Running is a peculiar thing. And it’s one of the few things I’m qualified to talk about in any world. For me, running is as close to living as anything I do. I’ve studied it, practiced it, and made it mine. I can’t claim anything else like that.
But if running is pure, life is not. My body is not, for that matter.
Funny thing. Apparently, doing a record-breaking, thirty-mile marathon at my top speed has consequences, especially on a leg that just got healed. Suffice it to say that when the Horns of Hammerad caught up with me, they had to let me ride on the cart most of the way back to Celum.
Lying down in the middle of a field during a complete physical shutdown is actually pretty relaxing. I was so tired I didn’t even think about what would happen if a monster found me.*
*Not that it’s hard to think about. Apparently, the most common type of monster between the Human cities and Liscor are Goblins or a variety of avian species. I’m told that it would be far better to have the birds start eating me alive than suffer what male Goblins do to women. Next time I see one of those buggers, I’m kicking his head in.
Anyways, I’m just lucky that one of their team members, Hunt, had an appropriate tracking Skill or something. The Horns figured out what happened pretty quick when I stopped moving. Again, running a marathon on a light meal isn’t a good idea. I’ve tried ultra-marathons, and the key to those runs isn’t speed or even that much practice. All you do is take it easy and eat the entire way through. My kind of fun.
Where was I? Oh yeah. Running. Running is simple, but nothing else is in life. Even jobs involving running are way too difficult.
Case in point and why I’m still standing outside the Runner’s Guild rather than going in. I really don’t want to have to deal with the people inside—or anyone right now. In fact, the only thing keeping me remotely sane is the fact that my leg is better.
My leg is better. Four words, but it is all the difference in the world to me. From thinking I’d never run again to being able to run wherever I go?
Life is good.
—Unless of course you’re an out-of-work bum with no money who has to borrow from other people to survive. Dad always warned me this would happen if I didn’t shape up.*
*Of course, shaping up for him would be going into politics to kiss ass and tell lies 24/7, so he can go jump off a cliff.
I am quite literally penniless. Without the Horns of Hammerad, I wouldn’t even have been sleeping in the inn for the last few days, let alone eating. The reason for that is twofold. One—and again, this is my fault—I had to rest up from the stupid marathon I ran right after getting my leg healed. Even with a potion, there was still some rehabilitation necessary. That took two days before Ceria told me I was fine.
The other reason?
Every head in the Runner’s Guild turns as I kick open the door. Just as quickly, most of the Runners look away.* Looks like half of the regular City Runners are here, plus a few people I recognize.
*It’s a great look, too. It says that they were clearly expecting someone, anyone besides me, but I’m here now, and they have to put up with me—mainly by pretending I don’t exist. Gods. This is why I hate looking at people’s faces.
Fals is talking to Garia next to the receptionist’s desk. Both notice me, but Fals keeps talking and Garia’s too moonstruck to interrupt him. And watching Fals from a corner of the room with her posse is another charming person of interest.
Persua, Persua, Persua. Oh, how the mighty have fallen. If I didn’t know what Magnolia had told me, I still would have been able to tell something was wrong.
She’s still there, and Toriska’s sitting next to her—Claudeil might be around—but they look like they just were at a funeral. Persua’s sycophants aren’t here—all the Street Runners are normally missing—and she looked like she’s mad enough to cry.
Or run someone over with a wagon. But guess what? She’s not a City Runner anymore. In fact, I daresay Toriska’s look of wanting to throw up can only get better by the slack-jawed look of horror as I walk in.
Schadenfreude—a German word for enjoying the suffering of someone else—is my favorite thing right now.
When Persua sees me, I think she might actually faint. Her face doesn’t exactly have much color, but it drains of everything. She sways, actually sways in her seat, then begins to get up. But Toriska grabs her, and she hesitates—because I’m looking at her.
One move. One smart comment. Come over here and I’ll drop-kick you into a wall, Persua.
Am I going to go after her? I haven’t decided. I want to—and Persua looks for the door as she sees the look on my face. I hesitate—
I’ve still got to research what the punishment is for murder in this world. For now, I walk past her, just savoring her look of pure hatred.
The old Guildmaster is gone, but I never really knew his face. He’s not in the Guild, so I’m mostly focused on the front desk.
Fals and Garia are in front of me in line while the female receptionist deals with a kid trying to turn in a delivery. I normally don’t like to talk to Fals, but I am in the best of moods today. Besides, their conversation sounds interesting, so I put up with Fals long enough to listen in.
Garia sounds pretty upset. Both Runners are talking about something. Oh, right, that unmarked request she showed me two weeks ago. Seems like ages, now.
“…Third Runner we’ve lost so far. Pestrom.”
“What? No. He was an experienced City Runner—Level 19! I—I saw him just the other week. I thought you said no one went—”
“I didn’t know he was going. He talked about it, and I thought I talked him out of it. I guess he wanted to go in secret. We wouldn’t have known what happened if that [Shepherd] didn’t find his pack. Damn it. The Guild has to take down that request.”
Fals shakes his head. He looks genuinely angry and frustrated, but I’ve seen people wear perfect masks of emotion. Garia bites her lip.
“But he had an enchanted shortsword. He wasn’t an adventurer, and I know that’s not high-level compared to a Courier, not by half—”
He breaks in harshly, more agitated than I’ve heard him.
“None of that matters in the High Passes, Garia. The monsters there—you’d need fighting skills or insanely high levels—something above Level 30 probably to get out unscathed. I told Pestrom that when he brought it up and he told me…I guess he didn’t take me seriously.”
“You’ve got to do something about it, Fals. The reward’s gone up to eighty gold. Eighty! A bunch of the new Street Runners—they know it’s dangerous. But for that kind of money…”
Fals nods seriously. The Runner ahead of him is done, so he steps up to the counter and addresses the receptionist. Isn’t she the one I know?
“Stenei, don’t let any Runners take that open request. Spread the word to the other Guilds. Anyone who tries to take the High Passes request will die. We need it off the requests board.”
The receptionist—Stenei, that’s the one who often gives me deliveries—looks distressed. She clearly wants to help Fals out, and she doesn’t notice me as she replies.
“We can’t take it down, Fals. You know guild policy. Even with the new Guildmaster—it’s still a request.”
