The sky always looked redder here. Whether it was the air taking something from the ground or the very nature of the land altering the atmosphere itself—
Even the clouds over the Bloodfields that separated the north from the south looked tinged by ichor. Reddened, like the earth itself, by blood.
Not just blood from a single battle or even a dozen battles or a hundred. This place had seen oceans of blood. Soldiers by the hundreds of thousands. It had probably buried millions of corpses over the long centuries of war. After all, it was here that north and south met every year for war.
How long ago the conflict had started, the [Merchant] didn’t know. Only that her father had talked about the Bloodfields as having been there as long as the Five Families. After the first wars had brought down Walled Cities and forced the Drakes and Gnolls to the south past the High Passes, the gigantic mountain range that divided the continent, armies had pushed each other back and forth, often spilling into north and south and destroying cities.
At some point, her father had told her that [Lords] of various families had petitioned the five great families of the north—Reinhart, El, Veltras, Terland, and Wellfar—along with the remaining Walled Cities—Manus, Zeres, Fissival, Oteslia, Salazsar, and Pallass—to relegate the fighting to one spot to prevent civilian deaths.
The Bloodfields, south of the Drake city of Liscor, had been chosen as that battleground after much debate. So—every year, for centuries, perhaps thousands of years by now, armies went to this spot to fight. Sometimes just token forces—other times entire wars in earnest. The fighting might spill forth after that, but this was where it so often began.
Here was the thing. The [Merchant] gazed grimly at the red grass, the red soil, and the deceptively flat ground that filled the valley and only route north. The caravan of wary [Traders] and [Merchants] were one of two groups on the road—they had seen no other travellers since they passed Hectval, and it would be rare to travel until winter snow fell in earnest. Despite the hazards of snow and the wretched travel conditions—this cold fall was pushing it.
“We might be too early. Are we too early?”
A nervous Drake was scanning the Bloodfields with an enchanted spyglass. He was Tellgre ‘Twodeals’. All his customers had learned that the Drake refused to let them purchase just one item. Hence his dubious claim to fame.
He was a Level 22 [Trader], and the Human woman walking beside a line of packhorses carrying her share of the caravan hadn’t yet managed to tell him he needed a better name and business model. Then again—she was a Human in Drake lands still, and she thought she’d leave that up to the others.
A Human. The first time the woman had come to Drake lands, she’d passed through the Bloodfields, of course; the only other ways were the even more dangerous routes through the High Passes or sea travel. Winter was safe enough…but she’d heard from travellers that it was Drakes who’d decided on the Bloodfields as the yearly battleground and forced the Humans to comply. She’d made the mistake of relating her father’s version of events and been given a cold shoulder the entire journey south.
Each side had their own story. One of the things she’d learned after nearly a decade of trading both north and south of Izril was to shut up and listen. Or watch.
So—the Human [Merchant] said nothing as Tellgre chattered. She just looked across the red expanse. The crimson grass did fade slightly and turn green around the edges of the Bloodfields. Then again—some of the yellow or purple patches might not be the grass changing with the seasons. Maybe the Bloodfields were expanding?
“Looks quiet. We’ll take the long way around.”
The Drake swung his eyes down to the woman as he lowered his spyglass. She saw his tongue flick out nervously as he licked his lips. He raised his voice—and she sensed more [Merchants], mostly Drakes, but also two Gnolls, glancing her way.
“You’ve done this before, right, Ysara? It looks good to you, then? I’ve never done the Bloodfields run before.”
Ysara, who her colleagues and most of the South simply knew as the ‘Silver Merchant’, just shrugged in reply. She was a Level 34 [Merchant]. Far more successful than Tellgre and, honestly, most of the others in the caravan. Despite some having entire teams of [Guards] and assistant [Traders] as opposed to her being the lone member of her party—she had minimal overhead, and a few Chests of Holding carried all her goods.
She dealt, predictably, in silver. Often just silverware, but she also sold weapons and, interestingly, alchemical items. Silver was something [Alchemists] paid for too, after all. As proof of the fine metals she offered, Ysara had a single blade hanging at her belt, for self-defense.
It had an old, ornate handle of treated silver that wouldn’t tarnish, and it bore the silver Dragon and shield of her family.
Not that any of the Drakes or Gnolls knew it by name. She doubted many cared. As far as they were concerned, she was just a Human. And she belonged to a minor noble house in the north, so it wasn’t anything to brag about. She was, technically, a [Lady] as well, but she didn’t level in that class.
To many Drakes and Gnolls she met, Ysara’s Humanity was the most fascinating part about her. The [Merchants] she was travelling with had been in her company for two months now, doing a circuit of cities trading their goods. They probably thought she was like most Humans. It might get funny once they got north.
After all, Ysara’s hair was indigo, painted a rich shade of the color, and rarely faded thanks to a [Magical Painter] she knew. Better than dyes—and she had a long earring with a bead of red jade dressed in gold on one ear and a tattoo on one arm of a trellis of gold vines clinging to a silver ship.
In the north, she’d be taken for a [Sailor] if anyone. In the south—she was a Human. Actually, Ysara wondered if she should remove the indigo in her hair. She…exhaled as she stared across the Bloodfields.
An unpleasant journey, this. Almost as unpleasant as going home, a long task that took months. So rare, in fact, that it had been…five years? Five, at least, since she’d seen her family. One reason was the Bloodfields.
“Calm down, Twodeals. The cold should have put the Bloodfields silent. If not—we’ll soon find out.”
That wasn’t exactly comforting coming from a senior [Merchant], Buleth, but no one should relax.
The Bloodfields were dangerous.
Ysara eyed the long, wide expanse of red grasses. She could see across the valley—but the Bloodfields weren’t just all red grass. Tall…trees…of pale white bark or something grew out of the ground in ten to twenty-foot spires.
No branches—just pale trunks. Were they trees at all? Well, they were called Watchertrees, and Ysara knew well what they did when active.
Her skin crawled just looking at them—and at the bulbous, fungoid growths lining the Bloodfields. They clustered in huge pod-forests in places, much like mycelium, but unlike fungus, some of these plants could grow as tall as regular forests.
Though…due to the cold, they were shrunken, silent, and, in theory, safe. Even so, the [Merchants] would be plotting a wide, wide course around the Bloodfields, across the edge of the valley where it rose into treacherous and inhospitable foothills.
