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A note from Selkie

Hey all! BTDEM books 1-5 got taken down in preparation for going to KU! The epubs are pinned in my discord for now, but I'll be taking those down as I get close to release.

 

It honestly made me cry a little. 

Ranger Academy was once again on my to-do list the next day.

 

“Senti-Null! Got time for that practice bout?” I asked him after the morning meeting was over.

 

“Dawn! Of course! By the way, I have my own questions about your adventure…” He said, asking away as we walked to the Ranger Academy island.

 

We both wanted the practice.

 

Before we got to the arena though, Senti-Null ran out of questions, and I seized the moment.

 

“I’m in a bit of a pickle.” I confessed to the newest Sentinel.

 

“Oh?”

 

“My stats recently wildly swung around wildly. With the whole…” I gestured vaguely in the direction of Port Salona, which was vaguely in the direction of Ochi, given the distances involved. He knew what I meant.

 

“Anyways. I need a new fighting style. I could ask Night, but he’s got a thousand things on his plate, and he seems to be able to do everything.” I good-naturedly griped about the first among equals.

 

“You’d like my help with fighting?” He asked.

 

“Kinda. Help developing a style. My physical stats are so skewed towards speed and vitality, I figure I should be fighting like a speedster. You’re the best speedster I know and have access to.”

 

Looking at it objectively, Senti-Null was the best speedster. However, I had a soft spot for Julius.

 

“Ok Auri, Senti-Null and I are going to do something called ‘sparring’.”

 

“Brrpt?”

 

“It’s where we practice fighting each other, so we get better. When we need to fight for real, we’re stronger and can win! It’ll look like we’re fighting each other, but we’re not. We like each other.”

 

“Brrrpt!”

 

Auri seemed to understand, and flew off to one of the stone bleachers to watch.

 

We geared up, squared off, and began our spar, a few Instructors who had spare time watching us. Wasn’t every day they got to watch Sentinels sparring.

 

Senti-Null was fast. His level was low compared to mine - I had almost 200 levels on him - but he was built for speed, having skills to back up his speed-focused stats.

 

He charged right at me.

 

Experimentally, I tried to blast Radiance at his feet, only for my skill to entirely fail. I could probably overpower his nullification skills, then blast him normally, but that’d defeat the point of the exercise, in quite a few ways. It wouldn’t get either of us any practice, just confirmation that, yup, I had a lot of stats.

 

It’d be a different story if I could blast straight through his nullification directly.

 

Then he was upon me, and the fight was on.

 

He stabbed at me with his spear, standard-issue, and I tried to block with my shield, thrusting my own spear at him. His spear went straight through my shield and practically ignored my armor as it buried itself into my shoulder, while my spear got jostled out of my hands, as the sheer force and power of our impacts totally overwhelmed my strength.

 

“Point to you.” I conceded, holding my shield still. It was still salvageable with “only” a puncture in it, although it could be destroyed further.

 

“Brrpt! BRRRRPT!” Auri protested my treatment, and was mad that Senti-Null had scored a ‘point’ on me. She flew over, rage in her tiny eyes.

 

So adorable.

 

“No Auri, he’s allowed to hit me.”

 

“Brrrpt! Brrrrpt!!!”

 

Hmmm. She was right.

 

“Hey, I promised Auri if she could burn a Sentinel, that she could come along on missions. Want to let her try? It’s probably decent experience to dodge.”

 

Senti-Null ran a hand through his brown hair.

 

“Sure, I guess. One moment.”

 

He quickly retracted his spear. My shoulder reformed, my [Persistent Casting] permanently on. His eyes widened slightly.

 

“That just drained a large chunk of my mana, and didn’t even slow you down.” He complained. I quickly took a peek at my own mana, noticing that I’d just spent tens of thousands of points myself.

 

In other words, not much.

 

“Just how much magic power do you have?” He asked.

 

“Almost 500,000.”

 

“50,000!?”

 

“No. 500,000.”

 

Senti-Null took a deep, centering breath, and explosively let it out. He gave me a roguish grin, tinged with chagrin.

 

“Just when I thought I was doing well, getting promoted to Sentinel, do I get reminded just how much further I have to go.”

 

“Yeah. I felt the same when I got promoted. I also felt the same when I was out there.” I said, gesturing.

 

Senti-Null just shook his head.

 

“Right. Auri, is it? Hit me if you can!”

 

“BRRPT!” She shrieked a fearsome warcry, and… nothing happened.

 

“Brrpt?! Brrrpt!?!?!”

 

“He’s a canceler, Auri. He stops magic from happening.”

 

“Brrrpt!!” Auri was protesting the unfair conditions.

 

“Let her try?”