Fals nods. He leans over the counter and smiles charmingly* at the receptionist.**
*I assume it’s a charming smile. The problem is, I’ve seen so many charming smiles that this particular type of charm makes me want to break something every time I see it.
**Why are they always female? Oh, right. Feminism isn’t dead in this world; it probably never existed to begin with. Unless you count someone like Lady Magnolia, and she’s probably a rare exception due to her influence and wealth. Lovely.
“I know. But you could, ah, suggest to other Runners not to take the request, right? Believe me, it would save lives.”
“We already do that. I’m sorry about Pestrom, I really am.”
The receptionist and Garia both blush when Fals smiles, which only ticks me off more. Fals considers this.
“Then…what if this request just happened to be hidden below other ones on all the boards in the other guilds? It happens. Organization can be bad. It’s not against any rules, is it?”
She hesitates, then nods.
“I could ask about that. Let me just pen a [Message]…I think you’re right, Fals.”
“In that case, Garia and I will tell the other Runners to spread the word and let everyone know what happened to Pestrom. Thanks, Stenei, you’re a lifesaver. Literally.”
Fals smiles at her again. She blushes and starts fiddling with the delivery Seals on her counter.
“There’s no need for flattery, Fals. Anyways, don’t you have a lot of work to do?”
“I always have time to chat with a lovely lady. How’re the kids? Are you—”
Okay, interesting discussion I can deal with, but flirting/chitchat I’m not waiting around for. I don’t quite elbow Fals out of the way* as I step forwards.
*I don’t. Really. But I might have stepped a bit on his foot.
“Hey. Got a request for me?”
“Ryoka! You’re on your feet!”
Garia’s exclamation is so loud that anyone not looking at me already—I wince, but she sweeps me up in the biggest hug I can.
“Garia, put me down—Garia!”
To my huge annoyance, Fals joins in. Which makes Garia let me go—but he gives me a squeeze.
“Ryoka. It’s so great to see you! Your legs are healed—that’s incredible! That’s impossible!”
“Did Magnolia Reinhart do it like she said? She’s so generous!”
“Totally unlike the rest of her family, no matter what they say about her.”
Fals agrees. I have to actually put a hand on his shoulder and move him back. I think he’s trying to cop a feel.
He blinks, steps back, and flashes me a huge smile which goes unreturned.
“Sorry—I’m just so glad you’re well. Where did you go? Tenbault?”
“It’s a long story. I had help from some adventurers, not the Healer of Tenbault. They fixed me up.”
“Wh—really? There’s a high-level [Healer] in Liscor?”
“Something like that. Anyways, I just got back. Any interesting running requests around?”
Garia still looks delighted, and I have to admit, she was there for me.
“Ryoka, this is so great. You have to tell me what happened! Let’s get a drink—or visit my home! I mean—you’re well! And guess what happened to Persua and the Guildmaster?”
Fals hesitates and gives me the side-eye as I try not to smirk.
“Oh, yeah. Did you hear about that, Ryoka?”
“I may have. Persua’s a Street Runner now? Oh, that’s terrible. What happened? Did she get her just desserts? Or did someone realize she’s nowhere near a City Runner’s level?”
Out of the corner of my eye, I can see Persua freeze up and then turn redder with every word. Fals gives me a cautious look as Garia looks delighted—nervous, but I can see other City Runners snorting.
That’s right, everyone knows she did it and she’s being punished.
“So you did know what happened.”
Fals looks at me cautiously, and I give him a bland smile. Maybe he knows Magnolia’s to blame, but I didn’t make her do anything.
“I heard it on the way here. What, is it a problem? Us runners have to stick together, so if Persua needs some guidance—I’m sure I can give her tips.”
“Nah, Ryoka. I think it’s all sorted, right?”
Fals looks at Garia and the receptionist for support, but he doesn’t get more than a nod from the receptionist. Garia frowns—and I turn away from him and his shallow politics.
I plant my hands on the desk.
“Hey. I’m back.”
“Miss Ryoka! It’s wonderful to see you on your feet.”
Stenei smiles, and I hesitate. Wow. That’s a good act if it is one. I cough, embarrassed.
“Thanks…uh, Stenei, right?”
“Correct! How can I help you?”
“Um—contracts. Any big ones for City Runners? Or me specifically?”
I’ve heard that popular City Runners get special orders for just them, which is a sign they’ve made it. I’m mostly asking about emergency runs for adventurers, and I’m curious about what Fals and Garia were talking about.
Eighty gold coins? That’s a fortune! Is that related to…
“Actually, Miss Griffin, we have several open contracts for you.”
Fals and Garia turn instantly. I blink in gratification—but it becomes a scowl as Stenei reads them out.
“They’re all for Lady Reinhart, and they list you as the only Runner. If you’d like to take a look.”
Stenei looks astonished, and Fals’ mouth falls open.
“But Miss Griffin, these are urgent, and the Guild—”
“I don’t want a delivery for Magnolia Reinhart. Anything else for me not from her? No? Okay, I guess it’s regular deliveries, then.”
I shake my head. Stenei is trying to offer me the files she has.
“But Miss Griffin, it’s very, very lucrative and not that difficult—”
But I don’t want to talk to Lady Reinhart. Yes, she helped me, but she made me one of those offers I couldn’t refuse, and I did refuse it. She knows I’m from…somewhere else, and she scares the crap out of me, if I’m honest.
She’s dangerous, and I don’t want to talk to her, so I walk over to the cork board with the requests.
“Nevermind that. I’ll just take this one to Remendia and—”
“Miss Griffin, I am so sorry, but the Guild would like you to take Magnolia’s requests. Before you take another one.”
I stop, one of the pieces of parchment in hand. Stenei is standing there, and she looks uncomfortable as she shakes her head at me. I try to place the request on the counter. She doesn’t look at it.
“What’re you talking about? This one is open. I’m free. Put me down.”
“I can’t do that, Miss Griffin. The Guildmaster has orders—and the other Guilds do too. Here’s a quick delivery to Lady Reinhart. Sugar from the north. You can pick it up right in the city.”
She offers me a slip, and I look at it. Then push it back.
“No. Put me down for…”
Then I see the look in her eyes and realize I’m not arguing with her. All at once, my good mood fades. I look at Garia, who’s confused, and Fals, who’s staring at me as if he’s figuring something out. But I?
