Artemis kept her stone armor on as we too-casually walked across the arena. We were both keeping a wary eye on the various [Gladiators], wordlessly splitting up who was keeping an eye on which one.
The crowd was chanting, and the announcer was shouting with wild exuberance.
Artemis had trained me. I knew she was tuning out the noise just as much as I was. They weren’t part of the fight right here, right now. It was mostly useless background information, and paying attention to it could get us killed.
The only important part? The crowd seemed excited and pleased by what we were doing. Gave us a good shot of pulling it off.
I had full faith in my abilities. At the same time, arrogance and complacency killed. Sky was a great example.
My [Kaleidoscope] butterflies were still there. Still silently hovering, a glittering, golden minefield that no fighter wanted to walk through.
Not with my level.
Not with my proclamation of being a Sentinel.
This was one of those moments where I was grateful for the never-ending Sentinel propaganda.
Brawling had done a number on people watching the gladiator fights, and on the gladiators themselves. He was undefeated, and while he always dragged it out and made a great big show out of it - the fighters knew, in the back of their mind, that he was putting on a show, and wasn’t seriously fighting them.
Now a second Sentinel was around, and it was obvious that I wasn’t playing games. I wasn’t here to put on a show.
I wasn’t going to be extra-careful to keep my opponents alive.
I noticed Artemis was limping a bit, and I felt a flush rise up my cheeks. How had I forgotten to do something so simple, so basic?
Without a word, I pulsed a quick heal through Artemis, and we finished walking out of the arena, through the gates.
I dismissed my butterflies, all of them vanishing with a thought. It wouldn’t do me any good for them to fade one by one - it’d give away too much of what I could do, and how they worked. All of them disappearing at once when I walked through the gates?
Obviously controlled. Obviously powerful.
There was one [Retiarius] in the antechamber that led to the arena, his trident and net on the ground, his hands above his head. He was pressing himself against the wall, either trying to get out of our way, or melt into the stone.
The antechamber had two gates. One led to the sandy arena, filled with death and blood. The other was closed and barred, and led deeper into the colosseum.
Couldn’t give the sacrifices a chance to run away. Recalcitrant slaves would be poked with spears, “encouraged” to leave into the arena proper.
Between certain death by spear, and almost certain death in the arena, nearly everyone took the second. After all, people like Artemis demonstrated that it was possible to survive.
“Artemis?” I asked her, glancing at her. She was chewing her lip.
“Healy-bug. Don’t think I’ve got enough left in me to remove the gate.”
Drat. I could melt through the gate, but it was a significant amount of mana. Radiance vs rock was heavily tilted in rock’s favor. Artemis was an Earth mage though, and could, with relative ease, get rid of the gate.
She looked at me, and cracked a smile.
“Then again, I’m with Sentinel Dawn, aren’t I? Don’t need to leave much in reserve.”
Artemis pushed against the gate. Wall and all, it fell back into the corridor, cracking in half as it hit the wall.
“Brrrrpt!” Auri was impressed.
We carefully stepped through the gap, and just like that, we were winding through the interior of the colosseum.
I’d been here often enough during Ranger Academy ‘practice sessions’. I knew my way around.
I was burning with my desire to talk with Artemis, to catch up. I knew she felt the same way.
Damn the time and place. We both knew it was inappropriate. We were treating this like any other threat a Ranger needed to face.
I was keeping Auri in her little ball on my shoulder, ignoring her cries of protest. This wasn’t the time or the place to be letting her explore.
By and large, people scurried out of our way as we went through the hallways.
To be fair, they were getting out of Artemis’s way. In the poorly lit corridors, at a quick glance that didn’t properly evaluate my color, I just looked like a healer, escorting another fighter.
Artemis’s level, marred armor, reputation, and sheer fame had people making way for her, like some celebrity. We made good time, until we were almost at the exit.
A skinny, reedy man in a toga - clearly rich, because only someone with too much wealth could waddle around in something so impractical during a working day - was blocking our way with a few guards.
“Senator Enyo.” Artemis muttered to me. “Technically owns my debt.”
I flickered my eyes to her in recognition of what she said, and what it meant.
Short version. Artemis had - for some reason I couldn’t possibly imagine, she was a paragon of virtue - gotten in serious trouble with the law. The penalty for nearly everything was a fine of varying degrees, and slavery was Remus’s answer to someone who couldn’t pay off the fine.
