My knees grew weak, and I grabbed Night’s shoulder to stay upright.
“She knew.” I repeated, panic overwhelming me. My entire body was trembling, and everything was falling away.
Everything except the lethal truth that was percolating through my mind, devouring every other thought I had.
I staggered over to a comfortable, fluffy armchair, and sank into it, staring off into nothing.
“Dawn? Sentinel Dawn? Are you alright?” Night asked me. I gave a tiny shake of my head, and ignored him.
And whatever else he was saying.
Lun’Kat had known. The entire time I’d been in her lair, she’d known I was there.
No wonder [Bullet Time] had been permanently active. Lun’Kat had been watching every step. Every movement, every errant twitch. One wrong move, and I would’ve gone KABLOOEY!
For some reason, she’d let me be. I couldn’t think of why she left me alone at first, alone in her lair, but I guess once I started healing her, I was worth keeping around.
I’d stolen from a dragon.
And she’d let me.
She’d let me?
“Whoa! What!” I jumped, coming back to reality.
“Brrpt!” Auri was flapping her wings, trying to keep stable on my head.
“Your pet has successfully ignited the chair in which you are sitting. Please permit me to extinguish the fire before it spreads.”
Night’s tone was less than amused.
I would be too, if someone barged into my space, spouted nonsense, then started lighting stuff on fire.
“Shit!” I jumped up.
With a wave of his hand, a fountain of blood erupted from Night, covering the chair, then vanishing like it’d never existed. The chair was left perfectly dry, although with a moderately sized char spot.
“Now. What is all this about ‘she knew?’” Night asked.
“I’ll tell you during the debrief.” I said. “Works better if the story’s in chronological order.”
“I will trust your judgment then. Given the extended period of time that you have been away, I believe Ranger Command will also wish for you to give them a full report. Given the contents of the letter you have sent to us, I shall arrange for you to report later this morning.”
I hesitated, chewing on my lip.
“Make it this afternoon, after lunch?” I asked. “My debrief is going to take some time, and if I have to get grilled by Command? I want to do it on a full stomach.”
Night gave a slow smile.
“Most wise. As you wish. I shall return momentarily.”
He left the room.
“Auri, please don’t light things on fire. Please.” I begged her.
“Brrrpt!” She scolded me.
“Ok, you’re right. That one’s on me. I did put you onto the armchair.”
I thought about it a moment.
“Hey, lemme teach you some interesting things about fires, and being inside. See, when you burn things, you make a lot of smoke, and you eat air! This can be bad if you want to keep people safe, but good if you’re dealing with SUPER DUPER bad guys.”
“Brrrpt!” Auri liked where this lecture was going.
“Now, it’s important to remember…”
I gave Auri a lecture on the dangers of indoor fires. The purpose was to avoid accidentally suffocating everyone in Ranger HQ, but from the gleam in Auri’s eye I knew she was getting a second set of lessons.
How to best suffocate people out. [Oath] was ok with this, because my purpose, and guiding mission, was trying to teach her safety. Sometimes, when teaching ‘don’t hit this part of the body, because it’ll kill them’, the student absorbed ‘hit this part of the body, because it’ll kill them’.
The two were practically one and the same.
In another sense, I was teaching Auri how to use her Inside Voice - errr - Inside Warmth.
“There’s no way.” Brawling exploded into the room with his normal vigor, unusually early. “I swear I heard Dawn.”
“Brawling!” I got up from my chair and waved. “Hey!”
“DAWN!” He roared, and charged at me, bowling over sofas, chairs, and the little table in the middle of the room in his haste to get to me. “You’re alive!”
“Wait no-” I tried to slow him down.
“Brrpt!” Auri sounded her alarm, seeing the behemoth of the man charging at us.
Alas, Brawling was Brawling for a reason, and practically nothing could slow him down when he wanted to get from A to B. He grabbed me in a bear hug, twirling me around.
“I thought for sure you were dead! Then we got your letter! I was so happy, then yesterday I heard about the colosseum!”
“Brrrpt!” Auri thought I was under attack - not an unreasonable interpretation of the situation - and lit Brawling’s hair on fire.
“Oi!” He yelled at Auri, the force of his voice enough to make her flames ripple. “Don’t do that!”
He patted his hair out, which necessitated him dropping me. I staggered a step or two away, and Auri flew in between us to ‘protect’ me.
“Brrrpt!” Auri let Brawling know in no uncertain terms what she thought of him.
“Who’s this? Brave little bird. Not very smart though.”
I grabbed Auri before she could escalate the situation. Which she was remarkably good at.
“This is Auri!” I cheerfully told Brawling. “Auri, this is Brawling. We like Brawling. He's a good person, just a little eager at times.”
“Aww, thank you Dawn!” Brawling looked a hair bashful.
“Dawn! You made it!” Ocean was the next one in.
“I am going to make so much money.” He cackled as he rubbed his hands together. My jaw dropped in shock.
