The wind blows through my hair as the sun rises. Past the mountain range they call the High Passes, which divides Izril in half, a fierce breeze blows north, and I wonder if it’s come all the way down from those peaks hidden among the clouds. It blows down past the screaming Goblins trying to kill me and catches an arrow mid-flight.
The arrow zings well wide of my face, and the wind chills the sweat on my skin. It’s a good feeling. The wind. People often underestimate how a brisk breeze can change your day.
And on this day, when the sky is blue and clear without a cloud, who wouldn’t want to be outside? The air’s chilly with the hints of winter coming, and the breeze is better than air conditioning.
It’s a perfect day for running. I’ve run through bad days when the heat can drop a horse, and I’ve run through thunderstorms, typhoons, and even dog crap. Twice. And while I can grit my teeth and keep running even when the wind’s against me, I live for the days when it has my back.
Oh, right, the Goblins. They’re still sprinting at me, but here’s the thing—they’re short. And they’ve been waving their shortswords for the last ten minutes. Aside from the one with the bow—which is a concern despite the terrible aim—the others aren’t that quick.
The one in front is clutching at his side. Her side? I see a hopeful mouth of teeth turn into a smile, so I turn and start sprinting.
The grass is knee-high, and I grin at the screech of dismay from behind me. I’m not sweating much despite the hard run, and my eyes fix on the ground, what I can see of it. It’s been a great run so far, despite the Goblin ambush.
There’s a reason my eyes are on the ground, not my pursuers. A large rock appears in the grass, and I hop over it just in time. Careful. At the speed I’m running, I can easily break a foot if I trip over one. I’ve split my toenails more than once by kicking rocks at high speed. Not fun.
Keep running. Actually, scratch that. Run faster. The wind blows against my face, and I smile again. It’s the small things that make life good. Like the wind.
The wind cools you down. It gives you something to run against; makes you feel alive. It also helps throw off arrows when people are shooting at your face.
An arrow flies through the air, and I change my course slightly. It slices through the air past my left arm. Too close.
I adjust my path and pick up speed. I’m nearly out of the range of the Goblins that have been hunting me. A few more seconds and I’ll lose them.
Goblins. They’re frightening little monsters with red eyes and pointy teeth. They look more like demons, actually. But they’re real enough, and they like eating Humans and, purportedly, even worse. If they can catch them, that is.
One pops out of the grass as I run towards the city in the distance. It’s a larger Goblin than normal, and he’s wearing rusty chainmail and holding a short sword. Damn. A Hobgoblin? That’s what they call them. He must have been circling around this entire time!
He swipes at me at knee-height, trying to cripple me, and I jump. Straight over the blade. The Goblin gapes as I land and then sprints after me.
My legs blur. The Goblin slices at my legs, but I’m already out of range. He runs as fast as he can, but I pull away so quickly that it’s like he’s standing still.
I mutter under my breath as I keep running. I don’t have the time or air to actually say that out loud, of course. Besides, I’m not good at comebacks. Or…insults. Either way.
The Goblin stops after a few more feet and howls at my back. I ignore him and keep running. After a while, I hear the Goblins’ shrill war cries end as they give up the chase.
After what feels like a few miles or, to be more worldly, a few kilometers, I stop. I do a quick scan of the area around me. Shorter grasses dominate this gentle downwards slope. Looks like I’ve lost the Goblin tribe.
I take a few deep breaths and wipe at my forehead. Not much sweat. Good. I’d be worried if I got tired that quickly.
“Whew. So that was my first ambush.”
What a way to start the morning. I’d be lying if I said it was normal, but I can get used to anything. I think. I could have used a bagel and some coffee on the streets of the greatest city in the world*, but this is far more exhilarating. Unless I got run over by a cab or something.
*Obviously, New York.
It would have been close if they’d fully encircled me. I shouldn’t take shortcuts through the high grass like that—especially when I have such valuable cargo.
Is that how they knew how to get me? I check the rucksack I’m carrying and feel a thankfully intact piece of glass inside the leather container. I don’t want to know how much I’d pay if it got broken. And it might have been why the Goblins were after me. Maybe they could detect valuable goods?
“Or Persua, that sallow bitch, tipped them off. Nah, nevermind. Even she doesn’t talk to Goblins.”
I shake my head. Sour grapes. I can just imagine how fuming mad she is right now since I’ve taken ‘her’ delivery. Well, I don’t think she would have enjoyed and/or survived that ambush.
