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I was unceremoniously dumped in a safe room, plopped onto the floor like a bag of grain. With about as much care as throwing one of those around to boot. The rest of my blood-smeared escort rushed in, throwing up barriers against every surface, layering them on top of each other.

 

“Thisar! Befak! I want stone, water, stone! Gaimo! Khit! Layer your barriers after.” Urik was barking orders out, the guards securing the room in a well-practiced manner. I started to crawl to my knees to get up, but the guards had other plans.

 

“Jump in 2, 1, JUMP!” One of the guards yelled. I was rudely yanked off the floor, and everyone made a little hop as layers of stone and water appeared on the ground. We landed, and I was dumped back on the floor.

 

All this happened at a speed that’d be blinding to most experienced soldiers from Remus, as everyone made full use of their speed stat, along with any other buffs and skills they had.

 

Getting constantly dropped on the floor was getting obnoxious. I was betting that they practiced with bags of grain as the “VIP”, and just kept the same ideas. Well-drilled, but hadn’t done this much in practice.

 

Then again, if the VIP was banged up but alive? They’d done their jobs.

 

I felt it was overkill, but hey. The orcs had just demonstrated that they could, and would, snipe me with lethal force.

 

If [Mantle] hadn’t been instantaneous, I never would’ve gotten a shield in place. At the same time, the attack was obviously powerful enough that it punched right through my shield. Given the level of the orc commandos, it wouldn’t surprise me if my shield did jack shit.

 

It didn’t look like I was going to get thrown around anytime soon, so I picked myself back up off the ground.

 

Mmm. Thinking about the attack - it had spat out stone shards every which way, turning me into a one-woman gore-and-stone firework. I should check if anyone needed healing.

I glanced at my own mana. I’d lost roughly 38k mana on the attack. Lethal for many healers, but I wasn’t the average healer.

 

Actually. If Ned was a typical example, he might have survived it with a strong knowledge of anatomy. Keep the circulatory system healed and running, maintain blood pressure to the head, and the rest would’ve taken too long to finish killing him. If his image was almost perfectly efficient, at 4k magic power, it would’ve taken seven seconds for him to heal back from that.

 

Yeah, a perfect image, cool head, and combat-honed reflexes could’ve saved him. Then again, I could count the number of healers I knew who had combat reflexes on one hand. We were a rare breed, since our healing lowered our ability to fight, and not many people wanted to be in the front anyways. Even a fraction of hesitation would be enough for the attack to be lethal against a normal healer. Not having [Bullet Time] or [Persistent Casting] would’ve killed me.

 

Like. For Ned to survive the attack, he’d need an instant, perfect image of the circulatory system, know that it was exactly what was needed to be fixed and maintained for him to buy more time, then properly rebuild his organs in the correct order to maintain homeostasis. From what I’d seen, the dwarves just flat-out didn’t have that knowledge.

 

Yeah, I was mentally revising my estimate. That was a lethal attack, even for healers like Ned - and much more powerful healers to boot.

 

I shook my head and brought myself back to the present, the here and now.

 

“Healing! Everyone ok? Any injuries?” I called out, yelling in the tiny room to try and get myself heard over the din. A few guards glanced at me, then Urik pushed himself forward.

 

“Elaine! You’re alive.” He said, patting my sides with his hands, seemingly checking that, yes, I was there, alive, and in one piece. A bit over-familiar though.

 

“Yes.” I stated the obvious. “Look, that attack went everywhere. Can I check that everyone’s ok?” I said.

 

Urik took a look around the room, seeing the frantic motions had come to an end before nodding.

 

“Injuries! Anyone injured see Elaine!” He bellowed into the tiny air-tight room.

 

A bunch of shuffling around later, and three guards with moderate holes in their arms and legs got patched up.

 

“What happens now?” I asked Urik, as we seemingly were just hanging out in this sealed and shielded room. Staying put felt wrong. Movement was life. I was getting weird looks again.

 

“We stay here while other teams try to track down the orcs.” Urik said. “They’ll give us an all-clear, or if we’ve been in long enough, we leave ourselves. Generally don’t like doing the last one, but it’s my call how flexible I want to be.”

 

Seemed like a reasonable, if aggravating, policy. Urik was studiously keeping his eyes on my face, which prompted me to look down.

 

Of all the - fuck.

 

I’d been wearing my much-abused laminar vest over the dwarf clothing I’d been given, as an added layer of protection. It also held almost all of my Arcanite. The rest of my gear was a mismatched set of Sentinel gear that’d survived - like my right vambrace, having my utility gems.

 

Anyways. The orc commando’s attack had completely and utterly ruined my chestpiece beyond reasonable repair. Rather, “repairing” it would look like “Welp, time to melt it all down and rebuild it”, it was in that many pieces.

 

Worst of all, I didn’t think either [Mantle] or the armor had particularly helped. They just made a mess.