You could try the foothills if you really had to get through the Bloodfields in the spring and summer, but good luck getting a horse or wagon through there without breaking a leg. Only Couriers like Hawk the Hare did any running like that—the [Merchants] had to pass near the Bloodfields.
“Damn this grass. We had better not break an axle. At least I’ve got [Lightweight Wheels].”
Buleth commented from his seat to Ysara, and she nodded.
“I heard there used to be a trade route passing along here. Whatever happened to that?”
The Drake was portly, had a skullcap with holes for his neck-spines, and had ocre-red scales. He grunted sourly as he flapped the reins, and his horse plodded forwards, towing a large wagon. He dealt in spices, often imported from Chandrar and through the City of Waves, Zeres, which he brought to the rest of the continent for fine prices.
“A road? If there was any, it’s long before our time. Probably before the Bloodfields expanded. Must have been swallowed up. Or abandoned.”
“Right. Has it grown recently?”
“Not much. Not much fighting of late. Tyrion Veltras comes down every year, but it’s not like the old wars. Then again, you’d know as much about that as I.”
She nodded and, again, checked the Bloodfields.
Here was the thing—once upon a time, the ‘Bloodfields’ had just been a stretch of land where armies warred. Ordinary grass and dirt and rock. But after so much death, the land had…changed. Creatures, plants had begun to adapt to the blood and grow dangerous.
So dangerous that armies sometimes lost more [Soldiers] to the Bloodfields than their engagements. But they came, to clear the Bloodfields of growths as well to kill each other. Sometimes, Ysara wondered which was more important. Because the Bloodfields spread. Slowly…but someday, future [Merchants] might have to dare the foothills to get north to Liscor. Or not go at all.
In the spring, even their wide course would have already attracted…attention. Even Buleth, a veteran, muttered to Ysara.
“I don’t like the Watchertrees. I think we’re in range. How far do some of them reach?”
“I’ve heard a thousand feet…”
Both stared at the spires of white.
“I’ve heard longer. I suppose we’re safe. Dead gods and Ancestors, I hate this commute. We should have gone later.”
“—But we’ll be first north and have the best markup. That’s what you said.”
The Drake hunched his shoulders.
“I know, I know! Alright, let’s not spook the newbies. I’m surprised you came, though. You hate this route as much as I do.”
Ysara made a face. Her hand strayed to the hilt of her sword, and Buleth eyed it. Despite being silver, she had wrapped the hilt with sensible leather to get a grip. It was worn—and he knew she could use the sword well. As a child, Ysara had been told she had a once-in-a-thousand years talent with the blade. Even her brother had claimed that he couldn’t best her, and he was a [Knight]. Her sister…
“Hm? Oh, right. House…er…you know, I never asked which one. Not the Five Families. Visiting the family?”
Ysara’s smile was crooked, but Buleth either didn’t notice the Human’s nuance or pretended not to.
“I have to at least twice a decade, right? Besides, I heard something interesting is happening around Liscor. It’s just good business.”
And that was all she had to say on her personal affairs. Buleth didn’t need anything more, and nodded understandingly. Ysara, privately, didn’t relish going home. She wondered if it would be as awkward as last time. But family was family…she inhaled and caught that curious scent of the Bloodfields. Not blood…but something else. Something alien and exotic and unsettling. She walked on at a good clip, ready for trouble and hoping for none.
The Bloodfields were always dangerous, but depending on the company you took, they could be safer. And frankly—with Ysara around, Buleth, the leader of this group, felt better.
Though it occurred to him he didn’t know much about her outside her business. The [Merchant], Buleth, scratched at his chin as he slowly pulled out a puffed pastry of fried dough filled with Yellats and spices. Cheap and tasty. He broke it in half and offered her a bite, and she savored the taste in the cold air.
“What’s she doing in Liscor? That remote backwater’s got nothing in it. Their army are useful mercenary bastards, but Liscor’s got the Antinium.”
He shuddered, and all the Drakes in earshot winced. Liscor was…unique. Most [Merchants] regarded it as safe—but not a place to linger. A place to go and see once, though, just to see an Antinium outside the Hivelands without the chance of being killed. Plus, it was the closest city to the Bloodfields.
“I hear a dungeon’s popped up. My sister’s an adventurer.”
“Oh! I thought your brother was?”
“Him too. He’s Gold-rank. She’s Silver.”
Buleth had to shake his head.
“My, my. Your entire family really must be filled with high-level [Warriors]. You’re the most dangerous [Merchant] I know. Which—come to mention it—can I ask you not to embarrass my [Guards], Ysara?”
He nodded at a few sulking figures trudging behind his wagons. They glared at Ysara when she wasn’t looking, and their leader looked especially mad. She sighed.
“He challenged me to a duel, Buleth. I’m the lone [Merchant]. I have a reputation to keep up.”
Another glance at her sword. Ysara decided to thank him for the snack. She hefted the scabbard up and unhooked it from her belt.
“Want to look if you’re so curious? I’ll sell your [Guards] blades at a discount.”
“What good is silver in a sword? Mithril now…although, this is a fine blade.”
Buleth eyed the sharp longsword appreciatively. Ysara smiled.
“It’s beautiful and an alloy, so it doesn’t tarnish. Stronger than regular steel is my claim—and some monsters hate it. But truthfully? The [Smiths] who make this just know their craft better than some dunce with a hammer.”
“Fair enough. And you get it from your home? They own mines or do they just have great smiths? I can see the crest. Very Drakish. Love the Dragon. Right out of the stories, eh?”
Buleth glanced up and saw another odd smile from that woman, but she was a good, honest [Merchant], unlike some real bastards, and she was well-spoken of. Dead gods, the Golden Gnoll herself was friends with the Silver Merchant…no surprise given their names.
“Actually? I get half of my arms from a Gnoll tribe. They just do the stamping with my crest. Heard of the Silverfangs? Their Gnolls are in Liscor.”
Buleth wasn’t up to date on Plains Gnolls, the tribal ones, but he knew them from somewhere.
“Ah, good sorts, I think. Not like Woven Bladegrass or…”
He hesitated and glanced at the Gnolls in the caravan. Maybe he shouldn’t say anything at all. They could get—touchy—and Drakes and Gnolls were not the best neighbors. Ysara filled in the rest for him.