I just looked at the Runner’s Guild, and all my goodwill towards Magnolia fades away as I realize I’ve just been hit with the other side of her power and influence.
I have to deliver something to her? I look at the [Receptionist] and realize she’s telling the truth.
I am totally conscious of my empty money pouch. So that’s what her game is? She must have the entire Guild—is the entire network of Guilds under her thumb? And if she does, then how do I earn money?
“Miss Griffin? It’s not hard to do it. Just one quick delivery and I’m sure we’ll be allowed to give you all the ones you want.”
I stare at Stenei. Slowly, I look down at the request earmarked for me, and I can see Magnolia just waiting at her door. To invite me in. There’s no one pushing me into doing this. Magnolia never forced me to do anything…but pressure? I can feel it all over, and you know what?
I hate being pushed. So I push the paper back and step back. Instead of my smile, I’m scowling as I walk away from the desk.
“Yeah, I’m sure. Forget about it. I’ll try another Guild.”
Celum Runner’s Guild was the one I was just at. It’s not far to other cities—well, it is to run for no pay, but if you’re pissed and still enjoying running, like me, it’s not too far to spite a [Lady].
Of course, she probably has the power to make Ocre and Remendia not listen, so I’ll go to Wales the next day. It turns out ‘no money’ doesn’t cover a few silver coins in my pack. Enough for a crappy room, and if I eat from my stale rations, that’s breakfast, lunch, and dinner.
Wales is way far away from Remendia and Ocre. Fifty miles. She can’t…
The [Receptionist] at the desk knows me before I get to him, and he makes the other City Runners step back and offers me the only request he has—take a bunch of letters to Magnolia—
Every Guild I try is the same. I even try to pretend I’m not Ryoka, but it’s hard to change skin-tone and my height. Every single [Receptionist] has the same reply, and I’m about to kill everything.
No requests. No deliveries, and no pay. That’s the message I’ve gotten every day since I got back. I tried Runner’s Guilds in three of the cities around here, and all of them are doing the same thing.
In fact, they’re even making it so I can’t even go behind the Guild’s back and do unofficial work. Someone—and I bet it’s Magnolia—has decided to make the Runner’s Guild fulfill every request the moment it comes in. Even if it means they have to work every other Runner around the clock to get it done.
By the time I get back to Celum, it’s just to see how long they can keep this up. Half of the Street and City Runners in here are practically dead on their feet, but they’re still doing it. And it looks like they’ve called in the better City Runners like Fals to help out.
In short, I’m being shut out until I give into their demands. Which I won’t do. What they actually want isn’t hard—
But I’m not doing it. I don’t give in to bullies and peer pressure. And the innocent look the receptionist is giving me makes me want to punch her lights out.
Screw this. It’s time to get unpleasant.
When Ryoka Griffin came back to the Runner’s Guild, Stenei was still on duty. This time—Garia felt for her.
She was a nice woman and had really been upset when Persua got away scott-free. But Ryoka was so furious that it was written on her face.
Garia understood why and was just glad Persua wasn’t here today. Apparently, she was still running as a Street Runner—and furious—but she, Claudeil, and Toriska were in trouble, and everyone knew it.
The problem was—Ryoka seemed to be in trouble too. She stomped her way towards the counter, and she looked both hungry and tired. Garia had offered to let her stay at her parent’s farm—they lived just outside of Celum—but Ryoka had told her she didn’t want charity.
Garia watched Ryoka and sensed trouble. She didn’t have any particular skills like [Dangersense], but she didn’t need to. She knew Ryoka, not just as a friend but as a meteorologist knows weather. And if Ryoka were a storm, then she’d be a shipbreaking hurricane with lightning and hail thrown in for good measure.
The tall, barefoot girl leaned over the counter and glared at the receptionist. Garia felt for the older woman. Stenei was nice and helpful to everyone—she was just doing her job, even if Garia herself didn’t agree with it. It wasn’t her fault.
Then again, Garia wouldn’t have wished Ryoka on anyone when she was this angry. Maybe Persua. Ryoka’s bright green eyes flashed with annoyance.
“It’s been four days.”
Ryoka leaned over the counter and glared at the wilting receptionist.
“And you’re telling me that there are no requests? Except of course for Magnolia.”
Stenei opened her mouth, hesitated, and cast an imploring glance around the room. And who should be there except for…
This time, Garia wondered if someone had told him to be here. Because he just happened to have run in ten minutes before Ryoka, and that was despite doing seven deliveries in the last four days. He looked as tired as everyone else, but Fals stepped forwards and smiled at Ryoka in a way that made Garia’s heart beat faster. Ryoka turned her glare on him.
“We don’t want to get in your way, Ryoka—”
“Oh really? Then stop taking all the delivery requests.”
Fals scratched the back of his neck and smiled again awkwardly.
“We’d love to. Really. But Ryoka, it would be best if you took one of Magnolia’s requests first.”
Ryoka knew why, but she wasn’t in the mood to be helpful. She crossed her arms over her chest.
Another smile, slightly strained.
“Lady Magnolia’s refusing to take any other requests until you deliver something in person. That’s hurting Runners in every city around here.”
“So? Just do the deliveries yourself. She’ll take them if I don’t deliver anything.”
“We’d like to, really we would, Ryoka. But Lady Magnolia—no one tells her what to do, Ryoka. Take a look at her requests, won’t you? It wouldn’t even be that hard.”
From what Garia knew of Ryoka, an easy delivery would be even less attractive to her. But as Stenei held out one of the requests, Ryoka grudgingly stared at it. She curled her lip as she read the requests one after another.
“Hot peppers? Cabbages? She could get that in any market.”
“But she wants a Runner. You, specifically.”
“So until she gets one, I won’t get any other jobs, is that it? And I’m supposed to ask her to let other Runners take her requests, right?”
“We wouldn’t say that.”
Fals seemed to choose his words carefully.
“If you’d—suggest to Lady Magnolia that she open up her delivery requests for every Runner, things would be—smoother.”
“Right. And you all get paid so everyone’s happy?”
Ryoka turned from Fals and stared around the guild. Street Runners and City Runners returned her stare countless times over. They were all silently watching Ryoka, and not with friendly expressions either.
“So until then, you’re all going to keep taking the requests.”