Back to running. After a few seconds, I start walking and then transition into a jog. I could take it easy now the adrenaline has left my veins, but time is money, and soon, I’m back up to speed. Not sprinting speed—I need to conserve as much energy as possible for the emergencies like Goblin attacks, Carn Wolves, bandits, Zombies, Skeletons, Crelers*, and the other nasty things that live in the plains**.
*I’ve never actually seen these particular monsters. I’m not even sure if that name is right—they have other nicknames like ‘Tunnel Crawlers’, but they’re a world-renowned threat. Apparently they’re not something you want to meet.
**If I make it sound horrible, it’s only because I’m aware of the possible dangers. At any given time, there’s really not that many monsters lurking around. It’s just that you never know when one will pop up. I checked a bestiary in the Adventurer’s Guild, and they have an entire tome just for the local threats.
Anyways, I keep running. I enjoy the wind blowing through my hair for a bit and finally reach the city in question. It looks, well, like most of the settlements I’ve been to over the last week.
Tall, gray walls and spearmen and archers in towers that keep an eye out for monsters. This is Celum, or something like that. It’s a city, one of the southernmost in this region before the High Passes. They have a [Mayor], but they don’t pay fealty to any noble family directly, so that makes them a city-state*. And that’s my destination for the moment.
*More like just a city. It’s not that big, but all of the cities have their own form of rule. Some are ruled by a council, others have elected leaders like we do back at home, and some still have lords and ladies, although apparently the nobility isn’t in charge everywhere, which is something. The point is they all band together if threatened, but they have their individual squabbles and goals. Just like the good old USA.
I approach the open gates. A guard’s on duty next to a winch so he can slam the gates shut if a dangerous person approaches or if they’re really ugly, but he doesn’t even twitch as I approach.
He greets me. At least, I think it’s a greeting. It’s more like a curt nod, and he’s blinking sleepily in the dawn light. He probably hopes I’ll just trot into the city, but unluckily for us both, I’m trying to be at least somewhat responsible. I wave at him as I slow down, and he begrudgingly stands a bit taller.
He has…well, what I’d charitably call a ‘mustache,’ but it’s more of an attempt at one. I guess he’s either too young or not gifted with facial hair. Aside from that, he’s wearing cheap leather armor, and he has a sword. Between that Hob and this guy in a fight, I’d give it to the Hob, but that’s what walls and the other members of the guard are for, I guess.
“Hm? Something wrong, Miss Runner?”
He looks me up and down, and I notice his eyes finding my feet. Bare feet. I smile at him—and my stomach clenches. I hate talking to new people, so I gesture awkwardly behind me.
“Goblins. A few miles outside the city. A group jumped me.”
The [Guardsman] blinks, and suddenly, I have his attention.
“Goblins? How many? Are you hurt, Miss?”
“No…I don’t know, two dozen? And a big one, a Hob?”
“Hobgoblin? Two dozen Goblins…another tribe. Dead gods, and there are [Traders] on the road. Where, exactly?”
“The—tall grass over there? Only three miles?”
I point in the vague direction I came, and the [Guardsman] peers as if he thinks he can see them.
“That’s not good. We need to send a patrol out and hire a Bronze-rank team. Silver, maybe…you outran them, Miss? Did they have bows?”
“One or two. They missed.”
I grin, and he gives me a strange look as if he doesn’t believe me. It’s hard to hit a moving target! But then he’s looking around.
“I need to inform the Watch Sergeant. And—could you wait here, Miss? I’ll need you to show me the rough area where they are for the Adventurer’s Guild and the Watch—”
Ah, shit. That’s what I get for trying to help. I raise my hands as I begin to jog forwards.
“Sorry, I wouldn’t know the exact spot. Just over there. They probably ran off. Listen—I’m a City Runner. I’ve got to go.”
“But the Goblins—”
“I’m on a priority delivery! For Magnolia Reinhart!”
The [Guardsman] hesitates, and his face screws up in agony. Yep—this is just like home. He’s clearly weighing being responsible for me being late. He curses, then waves me through.
“If you can circle back this way, Miss—I’m Guardsman Wesle! Any help you can render the Watch would be greatly—”
His voice is already receding as I hurry down the cobblestone street. Yeah, right. No offense, but I’m not walking for an hour while people say, ‘is it this patch of grass they popped out of?’ I did my best. Won’t take this gate on the way out.
Hard cobblestone replaces grass, and I slow down a bit, cursing. Now, instead of stones or sticks, I’m looking out for bits of glass, crap, and other hazards on the street.
