As soon as she slammed the door shut, Ryoka collapsed against her bed. Static seemed to crawl over her eyes, and roaring filled her ears.
Pain. It was coming back.
She would have lain there forever, but the pain made her move. There was only one relief.
Ryoka staggered over to a chest at the foot of her bed. She fumbled at it and realized it was locked. Key. Where was the damn key?
The static was everywhere, and the pain was getting worse. Ryoka had just finished opening the lock when she gagged and nearly threw up. It hurt.
Inside the chest was a roll of odd bandages and several green potions. Ryoka instantly grabbed one and popped the cork.
Sitting with her back against the bed, she stretched out her bad leg as far as she was able. The bandages were red with blood now, and the flesh was beginning to puff up. She’d pushed too far.
Gingerly, blacking out with pain, Ryoka poured the green liquid over her leg and tried not to scream. But the effects were instantaneous.
The pain—vanished. For an instant, a wonderful instant, all was well. Ryoka watched in blissful peace as the swelling around her leg faded, and below the bandages, the broken skin and torn flesh closed.
But it didn’t last. After only a few seconds, pain started to return to the area. Dreadful, biting agony.
The bones. The bits of shattered bones that couldn’t be properly healed. They cut into her flesh and stopped the healing. Her flesh regrew—then grew into the splinters, cut itself open again.
Ryoka stared down at her leg. It hurt, but far less now, as the flesh regrew. At least, for the moment. She had a few hours to half a day, depending on what she did to her leg, before her flesh would tear and—
The bandages were now completely bloody, but Ryoka didn’t dare change them. They were the only things keeping the rest of her leg on her body.
Magic. She sensed it in the cloth bindings. They’d been what—ten gold coins? More expensive than the healing potions, even. But they had magic in the stitching, or so the [Healer] had claimed. And she felt it. They were the only reason she could move about, let alone keep her leg…intact.
The magic in the bandages provided stability, structure, and stasis. She could actually move about on a leg where she couldn’t feel anything below her knee due to the bindings holding her leg in place. And so long as she applied a healing potion every few hours, she could keep the damage from her leg at bay.
But eventually, the magic always wore off. And then the swelling would begin, and if it kept on too long, the leg would start to rot.
Magic bandages and healing potions. Ryoka thumped her head back against the footrest of her bed. They could barely keep her injuries in check, but not heal them. What they were really doing was buying time. Time, until she could find a way to heal herself—
Or lose the leg.
She couldn’t feel it anymore. Rather, it was the broken stump just below her kneecap that screamed agony at her each time she agitated it. But her foot and lower leg?
The [Healer] had told her it was still attached, still living flesh so long as she kept healing it with a potion, but it wasn’t about to start healing on its own. It was too badly damaged.
Maybe if there were a surgeon, one from her world, they could have realigned the bones and connected them with metal rods. If she’d been in a hospital, she would have had a chance. But here?
Ryoka put her face in her hands. Garia kept suggesting better [Healers] or treated her injuries as something that would heal given time. But Ryoka didn’t have any time left.
She didn’t have any gold left. She had spent it all—ten gold coins for bandages, healing potions—all the money she’d been earning as a Runner?
Now she wished she’d taken the gold coin from Magnolia. But even if she had—Ryoka Griffin stared blankly at the memory of the encouraging Horns of Hammerad. She felt guiltier now about punching Calruz, but a helpless fury rose in her chest. They didn’t understand. It wasn’t their fault—but she wanted to scream at them. Instead, it came out in a whisper.
“What do you think splintered bone means?”
Garia didn’t get it. But then she hadn’t seen Ryoka’s leg in the moments afterwards. She hadn’t seen how it wasn’t attached, wasn’t solid anymore. The adventurers understood.
Crushed bone. Splintered bone. Not a break or a fracture. It wasn’t like joining two pieces back together. Ryoka’s right leg was a mass of bone splinters without a chance of reattaching on their own.
Medically, the answer was simple. Until the modern era, there would have been no chance any other way. And even then—her legs wouldn’t have ever been the same. Ryoka knew what had to be done. They’d told her as she sat in shock as the [Healer] poured potions on her leg and tried to save her flesh.
Amputation. Either that or find a [Healer] hundreds of miles north with the ability to save her leg.
For a while, she’d hoped it was just her imagination. She’d bought the bandages from the [Healer], scraped together all the money she’d earned so far to buy enough healing potions to last until now, and prayed that her leg would start to heal. But each day passed with blood and pain and no relief.
No one could help her. Ryoka knew that. Garia cared, and even the Horns of Hammerad had stopped by. But what could they do? A hundred—no, hundreds of gold coins. Why make them worry? Why waste energy reassuring them with useless words?
So Ryoka pretended not to worry and did everything herself. Because of pride. Because she didn’t want to appear weak—because that in itself was weakness.
Because there was nothing anyone could do to help her.
Ryoka rested her head against her arm. Pain. Cut it away. They said it would be quick. No. But it was the only choice. She had—three healing potions left. Enough for a day or two. And then she’d be out of money and out of time. Unless she could pay. But she had no money.
Well, she knew someone who had thousands, tens of thousands of gold coins, didn’t she? Of course. And it could be done. There was still a chance.
But the cost—
Ah, the cost.
Ryoka closed her eyes. She tried not to let any tears seep out. Her legs. That was the cost. And she still wasn’t sure if it was worth her leg. She’d thought about it long and hard. And she still wasn’t sure. But she wanted to know the cost. And to do that, she had to bargain.
So what Ryoka was really doing, what she was really thinking as she sat in the wet puddle of the healing potion and blood was nothing. Nothing. She could worry or fret, and she was afraid and in pain, but there was nothing she could really do. All she was doing, in truth, behind everything, was waiting.
Waiting, unable to do more than suffer. Clinging to hope that—what? Someone would produce a magical potion, a real one, and fix everything? Hope that the [Healer] found her and said they had some kind of idea?
