When Garia arrived in Esthelm just before midday, she saw the commotion outside the Adventurer’s Guild before she’d even dropped off her delivery.
Sugar. Several bags of it – enough for a huge rush order in one of the bakeries in town. The heavy, sticky delivery had messed up the inside Garia’s pack. She’d have to spend quite some time cleaning it out with water and a ball of soap.
The thought was depressing to the girl, but she put that out of her mind the instant she saw Ryoka. As always, the other girl was at the center of some kind of attention. In this case, she was surrounded by a crowd of adventurers in the open courtyard used for training and sparring in the Adventurer’s Guild.
She wasn’t sparring or using a weapon. Yet. But Garia could see as plain as her own level that Ryoka was about to fight. The other girl had a—certain expression that crossed her face in times like these.
Externally, she did seem like normal Ryoka. That was to say, her impassive face which gave nothing away and her distant, reserved eyes which had fascinated Garia the first day she’d met the other girl.
But in times like these, though the mask would not break, Garia could see another Ryoka peering out from behind. And her eyes – yes, you had to look there. Ryoka’s eyes held a faint, fierce light.
It made Garia hesitate, but she was even kinder than she was curious. That instinct prompted her to gently push her way through the crowd of adventurers to stop Ryoka from picking a fight with someone dangerous.
Ryoka was stretching her legs out, touching her toes when she saw someone lift up a guy in leather armor and shift him out of the way. Garia, red-faced and blushing, apologized and edged into the open space and towards Ryoka.
Huh. But Ryoka had suggested Garia come to the city, hadn’t she? It was just…odd. Her conversation with Garia felt like it had happened a long time ago. But she’d been awake then and hadn’t slept since.
Tired. Which wasn’t good. Ryoka had to be at the top of her game for what was coming next.
Ryoka nodded as Garia cautiously walked closer. She would have smiled—or at least thought about smiling—but she didn’t feel like it. She needed to concentrate.
“Um, hi, Ryoka. What’s up?”
“Nothing much. See that person? The one in the silver armor? She challenged me to a fight.”
Ryoka nodded across the courtyard, to where Yvlon was talking to Ceria, Calruz, and several other members of the Horns of Hammerad. Garia eyed her once, gulped, and then bent down to whisper to Ryoka.
“Ryoka? Did you do something to make her—um, mad?”
Ryoka bared her teeth. It might have been a smile.
“I don’t think so. Not yet, anyways. She challenged me to a ‘friendly’ match. I accepted. Why?”
“Oh. Nothing. It’s just—that’s Yvlon Byres, Captain of the Silver Spears. She’s famous around here.”
“So I’m told.”
“And she challenged you. To a fight?”
“Well, a sparring match. I was the one who wanted to turn it into a fight.”
Ryoka hesitated. She eyed Yvlon across the open space between them. The other young woman—she was closer to Ryoka’s age, possibly a year or two older—was smiling and addressing a worried-looking Ceria. She turned, met Ryoka’s eyes, and nodded politely.
The barefoot girl looked away. She began stretching her other leg and muttered to Garia.
“I—just want to push her face in a bit, don’t you? She’s a bit too beautiful and perfect.”
Garia waited, but Ryoka just stood back up and began touching her toes, breathing slowly and steadily.
“Ryoka, that’s—I know Yvlon. Her group, the Silver Spears helped chase off a group of bandits that was attacking me once. And I’ve heard of her. She’s a really good person! She’s nice, she gives to the poor, her team takes on requests to help people even if the reward isn’t high—”
“I get it. She’s a great person. A popular girl. A someone everyone likes.”
The expression on Ryoka’s face said that she didn’t share the same opinion. Her eyes were flinty as they flicked towards Yvlon.
“You don’t think she’s like that?”
“Maybe. Maybe not. She just—reminds me of people I don’t like. And she looks too nice for an adventurer. I don’t like nice people.”
“That doesn’t make any sense, Ryoka.”
“I guess. Shame.”
Ryoka finished stretching out her hamstrings and stood straight, sighing. Her conversation with Garia was—distracting. She didn’t really have a good explanation for Garia, not one she could articulate. It was just how she felt. More than anything, Ryoka had been happy to fight Yvlon.
The other adventurer noticed she was staring and smiled again. Ryoka scowled. That smile. That polite little smile. She wanted to wipe it off Yvlon’s face.
“She looks way too attractive, that’s all.”
Garia shook her head. She seemed to wrestle with herself and then burst out.
“You both look like—like princesses!”
Ryoka blinked at the other Runner. Garia stared back, embarrassed.
“You do. You both look—way better than I do. Or Persua. Or anyone, really. I don’t see why you want to fight her.”
“She wants to test me, too. She’s working for Magnolia.”
“She’s related to Lady Magnolia, Ryoka.”
“You know she once took on five men and won, right? She did it barehanded.”
“With armor, though, right? Not exactly barehanded.”
Garia was close to tearing out her hair. She clutched at her head and regretted it as her sugar-encrusted palms mixed with her sweat.
“It was still five people, Ryoka! Most adventurers couldn’t do that with a weapon!”
Ryoka knew that was true. She knew it was…probably…impressive, but even in her own head she didn’t want to give the thought too much credence. Garia was still talking. Ryoka debated tuning her out and reluctantly listened.
“I know she won’t hurt you—not if you don’t try to hurt her. But Silver-rank adventurers aren’t like that guy you fought in the tavern, Ryoka. If you make her get serious she’ll—what are you doing?”
The barefoot girl wasn’t done with her pre-fight stretching. From stretching her legs, she’d moved onto her arms. And while the adventurers had watched her touch her toes and stretch her legs with interest, the next phase of her warm up was…different.
Ryoka shook her arms out in a fanning motion. It looked ridiculous, she knew. Sort of like a kid pretending to be a chicken. But it was a necessary stretch if she wanted to throw hooks when she was fighting. She began to circle her arms around, first in one direction, and then the other.
Adventurers were laughing. Ryoka ignored them. She raised her arm and grabbed the elbow, gently pushing it down her back. Then she repeated it with her other arm.