“Good, honest sorts. Like most Gnolls you could meet.”
A Gnoll twenty-eight paces away snorted softly, and Buleth just bet he’d heard. Their damn ears. He agreed with Ysara but then nodded ahead.
“So—that group must be Silverfangs. I think I saw a few markings on them. Silver fang—like crescent? Biting teeth?”
“That’s their logo. Interesting. So that’s a group of Silverfangs up there. Warriors, judging by how much they’re carrying.”
Ysara turned her attention to the only other people crossing the Bloodfields. Given the relatively flat ground until you rode up towards the Floodplains of Liscor, another basin, the caravan could see the group of eighteen Gnolls ahead. They were making better time than the [Merchants]; they had ten horses. It looked like they were switching on and off, rather than riding the whole way, and they were as vigilant as the [Merchants].
One had waved at the [Caravan Guardmaster], but they’d not indicated they wanted to meet up—not here. Maybe tonight? Though Buleth had every intention of trying to get past the Bloodfields in a single day. It was about…four days to Liscor? A Runner could do it a bit faster, but once today was over, he’d sleep easy.
Aside from bandits. Would some be crazy enough to raid? Hectval’s alliance didn’t patrol around here—Buleth glanced at Ysara.
“How do you know they’re warriors? Could be just Plains Gnolls?”
She shook her head with calm authority.
“Plains Gnolls might go armed, but shortbows for their non-fighters at most. That lot? I see a [Shaman], long spears, longbows—they’re not going to raid us, Buleth. Don’t worry.”
He huffed and decided to give it up. Ysara knew trouble when she saw it. He sat back in his seat and decided he might try playing on the new chessboards he’d bought. He was going to try selling them; you had addicts all over Izril, and the game was new, if not as hot as when it came out. He had some lovely gemstone pieces he’d gotten from Salazsar for a song. His hope was a noble snapped up a board. Just one would recoup all costs.
Buleth was about to challenge Ysara to a game when the woman made a sound. She put a hand over her brow, squinted, and his heart leapt.
“Wait a second. Who’s that? Buleth, lend me your spyglass.”
The Drake scrambled for his spyglass and tossed it at Ysara. She caught it, put it to one eye, and exclaimed.
“It looks like a Runner’s making the Bloodfields run!”
“Ancestor’s wrinkled tits, Ysara! Don’t give me a heart-attack!”
The Drake held a claw over his chest. He almost snapped at the Human woman, but Ysara didn’t give back the spyglass immediately.
“I’m—huh. That’s odd.”
Now that Buleth knew what to look for, he could see the distant, distant speck coming down the slopes that led to the Floodplains of Liscor. He grunted sourly.
“Not just one. Looks like four. At least—I think I see four.”
He swore he’d just seen three figures on the lip of the hill—but maybe not. Ysara swung the spyglass up, but missed them. She was focused on the Runner.
“Good speed on that Runner. Not horse-speed, but—City Runner for sure. She? Nice hips either way.”
Buleth brightened up a bit. He coughed to hide his reaction to that—Ysara sometimes made comments that the woman clearly didn’t realize a hot-blooded male Drake like he could take the wrong way. Or right way.
He was suddenly more interested in meeting this Human, but Ysara was frowning mightily.
“What’s so odd? Even Runners probably risk the Bloodfields run.”
“Yes…but she’s going straight down the center. Is she mad or did no one tell her—the Bloodfields can still be dangerous even in the cold!”
Then Buleth’s head snapped up. He saw the dot moving straight down the valley, and as Ysara said—the Runner was going straight down the center.
If she kept going, she’d end up in the Bloodfields. Ysara looked up at Buleth, and he cursed.
“No way a local Runner doesn’t know about the Bloodfields, Ysara. I bet this one will turn right or left.”
“Maybe. Or…maybe she’s from Celum. How well do you think the locals know the Bloodfields there? Maybe she’s on a big contract—where are the horses?”
Ysara looked around, and Buleth saw her striding off. She turned and tossed him the spyglass. He nearly pitched off his seat trying to grab it and called out after her.
“She has to know, Ysara! Don’t go racing off suddenly—the Bloodfields react to sound and movement!”
“It’s cold! And I won’t—as long as she swerves!”
The woman called back. Buleth shook his head as he put the spyglass to his eyes and watched the distant Human. He murmured to himself.
“Ooh. I see what Ysara means. She’s definitely not going to run through the Bloodfields, though.”
No one was that crazy. The Drake watched the Human running forwards. And then he glanced up.
“Four Runners? What are the odds?”
Ryoka Griffin felt like someone was holding her hand and pulling her. Pulling her so hard she couldn’t help but stumble forwards. An inexorable rip-tide—and unlike a person, she couldn’t yank free of that pull.
She felt that if she didn’t run—she’d fall flat on her face. That kind of tugging. Only, it wasn’t physical, it was in her head.
A blind rush forwards, and a goal in the back of her mind. Three days. Three days of running since Esthelm. Or—four?
She didn’t know. She only knew that she slept, ate, peed, screamed murder at birds, blasted angry music through her earbuds—
And heard the voice.
Find the Necromancer. Find Az’kerash. Deliver the letter.
That was her task. That was her—what she had to do. No question. No doubt. Her pride as a Runner, her commitment to her promises—it was like taking that and adding a second layer of certainty to it.
I’ve been put under a spell.
She was aware…that the mysterious half-Elf [Mage] had made her do this. But so what? She didn’t care.
She had nothing left behind her. Only smoke from all her burned bridges and shame. That was what made her run faster.
Four days, and Ryoka still felt the impact of punching Yvlon in the face. She still saw Ceria staring at her looking so—disappointed. It burned straight through her. She had never, ever felt this—
No. Ryoka Griffin slowed as she crested a hill of grass and saw something odd in front of her. A red stain spreading out in a vast valley of grass. Fall’s cold air whipped at her raven-black hair, and she brushed sweat from her forehead and took a drink of water. Then the magic and guilt and shame pushed her forwards.
It was a beautiful red stain that looked—wrong. The longer she stared, the more it unsettled the young woman. But she didn’t run away from it.
