I slow down after about twenty minutes of sprinting. Not because I don’t feel like running faster, but I know I’ve got a long way to go.
So I reduce my pace from record-breaking speed to a sustainable jog. A bit faster than normal, but I can’t help it.
I’ve got the music.
Currently, I’m running to the not-so-fast-paced song, “Heathens” by twenty one pilots. I love it. And the movie it was written for—Suicide Squad—I really wanted to watch it, even though I thought it might not be as insanely horrific as I hoped. PG-13? Really?
Great concept, though. It came out just a month before I came to this world. I always meant to see it, but I kept putting it off. Guess I’ll never see it now.
Hm. Thinking of home or the world I came from hurts a bit. But it’s more like a thorn that I’ve pulled out of my foot* a while ago. It still hurts, but the place I’ve come to makes up for it. In some ways. In other ways, it’s just as crap, but at least—
*More than once. Painful, and way worse than stepping on glass. Actually, barefoot runners rarely step on glass. Everyone thinks we do, but if you were running around barefoot, would you step on glass? Seriously. Think about it. It’s not hard to spot most of the time.
Yeah—At least the view is great.
An open landscape of rolling hills and an open dirt road stretches out before my eyes, punctuated only rarely by inconveniences like rocks or, in the distance, small buildings. It’s the most glorious sight for a runner. I can see wavy stalks of flowering plants in one field, bright and colorful. I’m assuming they’re there for harvest.
Even the occasional animals sometimes delight, like the little rabbit with faintly purple fur that sprints out, sees me coming, and then blinks out of existence. Did it teleport? I look up, and a bird that glows flashes across the air, almost as if it’s laughing at me for being so slow.
A Creona Flashbird—rare and prized around these parts. And up, higher and higher, lies my destination, that mountain range that ascends into the sky. Epic and wonderful and free of people.
Actually, the geography reminds me a lot of Mongolia. I used to stare at pictures of the endless grasslands there and dream of running by myself for days. But this place, this makes Mongolia look like a cramped hipster coffee shop in the middle of a city.
This world is big. And even that word is too small to encompass the land around me. Endless is probably a better word for the scale of this planet. Even the sky is larger, or at least that’s how it feels. But how would gravity work if that’s the case?
Magic. Probably. Anyways, I’m not thinking about this again. Focus, Ryoka. Think about your job.
Hm. Let’s see. I’ve ditched Fals and the rest of the jackasses that call themselves Runners. That’s a good first step. Now, Celum is a ways away from the High Passes. Only two cities are actually in the High Passes, Esthelm and Liscor, although they’re in the safe route with roads and far fewer monsters, not the untamed wilds.
In any case, I can relax. I’m running at a quick pace, but it’ll take a few hours to get there. So I relax and let my mind wander.
Run. Run and eat. Run and stop to pee. Run and slow to a walk for a while. Normally, I’d be busy thinking all this time, but instead, I just listen to music. It’s been so long every song is fresh and amazing to listen to.
In between that, I do stop the music to concentrate. As a Runner, it’s important to be aware of my surroundings. And a few things have been bothering me.
Firstly, I know the local landscape. Around here—around most of the northern part of this continent, the geography alternates between relatively flat land and the mountainous passes that lead to the southern continent. True, there are heavily forested regions further northwest, and from what I’ve heard, several large rivers that create a transportation network that makes Runners slightly obsolete. But that’s north, and I haven’t travelled that far.
Those Five Families I heard about are largely in the north—Magnolia’s the one too far south. Five houses of influential people doesn’t sound fun—but they have gigantic pastures of land I want to see. That forest? Apparently it was one of the last ‘great forests’ of the world, the Vale Forest. Sounds like fun—if not for my feet.
In the same way, I haven’t gone past Liscor to the south. That’s where the landscape gets nasty apparently. What people call the Blood Fields separates the north from the south, a kind of battleground that changed the very ecosystem. No wonder Humans don’t go down there. But it is home to the largest plains in the entire world where Gnolls live…
Where I’m running—the plains north of the High Passes—is one of the better parts to be in this region. The only threats around here are Goblins and a few weaker examples of monsters. But the closer I get to the High Passes, the more likely I am to run into something nasty. Exactly what monsters live in the mountains I don’t know, but they make the ones living in the Human lands look cute by comparison.
That’s the first problem. The second is that there are a bunch of fireflies following me.
Fireflies. Or—animated sparks of light? That’s the closest thing I can think of to describe them. It’s like—well, it’s like some kind of magic maybe? These…symbols keep flashing around my head, and I swear I can hear something whenever I look at these flashes of color that are whirling around my head. They keep trying to get a lock on me, but whenever they do, I speed up and lose them.
