Spring of the first year of Ranger Academy.
Well, technically, the year rolled over on the winter solstice, so it was more like the second year, but, well, either way, nine months after the Academy started.
The lesson plan I’d been given was - more or less - daily. Occasionally, Sky would be substituted by another Instructor as he went off on some mission, or Bluebeard – Hunting – would be gone for weeks at a time as he handled some problem.
Other times, like today, we were on a field trip, designed to give us practical experience in real situations. Goblin encampments were the favorite, the creatures seemingly inexhaustible. Usually quite a bit bigger than the 11 I’d be asked to tackle, which made me wonder if Arthur had whittled them down to size before sending me in. Wilderness survival trips were a close second, and arena fights against monsters third.
I went over my armor again, making subtle adjustments to it. This wasn’t Maximus’s beauty that he’d carefully crafted for me, no. That was somewhere in the Ranger’s armory, but it was off-limits to me. Something about ‘learning how to use standard armor’ and ‘it won’t always be a skin-tight fit.’
I stumbled and nearly fell as a particularly large wave rocked the frigate we were on, chuckles coming from the rest of the team. I flipped them off good-naturedly – they all had Sailing as a lesson, and had solid sea legs.
I checked the last few clasps on my vambraces – they were tight, and my armor was on me securely. The only concession to non-standard armor I had was a large quantity of Arcanite woven into the laminar vest I was wearing, with the idea being that I’d only pull the mana in case of emergency, to save someone else. It’d be a fail if I pulled it for non-critical reasons, but I had a bunch of leeway. Alive and failed was much better than dead.
I looked around at the team – my team – as we headed away from the island where Ranger Academy was, back to the capital.
Wolfy, with MoonMoon.
Oozy, with his explosive arrows. We weren’t going near him, or to be accurate, we weren’t going near his quiver, even MoonMoon was staying far away. He wasn’t offended – he just laughed, pleased that we considered him dangerous enough to avoid.
Barrier was around, pacing nervously. He’d gotten better, both with his barrier usage, and with flying. Still didn’t have a flying skill though, although he seemed to think he was close.
It felt like someone had acquired a cloning vat, or was some sort of [Master Cloning Biologist] or something, and pumped out dozens of the Artillery Mages. I knew it was because there was standard training for all of them, and for the most part they took all the same skills, but it was still unnerving, only being able to tell them apart by their scars and subtle differences in their hair color.
We had Artillery C with us, as I’d mentally – and verbally – dubbed him.
Levitator was with us, and to his displeasure, he was starting to become more and more like a mage that threw things every day, instead of a clever duelist who used weapons from afar.
The first step had been the Instructors convincing him that his weapons didn’t need handles – after all, he was using Wind to guide them, he didn’t need to hold them.
Then it was that spear tips were more efficient than swords.
Then it was that using more tips, faster, was better than slowly whittling someone down.
Before Levitator had realized it, he was basically an inefficient Metal mage. He still stubbornly clung onto two shields and two swords – one for his actual hands, one for his skill-hand-thing – under the logic that he’d never run out of stuff that way.
Still, we shared a secret smile as he muttered and cursed about it.
We had Lava, who after many nights talking with Night, the Sentinel filling in all sorts of gaps in my knowledge and education, that along with his element, I figured he had some type of restriction skill. He always – no matter the situation – started off a fight slow, then after a few minutes, erupted into violent motion, overpowering whoever he was against. It was a coinflip if he’d win a three-vs-one if he managed to get to that point.
I hadn’t pushed for specifics, and he wasn’t forthcoming with them. It wasn’t critical for this mission, although if it ever was, I’d ask.
Hector was along, one of the Three Musketeers. Hey, I was biased. I liked guards – even former guards – and I’d taken the time and effort to learn his name. He had the standard set of armor and weapons every Ranger had, but kept his trusty baton, which he’d reach for first.
“Too many skills relating to it.” He’d confided in me at one point.
