History, Politics, and Geography followed lunch.
“The geography of a town is instrumental in the history of the town, which ties into the politics. The three are closely entwined, unable to be separated. Let us start with Ariminum, the capital. It is located on a peninsula that juts deep into the Nostrum Sea, making it an ideal center. Every town on the shores of the Nostrum are able to quickly and easily get to Ariminum. The peninsula it’s located on is ideal for defense, and our grand Republic was founded here, as we could easily secure the borders. Is it no wonder that the town should then become the Capital? Geography becomes history. History becomes politics. You will learn about every town, their geography, their history, their contributions to the Republic, and their recent Governors and Senators. You never know when knowing the background will be critical to solving some problem or another.”
The obstacle course was blessed relief from the brain-frying interactions and difficulties that was politics. I was a healer, dammit! I wasn’t some political mastermind, thinking seven steps ahead in the demented game of chess that was human interpersonal relationships.
Then again, I was severely lacking in that department, maybe they wanted to fix that? The Instructors here were smart, and they clearly had a plan.
“Trainees! You will do this in two sets. The first is twice around the island, the speed run! The second is ten times around the island, the marathon run! You will be scored and ranked in the order in which you return.”
“On your marks!”
And we were off.
I half-expected some sabotage, people subtly interfering with each other, maybe one of the Earth artillery mages making the footing uneven or something.
Nope. Oh, we were competitive as hell. We all wanted to win. But the bond forged in Hell wasn’t going to be shaken by something so trivial as the first contest through the obstacle course.
I happily blew [Rapidash] to stay near the head of the pack of runners – the speedsters had already outstripped us all – as we got to the first obstacle – a series of balance beams over mud. Even with my barely enhanced physical stats, it was a breeze, 16 of us at a time jumping onto one of the 16 beams and running across, taking our turn so we didn’t foul each other’s jump onto the beam.
Our politeness didn’t extend to lending a helping hand, it was more that not interfering was best for all of us. As someone carelessly slipped off the beam and into the mud, we didn’t help out, apart from checking that he was ok, and hadn’t landed face-first.
MoonMoon had a barking laugh at the poor dude’s misfortune, and I couldn’t help cracking a small, schadenfreude-fueled smile. At the same time, I had no illusions that it’d be me in the mud pit one day, and other people cracking a smile as MoonMoon laughed at me.
Ropes came next, needing to climb up one of many dangling ropes, then down a ramp on the other side.
A giant ladder. Wooden slats inverted into a V. Thin metal bars, making a cage we had to crawl under.
I had fun with that one – as short as I was, it was easy mode. Hulk struggled, as he could only barely fit in, let alone move forward. He managed to get an entire lane to himself, nobody wanting to get stuck behind him.
A tightrope. Ropes in a pattern slightly above the ground, that we needed to not touch as we hopped through. And a dozen other tests of speed and agility.
I finished with about twenty people behind me on the first two laps.
“Good work Trainees! That’s the speed course, designed to let mages and others that rely on abilities and mana show off! Now it’s time for the endurance course, where people with physical abilities get to strut their stuff! On your marks, get set, go!”
I finished second from last, and the only person I beat was Hulk, who managed to get stuck in an obstacle.
Monster Slaying was next, and I think it was the only course every single one of us had.
“There are four ways of handling a monster.” Hunting started off by saying, while Katastrophi eyed us menacingly.
How did they get her to the island!?
“Tolerate, Drive off, Placate, or Kill. Ranger Elaine, can you name the fifth method?” Hunting asked me, putting me on the spot in front of everyone.
“Sir! Call in a Sentinel, like you, sir!”
Bluebeard grinned at me.
“Exactly right! Now, for the most part, Kill is the method you’ll be going after. We’re going to start off reviewing the other three briefly, then the rest of this course will cover all sorts of different monsters you could encounter, and the best way to kill and bait each type. Let’s begin...”
Bluebeard’s class ended, and I was off like a shot.
I’d done tiny amounts with Artemis, which were more “Get lifted into the air by rocks”, but this was the real deal, or so I imagined.
We set out, and there were six of us assigned to Sky, who hovered above us in the air.
“Flying! Flying’s the best thing ever. I’m here to help you all fly, then you can try to catch me in the air. Advice, I’m supposed to give you all advice, hmmm… don’t fall.”
He pointed to four of us.
“You, you, you, and you. You all have weak flying. Come and get me. You and you.” He said, pointing to the remaining two, then hesitating.
“I’m supposed to help you learn how to fly. Well, it’s simple. Use your skills in a way to fly, and they’ll evolve into a flying skill.”
He paused a moment, thinking.
“Eh, why not.” He said swooping down and tapping both of us.