It’s probably some kind of curse. I don’t know if Persua has enough money to hire a [Mage] or if it’s possible to call down lightning on me, but I’m not dealing with whatever it is.
Keep running. I just wish whoever’s casting the spell would give up. It’s getting annoying. But I can turn up the music, and the garbled speech tunes out. Okay, what else?
I’ve got the details of the open request memorized and written down, for all the good that does me. It’s a request to deliver a package, but what the package might be or who’s requesting it isn’t clear. That’s the uncertainty of an open request and the reason why few Runners want to accept them. But the pay’s extraordinary, so that’s enough.
With open requests, I go to the location marked and I’ll receive my pay in advance. The sender tells me where to go, and we can negotiate a second fee, or I tow the delivery back to the Runner’s Guild where someone else can finish the job.
It’s not the greatest system, but it works when dealing with areas where identity and safety can’t be assured. Apparently, all deliveries used to work more or less like this, but the new system in the Runner’s Guild is safer for Runners.
I could be walking into a trap. Please don’t let me be walking into a trap.
Anyways, I’m looking for a cave down the main road* of the High Passes. It will be marked by a yellow banner of some kind.
*I use the word road only in the loosest sense. Rather than a road, you could call it the only vaguely flat terrain that winds through the mountains and through stone passes and the network of caves.
That’s all I have to go on, and I’m only a few miles away from the High Passes. Now I can see the mountains looming ahead of me, rust-colored rock towering in the sky. And they are huge. I can look up and not even sense a mountain getting smaller before it disappears into the foggy, clouded sky overhead.
A mountain taller than Everest? Perhaps not, but it’s probably close. And that’s just one mountain of the countless ones here. Together, they form an impenetrable barricade, save for the small gap that winds through the passes.
Well, a small gap here is a road about as wide as two football fields placed side by side. And again, if it’s a road, it’s the most crap road in the world. This one has boulders scattered throughout it taller than fully grown oak trees. But it is semi-flat, and that’s enough.
I really hope I don’t cut my feet on the rocks. I should be fine; my calluses are really tough, but—
Something flashes past my face and hits the grass. Instinctively, I duck, and that’s when I see them. A horde of little green men, except these ones ain’t aliens.
I guess listening to loud music really isn’t a good idea when you’re supposed to be watching out for trouble. That’s probably why I never noticed the group of Goblins until they were right on top of me.
They spread out around me, a mob of Goblins. Not too many, at least by their standards, but a lot. I can’t spare time to count. Twenty—thirty of them? Some have bows, like the one who just shot at me, but most are carrying weapons. Rusted swords, daggers, and even a buckler or two. But they’re unarmored, ragged.
They could dice me up in seconds. And they’ve got me flanked this time.
This is bad. But I raise my hands and make fists. I haven’t needed to fight before, but it’s not because I couldn’t. And today, I’m at the top of my game.
The Goblins grin. They only see a Human female, alone, separated, and unarmed. Not a threat. That’s fine by me. I see a bunch of guys who I can hit as hard as I want and who have way less muscle and reach than a normal group of thugs. And I know kung fu*.
*I do not know kung fu. I practice a version of Muay Thai geared towards MMA, although I didn’t do any actual mixed martial arts. Damn overprotective parents.
Widen my stance, tilt my body forwards and down, hands up and loosely clasped into fists. I put more weight on my front leg. I bounce up and down, ready to move at a moment’s notice.
I’ve been in fights. Not many; definitely not the kind of straight up bloodbaths you hear about in inner cities, but I’ve had to defend myself more than once. More than that, after my first fight, my parents had me learn martial arts to defend myself. I studied how to fight.
The Goblins are still spreading out around me, waiting for one of them to make the first move. Maybe they can tell I’m not like a normal girl because I’m not screaming or trying to run. Instead, I dodge back and forth, keeping my distance, trying not to let them get my back.
One of the rules of fighting a group is never to let them surround you. Lead them on in a line if you can. Second, never let an opportunity to attack slip by. Be sure you know when they’re about to come at you.
And striking first is good. So as the first Goblin decides it’s time to get the ball rolling and darts forward with a shrill cry, I step forwards.
Step in, rotate hips, and put all that motion into a punch. I catch the Goblin in the head right as he charges. It’s a satisfyingly solid punch, and I feel it go right through the bugger.