Of course, someone had to actually pay that on the other end, and from the sound of it, Senator Enyo had snapped up Artemis.
The whole thing made my skin crawl.
Bonus though - if it was “only” someone who owned her debt, it meant high-level politics weren’t in play. I hadn’t stumbled into some grand conspiracy to bump off Artemis.
Probably. I’d take things one day at a time. One thing at a time.
“You!” He snapped at Artemis. “What are you doing?! Get back over here.”
Artemis opened her mouth, and I cut her off with a subtle gesture.
Gods, I was fast. How had I become faster than Artemis?! When had that happened?!
I put my impending crisis off to the side.
“How much?” I asked. Enyo sneered at me.
“Not for sale.” He smugly informed me.
“Brrrpt!” Auri shrieked at him.
“Now now, no burning the SUPER DUPER bad man.” I absent-mindedly told Auri.
Auri fluttered helplessly against [Mantle], trying to get out there and FIGHT! Kill the bad man! Burn him to pieces!
As fun and convenient as that would be, it’d simply compound the mess.
I tapped my foot unhappily.
“That wasn’t an option.” I said.
“Well, tough shit girly.” Enyo replied.
Goddesses above, could you please send me someone to punch his face? He really needed a punch in the face.
“I am leaving with Artemis.” I informed Enyo. “Either you’re getting a pile of coins from me, or you’re not. How many coins would you like?”
“You think you can just steal my slave?” Enyo was getting heated, his face an unhealthy red.
“If you phrase it like that, yes.”
“And who are you to-”
“Sentinel Dawn. Now, you, and what army, will be stopping me?”
I shifted my focus to the guards, and before Enyo could stop me, addressed them.
“Healer-tagged, but I can melt through stone. Anyone’s eyeballs tougher than stone? Raise your hand!”
I lifted my hand in the air, giving them all a Look as I gave a quick demonstration with my Radiance. I melted a patch of stone in the ceiling between us, liquifying the stone in three seconds. There was dead silence, only punctuated by the steady drip, sizzle, drip, sizzle, drip, sizzle of molten stone hitting the floor.
“2000 rods.” Enyo named a sky-high price, and I steeled my face. I wasn’t going to be dropping my jaw at something like this.
“Done.” I snapped, before he could change his mind or something happened. “And don’t you dare give me shit over being a woman. I’m Sentinel Dawn. I can pay it.”
A Sentinel, haggling with a Senator at the entrance to the colosseum? It was a bad look for everyone, but more so for me. He clearly had no shame.
I let a predator grin stretch over my face at Enyo’s shocked look, and a little thrill went through me. Instantly agreeing, as it turned out, was hitting him harder than anything else. He was realizing he could’ve asked for more, and it was killing him inside.
“I demand delivery of the coins before I hand her over!” Enyo cried out.
Artemis and I glanced at each other, and gave him a flat stare.
“I’ll have it delivered in two days. Let’s go.”
Artemis took the lead, and the guards parted for her. Enyo briefly looked like he’d try to be a pain in the ass one last time, but decided not to mess with the stone-coated Lightning Reaper.
He’d probably seen how many people she’d killed in the arena, and I had some sneaking suspicions how Artemis ended up in this position in the first place.
As we walked out into the busy boulevard connecting to the arena, Artemis let her stone armor fall off. She stretched in the sun, like a languid cat waking up from a nap.
I released Auri from [Mantle], hurriedly grabbing her as she determinedly flew back to the arena.
“Auri, NO! Not right now. We need to look after our friend first. Remember, flower shop. Floooowerrrr shooooooooop.”
“Brrppt…..” Auri flew back to my shoulder.
“This is Arte-”
I was interrupted by the woman in question.
“Whoa! Healy-bug! Thank you!” She finished her stretch, grabbed me in a hug, and twirled me around. “That was a bad spot of trouble you pulled me out of.”
“Brrrpt!” Auri was flying around Artemis, clearly distressed that I was being manhandled.
“No, Auri, Artemis is nice! We like Artemis!”
“And who is this?” Artemis asked, cocking her head at Auri.
“Artemis, Auri, Auri, Artemis. Listen, why don’t we head back to my place, and talk there?”
I was all too aware that we were standing in the middle of the street, and traffic was diverting around us. It wasn’t exactly the best place to hold a conversation.
