My eyes cracked open as I heard a soft clink next to me. I saw a hand retreating, leaving my badge with me.
From how terrible I felt, and how dark it was, it was obviously still night.
I closed my eyes and went back to sleep.
“Good morning Rangers! Up and at ‘em! Let’s go go GO! Last one out does one extra lap!”
Rude shouting, exactly like the drill instructors at Ranger Academy, woke me up like a bolt of electricity. I was scrambling out from my gigantic pile of blankets before my mind caught up with what was going on.
It was almost entirely pitch-black in the wagon. Only my increased vitality, along with my eyes being adjusted to the dark, let me see the shapes and outlines of people moving about.
Around me the rest of the Ranger team was already moving, bolting out of every exit the wagon had. Clever, since if two of them went for the same exit, they’d block each other and end up doing an extra lap.
“Ah, pardon Sentinel Dawn.” The original voice called into the wagon. “Didn’t mean to wake you. Team 11 does morning exercises, and I believed maintaining that was important. We have no issues at this time.”
“It’s fine.” My voice had that croaking ‘dear gods why am I awake’ quality, and I fixed myself up with [Sunrise].
Whoa! Yeah! That hit the spot!
The last Ranger finished exiting. I bent over, grabbed my badge, and straightened back up. My head felt weird. Not having hair was strange. Something to fix today.
I walked out the door, taking a look around.
It was sunrise.
It wasn’t even dawn yet. The barest hints of light were lightening up the sky, but it’d be a stretch and a half to call it sunrise.
In front of me five Rangers in various different ideas of nightclothes were in front of a sixth, stern-looking Ranger. I suppose I couldn’t complain too much, given that my idea of night clothing was the same Mistweave dress I’d been living in.
And the most welcome sight for sore eyes - a pair of familiar wolves! Moonmoon! Which meant Wolfy was here!
I had to catch up. In a few minutes.
Or longer, depending on the leader’s plans.
“Ranger Decimus! By my reckoning you were the last one out! As such, you will be running an additional lap!”
One of the Rangers - I’d bet all my money it was Decimus, and while he was slightly familiar, I wasn’t quite able to place him this early in the morning - groaned, while everyone else ribbed him.
“We begin with a 64-count of jumping jacks! Ready? Begin!”
The Rangers all started to count in unison, performing the exercise in question. The leader was no exception, jumping in unison with the rest.
“One, two, three, ONE! One, two, three, TWO! One, two, three, THREE!”
I rolled my shoulders, stretched, and figured that while I was in so-so shape, I wasn’t in the best, post-Ranger Academy shape of my life. Julius had never done morning exercises, but whoever was the boss here wasn’t Julius.
Also, I’d just gained a stupid number of levels. Usually, the benefit from one or two levels was barely noticeable, but I’d just gotten something like a 30%-40% increase to my speed by the numbers.
I secured the egg, making sure it was at a nice, optimal temperature, then adjusted the harness some so it wouldn’t flop all over.
I got in line next to one of the Rangers, and joined in on the jumping jacks. I got a funny look from the Ranger leader, but he said nothing, continuing to call the jumping jacks.
We wrapped up in no time at all, and he paused.
“Sentinel Dawn. Do you require our services for anything?”
He was tense. An amused smile flitted across my face, as the memory of traveling with Julius and the rest when we bumped into Hunting crossed my mind. How worried we’d all been, and how nervous we were.
The Ranger Leader had a great poker face. I schooled my expression, reminding myself that here and now I was the absolute boss, and it wasn’t in good taste or leadership to poke fun at his expense. Even my happy grins were probably making him sweat buckets.
I weighed my words carefully as the rest of the Rangers were carefully not looking at me.
“Yes and no. I’ve been away from Remus for a year and a half. Found my way back yesterday. I’m in dire need of resupply and human contact. Apart from that, I suspect I’ve slipped on my physical exercise, and my physical stats have recently improved to the point where I need to re-drill everything from the ground up again.”
I thought about it a moment more.
“I’d like to join in on the exercises if it’s not too much trouble.”
He - I was going to call him Bossman, nobody could stop me - saluted back, familiar hand over heart.
“Anything you need, Sentinel. Although, I do believe you should lead…?”
I flapped a hand at him.