He folds up. No confused blink, no comedic pratfall. The Goblin just falls down and doesn’t get up. That’s what a proper punch does.
The other Goblins blink in consternation. That shouldn’t have happened. But they’re fighters. They look cute in an evil sort of way, but they’re all killers. Probably even normal street thugs aren’t as vicious as these guys. So when they see the first guy go down, seven come at me at once.
I back up. And then I turn and punch. Not to really hit a target, but to get the other Goblins behind me to back up. They were about to rush me, but they flinch away, and I dash past them. Okay, now my back’s safe. So I turn and let the others come at me.
A line. They’re doing the stupid tactic of rushing me without doing it all together. So I jump forwards, punch once, twice. Two Goblins fold up, and I hop back, letting them trip up their friends.
A Goblin leaps over his friends, and in the air I hit him in the stomach. He starts throwing up even as he lands. Another comes around the side, and this time, he’s smart enough to start swinging before he gets to me. I wait. Swing, swing…
As his knife goes too far left, I step in and hit him. I’ve got a longer reach if I extend, way longer than his short arms. Another unconscious Goblin.
The last three Goblins slow, but one of them is dumber than the rest. He keeps coming, and I decide to get fancy. Instead of punching, I back up and then do a roundhouse kick.
Muay Thai is a martial art that emphasizes really strong kicks. And one of their famous kicks is the roundhouse. Naturally, it was one of my favorite moves to practice.
The Goblin lets me set it up. He’s watching my hands, so he never sees my leg flash up. I can kick nearly as fast as I punch, and I catch him right across the head. Short as Goblins are, my kicks are more head level than at their side or chest like normal Humans.
My foot connects with his head, and I feel his flesh squish. And then I feel something give way and hear a crack. The Goblin tumbles, flies, and rolls to a stop in the grass. He doesn’t move. And my heart stops.
The other Goblins look down at their fallen friend and up at me. I know I should be watching to see if they’ll rush me, but my eyes are fixed on the Goblin. I—I didn’t mean to hit him that hard. Not in the head.
He’s too still. The fallen Goblin doesn’t even twitch. He—he’s—
He’s dead. I killed him. I’ve never killed another creature before. I’ve hunted for fun, but I don’t shoot animals. Even in fights, I only broke bones. I don’t kill.
But he’s dead. And it was so quick, too.
I stare down at the Goblin and then see a black shape speeding at my head. I duck, and the arrow misses my cheek by a few inches. The Goblin archer lowers his bow and shouts something at his friends.
I—what do I do? The Goblins are moving again, trying to surround me. They don’t want to get close this time, but the archers are all pulling out their short, stubby arrows.
I need to run or fight. I’ll—I’ll blitz the Goblin archers, hit them, and then run for it. I start weaving and dodging left and right, giving them less of a target. I just killed—
The archer in the back, the one who shot twice at me, is their leader. I need to hit him and maybe the Goblins will give up on me. He’s got a few Goblins in front of him, but if I rush the group…
The Goblin pulls an arrow and sights at me. My body tenses—
And the Goblin archer’s head disappears. Not disappears in a cute way like he ducked down or he fell over. No. The entire neck and skin pulls away as a massive jaw closes over his head and rips his head clean off.
The Goblins turn. One screams, raises his sword, and a claw cuts his stomach open. I back up. The Goblins back up. The gigantic wolf casually grabs another Goblin, bites down, shakes him around, and tosses him to one side like confetti.
A wolf. A huge, giant wolf. Not the kind from my world; a proper, Big Bad Wolf of the plains, nearly as big as I am. Bigger. He’s got more mass.
The wolf sniffs and eyes me. The Goblins are already running, but he’s not interested in them. He’s looking straight at me.
Calm down*. It’s not the same as a Dire Wolf from George R. R. Martin’s books. Those things are big as horses, right? This one’s—this one’s only twice as big as a normal wolf. Only twice.
*Calm down! Don’t panic! Holy gods, it’s huge!
It has rust-red fur. Why the hell—is it because of the blood? It paws the ground, sniffs again, and then slowly begins to circle me. It’s so big, and unlike the Goblins, I can see muscles rippling under its fur.
No time to run or even think. I raise my hands again. Wolves can outrun Humans, just like bears. And running makes me prey. I need to get it to back down or leave.
Trouble is, this wolf isn’t like normal ones. Wolves from my world don’t hunt Humans in general. But this one just ate a Goblin’s head. So maybe the ones here have a taste for humanoids.
It sniffs at me again. And then the wolf lowers its head. Oh shit. It’s gonna—
I barely see the wolf move. It launches at me, and I throw myself sideways. The wolf lands, turns, and I run forwards and punch it in the head.