From a fast run I slow down to a jog, but not the kind that you see on TV most of the time. I hate the stupid bouncy run actors pretend to do, which clearly misses the point of running. Jogging, like sprinting or walking or anything else, should be fluid and concise. You don’t waste energy looking like you’re standing on a pogo stick.
They have no form. But then, I’ve heard that said about how actors handle guns, do action fights, and about anything else. And my expertise is running.
Let’s see. I’ve never been to Celum, but pedestrians are already out and about despite the early hour. Good. I’d hate to have to wait. I navigate down the streets, using the wooden signs posted above the streets for guidance. There’s a sidewalk to allow the wagons and other wheeled transports and horses to travel about, but few are on the road and I’m in a hurry, so I head straight down each street.
It’s great that everyone around here speaks and writes in English. How amazingly annoying* would it be if they wrote or spoke a different language? But by some contrivance of fate, English is the dominant language in this world. Of course, other languages exist, but apparently, most species know English. And they write it in Human lands.
Anyways. As I slow down to let a cart go by, I think of what the guard said. He seemed amazed I got out of the ambush unscathed, and I have to admit—I was caught off-guard at first. Running means tunnel vision a lot of the time. And, uh, I’m bad about seeing everything at once, even when I don’t have an iPod blasting music* in my ears. Maybe I should run without my headphones in?
*Pop. And rock. And techno, but that’s hit-or-miss. Look, if I can run to it, I will. I have a soft spot for country music, but it’s hard to keep up speed when I’m listening to a harmonica’s croon. Country is for crying or nostalgia. At least, that’s the only kind of song I download.
At last, I reach my destination. By which I mean I reach a tall stone façade of marble and gaze up at a fancier class of painted wood door than I’ve seen elsewhere. Unlike the other houses which enter onto the street, this is a proper mansion within the walls.
It has a walkway and a garden past an iron gate and more glass than any other building in the city, I swear. Whoever lives here can obviously afford it; she’s hired me. But she even has a glowing magical light spell affixed to a little lantern next to the gate.
A magical spell. To be precise, a glowing crystal, which is this world’s version of a lightbulb, only the glow is gentler and comes from within the entire crystal, rather than a filament burning hot with electricity.
Magic. But not everyone can afford a damn magic light. Nor is just anyone titled like the owner of this mansion. I only have to check once.
Lady Magnolia Reinhart. Yep, this is her place. One of her places, as I understand it, but from the shockingly pink carriage* sitting to the side of the mansion…I’d guess that she’s here.
*Garishly pink, really. I mean…there’s pink, a subtle color not often found in the natural world, and then there’s the pink you get on princess dolls. The pink that sears the eyes. That pink is on the entire damn carriage in various shades. It offends my very soul. Even the horses don’t seem to be near it; it’s unhitched, and I pity the poor people who have to stare at that all day. Some people have no taste.
I take a few deep breaths. This is the part I hate the most. But it has to be done, so I steel myself. And hesitate. I take another deep breath, worry about hyperventilation, and then trot up the garden path and take the brass knocker and bang it a few times.
I really do hate this part the most.
Celum, just past dawn.
The instant Lady Magnolia, a member of the Human nobility in the northern part of the continent of Izril, opened the door, she clasped her hand to her heart.
“Oh my! Are you here with the delivery already?”
She personally opened the door, despite the pair of [Maids] hovering behind her and the [Butler], who stood to attention behind both. It was so fast it caught the nervous young woman outside by surprise, and she backtracked a few steps before nodding hastily.
“City Runner at your service.”
Her first impression of the [Lady] was of pink. A pink dress cut almost like business attire, but so shockingly vividly dyed it matched a whirlwind of curled, dirty blonde hair and stood out as the most vivid dress Ryoka had ever seen since coming to this world. The owner of the shocking colors had less vividly green eyes, but her smile engulfed all the other features. She had been smiling before the door opened and her expression seemed to dance ahead of her words.
Magnolia Reinhart thrust the door wide and smiled as she gestured the young woman in. All three of her servants stared at the muddy feet of the City Runner, but the [Lady] barely paid any attention as she swept back inside. The entrance to one of her homes was carpeted with a long tapestry of a grand war, and she walked over the faces of brave warriors vanquishing some horrific monstrous menace with too many legs without noticing it.
The young woman did notice the carpet, nearly forty feet long, hand-sewn, and the mirrors, portraits of noble forebears of Magnolia, and the three servants, all of whom silently stood aside and bowed as she hesitated at the doorway. But Magnolia just beckoned her in, and the young woman swallowed her words as Magnolia spoke too quickly to interrupt.