“You know what you’re doing and what your team’s doing. I don’t want to interfere, simply participate.”
Bossman took everything in stride. If he was a poor enough Ranger to get thrown by a Sentinel showing up wanting to get told to do push-ups, he would’ve never made it as a Ranger.
“Right! Next exercise is 64 squats! Ready, begin!”
We kept up the workout until the running portion.
“Eight laps around the city walls! Ranger Decimus! You will be running a ninth lap!” Bossman roared out.
I swear he must’ve spent a long stint as one of the Ranger Academy drill instructors, then got promoted back to field work.
“With all due respect Ranger, I believe I was the last one to morning practice.” I chimed in.
Bossman’s face puckered up.
I was kinda botching it a hair here. I was the Sentinel, I should be in charge. By having Bossman give orders, it was undermining… a crapton.
Before he could say anything, I saved him.
“Right! Ranger Decimus! You will be running the normal number of laps. Same as everyone else. Bossman, are you joining us?”
Bossman looked confused for a moment, and I heard an awkward cough beside me, and a familiar voice.
“That’d be you, Tiberius.” Wolfy’s voice was almost the same. A little more tired. A little rougher. Same Wolfy. “Ela- err - Sentinel Dawn has a habit of giving people nicknames.”
“Yeah, you’re lucky you got Bossman. I got Artillery C.” A second familiar voice added in.
“That’s Artillery Mage C.” I corrected him, and I heard some snickering. I cracked my own grin.
Bossman looked like he was eating a lemon. I was fairly certain I hadn’t taken the skill, but [A Single Flap of a Butterfly’s Wings] was in full force here.
Time to take control.
“Bossman. In your estimation, is a Ranger needed to stand by and be prepared to receive complaints?”
He thought about it a moment, then shook his head.
Alrighty then. Just had one more question before I got started. Proper information was key for planning, and Port Salona had an interesting twist to it.
Namely, that it was a port.
“When running around the city walls here, do we typically go all the way around, or bounce back?”
“Sentinel. We go all the way around, climbing over the walls where the city meets the sea. It adds an extra obstacle, and attempting to avoid the guard’s notice is an additional exercise.”
I nodded at him.
“Ranger Team 11! On Bossman, who will navigate us out of the city, so we may begin our morning run.”
I wasn’t about to try and lead us out of the city when I’d just flown over. I didn’t exactly know the streets of the area, and getting everyone lost was not a good look.
Image management. I didn’t miss it, but it was strangely nostalgic.
Bossman took the lead and we jogged out of the city, Moonmoon following us. The port was starting to come to life. The smell of fresh baking bread as we passed a bakery, the warm glow of forges coming to life near the silversmith. The guards weren’t happy to open the gates to us, especially since nobody was in their Ranger gear. We looked like a bunch of misfits, but Bossman had a few quick words with them.
Moonmoon probably helped.
We got out and paused.
“Race, or pace?” I asked.
“Whatever you want, Sentinel Dawn.” Bossman replied. Wolfy mouthed “race” at me, and I got a chance to look at everyone.
Wolfy and Artillery Mage C were both known to me. Bossman was clearly the leader, and a second experienced Ranger was with him. He was notable for his high level - a [Warrior] over 320 - and his age. He looked over 60, had completely white hair and with his level, his vitality had to be slowing his aging down significantly. If he said he was over 100, I’d believe him.
“You’re Greybeard.” I pointed to him.
He saluted, in spite of neither having a beard, nor his hair being grey.
The remaining two Rangers were familiar as well, although I’d never gotten a name. They’d been recruits at Ranger Academy, two candidates I’d taught in my classes. They hadn’t stood out in a good or a bad way, and had clearly done well enough to not only graduate, but survive until now.
I was all too aware that the squad of eight was a squad of six. Unless doctrine had changed, Moonmoon wasn’t counted. Had to make it cramped when they all needed to cram into the wagon.
Less cramped now.
“And Newbie Ranger and Newbie Mage.” I pointed to the last two, calling out their respective displayed classes.
They weren’t too pleased, but eh. They weren’t standing out, and their level was only 210ish.
“The race is nine laps for me, eight laps for the rest of you.” I burned a line in the dirt with a quick flash of Radiance. I couldn’t think of a reward or a penalty, so I did what I loved doing in situations like these - I delegated.
