Cordamo snaked through the air, the usually pristine white skin marred into a dark grey by the ash, Ash, and smoke permeating the air.
He landed heavily next to me, without his usual grace. With a thought, I healed the couatl up. I wasn’t sure if my mana flickered or not, my regeneration was that high.
Over 250 points of mana a second. I was mentally exhausted. I didn’t have the bandwidth to calculate exactly how much I had.
Wait. I could just get the System to do it for me.
263 points of mana a second.
I looked over at Cordamo. Poor snake looked exhausted. I extended an arm out to him, touching a feathery wing with a finger.
[Sunrise] failed to activate. I’d never expected to need to energize creatures that were so far from human, and the human template.
Heck, I’d expected [Sunrise] to be a temporary skill, until [The Stars Never Fade] kicked in. I hadn’t expected [Solar Infusion] to be such a dud.
“You ok?” I asked Cordamo, figuring conversation was better than wallowing in the funk I’d found myself in.
I got an exhausted hiss and a nod back.
“Shaaaaaaaaaa!” The snake reassured me.
“Heading this way?”
His head bobbed up and down.
Cordamo wasn’t the best conversationalist. Something about a lack of vocal cords. I just sat and waited for the rest of the elves.
Sometimes, doing nothing was the right thing to do.
I wasn’t sure it was the right thing here, but I was emotionally drained. Boundless energy and mana, sure. The will to apply it?
After what I’d done?
I got some thinking in.
I had two separate mindsets, which went with the ‘personas’ I used. Healer Elaine, and Sentinel Dawn.
They were remarkably similar in many ways. Both healers. Both members of Remus. Both had a family, both were me. It was a handy fiction that I flipped between, depending on what I needed or wanted to do.
I was on a Sentinel mission? I was doing something for the Rangers? Sentinel Dawn the whole way.
I wanted a quiet, relaxing afternoon? I wanted to travel from place to place without a huge fuss? Healer Elaine.
I was in no danger of dissociating or anything like that. My cognitive dissonance had finally caught up with me, and I was paying the price.
My Sentinel Dawn mindset saw what was going on in Ochi, and had no tolerance for it.
Healer Elaine saw the lives snuffed out, the damage and the loss, and was horrified. Intelligent creatures were intelligent creatures, and everyone deserved life. Sure, the shimagu were weird, but they hadn’t been asked to be born that way. They didn’t ask to need a host body to do anything. They were simply living as biology dictated they lived.
I reassured myself that at least I recognized the cognitive dissonance, and let the ideas clash, instead of trying to bury, hide, or justify what I’d done.
I kept wrestling with my actions.
I’d done the right thing.
I’d done the wrong thing.
Had there been a better option? Once in the position, was there anything else I could’ve done?
Just leaving would’ve been anathema to my Sentinel Dawn mindset.
Same with doing nothing.
Going about it half-heartedly would’ve been wrong to both mindsets, and could’ve easily gotten me killed.
I was entirely in agreement with myself that getting myself killed was wrong.
I kept wrestling with the problem.
What would Night do? Artemis?
Any other Sentinel?
Well, they’d just kill them all, host and all. Not exactly the most inspiring of examples. I was at least reassured that I’d saved the host bodies.
But… there’d be nobody dead without me.
Nobody free without me. There’d be significantly fewer people dragged to the butcher’s table and chopped up after my actions.
I was not reaching a decision or a conclusion, simply spiraling deeper and deeper into a funk. I decided to do some math instead. I realized I’d hit a milestone.
I had more than a million stat points when [Oath]’s boost was factored in. 850,000ish stat points were from [Oath]-boosted stats alone.
I was a monster.
I watched the pillars of smoke getting larger, flames starting to appear above the walls.
I was a monster.
No, I was a savior.
The two didn’t need to contradict each other. I could be both.
I brooded unhappily until the elves made it back. The three of them staggered back, arms over shoulders, supporting each other like a trio of drunks, where their unsteady gaits canceled each other out, allowing them to walk somewhat straight.
Kiyaya walked by them, dragging the Spatial Box along by a cord.
I healed them all the moment they entered the range of [Wheel of Sun and Moon].
“That was bad.” Awarthril broke the silence. I forced myself to get up, and touch her, energizing her with [Sunrise].
“Whoa! That’s the stuff! Thank you!”
Aegion threw me puppy-dog eyes, and I rolled mine. I tapped him for energy, and did the same with Serondes.
“That was exactly what I wanted to avoid.” Aegion complained, throwing himself to the ground.
“Can you shift please? I need some space.” Serondes said.
Aegion rolled over.
“I need more space.”
Cordamo angrily hissed at Serondes, who shot him a nasty look back. A wide perimeter of Lava crept around the top of the hill.