All in all the stretches took five minutes. Ryoka did everything from touching her toes to stretching out her legs to rotating her hips as if she was using a hula-hoop in slow motion.
When it was done, Ryoka could feel every part of her body was ready to go. She also had an audience. Besides the adventurers already watching her and Yvlon, a group of enterprising street vendors had joined the crowd along with a sizable group of pedestrians. They were already betting as they stood in the circle, chatting, eating food, and laughing at Ryoka’s antics.
Yvlon smiled as Ryoka walked into the center of the ring. She nodded to Ceria and took a few steps towards Ryoka.
“Interesting. You’re quite limber. Was that supposed to help you fight?”
“You don’t stretch before a fight?”
The other adventurers laughed or chuckled. Yvlon shook her head and replied drily.
“Not like that. I don’t think any warriors I know would do that – especially not in front of an audience.”
“Shame. One more advantage for me, then.”
It was amazing, Garia reflected as she watched Ryoka, that the other girl was completely—and always, come to think of it—confident. Even when she was facing down an adventurer in armor.
“Pardon me. I was just reassuring your friends that this friendly exhibition would not be harmful to you. If you’ll allow me a minute, I’ll remove my armor.”
So saying Yvlon began removing her gauntlets, but Ryoka shook her head.
“You can leave your armor on. The gauntlets too.”
The crowd had been talking and joking as they waited for the sparring match to begin, but Ryoka’s words created a hush as if someone had cast a [Silence] spell. Yvlon raised her eyebrows and behind her, Ceria slapped her forehead.
“I wouldn’t want to hurt you.”
“It won’t be me that gets hurt.”
“Ryoka, don’t be an idiot!”
Ceria walked forwards and snapped at the barefoot runner. She lowered her voice so not everyone could hear her, but in the silence her words were perfectly audible to those around her.
“Are you insane? You can’t fight someone in armor! Yvlon is a Silver-rank captain. Even if she pulls her punches she’ll hurt you. This is just a sparring match—neither of you are supposed to get hurt.”
“Really? Then let’s make it a serious fight.”
Ceria groaned as Calruz grinned in approval. The Minotaur watched Ryoka approvingly, liking her bravado. Ceria did not. She hissed at Ryoka so only the Runner could hear.
“Yvlon is not someone to take lightly, Ryoka. She’s honorable, proud—even if she is being patient. Stop being so rude.”
“I’m taking her seriously, believe me. But I want to see what fighting someone in armor is like. And besides…you’ve never seen me fight, have you?”
Ceria blinked at Ryoka. She eyed her from top to toe.
“If Miss Ryoka Griffin says she’s confident, I will trust her word, Ceria.”
Yvlon smiled at the Half-elf, meeting Ceria’s worried stare. An unspoken message passed between the two and Ceria’s pointed ears lowed slightly before she stepped back.
Now Ryoka and Yvlon were alone in the center of the ring. Ryoka bounced on the balls of her feet, eying Yvlon as the other woman divested herself of her belt pouches and sword.
“I am afraid Ceria is right though, Ryoka. I would hate for you to break your hands on my armor or for me to cut your face with my gauntlets. I am sure I would be able to give you a fair fight even without my armor.”
“It’s fine. You’re not wearing a helmet anyways.”
Again, Ryoka’s words caused a stir in the crowd, and not an entirely positive one. From her position, Garia could see some of the other adventurers – especially the armored women who were part of the Silver Spears – looking annoyed or outright angry at Ryoka’s words.
But Yvlon only smiled politely. It was a smile quite similar to Lady Magnolia’s, actually. A [Lady]’s smile that gave nothing away.
“Very well. I am told you practice some sort of unarmed fighting? You said it was…MMA? I confess that I have only a bit of formal training myself. Much of what I know is self-taught.”
“Yeah. I practice Mixed Martial Arts. Muay Thai.”
“And you are a skilled practitioner of this…Muay Thai?”
“Where I come from, yeah.”
“Interesting. Then shall we begin? I believe it would be only courteous to allow you the first strike.”
Yvlon walked forwards a few steps, and then raised her gauntleted arms in something close to a boxer’s guard. The murmuring of the crowd increased as Ryoka began circling the other woman, hands up.
Her posture was different than it would be in a Muay Thai sparring match. Ryoka was treating this like an MMA fight, although she’d never been in one herself. But she’d practiced on the off-chance her parents would allow her to fight in the ring.
Her posture and center of balance were lowered, her stance was wider and her hands were loosely clasped into fists. She rested more weight on her front leg as she eyed Yvlon.
Now that she was finally in front of the other woman Ryoka found time for a shred of regret that she was fighting the other woman in armor. It was complete idiocy to fight anyone in armor barehanded. She knew that.
But part of Ryoka wanted this. She wanted the challenge; she wanted to see how far she could push herself against unfair odds like this. And most of all, she wanted to win even with Yvlon in full plate armor. She wanted it quite badly, in fact.
The other woman slowly rotated to follow Ryoka as the barefoot girl circled her. She was waiting for Ryoka’s first move, as she’d said.
Well, that was fine with her. Ryoka feinted with her hands. Yvlon’s instinctively moved to block. Ryoka put all her weight onto her front leg and spun, throwing her back leg up and back towards the side of Yvlon’s head in what was known as a spinning wheel kick.
Ryoka’s leg flashed upwards and Yvlon barely raised her arms in time to protect her head. Despite the armor she wore, she still staggered back from the impact.
That was the moment Ryoka had really been waiting for. Even before she was fully back upright she moved sideways and threw a punch at Yvlon’s head.
Her hands were impossibly quick. Garia couldn’t even see Ryoka as the girl threw a lightning-fast jab at the adventurer’s face.
Ryoka’s right hand flew forwards in a strike that would have caught Yvlon straight on the tip of her chin. But before it landed one silver-plated hand came up and seized Ryoka’s hand.