No thinking. Just action. I’ve practiced these moves enough that my body overrides my panicked brain. Punch, punch, step back. The wolf snaps at me and I twist. My leg flashes up and sideways and catches the wolf in the wide of the head. A solid strike.
Roundhouse kick. I once watched a documentary about the power behind Muay Thai kicks. Getting hit by one by a world champion is like being hit by a car at 35 MPH. Well, I’m not the world champion, but the giant wolf still blinks and shakes its head. It wobbles on its paws, and I step forwards.
Another kick that’s illegal in MMA is hitting your opponent with your knee when he’s down. That’s a lethal move. Actually, all of Muay Thai moves are meant to kill, but knees and elbows are really nasty. I was taught a hundred times not to hit anyone in the head with a knee unless I wanted to kill them.
I just hope my teacher wasn’t exaggerating. I run forwards and knee the damn dog as hard as I can in the face. I heard something crunch. It feels like my knee.
The wolf blinks, backs up a few steps, and then snarls.
It’s funny. Back in my world, I thought I was pretty hot stuff. Certainly, I’ve never lost a fight with the other stupid kids my age. And I was talented.
I practiced in an actual contact gym, and I got good enough that my instructor said I might have a future in the ring…until my parents vetoed that idea. At that level, I could teach martial arts myself if I didn’t want to be sexually harassed and laughed at all day long. Reaching that level at my age is extremely rare*, and I know how to fight.
I’ve been in street fights, or at least, school fights and being jumped while running. There’s a difference between knowing martial arts and having a black belt at a McDojo**.
*Having a personal gym and near-perfect memory helps, though. Also, parents who let you practice martial arts as much as you want if it keeps you out of trouble.
**McDojo. Great term. It describes every cafeteria and gym for kids who just want to show off rather than learn actual techniques. I kicked a black-belt ‘expert’ once and broke two of his ribs. Good times.
I know how to fight. And even if I’m not nearly as good as someone who walks in and out of brawls or has trained longer, I’d put money on me beating most of the adventurers below Gold-rank. Because they’re Human, or humanoid. And martial arts don’t exist in this world, at least as far as I know.
But martial arts from Earth weren’t designed to fight monsters.
The wolf I just roundhouse kicked and kneed in the face gets up and shakes itself like nothing happened. Then it looks at me and growls. Its nose looks wet, but I don’t think I hurt it much. In fact, I think I just pissed it off.
It advances fast. I punch, but the wolf snaps at my hand, and I nearly lose it. It dashes around me, and I spin to keep up. It’s so damn quick!
The wolf snaps at my leg, and I back up, kicking. But it’s too fast, and the fur on the wolf is like armor. It rushes me again, and this time, I can feel its hot breath on my front as I leap back.
Muay Thai was never meant to fight a creature that fights with its teeth. I try to get my distance, but the wolf advances.
Fuck. It’s not gonna let me get away. And I don’t know what to do. If I were faster, I’d try to poke its damn eyes out. But the wolf is dodging left and right.
I try to punch the wolf, but again, the fur takes all the force away. And then the wolf twists its head and closes its fangs over—
Fireworks. I hammer at the wolf’s face and then mash one of its eyes. It lets go then and howls in agony. I do too.
My arm! It bit down for only a second, but I think it cracked the bone! I stagger away from the wolf, and mercifully, it doesn’t follow. It’s shaking its head, and I can feel something wet on my fingers. I think I destroyed its eye, but I have to get away.
I start running. From a standing start to a sprint, I’m running. Behind me, I can hear the wolf howling. In agony? No—this sounds worse.
It sounds like a call to the pack.
Just as I think that, I hear more howls, this time in the distance. But they start getting louder, so I run on. My arm is bleeding freely, but I run on. No time to stop.
Glancing over my shoulder. I can see the wolf following, but only to keep me in its sight. It wants to gather the pack. And here they come. Blurring shapes race over a hill, fast, fast.
My arm! I can’t—the wolf tore away a huge chunk of flesh. I need a potion.
They’re in my pack, strapped to the outside for easy reach. I grab one, pop the cork, and down it, choking on the liquid. Then I hurl the bottle at the nearest wolf, making it dodge away.
The foul liquid goes down, and I wait for relief as I sprint desperately for the High Passes. The landscape changes beneath my feet. Suddenly, I’m running across what feels closer to clay, and the soil and even rocks turn a dark orange-red. And the mountains are right in front of me.