“No.” I gasped.
I shot him an evil eye, still with a silly, happy grin on my face, and he held his hands up.
“Hold your horses! I bet you were alive! After seeing how you healed? I knew nothing could kill you.”
I shuddered at the many, many close calls I’d had on the way back. Nothing could kill me? Oh, he had no idea.
“Yeah… but that means quite a few people were betting that I was dead.”
“This is a macabre business. Gotta find humor somewhere.”
The smile vanished off my face.
I’d been a Sentinel for what, three years? And I’d already buried Magic, Sealing, Sky, and Katastrofi. That was before the countless Ranger casualties.
I needed to visit the Indomitable Wall after this. Forget my meeting with Ranger Command. They could wait.
Ocean clapped me on the shoulder.
“I can’t say how happy I am that one of my friends is back from the dead.”
I was tearing up a bit, but I didn’t let it show.
“Before, or after you won a ton of money betting on me?”
Brawling just laughed.
In rapid succession, Hunting, Bulwark, Acquisition, Nature, and two new people I didn’t recognize showed up, along with Night back from scheduling the debrief.
Toxic, Destruction, and… it took me a moment to pull the memory, I’d only heard he gotten promoted, never met him - Maestrai weren’t here. My bet was some sort of mission called for Destruction and Toxic, and Maestrai was rapidly deploying them.
One by one I greeted them. Hugged them. Let them know how happy I was to be back.
All of them were delighted I’d returned. I was proof that we could beat impossible odds. I was hope, that if it ever happened to them, that they could fight their way out, and make it home.
“First of all. I anticipate that this meeting will take quite some time. I have already informed Ranger Academy that we shall not be appearing as usual, and that there is no need for concern. Second. Permit me the honor of introducing our new Sentinels.” Night began, once we’d settled down. “After that, we shall see if there is any pressing business, then obtain a proper debrief from Sentinel Dawn. Objections?”
I hadn’t seen so many heads shake so fast.
“Right. First: Dawn, meet Sentinel Mirage.”
“Heya!” Mirage was just a tiny bit taller than I was, and almost as skinny. I was small for a woman, which made him absolutely tiny. “Sentinel Mirage. Long-range sniper. I can put a metal slug through the center of a coin from roughly a mile and a half away, at high speed. Gale’s my second class, letting me ‘see’ the world around me, and reposition myself quickly.”
“So why Mirage?” I asked. He chuckled.
“One of the smoke and mirrors you’re all such a fan of. See, nobody ever sees me when I’m working, right? I’m a Mirage. Makes everything think I’m an illusionist, so they use anti-illusion nonsense. Meanwhile, I’m two miles away, lining up my shot.”
I barked a laugh at that. I don’t know why I expected anything less from the Sentinels. Smoke and mirrors, keeping us all alive. His eyes drifted to Auri, a questioning look on his face.
“Sentinel Dawn. Celestial healing and Radiance magic.” I shook his hand. “I’m slow, I’m not particularly strong, my magical range is short, but I’m as hard to kill as a cockroach. Decapitation barely slows me down, but it doesn’t stop me.”
I grinned, at the look on his face.
There was dead silence in the room.
“Oh right. That’s new.”
The room practically exploded as everyone tried to get a word in, shouting questions and shoving each other.
It took Night and Ocean nearly fifteen minutes to restore order.
“Chill! I’ll get to that part of the story soon enough!” I said, the Sentinels unhappily settling back down in their chairs.
“Ahem. Dawn’s debrief will be shortly.” Night coughed.
“Next, I would like to introduce Sent-”
All of the Sentinels interrupted Night at the same time, saying the exact same words.
“Senti-Null!” They roared in unison.
Night gritted his teeth.
“As I was saying, I would like to introduce Sent-”
Night threw up his hands in exasperation.
“We have a method of selecting titles, and a unified method of identification!”
“Yeah, but Night. Come on. Senti-Null’s a lot more fun.” Ocean pointed out. “Plus, we all voted on it. Ten votes for Senti-Null, one for Sentinel Void.”
Night looked like he wanted to put his head through a wall. I decided to help him.
“Sentinel Dawn. A pleasure to meet you, Senti-Null.”
… help Night in his quest to put his head through the wall, that is.
Senti-Null was built like a runner, like someone who jogged marathons as his morning wake up.
“Senti-Null! The pleasure’s all mine. Void nullifier, Storm speedster. Specialize in killing mages.”
That combo did seem particularly well-tailored to mage-killing, yeah. His build was extremely specialized, but in situations that called for his build? I imagined it was fantastic. Exactly what Sentinels were built for, in a way.
“I would love to test my healing against your nullification some day! I had a nasty run-in with one, and I’d like the practice.”
“Would love to see how I stack up against a combat healer as well. You’re a rare breed.”
“Yes, thank you Auri.” I glanced up at the bird.
“I take it we should cancel the Thunderbird egg order?” Hunting asked.
