Neptune leaned over and tapped both of our shoulders. Autumn jumped, although I’d seen him coming.
"What’s Rule 3, and Rule 32?" He asked.
"DAD!" Autumn protested. "My negotiations were confidential!"
"And you did them right next to a merchant more than twice your level, that you know can eavesdrop on such negotiations. Hopefully this will be a reminder that your skills aren’t absolute." He gently reprimanded Autumn. "The rules?"
"Not everything can be bought with money, and, uh, don’t sell stuff that mobs dislike?" Autumn asked.
Neptune shook his head.
"That’s Rule 31. Rule 32 is don’t sell anything that’ll get you ripped apart by the rich and powerful."
Autumn spoke up on the last three words, the rule having clearly clicked.
"It’ll be almost impossible to successfully auction off a gem that makes you young again." He told Autumn - indirectly telling me as well. "Much better to trade it for favors, and for other impossible-to-obtain things."
He gave Autumn another look.
"Plus, every [Thief] would be after the gem. With your low level, you’d never keep it safe, although you’d get a dozen levels in the attempt. Could you afford to reimburse Sentinel Dawn when it got stolen from your care?"
Autumn looked embarrassed at the thought.
With Neptune putting an end to Autumn’s fantasy it was time for me to get going.
Sadly, my to-do list was endless, and I needed to get back to it.
Hell, in some senses I was skipping work. I should be at Ranger Academy, yelling at Trainees. Sentinels were given a lot of slack in how we went about our work though, and nobody was going to give me grief over taking a few days off to get my affairs back in order.
Something that I had no idea how to check on, and no clue how to manage - all the stuff I’d invested in way out in that one new city. Heck, I didn’t even know the name of said city! That was for another day entirely.
Albina was next on my list, and she took some effort to find. They’d moved since I’d last been around, and it wasn’t like there was an easy directory of "where people live."
I finally managed it by poking around her old workplace and asking her old coworkers.
Her villa was alright. Solid stone, in a medium part of town. Not poor, but nowhere close to rich either, the single-story home butted up against its neighbors.
Everyone else, I was delighted to see. I just marched right in, no problems.
Albina? She’d been expecting a baby when I left. I’d said I’d be back to help her with it. If something had happened, I’d never forgive myself.
I spent a moment at the door, listening in. My stats giving me superhuman hearing, letting me spy a bit. Nothing obvious came to my ears. No crying babies. Bracing myself, I quietly knocked on the door.
I heard nearly silent footsteps on the other side of the door, and then it opened.
Albina was on the other side, and she looked terrible. Her normally flawless look was haggard, her cheeks sunken into her face, and large raccoon eyes topped it all off.
"Elaine!" She whispered at me, staring at me in shock. "Is that really you?"
"Yes!" I whispered back. "I’m back! I’m alive!"
Albina gave me a Look.
"Can you really say you’re alive when your hair looks like that?"
I rubbed my hand over my somewhat charred stubble on top of my head. I couldn’t, in good conscience, call it ‘hair’.
"Brrrpt!" Auri’s sharp cry was like a firecracker going off in the middle of our whispering.
"I swear to all the gods, if you wake Primus up." Albina waved a finger at Auri. "I just got him down for a nap."
Auri nodded, cowed by Albina’s ferocity.
"Primus is a good name." I whispered. Not terribly imaginative, but then again, most kids got named in order. I’d dodged a bullet in that sense.
"I’m happy with it." Albina whispered. Gods, she sounded so tired. Needed to poke her with [Sunrise] when I had a moment.
If she wanted it. For all I knew she wanted to take a nap, and [Sunrise] was bad for that.
"Is this a bad time? I can come back later?"
She shook her head.
"No, it’s alright. Sorry, I’m exhausted. Come in, come in. Let’s sit down. Primus has decided that waking up multiple times in the night is just the thing to do, and he’s rejected goat’s milk. I’m still breastfeeding him, which takes so long in the night, then I have to run around keeping the house in order while juggling him, and I’ve got a second on the way, making me feel all sorts of sick." Albina let everything loose in a torrent.