“Bossman will think of a reward for the winner, and a punishment for the loser.”
Newbie Mage groaned, then gave me a challenging look.
Oh no he doesn’t. I could practically read his mind.
“She’s a Healer. She’s young. She’s a girl. She’s got an extra lap. I can beat her.”
“Go!” I called out, and took off.
I didn’t start off in a flat-out sprint, oh no. I wanted to work my way up to it. I wanted to see everyone do a full lap.
I wanted everyone to watch me keep up with the fastest members of the team, then beat them.
Honestly, my only concerns were Bossman and Greybeard. If either one was a speedster, I’d be screwed. They’d be able to beat me.
Eh. If it happened I’d pull out the “I’m a healer-mage relying on raw stats on my third-lowest stat while running an extra lap.” card.
It seemed like Greybeard and Bossman had similar ideas.
To my minor surprise, Moonmoon was keeping up with us, the two wolves loping along at a casual pace. Thinking about it though, wolves were baseline much faster than humans were, so it made sense.
With competitive glances, we sped up, leaving Wolfy, Artillery Mage C, and the two Newbies in the dust.
Faster and faster we ran around the city, and rounding yet another corner, I saw the view of the ocean, sunrise skipping over the waves to turn the whole thing golden.
I slowed down a hair, letting the others overtake me.
I had no idea where on the wall the “we climb over here” section was, and I wasn’t about to start making new rules and new spots to go over.
Turned out, it was right where the ocean met the walls. The walls didn’t stop at the ocean though, they kept going some distance out, until a stout guard tower anchored the end in the harbor. Moonmoon sprinted ahead, the pair of wolves leaping into the warm waters, starting to paddle around.
“Honestly, it’s a good thing high level wolves can’t jump the city walls.” I wryly observed. Bossman gave an amused snort, then leapt onto the walls.
Somehow finding narrow cracks in the wall, places where stones weren’t perfectly aligned. Like a spider, he scuttled up the wall.
Greybeard found his own spot, and mirrored the trick, the old man betraying a surprisingly nimble streak. Decades of experience on top of sizable dexterity.
I just flew over. I wasn’t going to fly the whole way, but an obstacle was an obstacle, to be defeated by any means.
At Ranger Academy flat-out demolishing an obstacle was frowned on, because then the instructors would need to rebuild it, and everyone else would lose the training and opportunity provided. Here?
Yeah, if Rangers started putting holes in city walls for a morning run, we’d quickly find ourselves unwelcome. The governor couldn’t kick us out, but the guard - and half the citizens - would instantly become unhelpful.
I was probably losing points for “get over discreetly”, but eh. It was a race. At this point in my career, I didn’t consider dodging or moving around discreetly to be a high priority.
I gracefully landed on the other side, and waited with an impish smile for the two warriors to make it over. Bossman gave me an unhappy look, displeased with my sandbagging.
They didn’t say a word. They didn’t need to. The challenge was loud and clear. They landed, nearly at the same time, and took off, running through the dirty streets by the ports.
I followed them, deftly stepping over coiled rope, dodging drunken sailors, clearing out of the way of fishermen out to catch their breakfast, and getting increasingly irritated at the wolf whistles that followed behind me.
My Mistweave was great.
In Remus, it was also exotic, and I… probably looked like one of the ladies whose services were for sale.
A new tunic jumped up my to-do list. Like, third thing to-do.
Bossman was now outstripping Greybeard by a solid chunk, and I tapped Greybeard as I passed him, subtly hitting him with [Dance with the Heavens].
Just a quick top-up. No idea what issues he was having as he advanced in the years, or what injuries he’d gotten so far this round that didn’t have a proper healer to look at, but a quick panacea would fix them all.
The fact that he wasn’t able to keep up with Bossman told me that he was likely a spellspear, while Bossman was a double physical Classer.
I kept up with him.
He pushed himself harder, and the only reason I fell behind was dodging the occasional drunken sailor’s grubby grasp.
Ah Remus. I did not miss the harassment.
Bless Mistweave for its intangibility properties.
We made it to the next wall, where Bossman was pounding up the stairs. I could just fly over them. However, I’d then need to admit that stairs were an obstacle, and that wasn’t going to happen.
