I broke out into a huge, silly smile as I saw the walls of Ariminum. Still gleaming white. Still with a little shanty town in front of it. Same old, same old.
The only big difference was the shanty town had grown, which was absolutely no surprise to me. People kept trying to expand, and the city had limited space. Even pillars and markings showed where new walls were being planned.
“Move it!” Someone rudely shoved me aside, passing me on the avenue.
“Jackass!” I yelled back. Could’ve just asked nicely. Sure, I’d been somewhat blocking one of the major roads - arguably the single busiest road in the Empire - but that didn’t excuse terrible manners.
“Brrpt!” Auri started to fly towards him, puffing her tiny chest out.
“Auri! No!” The little arsonist was going to try and burn the dude to pieces. I’d bet mangos on it.
“Brpt!” She protested as I snagged her with [Mantle]. Honestly, I don’t know how I’d manage Auri if I didn’t have [Mantle]. I’d probably need to go live in the wilderness for a dozen years or something, before she got her pyromaniacal tendencies under control.
For that matter, I was a little concerned about living with her in a city. I should get a nice room of hard to burn but still flammable stuff - like really wet wood - and let her go nuts.
“Yes, he wasn’t a nice person.” I agreed with her.
“No, you can’t burn down every bad person.”
I stepped off the side of the busy road, massaging my eyes. How did I explain this to Auri?
“There are… ok, for now, let’s say there are two types of bad guys.”
“There are the SUPER DUPER BAD GUYS, and you burn them.”
“Then there are the MEH bad guys, and you just ignore them or fly away.”
“Because not everything is worth burning people over.”
I facepalmed. Auri still seemed to think burning people or ‘turning people into fire’ was a good thing. How, exactly, she reconciled that with “burn the bad people” I wasn’t sure.
She honestly seemed to have one answer to every problem, and it was “fire”.
“You can… make them more miserable by leaving them alone? They’re not worth your precious fire?”
I was reaching here. I didn’t quite know how to properly explain civilization and society, crime and punishment, along with the entire ethical and moral backbone that Auri needed to have. This parenting thing was hard, and I was additionally struggling with the sheer pace that Auri was growing and developing at, along with the massive firepower on the tips of her wings.
More and more I understood why the System was locked for kids, as miserable as those eight years had been for me. A toddler with [Fireball]?
That was basically Auri. On my todo list: Get a tutor for her. Someone with experience raising kids and teaching them. I was doing my best, but I knew I was stabbing blindly in the dark. I wasn’t so arrogant to think that I could just automatically do it all myself perfectly. People trained for this. People had classes in this.
Well, ok, not classes in “How to raise a baby phoenix”, but close enough. [Nanny for troubled kids] had to be a class with some cross-applicability or something.
“Brpt…” Auri didn’t sound convinced.
“Let’s make a deal.” I pleaded with her. “Don’t burn anyone or anything without asking me, and if you make it a whooooooole week, I’ll take you to a flower shop, buy all the flowers, and let you burn them. Deal?”
“Brpt? Brpt?? Brpt!”
I’d successfully explained “Buying” and “Selling” to Auri before.
“Ok, yes, and you can also sit on my shoulder that whole time. Just think! If you’re not lighting everyone on fire, then I can take you to busy, crowded markets! Then TONS and TONS of people can see how pretty you are!”
“Brrrrptttt!!!!!” Auri loved the idea. “Brpt?”
“A flower store sells allllll kinds of pretty, beautiful flowers! They’re lovely! They have hundreds and HUNDREDS of the best flowers from ALL OVER THE WORLD! Isn’t that super cool?”
Auri’s eyes went as wide as a blueberry, which on her tiny frame, was massive.
“Yes, a whole week. Seven days.” I patiently explained to her.
“I know that seems like forever.” I had to remind myself that she was only a few weeks old. “But it’ll be over in a flash! Plus, you’re going to meet my mom and dad soon!”
“Yeah! Let’s go!”
Auri successfully distracted and refocused, we got back on the road, joining the throngs of people making their way to the capital for one reason or another.
I smiled at the road, feelings of nostalgia welling up. I remembered the first time I went down this road, Julius teaching me how to be fast with [Rapidash]. How we’d blazed along the road, then turned around and headed back, with Julius running backwards the entire time.