Wait until her potions ran out and she had to face a world where she’d never walk again? All because of Persua. All because of a stupid delivery.
Ryoka buried her face in her pillow. It wasn’t fair. It was never fair, she knew, but this?
Why me? Why like this?
It wasn’t fair.
It was evening by the time Garia managed to excuse herself from the inn and make her way back to the Runner’s Guild. By that point, she’d already imbibed quite a lot of liquid, most of it alcoholic.
Garia had an extremely high tolerance for alcohol, so she only stumbled every now and then as she jogged towards the Runner’s Guild. She wasn’t intending on making a delivery, of course; that would be dangerous in the fading light even without being drunk, but she wanted to pick up her payment for the week. She was running low on money after insisting she pay for her meal.
She’d left the rest of the Horns of Hammerad in the semi-destroyed inn, still drinking and talking about how they could help Ryoka. It was strange. Garia had only heard of the Horns as one of the up-and-coming adventurer teams, but she hadn’t really believed the rumors about them being honor-bound like their leader.
Well, everyone knew that Minotaurs were supposed to be honorable, but that was hard to believe when you saw one up close. A Minotaur’s word was as good as a [Knight]’s supposedly, but how did you square that with their cow heads and fierce tempers? But Calruz hadn’t been overly violent—he’d even paid for all the damage he’d caused.
It was strange. The number of non-Humans Garia had seen, let alone met, she could probably count on both her hands. This far north, you didn’t see any of the other races, not even Drakes or Gnolls. But Calruz had seemed so—so—Human.
And he liked Ryoka. And that was something Garia wasn’t going to think about. Instead, she was going to open the door to the Runner’s Guild without falling on her face and walk inside.
Most of the Runners glanced up and then away, ignoring Garia as she entered. She wasn’t particularly powerful within the Runner’s Guild, but she was liked well enough that no one bothered her. That was what Garia preferred. Being unnoticed was safest.
Garia noticed a commotion occurring around the receptionist’s counter, which made her heart sink. The unnoticed part of her reputation also meant she wouldn’t be helped until they sorted out what was going on. Glumly, Garia went to sit down at one of the tables when she heard someone calling her name.
“Garia! How’s my favorite City Runner?”
Garia’s heart skipped a beat and then started going into overdrive as she recognized the voice. Fals. She turned around and gave him what she hoped was an annoyed look.
“I bet you say that to every Runner, Fals.”
“Only the ones I like.”
Fals walked over and smiled at Garia. He was handsome and tall, and Garia could see several female Runners glaring at her as he approached. She tried not to smile back too quickly.
“Are you finished with your deliveries for the day?”
“Yup. Nothing too special; I did a few trips to Lindol and back, but that’s it. How about you? Taking a late-night request?”
Garia shook her head.
“I’m just collecting payment. What’s with all the panic, though?”
She pointed to the group of Runners and staff of the Runner’s Guild who were standing around in a cluster at the counter, arguing and looking panicked. Fals made a face.
“You won’t believe this, but for the last few days, Lady Magnolia’s been asking for a delivery. Trouble is, she only wants one Runner to do it. Guess who?”
Garia didn’t even need to think.
“Ryoka. Oh. And what did the Guild tell her?”
“Oh, I don’t know the details…”
Fals waved a hand self-deprecatingly, but that was just an act. Garia had no doubt he knew exactly what had been said and probably had a part in shaping the message. He was one of the most influential Runners in the entire region around Celum, and the local Guildmasters listened to him.
That might not mean much further north with big cities like Invrisil, but it mattered here. She just wished—he could help Ryoka, but no one could, no [Healer] in any of the cities she’d visited.
“The Guild told her Ryoka was indisposed. We kept offering replacement Runners, but Magnolia kept insisting that she only wanted Ryoka. And now…well, it sounds like she came in person and demanded some answers just a few minutes ago. I was going to see what happened myself. Want to listen?”
Garia hesitated. It probably wasn’t wise to put herself in the spotlight—but then again, Fals was the one in charge. So she nodded and followed him across the room.
Fals whistled as he passed the board full of delivery requests. He stopped and pointed to one unmarked request Garia recognized.
“Wow. Look at that unmarked request. Whoever’s posted it is offering twenty gold coins for a delivery. No, wait, twenty gold to take the delivery. ‘More upon negotiation’? Sounds like a trap. Or a scam, but who’d fall for that?”
Garia peered at it.
“It’s the same one I saw a week ago. I told Ryoka only a Courier would take that. Was I wrong? I thought maybe you might…”
Fals shook his head instantly.
“Are you kidding? I still want to live. Didn’t you see the location? The High Passes. That’s a death trap for anyone. I might have some levels on you, but you’re right—it’s Couriers or a stupid City Runner.”
“It’s not possible at all? Even for you?”
Her admiring look was returned by Fals’ mock-glare.
“Even for me. For any Runner who takes it. I hope no one’s stupid enough to head out there, but with that reward—I think we might lose a few. I’ve been telling all the hotheads not to try it, and they seem to be listening for now.”
“Think a Courier will come by?”
That made him pause. The request really was an odd mix of appealing to low-level Runners and…
“Dunno. Maybe a Courier will do it if the reward keeps rising. But it’s sort of…cheap for them to risk getting hurt. It’s more likely the one who posted it will give up after a month or two.”
“But frankly, even if they doubled the reward, no sane Runner would risk a delivery like that. Profit’s important, but our lives are worth way more.”
Garia remembered something one of the adventurers had said. She frowned.
“Fals? I know you’re one of our best Runners, but why aren’t there any older Runners than you? You’re only twenty-two—”
“Twenty-three. I’m getting old, Garia. Please don’t rub it in.”
She blushed and tried not to stammer.
“—Twenty-three, then. But why aren’t there any other Runners? I know a lot of us die or get hurt, but surely there should be some more, right?”
Fals considered her question. He sighed and raked his hand through his blonde locks.
“We don’t have many experienced Runners because no one who does this job lives very long. We’re the only people crazy enough to deliver. Most folks change classes after they earn enough.”