“You’re now both 80% lighter. Good luck! The rest of you, come and get me!” He said, speeding off.
Well shit. This was the least useful lesson ever.
Right, time to put on the thinking cap.
“Any idea what we’re supposed to do?” I asked Barrier, who was the other poor unfortunate who couldn’t fly yet, and had been selected for this.
“I have no idea.” He said, jumping up experimentally, shooting much higher than expected.
“I’m flying! I’m flying! I’m – oh no.” He said, as gravity reasserted itself. It was weaker, but it wasn’t gone.
He started to fall, but instead of screaming, summoned one of his panes of light, landing on it hard.
I could practically see a lightbulb go off in his head.
“Hey, wait, I can just-“ He said, jumping off the pane of light in mid-air, summoning a new one to land on.
Well, I had [Veil], and I could mimic that trick. [Veil] was a massive mana hog when I stood on it, but at 20% weight, it should only take 20% of the mana. Being unable to move [Veil] myself had been a source of much frustration over the past two years, but suddenly, it was the greatest asset of the skill!
With a whoop, a holler, and a shout of glee, I jumped up, summoning [Veil] to catch me, watching my mana drop like a rock, then drain rapidly.
Wow, that was close. The initial landing – which I’d done near the peak of my jump, with minimal downward velocity – had cost nearly 700 mana. With only 1533 magic power, I’d shatter [Veil] if I landed too hard. How was Barrier doing –
With a scream, Barrier came tumbling out of the sky, only for Sky to come blazing down like a peregrine falcon, catching him before he hit the ground.
“Idiot! Watch your mana!” Sky cursed him out thoroughly.
“And you! Don’t make the same mistake!” He yelled at me.
I nodded, jumping from [Veil], letting it flicker out before summoning a new one.
I hopped four more times before stopping, having roughly half my mana left.
From what I’d seen, and what I’ve been told, using skills in a way was a good way to evolve them in that direction. However, did I want [Veil] to end up being my flying skill? It was stupid useful as a shield, as privacy, and I wanted to keep it that way.
[Rapidash] was my movement skill, and if I had a flying skill, it would be significantly less useful. I had to figure out how to fly with [Rapidash].
I thought about it some, and sighed. The only thing I could come up with?
Launch myself as high into the air as possible with it, and hope to stick the landing. Either with [Veil] slowing the blow, or letting myself hit hard, and healing.
[Oath] gently reminded me that the second option wasn’t exactly kosher. Right, catching myself with [Veil] it was.
I bent my knees, and for the first time, tried to use [Rapidash] while jumping. It worked, I went up, far higher than any jump could get me, and at the peak of the jump, summoned [Veil] for a moment.
I then pushed horizontally off of [Veil] with [Rapidash], wincing as the familiar sensation of [Veil] shattering like a pane of glass went off through my mind.
Success though! I was soaring through the air!
I was really high up though, able to see most of the island, and Sky and the other trainees moving through the air. Time to let myself down, gently, gently…
I caught myself on a [Veil] before I let too much speed build up, and repeated the process four more times on my way down, before landing hard on the ground. A quick healing, just in case, and I was ready for a second attempt.
My mana was too low after that second attempt to risk a third one – I didn’t want to have to be plucked out of the sky by Sky. It’d be too embarrassing.
It had been less than 10 minutes since the class started.
One by one, over the next 10 minutes, the four “already-fliers” had run out of mana, and were grounded.
“Ha! This class is so weak! Right, good luck, see you tomorrow!” Sky said, taunting us, flipping in midair, then flying away.
Flying away, in the most aggravating fashion.
We looked at each other.
“Cards?” One of them suggested.
“Sure, why not.”
Flying Lessons 10 minutes of lessons, 50-minute break. Sky’s anti-gravity buff wore off before I could get enough mana to try again.
Worst. Instructor. Ever. Artemis rose a dozen notches in my head – at least she cared!
“Leadership!” Instructor Quintis roared at us. “Leadership is about communication! About seeing what needs to be done, and doing it! Delegation! Communication! Trust! If you…..”
Whoof. More lecture classes. After nearly breaking a third of the bones in my body from Sky’s class, I was grateful for grounded classes that didn’t involve a high risk of bodily harm.
Why was I in leadership though? I was practically allergic to social skills, and the only people that-
A brilliant lightbulb went off in my mind. History. Politics. Investigations. Legal. Leadership. They were all skills Julius had; these were all classes I could imagine he’d taken once upon a time. Was I being groomed to be a team leader?
As Quintis roared about inspiring trust, about getting people to look up to you, I shook my head. It was possible, I mused to myself, but I’d have an incredibly hard time getting people to look up to me, as young and female as I was. People looked up to Artemis because she had years of experience, and the firepower to back it up. I had neither.