We had one of the nameless front-line soldiers rounding out the team. They were fairly interchangeable, none nearly as charming as Kallisto.
Instructor Jason was with us, providing a guiding hand, since he knew the who, what, where, when, how, and why. It was his job to get us to the right place, and open the right doors – namely, the Colosseum today.
“Hey Wolfy, what have you learned about today’s mission?” I asked him.
“For the thousandth time, I have a name, you know.” He said, shooting me a look.
MoonMoon both gave off a strange, barking laugh, as the white one nuzzled me, and the black on nuzzled Wolfy, clearly approving.
“Yup! Wolfy!” I cheerfully told him.
“Be glad you have a name.” Artillery Mage C said. “I’m just ‘C’.”
“Artillery Mage C!” I said, with a note of mischief in my voice.
He rolled his eyes.
“You see what I mean.”
Hector looked smug.
“Well, some people have a proper appreciation for the guard.”
Levitator smacked him with the side of his floating blade.
“What I don’t get is why there are nine of us.” Soldier said. “Squads are always eight people. Nine is just wrong. It’s unnatural.”
He… had a point.
“You haven’t noticed that Elaine’s always in a team of nine?”
“I think it’s because they want people to get used to fighting in a ‘full squad’, not with a healer at the ready.” I said.
“That makes no sense.” Oozy said. “Whatever team you’re in will be eight people, and it’s not like teams don’t have utility or support that they need to protect, and the support fights as well. Hell, you throw some mean flames around, there’s no reason the healer designation should grant you an exception.”
“We’re almost there.” Instructor Jason said.
The ship landed at the dock, sailors and dockhands expertly performing their dance.
We jumped off before everything was ready, not even getting a batted eye from the dockhands. It wasn’t every day a squad of heavily armed soldiers – or in our case, Ranger Trainees – landed, but it happened frequently enough that nobody blinked when it happened.
A quick jog through the streets, people parting for us like Moses and the Red Sea – the perks of being in full combat gear – and we were at one of the “challenger” gates to the Colosseum, instead of the “audience” gates.
Instructor Jason had a quick word with the guard.
“Right, you’re all set. Reminder, Ranger Elaine is in charge.” He said.
“Why?” Lava said. We looked at him, shocked at the audacity.
“Rank.” Instructor Jason said curtly. “Are you seriously going to argue this now? Questioning command right before a mission, a fight?”
Lava muttered something, but shook his head.
“Go get ‘em.”
We jogged through the twisting hallways in formation. There’d been an… incident… the first time I’d come here, where I healed most of the gladiators I’d bumped into. Which had caused a ripple effect of pissed and happy people, and, well, the less said about That Incident the better. Ever since then, our route had been clear every time I’d gone through.
We made it to the gates, a pair of air-lock like gates, such that when they opened, nothing from the arena could escape.
“Wolfy. Got anything about today’s mission?” I asked him again, now that we finally had a moment. He was good at sniffing out information he had no right to have, to the tacit approval of the Instructors. Now, if he ever got caught somewhere he shouldn’t be, that’d be a different story.
“No large rebellions caught, no army squads arrested and sentenced, and no famous criminals.” He quickly recited. “A few adventurer teams have returned in the past few weeks, including two famous hunter groups. They don’t send gladiators against Trainees – bad for everyone, there must always be a designated winner. My bet is we’re fighting monsters.”
“Do that. Soldier, Lava, Hector – you’re our frontline. Levitator, Wolfy – you’re protecting Artillery C and Oozy. Barrier, I want your back to the wall so you can focus on funneling, and throw up any shields as needed. I’m going to be next to you, and I have shit secondary barriers, and jump in as needed to heal. There are no moons, so I’m touch-only. Wolfy, I leave MoonMoon to you – you know what to do with them better than me, and I can’t heal them nearly as well. Keep them alive, I can’t do much for animals. Understood?”
“Sir, yes sir!” They said, saluting me.