From her position Garia saw the barefoot girl’s eyes widen, and then she twisted both body and head to avoid Yvlon’s fist. She couldn’t get away perfectly, held as she was by the other adventurer. The gauntlet caught Ryoka on the side of the jaw and drew blood.
The adventurers in the crowd cheered as Yvlon released Ryoka’s hand. That was probably a wise move regardless, because the look in the other girl’s eyes was pure fury. Ryoka muttered an expletive around her bleeding mouth and spat.
Yvlon gave Ryoka a polite smile as she raised her fists again. The light glinted off the polished metal and specks of blood on her right gauntlet.
“I understand your pride Ryoka Griffin, but we adventurers have our own dignity. You underestimate us at your peril. Are you sure you wouldn’t like me to remove my armor?”
That was the wrong thing to say. Ceria shouted something at Ryoka, but Garia saw the look in the Runner’s eyes. Slowly, she straightened, wiping the rest of the blood away from her cut lips.
“I’m going to get serious now.”
Yvlon seemed to sigh, but in an instant her guard was back up and she was watching Ryoka warily. She didn’t underestimate the other girl despite having scored a point first.
Ryoka paused for a moment, staring hard at Yvlon. Then she advanced slowly, raising her hands above her head.
The adventurers in Esthelm were nothing if not admiring of someone with spirit. Half of them egged Ryoka on, laughing and cheering as she advanced on Yvlon while the other half bet whether she’d even manage to strike the other woman’s face.
Yvlon’s eyes narrowed as Ryoka got closer and closer. Before the other girl could move, she stepped forwards and threw a lightning-quick punch at Ryoka’s head.
Ryoka didn’t dodge so much as lean on one leg and move her head down. The metal fist missed her head by inches, prompting a gasp from her audience. But neither woman was finished.
Even as Ryoka dodged her first punch, Yvlon’s second hand flew up in an uppercut towards Ryoka’s face. But again, Ryoka took a step back and avoided the blow with mere inches to spare. Then she threw a backhand at Yvlon’s face.
Again, the adventurer blocked but this time Ryoka wasn’t interested in kicking. She darted behind Yvlon as the adventurer turned in her heavier armor. Ryoka hooked her leg behind Yvlon’s and kicked straight through, sending the armored adventurer tumbling to the ground.
The crash of metal was the only sound in the silence. Yvlon rolled and got to her feet in an instant, ready for an attack but Ryoka just stood with her guard up, waiting.
Was it a rueful smile? It flicked across Yvlon’s face in an instant before she went all-out on the attack. She rushed at Ryoka, throwing swift punches that made the other girl dodge back.
It still wasn’t an equal fight. Even Garia could see that Ryoka was mostly on the defensive, unable to hit Yvlon while the other adventurer guarded her face. It wasn’t an equal fight.
But it was silent. Now all the adventurers were watching Ryoka like hawks. She dodged back, letting Yvlon come at her, always moving, darting in for strikes against Yvlon’s head before escaping.
Ryoka missed the timing for one of her strikes and Yvlon caught her in a flurry of blows. Ryoka took a punch to the midsection and a glancing blow off one shoulder—and then kicked Yvlon in the stomach hard enough to send the adventurer staggering back.
Again, Ryoka charged Yvlon. She avoided a wild punch, and then had the other woman’s back. She stepped behind Yvlon with one leg, and using her elbow threw the woman back over her knee. Again, the crash of metal was the only sound in the silence.
This time Ryoka didn’t let Yvlon get up. She advanced on the adventurer as she struggled to get off the ground. Yvlon turned and lashed out with her fist, almost too fast for Garia to follow. But Ryoka had been expecting that. She leaned back and then seized the other woman’s arm.
Garia saw Yvlon strike upwards at Ryoka, a flash of movement as the other girl twisted around her—for a second all was confusion, and then Ryoka was twisting Yvlon’s arm up while she planted her knee on her back.
It was over. Ryoka was holding the arm as high as the armor would allow. She was about to transition into a choke hold when she saw Yvlon’s hand push against the ground—
Ryoka was thrown off by the explosive force as Yvlon threw herself back, knocking the other girl off her. She turned and kicked, and Ryoka tumbled with the force of the blow.
Yvlon was trying to rotate her arm and work out the pain when she saw Ryoka roll and tumble upright in a flash of motion. She blinked—and caught a fist to her face for the first time. Ryoka’s hand knocked her head back slightly. As Yvlon was stunned, two more lightning-fast jabs hit her on the cheek and jaw.
The third punch Yvlon caught in a grip like steel. Ryoka braced herself, but no metal fist came swinging her way.
The Captain of the Silver Spears was shaking her head, and her mouth was moving. Over the roar of blood in Ryoka’s ears she realized people were shouting, and the adventurer released her hand and relaxed her stance as she massaged her mouth.
The fight was over.
“What was that?”
That was the first question Garia asked Ryoka once she had a chance. This was mainly because everyone else was queuing up for food in the Guild’s mess hall.
Ryoka shrugged and pushed at her food with a sour face. It wasn’t that she wasn’t hungry—she was ravenous—but she was already tired of answering questions.
Reluctantly, she bit into a bit of juicy sausage and replied to the awestruck girl sitting across from her.
“Those were throws. Special moves to take down an opponent. Haven’t you ever seen someone tossing an opponent to the ground before?”
“Well, yeah, of course, but…”
Garia floundered as she searched for words.
“You made it look so easy. Yvlon was in armor and you just threw her to the ground—twice!”
“It would have been better if I’d kept her down.”
Ryoka grunted as she chomped hard on her food. At least she was able to savor it. A healing potion had taken care of all her injuries—and Yvlon’s.
Garia stared at her incredulously.
“You knocked down a Silver-rank Captain. Anyone would be proud of that.”
“Yeah. And I got to hit her.”
“Those last two punches were unnecessary.”
Ceria’s voice made the two Runners look up. The Half-elf slid onto the long table and frowned at Ryoka.
“You didn’t need to hit her that many times. This was supposed to be a gentle spar, not you trying to break her jaw.”
Ryoka looked completely unapologetic.