At the same time, I was in this class because I knew jack shit about leadership, and they were going to teach me all about it. Maybe I’d be good enough at the end. Maybe they wanted to give me a good foundation, for years down the road.
I mentally shrugged, and redoubled my efforts. Everything I did here would reflect on Julius, on Artemis, on Arthur. I’d do them proud.
Especially since it seemed like one of my classes was with Arthur.
Dinner was bliss, and then I was off to Mage Training, a two-on-one class with an instructor. There was one other fire mage Trainee at Academy, although what I gathered, he had Fire and Earth, and was aiming to merge them into being a Lava mage. Ambitious, trying to merge at 256, but he’d be massively rewarded if he pulled it off.
“Fire. Fire is a wonderful thing. There are eight disciplines of fire.” The Instructor started off by saying, as I listened with rapt attention. This Instructor was an Inferno-aligned mage, who could teach me all sorts of things that a cursory overview from Artemis and Maximus couldn’t.
“Inferno. Pure, raging flames.”
“Wildfire. The untamed fury of nature. Lava’s part of that.” He looked significantly at the other mage with us.
“Hearth. The warmth of the fireside.”
“Forge. The fires of creation, and invention.”
“Candle. The light of the way.”
“Pyromancer. I don’t think I need to teach you anything on that one.” He said, looking at me significantly.
“Berserker. The mental aspect to it, throwing all away for power now.”
“Beast-flames. The ferocious aspect that monsters can tap into.”
[*ding!* Congratulations! [Pyromancer] has leveled up to level 64! +5 Free Stats, +14 Mana, +8 Mana Regen, +14 Magic power, +8 Magic Control from your Class! +1 Free Stat for being Human! +1 Strength from your Element!]
I sat up straighter at that. What was that, 50 words, and I’d gotten a whole level out of it? This Instructor knew his stuff!
“You probably already know this, but your element is likely to evolve into one of the eight advanced Fire elements. Inferno, Steam, Pyronox, Radiance, Ash, Lava, or Storm. Nature was telling me that Fire plus Metal can be a magic metal of sorts, but given the extraordinary rarity of it, I wouldn’t hold my breath.”
“Storm is also unlikely. It’s solid for warriors, rangers, weather-sensors, and a dozen other professions, but for mages like us, it’s unlikely. Rather, not unlikely, so much as incredibly impractical. There’s not much you can do as a Storm mage, the sheer scale of what you need to impact is far beyond what a human can manage. Hasn’t stopped the occasional idiot from taking it, and almost entirely crippling themselves.”
He paused, looking at me.
“Listen. If you ever get the urge to take Storm, please, I beg you, think four, five times about it. It’s a mistake. Don’t do it.”
I nodded slowly. Listen to the ridiculously experienced Inferno mage, who can make you level up just by talking.
“Right, enough talk. Best way to level up as a Fire mage? Burn stuff down. Monsters preferred, and while I don’t have any right now, some should start to come in soon, unless we make a trip to the colosseum. Which will happen as a group somewhat frequently. For now, let us begin. I’d like to see your flames.”
I showed him, and my training began.
“Survival! Evasion! Resistance! Escape! This is the unfortunate training needed when, not if, you find yourself against more people than you can handle! This is the training needed when you need to single-handedly put down an entire rebellion, when the 3rd is occupied or unable to reach you!”
“You will be taught survival skills. Hit and run tactics. How to evade capture. Identify and take out targets. Resist torture and interrogation, how to make it worthless. How to escape being confined, sabotage supply lines, frame rebellion leaders, poison wells, and more!” Quintis yelled at us.
This was again one of those classes everyone had.
And this time, most of the Sentinels were present.
My ears had perked up at “escape being confined”, and I’d gone from ambivalent on the class, to wanting to be the best at it.
Well, the best at escaping.
“This is easily your most important class, and the one we weigh the most heavily when determining your final ranking, and as a result, your placement!”
Our hardest class began with Arthur – Toxic, as he should be called here – handing out a weak poison to each of us.
I grinned as I downed it, activating [Phases of the Moon]. No poison for me!
I looked around. The moons had risen, and this seemed like a good chance for [Moonlight]…. Although they didn’t want to be healed, they needed the training.
I’d get to heal them at the end of class, and get some experience then.
SERE training was off to a bang.
“Toxic.” I formally saluted to Arthur. “Ranger Elaine, reporting as ordered.”
“Elaine! Sit!” Arthur said, grinning at me. “I’m glad I managed to snag you.”
Wait. Waaaait a minute. This didn’t sound like training. This sounded like-
“Let’s start with The Iliad!” Arthur said with a mad grin.