 

“She’s not hiding her level like you, right?”

 

“If she somehow managed to hide her level and class up and get strong enough to cause you concern, I’ll eat my sandals.” I promised Senti-Null.

 

Auri suddenly erupted in flame, a flamethrower erupting from her beak while burning quills shot from her feathers.

 

Senti-Null just dodged, outspeeding her by a ridiculous factor.

 

In practically no time at all, Auri was out of juice.

 

“Brrrpt brrrpt.” She came crying to me, landing on my shoulder and nuzzling my cheek.

 

“There there.” I reassured her. “One day you’ll get so strong you can burn the whole world.”

 

“Brrrpt!”

 

“You know what will help?”

 

“Brrpt?”

 

“An education. With Plato.” I reminded her.

 

“Brrpt…”

 

“Yes I’m sure.”

 

“Brrpt!”

 

Well, fine. I didn’t expect ‘convince Auri to let herself get educated’ to end up crossed off my to-do list, but I’d somehow managed it.

 

“Another round?” Senti-Null asked me.

 

“Naturally.” I rolled my shoulders, preparing.

 

“With or without your Radiance?” He asked.

 

“Let’s do without, but you should restock with Arcanite. The Instructors have some nearby. I know how to blast pesky speedsters already. With my [Mantle] though, since it helps my physical fighting.”

 

Senti-Null nodded, and we were off.

 

Nearly an hour of sparring later, and I was starting to settle into a style. I asked Senti-Null what he was thinking though.

 

“Right. In your sandals? I’d consider a mutual destruction combat style, or a more berserker style. Forget defense, your healing is insane. Focus on just hitting your opponent as hard as you can. Both of you get a spear rammed through you? You’ll live, they won’t.”

 

“Yeah, I’m leaning that way.” I agreed. “My concern is I still need to keep my head safe, and defending just my head makes my weak points clear.”

 

“Then don’t, or be so aggressive with your attacks that you force your opponents to be defensive. Let them parry, because they’ll hit whatever’s close.”

 

I wasn’t totally sold on the idea, but there were merits to what he was saying. I was also circling the same idea, just phrased differently.

 

“Thank you Senti-Null for your time.”

 

“Of course. The same to you.”

 

Onto the next task. My to-do list was somehow defying common sense, and getting longer every time I looked at it.

 

At least I was being productive.

 


 

I followed Maximus’s directions to a fancy villa, in the ‘almost very rich’ part of town. Two whole stories, and a sprawling complex of hedges and gardens led to ornate marble walls, and a sturdy bronze door.

 

I suspected that Plato charged enough to be able to afford to live here.

 

I wanted to mention to Auri that she was very expensive, but I didn’t want her to feel bad. Like, it was my choice to try and hatch Auri, she was my responsibility, I shouldn’t burden her with the knowledge. It could do serious damage to her mental well-being!

 

No, she would grow up happy. She didn’t need to know what it cost. She did need to know the world was scary and dangerous, but I never, ever wanted her to get the wrong message from me.

 

I knocked at the door.

 

A servant opened the door, taking in my outfit with a glance.

 

“May I assist the Prima?” He asked, very politely.

 

“Hi! I was wondering if Plato was taking on students?” I asked, skipping right to the heart of my question. We were both busy people.

 

He gave me a long-suffering sigh, and a thousand-yard stare.

 

“Citizen Plato is not currently taking on any students.” The poor servant began reciting. “He does not care that the patriarch is a Senator. He does not care that his father is a general. He is uninterested in teaching the next [Consul], [Emperor], [Grand Magus], or whatever else your ‘brilliant’ protege is going to become. No. Plato is enjoying a break.”

 

The poor servant delivered his speech in the most bored tone I’d ever heard. Dude needed a Sound skill to give the speech for him.

 

“What about-”

 

“No.” He interrupted me, entirely sure that he was right.

 

I put a hand on my hip.

 

“I assume you don’t care I’m a Sentinel, and that’s fine.”

 

“Edor’s rusty trident.” The servant swore. I arched an eyebrow at him.

 

“You do care?”

 

“Yes, you just lost me a bet.” He complained. “Seven more months, and I would’ve won 300 coins.”

 

I shrugged, and figured I’d apologize, just because I wanted him happy enough to listen to me. As for the gambling? He made his bed, he could lie in it. I quickly checked my coin purse.

 

Almost empty from my daily cash I grabbed before heading out. Almost made me wish for the wilderness again.

 

“Bet you 10 coins that Plato will be interested in what I have to say.”

 

I got a withering look.

 

“It’s 64 rods to insist on a meeting with Plato. Payable up-front. In coin. No guarantee that he takes on your student, that’s simply the price to insist on a meeting where Plato can personally reject you.”