The wolves follow, howling even as more of them race out of the plains. They’re coming.
I’m never going to lose them on the open ground. I hear a growl and run left as a wolf jumps. It hits the ground, and I scramble up the rocky ground. Up the slope. Aren’t wolves supposed to have a harder time climbing or something?
It works. The wolf packs slows, and I can see them having a harder time scrambling up the rocks. But they are coming. And they’re still howling, making my blood run cold.
Gotta run. Must keep moving. I scramble up the incline, cutting my legs and hands against the jagged surface. And I feel sick? Why? My arm still burns. It should—it should be healing.
Up. I see a ledge and leap for it. It’s high, but I grab the edge and hoist myself up. The wolves charge, but they’re too late. I’m above them, safe for the moment.
On the ledge, I back away from the wolf pack and lean against the rock face, breathing heavily. I feel sick. Sick, tired, and the adrenaline in my veins is making me shake. And I’m still bleeding? Why?
Another potion. I fumble at my pack, pull out the bottle of red liquid, and down it in one go. I wait for relief. Nothing.
Confused and sick as I am, I down another potion before I realize something is seriously wrong, and at that point—
I throw up. Something is—the potion I drank is burning in my veins. What the hell? It’s not a healing potion. What is—
Something hops down from the rocks above me. I shout, hurl the potion bottle, and nearly slip in my own vomit. The goat stares reproachfully at me and bahs loudly even as the wolves keep howling and snarling below.
A goddamn goat. It scared the crap out of me. But it doesn’t appear frightened of me or the wolves. In fact, it takes one look at the wolf pack trying to make its way up to where I am and bahs again, loudly.
The goat has two wide eyes on either side of its head. It looks stupid—or insane, and this one has to be brain-damaged because the snarling wolves and I are both bigger than it is. It’s clearly wild and has ragged fur, oddly damaged. It looks like it’s survived mauling before, but this is the day it dies. Because it, like me, is stupid.
…Or is it just me? Because that first bah suddenly gets an answer.
More bahs. This time, they’re all around me. I look up and see goats lining the cliffs and rocks on the High Passes. They hop up and down the cliff faces easily, making for me and the pack. What the hell? Are they not afraid of the wolves? But now the wolves are backing away from me and snarling at the goats.
The goat near me bahs again, loudly. In fact, it sounds more like a scream at this point. A scream, and now it gets real close. Suddenly, I have a really bad feeling. I back up, and the goat advances.
The goat opens its mouth, and I see its teeth. Goats should not have pointy teeth. And its mouth is unnaturally wide. The goat’s jaw dislocates, and I see a gaping maw coming my way. It’s running and shrieking like a demented monster. It screams, and I scream and run, and the Carn Wolves are running away. I try to follow, but they’re all around me and—
“The High Passes.”
Lady Magnolia breathed the words as she stared at the man standing in her foyer. He was—well, knowing what he did, Magnolia would have expected the man to be wearing pure black clothing and armed to the teeth, but then, he wouldn’t be very inconspicuous, would he? [Assassins] were supposed to be stealthy.
But this man was so ordinary looking he was forgettable. Magnolia was sure it was some sort of Skill, just as she was sure that she was not happy with the current situation.
“Please explain to me, Assassin Theofore, how it is that Ryoka Griffin was able to not only evade you and the others of your group, but that she is now, as I understand it, alone in the High Passes being chased by a group of Carn Wolves?”
The [Assassin] named Theofore clearly did not like being addressed by his name, but he was also wise enough not to take issue with Magnolia using it. He spread his gloved hands out and bowed his head.
“My associates and I were fully prepared to guard Ryoka Griffin against attacks within the city and even outside of it. But we were unprepared for her to accept a request to the High Passes, let alone move so quickly.”
“I did warn you she was quick. And the wolf pack?”
“We were unable to do more than slay a few of the wolves gathering before they noticed our scent. And our group was not equipped for combat against monsters, milady. We assumed this would be a protection mission against other Humans and armed accordingly. We were forced to retreat, and for our failure, you will be fully reimbursed. But the Guild cannot take further responsibility for this, Lady Magnolia.”
Lady Magnolia pursed her lips, but the [Assassin] was right. No one could have predicted—
Well, actually she could have predicted this if she’d known about the unmarked request beforehand. Magnolia knew Ryoka’s personality well, both from experience and her Skill. It was a slight oversight that cost her now and cost Ryoka—possibly her life.
She studied the [Assassin] and tapped her lips, glancing towards the window where the mountains loomed in the distance.