I cursed to myself. Arthur didn’t want to teach me stuff, he wanted a bard!
Arthur seemed to sense my mental eyerolling, and with a perfectly straight face, said. “It’s for leveling up your [Recollection of a Distant Life] skill.”
Ah well. The big scary Sentinel wanted a song, he’d get a song.
“Rage! Sing Goddess….”
At the end of it, I got thunderous applause, and I sensed – I wasn’t checking, not until the end of the day – that I’d just gotten some significant [Recollection of a Distant Life] levels.
Night. Sky. Bulwark. Ocean. Hunting.
Five Sentinels emerged from the shadows, and I saw a few more instructors beside. I tilted my head in confusion.
“What? Everyone else is done, we’re here for the show!” Sky said, pumping his fist with enthusiasm.
“Politely, we’re here to see what else you know, what else you can teach us. Maximus did his best, but he had a one-track mind. I also have a one-track mind, and I’m quite frankly not smart enough to figure out as much as I can from you.” Arthur admitted, leaning in towards me.
“Let me start with a question I was too embarrassed to ask before. When I killed that Sea Serpent, I used almost all my poison stock. I kept getting notifications on smaller creatures killed for a week after. Obviously, they ate the Sea Serpent, but that got me thinking. There has to be more to that, right? There’s some greater concept at work?”
“You mean a food chain, or a food web?” I said, surprised.
Arthur snapped his fingers at me.
“Yes! That’s a great word for it. Tell me more.”
“Please Ranger Elaine.” Night said, eyes gleaming at me. “I implore you… tell us everything.”
I looked around, at a number of Sentinels, the peak of humanity, looking at me hungrily. I imagined their fingers twitching, ready to split me apart to find out all my secrets. The cruel moons shined down on me, unblinking, laughing at my plight. I gulped. Priest Demos had been a cakewalk compared to this.
I mentally revised Toxic’s class to be the hardest one.
“Let us walk.” Night invited me once I was done answering their questions for the past hour.
“You have been busy.” Night said, stating the obvious. “However, I wish to ask, have you had time to meditate on the inquiry I gave to you the prior time we met?”
“Uh…” I was drawing a blank.
“No matter. Permit me to refresh your memory. If you had to slay one to permit two to live, could you do it? Three? Four? At what point can you bring yourself to commit murder, for the greater good?”
Ah, that question.
“My answer – to become strong enough that I don’t need to answer.” I said.
Night stared at me, crimson eyes boring into me.
“A poor answer.” He softly said. “But an answer none the less. Let us bring you to that state of being together. I have some ideas on that subject.”
We walked a few moments, lost in thought. This seemed to be Night’s methodology – a few sentences, contemplative silence as we digested what the other had just said.
It was driving me nutty. If it wasn’t for a large, healthy dose of fear I felt towards Night, I’d be antsy and agitated.
I didn’t dare near Night. I was too scared. In that sense, he was perfect for fixing my inattention and hyperactivity.
“Tell me about your general skills. You had a slot open, last I knew.”
“I got [Training].” I promptly said. “1.5% experience boost per level while, well, here.”
We walked slowly, a few more steps around the island.
“A fine skill.” He said softly. “But we shall replace it shortly before leaving. It is an interesting balancing act. As you keep it, every other skill rises. But if you replace it too late, whatever skill you get after will be weak and infirm, unable to pull its weight. Tricky, tricky…” He muttered to himself.
More silent, contemplative steps.
“Has any other of your general skills come under contemplation for replacement?” Night asked me.
“[Recollection].” I finally said.
Night shook his head.
“The skill is new to me. But from tonight alone, do you not see how useful, how powerful, the skill is? You had the undivided attention of the most powerful forces Remus had to offer.”
“And you will continue to have that attention. Already Toxic is planning new, better ways to use his poison to kill monsters that plague us. Instead of trying a single, massive dose, as is his wont, he shall try poisoning dozens of smaller animals, prey to the monster he wishes to slay. There is more in your mind, more you know. I suspect, it forms a strong part of your core, of who and what you are.”
My thought process when I was with Papilion came back to me. I’m only dead, when people have forgotten me. If I removed that anchor, was the old me dead? Would the memories fade?
Should they fade? Should I permit them to go away? Should the me from before be allowed rest? What was a person? When did the past you die, and the new you take over?
Was it every day? Never? Did it take a lifetime?
I see why Night was in the habit of taking time between each sentence, each statement.
“Questions for another night, I believe.” He said softly. “Meditate upon your skills, your stats. Who you are. What you are. Tonight, however, we shall work on a different skill, polish you until you shine like the gemstone you can be.”
“We shall teach you how to dance.”
I blinked owlishly at him. What?