“Sure. Where to?” Artemis asked. She was probably dying to ask me a million questions. Her self-restraint was admirable. And a little suspicious.
Had Artemis been replaced by a doppelganger?
“My place! I just said that.” I started walking down the road that I knew would lead to home, then paused. Realized one reason why Artemis would double-check the place.
“Hang on. My parents are still living there, right?”
My throat clenched up. This was the moment. I’d had a rock-solid belief this entire time that they were ok. They had to be ok! Nothing could hurt them, or cause them issues!
That belief had kept me going this entire time. It’d let me compartmentalize, put the worry about something I could do nothing about to the side, and let me focus on the various issues and problems I had in the moment. Getting distracted when sneaking around dragons, fighting spinosauruses, or dodging semi-orbital bombardments was a great way to end up dead.
However, all my fears and worries about my parents came rushing back. Had they been ok without me? Had dad being in the Praetorian Guard caused issues when Emperor Augustus had come to town? Had the guard resisted? Did mom need to go heal someone, and ended up in the wrong place at the wrong time?
Themis was probably fine, although if something happened to mom and dad he’d be in trouble.
“Hmm? Oh yeah, of course they are, why would they move?” Artemis flippantly answered. I gave her a stare, feeling some tears welling up.
It was too much. I whirled around and wrapped Artemis in a hug, buried my face in her filthy tunic, and let loose. Just, right there, middle of the street still.
“Shhh, shhh, it’s ok.” Artemis hugged me back, one hand patting my back and the other stroking me like I still had hair, and not a charcoaly mess. “Everything’s fine.”
“Brrpt! BrrrrrpT!!” Auri was making some concerned noises, flying around us. She then landed on my shoulder a few times, and started half-pecking me, half-trying to light me on fire.
Because, to Auri, lightning me on fire was a good thing that’d make everything better.
My crying turned into cry-laughter, and I broke free.
“We really should do this at home.” I hiccuped in the middle.
The streets blurred together as Artemis and I hustled, only slowed down by Auri at first. We’d been in a town before, but nothing so big. Everything was NEW! Everything was SHINY!
Poor girl tuckered herself out, and with the earlier excitement with the colosseum? She fluttered into my hands, and practically passed out, nevermind the loud, crowded street.
In practically no time at all, we were at my home. The fancy, expensive house in the nice part of town that Night had semi-casually gifted me as a thank-you for not murdering Jaclyn.
I sprinted as we got close, leaving Artemis in the dust. I practically bulldozed the doors on my way in.
“MOM! DAD! I’M HOME!” I yelled as loudly as I could.
I ran to the next room.
“I’m home! Where is everyone?!”
We didn’t do slaves. Not in my family. I’d put my foot down ages ago, and since I’d been bringing in the lion’s share of the money, and paying for people to do the cooking, cleaning, and other household tasks that slaves normally did? My parents were totally fine with it.
It mostly ignored the fact that there was almost no practical difference between the two. It was the spirit of the thing.
I bumped into a servant sweeping as I burst into another room - the first one I’d seen since getting back here. The place was weirdly empty, and it didn’t look like they were doing a great job with the cleaning. I kept spotting little bits here and there that were suboptimal, or hadn’t been done in awhile.
“Hey, where is everyone?” I asked him. Didn’t recognize him, must be new.
He gave me a strange look, which wasn’t entirely unfair. Strange person bursting into the house you’re looking after? Usually it was time to call the guards.
Strange person seems to be holding a fireball? Which is what a sleeping Auri in my hands kinda looked like.
DEFINITELY time to call the guards.
His eyes widened slightly, in that look I knew all too well. The “oh shit she’s WHAT level?!”.
He bowed slightly to me.
“Pardon miss. The patriarch of the house is performing his duties at the Senate, and the matriarch is visiting a patient of hers.”
Oh right. Middle of the working day. Derp. Of course mom and dad would be at their jobs. Themis was probably at guard training.
I did appreciate the servant’s canny way of implying that dad was a Senator. That was quick thinking on his part! It wasn’t true, but it was a clever dodge.
“Can you please go get them for me? Tell them I’m back! Elaine’s home!”
My name seemed to finally make something click. One of the minor benefits to daughters being named after their dads I guess?
He bowed again, this time more deeply, put away his broom, and left at a light jog.
I couldn’t wait!
I skipped back through the house, knowing exactly where I’d find Artemis.