“If I were to pull strings and send several teams of adventurers to the High Passes, would they get there in time?”
“Perhaps to collect what remains of her corpse, Lady Magnolia. But even that is likely to have been devoured by now.”
Again, Magnolia had to suppress her vexation. Well, vexation was one word for it. She was considerably more than vexed, but a [Lady] took care to hide her emotions. Still, she had to give vent to it.
“I was assured of the highest quality in hiring your guild. I believe I made it quite clear how important Ryoka’s life was?”
The [Assassin] was not in a good spot. Technically, he was a veteran of his Guild and perfectly able to take most lives with a single flick of his concealed blades. But he was standing in front of a woman who was definitely able to take any life she wanted, including his. Perhaps not directly, but the [Maid] standing behind Lady Magnolia was setting off all of Theofore’s warning bells. He eyed her warily as he chose the best words to respond with.
“Had we known the Runner would venture into an area like the High Passes, we would have charged ten times the cost and sent our best agents. And even then, we would not have guaranteed her safety. Practically speaking, we would have attempted to subdue Ryoka Griffin long before she entered that area. Countless monsters abound there, Lady Reinhart. The wolves would be just another type of prey, there.”
“Really? And here I was about to order you to go into the High Passes with your associates and get her out. Although your presence here means, even with my carriage, you’ll be too late. Still, I may well order it after all.”
Magnolia brightened at that. Theofore—hesitated.
Send them into the High Passes? He knew they were just Ranks, lowly members of the Guild, but she couldn’t do that! That was a death sentence.
But she was Magnolia Reinhart, and the Guild…he began to sweat as Magnolia tapped her lips.
What Theofore didn’t know was that she was only making an idle threat. Magnolia…her eyes flickered to Ressa’s face, reflected from one of the polished doorknobs, and the [Maid] grimaced.
It was him. It had to be. Ryoka had a chance, however slim, and the [Assassins] could not be deployed. She sighed, and the [Assassin]’s sweat turned into imminent dehydration as Magnolia looked at him.
“Is there any hope these other monsters would devour the wolves and leave Ryoka alive?”
“Doubtful, Lady. They would try to kill anything that disturbed them. And it is likely that even if Ryoka outran the wolves, she would not be able to evade the most prevalent type of monster in the High Passes.”
“And which would those be?”
I think I’m screaming. I’m definitely running, but I can barely feel my feet getting cut on the rocks between my nausea and the terror electrifying my body.
The nearest oddly shaped stone unfurls its massive stone wings and seizes the first goat trying to rip me to shreds. The goat tries to break free, bleating in panic, but the Gargoyle just reaches up and pulls the goat apart. Blood rains down around me as more of the deceptively innocuous rocks spring to life around me.
I’ve just run straight into a nest of Gargoyles. That would normally be terrible by itself if it weren’t for the pack of wolves and goats trying to eat me.
The rocky slope behind me is already filled with wolves and goats tearing each other to shreds. And the worst thing is that the wolves are losing. The goats came out of the cliffs in a horde and started eating the wolves, ripping them apart and fighting over the scraps.
I ran uphill to get away from the ones chasing me, but instead, I just ran into worse trouble. For the Gargoyles, it’s like I just offered myself up on a plate and brought a lot of hors d’oeuvres.
The Gargoyle that just tore apart the goat tosses the pieces up. Its curved beak-mouth snaps, and it crunches horribly. The goats swerve and immediately retreat, but the other Gargoyles lumber forward. Half of them leap down towards the goats and wolves now in full retreat. The other half go after me.
I run on. I haven’t stopped running, but I find some more juice and tell my legs to go even faster. I don’t know how they’re doing it.
I feel sick. It’s like my body is shutting down, but at the same time, it’s like someone’s hitting me with a taser*. Even though I want to sit down and throw up, I’m running as fast as I ever have. It’s like I can’t run out of energy, and I need every drop.
*Never been tased. Run!
A huge Gargoyle unfolds in front of me. It looks vaguely like a bird crossed with an ogre, a hulking giant beast with skin that looks like stone but slides around like flesh. It opens its mouth, and I see a dark opening before something shoots out.
I feel something spin me around and then stumble forwards. My hand goes up, and I feel at my shoulder. Sliced flesh. Deep slice. The Gargoyle fires again, and I stumble sideways. The stone fragments it spits miss me and eviscerate the wolf behind me.
The hell was that? It’s like a shotgun! And the sound the Gargoyles are making—a roaring warble that makes rocks tumble down. I can feel it in my bones.