“I hadn’t expected you so soon! But where are my manners? Magnolia Reinhart, at your service! You are the City Runner I’ve been expecting, yes?”
She turned, and the young woman managed to croak out a few words, her throat tight with nerves.
“Mm. Your seal?”
She set down her pack and began to open it. One of the [Maids], who had a pair of spectacles almost as severe as the frown on her face, made a displeased sound. Scandalized, even. Lady Magnolia hesitated and then touched her fingers to her brow.
“Oh. Of course. Seals. It’s been so long since I—I’d completely forgotten. Please come in while I fetch it.”
The young woman hesitated and eyed the pristine mansion behind Magnolia. It only occurred to her that she really didn’t need to ask for a Runner’s Seal. Not from this person. She began to sweat, but it was too late. The [Lady] noticed her hesitation and glanced down. Her eyes widened slightly, but she took the moment in stride.
“Oh, don’t worry about that. I have plenty of servants who can deal with little stains. Please, come in, come in!”
The young woman hesitated and then reluctantly stepped into the house. She looked up and around at the marble flooring she was currently dirtying, the fancy rugs, the tapestries on the wall, and clearly wished to be elsewhere. But Magnolia just swept towards the nearest room, a sitting chamber, and she was already fiddling around with a little pot set next to the wall.
“Now, where did they put the seal? Normally, I’d leave this all up to my [Head Maid], Ressa, but I just knew it was my delivery. Hm…hmm…here!”
Her hand plucked a silver-and-sapphire token from the plate. The beautiful seal was half gleaming silver, the other half a semi-translucent pool of cerulean. It looked as expensive as could be.
Magnolia presented the token to the young woman, who received it with extreme care. Then, the [Lady] patiently waited as the young woman carefully stowed the token in a belt pouch at her waist and then undid her pack.
It was a backpack, but not one that would ever grace any store in the world the young woman had come from. Rather, instead of Velcro and machine-tooled stitches and individual and superfluous compartments, this pack was made of leather stitched to cloth and had all the aesthetics of a black bug crawling on her back. But it could be tightly secured with strings and opened without having to be taken off.
Carefully, the messenger, for that was what she was, removed a heavily-wrapped item. She held it out.
“Here, all in good order.”
She should have offered it to a servant. She should have said, ‘[Lady] Reinhart,’ or offered some courteous address. In fact, at this point it was quite acceptable for one of the [Maids] to produce a club and harry her into the street. Any other Reinhart would probably have done that, but Magnolia was smiling and took the wrapped parcel quite graciously.
“Thank you very much, Miss Runner! Are you new to the region? I confess, I haven’t seen you around before, and I make it a point to get to know the best City Runners in the area.”
Magnolia waited, but nothing more was forthcoming. So she smiled and carelessly unwrapped the heavy layers of wool and string that had protected the item. The young woman blinked at the detritus littering the floor and then looked back at the package she’d so painstakingly brought this far.
An enameled bottle of red crystal caught the light in Magnolia’s hands and practically illuminated the foyer. It stood at odds with the liquid within, a fine, practically clear blue liquid, such that the resulting shade through the crystal bottle was a brilliant, vivid purple, far more outstanding than a mundane wine as Magnolia held it up to the light.
“Beautiful, isn’t it?”
Magnolia swished the blue liquid inside the bottle and smiled gently. She turned to the young woman and bowed her head slightly.
“I can’t thank you enough for bringing this in time for brunch, Miss Runner. I’m entertaining several of my friends, and I promised them I’d share a glass of this delightful drink with them. I would hate to be made a liar, and they would never let me live it down. Especially Pryde. I know it was somewhat exorbitant to send for, but it is so delicious!”
She gestured at the blue liquid and seemed to realize the young woman had not, at this point, even seen the valuable item she was delivering unwrapped. Magnolia gestured to it lightly.
“The wine, you see? It’s distilled from a very poisonous fruit—the Amentus fruit, I think they call it. So hard to get a hold of, but I did promise! And wouldn’t you know it, but I drank the last glass yesterday. And so I put in my request, and here you are!”
She beamed at the young woman. The young woman said nothing. Her left eye twitched. Magnolia peered at her and went on.
“Please tell the Guild that I’m very happy with their efficiency.”
Nod, nod. The young woman shifted her feet and glanced towards the door. She opened her mouth again, then recited something she’d clearly just remembered.
“Do you have another request?”
It was the traditional response, and Magnolia dithered.
“Well, I suppose—but no, I don’t believe I need—well, at the moment no, but it would be a shame too—no. I suppose not.”