Ceria made a noise that sounded like a sigh crossed with a hiss and muttered a word neither Garia nor Ryoka knew. They understood the meaning perfectly, though.
Taking a seat across from Ryoka, Ceria stabbed at her food. Thus far she and Garia were the only two people to have joined Ryoka in the mess hall, despite the numerous adventurers sitting around them.
Predictably, Ryoka had chosen the far corner of the furthest table from the door, which meant that there would be far fewer people able to talk to her. But it seemed as though quite a few adventurers would have liked to come up and chat; only a few did.
These were the members of the Horns of Hammerad and the various Silver-rank captains Ryoka had met. Two of them, the man with the longbow named Cervial and Yvlon took seats next to Ryoka.
Maybe it wasn’t intentional, but Cervial took the seat directly next to Ryoka, putting himself between the two women. It wasn’t as if either woman was overtly hostile to the other—and indeed, they were quite polite.
But if Yvlon was polite and genuinely admiring of Ryoka after the fight, there was a certain edge in Ryoka’s replies and comments that didn’t pass unnoticed at the table.
Yvlon politely munched on a boiled piece of asparagus or asparagus-like vegetable and commented to the table at large but Ryoka and Garia in general.
“You see, it’s not as if we’re hurting for money or jobs at the moment. There’s always work and we can brave the Ruins of Albez for quite a profit most of the time. But it’s not sustainable in the long run.”
Cervial nodded. He stabbed at his food and made a face.
“Adventuring isn’t easy at our level. We’re just good enough that it’s not worth our time to take requests clearing out Goblin tribes unless they’re really big – but we don’t have the strength to take on the stronger types of monsters. Sooner or later our luck runs out and we take an injury we can’t heal up from – or die. That’s why these new ruins might be our break. If we can get in there and find some serious magical artifacts or equipment we could easily reach Gold-rank.”
“The only question is whether the risks in this case are worth the reward. So far Cervial’s team – the Flawless Flights, mine, and Calruz’s are the only ones who are willing to go in first.”
“It took some doing, but Ceria convinced me that the ruins could be loaded with ancient artifacts. They’re quite similar to ancient crypts, apparently.”
Cervial drained his mug and nodded politely at the Half-elf across the table.
“Still, we’re going in carefully. Both Yvlon and I are only doing this for the treasure.”
Ryoka shifted. She looked across the room at where adventurers were still being served. Perhaps it was because of his size, but Calruz had been stuck at the back of the line and he was grumpy about waiting. He kept casting glances at the now-full table Ryoka was sitting at, irritated.
“What about Calruz, then?”
Yvlon chuckled politely and Cervial shook his head.
“He just wants the challenge. That stupid Minotaur doesn’t care what enemies he’s fighting so long as he can gain experience from it. He’s a Levelist; one of the old-fashioned kind. Not like the rest of us.”
Ryoka nodded. She thought she understood from context alone. If Yvlon and Cervial were adventurers who relied upon magical equipment along with their levels to get stronger, Calruz was the kind of person who thought gaining more levels was all that he needed. She looked at Cervial.
“What’s the level difference between a Silver-ranked adventurer and a Gold-rank?”
“The difference? Well—it could be just a few levels depending on their equipment. Remember, in most cases it’s the entire party who gets the Gold-rank. I guess Silver-rank is mostly in the low twenties at best while Gold-rank is anywhere from Level 24 onwards.”
“Of course, individual skill still plays a pretty big role.”
Yvlon nodded at Calruz as the Minotaur impatiently waited for his food, clearly unhappy at missing the conversation and having to wait behind lesser adventurers.
“Calruz is only around Level 20, but he’s also a Minotaur. He could have found his way onto a Gold-rank team, but he wanted to be in command.”
At last the talked-of Minotaur was served a double portion onto his plate. He stomped towards the table, pausing when he saw there was nowhere to sit.
He took two steps towards Ryoka and pointed to Garia. The girl flinched as Calruz growled at her.
“You. Runner. Move.”
Garia was about to slip out of her seat, but Ryoka – and surprisingly – Cervial, grabbed her by the clothing.
“Hold it, Calruz. You can’t just order someone to leave. Pull up a chair or sit at the other end of the table.”
Calruz scowled down at Cervial.
“She is no warrior. This place is reserved for adventurers, not mere Runners.”
Ryoka raised her eyebrows. Apparently, she didn’t count. Garia squeaked and trembled by her side.
“I—I can go. It’s no problem. I didn’t want to get in the way—”
“You stubborn idiot. Take my seat if you’re so desperate!”
Ceria snapped and stood up. She grabbed her plate and shoved it onto the table behind her.
“For a Captain who preaches so much about honor, you certainly don’t show much of it!”
This comment caused a hush among the nearby adventurers and especially the rest of the Horns of Hammerad, but Calruz looked unmoved. He sat at the table, ignoring Garia like a footstool.
“Honor is for those who earn it. Those who do not risk their lives in battle are not the same as true warriors.”
Ryoka frowned, but made no comment as Garia instantly went back to her food, avoiding looking at Calruz. There was a lot she wanted to say, but flipping the Minotaur’s food into his face was more appealing.
But since she had the feeling Garia might carry at least some of the Minotaur’s ire if she did it, Ryoka – reluctantly – held back. But the Minotaur’s attitude annoyed her.
Still—now that Ryoka thought about it she’d never heard Calruz say anything to the other girl. He’d talked and she’d talked when they were in the inn, but the two had never directly spoken to each other once.
As Ryoka’s eyes flicked towards Calruz and her expressionless face darkened slightly, Yvlon nudged Cervial. The taller man looked at Ryoka and spoke lightly.
“Your skill at unarmed fighting is quite incredible. I can see how it would be useful keeping away bandits and Goblins.”
Ryoka looked up, realized she’d been addressed, and shrugged.
“You wouldn’t happen to be able to use any other weapons besides your fists, would you? A bow, for example?”
Across the table, Gerial objected.
“Wait a second, Cervial, if you’re going to recruit Ryoka the Horns of Hammerad have the right to make the first offer.”