"Octavius helps, but he’s also keeping the money coming in, but it’s still tight with Primus and the food prices having spiked and-"
Albina clearly needed to vent. From the sound of it, she was… surviving… but not exactly thriving. There was just so much to do with Primus, and keeping the house intact, and she hadn’t been able to keep up her hairdressing business. That had also done poor things for her social life, replacing one set of friends with an entirely new set of friends - other moms with kids of similar ages. Except there was some sort of internal drama, and…
Albina was a good friend of mine, so I tried to pay attention. I really did. The only thing I got out of it was a reaffirmation that having a baby killed any sort of free time she had.
I wasn’t willing - or able - to sign up for babysitting duty, however, I could do one better. Maybe.
"I’ve got an energy skill. Need a pick-me-up?" I asked Albina.
She hesitated, looking torn.
"No cost, I promise."
"If you would?" Albina’s tone almost broke my heart. I leaned over and poked her, jolting her with [Sunrise] as I also gave a strong wave of healing.
"I need my hairdresser." I told Albina, reclining on one of her sofas in the Remus style.
She got an awkward look, and I held up my hand.
"Can I pay you by hiring a [Nanny], [Babysitter], [Child Minder], [Tutor], and a [Maid] or someone like that for an entire day, once a week? Take a load off your mind?"
The look on her face. Total relief.
"Would you? That… I don’t have the words to tell you how much that would help."
I smiled and patted her arm.
"The power of money! I see why Autumn likes it so much."
Albina barked out a laugh, and we froze as it echoed through the house.
"I swear I’ve become twice as religious from before." Albina mutter-whispered to me. "‘Don’t wake the baby’ is my new prayer."
"Ha! I totally get it." I whispered back.
A baby’s cry reverberated through the house, and Albina winced.
"Does three days from now work?"
"It should. Let me fix your hair real fast." She said in a normal tone, gesturing. With a quick pop, I had hair again! Short, but HAIR!
I could get it properly fixed when-
Auri chose that moment to "help" and "improve things."
"Brrrpt!" She cried out, as my hair went up in flames. I ducked, to avoid setting Albina’s house on fire.
"Auri! No!" I cried out in dismay.
"Brrrpt!" She was very pleased with herself.
Hair flaming, stinking up the house, I quickly apologized to Albina.
"I am so sorry, but if you know anyone who can fireproof hair…"
She looked at me and gave a tired nod.
"I think I know someone. Primus." She hurried through the door, chasing the screams that were going through the house.
I left half a rod’s worth of coins - most of my spare cash - in Albina’s living room, and saw myself out.
I made a mental note to come back another time, when Albina wasn’t so tired, and give Primus a quick check up.
Next thing on my endless to-do list…
"Auri, we’re going to make you a nest and a bed of your own."
"What would you like?"
"Brrpt, brrpt, brrrpt!!"
I didn’t quite catch that.
"Ok, how big? Tell me when." I started with my hands being small, then slowly made them larger, indicating a "ball" the size of the nest that she wanted.
My hands were on either side of my chest when Auri brrrpt’d, letting me know that she wanted something large enough that I could possibly curl up inside.
Well, that was fine.
"Alrighty! What do you want it made out of?"
Ah, right. My Auri-speech wasn’t that good, and she might not even know.
"Let me know when you see it, alright?"
The day was practically over, and after lightly browsing the market, I made it back home. Everything with Artemis had gone off without a hitch, and we had a lovely dinner together, before Artemis announced that she had to make it back to her School of Sorcery and Spellcraft, and put out a dozen fires that Maximus had surely started there.
It had nothing to do with me mentioning that Maximus was entirely out of the loop on all of that, and everyone giving Artemis death glares until she’d gone back to the school.
The day started off well enough, although I wasn’t fully able to dodge the follow-up questions from Hunting, who’d ‘won’ yesterday’s brawl. I answered them as well as I could, while we walked through the underground and underwater tunnel to Ranger Academy.
He also got a chance to play with the Deception Ring, and figured out how it worked. Given that we started off with the same framework – we all used the same Inscriptions – I had a much easier time explaining to him how it worked, versus when the elves had tried to teach me.