“I need this area.”
“Well-” Aegion argued back, only for Awarthril to interrupt him.
“Peace. Serondes, can’t you do half the floor now, then half later when we move over?”
Without a word, more Lava appeared, and Serondes went back to building another fort.
“What happened with the devil?” I asked.
“Threw him into the ocean, but we didn’t expect he’d be able to fish himself out. Devils just can’t. It was weird.”
“I mean, there was the shimagu.”
Awarthril had the good grace to look embarrassed. I glanced at Serondes, but his back was to us.
“I realize that now. What happened with you? Aegion mentioned you’d met up with him, then suddenly flew off. Everything alright?”
I thought about it.
Everything was not alright.
But I didn’t want to talk about it right now. Not with Awarthril and the rest.
Hated directly lying though.
“I went around, healing people. Which killed shimagu as a side effect. Ended up killing a few thousand. Why are we building a fortress here? Shouldn’t we be getting further away?”
Awarthril and Kiyaya both turned to Aegion. He shaded his eyes, looking at the city.
“No, as much as I wanted to avoid a fight, this is a good distance.”
I was slowly getting what the elves were saying. I didn’t believe it.
“Good distance for what?”
“Well, sniping at them. Spore’s great for this sort of thing, and Cordamo can see over the walls. The pterodactyls are a twist, but Serondes and Awarthril can cover me. Fortress should blunt a frontal assault.”
“We got their high-level combat mages.” Serondes chimed in. “Going directly in the city was a boon in that respect.”
With horror, I realized they meant to continue. From Aegion’s description, he was going to set up a tower here, then bombard the city with deadly, Spore-bearing arrows.
“Why?” I whispered.
Like a hypocrite. I was in no position to criticize.
Awarthril shot me a sympathetic look.
“Elaine, we came looking for shimagu. What did you think that meant? What did you think we’d do once we found them?”
I just stared at her, mouth opening and closing with words that would never come.
I had nothing.
They’d been entirely upfront that they were after shimagu. They’d explained what shimagu were.
Back then, they’d been a nebulous, unknown concept. “Bodyjackers”. Sounded terrible. I’d been all for it. I’d had no problem supporting their mission.
Now it was here. It was in front of me. What did “fighting shimagu” mean?
Well, to the elves, it meant killing every last one of them. Host included.
They didn’t have a way to separate the shimagu from the host, so they were going to kill both. What else could they do? How else could they fight the shimagu?
“Speaking of, good work!” Serondes shot me a thumbs-up. “I was able to observe the aftermath. The amount of chaos and destruction you unleashed is going to make our job that much easier!”
“You’re staying here then?” I asked the elves.
“Yes. I know we said we’d help you home, but this is too important.” Awarthril started to loot the Spatial Box, taking out bedrolls, tables, and the rest.
“I can’t stay.”
“What?” Serondes stopped, turning to look at me.
“I need to get home.”
I didn’t say I was sorry I couldn’t stay and help. I wasn’t. I was still conflicted, but it was easy to turn down “kill everyone”.
“I understand.” Awarthril’s words were made worse by her tone. Entirely sympathetic. Entirely understanding. Caring.
“You have so much empathy, Awarthril. You’re caring. How can you…”
I didn’t say it, just gestured broadly.
Awarthril gave me a sad smile.
“Do you think they want this? Do you think, given the choice, they’d be here?”
I knew we weren’t talking about the shimagu, but the hosts.
“Well, no… but what about all the people I just freed? Won’t they get caught in the crossfire?”
Awathril hesitated, an awkward look crossing her face.
Her face went though a number of looks, before settling on ‘surprised realization.’
“I’ve got it! Most of the freed hosts are going to want to escape the city. We’re making a fortress here. A beacon. Aegion’s arrows will show that we’re hostile, and anyone hostile to the shimagu is a friend of theirs. They’ll come here, and we can protect them. No chance you’ll stick around, and make sure no shimagu infiltrate…?” Awarthril asked, then snapped her fingers.
“No! Your Medical Manuscript! I bet they’ll be eager to learn healing skills and take healing classes if possible, and the Medical Manuscript gives them the knowledge needed to get the right classes and skills!”
“That should work.” Aegion thoughtfully added. “Friend of mine, Lumornor, might be interested in those Medical Manuscripts if they’re as good as Awarthril thinks they are. He dabbles with that sort of stuff.”
“Just how much larger do you want me to make this thing?” Serondes grumbled, already conjuring up lines on the ground that would mark the foundations of the expanded zone.
I still didn’t like it. I wasn’t going to stay.
I was left with an awkward situation though.
How did I leave?
I wasn’t concerned about the elves, but my old nemesis had reared its head.