Sostrom and the other adventurers agreed while the adventurers that were part of the Flawless Flight shouted from their table across the hall. Cervial laughed and raised his hands and then looked at Ryoka.
“I don’t use weapons. And I’m not interested.”
“A shame. But I hope if you see a request from us you’ll consider taking it. In fact, if you’d like we could arrange to request deliveries from you alone if you’re ever in the same area as we are.”
That got Ryoka’s attention. What Cervial was suggesting was a form of personalized contract in the Runner’s Guild. That way, he could offer her exclusive deliveries.
“Why? Any Runner can deliver healing potions.”
“But no one has the guts to do it when there’s a Lich raining spells down on our heads.”
That remark came from Sostrom, and it was met with agreement from the other adventurers. Cervial nodded.
“Being an adventurer is all about finding trustworthy contacts. Good Runners like you for instance—having someone to rely on when we’re out exploring dungeons is far better than requesting an emergency delivery and hoping the Runner we get is competent.”
“Not that we ever plan to get in trouble of course, but when we’re in a pinch…at our level we need to forge friendships and build up our group. It’s not something people think about, but there’s really no other way to survive. We trust each other with our backs or we’ll fall together.”
Something about that line tickled Ryoka’s memory. She grunted and then looked at Cervial. The words came out before she could stop them. The same anger and contempt leaping from her thoughts out her mouth.
“You sound like a bunch of Runners when you say it like that.”
The mood at the table froze over for a second. Garia stared wide-eyed at Ryoka and then tried to edge back in her seat. Cervial’s smile flickered, and then came back.
“Really? That’s not a good thing, usually. The Runner’s Guild and the Adventurer’s Guild don’t get along. They think we’re all muscle-bound idiots and we think they’re—”
Calruz grunted and ate half a sausage in one huge bite.
“I wouldn’t say cowards.”
Yvlon objected, but most of the other adventurers seemed to agree with Calruz. Yvlon sighed and smiled at Garia reassuringly.
“Not all of you. It’s just that it’s an unfortunate comparison to make, Ryoka.”
“Seems accurate to me.”
Ryoka deliberately popped the last bit of sausage into her mouth and took a drink, conscious of all the eyes on her. Cervial was still smiling, but it was a brittle smile.
“Really? And which Runners do we sound like?”
“Guy named Fals. He says the same things as you do. Runners have to band together in order to survive. Sacrifice the good of the individual for the group. ‘Work together or die.’”
Thoughtfully, Cervial propped his head on his hand. He was still smiling, but there was a tiny bit of anger in his eyes. Ryoka recognized it as something similar to her own. She felt…prickly. More so even than usual.
“I can agree with that. And I know Fals. He’s no coward, although he does represent most of the things I dislike about the Runner’s Guild. But he’s not wrong. It’s a tough world. Yet you seem to disagree?”
Ryoka let the question dangle. She drained her mug, replenishing lost sweat. She wiped her mouth and shrugged.
“I’m not a team player.”
Her comment ended the conversation. There wasn’t really much that you could say to that. Garia slurped at her soup nervously and tried not to meet anyone’s eyes.
“Well, in any case, if you’d like to work for any of our teams, we’d be happy to set up an arrangement. With your skills we wouldn’t have to worry about you being chased off by monsters. In fact, if you’d like to join our expedition to the ruins around Liscor to deliver supplies we could work out a deal.”
Yvlon leaned across the table and smiled at Ryoka. Calruz shook his head at her.
“Even Ryoka Griffin would do well to run from any monsters she encounters. Her fists would not be enough to allow her survival in the Liscor ruins.”
Ryoka raised her eyebrows at Calruz.
“You don’t think I can defend myself? You saw me fight.”
The Minotaur had a piece of sausage stuck in his teeth. He picked at it with one long fingernail.
“I am merely stating the truth. Your fists would do little against most monsters my team faces. Less, since you are female and thus weaker.”
He looked around in the hush. Possibly Calruz didn’t see the way Ceria’s back tensed up and the Half-elf’s head came around, or the way even Yvlon’s hand tightened on her fork. He certainly couldn’t ignore the look in Ryoka’s eyes though, and it was to her he spoke.
“Is it not the truth? Humans are weaker than Minotaurs by birth. So too are you women weaker than men.”
“Really. That’s what you think?”
Was it Ceria or Yvlon who spoke warningly? Ryoka ignored it. She reached out and tugged Calruz’s plate away as the Minotaur reached for a sausage. He looked up at her.
“Right. Your turn. Bring it on.”
For a moment the Minotaur looked confused. Then he looked amused.
“You. You, Ryoka Griffin, wish to fight me?”
He laughed, but Ryoka didn’t. And neither did the other adventurers. Gerial raised his voice, speaking low and urgently to Ryoka across the table.
“Ryoka. This isn’t a good idea.”
She ignored him.
“I’m dead serious. Fight me. Unless you’re afraid you’ll lose?”
This time Ceria didn’t bother with just words. She punched Ryoka hard in the shoulder.
“You don’t challenge a Minotaur to a fight. What are you thinking? Are you even thinking?”
Ryoka shrugged as she warmed up in the practice arena again. Her nerves were thrumming, but a pit of dark emotions roiled in her chest.
“You heard what he said about females.”
“I did. And he’s got a point even if he did make it in the most bull-headed way possible. But that’s Calruz. And even if he’s being an idiot, there’s a big difference between calling him on it and challenging him to a fight. You know you’re going to lose, right?”
Ceria stared dumbfounded at Ryoka as the girl stretched on the ground. She looked helplessly at Yvlon.
“Help me talk sense to her?”
“Ceria is right, Ryoka. There’s bravado, and then there’s—this. Fighting me in armor is one thing, but Calruz is a Minotaur. He could rip my head off in unarmed combat without trying.”
“And he will if he makes a mistake.”
“I guess I’ve just got to dodge, then.”
Ryoka ignored the muted scream of fury coming from Ceria. She eyed Calruz. The Minotaur was actually finishing his meal, holding a plate as he waited for her to finish stretching. His casual indifference just lit a fire in her stomach.