Raiding the kitchen. Maging was hungry work, and she’d been in one hell of a fight.
I leaned on the door to the kitchen, watching Artemis eat an entire duck leg, just standing up there in the middle of the kitchen like a savage.
“You know, we have a dining room. And a table.” I commented.
“Mrmph! Mmmmmmmmmmmmmmmm.” Artemis replied through a mouthful of duck. I rolled my eyes.
“Come! Sit! Mom will kill both of us if she catches you like that.”
Artemis’s eyes bulged, and she started coughing as a bone went down the wrong pipe. I patted her back as we moved towards less lethal spoon territory.
The dining room was nice. Big room, big table, a dozen chairs, a water barrel in one corner for easy drinking, a few smaller “staging” tables along some walls, a lovely mosaic on one wall.
Artemis finally cleared her mouth, and longingly looked at the rest of the food she’d brought with her.
“When did you get back? Where were you? What happened? Is everything ok? When the fuck did you get so high level? Tell me everything about Auri! Wh-”
I held my hands up. Artemis seized the moment to stuff her mouth with more food, and started chewing.
“Whoa whoa whoa! Hold up. First, I’ve got a million people to tell the story to. Like MOM AND DAD. If I tell you now, I’ll need to repeat myself in like three minutes. I’ve been gone for ages, and I literally just got back. Like, literally now. I was in line at the gate when I heard about you, and I instantly rushed over. No, no, it’s your turn. Tell me everything that’s been going on. What happened to you?! What about the school?! How were you in the arena, and a slave?!”
“But I wanna eat.” Artemis whined at me.
“Do both at the same time.” I flippantly replied.
“Brrrrpt.” Auri sleepily agreed with me.
“Alright, alright, so you left with the rest of the Sentinels, and we were all worried sick. Every Sentinel being called at once? Everyone coming back instantly getting redirected? Only an idiot would think it wasn’t anything super serious. We prayed every night for your safe return, then boom! News of the Formorians being defeated! Your letters came! They were more than a bit ominous, to say the least.”
I chuckled at that. It had seemed like such a big deal then.
“Anyways, we more or less followed your advice,”
From Artemis’s tone? I was betting less.
“And - have you heard about Emperor Augustus?”
“Yeah, blah blah boring blah blah all hail blah.” I answered, circling my hand to keep Artemis’s story going.
“Right. Well, since someone blabbed about Julius and I,” Artemis’s tone suddenly got real heavy. Real sad.
“I’m going to skip to the relevant things. You got declared Missing in Action - Presumed Alive. Not to the general public of course, but your family knows, and naturally Julius told me. Maximus retired last Ranger Convocation, and joined the school. He’s fascinated by how people get trained up, and get skills. Just in time as well, otherwise things would be a lot worse.”
I was furiously chewing the inside of my cheek. Worse?!
Also, nice to know that Maximus had survived so long. He was the last Ranger of the old Ranger Team 4 that I’d been a part of to keep… Ranger-ing, and I’d been somewhat worried about his survival.
I was delighted that he’d retired and joined Artemis’s school. Had to go visit and say hi.
Artemis took a deep sigh.
“Ok, so, I’m not the best person.”
I gave an unladylike snort - not that I ever pretended to be a lady.
“But I’d like to think I’m a good person, and I do the right thing, regardless of what the letter of the law says.”
Oh yeah. I could see where this was going.
“And, well, now and then, I fixed problems.”
Godsdamnit Artemis, just how many people did you murder?!
“And you’re not a Ranger anymore.”
“And I’m not a Ranger anymore. Didn’t quite appreciate how much effort you all went through to keep me out of trouble. Or how much effort Julius spent getting me out of hotspots.”
Artemis got a far-off look in her eyes.
This was sounding more and more ominous.
“And.” My patience level was practically zero.
Or, technically, I didn’t have the skill [Patience]. Never been offered it. Weird.
“Well, I killed someone terrible.” Artemis frankly admitted. “He was the patriarch of his family, and was careful with his abuses. By law, nothing could be done. So I fixed the problem, and the city’s a better place. I wasn’t sloppy, but got caught due to bad luck. I sat tight, assumed Julius would bail me out, and…”
Artemis teared up. She took a few deep breaths, and didn’t quite manage to get her composure back. Her voice cracked as she finished her story.
“... and he never did. He’s gone missing.”