I’d run away from home. I’d escape bandits and kidnappers. I’d left the Rangers on good terms to go to Ranger Academy, with a big celebration and a party. I’d left home on a mission, left Hunting under dwarven duress, then escaped from dragons and dwarves.
I’d never just been like… “bye”.
Might as well?
“Ok, well, bye I guess?”
Even as the words left my mouth I felt awkward.
Awarthril’s face fell.
“Any way to convince you to stay?”
I thought about it. Really thought about it. Serondes wandered back over.
“Not even for me?” Serondes waggled his eyebrows suggestively, which was a lot less appealing when covered in soot. He would’ve needed a bath even before suggesting anything under normal conditions.
“Well, what does that mean for us?” He asked.
“We always knew this was a fling with an expiry date, and it looks like now’s the time.”
“Not even one last romp?”
We all gave him a death glare that let him know where he could stick that suggestion. Even Cordamo hissed disapprovingly.
“How will we meet up again? I still have hopes with you and Kiyaya.” Awathril asked.
I thought about it. I still wanted to help Awarthril. In spite of recent events, I still counted her - all the elves - as friends.
“Why don’t you come to Remus once you’re done? I live in Ariminum. It’s the capital. If that doesn’t work, is there some place I can head towards in the elven lands?”
Awarthril looked thoughtful.
“That should work. Give me, say, 200 years to show up before you stop looking for me? Also, you’d be welcome at the Academy. Come on over!”
I blinked at that.
Completely different concept of time.
“Sure. How will I find the Academy?”
“Just follow the stars. When Fire is between the moons on the spring equinox, you’re in the right place.”
I had no idea how to even begin to interpret those directions.
“Ok, yeah, you’ll find me. This is goodbye I guess?”
“Won’t you stay for lunch?” Aegion asked.
My stomach rumbled, reminding me that breakfast had been ages ago, and I’d just done incredibly heavy lifting, and required a boatload of food.
“I want to, but I’m afraid of getting bogged down. I’ll take something for the road though?”
Aegion grabbed one of his barrels, and filled a set of mugs. He passed them out to each of us, then busted out some poetry.
“At least have a toast with us! To friendship! We’ve been great friends, it’s a shame to see you go, yet the days are endless and Pallos is small, we shall meet again!”
Aegion somehow managed to lift all our spirits, and turn the awkward, somewhat sad mood into a festive one. A powerful reminder that we were Immortal, and there was no way we wouldn’t see each other again. With great cheer, we crashed our mugs together, and threw back the mugs.
One swallow in, and I realized I’d made a terrible mistake. Aegion had given us one of his “specials”.
I sprayed - I hesitated to call it beer, not with how awful it was - liquid out of my mouth, aiming for Aegion. Awarthril and Serondes joined me.
“WHY!?” Awarthril screamed at him, throwing the mug at point-blank range at his curly horns. “This was supposed to be a moment. Why ruin it!?”
“I - but - I -”
I tuned Aegion out as Serondes and Awarthril lay into him, instead going over to the Spatial Box.
I grabbed the few things of mine that were still in the box, mostly the presents the gnollish chief had given me. Spare dress, neatly folded with some fun memories. A few gemstones. I was leaving the book behind.
I wasn’t going to drag the ruined remains of the dwarven armor around. I didn’t see a reason for it.
I still had the rest of the gear I’d entered the city with. I checked on my three - no, two now - most valuable items.
Still had my Sentinel badge. Still had the egg.
My hand wandered up to my neck. I was missing mom’s pendant. It felt weird without it around my neck.
I’d be seeing her soon, with any luck.
I was missing my hair, although that’d be easy to fix. First town I found, I was going to turn it upside down until I found a hairdresser.
Cordamo and Kiyaya came over. I gave Kiyaya a hug, burying my face in her short fur.
“You’re a good girl, you know that?” My voice was muffled, but she understood me. “I’m going to work hard on figuring out how to keep you around FOREVER. Ok?”
She nuzzled me with her gigantic snout. She was gentle, but I could feel the power.
Cordamo hissed at me next.
“Eh, you’re alright in the end.”
He looked vaguely offended, and poked at my egg, looking at me pleadingly.
I looked over at the elves. Awarthril and Serondes had successfully dunked Aegion into his own barrel. All I saw was a pair of thrashing legs, and way too much poison-beer being splashed around.
Yeah I was going to stay far away from that.
I looted the Spatial Box for additional rations, and since I didn’t have a good way of carrying them, I started chowing down furiously. Washed away the bad taste in my mouth.
The elves eventually stopped goofing off, and I said a final round of goodbyes.
“Awarthril. Aegion. Serondes. It’s been wonderful. I can’t wait to see you again.”
The more I thought about it, the more I liked Aegion’s words.