I can’t fight. I don’t even think of trying. Muay Thai doesn’t have any moves that teach you how to dodge bullets or break stone.
So I run. I was born to run. I was born to fly.
The nest of Gargoyles is high up. It’s a relatively open area, looking down on the high pass. Fifty—sixty feet below? It’s not a straight drop—more like a sharp incline. Normally, I’d descend with the utmost caution, but the Gargoyles lumber towards me, fast. So I dash towards the edge even as a Gargoyle charges me.
My feet leave the ground as I leap. I jump over the Gargoyle’s lashing stone tail and touch down on a rocky outcropping. Even as my feet find purchase, I look and move. Another jump, and now I’m aiming right for the rocky slope.
Stone cracks and deceptive crevices leap up at me as I fall in slow motion. The slope is a maze of places to twist or break my ankles. But I can see every fault in the rock face. My foot hits the edge of the cliff, and then I plunge down, sprinting down even as several rocky monsters lumber after me, spitting stone shards.
Left foot, stone spot. Right foot avoids the fragile green moss. I’m leaning forwards as I run down. Right, left, jump, pivot—
I lose my balance and slam against a rock. I’m tumbling down, but I correct my footing and push off. I’m in the air for five seconds and then land and transfer the force of my fall into descending.
Fast. So fast. The slope is blurring beneath me, and I can see the open pass below. I’m going too fast to stop. So I twist—
The almost vertical slope leading up to the Gargoyles’ lair crumbled away in the wake of Ryoka’s descent. Small stones bounced wildly down the uneven landscape, dislodging larger boulders and causing a minor earthquake. But even the avalanche was too slow to catch her.
Ryoka’s feet were a blur as she sped downwards, on a collision course with the ground. She was moving too fast. Even if she tried, the strain of taking all her momentum aimed downwards and transitioning to the flat ground might break her leg. So instead, she threw herself into a roll.
Ryoka hit the flat ground and tumbled fifteen feet before she landed on her back. She stared up at the cloudy sky, winded. But in another second, she was up and running. She was being chased.
The stony, half-avian, half-hulking forms of the Gargoyles launched themselves off the cliff. They did not fear breaking any body parts. One smashed into the ground behind Ryoka, making the earth shake around her. She ran on as the Gargoyle surged upwards and chased after her.
Her body was electric. She felt like she was dying of the flu, yet more alive than she’d ever been. Ryoka was bleeding from her torn up feet, her bitten arm, and the places where the Gargoyle’s shrapnel fire had cut her flesh. Her clothes were torn, and she was bruised from countless impacts.
The ground shook as more Gargoyles launched themselves off the cliff and hit the earth like bombs. They couldn’t really fly, heavy as they were—but they could angle their descent. Ryoka ran on as stone monsters twice as tall as she was landed around her.
Birds shrieked in the sky, except they weren’t birds. Razorbeaks, the prehistoric avians with leathery wings and beaks full of teeth, swarmed down out of the sky. They dove down, seizing carcasses and entrails from the fighting monsters. Others dove at Ryoka, biting, tearing at her. She flailed at them as she ran on.
Death was everywhere. Ryoka felt it in every bite, every scratch. She was bleeding from a dozen wounds, and she felt like she was dying with every step. And she was confused. She was afraid—terrified out of her mind, and in pain. So why? Why—
Why was she smiling?
This was it. This was the end, and it was a stupid, pointless, and painful end. It was all her fault, and yet—there was a relief there.
At last. She felt like…
She was bleeding. She was leaving an actual trail of blood like movies. The young woman laughed, but coughed and stumbled again. Her feet didn’t hurt.
You idiot. This was all her fault. Just because she was so stubborn—at least someone was taking her to account. She kept stumbling forwards, just to spite the monsters. Spite was all she ran on. Not love of her family, not hope for anything in particular. Not family, not friends.
Garia was going to be sad. Ceria had done so much for…
—She got up. She thought she’d broken her nose, but the angry Gargoyle made her stand. She kept running as another piece of stone embedded itself in the ground.
She had no friends nor purpose. Just forwards. One more step—
A wild grin covered Ryoka’s face, twisting away into a grimace as she dodged left, a flicker of surprise as she saw the small, ragged piece of yellow cloth waving at the entrance of a massive cave. Her eyes were alight with life, and as she ran into the cavernous entrance that a Boeing-747 could easily taxi into with plenty of space to spare—
She was smiling. The Gargoyles turned and fled, the Razorbeaks peeled away, screaming in distress, and the remaining wolves and goats fled for their homes. Ryoka stumbled into the cave.