It was like her. It should have been beautiful—red grass and strange plants she wanted to stare at when she got closer. She knew it was dangerous—but the old mage had said it was where the Necromancer could be found. Here—no, along the mountainside, right?
It didn’t matter. The Bloodfields were a wretched stain on the earth, not something marvelously unique.
Like her. A disaster. It didn’t really belong—and Ryoka Griffin ran straight and narrow down the valley. It was a beautiful day, and the sky looked deep blue…or purplish in places. The few clouds there were had some kind of orange tint to the undersides.
A magical day. A magical world. But—
I am the same. It’s not them, it’s me.
I did it. I went to another world. I went to Narnia, like the Lion, Witch, and the Wardrobe. I got a magic quest.
My parents? Gone. My past? Unknown. I could be anyone I wanted to be, and it’s happening again.
Disaster. People I’ve let down. As I run, I feel the pain in my lungs from pushing myself. My legs and arms are tired—and I keep running, keep pushing it.
I like the feeling of running, of giving it all up to the pumping of my arms and legs, the rush of blood. That’s pure. That’s—better than thinking.
But this time, I can’t escape it. My guilt.
I’ve done this before.
It falls in my head, louder than the voice telling me to find the Necromancer, louder than the screaming that I’m such a fool, louder—
Louder than the voice telling me to go back and apologize.
It’s not too late. Go back. Go back and apologize. Please. They were so good to you.
I know. I fucking know. Please stop. But the voices never stop. This is all me, of course. I’m just—separating them out. Perspectives.
Like warring demons in my chest. The first one is sad. Because—it knows, like I do, that this is all my fault.
I’ve done this before. I’ve had friends before this. Of course I have. Or were they ever my friends?
No, they weren’t. They just wanted to hang out with the senator’s daughter. State senator, comes from money, and they thought I was like them. Fuck them. Fuck Fals. And Garia. And Persua. AND PERSUA. And—
The Horns? I snap out of the fury filling me. That’s the third voice, I guess. Did my therapist—well, one of them—ever talk about that? My anger?
I’ve had a lot of therapists. A lot of therapy. Medications—and a lot of my parents pushing off my problems onto someone else to handle it. I—hate each and every one of them.
Hated? I’ll never see them again. I hope not. After all, the last one I think I literally threw a chair at. And hit.
My fault. Why did I do that? The poor woman wasn’t doing anything. She just wanted to help me.
Fuck her too with a rusted pickaxe.
The voices. I run faster, try to put more energy into my legs. I almost manage to drown them out—but I can’t sustain this pace. I’ve been drinking stamina and healing potions on and off—it helps me keep at max speed—but I don’t dare waste too many.
Why not? Why not pull out my ‘reward’ for doing all this? Not the gold, the wand of flames or whatever that guy gave me. Plus—a Potion of Haste?
Fire and speed. Sounds fun. The wand is supposed to be for the Bloodfields or self-defense? I’ve been tempted to try it out—and the potion. I want to. Imagine running even faster? I want to—but I need to save it.
So I just run, and the voices catch up. This time, it’s maudlin that sounds loudest. Maudlin guilt.
I’ve done it again. Why did I attack the Horns?
Calruz was arrogant. That bastard.
They cured my leg. My leg. I would have never walked again with that leg. Why did I hit him in the balls and try to beat him to a pulp?
Yvlon was a smug bitch…
No, she wasn’t. Ceria told me the truth. She put everything on the line for me, and I punched her. Why did I do that?
Then—silence. Because I really don’t have a good reason.
No, that’s a lie too. I know exactly why. I’ve done this before. Why…why can’t I be a good person?
Because I don’t deserve nice things. Fuck me too. This is what I do. Another world won’t change it. I hate me. I hate everything.
And when I get to that, my thoughts are in agreement. I just wanted to run. Why did it have to be so complicated? Magnolia. This is all her fault. No, Persua. Fals.
And there it is. I keep running, straight for the Bloodfields. Necromancer. Deliver it. Keep silent about the man in the High Passes.
I want to go back and say sorry. But I’ve never said sorry and meant it.
I mean it.
I’m sorry, Ceria. Why did I do that?
Yvlon made me angry.
I thought I was happy, lately. I really did. My eyes are stinging, and I’m trying not to cry. Because that would be stupid. What do I have to cry about? Or rather, why start?
I’d never stop.
It’s not my fault. I keep hearing that refrain, a thousand times. Magnolia. That damn [Assassin]. Persua. And I agree, even now. There are so many assholes.
—But it hits me. Like a blast of wind in the face. A bucket of cold water. A realization, so complete and so simple I can’t describe it. Perhaps I thought this before, but now I realize it with all my heart and soul.
There have always been good reasons. Explanations for why things went sideways or bad. Here I am, running south on what might be a suicide mission.
And I don’t really care about that. I’m—almost excited to see what this Bloodfields is like. But I can’t concentrate. Because I feel guilty. I almost want the Horns to never speak to me again. Yet I owe them. I owe them, and this is how I repaid them?
Magnolia. Persua. Fals. Calruz. Yvlon. There’s a common thread between them all. Maybe some of it was for the best. I don’t know. But here I am. How did I get here? I have no answers. Just observations. And what I see is…
It’s always been me.
It was written all over her face. She probably had no idea what her face looked like. Close to tears, stubbornly refusing to cry. But also—
As she ran down towards that blight in the world, the Bloodfields—her eyes focused on the strange trees. On the prickle down her spine like a [Dangersense] every person possessed. Her instincts telling her to turn around or run past it, not through it.
She still kept coming. Because those eyes were hungry. If she wasn’t stopped, she would have gone straight into the center of that place.
She was less than a thousand paces from where the grass began to change when the young woman finally seemed to hear Ysara shouting at her.
In her defense—as the City Runner slowed, Ysara, panting and riding full-tilt on the snorting stallion, saw the Human woman pulling something out of her ears. A dangling bit of string? What kind of thing was that? Something to help her hear?
It certainly hadn’t done that. Half the [Merchants] had joined Ysara in shouting, standing up in their stirrups or on the wagons to shout—even the Gnolls that Ysara had just passed were howling long notes of warning.
“Huh? What? What?”