“Besides, I wanted to challenge him from the start. See how far I can go.”
“How about into the ground when he puts you there? Ryoka! He’s got to weigh at least two hundred pounds more than you do!”
“Size isn’t everything.”
“It’s pretty cursed important in a fight!”
Ceria was right, of course. Ryoka eyed Calruz for the first time as a potential threat. When you looked at Calruz as a person he was just huge, inconveniently so sometimes. But as an enemy? He was way scarier than any human Ryoka had even seen.
He was about six foot seven? Maybe a few inches higher, without even counting the horns. And his body was pure muscle. Not like human muscle, but Minotaur muscle, which was to say that he looked like a wall of tendons and sinews.
It was the stupidest thing in the world to challenge him. But Ryoka really, really wanted to try. She just wanted to hit the Minotaur, almost as much as she’d wanted to hit Yvlon.
Yvlon. The adventurer was studying Ryoka thoughtfully. It made Ryoka want to punch her again, too. She was so tired and—and frustrated that hitting anything sounded good.
Like Ceria, if it would get the Half-elf to shut up.
“Potions don’t fix shattered bones! You know that. And you get him mad—”
“Look, I’m going to do it. You want to let me focus or go away and shut up?”
Silence. Ryoka glanced up and saw Ceria giving her a hurt look full of reproach. The barefoot girl’s heart hurt, but she put the pain and guilt away. She had to focus.
Ryoka was angry. She felt it bubbling in her gut, a seething, roiling ball of pure fury. Where had it come from?
From the High Passes, that’s where. From nearly dying and being helpless even with all the years she’d studied martial arts. From Teriarch and his overpowering magic and arrogance. From the Runner’s Guild and stupid people. From dealing with the ridiculous system of leveling in this world and not least—dealing with some kind of perfect lady knight and a misogynistic Minotaur. It was all bubbling out of Ryoka and she couldn’t stop it. She wanted to hit something, and Calruz was a big target.
“If you’re going to do this—give it all you’ve got on the first shot.”
Ceria spoke bitterly.
“He’s going to take every hit just to show he can. It’s a Minotaur thing—a sign of disrespect. And…courtship.”
Ryoka eyed Calruz. The Minotaur was finished eating. He carelessly tossed the plate over his shoulder. Ignoring the crash of breaking pottery, he walked into the center of the ring and folded his arms, waiting for her to finish.
At last the girl stood up. She was burning with a desire to fight, almost shaking with it. Ryoka couldn’t keep still as she bounced on her feet with nervous energy.
Ceria eyed the girl as she walked past her. Ryoka stopped.
“What is it?”
Was she? Ryoka couldn’t tell. She only knew that she was ready, more ready than she’d ever been to hurt someone else. She was shaking with the desire to throw a punch. She walked towards Calruz, and the Minotaur impassively looked down at her.
“What you are attempting is folly, Ryoka Griffin. There are some things that cannot be surpassed.”
He really, really knew how to push her buttons. Ryoka gritted her teeth and grinned up at him.
“Oh really? Let’s see what you say in a few minutes.”
“As you wish.”
Calruz carelessly raised one massive hand and beckoned Ryoka with a finger. The other adventurers murmured and cheered for Ryoka to hit him with her best shot. The Minotaur didn’t even bother raising his other hand.
He was going to try to block her one-handed? But his fur and muscle could probably take any punch Ryoka could throw. She knew that. So instead, Ryoka stomped her foot down in front of Calruz and twisted.
One of the core principles of a lot of powerhouse moves was spinning. Ryoka put all her weight on her front leg, twisted, and hit the Minotaur with the back of her heel and all the momentum she’d built up.
Spinning back kick. Ryoka aimed high. Her leg still caught the Minotaur in his stomach rather than his chest. She felt the contact and heard the Minotaur gasp as the wind left him. She’d put her entire weight into that attack.
It was the kind of move you used to K.O. other people and it was seldom used because of how hard it was to land. But Calruz was arrogant. He’d let his guard down and Ryoka had held nothing back.
The Minotaur’s expression changed. He was obviously trying not to show any pain, but his hand reflexively went down to protect his stomach and he bent just a tiny bit. Ryoka didn’t wait. Even as her foot came down she used it as an anchor and swung her other leg up.
Her leg came up and she smashed into Calruz’s face with a roundhouse kick. She didn’t break his nose, but that was probably because the Minotaur didn’t have a nice fleshy bit of cartilage like humans.
This time he bellowed, but Ryoka wasn’t done. She landed and started laying into the Minotaur, punching hard.
He swiped at her with one hand. Ryoka ducked under it and belted him twice in the stomach. Calruz shouted as she hit the same spot she’d kicked and shoved her with one arm.
Ryoka was thrown sideways, but she landed, jumped, and kicked the Minotaur in the chest. He staggered back, looking outraged. She pounded his chest.
Now he was really starting to get angry. Calruz punched at her far faster than she would have guessed he’d be able to move, but Ryoka did the same thing she had to Yvlon. Her head and body were in constant motion as she ducked and weaved, letting the Minotaur swing wide.
Low kick. Ryoka hammered Calruz’s legs with powerful kicks, wincing internally at the impact. The Minotaur had goat-like legs with cloven hooves, and it felt like she was kicking a baseball bat when she hit him.
He nearly got her with an uppercut. Ryoka grinned, turned, and kicked him straight on with a kick to the stomach again. She raised her hands; hit him twice in the stomach—
And then he punched her.
Ryoka jerked upright and felt multiple sets of hands pushing her down. Someone was on top of her. Someone light?
A pair of pointed ears and hazel hair. Ceria covered Ryoka protectively as she shouted at something. Something?
A loud roar of fury made Ryoka sit up. She looked up and saw Calruz being held back by ten men as he tried to rush at her. The Minotaur’s eyes were actually red with rage and a trickle of blood was running from both nostrils.
What had happened? Ryoka tried to move, felt the agony coming out of her chest and realized she’d been hit. Hit.