 

That was a boatload of metal.

 

“Be right back!” I tried to be cheerful, but failed.

 

Practically daylight robbery. If Maximus hadn’t been so sure that Plato was the best?

 

Nearly two hours later - blasted temple [Bankers] - and a small handcart later, and I was back.

 

“Sentinel Dawn for Plato!” I told the servant, who eyed the cart and shrugged.

 

“Right, it’s your loss.”

 

A hop, skip, and a jump later, and I was meeting with the elderly [Tutor]. Classic ‘wise civilized old teacher’ look. White hair, beard full of curls, expensive but not flaunting it tunic, Plato was the works. Solidly over 300 to boot.

 

“Appius informed you that I was not taking on students?” Plato got right down to business.

 

“Yes.”

 

“And you are aware that this meeting is purely for me to reject you to your face?”

 

“Yes. I also understand that I am able to present my case?”

 

“Correct. Begin.”

 

I was willing to throw everything at Plato. I wanted only the best for Auri.

 

“Auri is a phoenix, the like of which has never been seen in Remus. You’ve taught Senators, Commanders, famous merchants, and more. However, this chance is unique, to say the least.”

 

“Brrrpt!” The little troublemaker herself flared her wings, letting colorful flames dance around her.

 

“Also, while I can pay in coin, I can also make you young again. I don’t sell this skill, I only offer it in exchange for something I’d like. It may give you a few hundred years of life.”

 

A long silence stretched between us, as Plato contemplatively looked at Auri, then myself, then back at Auri.

 

“What’s the catch?” He asked.

 

“You get cursed. Unknown ahead of time on the severity.”

 

He stroked his beard, before coming to a conclusion.

 

“I did not expect to be convinced. However, your case is persuasive. Fine. I’ll do it.” He said, and I let a maniacal grin split my face.

 

All that was left was hammering out the details. Almost bored poor Auri to tears.

 

Plato demonstrated a mastery of rhetoric that utterly demolished my crude attempts at bartering, but eh. It was all worth it in the end.

 

Short version - I’d pay him a bit, reimburse his expenses, and after two years of education - he estimated ‘properly’ teaching Auri would take ten - I’d make him young again.

 

Naturally, I offered to heal him normally, but he had his own healer he liked already.

 


 

I had to go to the temple to reload my poor coin purse - how quickly a year and a half of wages vanished into smoke - then it was off to the next stop.

 

My to-do list was finally shrinking.

 

After cautioning Auri, and consulting with mom, I found a lovely [Tailor], who was able to get me a dozen different tunics in various patterns, cuts, and colors.

 

Auri was behaving herself, and I needed to reward her.

 

I also got a tunic that I’d secretly lusted after in my heart ever since I was a kid. One hope buried so deep, because I hadn’t thought I’d be able to get it, or justify the expense even if I could. An object of admiration, that I was only getting because I was meeting the Emperor.

 

A solid purple tunic.

 

“Auri. Do NOT burn this one.”

 

“Brrpt!”

 

She seemed to know I was serious.

 


 

I managed to get in a brief word with Destruction when he made it back. We spent a few hours trading stories - he’d been busy ever since the Emperor seized power, handling a huge number of fires - then I asked him about his third class.

 

“It was easy for me.” He said. “All of my skills and classes are geared towards large scale skills. I just took the natural extension of that. Your class and skills are a tool. What tools do you want and need? How can it synergize with the rest of your classes?”

 

Interesting advice.

 


 

“Elaine, you made it!” Albina was over the moon, and the bags under her eyes weren’t quite as bad. I gave her a quick shot of [Sunrise] anyways, watching her light up at it.

 

“Brrpt!”

 

“And aren’t you just the prettiest thing?”

 

“Brrrpt!!”

 

Albina made a motion, and a tiny mirror appeared in front of Auri, courtesy of her skills.

 

“Brrpt! BrrrRRRRrrrrpt!” Auri spent some time admiring herself in the mirror. I rolled my eyes.

 

“Vain bird.”

 

“Shall we get started? I brought my friend, Marcella, who can fireproof hair.”

 

“Oh, that’d be great!” I told the woman.

 

“Not my highest level skill.” She smiled back, half rolling her eyes. “I thought there’d be demand to keep hair and clothes and the like fire-proof, but noooo. Silly me. I keep almost ditching the skill, then someone reaches out to me, I keep it for a bit longer, and…”

 

She went on for some time in that vein. Long story short? Rare skill.

 

“How long?” Albina asked me. I only spent a moment thinking about it.

 

“Lower back please! I just know I’m going to have to ruin it soon, but I want to enjoy it while it lasts.”