The first reaction of the young woman was pure surprise. It crossed her dusky features, and Ysara realized she really hadn’t heard. Incredible. But the second reaction was instant and surprising hostility.
The Silver Merchant, panting, slowed her horse to a canter and hesitated a second. She looked at Ryoka, then pointed a hand.
“The Bloodfields. You nearly ran straight into it.”
It was clear that the young woman was coming back to earth after being miles, miles away. She focused her eyes on the red grass—which Ysara happened to know was sharp—and the young woman was barefoot!
Already a sign she was odd—if her features didn’t already mark her as distinctly Drathian. Which could explain it, but Ysara had heard Drathians had their own language. This young woman had a perfect command of the common tongue. And her look was changing into severe annoyance.
“The Bloodfields? I know it’s the Bloodfields. It’s…”
She stared across the vast expanse, and her eyes didn’t even reach the end of it, Ysara knew. Her caravan had camped at the safest distance from the Bloodfields last night, then set out. By evening, they were close to the end of it, but this young woman might be forced to camp next to this place.
And it was not that safe.
“You were about to run straight into it. That’s madness. You won’t survive. Didn’t anyone warn you?”
Ysara was glad now she’d started riding so early. The young woman just blinked at her.
“It’s dangerous. A…‘death zone’?”
Silence. Ysara knew she was being understood, but the young woman just stared at the crimson land ahead, eyed one of the dormant Watchertrees, and nodded.
“I’ve got business here. Or past here. Thanks for the warning. See ya.”
And she tried to keep running.
Ysara actually put her horse in the young woman’s way, and affronted, the Runner stopped. Ysara’s smile was far more strained this time.
“Excuse me, Miss. Perhaps you didn’t hear me. The Bloodfields are right there. If you go in—you’ll die. Even being this close to them is dangerous!”
She had no [Dangersense], but again, she didn’t need it. The Runner looked at Ysara. She spoke slowly, as if reluctant to waste any more words.
And she tried to edge around the horse. The animal actually put its head out to stop her, and Ysara held out a hand.
“Miss—what’s your name? Are you a City Runner?”
Reluctantly, for a third time, the young woman stopped and spoke.
“Ryoka Griffin. City Runner around the Celum region. On delivery. I’m not taking requests or mail.”
She recited it by rote, and Ysara smiled desperately, although by now she was getting peeved.
“Celum? I know the area quite well. Have you been to Wales? Remendia? Do you live there?”
“I run there. But I’m working. So…”
“Miss Ryoka Griffin. Please—[Hear Me Out].”
Ryoka Griffin’s feet stopped as she tried to take a step, and her head turned. Ysara saw the angry look and knew she had upset the young woman. But it was a Skill a [Merchant] got—a kind of final offer, even if it irked your client.
She didn’t like using it like this, but she had gotten the Skill to try and ram concepts into even the most thick-headed fools. Which had been family…
Anyways, the Silver Merchant spoke very calmly.
“The Bloodfields are a death zone. You know this, Miss Griffin? Gold-rank adventurers fear to tread there. Named-ranks would think twice and need a reason to go in. Armies may cross the Bloodfields, but they do it with fire and sword ahead of them. Only in the fall and winter is it remotely safe—and not if you go straight into it. I stopped you because I wanted to warn you that it was certain death. Suicide. Do you…understand me? Don’t go in there.”
She didn’t know how to say it plainer. Even her idiot brother would have gotten that. And the Runner, Ryoka Griffin, understood Ysara. In fact, her jade green eyes lit up a bit. In…excitement?
A wild kind of yearning. A strange exhilaration. Then Ysara recognized it. She had seen it in real adventurers, in Couriers she had met. When she had visited The Adventurer’s Haven, the most famous inn of all of Izril, the guests there had looked like that.
“I understand. You don’t want me to go in there?”
The City Runner stared at Ysara. The [Merchant] held her gaze. Ryoka Griffin walked sideways and began to jog forwards.
Silver and steel! Ysara bit back an oath as she turned her horse to trot alongside Ryoka. Even her horse was trying to shy away from the Bloodfields.
“I heard you. Thanks for the warning. Don’t go in, right?”
This time, the young woman gave Ysara a distinctly taunting, defiant look, and Ysara began to feel…nostalgic.
Oh no. This reminded her a bit of—herself. And in her experience…Ysara gritted her teeth, trying to sound friendly.
“Miss Ryoka. May I say something else?”
The Runner slowed.
“…Do go into the Bloodfields. It’s perfectly safe. And everyone would want you to do that.”
Ysara indicated the [Merchants], who were still watching them, and the Gnolls. A few of them were waving down at her, as if wondering if she needed help or if Ryoka was crazy. Ryoka’s eyes flicked. She stared at Ysara’s insincere smile.
“I think I might just do that.”
She turned, began to speed up—and Ysara kicked her in the shoulder as she rode past. Hard. Ryoka stumbled, whirled—and Ysara was already leaping down, shouting.
“Buleth! I need help!”
The Drake had already seen, and several [Guards] were riding her way, fast. Ryoka balled her fists, but Ysara had a hold of her shoulder.
“Let go of—”
“I am trying to stop you from getting killed. Listen to sense!”
The two women began wrestling, and unfortunately—the Runner knew some kind of wrestling tricks because she nearly tossed Ysara onto the ground. Only Ysara’s brief career as an adventurer saved her. She clung to Ryoka as the horse snorted and trotted around them.
“Why are you trying to get yourself killed?”
“None of your business! Get lost!”
“It is if you set off the Bloodfields—stop!”
Ryoka was dragging the two of them into the grass. Ysara saw the green turning crimson—and the first blades of the Bloodfields that Ryoka stepped on made the Runner freeze.
“Ow. What the—”
Ryoka stared at the red scratches on her feet—and then the grass. It had cut her feet up! It wasn’t…solid, but it was edged. So you’d bleed if you rolled around, but surface cuts. Like the worst paper cuts imaginable. That had to hurt. She looked at Ysara, and the Silver Merchant expected this to be enough. But Ryoka just tried to tear free.
“Let go of me. Now.”
Her hand curled, and Ysara braced herself.
“I want to help you.”
For some reason, that was apparently the worst thing to say, because the young woman’s eyes flashed. She raised her hand and threw a punch.
“Maybe I don’t want any help!”