She couldn’t breathe. Hell, she could barely move. Calruz was shouting something, her ears were ringing, and Ceria was telling her to stay still. But Ryoka’s blood was still on fire. She still wanted to fight.
She stood up.
Ceria pushed Ryoka down, but the girl knocked her off and stood up. She raised her firsts, but now Garia, Yvlon, and Ceria were all pulling her back.
A few feet away Gerial was swearing and pulling at Calruz with all his might as the Minotaur roared a challenge at Ryoka.
“Calm down, Calruz! Hold still, gods damn it!”
Ceria was talking desperately to Ryoka, as the girl strained towards the Minotaur.
“You’ve made your point, Ryoka. No one’s underestimating you. Let’s stop before someone gets seriously hurt.”
Her brain wasn’t synching up with her mouth. Ryoka tried a few times.
“No. Let’s keep going.”
“Are you crazy?”
“I’m not done. Let Calruz go. I’ll take him on.”
The men holding the Minotaur gaped at Ryoka and then redoubled their efforts to hold the raging Minotaur.
Another man strode forwards and stood between Ryoka and Calruz. He had a huge axe on his back and he was nearly as burly as the Minotaur, if not quite so tall. He glared at Ryoka.
“Gerial, get your Captain under control. And you, girl, back down!”
Gregor, one of the Silver-rank Captains, scowled as the men eventually managed to push Calruz back. The Minotaur was still breathing heavily, but his eyes were no longer red with fury.
“This was a ridiculous display. What are you both doing? The Adventurer’s Guild is not a place for anything but training spars, much less unarmed foolishness.”
He pointed at Ryoka.
“You’re a hothead Runner, and challenging a Minotaur just proves how idiotic you are. No matter how good you are with your fists, it won’t help you against monsters. You’ve seen the ones in the High Passes. Swords and even battleaxes don’t work on their hides.”
Ryoka glared at him. His words were true, and they hurt.
“Must’ve been a miracle, then. The way you act, I’m surprised you haven’t offed yourself already. You’re either suicidal or an idiot. Even adventurers don’t pull idiotic stunts like this.”
“I don’t need an axe to do my job. And I don’t need you to tell me what to do. Back off. I’ll take on Calruz without you lot getting in the way.”
Gregor opened and closed his mouth with wordless fury.
“You blind, arrogant—if Ceria hadn’t jumped in the way he would have crushed your head like a fruit. You can’t take him. Back down.”
Ryoka eyed Calruz. He was restraining himself—with difficulty—but she knew if the men stopped holding him he’d rush right at her. And she felt like doing the same. Her blood was boiling.
“I can still fight.”
“Even if you were Level 20 he’d still be able to crush you like a bug! And you’re no warrior. You don’t have any fighting skills that I saw—”
“I don’t need Skills to fight.”
“But you don’t even have any levels.”
Everyone stopped talking. Gregor paused, red-faced, ready to shout and stared at the person who had spoken. Yvlon smiled at Ryoka and nodded once politely.
“I don’t understand. And truthfully, I didn’t believe my aunt when she told me that. But it is true, isn’t it? I couldn’t believe it until just now, but it must be true. You don’t have any levels or any classes at all, do you?”
Ryoka stared at her wordlessly. Anger surged in her belly. How dare she? How did she know?
Cervial spoke from behind Ryoka. He was studying her. As she turned to stare at him he tapped one eye.
“[Appraisal]. It’s a Skill that [Marksmen] get sometimes. I can’t see your Level or your Class.”
Even Calruz was dumbfounded by this revelation. The adventurers exchanged glances, and Ryoka heard the whispering.
“Is she some kind of demi-human—no, a monster?”
“Who wouldn’t Level? Is she a fool?”
Ryoka gritted her teeth.
“I don’t need levels to fight.”
Gregor shook his head at her, disbelieving.
“What are you, an idiot? How would you survive a second against a monster without levels?”
The fury that was boiling in Ryoka seized hold of her tongue.
“It’s not about levels. Your stupid little system doesn’t interest me. I don’t believe in needing levels or classes. It’s all stupid and it makes you cowards. Silver-rank? Gold-rank? You just use those words because you don’t have the guts to fight.”
The words came out of Ryoka before she could stop herself. She pointed at Gregor as the man’s face turned red. But all of the adventurers were listening and Ryoka couldn’t stop.
“I survived the High Passes without a single level. I did it, because I wasn’t afraid and needed half a dozen people in armor to hold my hand. And if you lot had any guts, you wouldn’t sit around whining about how a bunch of unexplored ruins are too dangerous.”
“You truly believe you can surpass the rest of us without needing to level don’t you?”
Yvlon stared hard at Ryoka, for once not smiling. Even Garia was staring at Ryoka as if seeing her for the first time.
Ryoka didn’t answer. She just wiped at the blood coming from her mouth. But that was an answer in itself.
It came from out of the crowd. Ryoka turned, and this time the blood in her veins was roaring. She was beyond caring about anything.
“Really? Arrogance? All I see are people too afraid to do anything until they level up. People who have to hide in a group to cover how pitiful they are.”
A murmur of hot anger went through the adventurers. Ryoka raised her fists.
“I’ll take you on one by one or all at once. Come on. Fight me.”
This time it was Ceria who shoved at Ryoka. The Half-elf was angry.
“You’re talking nonsense. But I won’t let you stand here and get yourself hurt. Stop this or I’ll have to use magic—”
It was just an impulse. But once it was started, Ryoka couldn’t stop. Her hand shot out and brushed Ceria’s chin. The Half-elf blinked, staggered, and sat down.
Ryoka stared at the Half-elf, rage eclipsed by sudden regret. She hadn’t meant to. She just wanted to get the mage to shut up for a second. But like before, like so many times before her body had started moving before her brain.
A roar of anger came from Calruz. Suddenly he was throwing off the other adventurers as they tried desperately to slow him down. Her approached Ryoka, and she tensed.