We both ignored the shouting guards, and dropped down to the ground on the other side of the wall.
“Well, I’ve got nine laps to do while you’ve got eight. Gotta go!” I leaned into it, moving from a jog, to a run, to a flat-out sprint, pushing myself as hard as I could go.
I ran and ran, reveling in the feeling. How long had it been since I just ran for the fun of it? The glorious golden run from my “escape” from Aquiliea was a treasured memory, the sheer joy and energy and excitement of movement, of freedom.
I wasn’t a young teenager anymore. Emotions didn’t have that raw, jagged edge that made them so painful and so glorious anymore. It was a different type of enjoyment, a more muted and mature pleasure in simply moving as fast as I could, running around the walls.
I managed to lap everyone except Bossman, coming in second. It might’ve been overly ambitious to think I could lap a double physical Classer.
We had some time to chat, while the rest of the Rangers ran past us, or slowed to a stop as they finished their own run.
“I thought you were a healer-mage?” The friendly competition seemed to have loosened Bossman up a bit. That, or the morning drill instructor aspect was now done, letting him be more personable.
“I am! Speed’s my third lowest stat.”
Bossman was likely a former drill instructor, and knew how to school his face. Still, I managed to catch raw, unfiltered surprise flash over his face before he regained control.
“Any movement skills?”
“Eeeh. Yes and no. Flight, as you saw, and an energy skill. Apart from that, raw stats.”
He gave me a disbelieving look, before his eyes widened in realization.
“You’ve got a level disguise skill!”
Oh shit. I was still wearing the Deception Ring, and I’d never changed it from 128.
Nah, I wasn’t going to tell him.
“I promise you, I don’t have a skill to hide my level.”
He looked flabbergasted as Greybeard caught up to us.
I had some mercy on the poor Bossman, who clearly wasn’t believing me. Having him walk away thinking that Sentinels casually lied about dumb stuff wasn’t a good look.
Ah well. I had to give him the short version.
“I have a powerful Inscription that’s doing it for me.” Bossman nodded knowingly.
Trying to explain the Deception Ring, how I got it, and everything it did was a bit complicated. I was going to leave it at that. Sentinels were expected to have ridiculous gear. Just look at the Pegasus. Or Magic’s gem-encrusted sash. Or Ocean’s boat made of magic wood. Or Nature’s…
Needless to say. Sentinels were practically expected to have silly gear. Thinking about Magic made me sad. I did wonder what happened to the large fortune of gems that Magic was wearing though.
“Sentinel Dawn. You are a credit to the Sentinel title.”
I was not immune to flattery.
He pursed his lips briefly, then seemed to come to a decision.
“With my apologies, Sentinel Dawn.” He said, turning to Bossman.
“Ranger Tiberius. Ranger Team 11 is yours to command as you see fit. However, I hope you go easy on…” His eyes flickered to me. “Newbie Mage. The entire contest is practically designed to cause him problems, and while I applaud your habit of morning exercise, the penalty invariably lands on his shoulders. His understanding is turning into resentment.”
Bossman got a pained look.
“I know. I see it too. But he’s the slowest one. The least fit. We are forced to go at his pace on operations, and it could - has - gotten a number of us killed. I don’t blame him for the losses, but what else am I supposed to do?”
Greybeard gave a curt nod.
“I understand your dilemma. The responsibilities of leadership. Perhaps… more creative non-punishments?”
He jerked his head towards me.
“Well, if the idea is acceptable to Sentinel Dawn, perhaps he can spend the day assisting her, instead of any other duties?”
“I don’t need any help.” I grumped.
Greybeard got a canny, knowing grin.
“I know that. You know that. Everyone else doesn’t.”
“Yeah, that should work. Just checking, does he have the keys to the coin chest?”
Bossman was real good at the sour lemon look. I rolled my eyes.
“Please, I’ve been a Ranger. I know you need the coins for the entire round. Just need a new tunic, some good Remus food, and about a week in the baths.”
Wolfy joined us, followed by Moonmoon.
“Sentinel Dawn. Naturally, our resources are at your disposal.”
“What’s going on?” Wolfy asked. I gave him a roguish grin.
“I’m looting you for all you’ve got!”