“I heard people say Runners only care about money.”
Fals eyed her sternly.
“What kind of people have you been talking to, Garia?”
He didn’t wait for her response.
“Never mind. Okay, sure, a lot of Runners are interested in the bottom line. But isn’t that normal? Adventurers, shopkeepers, merchants…even nobles care about money. Why shouldn’t we charge what we do and prioritize the best deliveries? We work a tough job! And we risk our lives every day, running from monsters, dealing with bad weather, natural disasters…it’s enough to make most folk quit within their first week.”
He thumped at his chest.
“But we—we’re Runners. We don’t quit! Everyone who makes it past a year is a real Runner, Garia. We’re the people who keep the cities—no, the entire world connected. Without us, nothing would get done on time. So if people call us money-grubbers, well, let them. We’ve got our own honor, and we deserve every coin we get, am I right?”
His words lit a spark in Garia’s heart and within the other Runners in earshot. She nodded enthusiastically as other Runners called out to Fals.
“That’s our lead Runner!”
“No wonder you’re the best in the region!”
Persua appeared out of nowhere and purred at Fals. Garia jumped as the skinny girl smiled and fussed over him with her gaggle of Street Runners, edging Garia away. Someone elbowed her—hard. Toriska, paying Garia back for speaking up earlier. The [Farmer]’s daughter retreated as Fals was surrounded. He never noticed the jab as he smiled with a bit of reserve.
“No wonder they call you Fleetfoot Fals!”
He grinned and shook his head.
“That’s an old nickname, guys. And anyways, Ryoka’s faster. I wonder if she’s got some sort of Skill?”
Persua’s face soured. Garia scratched at her head.
“Now that you mention it…she’s never mentioned what level she is. She must be high-level, though.”
“Well, she may be quick, but she’s not running now, is she? Besides, she’s so unpleasant. Who’d want a Runner who never smiles like her?”
Garia winced as Persua glared at her from behind Fals. For his part, Fals made a face and took a deliberate step next to Garia, preventing her from being shunted further away.
“Right. About that. I know Ryoka broke a few rules recently, but she is a good runner. And we need all the Runners we can get. I hope the [Healer] can sort her out, I really do.”
He smiled at Persua, and the younger girl sighed and turned red as he met her eyes.
“So…Persua. I don’t want you or your friends to bother Ryoka again, okay?”
She sulked and pouted, but then gave Fals a sickly smile. He returned it with a slight wince that she didn’t appear to notice.
“Anything for you, Fals. Not that we did anything to Ryoka in the first place or anything. She just happened to have an…accident.”
“Well, let’s not have any more of those, are we clear? We’re all on the same team, right?”
Fals raised his voice a bit, lightly, and he met Persua’s gaze, and Claudeil and Toriska nodded along. Yet Garia saw Fals’ eyes fix on Persua—then glance away.
The other Runners nodded and voiced their agreement. Fals went around the room shaking hands and slapping Runners on the back. He eventually managed to get Persua to clear off by hinting that she and her cronies smelled sweaty, and finally, he and Garia were left alone again. He sighed but smiled at Garia.
He had to know she’d done it. And how badly Ryoka was hurt. And that was all…? He glanced at Garia and shook his head slightly as he came over.
“See what I mean, though? We can’t be divided. Us Runners have to work together.”
Garia glared at Fals. She whispered out of the corner of her mouth.
“You know she was behind it. Everyone does. She probably lied on the truth stones!”
He looked uncomfortable. Fals kicked at the ground with his expensive leather shoes and sighed. He combed his hair with one hand as he addressed Garia.
“Ryoka broke a rule. They shouldn’t have gone that far, but I did warn her. We’ve got to work together, Garia. Even if one of us is faster, it’s better to share the wealth rather than compete. You’re new, but you understood that. Ryoka didn’t and now—well, now we’ve got trouble with Lady Magnolia and we’re down a City Runner. Besides—Persua did what she did. I don’t want you being her next target.”
Or him? Then Garia realized how Fals always gave Persua the time of day might not be because he liked everyone. Was he—
Afraid of her? Fals watched Persua carefully as she sniffed at an armpit and shoved Claudeil, who offered her a vial of scented oil. She waved back with a huge smile. Fals returned it before giving Garia a serious look for a moment.
He was. Because maybe he feared she’d break his leg too. This didn’t sit well with Garia. She grimaced and stared hard at Fals. But when he met her gaze with a rueful smile and shrug, she colored and looked away. She muttered at the ground.
“I still don’t like it. Persua’s crazy. Ryoka won’t be able to run for at least a year! Even with potions to help her heal! Have you seen her leg?”
“I heard it was just a bad break that the [Healers] can’t fix right away. Is it worse than that?”
Garia looked miserable as she shook her head.
“I don’t know. I’m no expert, and she’s got it wrapped in layers of bandages. They look magical though, and—and I met a mage who said that the only way she’d get it healed was to pay hundreds of gold coins to a high-level [Healer].”
He hissed through his teeth.
“That’s—no! I can’t believe it! They told me they wouldn’t—”
Garia interrupted Fals.
“You knew? You knew and—I can’t believe you, Fals!”
Garia’s voice rose incredulously. She advanced on Fals, making fists with her hands. He raised his hands defensively as he backed away towards the counter.
“I had no choice! Look, you know what Persua and her friends are like. I told them not to do anything drastic, but even if I’d stopped them, some other Runners would have organized something. You know the rules, Garia. Remember Perial when he broke them?”
Garia remembered Perial. She didn’t remember what he’d done wrong, but she remembered that a bunch of Runners had dropped rusty nails in his path and forced him to run through them.
Fals closed his eyes tightly and then opened them. He looked tired.
“Okay. That changes things. Look, Garia. I’ll—I’ll talk to the Guildmaster after I see it in person. Persua’s gone too far, even if Ryoka broke the rules.”
“That still won’t fix her leg.”