Fals shrugged ruefully as if caught out in a prank.
“We’re just doing our jobs, Ryoka. But you’re right. We’re working together on this, Runners and the Guild.”
“I don’t like being pressured. By anyone.”
Fals put a hand on Ryoka’s shoulder, making the other Runner instantly tense up. He flashed her a reassuring smile that made Garia’s stomach do flip flops.
“Ryoka, I completely agree with you. But please, look at it from the perspective of the rest of us Runners.”
He gestured to the other Runners.
“We’re a team. Okay, sure we don’t all get along, but if every Runner was out for themselves, it’d be a mess. We work together to tackle hard assignments, and we share the wealth so everyone gets ahead.”
He tapped his chest lightly.
“We’re Runners. We might charge high prices, but we get the job done! And if some people don’t like that, it’s because they don’t understand how tough our jobs really are. We risk life and limb to help others.”
The other Runners in the room warmed to Fals’ speech. They murmured agreement as he continued.
“So if we work together—if we help support each other—we’ll survive. Hundreds of Runners die every year, but the Guilds around here lost the least amount of Runners each year. We don’t take dangerous requests, and we team up if one of us is in danger. Sure, we might not earn as much as other Runners, but we know we can count on each other.”
Ryoka stared at Fals as the other Runners in the room cheered. Then, calmly and deliberately, she grabbed his wrist and plucked his hand off her shoulder.
“Nice speech. But you’re full of shit.”
Garia stopped smiling. The mood in the room froze over in a second. Ryoka stared around at the other Runners, unflinching. She looked back at Fals, who was staring at her uncertainty. Then she shook her head.
“You want to talk about Runners and preach about playing nice and sticking together? Fine. But leave me out of your little party.”
She pointed a thumb at her chest.
“I’m a barefoot runner. If I cared about what people thought, I wouldn’t run at all. Runners run. We deliver stuff. It’s a job, not a calling.”
She looked around again, and this time, she caught Garia’s eye for a moment.
“I couldn’t care less whether or not you lot like me. All I’m here to do is deliver stuff and get paid. I don’t want Magnolia’s stupid requests. If you lot want to earn favor with her, deal with it and leave me out of it. You should want me to not work with her. You think I’m trying to be her special, personal Runner?”
Fals spread his hands out helplessly.
“We’d like to believe you, Ryoka, but—”
“You think I’m lying?”
The edge in Ryoka’s voice made Fals hesitate. She took one step forwards, and he took one step back.
“I don’t lie. And I hate liars. When you make a promise, you keep it. When you speak, you look someone in the eye and mean every word. When I say I’ll do something, I mean it. If you want to do deliveries to Magnolia, take the damn requests. I don’t care about your politics.”
She poked Fals in the chest hard enough to make him take another step back.
“But if you get in my way, I’ll kick your face in.”
Fals opened his mouth, but this time, Garia grabbed him and pulled him away. Ryoka turned and glared around the room. None of the other Runners were willing to meet her eyes, but the feeling they gave off—
She stalked over to the request board and glared at it. Countless requests were listed, and not a one was for her.
There was no point to taking any of the requests, she knew. Even if she took one to the counter, it would be ‘miraculously’ already taken by another Runner. Or they’d refuse to recognize her effort or just not hand over the item she had to deliver. Even if she did the delivery, the funds were already deposited in the Guild, and they wouldn’t be released until Magnolia said so.
But—she had a thought. Wasn’t there one delivery that promised payment upon just getting to the person? One that no Runner could take. Should take.
Slowly, she investigated the board, removing requests and tossing them to the floor. The receptionist looked upset, but Ryoka dared her to object. She was looking for something…aha, just like Fals had asked. Right on the bottom.
Ryoka pushed back several requests and selected one at the bottom. She brought it back to the counter and handed it to the receptionist.
“This one. I’ll take the request for the High Passes.”
Stenei blinked at Ryoka. She stammered.
“That one’s—but you can’t—”
“Not a good idea, Ryoka.”
Fals pulled himself gently away from Garia and moved in front of Ryoka again. His face was concerned.
“The High Passes aren’t a place for Runners or even most adventurers. Whoever put that request in doesn’t know what they’re doing. You shouldn’t take it.”
“Why not? There’s nothing else for me to do.”
Ryoka snatched the piece of paper back from Fals. Then she grinned.
“Unless you want to do it? I’ll follow you out to make sure you get it done.”
Ryoka smiled maliciously at Fals. He recoiled visibly, and she nodded.
“That’s what I thought. I’m doing the request.”
Garia broke into the conversation. She flushed as all eyes turned on her, but she continued desperately.
“Ryoka, Fals is right. This is serious. Just take one of Magnolia’s requests! The High Passes—”
“I’ll survive. And I’ll complete the request even if it’s dangerous—not just for money. Apparently, that’s all Runners think about.”
Ryoka pushed Fals back and moved past Garia. She walked towards the door and stopped as another not quite barred her way. Persua.
She didn’t have her posse anymore, just Toriska and Claudeil. Both glared at Ryoka—but moved back as Ryoka’s hand curled into a fist.
“Persua. What’re you doing here? Don’t cause a scene.”
Fals raised his voice warningly, and Persua shot him a murderous look—but even the [Receptionist] was giving her a stare. She was red-faced, furious with humiliation, and, Ryoka thought, pinched for coin much in the same way Ryoka was.
The two were giving off sparks of hatred as they looked at each other, but Persua just tossed her head defiantly, ignoring Fals’ warning. Ryoka growled.
“Are you going to try and stop me too? Hi, Persua. I’d love for you to try.”
She looked at Toriska, and the girl shifted, a hand on her knife, but Ryoka was ready to punch. Persua’s look clearly said that she would like nothing better than to stop Ryoka, very painfully if possible…but she was standing behind Claudeil. She tossed her head as if her hair were a whip she meant to strike Ryoka with and sneered at her.
“I don’t need to do anything. You’re going to die in the High Passes.”
Persua’s tone dripped venom as she stared at the request Ryoka held. Contemptuously.
“Why do you think none of the experienced Runners take those kinds of requests? We’re smart enough not to risk our lives. We work together, not like you. You’ll die alone because you’re a fool.”
“You’re probably right.”