In the moment before the punch landed, Ysara thought Ryoka’s face turned from wrath to guilt in a flash. The woman was braced—but the punch never hit her.
It was surely impossible. Impossible for the two struggling figures to have been caught unawares in the relatively flat ground. Impossible for anyone to close the distance that fast—no normal person could do it.
But the four-fingered gauntlet that caught Ryoka’s arm belonged to no ordinary woman. The giant eye that glowed with yellow and shifted colors as Ysara’s head turned and the four miniature eyes that spun and the sharp teeth that opened into a smile—
Those belonged to a legend.
Gazi Pathseeker, Gazi the Omniscient, Named-rank adventurer and…one of the King of Destruction’s Seven caught Ryoka’s arm in a grip that stopped it dead. She smiled—as Ryoka and Ysara whirled to look at her.
“Hello. Am I disturbing you?”
“You must be mad. Why would you want to run through the Bloodfields?”
That was what Buleth said to break the tense silence. Gnolls, [Merchants]—Drakes mostly—Ysara, Gazi, and Ryoka were all camped well west of the edge of the Bloodfields. Astonishingly close as they hadn’t cleared the final section, but Gazi made even the Bloodfields’ threat recede in everyone’s mind.
The Gnolls were Silverfangs. They’d introduced themselves as such and were heading to Liscor. They were quite friendly, and their leader had a beautiful longbow with hand-fletched arrows, all red as a cherry.
“Roc’s feathers. A single one cut up can make a quiver. They fly better—though you’d best take care in how you cut the feather up. Az’muzarre gifted our tribe a feather from their great bird.”
The Gnoll was speaking to one of the [Guards], and Ysara was fascinated by that, but all eyes were on Ryoka. And the Runner—shrugged.
“I have a delivery. My destination is around the Bloodfields. Going through seemed easy.”
She was giving Gazi a long, appraising stare as they sat around, talking. A wide-eyed not-quite glower that…was a mistake. Because the Named-rank adventurer just returned the look. And she had three more eyes.
Gazi Pathseeker stared at Ryoka Griffin with her main eye so long the young woman was forced to finally look away. Which was in and of itself commendable, because she had tried to stare down the most famous half-Gazer in the world.
She managed two whole minutes before she had to blink—then she kept her gaze on Gazi. Until the pressure made Ryoka wilt. That took another three minutes.
And not once did Gazi blink. She didn’t seem—angry. Not like the staring contests of adventurers or swords-for-hire that Ysara had seen now and then. That was really a children’s game between adults. Gazi didn’t need to play that game to prove anything.
That sword had claimed more lives than any weapon she had ever sold. The claymore on Gazi’s back had shed enough blood to grow a miniature Bloodfields. She…she would have made murderers and Roshal’s lot walk soft around her.
It said a lot that even if Ryoka didn’t know all about Gazi, she should surely have sensed it, and she had tried, despite it all, to out-stare Gazi. Yet, it was the Gazer who was most supportive of Ryoka when all was said and done.
“Easy. Ysara practically drags you away and you try to kill yourself? And us?”
Buleth grumbled. But now that everyone was calm, Ryoka looked—embarrassed. And uncomfortable. Gazi was still staring at her.
“Adventurer Pathseeker, thank you for the—help.”
Ysara tried to take that stare off Ryoka, and Gazi’s head turned—but her main eye rolled into the side of her head, and Ysara knew it was pointed at Ryoka. It seemed the Runner felt it, because she turned paler. She was sweating despite the chill in the air.
“Merchant Ysara. You are welcome. I thought it was an interesting event. Though now…if Runner Griffin wishes to enter the Bloodfields, I say let her.”
Everyone stared at Gazi. The Gnolls sniffed and glanced at each other and looked…concerned. Though everyone looked concerned by that statement.
“Let her kill herself, you mean?”
Ysara managed a polite chuckle. Gazi didn’t quite smile, though her lips turned up.
“If she is confident—let her make her choices. That is freedom. I have heard it said that a measure of Couriers and Gold-ranks is whether or not they can pass through the Bloodfields and live.”
Everyone fell silent at that. Ysara had heard that too, but Buleth chuckled weakly.
“Even Hawk the Hare wouldn’t try that, and he’s the closest Courier, Lady Pathseeker!”
“He’s also a bit of a coward.”
Someone else muttered. Gazi just shrugged, rolling the armor on her shoulders. Her main eye finally looked away from Ryoka, and the young woman untensed, shakily relieved.
“We cannot stop people from making their choices. And I think the outcome would be—interesting. We might all be surprised.”
Interesting. Most people were focused on Gazi’s face, but Ysara had met her share of legends thanks to The Adventurer’s Haven and her family. Magnolia Reinhart, for one. And she knew something of tricks thanks to the Golden Gnoll.
She noticed Gazi’s big eye swing down and stare at…something on Ryoka’s belt? Odd. Then Gazi turned, and all five eyes stared Ryoka down.
The Named-rank legend either held a grudge or believed in stamping out challenges. She eyed Ryoka as the cold sweat resumed.
“Though it is curious to meet you. What is your name, Runner, again? Where do you hail from? Such bravery isn’t often seen.”
“I’m…Ryoka. From around Celum.”
“And before that?”
Gazi smiled—until one of the Silverfang Gnolls sneezed. It sounded deliberate, but he raised a paw and brushed at the silver markings on his fur—the fangs as Buleth had claimed.
“Hah! And I thought your name would be ‘Erin’, yes? Well met, brave Runner. Foolish of you to try the Bloodfields, but if you’re going south, perhaps head to the Great Plains? You’ll enjoy it with your bare paws—er, feet. And our tribes are welcoming to Humans. Those that don’t come with fire and sword.”
He grinned, and Gazi’s eyes de-focused on Ryoka. A small eye rolled into the side of her head and fixed the Gnolls with a stare. It was unsettling…and covert. The half-Gazer turned her head to him and smiled, politely, as the Gnoll [Warrior] got to his feet. He passed by her, and one of her eyes kept following his face. The Gnoll shook Ryoka’s hand and Ysara’s.
“Silver Merchant, we heard you did good business with our Chieftain. I am Chief Warrior Rometh.”
“Please remember me to…Chieftain Akrisa and Shaman Cetrule. How is Cers doing? Satar?”