I did ask him for advice on a third class though.
"Passion." He said. "Figure out what you love, and do that. If you take a class you’re just not interested in? Leveling it will be a chore. Using it will be a chore. You got this far on a love of healing and magic, yeah? Well, what else do you love? Who cares about the combat applications of it, you only live-"
He glanced at me and smirked.
"-for eternity. Don’t get stuck being miserable."
Good advice. We continued onto Ranger Academy.
Once there, I asked around for the Instructors who normally handled SERE Training. It took some time for them to all be free - most Instructors handled more than one class.
Instead of just cooling my heels, I went to investigate the situation with flying classes. I was taking over from Maestrai. I wasn’t sure what Command’s logic was, but I knew my own reasoning. Namely, I could fix any "whoopsies", and my adaptive flight let me mimic different styles.
I wasn’t arrogant enough to think I was an expert on skill evolutions, and obtaining particular skills, but I had enough foundational knowledge to push trainees in the right direction. It wasn’t exactly a well-kept secret, and all of the trainees already knew how, were on their own path, or already had limited flight.
Auri was a hit, and a game of "catch/play with Auri in the sky" quickly evolved. I suspected it was going to be a regular thing, and everyone leveled from it in the short time I was around.
Phoenixes were stupid. Just being around them was good for levels.
Auri also leveled, but I think that was more "dodge people 170 levels higher than you" more than anything else. I foresaw good experience.
I also had a quick conversation with the Rangers who ran sparring. My healing power and size meant that, when I was around, Rangers could go full-contact, only refraining from headshots. The ability to fight, relatively no holds barred, was great for experience - both of the learning type, and the leveling up type.
After a long discussion, we agreed that the rules wouldn’t change. The benefits didn’t outweigh the risks, namely, that Trainees would be too much in the habit of no-holds barred, even when I wasn’t around, and someone would die.
"Might die" hadn’t seemed to stop the Instructors in the past, although… I couldn’t think of a single fatality at Ranger Academy.
The SERE Instructors got together later on, and after briefing them on my new role - they all knew me already - we quickly got down to business.
"Frankly, you were all teaching me this stuff, what, three, four years ago?" I opened up. "I don’t think that I’m better than you at this, not by a long shot."
"Keep doing what you do best, and at some point - tonight, after last bell? - I can share with you a few interesting stories of what I’ve been up to, what worked, what didn’t, and discuss how it should be incorporated into the training."
There were some slow nods. They knew me - had been my Instructors like I said - but they had known me as a trainee, determined to prove myself. There was no telling what would happen when a bit of power went to someone’s head. Some people got utterly drunk off of it. My rise had been meteoric, by any standard.
I’d like to think I kept myself mostly moderated. The lack of sweeping changes, and telling them "you know where to find me if there are issues" hopefully reinforced that.
Although - ugh. I shouldn’t just leave them to their own devices, should I? I should take somewhat of an interest, to head off problems before they become larger. Just like a Ranger team, just how I was trained, but…
Well, I suppose it would be like leading a full Ranger team, wouldn’t it? Except everyone in the team was a veteran.
Cross one thing off the to-do list, two more popped up. It was endless.
The Adventurer’s Guild was up next, mostly a side stop. However, it did get stuff off my to-do list, and there were two things I could get done here, for the low, low price of fifteen minutes.
Also, happily, my tasks were getting less important.
In no time at all, I was seated across from the Adventurer’s Guild [Guildmaster] once again.
"Sentinel Dawn. Your return and levels are impressive." He offered me a cup of wine, which I gratefully took.
Auri promptly lit it on fire.
"Yes Auri, you burned the bad water, good job." I sighed at my now-flaming cup.
Meh. My vitality and healing were good enough. I took a drink, enjoying the [Guildmaster’s] eye quirk up in surprise.
Wouldn’t be the first time he saw someone drink a flaming beverage, but it wasn’t exactly an everyday occurrence.
"Brrrpt!" Auri was looking around his office appreciatively. With the eye of a seasoned arsonist.