Persua blinked in surprise. Fals and Garia both stared at Ryoka along with the other Runners. Ryoka nodded and looked around the room again.
“If I do it your way, I probably would live long enough to retire. And maybe I’d even earn a lot of money, who knows? And if I kiss your ass long enough, maybe you’d even like me. If I were like the rest of you, I’d never take this request.”
She paused. Then she stared right back at Fals as she delivered her next line.
“Too bad I’m not a coward.”
Ryoka turned and walked out of the guild even as the stunned silence turned into shouts of fury.
I burn bridges as I breathe. It’s a talent. I’ve done it all my life, and I guess some things you just can’t change. Me and my big mouth. I got kicked out of one school for telling the principal what I really thought about him and the other—
They’re pissed. I can hear them yelling as I open the door. But I’m still smiling as I walk out the building.
One thing matters. One thing I cling to even in my darkest days. And that thing is integrity.
I am that I am. I am who I am. And I will not change for anyone except myself. Countries and cultures have their own laws. Society pushes and prods. Everyone has an agenda, and no motive is honest.
But I will bow to no one, especially not petty tyrants and liars like Fals. So I smile even as I sever ties. It may be that after this I’ll have to go elsewhere. Actually, not ‘may.’ Probably I’ll have to go or else have both legs broken this time.
How far does this group of Runners’ influence stretch? Well, no matter where I go, they’ll probably follow with rumor and lies. And it will be the same wherever I go.
What a crappy, small group of people. But what a wonderful world. If I need to, I’ll run to the very edges of it to find a place to be free.
If only everyone weren’t so petty. Well, those that aren’t are like Fals, and he’s worthless in his own way. But one of them—
Crap. Garia’s the only person in that group worth a grain of salt. In her case, she’s probably worth a small mountain of salt. A hill, at least.
She jogs to catch up. Part of me wants to just keep walking and lose her, but even I’m not enough of a jerk to do that. Besides, she’s helped me so much that I owe her.
Garia hesitates as she slows to keep pace with me. I’m expecting her to defend the other Runners, but what she says next surprises me.
“I’ll keep them off your backs if I can. But they’re angry. Really, really angry.”
Huh. But maybe I should have expected that? Garia’s a stand-up kind of girl. That’s why I like her.
“They’re pissed off because I told them what I thought of their little cult?”
“I didn’t—I don’t agree with everything Fals said, Ryoka, but I think he’s right in some ways. I think you’re right too, though. But you’re special. You—you can do deliveries by yourself, but some of us need to work together. Without the way the Guild does things, we’d get hurt way more often.”
“So we work together and drag everyone down who doesn’t agree with us, is that it?”
“I didn’t say it was perfect.”
“Pack mentality. And Fals thinks he knows everything. Are we dogs or gods?”
I thought that was clever. Or maybe it was stupid. Ouch. Garia’s look makes me feel like a complete jackass.
“We’re neither. We’re just people, Ryoka. And they’re not perfect, I know. But we can’t all be like you. Some of us have to work together to survive.”
…Damn it. This is getting painful.
“I’d like to be able to run like you. But I can’t. I’m too slow—I can only carry really heavy stuff instead of fast requests. If it weren’t for the way the Guild works, I wouldn’t be able to run.”
“…I know. But I won’t answer to them.”
Garia nods and then visibly braces herself. Here comes her pitch.
“Couldn’t you—couldn’t you just talk to Magnolia? Would it be that hard to just ask her…?”
In some ways? No. In some ways…
“In some ways, no. But in some ways, yeah. I’m not doing it either way.”
“I thought you’d say that. I told Fals you would.”
That bastard. He asked Garia to go after me. That manipulative—
“When are you going to go?”
“Now. Fals and the other Runners will probably try to stop me if I don’t. I know Persua will.”
Suddenly, Garia seizes me in a bear hug. And she’s—strong. Seriously, I think she’s going to break a rib. But then she pushes me back.
“Go. I’ll try and keep them busy for a little bit. And don’t die, okay?”
She turns and runs away. Slowly, by City Runner standards. Her posture really is quite bad. But she’s got heart, and that makes her the best Runner of the lot in my opinion.
Okay. Okay, that was—surprising or gratifying? Both. Also a bit humbling. But that’s right. I’ve gotta go.
Body check. I’m all in one piece, and I’ve got no injuries. Plus, since I haven’t been running any deliveries—I’ll call it at least 92% readiness. Perfect.
Motivation on the other hand—60%. Not good, not bad*. I’d like more, but even though I’m happy about being able to run, the amazement’s worn off.
*I generally think of a good run at anything about 80%. On those runs, I get into the zone and outperform my best. Obviously, I can still run really fast even when I’m not motivated, but there’s a clear difference between me when I’m feeling good and feeling bad. I could make 40% motivation Ryoka eat my dust and lap her if I were at 90% motivation.
Normally, that’s good enough for any kind of run. I could do a marathon like this, but as everyone’s said, these High Passes are different. I read up a bit on them with the local literature and—
Yeah, I might die. So I need to prepare a bit before I go, and quickly too. Fortunately, I’m in Celum, and even more fortunately, a certain Minotaur and a bunch of adventurers like to frequent the inn where I stay.
I pick up my pace as I head towards the inn. Garia might be able to slow the other Runners down, but I really doubt she’ll buy me more than a minute. I’ll make a pit stop at the inn and head out.
I’ve gotta hurry either way. It’s already midday, and the High Passes are far enough that I should hurry. I’ll be heading about halfway through the pass, so I do need supplies. And the Horns of Hammerad are the only people who’ll lend me stuff right now. Aside from Magnolia. She can go to hell along with the other Runners.
Damn it. I hate having no money.
Ryoka tried not to grit her teeth. She hated delays. But explanations took time, especially when the ones she was trying to explain to weren’t that quick on the uptake.
Gerial blinked at Ryoka again. He, Ceria, and the male magician from the Horns of Hammerad had been eating lunch when Ryoka found them.
“Let me get this straight. You’re going on a dangerous delivery, and you need our help. And…you want us to take your belongings?”
“I’m going to be gone for at least a day, and the other Runners are probably going to trash my room while I’m gone.”
“Why would they do that?”
“If Persua’s anything like the other girls I’ve known, that’s one of the first things she’ll do. Good thing I don’t have any shoes so she can’t fill them with thumbtacks.”