Ysara was grateful for [Contact Memory], which helped her remember her clients’ names. The Gnoll chuckled.
“Worrying over her little sister, Krshia Silverfang. Who lives in Liscor. We’re bound there.”
“That’s our stop as well. Would you like to go the rest of the way with us? It might be slow, but we’ll share a fire and food.”
Buleth chimed in, possibly wanting both the favor of the Gnolls in Liscor and more protection. The Gnolls murmured, but to the Drake’s disappointment, the [Warrior] demurred.
“We must go at best pace, but we will likely see you there, Merchant Buleth. Thank you for the kind offer. And for sharing this meal. But it is not wise to linger near the Bloodfields, yes? We will be heading out—but not if we are going to see this young Human lose her life in the next few minutes.”
He looked keenly at Ryoka, and she flushed.
“I’ll survive. I’ve run the High Passes already.”
That got everyone’s attention. Ysara suppressed a whistle despite herself. No wonder the young woman was confident!
It didn’t excuse her recklessness, though, or her attitude. But Gazi was trading pleasantries with a few [Guards], who begged her for a chance to see her blade or, even more, duel her. They had not a chance, Ysara knew. Most were below Level 20, and she could best them as a [Merchant]. She would never touch Gazi.
Then the young woman burst out with something that provoked a real silence.
“It’s no one’s business. Just let me do what I want. Even if I die—why do you care?”
Ryoka Griffin’s face was scarlet, and she flushed more when everyone looked her way. After a moment—Ysara stood up.
“Perhaps I should try to talk to this young woman. Miss Griffin? Would you step over here?”
She indicated the back of Buleth’s wagon, and Ryoka hesitated, saw Gazi glancing at her, and got up. The Gazer stared at Ryoka and Ysara with her main eye even when they walked behind the wagon, but one of her smaller eyes was slowly, slowly tracing a route across the foothills behind the temporary camp. As if following something.
The other eyes? They were watching the Gnolls. And the Gnolls were watching her.
“Liscor is a small city for a Named-rank adventurer to be in, Adventurer Gazi. Does something—interest you there? Such a legendary figure must be intimidating, to some, yes?”
Chief Warrior Rometh stretched out his legs around the fire, but some of the [Merchant]s’ guards realized that the Gnolls never sat or moved in a way that would leave them unguarded if they were attacked. Sensible around the Bloodfields—but they were staring at Gazi.
The half-Gazer’s smile had teeth—but the Gnoll’s fangs were just as sharp.
“A small city for Gnolls of your level as well. A warrior above Level 30 like you…and your entire group is high-level as well. So many Silverfangs for a border city of the Drakes is odd. Yes?”
She mimicked the Gnoll’s way of speaking, and Buleth’s head spun. Could she read levels? He’d heard some spells could do that—Rometh did not seem to appreciate Gazi’s insight. He snorted.
“Spoken like one foreign to Izril. Liscor’s mercenary army is not ‘small’. They were encircling Oteslia last I heard, and that is a deed few armies in the world can manage. Even your King of Destruction stopped at Zeres.”
That silenced the rest of the low-level conversations around the fire, not that there had been much. Gazi’s five eyes slowly fixed on Rometh, one by one.
“He never set foot on Izril himself. We sent one of seven against a Walled City, Gnoll. Had even more of us come—you would not smile.”
He was not smiling now.
“Your King never fought our tribes, and we would not have given up our lands to him like Chandrar. I am not looking for a battle, now, or to seek glory, Gazi Pathseeker. But I hear from my Chieftain’s sister that you take an interest in the same girl we seek. A dangerous one. I would not like to come to blows with you.”
Gazi slowly rotated her neck, shrugging her shoulders to unlimber them.
“And I would not like your warriors to go to Liscor. You seem intent on being my problem. So let us make a peaceful offer. Turn around and go back to your tribe. Now.”
Her central eye’s pupil dilated slowly as the Gnolls stirred. Several growled, but Rometh just sniffed without apparent fear.
“You howl loudly, Gazi Pathseeker.”
“Do you think eighteen of your lot can refuse?”
Her ‘smile’ had countless needle points of danger. In reply, Rometh shook his head. His voice was level and his gaze direct as he spread his paws.
“I am no fool to fight legends, Gazi Pathseeker. If you should push your will at Liscor, who could refuse you? No one with sense, and I have sense.”
She smiled—for about one second. Then Rometh went on calmly, glancing at the other Gnolls.
“If you insist and we insist, we must give way. So I shall give way and admit I am the lesser of us by far. But do you know what is coming next year? The Meeting of Tribes.”
The Gnolls chuckled at that, and Buleth thought of that grand gathering far in the future. Then—he saw Rometh’s gaze meet Gazi’s.
“If you insist, Gazi Pathseeker, I shall tell Honored Krshia I am too weak to stop you. And my Chieftain, embarrassing as it is. Then I shall go and tell Shaman Theikha of Gaarh Marsh, Chieftain Xherw of Plain’s Eye, and the tribe of Az’muzarre how weak I am. Loudly. You stand a legend on foreign ground, Adventurer Pathseeker. We have our own.”
He smiled as Gazi’s own grin vanished and she sat there, eyes fixed on his face. Rometh turned to see where Yvlon and Ryoka had gone.
“You are alone and my people fill this continent. Walk quietly, Lady Pathseeker. Lest you wake something up.”
It was good advice, to her—and the young woman who was so insane. Perhaps Honored Krshia would be interested in this Ryoka Griffin too? Assuming, of course, that the [Merchant] could talk some sense into her.
“Who…are you? Just a [Merchant]?”
Ryoka’s first question caught Ysara off-guard. But then she didn’t look like a regular citizen of the North. A woman with a sword travelling the South? Ysara waved this off.
“That’s my class, yes. I have a bit of a reputation as a [Merchant]. The Silver Merchant, they call me, but I doubt you’ll hear my name that widely remembered in the North. I mostly work in the South.”
“Then—why are you so interested in me? Can’t you leave me alone?”
Ysara sucked in a breath. She didn’t make it easy, this Runner. But she just gave Ryoka another crooked smile.
“Can’t a traveller try to help another on the road? It’s the oldest give and take in the world. Now you’ve calmed down a bit—will you accept I just want to help, Miss Ryoka?”