“No, but it’s all I can do. Okay? And I don’t know that any injury would really cost a hundred gold coins for a spell, Garia. I’ll see Ryoka myself, but even if her bones are broken beyond a healing potion’s ability to repair, how bad could it really be?”
“We’ll see. I know a few good [Healers] and even a [Mage] that owes me a favor. If Ryoka’s really hurt that bad, I’ll call in a few favors and get the Guild to help out. She’ll be on her feet by the end of the month, I promise. But can we see what the commotion is?”
Garia nodded. She felt a lot more upbeat with Fals’ promise. He always kept his word. She followed him to the counter as the Runners parted for him. Fals addressed a harried-looking receptionist at the counter.
“What’s going on? Is there more trouble with Magnolia?”
“Trouble? Oh, there’s been trouble alright.”
The receptionist laughed somewhat hysterically. She was Stenei, the [Receptionist] who’d often talked to Ryoka—and it seemed like she’d been called in just to speak to Lady Reinhart. Judging by her expression, that had not been pleasant.
“Lady Magnolia was here just half an hour ago. She came in person to complain to the Guildmaster, but he was out! She wanted to know where Ryoka was, and when she heard she was injured, she was not happy. She even suggested that she might stop ordering through our Guild altogether!”
Garia and Fals stared in horror at the receptionist. Lady Magnolia was one of the Guild’s biggest patrons. Besides that, she was important. Even on the other end of the continent, there were people who would know her name.
“Did she want anything else?”
“She wanted to know where Ryoka was right now. Fortunately, we at least knew her address, so she was somewhat satisfied, but what will we do? If she stops ordering—”
Garia interrupted urgently.
“Wait, she wanted to know where Ryoka was?”
The receptionist blinked at her. Normally, Garia would have been brushed off in an instant, but Fals was with her.
“Yes, she wanted to know.”
“And you told her?”
The receptionist grew defensive at Garia’s accusatory tone.
“What? It’s in the guild’s best interest to keep her happy. If she wants to know where one of our Runners is, we’ll tell her.”
“But she wanted Ryoka! And if she knows where she is, she’ll go and meet her!”
Fals groaned and pulled at his hair. He looked around frantically, but Magnolia was already long gone.
“Have you even met Ryoka? Remember what happened when she met the Guildmaster? She doesn’t respect anyone! If Magnolia shows up, she’ll probably throw her out of her room! Or—or—”
Fals turned to Garia.
“No. She wouldn’t do that. No one’s crazy enough to punch—she wouldn’t.”
Garia looked nervous.
“She punched a Minotaur when he tried to invite himself into her room this morning.”
The receptionist and Fals both paled.
“We’ve got to stop her. Or stop Ryoka.”
Garia turned and raced out of the Guild, Fals hot on her heels. She wasn’t one for wishes, but Garia hoped that Ryoka would be civil or at least acceptable before they got there. She didn’t have much hope, though.
She knew Ryoka.
Lady Magnolia sat in the small, cramped bedroom of The Rat’s Tail, a moderately prosperous inn in the city of Celum. She clearly did not belong there. For one thing, her expensive, patterned, latticed, light pink dress with floral embroidery probably cost more than the inn itself.
But she sat on the rickety chair the innkeeper had personally delivered to Ryoka’s room, looking perfectly content while she chatted with its inhabitant. Behind her, Ressa the head maid stood in one corner of the room, glaring daggers at the poverty, the dirt under the windowsill, and Ryoka herself.
“My dear, I really was shocked to hear of your accident. Won’t you tell me what happened?”
“I got bored and played tag with a cart.”
“You are always full of unique answers, aren’t you, Ryoka? I can’t imagine how you can tell jokes in the face of such an injury.”
Not that Lady Magnolia had actually seen her injury, Ryoka reflected. She was lying on her bed, her bandages wrapped around her leg. Magnolia had walked in on her while she was resting, and Ryoka hadn’t yet unwrapped her protective cushion from her bad leg.
She didn’t know why she was spitting bile. The [Innkeeper] had practically bowed himself into a wall, and everyone was treating Magnolia like, well, a [Lady]. Ryoka felt like she should be grateful anyone cared enough to check on her.
But the agony in her leg made her want to curse everyone away. She tried to sit up, and Lady Magnolia raised a quick hand.
“Lie still, please, Miss Griffin. Ressa, how good are those potions?”
The [Maid] was checking Ryoka’s room. She put down a bottle and shook her head.
“Serviceable. But she’s not going to cure that with potions. The bones’re crushed.”
“Could you set them…?”
“Nope. This would require the best [Healer] the Guild has—or something better. It’s shattered bone in splinters. Whoever did this knew how to stop it from being repaired.”
Ryoka stared sickly at her legs, and the [Maid] actually gave her a sympathetic look. Magnolia Reinhart exhaled.
“Then it was deliberate.”
“Not according to the Guild. The [Guildmaster] himself personally told me what a tragic accident this was. Completely my fault.”
Ryoka had screamed insults at him and thrown everything she could find. She expected Magnolia to take this at face value, but the [Lady] smiled instead.
A cold smile. Ryoka blinked as she saw the green eyes focus on her—and then on Ryoka’s legs.
“Show me your leg, my dear? Ressa can unwrap the bandages just for a moment.”
“Just for one moment, Miss Ryoka. As a matter of…justice.”
Ryoka stared at her. Then she pointed to the left one.
“Pull the bandages loose there—aah…”
Even unwrapping it a bit made Ryoka feel her flesh begin to part. Ressa was deft—she unwrapped the bandages fast, and Magnolia Reinhart looked down, and Ryoka stared at her legs—then turned her head.
The [Lady] didn’t quite vomit, but a [Maid] held out a bucket—Magnolia Reinhart swallowed calmly.
A leg should not look—flat. Even with the skin regrown, the bones, the very structure of the leg—
“Thank you, Ressa. And thank you, Miss Griffin. Do you need another potion?”