 

My scalp itched, but a moment later I had HAIR! Glorious, wonderful, time-consuming HAIR!

 

“A class level and two skill levels!” Albina was beaming at me. “Elaine, you are simply the best.

 

I flapped a hand at her.

 

“Oh it’s fine.”

 

“And done!” Marcella proudly proclaimed. “Your bird won’t be able to light your hair on fire anymore!”

 

“BrrrpT!” Auri seemed to take that as a challenge, and in a short moment, my hair was predictably on fire.

 

“Brrrpt.” Auri smugly chirped back at Marcella.

 

“I just got six levels from that!” She gasped.

 

“Brrpt!” Auri apparently had also leveled.

 

The three of them traded a look over my head, and I could practically feel the competitive spirit in the room. The lure of easy levels.

 

“Gods damn them all.” I whispered under my breath, as Albina regrew my hair, Marcella tried to fireproof it, and Auri showed them who was boss. Levels for everyone!

 

I crossed my arms and pouted.

 

I better have hair at the end of this.

 


 

It had been a full week, and Auri had been good.

 

For one, I had hair.

 

For two, there had been no major disasters. I hadn’t been arrested, and the fines had been… acceptable. I loaded up on cash, and prepared.

 

“Ok Auri. It’s time.”

 

“Brrpt?”

 

“Flower shop time!”

 

“Brrrpt!!!”

 

We walked through the city, hunting for a flower shop as Auri happily chirped the entire time. She was starting to get a nice little bird song voice!

 

Finally, we made it to the store, where I pulled Auri aside.

 

“Ok, so three things.” I told her.

 

“Brrpt! BRRPT!” She protested. I had promised her FLOWERS to BURN! Why was I adding more conditions at the last moment!?

 

I pinched the bridge of my nose.

 

“Just… listen for a moment.”

 

“BRPT!”

 

“Please?”

 

“Brrpt…”

 

Auri only relented because she saw I wasn’t going in and buying her THE FLOWERS. She poofed up into an adorably angry ball of flames.

 

I had to remind myself that I was dealing with a petulant child phoenix.

 

“First - I need to actually buy the flowers before you can burn them.”

 

“Brrpt…”

 

“Second - We should be nice to the [Shopkeeper], and only burn them inside with his permission. That way, he’ll let us come again in two weeks to DO IT AGAIN!”

 

“Brrrpt!! Brpt.”

 

“Yes, two weeks. You don’t get to burn down a flower shop every week.”

 

“Brrpt!”

 

“No, I’m not negotiating this.”

 

“Brrpt!!”

 

I crossed my arms and stared at her. She glared back.

 

Somehow, I had more patience.

 

“Brpt…” She conceded.

 

“Third - this is just for you to think about.” It was also something of a character measure, but I wasn’t going to tell her that. “You can burn them all right now if you want.”

 

“Brrrpt!”

 

“But ask yourself this. Is burning sixty flowers right now so much better than burning fifty, then burning ten tomorrow?”

 

“Brrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrpt.” Auri had little flames coming out of where her ears should be as she strained to think about it.

 

“BRRPT!” It was like a fire was lit in her mind, as she compared the two possibilities.

 

“Brrpt! BRRRPT!!!” She excitedly told me that, wait, she could burn forty now, ten tomorrow, and ten THE DAY AFTER as well!

 

Heh, smart bir-

 

Wait.

 

Holy.

 

Not only did Auri figure out that she could delay gratification even more, but she also just did some relatively complex math. In her head!

 

She continually defied the image of a several-month old with that type of thinking.

 

I entered the store, the floral scents hitting me as a dizzying array of colors were presented. Agapanthus were next to daisies, the lilies were next to the violets, the roses paired with the honeysuckles and so many more!

 

“Brrrrrrrrrrrrrpt.” Auri chirped in awe. This was going to be ALL HERS.

 

A quick negotiation later, and an emphatic denial of burning the flowers inside the shop, and a secondary negotiation for the shop employees to deliver most of the flowers to my home, and we were off.

 

I naturally kept a bunch for myself, or rather, Auri. I stepped outside, holding six bundles of flowers.

 

“One at a time, or-”

 

I didn’t even get my question out before Auri turned my world into an Inferno.

 

RIP my latest haircut. It had lasted a record 18 hours.

 


 

In no time at all, Commander Ajax and I found ourselves at the doors to the Senate’s main meeting chamber. I’d snuck by Albina’s right before the meeting, after handing Auri off to Plato, and I looked properly presentable.

 

“Announcing Commander Ajax and Sentinel Dawn to meet Imperator Augustus!” One of the Praetorian guards yelled, as the doors opened.

 

I took a breath, and stepped forward into the room.

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Selkie

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