It gave me a little thrill that ran through my body at that.
We paused a moment, and seeing his moment, C spoke up.
“It’s Artillery Mage C, thank you very much.”
We laughed at that, as the heavy metal grate was lifted up. We walked out, to the roar of the crowd, an [Announcer] with a Sound-class doing his thing.
“Froooooooooom the North Gate! Future protectors and guardians of Remus! We give you - A Ranger Trainee Team!”
We got a moderate, but not thunderous applause from the crowd. We weren’t Rangers, and quite frankly, we were C-list entertainment. A warm-up for whatever today’s main event was. A full Ranger squad might be B-list, while the best [Gladiator]s were A-list.
Or a Sentinel. Brawling was a fan of showing up when he was bored, and regularly threw wrecking balls through the schedule. Given his fame and popularity, the organizers were happy to accommodate him.
I just hoped he wouldn’t be our opponent today. That would suck. We’d get the shit beaten out of us for as long as it was funny. The rumor mill had it, eight problematic Trainees were put in a squad once, and Brawling had given them all an extensive ‘lesson’ in front of the crowd. We didn’t think we’d all screwed up that badly, but hey, the Instructors worked in mysterious ways sometimes.
We quickly got into formation, Barrier snapping up tall panes of Brilliance around us, leaving a small entrance to funnel whatever monster was coming at us to the frontline, keeping whatever was coming from the more fragile – and deadly – backline.
“Froooooooooooom the South Gate! The most vicious dinosaur living in Pallos! With teeth the size of swords, a tail that can break bones, and a jaw that can shatter stone! Victor of seven fights, Albius, the Abelisaurus!”
We all cursed, in various interesting ways.
“I can’t hold that!” Barrier screamed in terror.
I punched his arm, not being tall enough to cuff him properly.
“Then don’t! Barrier down, everyone scatter, hit-and-run! Sacrifice a limb if needed to stay alive, I’m here, I can save almost anything!”
The barrier went down, and we scattered, as Albius charged into the arena, coated in vines squirming all along its body.
“Caster Monster!” We called out.
Every living being had a Class, and an Element. Some dinosaurs were locked to one, or a derivative – most fliers were Wind or Wind-adjacent, for example.
Usually, it just reflected what type of skills they’d have – for example, fliers had flying-related skills, weight and endurance and speed.
Rarely, like MoonMoon, like Albius, the monster would get skills that would physically manifest, or that they could cast. In this case, this seemed to be Wood-aligned, with vines snaking along its body. We didn’t know what they could do yet, but it couldn’t be anything good.
Not with seven wins under its belt.
“Who was supposed to lose this one!?” Soldier screamed out as we scattered.
Light Moon ran to the middle of the area, barking fiercely at Albius, while Dark Moon slunk into the shadows cast by the walls and the sun, moving to flank. Light Moon started to flash bright light at Albius’s eyes, aiming to blind and disorient him. I briefly considered trying to blind with [Veil], but ditched the idea – he was moving too fast, and having [Veil] shatter was a good way to blow through mana.
C took a few exploratory shots, only for the thick vines to absorb the hits.
“I need an opening!” He yelled.
“Conserve and save until then!” I yelled back.
Right, C was set.
Oozy fired an arrow, deadly black mist exploding over Albius’s face. The dinosaur just roared, fear striking my heart, and continued charging with no regard for what happened.
Our three frontliners scattered, splitting apart, stabbing from the flanks, cutting into the vines. Lava’s head snapped back as one of the vines “punched” him back.
Dark Moon appeared, swiping at the leg, Darkness punching through the vines, a light scoring appearing on the leg.
I hesitated. Just a moment, as I thought and processed what was going on.
Fine. Today was our lucky day, and I seemed to be a perfect counter to the wrecking machine pitted against us.
[Rapidash] twice to get me to the side of Albius, then I unleashed everything I had, going for a “wide” application of fire, trying to set as many vines as I could on fire, to burn away his defenses.