Again, Gerial blinked uncomprehendingly at Ryoka. But Ceria nodded.
“We’ll guard your things. Runners wouldn’t dare break into the Adventurer’s Guild, and we have our own storage space. But what’s this about help? We could escort you to the outskirts of the Passes, but Calruz isn’t here, and we’re understrength. And frankly, even at our best, we wouldn’t be able to go far into the Passes.”
“I don’t need an escort. I just need supplies. Healing potions—food—I’d buy it myself, but I don’t have any money. I’ll pay you back—double what I’m borrowing.”
Gerial and Ceria exchanged a glance. He nodded. She reached down below the table and opened a travel bag.
“I’ve got some healing potions right here. And a few dry rations. Enough for four meals.”
“Then take them.”
Ceria pulled out several colored potions from her pack and handed them to Ryoka.
“These are better quality than you’d buy in the marketplace anyways. And you’ll need them.”
“Are you sure? I can buy some—”
“I thought you were broke, Ryoka. We still don’t have any contracts, and Calruz isn’t back yet. Take the potions, Ryoka. If everything I’ve heard about the High Passes is true, you’ll need them.”
She was right. Ryoka nodded and silently began stowing the potions in her own pack. They were various hues of red and yellow, which Ryoka fastened to the outside of her pack so she could reach them quickly.
Yellow health potions didn’t feel right to Ryoka, but apparently, color didn’t really matter with most potions. Anyone could toss some food dye in a bottle to make potions whatever color they wanted. She supposed she should just be grateful health potions didn’t look like vomit. They tasted like vomit, but that was an entirely different matter.
Ryoka gently set her pack down on the floor next to Ceria’s.
Gerial frowned, anxious.
“I’m still not sure I agree with this. Are you sure you have to do this? If the Runner’s Guild is giving you so much trouble, why not seek work elsewhere?”
Ryoka shook her head.
“I’m taking a delivery request. The reward is for eighty gold coins.”
All three adventurers whistled.
“Besides, if I take this request, I should be able to find work even if they keep blocking me. I just need the money.”
“We could lend you—”
Ryoka stood up.
“I’ll get my stuff.”
Gerial stared helplessly as she walked upstairs to her room. The male mage patted him on the shoulder.
“Nice try. But she’s determined, isn’t she?”
“I never knew the Runner’s Guild was like that.”
Ceria shook her head.
“It’s the same in every guild. Ours is no different.”
“Believe me, Gerial. If you look close enough, you see the same things repeated over and over. Humans are just like that.”
Both men looked sideways at Ceria but made no further comment. They stared at the stairs, silent in the general hubbub of the inn. They didn’t notice the girl Ryoka would have described inaccurately as sallow-faced sneaking up to the packs on the ground and swiftly rearranging the contents of both.
A quick few minutes later, Ryoka clattered down the stairs, nearly knocking a barmaid over. She had all of her possessions bundled in her arms, which she dropped on the table, nearly into the adventurers’ meals. Only a quick flick of Ceria’s wrist made the bowls and plates spin off onto another table.
Ryoka didn’t have much. Just some clothing, the magic bandages, and quite a few books that interested Ceria. She handed them all to Gerial, ignoring his blushes as he handled her underwear and equivalent to a sports bra. Then she paused and pulled one last item from her pocket.
“Take care of this. It’s very fragile.”
Gerial blinked down at the rectangle of metal and plastic in his hands. He had never seen anything like it—in fact, the smooth casing of the iPhone was completely, unsettlingly alien to him.
Ceria leaned over the table, suddenly fascinated. She and the other mage stared at the iPhone, astonished,
“What is that?”
“A device. I’ll explain it if I get back.”
Gerial held it at arm’s length.
“Will it—will it do anything?”
Ryoka shook her head, almost sadly for her. She touched the blank display regretfully.
“It’s broken. Just treat it carefully—don’t put anything heavy on it and don’t drop it.”
“If it’s broken, can’t you repair it?”
Ryoka smiled as if Gerial had told a very funny joke.
“No blacksmith or craftsman in the world could fix this. Trust me.”
“Then what about magic?”
The male mage shrugged. He pushed his plates aside and picked up a faintly shining wand from the table.
“Would you let me try a spell?”
Ryoka hesitated. She was clearly torn, but then she nodded. Very slowly, Gerial handed the iPhone to the mage. He inspected it, running his fingers delicately across the touchscreen.
“What exquisite craftsmanship. I can’t detect any faults, but perhaps the issue lies within? Regardless, if it is not of magical creation—”
“Then this should work. [Repair].”
The mage waved his wand in a half-crescent and then tapped the iPhone. The tip of the wand flashed green as it touched the casing—
And then the iPhone’s screen flickered into life.
Ceria gasped, but Gerial’s reaction was even more dramatic. He shot backwards in his chair and crashed to the ground in surprise. Ryoka just stared. She stared and stared at the iPhone.
The mage smiled and handed Ryoka her iPhone. He stared with intense fascination at the brightly lit screen and then at Ryoka’s face. She was just staring at the iPhone in her hand. Staring and staring. But then she touched the screen and swiped it.
The display changed. Ceria and the mage were astonished twice-over, perhaps because they could sense no magic in the iPhone despite what was happening, but Ryoka just sighed. She turned to the mage.
“Sorry, I never got your name. Or maybe I forgot. What is it?”
He blinked and then smiled.
“Sostrom Reidez, at your service, Miss Ryoka Griffin.”
Ryoka took his hand and shook it. She looked him in the eye.
“I owe you a great debt.”
Sostrom flushed lightly. He was in his early thirties or his very late twenties but unfortunately bald save for his eyebrows. He tugged his pointy hat lower on his head.
“It was nothing, really. Just a spell—”
“Not just a spell.”
Ryoka smiled at him. In the dim lighting of the inn, the iPhone’s glow lit up her face.
“Not just a spell. Someday, you’ll have to teach me it. If I can do magic, it would be just to cast that. And now—those assholes aren’t going to know what hit them.”
She turned and walked out the inn. The three Horns of Hammerad exchanged a glance and then rose to follow her. They couldn’t tell what—but something had changed about Ryoka in the moments after Sostrom had repaired her phone.
She seemed different.
She was different.