Ressa poured some on her leg, and Ryoka sat back as it was bound up again. Magnolia Reinhart had not gone dead white, but her lips were pale. She was more composed than Ryoka expected anyone to be after seeing a gruesome injury like that. One of the maids in the inn had seen Ryoka’s leg and fainted.
“So that was the accident the Runner’s Guild informed me of. One leg, crushed by a wagon whose driver did not see you and had no time to stop. Which is fair. How, pray…were you lying down long enough for your leg to be run over?”
“According to the guild, I fell down.”
“That is what their report claimed. The same young woman who broke a local record running gelato to my door—fell with a wagon rolling towards her and never rolled out of the way? Just so I ask your side of the story, did that all happen too fast, Miss Griffin?”
Ryoka looked at Magnolia, and those eyes regarded her. Searching…and Ryoka spoke.
“No. I couldn’t get out of the way. Mostly because my feet were webbed down.”
“I see. And how did you fall to begin with?”
“Someone pushed or tripped me.”
Magnolia Reinhart nodded.
“That would be…Persua Mavva. Among others, yes?”
Ryoka Griffin blinked. Magnolia Reinhart waited, and the City Runner croaked.
“Y-yeah. But she’s been absolved. Investigated, I mean.”
“By Celum’s Guildmaster. No, I quite understand. The Guildmaster—when he arrived—assured me that he had looked into the accident. And it was an accident. And that he had truth stone readings. Ressa, how does Miss Griffin look?”
Ressa showed Magnolia the same glowing stone, and Magnolia studied the blue glow.
“Thank you. Well, Miss Ryoka, you are badly hurt. I will not waste your time. I wanted to check on you, and I am sorry that I did not hear of this sooner. I was preoccupied…”
“I didn’t expect you to remember me.”
Magnolia raised one eyebrow. Ryoka laughed.
“I’m just a Runner who knows how to make ice cream. Did you want to make more?”
“No, Miss Griffin. I was hoping we’d speak again.”
“Ah. That. Well—I’m sort of laid up. You came all this way because you were curious?”
Curious she was from another world? To Ryoka’s surprise, Magnolia Reinhart’s eyes flashed.
“I won’t deny my curiosity, Miss Griffin. But I hope you would think more of me than that. The Runner’s Guild has clearly misrepresented the truth, and this City Runner has committed a crime. In Celum, which is not ruled by me, but in Izril, which I hold near and dear to my heart, despite its warts and wrinkles. The Runner’s Guild must not be corrupt.”
“Well. They’ve done their investigation, and that’s that.”
Ryoka felt like they were talking in circles. She licked her lips, and Magnolia Reinhart reached out and handed her the refilled canteen of water.
“Not quite. I believe Guildmaster Eterell was a good City Runner in his time. He rose through the ranks, and his current job and class in one of the more central Runner’s Guilds has made him fairly wealthy. Too wealthy, and perhaps too comfortable. Which is why, tomorrow, he will step down from his position. Perhaps, in his advancing years, he will find work starting as a Street Runner. Or some other job. I believe that would be for the best.”
Ryoka Griffin’s lips froze with cool water pressed against them. She turned her head, and Magnolia went on.
“His successor will have to investigate the Guild’s dealings. But as for Miss Mavva—she is a somewhat well-connected City Runner. She and her close friends have more Street Runners in common, though. If she passes the second investigation, regardless, I believe they will have more success with their peers as Street Runners. And the new Guildmaster may suggest they find other modes of work as well.”
“You…what are you talking about?”
Magnolia Reinhart looked at Ryoka with a pleasant smile on her face. But her eyes were sparking with real anger.
“Merely a forecast, Miss Griffin. Consider me a [Weather Mage] of sorts—albeit for people.”
“Why are you…?”
“Whatever do you mean, Miss Griffin?”
The [Lady] gave Ryoka an innocent look as Ressa snorted softly. But not disapprovingly. Magnolia Reinhart stared out Ryoka’s window at the city beyond.
“Are you, perhaps, surprised that anyone might take an interest in wrongdoing? Or deal with the matters themselves? If a Guild rots from within—the city suffers. The region suffers. If I were to find a poison within the veins of Izril, should I ignore it? Monsters, threats. Wrongdoing. Someone must deal with the situation. Don’t you agree?”
She turned to Ryoka, and the young woman laughed at her.
“What about the law? The…Watch? Having some random vigilante doesn’t sound like the system’s working.”
Magnolia’s smile never changed, but the look in her eyes deepened, crossing with something like regret.
“Oh, I wonder where you come from, Miss Griffin, I truly do. The Watch? Who oversees the Watch? Who holds my peers to account? Who should but stop an army, an invading force? Sometimes, Miss Griffin, we make such choices and do what we must.”
Ryoka felt a shiver cross her spine, and Magnolia Reinhart glanced at Ressa—and the ‘[Maid]’ said nothing at all. But then Magnolia blinked, sighed, and fluttered her hands.
“…Until we regret it. These are more peaceful times, Miss Griffin, so we shall simply slap some hands and deal with such troublemakers lightly. Lighter than you would prefer, I’m sure. But you have my word.”
In that moment, Ryoka wasn’t sure if she liked Magnolia or she just found her to be unexpected. But she…more than anyone else Ryoka had met—she looked at Magnolia and said something she had rarely spoken in any world.
Magnolia Reinhart shook her head.
“Thanks would go to me if I stopped this from occurring, Miss Griffin. This is just—necessity. Now. I will take a little more of your time. What will happen to your leg? Do the [Healers] have any hope it will mend with time? Better potions?”
Ryoka’s moment of lightness fell away again. She bowed her head.
“No. There’s no chance. Not unless I find some kind of super-healer. Is there one…?”
She looked up, remembering the comment about some Guild’s best [Healer]. But Ressa just coughed.
“He’s about seven hundred miles away and unlikely to…”
Seven hundred miles? Ryoka bowed her head, but Magnolia waved her fingers.