I was too close. It was too risky.
A sickening crunch and crack went through my body, and I found myself hitting one of Barrier’s panes of Brilliance, my arms and legs not responding to my commands as I slumped down to the floor of the Arena like a sack of potatoes.
The announcer roared something, and the crowd was going wild. I couldn’t hear them, nor could I see, as my helmet was twisted around, blocking my vision, a distant ringing in my ears as I started to pulse [Phases of the Moon] through me, not even bothering to do a full diagnostic first.
The heal would be horribly inefficient, but given that I think I’d broken my neck, I wasn’t going to complain too much. Living was a priority right now, and it wasn’t a sure thing.
Feeling my body restitch itself, a sudden, well, enlightenment as I could feel my arms and legs again, the disconcerting sensation as the bones forced themselves into alignment, causing my body to flop around as they pushed against the ground to make it work.
I felt the healing stop, my body finished repairing, my helmet still over my face. I experimentally twitched a limb or two, only to feel myself get picked up and flung.
With a small burst of flames, I burned away the leather strap holding my helmet on, letting it fly off while I was still in the air. I got a glimpse of Albius’s foot having landed right where I had just been, Lava saving my life by throwing me out of the way, risking his own in the process.
Burnt and smoldering vines covered Albius, where previously they had formed an impenetrable armor. Deep gouges scored its side, and blades danced around it.
This wasn’t going well. I got up, and started calling out orders.
“Levitator! Oozy! Aim for the eyes! Blind it! Kill its sense of smell! Barrier, shield! Everyone who can, hit the right leg!” I called out, seeing that trying to directly kill the dinosaur wasn’t working.
A focused effort on the leg finally bore fruit, as after a few blows, we cut a tendon, and the leg was dragging, the dinosaur no longer charging around. A spurt of blood came from the dinosaur’s face.
“Everyone back!” I called out.
We regrouped on the other side of the area from the enraged, crippled dinosaur. I put hands on each teammate as they made it over, making sure they were full healed. I checked my mana.
About 4,000 left. Screw this, I’d take a fail if it came to it.
I breathed in, feeling the mana from the Arcanite in my armor flowing into me.
“Right, it’s currently crippled and enraged. The crowd’s going to hate us for this, but they’re not the ones down here. Oozy, Levitator, Artillery C, you’re going to hit it from a distance until it’s dead. I blew through most of my mana, and I’m running on the emergency reserves. I’d got a bit if needed, but let’s not trigger a fail.”
“I’m just going to move in, stab it with my spear.” Lava said.
“No. Stay back, it’s not worth it.”
He sneered at me.
“I listened to you at first, but if you think you can steal the kill just because you’re sleeping with the Sentinels, you have ano-“
“Stand down.” Soldier barked at him. “Ranger Elaine is in charge, and regardless of how little you like it, her orders are law.”
I gave him a level look, fighting down frustration and anger that was bubbling up.
He did just save my life, risking his own in the process, and was only bringing this up now, when we were relatively safe. It didn’t excuse it, but it was… mitigating.
“If you believe you’ve been unfairly robbed, bring it up with Senior Drill Instructor Quintis. That dinosaur is capable of performing lethal blows that I can not save you from. My primary goal is to keep everyone alive. My secondary goal is a success on the mission.”
Argh. I wish I had more to say, more elegant words. Words that would flow like honey, convince and persuade people to my way of thinking, so they could just understand.
Whatever. I’d settle for obedience for now.
I stoically turned my back on our frontline, now our backline, as C, Oozy, and Levitator performed their bloody work. I tuned out the boos from the crowd.
Wolfy tapped my shoulder.
“They want you to call it off, let the dinosaur live another day.”
I glanced at him. I glanced at Lava. This would mollify his complaint, and he was the best man for the job.
“Lava. One spear, thrown through the head. Try to finish it fast before they stop us.”