The iPhone is warm in my hand. It glows, and it makes the rest of the world seem different. The vivid colors of this world are quite, quite different from the artificial colors on the display. Both are brilliant in their own way.
It is fixed. Completely, utterly. The power bar reads 100% at the top of the screen. It’s the most glorious thing I’ve ever seen, bar my healed leg. And it is fixed.
I barely even feel my body as I walk outside. It feels as though I’m floating in a world of my own. Legs—fixed. iPhone—fixed. That’s all I need.
It’s time. Time to do what I’ve always wanted to do.
I step out into the middle of the street. No carts are passing by, and the pedestrians are mostly in for lunch. The others ignore me. Some stare at my iPhone, but I am just another Runner. That’s the way I like it.
Except of course that there’s always someone watching. Ceria, Gerial, and Sostrom have come out of the inn to watch me, but I can see several Street Runners casually lounging across the street. Ready to follow and intercept? Most likely.
And of course, I can’t see anyone else, but there’s a prickle on the back of my neck. I wonder if Lady Magnolia hires assassins or whether her maids have diverse skill sets. Or maybe it’s someone else. Who knows? Who cares?
Death. That’s what everyone tells me the High Passes are. And they’re right. It’s probably the most dangerous spot in this part of the continent. Even if it’s not certain death, it’s more than any sane person would want to risk.
But I’m not sane. Nor am I a normal person. Fear and exhilaration share equal parts in my heart right now. I want to see it. People tell me something is deadly and dangerous? I want to see it for myself.
Besides, what about this world is normal? What about this world is sane? Ever since I’ve come here, I’ve slowly pieced together the real shape of this crazy planet. From the local area, you might think it’s safe, a kind of medieval culture advanced several hundred years technologically thanks to magic. But it’s not. I know it.
In this world, the untamed wilds threaten to overwhelm the fragile peace of civilization. Though the thinking races of this world are numerous and possess technology and magic, their hold is tenuous. When the undead rise in numbers or the things living at the far edges of the earth venture out, nations burn.
The books I bought tell me different things from people. And that’s because books are written by individuals, while people are quite stupid. People only know what they want to know. The individuals who write books make it their business to know as much as they can.
Peace and stagnation. War that does not change. This continent is wracked by it. The Human nations fight against the non-Humans to the south, sending armies to fight and die in the Blood Fields each year. A genteel war to fight only in the same place? No. But the cost of a true war where cities fall is too much for either side at the moment. So it’s a long war of attrition and changing alliances. Meanwhile, the natural landscape and monster attacks are enough of a problem for the city-states either way.
But this continent is peaceful. Compared to some.
To the northeast, far across the seas, the Blighted King wages an eternal war against monster tribes and demons. His continent has seen war for five thousand years, and his is one of the last nations not consumed. Nations send their own armies to support him, but his people have never known peace. Their heroes and soldiers are some of the finest and the most impoverished. He fights a daily war that he is losing over the course of years.
In the south of the world lies a continent called Chandrar. The largest desert in the world fills the center of that landmass, and no one lives there; all the countries and kingdoms surround that death zone, fighting for moisture and land in the livable spaces.
Chandrar has more dead nations than any other continent. Poverty is ever-present there too, but the nations still fight over what’s left like starving dogs. They used to be unified, but the kingdom which united another continent collapsed and now everyone’s worse off. A classic story.
Once, a warlord unlike any other managed to conquer the whole damn continent and was sweeping through this one when his empire suddenly collapsed. None of the books said why this was. This king did not die—nor was he apparently harmed. But he abandoned his dreams of world conquest. Now he sits in his crumbling kingdom as other countries pick apart his once-great empire. The King of Destruction sleeps.
The continent north of this one is filled with Humans. Terandria. They have subjugated their lands and created a peaceful continent, or at least one with fewer monsters. But despite that, they fight amongst themselves in a never-ending battle for supremacy. Their royal families hold mighty artifacts in their vaults but fear to use them in case of mutually assured destruction. It sounds like a bunch of kingdoms of inbred, infighting [Kings] and [Queens]. Europe, essentially.
Other nations. I have read of them. The western oceans contain the last continent, a jungle in the south, plains and then tundra to the north. The species there are—odd—but Baleros is engulfed by endless low-level conflicts that give rise to an entire culture of [Mercenary] companies. Four of the biggest companies practically rule the entire continent, and a lot of the wilds of Baleros lie unexplored.
A few other great powers exist, like an archipelago called ‘Drath,’ ruled by, you guessed it, an [Emperor]. Few nations have no monarch. Even Calruz’s homeland, called the House of Minos, another archipelago, has a Minotaur King.
Apparently, they fight against some kind of eternal threat similar to the Blighted Kingdom of Rhir. Some sworn enemy of the world is enough to keep nearly a million Minotaurs in a constant state of war and peace. Well, a million is the number the book I read touted, but it was written using information decades old. But the Empire of Minos has its own strange culture Humans and other races don’t want to learn about for some reason.
More continents, more islands and places my books could only hint at, that once existed or have changed—but I want to visit more than anything.
An icy arctic shelf with icecaps taller than skyscrapers in Terandria’s north. The ‘end of the world,’ The Last Tide, which has killed more ships and taken countless explorers and armies, never to return.
A legendary isle where mages gather to learn spells and where anyone is free to study, Wistram, the Academy of Mages. Even continents that once stood that are now buried in the ocean, cities of people who live under the water, Drowned Folk.
These are the legends and wonders that shape this world. Yet here I am, in one of the most boring places in one of the safest parts of the world, and people warn me about the High Passes as if they’re dangerous? For all the unrest, this is an era of peace. All the terrible battles happened long ago.
The gods are dead, and no one tells me who these gods were or how they know they’re dead. Because I knew to look for them, I found hints of the Elves, but no book of nations and countries lists their race anywhere. They’re long dead, and half-Elves are the only species around who bear their legacy. The Dwarves are hidden in the heart of mountains that make the Himalayas look like foothills.
The age of great wars, myth and legends has ended. Magic endures, but those who wield it have faded. Nations fight in brush wars, but the balance of power has been kept. There’s a marker for this era: The Waning World, it’s called. Well, the book claims that Gnolls named it that. Do Gnolls get to decide what each era is called? I like the name.