“Yes, yes. I understand the difficulties there. This sounds like it requires top-tier healing. So. A Potion of Regeneration from an older age, a [Healer] beyond compare…hundreds of thousands of gold pieces and months of rehabilitation, even so. But these were unenchanted wagon wheels, weren’t they? In that case—I believe the simplest answer would be the Healer of Tenbault.”
Ryoka had heard that name before. Ressa grimaced.
“She is busy, Lady Reinhart.”
“She always is. But she owes me a favor. And as for the cost—Miss Griffin, I believe you are not without recourse. I happen to have an old…ah, friend. Someone who is capable of casting a spell that will likely heal your leg. [Restoration]. Healing magic, one of the rarest kinds in the world. A Tier 6 spell, in fact.”
Magnolia smiled brightly at her. Ryoka stared blankly at Magnolia, not quite daring to believe what she was hearing. Tier…what was that? Then she remembered what she’d read from an introductory spellbook.
Tier Magic. It stood in stark contrast to the undisciplined magics, whatever that meant. But from what Ryoka had read in her extremely brief introduction to magic, Tiered Magic organized magic in…tiers.
That was to say that a spell capable of being cast by all mages was generally thought of as 1st Tier Magic or 0 Tier Magic, while a spell that was 2nd Tier was more potent, requiring a better mage and longer periods of study to learn it. 3rd Tier magic was generally the bar for most mages, and they would know only one or two spells of that level. Anything higher got into the range of extremely powerful magic, exponentially stronger and just as hard to learn.
That presumably meant that Magnolia’s friend was an incredible mage, but the book had said lower-level mages could cast higher Tier magic with enough practice and time. It also meant this mysterious friend was probably extremely powerful.
“You—you just know someone who has that kind of power? Really? And she’ll just pop over to heal me?”
“My dear. I know everyone and anyone who matters in the north. Nor will she pop over.”
“…But we can arrange transit and put you ahead on her list. I believe your leg will heal. In which case, we shall resolve all of this.”
It felt like it was all unreal. Ryoka’s head was spinning. Persua—punished. Her leg? Her head rose, and Magnolia gave her a pat on the hand.
“If that all sounds acceptable, we will have you in my carriage within the hour and heading to Tenbault—which is her city. Then I believe you’ll likely need to rest even with that spell, and my mansion is open to you rather than this—colorful inn. Especially for healing, you should have clean bedsheets.”
“And a chamberpot.”
Ressa added. Ryoka croaked.
“I—you’d do that? Why?”
“Miss Griffin, you did render me the invaluable, nay, indispensable boon of free ice cream. Shouldn’t I repay that kindness? But if you insist—I do hope you and I will have a proper chat while you recover. About where you came from. And how you got here.”
She said that last part so gently Ryoka almost missed it. Then her head rose, and Magnolia was looking her in the eyes.
Green and green, but the forest was swallowing up the emeralds of Ryoka’s gaze.
“I am—exceptionally curious, my dear. If you would be candid, I would be most grateful. Which land do you call home? What useful—tidbits could you share?”
Suddenly, Ryoka felt the walls closing in. She looked at Magnolia Reinhart, and the [Lady] was watching her.
“Wh-what are you talking about?”
“Come now, Miss Griffin. I am not angry. In fact, I believe this was all a great accident. I just need to know—where and who sent you. And how many there are. If this was an accident, all well and good. But if you are a visitor kith and kin from, say, the domain of the Winter Sprites or some other nation—I need to know everything.”
Then Magnolia was looking at her, and the young woman from Earth was frozen in her bed. She felt cold suddenly, even in the sheets.
“I—I don’t know what—”
Earth. Magnolia Reinhart, the Deadly Flower of the North, knew, somehow, she wasn’t from here. And—and she wanted to know…
Ryoka had a flash, suddenly, of the Watch with their spears and the adventurers with their swords and bows holding guns. She looked at Magnolia, a war hero, perhaps, a [Lady] with a lot of connections fascinated with gelato.
And she wondered what that kind of [Lady], even one who believed in justice, would do if she knew how to make a gun.
Magnolia saw Ryoka suddenly tense up.
“My dear. Perhaps I’m wrong. But would you care to elaborate on the situation? Perhaps I am completely wrong and you have a Skill and you’re actually an Izrilian and that would be hilarious.”
She laughed—but she was glancing at Ryoka. At something lying on the bedside table. Ryoka turned her head and went paler still.
Her iPhone was lying there with its worn casing, and Ressa and Magnolia glanced at it. Magnolia continued after a second—
“…But I do safeguard Izril in some small ways. Honesty, Miss Griffin. Just a short chat on the ride there and afterwards. How about it? Do we have a deal?”
She held out a hand, and Ryoka Griffin looked at Magnolia Reinhart’s smiling face. She felt her leg beginning to scream at her again, and she wanted nothing in this world more than the pain to stop. Her hand rose—
And she thought she heard a poem in her head. She saw a flash of gunfire and wondered what would have happened if any historical figure in history had ever been handed an assault rifle or the blueprints for one.
Ryoka Griffin had little moral fiber. She hated authority. She hated a lot of things, including her parents. But she had studied history and modern events, and she looked at Magnolia Reinhart and that outstretched hand. Ryoka Griffin’s mouth went dry.
“No. Not that.”
Magnolia blinked. Her fingers wavered.
“No? Miss Griffin—your leg is in a distressing state. I cannot bear to see you in pain another second. Please, let’s forgo your admittedly successful reticence and mystery. I shall tell the Healer to speak to you then—”
“No. I’ll take the healing—but not tell you—tell you everything. I’ll tell you a bit, okay? But nothing more.”
The [Lady] of House Reinhart blinked at Ryoka.
“I—beg your pardon?”
“How about where I came from? And—twenty questions.”
“Sure. Ask me any twenty questions and I’ll answer them. How—how about that?”
Ryoka Griffin smiled weakly, and Magnolia Reinhart turned to look at Ressa. She looked back down at Ryoka.