That reflects me, that shows how pretty I am, that’ll burn well, that looks like it's expensive, great fuel for fire, that should have pretty colors when it goes up in flames…
She was a little transparent.
"Thank you. There’s some great adventures to be had out there." And if adventurers were out in the wilderness, they wouldn't be menacing the poor people living in cities, or kidnapping girls.
I still thought the lot of them should be rounded up and jailed, but the powers that be had other ideas. While they were around though, I was slightly getting over my prejudice, and seeing if I could put them to good use.
"What can we do for you?"
"You’ve heard about Commander Julius?"
"Yes, terrible, but oh so interesting business."
"I’d like to make a quest for his safe return, or new information about what happened."
"Would you like to issue a new quest, or add to the already existing one?"
I refrained from saying something stupid, namely, ‘there’s already one?’
"I’ll add to it. What’s it currently at?"
That was a fairly low amount. Someone who didn’t have a whole lot of coins cared. And, well, I was rich.
"I’ll add 400 rods to it."
The [Guildmaster] had a good poker face.
"Very well. That should get a number of people interested, who had previously passed it up. Is there anything else?"
"Yes. Cancel the quest for the Thunderbird egg please."
With that, my business with the Adventurer’s Guild was done.
Blessedly, without adding anything to my to-do list. For once.
We were walking along the streets to our next spot when Auri spotted something she liked.
"Brrpt! Brrrrrpt!!!!" She called me, urgently catching my attention as she hovered over an object a merchant was hawking.
"Found something you liked?" I asked Auri.
"Brrrpt!" She nodded her little beak furiously.
"We sell only the best!" The merchant gleefully told me, rolling with the oddity of me talking with a bird - so long as the bird was saying ‘buy this! BUY THIS!’ "We have the finest Arcanite crystals in Ariminum!"
I refocused on the merchant’s wares. Arcanite it was, faceted to catch the light and reflect it a hundred ways. Auri flitted close to one, looking at her reflection in awe.
"You want this?"
"You want this… for your nest?"
"... Still the same size?" I asked tentatively, remembering that she wanted a nest the size of my torso.
"Brrpt!" Auri confirmed, twisting in front of the piece of Arcanite, seeing how her colors and flames were refracted and redisplayed for the vain bird. She then flitted over to the next piece, repeating the process, reassuring herself that, yes, she was very [Brretty].
Fuck my wallet.
I spent an hour or two with Commander Ajax, reviewing the information and pitch we were going to give the Emperor. Apparently, the meeting was in a couple of days. Even "urgent, from Ranger Command" didn’t get us an instant meeting.
All the better to prepare our pitch. I was responsible for the technical details, while Ajax was preparing it the ‘right’ way for Emperor Augustus to be receptive. Social stuff, that I was happy to get handed off to someone else.
I finally managed to get dinner with Kallisto, who was still part of Ranger Team 0. His wife Cordelia and kid were still around, and Flora was ADORABLE.
"Elaine. Elaine." She tugged on my sleeve.
"Flower!" She said, handing me a slightly crumpled flower.
I gave a dramatic gasp.
"Oh! Is this for me?"
She shyly nodded.
"Why thank you!" I carefully took it from her, as Kallisto and Cordelia smiled.
Auri somehow knew that the flower was a tiny bit special, and not to burn it right now in front of Flora.
"How have things been? Everything ok?"
"Yeah - oh, have I got a funny story for you…"
I got to sneak in a quick meeting with Night, which was really more like five minutes at Ranger Academy while he was waiting for his latest protege to finish up with his lessons, so he could mentor him.
I still had a crazy amount of respect for Night doing that, year after year, student after student, knowing that all of them would die, and he would move on. It boggled the mind.
"Night. Any advice on my third class?"
"Yes, but I can only give you a short overview at this time." Night said. "High level advice, without getting into the details."
He started to walk, and I instinctively followed him, falling into the same contemplative pace that we used to circle Ranger Academy with. It had only been a few years, and yet, it was a lifetime.