A mad grin came over his face, and throwing his spear like a javelin, impaled Albius through the head. It worked due to him explosively erupting, like his element and nickname implied, and the rest of them having worked through the dinosaur somewhat. Lava was just the final blow.
A dismayed cry came up from the crowd, and some old produce was thrown our way. I didn’t care, [Veil] deflecting some, Barrier getting the rest with his shields.
[*Ding!* Your Party has slain an [Abelisaurus] (Wood, lv 333)]
We beat a hasty retreat out the North gate, the crowd clearly in no mood to be celebratory with us.
“Thoughts?” I asked, as we navigated our way out of the arena.
“It was a setup, a test, or a mistake.” Hector immediately replied. “That was far higher level, and more difficult, than it should be, and we ran a strong risk of dying. Additionally, that dinosaur was clearly a favorite. We don’t get fed the favorites to kill and level off of.”
He paused a moment, thinking.
“Does anyone here have some political connections they haven’t mentioned? Anyone a Senator’s kid or something? General’s son?”
We shook our heads. He shrugged.
“Probably a mistake then.”
We got back on the boat to the island, and I decided to check my level up notifications.
[*Ding!* Congratulations! [Constellation of the Healer] has leveled up to level 198! +10 Free Stats, +15 Mana, +15 Mana Regen, +15 Magic power, +15 Magic Control from your Class! +1 Free Stat for being Human! +1 Mana, +1 Mana Regen from your Element!]
[*Ding!* Congratulations! [Pyromancer] has leveled up to level 99! +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!]
[*Ding!* Congratulations! [Pyromancer] has leveled up to level 100! +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!]
[*Ding!* Congratulations! [Celestial Affinity] has reached level 198!]
[*Ding!* Congratulations! [Center of the Galaxy] has reached level 198!]
[*Ding!* Congratulations! [Phases of the Moon] has reached level 198!]
[*Ding!* Congratulations! [Veil of the Aurora] has reached level 198!]
[*Ding!* Congratulations! [Training] has reached level 151!]
[*Ding!* Congratulations! [Learning] has reached level 198!]
[*Ding!* For reaching level 100, you’ve unlocked the Class Skill [Fireball]!]
I pumped my arms, immediately replacing that skill with [Fireball].
When Night had found out I’d unlocked [Dragon’s Breath] at level 80 – which I told him via pantomime, the most amusing way of communicating a new skill – he’d hissed at me, and forbade me from ever using the skill. “The risk is not worth the rewards. If you decide to persist, to use the skill, I will slay you where you stand.” He said, and I’d sadly watched my level 80 skill stay at level 1 forever.
I suppose I unlocked it by constantly breathing out flames, one part a memory from how well it worked against the goblins, three parts from seeing how successful Spitter was spraying acid out of his mouth in duels, and simply imagining dragons breathing fire.
But now – now it was all worth it. Every insult, all the pain, almost dying today.
I had [Fireball].
With a whoop of glee, I ran to the back of the boat, and started firing off as many [Fireballs] as I could into the Nostrum Sea.
[Mana Regen: 25604]
[Free Stats: 360]
[Mana Regeneration: 2903]
[Magic Power: 2148]
[Magic Control: 2475]
[Class 1: [Constellation of the Healer - Celestial: Lv 198]]
[Celestial Affinity: 198]
[Warmth of the Sun: 189]
[Center of the Galaxy: 198]
[Phases of the Moon: 198]
[Veil of the Aurora: 198]
[Vastness of the Stars: 138]
[Class 2: [Pyromancer - Fire: Lv 100]]
[Fire Affinity: 100]
[Fire Resistance: 100]
[Fire Conjuration: 100]
[Fire Manipulation: 100]
[Fuel for the Fire: 100]
[Burn Brightly: 100]
[Class 3: Locked]
[Recollection of a Distant Life: 144]
[Oath of Elaine to Lyra: 195]
[Ranger's Lore: 166]