This is not a time of heroes. And that’s fine with me. I am no hero. But I want to see what remains. I want to see what wonders still lurk in this world. For I am certain: they are legion.
The world I’ve seen so far—the cities and people here—are so petty. They care only about their small struggles and what they think of each other. Magnolia, for all her cunning, is a small landowner in a tiny part of the world. And that is wonderful.
The worst thing that ever happened to my world was globalization. Once we reached the ends of the earth, we lost our curiosity, our drive to grow. But I feel it. It calls to me.
Adventure. Pure and simple.
I can see the other Runners watching me. But I don’t care about them. The iPhone is warm in my hand.
I tap the screen, and it lights up. Gerial and the other Horns of Hammerad gasp again, and even Ceria looks amazed. But to me, it’s like looking at an old friend.
An old friend. An iPhone 4, to be exact. Black, sleek. It used to be full of scratches and dents where I dropped it, but now, the plastic shines in the daylight. It looks like it just came out of the box.
Slide to unlock. No password. I should probably put one on, just in case. If I lose my iPhone, I deserve to let it get hacked. Not that there’s too much on there. A few books, saved files, an empty contact list, basic essentials like Safari, which is useless here…only one thing takes up nearly all 32 GB on my phone.
It’s all there. Thousands of songs, some great, some only mediocre. But every song I ever liked and bought—or more often downloaded illegally—is here. All here.
I can’t help it. I start laughing. Laughing for the pure, joyous salvation of magic. It’s given me everything I’ve ever wanted. My wings, and now my music. With it—with this—
I am free.
Ryoka stared down at her iPhone and then began to laugh. For her, it was joyous. But for everyone else—
Gerial and Sostrom edged away from Ryoka, and the other people on the street took one look at her and then hurried away. Ceria could only smile in astonishment.
“What an evil-sounding laugh.”
Perhaps Ryoka heard that, because she stopped. She reached into her pocket and drew out two earbuds. To the confusion of everyone watching, she plugged them into her iPhone and then into her ears. Then she turned and began to jog.
The Street Runners left their positions and began to follow, but Ryoka’s jog turned into a fast run in an instant. She disappeared from view even as the Horns of Hammerad watched.
“What do you suppose that device was? Did it resemble anything you saw in Wistram Academy, Ceria?”
Ceria raised an eyebrow at Sostrom.
“I’ve no idea. Besides, that thing had no magic in it. How strange. But I can see why Magnolia is so fascinated by Ryoka and—”
A thought occurred to Ceria. She reached into the pack she’d brought with her, now stuffed with Ryoka’s clothes, and began pawing through it.
Ceria paled as she checked her pouches and pulled out a blue potion.
“Oh no. How could this happen? I swear I checked to make sure—”
“What? What is it?”
She turned to Gerial and Sostrom and showed them the potion she was holding.
“The healing potions I gave her—half of them were mana potions.”
They stared at her in horror. But even as they turned to shout, Ryoka was long gone. She was running. And she couldn’t have heard them in any case.
The music was about to begin.
Ryoka sensed the other Street Runners trying to keep up as she raced through the streets, dodging past cursing pedestrians and keeping well away from any carts, wagons, or larger vehicles. The paved stones felt wonderfully smooth underneath her feet.
Hm. The Street Runners were keeping up well. Only to be expected since Ryoka had to dodge too many things for her liking. But they weren’t smart. They didn’t know how to shift their weight to get the best out of every step and how to turn corners quick. They were just talented amateurs or, in most cases, just amateurs.
Ryoka reached the gate and sensed more Runners following her. City Runners. They were faster. She wondered if Persua were in the crowd trying to catch up. Well, they could prepare any kind of trap, but they’d have to catch her first. She was already running faster than normal, but it was time.
She could barely contain the excitement burning in her chest. Time. After so long, the mere thought of it was giving her goosebumps. Ryoka ran while keeping the iPhone in her hand. She flicked through the screens, selected the Music app. Then—it was at the top of the screen, a pair of crossed arrows.
She hit the button.
I’ve run races, marathons, even an ultra-marathon once. I’ve run through snow, rain, hail, through thunder and lightning and even hurricanes. But I’ve never run like this.
Motivation. After so long of running in silence, the instant I heard the guitar’s first chords, my legs churn into overdrive.
“Sweet Home Alabama” thunders in my ears as I race out the city. Lynyrd Skynyrd’s lyrics blast through my ears as I pick up speed, shedding Runners left and right. The music’s not the best for running—but far from the worst. And it’s not the song that matters so much right now. It’s just the music.
Running. Music. Running music. The greatest thing ever to be invented in the history of ever. It takes away the pain of running and puts me right into the zone. I could run barefoot on nails and—
That’s a terrible idea. But I could probably dodge highway traffic and run a six-minute mile forever while listening to music. How is it that it can take away your focus on running and at the same time focus my mind even more on running? I don’t know.
It’s just music.
Sweet home Alabama, where the skies are so blue. I’ve always wanted to go to Alabama just to run around listening to this song.
Motion. A bunch of Runners are ahead of me. Fals and some of the highest-level City Runners. They want to cut me off, and they’re sprinting as fast as they can. And it might be a skill or a Skill, but they’re quick enough that they could actually catch me.
On any other day.
I don’t even have to look down. I’ve memorized the exact placement on my iPhone so that my fingers can immediately find the next button. It’s not that I don’t love a good country rock song, but if I’m going to go full-throttle, I want faster music. The shuffle god works his magic. And then I hear it.
Oh. Hell yeah. I can tell when the first bell tolls which song it is. “I Will Not Bow” by Breaking Benjamin. Then the guitar and drums blast in, and everything disappears. I run like I’ve never run before.
I catch one glimpse of Fals’ stunned face before I blow by him and the other City Runners. They can’t even turn fast enough to see me. The landscape blurs and disappears underneath my feet. I’m running just as fast as I did when I got my leg back. Fast as that. Faster.
I am heavy metal. I am death and rock. I am running, and running becomes me. I will not be stopped.
The vocalist screams in my ears, and I run on. The High Passes await. A mysterious delivery request, deadly monsters, and mystery. I leave behind intrigue, angry Runners, and petty infighting with every step. Onwards, ever onwards. I run with music taking away the pain of the world and run to keep death from catching up.
I am free.