The young woman nodded and began to edge back towards the door. Magnolia was ringing a silver bell, and aproned women and an elderly gentleman were descending the stairs towards their mistress, but when she noticed the young woman leaving, she called out.
“Won’t you stay and have a glass? I would hate to send you on your way without a little reward.”
The City Runner froze, mid-way out the door, and she turned with a hunted expression, clearly hoping she’d done everything. She hesitated, then finally bowed slightly, and begrudgingly, and shook her head.
“…Sorry. I have more deliveries to make.”
Magnolia’s face fell, but she rallied at once.
“Then at least take this gift for your trouble. No, no! I insist.”
She pressed a gold coin into the young woman’s hands. The young woman tried to give it back, but Magnolia wouldn’t hear of it, so she gave up. Ryoka Griffin pocketed the coin, tried to smile, and her lips twitched.
She headed out the door as fast as she could. Magnolia Reinhart watched her go, the bottle of Amentus Wine in her hands. She glanced at the faint stains on the carpet, but a [Maid] was already working them out with incredible speed. She sighed and handed the bottle to the [Butler], who spirited it away for later.
Magnolia Reinhart put her hands on her hips, looking a bit amused, a bit defeated. Only now did the rest of her servants move, and the [Maid] with the spectacles came over and leaned against the wall. She folded her arms, and a slight smirk crossed her face.
“Well, that didn’t work out like you hoped. So much for the charming [Lady] beloved by all Runners.”
Magnolia Reinhart rolled her eyes.
“Oh, do shut up, Ressa. You scared her off. Bare feet? Well, I have met her. Now, let’s see about entertaining Pryde, and if she disparages this drink, I shall toss it in her face.”
She turned, sighing, and cast only one last glance at the head of raven-black hair before the young woman was already fleeing back for the open road.
The City Runner left the mansion of a house and walked down the street. It turned into a jog as soon as she had enough room, and she moved out of the richer housing and into the common districts. There, she knocked on two more doors and, with much less conversation and a lot more efficiency, handed over a letter and a bag and received two red tokens.
After all, she hadn’t just been carrying Magnolia Reinhart’s delivery alone. That was inefficient—it was just that the [Lady] had top billing.
Her deliveries made, the young woman took care to stow both tokens in the same pouch the silver and sapphire token had gone in. She made sure the pouch was closed as well. It was crucially important that she not lose any of the tokens, or seals as they were known.
Runner Seals. A proof of delivery. Without one of the brightly colored bits of stone, any delivery was suspect. A messenger had to deposit such seals in order to receive their reward, and so they were valuable.
To an extent.
Among the wealthier class of patrons, Runner Seals were a sign of their status and power. Merchants and bankers used lesser gemstones instead of common stone, and the most elite members of society even had their own unique form of Seal to prove delivery beyond a doubt.
Even then, she’d probably have to swear on a truth stone the delivery had gotten to Lady Magnolia. But the Seals were still important proof of the handoff, and Magnolia’s was unique. Anyone without such means had to use the simple cut stone provided by their cities at nominal prices. These were cheap, but also meant that they could be used to prove false deliveries.
Cases of Runners taking goods and providing false Seals happened every year. Thus, trust was just as important with Runners. Their reputation for honesty was a key part of receiving individual contracts, just as much if not more so than their ability to deliver packages quickly.
Street Runners were different from City Runners, though, and in her case, she was more trusted. But you had to keep proving that.
The young woman set off for a different gate than the one she’d come in from. She was tired. Not physically tired, but drained from the effort of interacting. Her pace picked up as she went out the gate, and soon, she was running down a well-worn road that would lead her back to her city. She wanted to make more deliveries today, and so she had to beat the midday rush on requests if she wanted to get any of the profitable ones.
She was a messenger. Or Runner, as they were referred to. Street Runner, City Runner, even Courier were their designations—and a whole host of rude words whenever they ran into someone.
She preferred to think of herself as, simply, a Runner. Because she was a runner, and running was what she loved to do. The deliveries she could take and mostly leave, unless it was the wrong address. Or the deliveree was dead. That had happened once, already.
The point is she was running, and there was a breeze in her face. At a moment like this, she could ignore the fact that she was in another world, or that she had no way to get back, or even that the Goblins were chasing her again. She was running, and she was free.
She was also barefoot.
Her name was Ryoka Griffin, a name which she hated, hence her refusal to really give it out to people. She enjoyed running, not talking to people, and her hobbies included not mentioning her name, running, disappointing her parents, drinking coffee, running, and anti-sociability. She was, currently—