“My dear. The Healer of Tenbault sees less than two thousand patients each year. A large number, to be sure, by some standards, but the cost of visiting her is in the thousands of gold pieces on average—hundreds if you are lucky. The nobility have a hard time visiting her. I believe I should get more than twenty questions.”
“Well—take it or leave it.”
Ryoka smiled at Magnolia, trying to keep her face straight. She saw Magnolia’s mouth open and Ressa’s glare, but she clenched her fists in the sheets. Not guns. Not…not the worst of what Magnolia could learn.
She waited for Magnolia to come up with another offer. Forty questions maybe. But the [Lady] just stared down at Ryoka and shook her head.
“My dear. My dear Ryoka—I have given you a lot of leeway. This accident was not your fault, nor do I take any pleasure in this, but your…what? Principle? Stubbornness? It must end somewhere. No.”
Ryoka saw her step back. The City Runner looked up.
“No? What do you mean?”
“No. I will not negotiate with you. Not questions. Not a deal, Miss Griffin. Candor, complete candor—simply talk to me and the Healer will mend your leg. If not?”
Magnolia folded her hands as she stood in the doorway. She looked at Ryoka, and the young woman stared at her.
“You’re not going to heal me?”
“I am going to mend your leg—but not waste more time, Miss Griffin. Please, I urge you to accept my offer.”
The [Lady] gave Ryoka an incredulous look, but the young woman was giving her almost the same expression.
“I won’t be bullied into telling you anything.”
Magnolia’s voice rose in outrage. She turned to Ressa.
“I—Miss Griffin. I am trying to help you.”
“Then heal me and don’t threaten me.”
Ryoka bared her teeth, and Magnolia Reinhart was lost for words.
“She’s got you there.”
“Ressa, do shut up. Miss Griffin, this is the smallest thing I could ask for. The most necessary thing—please consider.”
Ryoka took some joy in seeing Magnolia’s pure, flummoxed shock. The [Lady] stood in the doorway and turned to her silent servants, back to Ryoka—and then she bowed her head.
“Very well, Miss Griffin. You win.”
The City Runner exhaled—but too soon. Magnolia Reinhart slowly put her hand on the doorknob.
“Wh—what are you—”
“I shall keep an open ear for any letter you send. When you change your mind—and I hope for your sake it is soon—contact me.”
Then, politely, regretfully, and without hesitation, Magnolia Reinhart closed the door on Ryoka Griffin. And the young woman stared at the closed door before she began to shout—but Magnolia Reinhart was already walking down the stairs.
I’m an idiot. I have to cover my eyes to keep the tears from leaking. I’m such a complete and utter, stubborn idiot.
I should have accepted her offer immediately. No—even if Magnolia wanted me to be her slave or her maid or to work for her for ten years, I would have accepted her offer in a heartbeat.
But she wanted me to tell her the truth. Damn it. Damn her and her insight. That’s the one thing I can’t give her. Ever.
My leg is agony. But my heart is ice. And now that I’ve been given the offer, the path is clear. Two roads stretch out before me, and a world waits upon my choice.
Is that dramatic? It’s too dramatic. But it is true.
Stand up. I need another healing potion. My leg hurts—I need a clear head for it.
I shift to reach for the nightstand. Pain shoots through my bad leg. Three healing potions. Damn it, again. I can’t waste them. Not if—
Well if I refuse, there’s no point to them. They’re weak things, anyways. But they told me a stronger healing potion would start growing each fragment of bone out of my skin, and that would destroy my leg beyond any healing.
Something. Oh. I reach over, cursing my leg, and grip it tightly in one hand. The only thing I really own in this world. It’s useless, without power. At least the earbuds are still attached, but again, useless without electricity.
I look at the piece of plastic and metal lying on the nightstand. Stupid to have it out. Could I trade that, instead? Even if she figures out how to use it, she couldn’t replicate it. Maybe…
No. No, it’s worthless in any case. If there were power left in it, I might be able to make the trade but—no. It’s information she wants. And that price is just too high for me to pay.
The word rots on my tongue. It sounds so stupid, so simple and easy to give away when you say it like that. And it would be simple for me to agree to answer however many questions.
Except that Magnolia can read minds. Or sense untruths. And she’s cunning, smart enough to keep asking questions. If I gave her unlimited answers, she’d have the entire truth eventually.
I could lie. But she’d sense it if I didn’t intend to fulfill my bargain. Trapped, again.
Pride be damned. I’ll go back and beg her if need be. The cost—I’ll think of it later. But even if it means selling part of my soul or my world’s secrets, I will run again.
But…no. I can’t do that. No, never. Because if she asks questions—
If she asks questions, she’ll learn about my world. Good? That’s fine. Even if she knows, can she get there so easily? I don’t think it matters. If someone could travel between worlds so easily, we’d already know about it. Maybe she could, but we have guns and way more technology than she does.
But that’s the catch, isn’t it? We have technology, and if she asks more questions, she’ll know about our world’s technology. Not just things like hygiene or bacteria, but the things that should never be told. Secrets, jumps forward in capability that would make any nation a superpower in an instant.
Gunpowder. Firearms. Germ warfare. Steam power, electrical power, locomotion. Everything from interrogation techniques to how to build a tank or a bomb. Nuclear weapons.
Does it sound stupid to say it like that? I don’t know how to make nukes. But I do know what goes into gunpowder. I aced chemistry class. I know exactly how a turbine works, and I’m pretty damn sure I remember all of the techniques the FBI illegally used on terrorists.
Damn it. It’s a moral choice, isn’t it? Lose my leg or give away the secrets of death and destruction. If it were anyone else, I could lie or tell only small truths. But she can read my damn mind. And I know exactly where to gather all the ingredients of gunpowder. And guns wouldn’t be hard to make, not in this world.
Lady Magnolia. I know nothing about her. Just rumors and that she’s a powerful and influential lady with wealth and connections. Even if she appears nice—especially if she appears nice—I have no way of knowing if she’d use that power to help or harm.
No. It’s simpler than that.
