affinity: 62]

[Fire Resistance: 62]

[Fire Conjuration: 62]

[Fire Manipulation: 62]

[Fuel for the Fire: 62]

[Burn Brightly: 62]

[Rapidash: 62]

[: ]

[Class 3: Locked]

General Skills

[Identify: 96]

[Recollection of a Distant Life: 131]

[Pretty: 125]

[Vigilant: 131]

[Oath of Elaine to Lyra: 167]

[Ranger's Lore: 140]

[: ]

[Learning: 148]

 

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A note from Selkie

I give you - Sentinel Toxic!

Not many people can punch up as far as he was able to, and combined with the rest of his kit, he fits the promotion criteria!

And RIP Origen. May his name forever be preserved. 


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