How we’d lumbered up in the Ranger’s wagon, making it to their home. I hadn’t known it at the time, but it’d become my home as well.
How often I’d gone up this road, coming back home after visiting Artemis’s school. Shame it was a bit out of the way, but I wanted to get home-home first, THEN visit Artemis.
I couldn’t wait. I wanted to show her Auri, and tell her all the stories! Plus, Julius and Artemis were a thing, and I wanted to get all the sweet details from her!
Now, I was walking up the road one more time. My heart was pounding, and I entirely ignored everything that wasn’t the road. That wasn’t the next step.
I was less than an hour or two away from home. Away from hugging mom and dad. A year and a half, come down to this.
I wanted to just fly right in, blaze through everything and everyone, and make it right home.
It’d cause more than a bit of a mess, and there wasn’t a need to do it right now. I was still feeling a little awkward about Port Salona, and for all I knew, Sentinels were less exempt from various laws than we had been before. I wanted to get a pulse on things.
Before long, Auri and I were queued up in the long line before the main gates. Ariminum was surrounded on three sides by the Nostrum Sea, leaving one main entrance to the walled city. The road leading up to the gates were wide and kept clear, the shanty town not allowed to encroach on it. There were multiple sets of guards checking people and things over.
Still. There was a line.
A long line.
I played with Auri a bit as I listened to idle gossip.
“Want some juice?” I asked her, my hand already knowing the answer as I moved to uncork the amphora.
“Food prices are going down at last.”
“Shame, I’d been hoping to get my harvest in while they were still up.”
“Well, can’t rush nature.”
I gave Auri a deep drink.
“Look! Mom, look! Look at the pretty bird! Can we go over and touch it?”
“She probably doesn’t want to be bothered.”
“New play from The Bard is going to be in the theater tonight!”
“Bah, plays. I want to see the colosseum! Give me those [Gladiator] fights! I want to see blood! I want to see death! They keep trying to execute Spartacus and Artemis, and they keep beating all the gladiators sent after them! I’m probably going to miss them, the line is going so slowly.”
My heart practically froze as I heard that.
Artemis wasn’t a super common name, but at the same time it wasn’t the rarest name. However, at the capital? Combat-capable enough to survive multiple rounds in the colosseum?
That sounded like Artemis.
I’d wanted to get into the city normally, but nooooo. One of my friends being at risk was a good enough reason to bend a few rules.
“Hey! You!” I pointed at one of the farmers hauling his goods.
“Me?” He pointed to himself, looking around.
“Five rods if you deliver this to Ranger HQ.” I shucked my heavy backpack off, and heaved it into his cart. I quickly flashed my Sentinel badge, but I might’ve been too fast for him to see it properly.
“Hold on!” I called out to Auri as I wrapped her up in my shield. I bent my knees slightly, then jumped up, my colorful [Scintillating Ascent] wings snapping open.
“Brpt! Brpt!?” Auri thought my wings were OK, and wanted to know what we were doing.
“Friend might be in trouble.” I answered her as I flew over the city walls, holding up my Sentinel badge. I let a subtle Radiance glow ennamate from me, shining as I blitzed through the sky.
I knew where the colosseum was. I’d been the entertainment of the day often enough in Ranger Academy, and the arena was huge.
A flicker of Lightning coming from the arena, and the roar of the crowd had me straining to fly faster, pushing my skill for all it was worth.
Then I cleared the walls of the Colosseum, and got a look at what was going on.
I absorbed the entire scene in an instant.
Without a doubt, it was Artemis in the center of the arena, fighting for her life. Nearly a dozen gladiator bodies were scattered around her. A few had the characteristic charmarks of Artemis’s Lightning strikes, while the rest had bright streaks of fresh blood radiating away from their corpses, Artemis having put a rock through them.
She was coated in her stone armor, and four gladiators were huddled inside a metal contraption, a decent distance away from her. Two more were warily circling her.
The gladiators inside the metal cage were two [Mages] and two [Rangers]. The gladiators circling Artemis were both [Warriors]. All were between level 150 and 200, and it made me wonder where the higher level gladiators were. A small, vindictive part of me hoped that Artemis had fought them all already, and was working her way through the entire supply of [Gladiators]. After all, while two [Gladiators] fighting each other usually didn’t go to the death, Artemis had no such restraints. Even when she completely overpowered her victim - errr - opponent.