Even if I could trust her, the secret would spread. That’s how it works. She’d want to see a demonstration, and someone would put the pieces together. Ressa, her maid, maybe. Sooner or later, technology would spread. I’d be responsible for bringing guns into the world. And maybe it’s not that far away from that level of technology already but—
“Belfast. Beruit. Phnom Penh. All flesh is grass.”
When I was a girl, I went to the Newseum in Washington D.C. I saw the pictures on the walls. I looked at the children, the dying and the dead. My dad thought I was too young to understand.
All flesh is grass. The ‘War Photographer’ by Carol Ann Duffy. Is it a straight line between bringing the capabilities of gunpowder to the world and terrible war? No. But where there is knowledge, there is power. And even if she used her power to help her nation, that would only lead to war in the end.
Napalm. Mixed petroleum with a natural or synthesized rubber like latex. It wouldn’t be hard to create the same kind of thing. Not with Magnolia’s influence.
I want to run. I want to walk again.
I’m no Walter White, but I remember too much. Too much National Geographic and other shows about the world. Not a perfect memory. But too close.
Damn it. I can’t do it. I don’t want to be the one who creates a Hitler or gives another white…woman a gun and a mandate to conquer the world. But I want to run.
I can’t figure it out. I can’t decide. I waited a week—a damn week for her to arrive. In pain and fear. And now that she offered me what I was dreaming of, I should have leapt at it. But I hesitate. I draw back.
I sit on the edge of the abyss and wonder if my soul burns well in hell. It’s not fair. All I ever wanted to do was run. I don’t want to lose my leg. I want to run. I want to live. I want to walk.
I don’t want to see the child sitting alone. I don’t want to see the vulture. I don’t want it to be my fault.
Alone, I sit in my room, sitting with the fate of two worlds in my hands. This world’s and my world’s. I live to run. My legs are what define me.
All I have to do is ask the staff to get me a Street Runner. Or send a note to Magnolia Reinhart. She’s probably not too far from the city, if she’s even left yet. It would be so simple, and I wouldn’t be in pain.
The door opens. I look up. A face like perfection and a dream stares at me. Half perfection, half mortal. The cruelest of both worlds. Ceria Springwalker.
She hesitates and then steps into the room. I expect hollow words and hollower promises. I expect to be let down or to feel nothing but despair. But she doesn’t bring any of that.
She brings salvation.
“I know it’s bad.”
Ryoka sat on the bed. Ceria stared at her leg and then looked away.
“I’ve seen an injury like that before. I’m aware it can’t be healed so easily. I’m not sure if your friend really understood—”
“She doesn’t. It doesn’t matter. She can’t help. Neither can you.”
“We owe you a debt. You might not understand it, but Calruz hired every member of the Horns of Hammerad because we believe in honor. If we can help, we will.”
Ryoka bared her teeth.
“Got a few thousand gold coins?”
“No. That’s beyond us, frankly. Even if we sold our armor and weapons—and Calruz might, to impress you—I doubt we’d be able to get close to a [Healer] of that level. They’re in constant demand. Heard of the Healer of Tenbault?”
Ryoka started, and Ceria nodded.
“I’ve never seen her, but I know it’s virtually impossible to meet her—and everyone wants to, because she can apparently cure almost anything. Thousands camp around the gates of Tenbault each day, hoping she’ll tend to them. Even if we had the money they charge, it would take a miracle.”
Ryoka grunted. Her hand was clutching the sheets of her bed so hard they were white. Instead, Ceria looked at Ryoka. Ryoka gazed back.
What the young woman saw, Ceria could guess. A half-breed, perhaps. A memory of what was lost, or maybe she just saw a mage, someone who pursued strange goals few understood. It didn’t matter. And for some reason, Ceria thought that the Runner known as Ryoka Griffin looked at her differently than the rest. But duty was duty. Honor was honor.
“I heard Magnolia Reinhart visited you. Did she offer you anything?”
“She offered me a deal. I might have to take it. And damn my soul. Why am I responsible? I’m not. It’s not my…”
Ryoka stared down at the sheets. Wrestling with something. Ceria raised her brows and coughed.
“Before you do, be careful. My peo—I don’t trust the nobility.”
Ceria glanced sidelong at Ryoka, as if hoping for a confirmation. Ryoka grunted.
“I don’t trust anyone. Not with some things. They’ll…they’ll let you down.”
She looked haunted, torn—and strangely—principled. It was funny, but Ceria had heard that the City Runner who’d delivered the potions to her team hadn’t asked what they were offering for their emergency delivery.
The Horns had posted the highest number they dared, but it had been way too low for someone to risk a Lich killing them. But one Runner had come without even asking the price.
Strange, to find someone like that. It reminded the half-Elf of her bull-headed leader, Calruz. And her team. It made her want to help Ryoka, so she leaned forwards and took a breath.
“I know that Lady Magnolia offered you…something. I saw her on the way in. You might want to accept, but all deals have a price. Even if she doesn’t say, she’ll want something.”
“I know. But—”
Ryoka was staring at her legs, and Ceria knew what she was thinking. No matter what it was—if the choice was between never walking again and healing? That was why the half-Elf was here. Ceria lowered her voice.
“A spell is probably the only way to cure your leg. But there’s magic that she offers and then there’s…another way.”
Ryoka looked at Ceria. Her eyes seemed to pierce the young half-Elf to her core. Ceria Springwalker had lived for over sixty years, but she hadn’t ever seen someone as desperate as Ryoka.
The eyes seemed to be boring a path straight into her soul. Ceria took a deep breath. She might regret this. She already was. But she thought of—the person she had considered when they were discussing Ryoka’s plight. Maybe that bastard was dead. She almost wished…no. No, and the odds were he was somewhere on Izril still. He’d never go back to Terandria or Wistram.
She had vowed never to speak to him again, but for this odd young woman in need, Ceria Springwalker closed her eyes and then asked Ryoka a question.
“…How do you feel about necromancy?”