"You have joined the hallowed ranks of the Immortals." He started off. "You are not pressed for time. I personally had thousands of years to contemplate before selecting my class. You are in no risk, no danger, at this time. Now, I recognize that you are young, and patience has never been your strongest point. As such, I will not offer advice that you will simply disregard such as ‘wait and meditate on the issue for a hundred years’, for at your age such a feat seems impossible, and you shall simply disregard it. However. If you could do me a favor? Please wait at least a single year, before selecting a class."
That was good advice, and I took it to heart. Why screw up an eternity, for a moment’s impatience now?
I resolved to force myself to think for an extended period of time, and do everything in my power to get good starting classes.
Future Elaine would be happy with me.
"Thank you Night."
"You are most welcome Dawn. Ah, I see my next appointment. We shall talk about this more in the future."
I gave a salute.
"It would be my honor."
"Elaine! I did what you said, here." Autumn handed me the ‘homework’ I’d assigned to her.
I settled in, grabbing a mango to eat. Auri flitted up to her latest podium of adoration, and started to show off.
Sadly for Auri, there was stiff competition in the "attract the eye" department. Everyone had a sign, everyone was showing off in some fantastical manner or another. From Mirage making flashy signs, pillars of burning flames, trees grown into living signs, hovering mosaics and more, everyone was trying to get some attention.
I was biased, but I thought Auri’s colorful display was the best sign. It had started off unusual enough that she’d gotten a lot of attention the first time, but the novelty was wearing off. Didn’t stop Auri from chasing that high.
"You’ve got the superficial femoral and the femoropopliteal arteries mixed up here." I pointed out her mistake. Autumn grabbed the paper with all the indignation of an A+ student told that she’d gotten something wrong, opening her mouth to protest.
She closed it, having spotted her mistake.
"Got a new assignment for you."
Autumn mock-groaned, and I didn’t blame her for it. She’d done incredibly well from a practical standpoint when I was gone, healing hundreds of people with her knowledge. She’d also spent hours studying the Medical Manuscripts, so at this point I was working on the nitty gritty. The really obnoxious, tiny details, that I believed would make the difference between a "good" healer, and a "great" healer. Especially since Autumn was lacking [Oath] to empower her, she needed every edge.
"I need a ton of Arcanite. Roughly this much, hollow." I mimed the sphere I wanted.
"That would cost a lot."
"Yeah. Roughly how much?"
Autumn named a figure.
I gave Auri a dirty look that she completely missed.
Ah well. Such was the price for keeping Auri happy, and really, that’s what I wanted.
"Right. Let me get you that amount. Anything you manage to save, any good bargains you strike? You get to keep the extra."
Autumn’s eyes lit up as she pumped her fist.
I was accosted one evening by a pale vampire, with medium black hair and a sweeping cape.
"Sentinel." He politely greeted me as I was on my way home. Not exactly making a good first impression on me. Mostly on the "looming around small women in the dark" more than his address.
"What’s up?" I asked, not stopping for him. I didn’t speed away either, but I did push my speed a bit. Just enough to make him awkwardly jog to keep up.
"My name is Misha. I was hoping for your assistance in an endeavor."
"Night can’t help you?"
"Night, as talented as he is, lacks the knowledge you do."
"Brrrpt!" Auri was always pleased to toot my horn.
"What’s up. Also, lose Night’s habit of taking fifty words to say one."
"I want to learn how to heal, to find some method of defeating the reliance on blood that we have."
Note to self: Not a great listener. Fails to follow directions.
"And you need me because…?"
"You are the best. A genius without peer. A…"
Was Night the only non-annoying vampire? Did he like, specifically select the most obnoxious people to turn or something? At least Jaclyn had been mercifully quick.
"Hey, listen, would love to help. However, I’m super busy. Tell you what. Join Artemis’s School of Sorcery and Spellcraft. I teach medicine in the evenings there. Also, get a copy of my Medical Manuscripts and read over them. You’ll get almost everything you need."
"Well, I was hoping for some more personalized attention…"
"NOPE! Too busy. Gotta go. Bye!"
With that, I bailed.
Upon reflection, it could’ve been worse. Almost every time it was a suitor of some sort, thinking they were the next great Cassanova and they could get in my tunic.
Onto the next thing.