The Runner staggered into the cave, bleeding, injured, and sick.
Ryoka stumbled forwards and found the rough ground had suddenly changed. She was suddenly walking along…marble? Maybe not marble, but some smooth, glossy stone had replaced the dark rocky ground. She left footprints in blood as she walked forwards, almost numb to the competing agonies in her body.
The monsters were gone. They’d stopped chasing Ryoka all of a sudden. She could barely process that, though. She was staring around. Around and up.
The cavern she’d entered had appeared large to begin with. But as Ryoka walked further into it, it was clear that rather than calling this place a cave, it was more as if someone had hollowed out the inside of the mountain. She walked into a massive auditorium filled with…stuff.
That was the word for it. Stuff. Huge, carved pillars flanked Ryoka as she walked further in. They gave way to tapestries hung from the walls, important-looking people and epic landscapes. Rows of bookshelves suddenly appeared on her left, and then tables and countless pedestals holding things that glowed with magic and mysterious light. A huge table as long as a bus sat piled with pieces of paper and bubbling liquids. An alchemy lab, sitting next to a mirror that didn’t show Ryoka’s reflection as she passed, only a shimmering mist of strange colors.
Armor and arms stood against another far wall, an armory among armories. Swords and maces shared places with plate armor and weapons Ryoka didn’t even have a name for. The cavernous room was filled with wealth. It was a treasury of everything and anything expensive.
And standing in the middle of all of it was a man. Not just a man, though. Ryoka stumbled towards him.
Was failing. She felt herself losing blood, but she had to keep moving. If she stopped, she’d collapse. Ryoka squinted. It was so far to walk, but she kept going.
Who was he? Ryoka squinted. She felt like she was far away and close at the same time, so she lurched forwards. She saw—
(A massive Dragon sat in the cave, staring down at Ryoka. His brilliant yellow and gold scales glinted in the half light as he raised a claw—)
Ryoka blinked. Her head—she staggered towards the man in regal clothing, clutching at her side. He was an old man, one with a veritable mane of silver-gray hair. But for all that, he was tall—taller than she was even. And his clothing looked like it was the most expensive stuff she’d ever seen, on par with Lady Magnolia’s attire.
But his face caught Ryoka. He was lined like an elderly statesman, but his features could have been used as a template for sculptures. He looked like the most handsome old guy she’d ever seen, and she was not attracted to older men. But she was to him.
He looked like an archetype of humanity, only one aged well into his sixties or seventies. He was magnificent—
(He was a Dragon. Yet his illusions showed only the man, and the Dragon’s head rose with the simulacrum’s, wary and alarmed.)
The figure had been resting on a reclining couch long enough to accommodate even his long frame. Eyes, sleeping. The head rose—(and so did the Dragon’s, eyes fluttering awake with alarm and fear. Then anger.)
Ryoka blinked. She was lying on the ground. She picked herself up and saw the blood. It dripped onto the expensive stone. She couldn’t feel much, but she saw the man walking towards her.
She wavered on her feet. The occupant of the cave looked at her: a bleeding, dying Human. In a state of shock, even as he seemed to wake from a long nap.
“Who dares—who are you?”
His voice echoed through that grand chamber, furious and startled, then surprised as he took in the blood trailing behind her. The holes in her flesh. The man looked up, and the young woman smiled at him, fearless and dying and…young. Like many such people her age.
She grinned at him and raised her hand. Ryoka held out the bit of parchment in a bloodstained grip.
Then she fell to the ground, unconscious. The elderly man looked down at the unconscious Ryoka Griffin and blinked a few times. How surprising.
—Upon closer inspection, his ears were pointed upwards. If Ryoka had been in any state to inspect anything, that was. The ‘man’ sighed and muttered a few words that were loud and quiet at the same time. Ryoka’s bleeding stopped. He flicked his fingers, and the trail of blood she’d brought in slowly flowed together into a crimson orb that floated towards him.
He caught it and tossed it on Ryoka’s body. The blood flowed towards her and into her. She stirred and sighed. He sighed too.
It was probably best to let the magic work. She was suffering from mana poisoning, which was far more difficult to cure than mere blood loss. Meanwhile, he could investigate this strange Human on his own. His spells weren’t showing her level or class for some reason.
The occupant of the cave turned and strode away. He made it five steps before he tripped over a goblet and fell on his face. Quickly, he got up and made sure the Human was still asleep. The elderly man scowled, kicked the golden chalice, and winced as it crashed into something in the distance and shattered it. He scowled at nothing in particular.