Small burning rocks were scattered all over, billowing black smoke coming off the rocks. A strange Fire skill, working with Earth? Didn’t matter too much.
I grinned. It looked like they’d sent sixteen professional fighters after Artemis, and she was kicking their ass. That was the Artemis I knew!
I hovered for a quick moment, while deciding on my angle of attack, and how I was going to approach this. Option A was to just dive in, Radiance blazing, and kidnap Artemis from the center of the arena, then fly away.
The plan seemed inadvisable from a long-term solve-the-Artemis-in-the-colosseum problem, but it kept her safe for now.
I didn’t think she needed that much keeping safe, not from the bodies she was stacking up like firewood.
“The Lightning Reaper scores two more kills! The sixth time they’ve tried to execute her, and she demonstrates why she just will not go down! Give it up fooooooooooooooor ARTEMIS!”
The crowd roared, half in approval, half in anger. Either way, the stadium was packed. Artemis was making one hell of a name for herself, and given her victory in the face of overwhelming odds?
The fight stalled out for a moment, and four of the gates to the arena opened up. Three gladiators stepped through.
“Would you believe it?! They’re sending more fighters after the Lightning Reaper! Killed ten people so far, but it looks like they’re determined to take her out! But with how good she is, are the [Lanistae] just throwing away [Gladiators]?”
The commentator paused for a moment, seeing something I hadn’t.
“Spartacus refuses to enter the colosseum! He doesn’t like his chances here! I wouldn’t like them if I was in his sandals!! He’s chosen to live another day, versus fighting the LIGHTNIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIING REAPER!”
As the reinforcements dramatically entered the arena with various flourishes, one of the mages hiding in the metal cage took advantage of the moment of distraction to launch a barrage of devastating rocks at Artemis. Nearly all of them split around her, redirected towards the two gladiators trying to flank my favorite Lightning mage.
One of them had the reflexes - and a big enough shield - to defend himself, while the second one ate dozens of high-speed pointy rocks to the face, and dropped like a sack of potatoes. From his screaming and convulsing, Artemis hadn’t been lethal enough.
Annnnnnnd there went my plan on figuring out a better plan. Blasted [Oath]. I might be able to heal from where I was, but that’d just make more messes, and risk Artemis unnecessarily.
I regretted losing my sound-amplification gems in Ochi, but I could still make one hell of an entrance. Plus, the [Announcer] usually had amplification skills, and with just a tiny bit of luck and showmanship, I’d get boosted. Made sure I was showing off the right level as well.
I blasted light-only Radiance, detailing the Sentinel badge rotating around me as I dived down. Auri, from her hamsterball perch on my shoulder, shrieked as the ground rushed up at us.
The crowd roared as I descended, their voices pressing against me like a living thing. I flickered a heal at the downed gladiator, saving his life.
I blasted out dozens of [Kaleidoscope] butterflies, having a few hover near each gladiator, and a swarm interspersed on the field just in case.
I didn’t need to announce what they did. The butterflies were a clear threat. ‘Move, and something bad will happen.’
I landed hard next to Artemis in the center of the arena, bending my knees to take some of the impact.
I had no idea what to say. Not after so long. What did one say when they vanished for a year and a half, then suddenly reappeared in the midst of a life and death fight?
I said the first thing that popped into my mind.
“Yo. Long time, no see.”
Did… did I just say yo!? Oh gods.
Artemis looked stunned. She just stared at me, her mouth opening and closing wordlessly. The announcer and the crowd were going nuts. I ignored them. As long as the gladiators did nothing stupid, we were fine.
“Let’s get out of here.” I jerked my thumb over my shoulder. Artemis hardened up, and nodded.
With a modest amount of Radiance, I melted right through the chain on Artemis. I noted that it was rooted in a stone pillar, and she would’ve been able to escape it herself, if she needed to.
I looked at her stone armor.
“You are way too heavy for me to fly out.” I noted.
Artemis half-grinned, and gave a half-chuckle of despair.
“And I’m way too low on mana to fly out myself.” She added.
“Let’s walk out? Damn anyone who tries to stop us?”