I looked him in the eye.
I wasn’t going to sugarcoat things for him because of Katastrofi, nor was I going to draw attention to it. It was what it was, and since he was here, seemingly alive and well, I wasn’t going to comment on it.
“Yes. I hope to bond with Auri here, and things seem to be going well.”
Onto the to-do list. Cancel order.
I did hope Hunting would offer to help me with her though. I wasn’t going to ask.
We all settled back down.
“Now. I believe Dawn’s debrief will take a significant amount of time. Does anyone have pressing business that requires our attention before she begins?”
Senti-Null opened his mouth, then closed it, giving a tiny shake of his head.
“Right. Dawn, you have the floor.”
“Ok! Settle in, this is one heck of a story. I’ll regularly pause for questions, but let me get to the pause.”
“Brrpt!” Auri agreed.
Having told the story the night before, I knew just where to start. The Sentinels were getting the unedited, unredacted version.
Except for the intimate moments with Serondes. I was going to keep that private. Nobody needed a blow by blow of my sex life.
“It all started when Hunting and I met the dwarves.” I began. “They knew about Formorians, but it’d been so long since they’d last seen one, the idiots on the wall thought we were Formorians.”
“What was all that about the Void stuff?” Hunting asked.
“Shhhhh!” Ocean, Night, and Acquisition shushed him. Hunting settled down, grumbling.
“Turns out, they did not have their best and their brightest manning the wall. It was more like an out-of-the-way punishment for them, rather than anything important.”
“That’s such bullshit!” Bulwark, usually calm and reserved, exploded. “We spend centuries battling Formorians, and it’s casual punishment duty for them!?”
“Shhh!” We all shushed him. Even Hunting joined in, getting a look of gleeful schadenfreude on his face.
“One rod fine for interrupting. Sentinel Dawn gets all proceeds.” Ocean declared, and there were nods around the room.
“Same with you Auri. Not sure how you’ll make any money to pay me back though…”
Brawling gave a great big belly laugh, and I continued on.
“The dwarves had their own great civilization. They loved wood, in all its forms. Redwoods, pines, oaks - everything. They made their homes out of the stuff, their armor and weapons were wooden, their plates, bowls, cups, beds - everything was made out of wood. One of the nice perks was they could regrow their armor, buildings - anything really easily.”
“One moment.” Night interrupted. He ran off, air blasting through the room as he moved.
I was almost the same level as Night.
And he was still stupidly fast compared to me.
“Been saying that all along.” Nature half-grumbled. We gave him a look.
“Night already interrupted. I’m just gliding off him. No penalty.”
We all threw what was on hand at him, but he had a point.
“No penalty.” Ocean agreed, as mugs and sofa cushions flew through the air.
I gave a brief shudder, as Night reappeared with a rod worth of coins. He put it down on the table in front of me, and tossed Ocean a scroll and quill.
“Had?” He asked.
I scratched my chin nervously.
“Yes, had. I’m getting there.”
“The dwarves at the wall decided, in their infinite wisdom, to send the problem of ‘oh gods we’re meeting a new civilization and there are weird new people’ up the food chain to their bosses. Which, to me, makes a lot of sense.”
Rueful grins and nods went around the room. Nobody here wanted to be on the hook for that sort of mess. We were all people of action, practical problem solvers. Politics were for others.
Except poor Ocean.
“I’m… not the best with politics and diplomacy.” I admitted.
“Pastos.” Ocean buried his head in his hands. “Fucking Pastos.”
Given how much of the aftermath Ocean had to deal with? Yeah, he was allowed to interrupt, penalty-free. He wrote his own name on the scroll anyways.
“I decided to go along with their plan of ‘send me to the dwarven capital so their leaders can meet me.’ It seemed like a good idea, and while I was agreeing with them, they couldn’t really complain about me.”
Night opened his mouth, then closed it.
“Right. While I was at the wall, I learned a few important facts. First off. Remus seems to be, in its entirety, in something they called the ‘Dead Zone’, and the elves called ‘The Low Experience Zone.’ Either way, the effect’s the same. We all gain significantly reduced experience while living here. I got around 200 levels in a year and a half outside of the dead zone, while a lifetime living here got me roughly 300 levels. Granted, the activities I was up to outside the dead zone contributed significantly, but the point remains - we’ve all been getting half experience or less our entire lives.”
Shock and horror was on every Sentinel’s face. Nobody interrupted after the bombshell.
“Yes Auri, even you.”
Yeah, yeah, I’ll try to fix it for her as soon as possible.
“It’s not all terrible. As a result, we’re getting significantly improved classes, since we spend so much time in each tier.”
“Second. Void mages have a tendency to randomly explode, taking out entire cities as they do so.”
Every eye turned towards Hunting, who was getting red in the face. I would be too, if I was accused of potentially annihilating cities.
It was like the starting gun on a verbal race.
Everyone had dozens.