But he didn’t strike at her. Instead, Calruz scooped up Ceria gently. He stared down at her, practically steaming with rage.
“You tread on Ceria’s honor. For that I should challenge you to a duel with real weapons.”
“I’ll take you on.”
Something inside of Ryoka was snapping. She was full of fury and beyond caring what would happen next. Calruz seemed to vibrate at her challenge, but with incredible effort he turned away.
“You are not worth the time it would take.”
Ryoka’s temper flared. She spoke to the Minotaur’s back, hearing each word leave her lips as some part of her screamed at her not to say them.
“I didn’t think you were a coward, Calruz.”
Gerial lunged. Not towards Ryoka, but with the rest of the Horns of Hammerad as they seized the Minotaur. Calruz’s head turned and his eyes darkened with blood and rage. But he didn’t move with Ceria’s limp form in his hands. His voice quivered with fury.
“I was mistaken about you. You are no warrior. You just want something to hit.”
He began to walk away. Ryoka shouted after him.
“Calruz! Fight me! Come back here, you coward! Are you afraid?”
The Minotaur’s back tensed, but he kept walking. Gregor stared at Ryoka in fury, hand twitching towards his axe hilt.
“Enough! I won’t stand here and listen to this. If you want a fight, try your fists against my axe, girl.”
Ryoka raised her hands. But Yvlon stepped forwards.
“Enough. Restrain yourself, Ryoka Griffin.”
Something was snapping inside of Ryoka. It was the same feeling, the exact same. Part of her was shouting for her to put down her fists, to apologize. To get down on her hands and knees and bow before Ceria and Calruz. But like before, like so many times when she’d been kicked out of school, she’d crossed over the event horizon of fury.
She just wanted to punch. To hit something. And now that she’d let out all the bile in her stomach, Ryoka only knew how to lash out. So she did.
Her fist blurred and disappeared as it shot towards Yvlon’s face. But it was intercepted and crossed by a flash of silver.
Ryoka felt the punch lift her off her feet. She tried to step forwards, but her body suddenly forgot how to stand up. She sat down, as her arms and legs simply shut down.
The world spun, and Ryoka saw Yvlon’s face full of regret and frustration. Her head fell back—
And when Ryoka awoke, she was alone. Not physically alone, but alone nevertheless.
Dusk had engulfed the sky. The sparring area of the Adventurer’s Guild was empty, save for Ryoka and the Half-elf sitting on the ground next to her.
Ceria looked up as Ryoka sat up. The barefoot girl looked around dizzy, and as Ryoka opened her mouth Ceria tapped her wand on Ryoka’s head.
Ryoka was mute. The girl’s mouth opened but no words came out. Ceria looked at her, and shook her head. She reached behind her and picked up Ryoka’s pack and carefully put it next to the girl. Then Ceria sighed and stared up at the sky.
“I’ve seen a lot of arrogance in my time. Mostly from Humans, but from every people, including my own. But someone who rejects the way the world works just because she doesn’t like it—that’s new. It’s been a while since I was hit by someone I call a friend as well.”
She looked at Ryoka. The girl couldn’t meet her eyes.
“If you want to keep fighting everyone who reaches out to help you, I’ll put a flower on your grave. But until then, get your stupid Human head back in order. You’re lucky—very lucky that Calruz is honorable, and that the other adventurers listened to Yvlon and Cervial or you might have suffered quite a bit.”
Ryoka was silent. She stared at the ground, face flushed. Memory only now returning.
“I don’t understand you. I truly don’t. I thought you were sensible, but you’re even more hotheaded than Calruz. And you have less sense.”
Ceria shook her head as Ryoka opened her mouth and tried to say something.
“No. Be silent. I am angry at you. And I am leaving until that anger is gone. The Horns of Hammerad and the other adventurers are heading to the ruins in Liscor. All of us. At least your words stirred some courage in this crowd. But I am still furious. After we are finished with the ruins, we will speak again.”
The Half-elven mage stood up and brushed at her robes. She waved her wand, and Ryoka felt the spell on her dissipate.
“May we meet in new forests, Ryoka Griffin.”
Silently, Ryoka watched Ceria go. A thousand words spun through her mind, and she opened her mouth to call something. But when the doors to the Adventurer’s Guild closed behind Ceria, it was in silence.
The girl sat in the center of the sparring arena and felt the bruises and pain begin to flare up in her body. She was still exhausted, still hurt. But somehow, all of that was a backdrop to the incredible, terrible emptiness in her heart.
She’d done it. As before, now again. See—a girl who destroys everything she touches. Who wanders from school to school, never fitting in, picking fights with friends and anyone who crosses her way.
A child with nothing to hit who decides to fight the world. A barefoot runner who speaks with her fists. A heart full of black fury and hurtful words who spreads her foulness wherever she goes.
Angry girl. Rabid dog. Berserker. Suicidally competitive. Friendless loner. Lost soul.
She’d lost friends before. She’d made enemies, burned bridges. Wherever she’d gone, from each school she’d transferred to, she’d left behind only bitter memories. Each time she’d lost control she’d only left tears and regrets behind. She was used to erasing smiles.
But it had never hurt quite like this before.
Ryoka stood up and felt the silence closing in. The silence, and the empty despair that came with it. She looked at the ground and saw the blood of an honorable person. She looked behind her and knew there was no one at her back. A familiar, painful sight.
She could barely feel her hands. She was exhausted, upset, guilty, and angry. She didn’t know what to do.
Slowly, Ryoka’s feet moved. She took one step, and then another. Ryoka picked her pack up off the ground and began to walk.
She left the Adventurer’s Guild. She ignored the voices, the chances to turn back. She saw the decorated carriage, ignored the [Maids] and [Assassins] that blocked her way. She just ran on.
Away, away, always away. Until the dawn breaks and the end of day. Running from fear and friends alike, striving to always run, always be in flight. And though her heart bled and ached, she runs on again.
Towards Liscor and the Blood Plains without a plan. Towards death and the unknown. Running. Always running without pausing. Leaving bloody footprints made of her unshed tears and broken ties.