 

I gingerly pinched a bloody piece of my armor that was hanging on by a thread. I plucked it off, and held it in front of Urik.

 

“Think I can get a new set of armor? Please?” I asked him.

 

He eyed the swaying piece of metal in my fingers.

 

“Aye, I think we can swing that. Can’t think Korun or Glora will say no. Unless it’s too expensive. You’ve been coming in nicely under budget so far though.”

 

Once some of the initial tension had left the guards, a few of them relaxed, and started to mill about. We could only stay in “THEY’RE TRYING TO KILL US!” mode for so long.

 

“That was amazing.” One of the wider guards said, clasping my shoulder in his hand. “I’ve seen the end result of that skill before. Still keeps me up at night.”

 

He forcefully patted my shoulder a few more times, checking that, yes, I was still there, alive, and whole.

 

“This is going to be worse than sniffler crap to clean off.” A well-sprayed dwarf was complaining.

“You think you’ve got it bad?” I bantered back, peeling off another barely-hanging on piece of former shirt, and waving it in her face.

 

She looked at me.

 

“Heck yes! You’re just going to throw that away. I’ve got hours of washing ahead of me!”

 

That got a few chuckles - myself included - and helped break the tension. Soon we were chatting, with Urik half looking like he wanted to tear his beard out at how lax we were all becoming, and half looking like he wanted to join in himself.

 

I didn’t mind that the guards, charged with protecting my life, were cracking jokes and slacking off on the job. The orcs had taken their shot and, well, technically hit, and I needed a breather for just how damn close I’d come to dying just then.

 

My shield and armor had been worthless. Only my strong self-casting on [Dance with the Heavens] had kept me alive.

 

I was fast. Between my stats and [Bullet Time], I had near-instantaneous reflexes. That attack, the corkscrewing bouncing around inside of me, had almost done me in. A normal healer wouldn’t have had the magic power to keep up with the damage being inflicted. A healer used to peace, or at least clean tents and not the life and death fights I kept finding myself in, wouldn’t have had the skills to be constantly self-healing. There just wouldn’t have been a point. The stones would’ve destroyed enough of my circulatory system to drop my blood pressure to zero, which generally resulted in passing out.

 

At which point, it wouldn’t matter what my stats were, if I wasn’t awake enough to use them. A nasty, clever trick.

 

Ah well! I was alive, they’d failed, and hopefully their logic would be “too tough a target, hit something softer.”

 

HA! Like I had that type of luck.

 

No, with my luck I was now top of their hit list, and they were going to try again.

 

Actually - I should check. There wasn’t anything else to do.

 

“Urik. Hey Urik!” I called out, waving my hand to catch his attention.

 

“Yes?” He asked, shoving his way through the guards.

 

“That didn’t seem to be a whole building that collapsed on my head.” I observed, stating the obvious.

 

He gave me a curt nod.

 

“Looks like an attack of opportunity to me. One shot from a distance? They were trying to pick you off.” Urik analyzed.

 

“Think they’ll be back?” I asked him.

 

He shrugged.

 

“I’ve got no idea.”

 

Waiting in the stuffy room was a chore and a half, but eventually we were told it was all-clear. Urik and some other important-looking dwarves got together for a conversation in hushed, serious tones, before he strode back over to me.

 

“Right. Our [Intelligence Analyst]s think they’ll try again. Do you mind bunkering down in your apartment while this blows over?”

 

I shook my head.

 

“Not at all.”

 

My cage was getting smaller, but I didn’t care. A cage was a cage, and the size of the cage didn’t matter to me. There was good reason to shrink on me. Heck, I might’ve suggested hunkering down in my apartment myself!

 

However, it also dramatically moved up my timeline in a way I found entirely unappealing. The orc commandos had been putting pressure on me to move. I’d previously been hoping to skate by before I managed to catch their attention, but I’d pushed it too far. I’d been moving too slowly, too cautiously, and nearly paid the ultimate price.

 

Escape time was now, nevermind missing part of my needs list. I was going to seize this moment to grab the dwarves by their thick beards, and shake them until loot came out.

 

“However, can I meet with Korun quickly?” I asked. “I’ve got a request or two, that I think will make me safer.”

 

“Aye. Let’s go!” Urik ordered, and I was shuffled off through a series of tight tunnels that I hadn’t seen before. They were making me claustrophobic - and giving me ideas.

At the same time, I had a massive barrier to escape. The entire city was on the lookout for hidden, high-level classers. I wanted to be hidden, and I would be relying on gems to pull it off my escape.

 

We made it to Korun’s office, where the dwarf was busy turning himself into a snowman - errr, paper-dwarf.

 

“Elaine!” He said, nimbly leaping over his desk, paper flurrying predictably in his wake.