“We’ve been great friends, it’s a shame to see you go, yet the days are endless and Pallos is small, we shall meet again!”
Awarthril had tears in her eyes as she gave me a hug.
“Goodbye for now, Elaine.”
“Awarthril, you’ve been wonderful. I’m going to miss you.” I successfully didn’t cry.
Serondes and I did a little awkward ‘we just broke up but want to hug each other oh gods how do we do this without it being awful’ dance. We had a brief, chaste, SO AWKWARD hug, then broke apart.
“Thanks Serondes. It’s been… fun?”
Serondes winced at that, and I mentally cursed myself.
If I could see Serondes like… 2000 years after everyone else… yeah maybe it’d stop being awkward then.
“I enjoyed myself.” He eventually settled on.
Aegion came up to me, arms open for a hug. I backpedaled.
“Oh no no no. Not with you coated in that. I’ve got a long ways to go, and I am not getting coated in sticky terrible beer before I go. Noooooooooo way.”
He looked crestfallen.
“You did yourself in.” I remained firm, then softened. “Hey, save me a cup of good stuff for next time.”
He brightened up at that.
I had nothing else to say. I gathered everything up in my arms, made sure the egg was safe and warm, and took off.
“Goodbye!” I called back.
I took off, flying into the sky, following the coast eastwards. Behind me, I heard the crackling boom of Aegion’s arrows launching.
The elves wasted no time starting their siege.
A shadow passed over the sun, and I reflexively looked up. I saw the sight that nearly every being on Pallos dreaded.
A swarm of ravenous dinosaurs in the sky. Pterodactyls this time.
They were flying in tight formation, in a way no dinosaur flew.
I craned my neck, continuing to fly forwards but wanting to see what happened.
A spiked dome of Lava was covering part of the fortress, Serondes having reacted well. Arrows flew out of the dome, flying impossible distances before striking down the birds.
The elves were doing just fine.
I kept flying, keeping low to the ground, hoping that I’d escape the notice of the shimagu. One radiant butterfly, running away, or multiple hostile elves setting up camp?
They left me alone. I kept flying.
Flying over farms of grain.
I flew, keeping the ocean ever to my left. I was afraid of getting lost if I tried to cut inland. I was afraid of missing Remus civilization entirely.
Port Salona was on the ocean coast, and the person from Ochi had mentioned that he’d lived there.
I flew as farms abruptly turned to jungle, practically a solid line across the landscape.
I flew as I crossed the line, feeling sick and miserable as I did so. I’d officially entered the deadzone.
I kept flying as day turned to night, slowly adjusting to eat my travel rations.
I flew as the moons rose, bright and large, a pair of crimson eyes watching my journey.
I flew and I flew, through a howling storm that soaked me through, that tried to blow me off-course during the night. I fought back, pushing through the warm rain and buffeting winds, opening my mouth to grab a quick drink.
I flew as the moons set, as the storm broke, the sun ending the long night.
It felt terrible.
It felt like home.
I flew through the hot rays of the tropical sun beating down on me.
[Sunrise] kept me energized, while [Scintillating Ascent] kept me going.
I didn’t fly too high, or too low. I didn’t fly over the deeper waters, nor did I tempt whatever monsters lived in the jungle, who’d pushed back civilization from encroaching upon them so far.
I flew as I spotted rugged farms carving out a patch of the jungle for themselves.
I flew as I spotted little villages.
I flew as I saw our fabulous roads.
I flew as I saw people. Humans.
Then, rising over the horizon, framed by the setting sun, I saw walls. Blessed, glorious Remus-style walls.
I’d never been to Port Salona before, but everything matched.
I was tired. On dozens of levels.
I didn’t bother waiting in line at the gates. I didn’t bother introducing myself.
I just flew over the walls, ignoring the cries of the guard for me to stop, halt, and identify myself.
Nah. I didn’t need to, and I didn’t want to.
I circled the city, smiling as kids tugged on each other’s arm and pointed at me. The glorious, radiant, colorful butterfly making a show. I did spin a bit for them, delighting in their pure joy, endlessly happy that I was making their day.
Making the day of human kids in my home.
I looked around, and saw the best thing ever.
The Ranger’s sign. There was a team in town. One bored Ranger at a desk, the classic wagon behind him.
I dove, pushing my speed to the max, grabbing my badge.
I flashed past the poor Ranger, trying to get a dozen words out in the quarter of a second we were near each other.
I expertly flicked my badge at him as I blazed into the wagon. They had the same set up we’d had way back when. The same arrangement all Ranger teams did.
I grabbed three different piles of bedrolls and sleeping supplies, threw them all into a pile, then collapsed into it, instantly falling into the deep sleep of peace. Of safety.
A deep sleep I hadn’t experienced in almost a year and a half.
The sleep of home.