 

“I’m so glad you’re ok! Um. Mostly. Here, just…” He said, grabbing my arms, picking me up, and moving me over a hair before putting me down again.

 

I glanced at the floor.

 

Well, I guess the papers here were slightly less important, and I could drip some blood on them. I wasn’t bleeding, but my clothes had gotten saturated.

 

“I apologize again for our lacking security. Your safety is our…”

 

Korun went back to the desk, and shuffled some papers around, his mouth moving silently as he counted.

 

“45th priority!”

 

Well then. At least he was honest about it.

 

“Fear not! We’re going to up your security by…”

 

More papers. This one needed a lot of papers and cross-checking, along with a whole new document.

 

“One team! I’ll reassign Thoren and his squad to help you.”

 

Urik coughed awkwardly.

 

“With all due respect, commander, Thoren’s already assigned to Elaine’s guard duty.”

 

“Oh.” Korun looked nonplussed at the revelation, checking another piece of paper. He scribbled something out, and wrote in a new note.

 

“We need to up security in here. Darn orcs are changing my notes.” He said.

 

We all managed to keep a straight face at that one.

 

“I have a few thoughts for improving my security.” I was tempted to move around a bit, to see if dripping blood all over Korun’s office would motivate him to say yes just to get me out - but it might backfire. If I was any good at social stuff I’d know the right answer. For now, I wasn’t going to be rude.

 

“Speak. I’ll try to make it happen.” Korun said, sitting back down at his deck and reorganizing his papers in a futile fight against his own search system of “throw them all everywhere”.

 

“New armor.” I said. “I have a preference for light-”

 

Korun held up his hand.

 

“I’ll get you in touch with the right smith. You can tell him the details.”

 

“I want it to be a rush job.” I emphasized. “I almost died just now, and that was against the best armor humanity had to offer. I can imagine how bad it would be if I was entirely unarmed.”

 

Ahhh. Telling only the truth, and still twisting it. Yes, this was the best armor humanity had. Yes, I could imagine how bad it’d be.

 

The exact same. The attack had gone through the armor like paper. Heck, a few shards had even tried to embed themselves into my back. It’d been worse than useless, it’d turned into pure shrapnel.

 

“I also have three gemstones that need skills.” I tapped my vambrace, where they lived. “A strong Metal, Brilliance, and Gravity skill.”

 

Korun glanced at Urik.

 

“Can your squad handle that?” He asked.

 

Urik nodded.

 

“We’ve got all three. I think. Can never remember if she’s got Mantle or Metal though.”

 

“Excellent. Anything else?” Korun said. We shook our heads.

 

“Dismissed.”

 


 

It took the worst three days of my life for my armor to get made - and that was it being a top-priority rush-order. Something about bureaucracy, and acquiring suitable materials.

 

I wanted to complain, especially because my request to get books got lost somewhere in the shuffle. It wasn’t denied, but it wasn’t a priority, and I bet it was on a piece of paper stuck in a crack in Korun’s office.

 

End result - I was bored out of my skull for two of the three days. I’d gotten into another healing session, which had pushed [The Dawn Sentinel] up.

 

However, word finally came that my armor was ready, and for some reason Korun wanted to meet me again in his office.

 

Given that I was living with 12 other dwarves in a one person luxury suite, I had no privacy, and no chance to even think about escaping. Hence, upon hearing that we were going for an outing, I made sure I had everything ready. Fortune favors the prepared after all.

 

I bundled myself up in my warm clothes, which didn’t get a second eye batted at. Nor was pinning my Sentinel badge to my clothing, sliding on my one remaining vambrace, or grabbing the water bottle.

 

I always wore the pendant mom got me for System Day, all the way back then. She’d said it was lucky, and while I was slightly skeptical of the notion, I was alive, high level, and relatively happy and healthy. I wasn’t going to jinx it.

 

I’d been able to get the guards to donate skills for my gems, and someone had rustled up a quarter of their clan’s Moonstones that I charged with [Dance with the Heavens]. Mutual back-scratching for the win!

 

I had [Reversal] replacing [Feather Fall], allowing me to briefly change the direction gravity pulled on someone. It wasn’t super strong, since the gemstone for [Feather Fall] hadn’t been that large to begin with. [Repair Armor] replaced my [Summon Knife] skill, and one of the dwarves swore by [Brilliant Barricade], which shot bars of Brilliance across a narrow gap, not letting anyone through.

 

I did get a half-raised eyebrow from one of the guards when I grabbed my backpack full of snacks.

 

“What?” I asked her. “If we end up in the safehouse again, I want some snacks. It’s boring in there!”

 

She laughed, and patted my back with enough force to explode the air out of my lungs.

 

“Ain’t that the truth!” She crowed.

 

“I brought extra just for you.” I winked.

 

That was almost the sum total of all my possessions.

 

We left to meet Korun, a vision of escape percolating in my mind.

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Selkie

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