The Runner said not a word. Her face was still red, and she was breathing hard. But it seemed to Ysara that was embarrassment now. As if…this were a familiar conversation to her. Ryoka just glowered though.
“I don’t want handouts. I don’t want to owe a favor.”
“Then you owe me nothing. Just hear me out. Friendly advice. I don’t want anything from you. Frankly, I don’t need a City Runner’s help. If I need to, I’d hire a Courier.”
That needled Ryoka. But Ysara put a hand out.
“I just don’t want to see someone die in front of me. And you…I won’t ask where you’re going. I know Runners take such things seriously. The good ones, at any rate. Yet surely someone told you the Bloodfields would be dangerous and to go around. It’s not bravado, surely, that makes you want to ignore all reasonable advice?”
Ryoka bit her lip. She had the intense urge to flip Ysara off and just run—but Gazi made her nervous. And the fact that Ysara was speaking so—pragmatically made it hard. It wasn’t like Magnolia. Ysara didn’t know Ryoka. So why did Ryoka want to tell her to get bent?
“I’ll live. I’ve survived worse.”
“Yes, but…let’s assume you do. You cut your feet up on the grass.”
Ysara gave Ryoka’s toes a pointed look. Ryoka had dabbed healing potion on them, and they were good as new. But even so. Ryoka bit her tongue as Ysara indicated the long Bloodfields.
“This area is miles upon miles long. You would shred your feet. Even if you can use potions, why suffer? Why risk the dangers in there? One awake Watchertree or a Colony Sac or…let’s assume you survive. Why try?”
“Why does someone climb a mountain? I like challenges.”
Ryoka shot back instantly. She pointed at the High Passes, so vast they stretched beyond the clouds looming over everything. Ysara peered at the mountains.
“I don’t know why someone would climb the High Passes. No one has ever survived who got anywhere close to the top. I do know adventurers, though, and I know risk. Believe me, as a [Merchant] I’ve been in danger travelling Izril. I am also a young enough woman to know why you’d want to dare it for excitement and bravado.”
Ryoka hesitated. She eyed Ysara, and the woman didn’t have lines, but…
“…How old are you?”
Ysara resisted the urge to slap Ryoka. She tried her best ‘I hate your guts, but I am going to sell you at a high markup’ smile.
“If nothing else, Miss Ryoka—what would your friends think, your family, if you were to go missing? I do not want to be the bearer of bad news to those who care about you.”
At that Ryoka Griffin—flinched. So visibly and so hard that even if Ysara had no eyes at all, she would have seen…
Oh. Oh, was it fate or chance that the two met? Because Ysara instantly saw something in Ryoka she didn’t want to necessarily see.
“No one’s waiting for me. Not my f—no family, and no friends. Okay? So leave me alone. I’ll go run in, level up—isn’t that how you’re supposed to do it?”
Ryoka turned, and Ysara spoke to her back.
“You know, my family loves honesty and integrity. Just like metal. It’s our motif. Silver and steel. Purity and strength. Valor and something else. For all that, most of my family can’t spot a liar even when it’s tattooed on their face. But you—even my brother would know you’re lying, Miss Ryoka. Everyone has someone who cares for them. Everyone has a friend.”
Hopefully. Or maybe you found them far from home. The young woman’s shoulders hunched. Then her head came around, and she spat venom fairly well, despite not being an Oldblood Drake or a serpent.
“You wouldn’t know anything about my problems! I’m tired of people coming into my life and offering advice or trying—trying to ‘help’. I’m not like the rest of you, do you understand? I just want to be left alone. You won’t enjoy my company, and I won’t repay generosity. Got it?”
The conversation in the rest of the merchant’s camp stopped, and Ysara suspected everyone had heard that, not just the Gnolls and Gazi. Ryoka looked mortified—but Ysara began to get the issue.
She, too, knew someone running away from home when she saw it. Mirrors did exist—but the Silver Merchant just exhaled. She was rarely this personal so quickly—but she knew her clients. And though Ryoka wasn’t in any regular sense of the word—Ysara looked north, over her shoulder, and spoke truth like silver. Painful words glittering in the air.
“In my experience, Miss Griffin, no matter how much we want to run forever—someday we do have to go back. And it is better not to leave regrets behind. They grow. Better to face them now. It is harder than monsters. But a more important battle. If only we could always know we’d win.”
She stared towards the horizon, past the High Passes as she said that. with a faraway grimace on her face. Ryoka stared at Ysara and shook her head.
“I’m a piece of shit. You—you really wouldn’t get it. I can’t fit in and be friendly. I don’t enjoy it. I can’t be a good person back to Ga—to the H—to people. So it’s better if they don’t try. I don’t belong. So…can’t you just leave me be? Just let me run and not bother me?”
It was a strange question. In Ysara’s experience, in her travels of the south, a lot of Drakes and Gnolls were only too happy to do business with her and never ask her name or ask how a Human came to be there and treat her like a prop. But someone…she wondered what her sister might say of Ryoka after all, as it was clear they had met.
Someone, or many people, had met Ryoka. And to the young woman’s complaints, Ysara didn’t have an answer to what sounded like a mess. She didn’t really like messes—or people of Ryoka’s personality—or the hold up and chaos this one young woman was causing to her journey, if admittedly only for half an hour or so.
But what Ysara did have to take objection with was the last bit. She turned to face Ryoka.
“Miss Griffin. Look at me for one second.”
Ryoka eyed Ysara, and the Silver Merchant brushed at her long, indigo hair. She showed Ryoka her bare shoulder where the glittering silver ship rose out of the golden vines and the earring on one ear.
“Miss Griffin. Would you believe I belong to a noble family in the north? A small one, but I’m technically a [Lady] by birth. And if you know anything of the north, I think you understand what my House is like. Miss Ryoka. I know something about not fitting in.”
More than Ryoka could know. But the City Runner looked at Ysara, looked at her and slowly nodded.
“So? Are you going to say that I should go back and try? That I—I should keep making the attempt? That I owe it to my friends not to let them down?”
Ysara paused a beat.
“I rather think that is your case, Miss Griffin. I was going to say that if they cannot accept you with all your oddities—if not your objectionable behavior—if they cannot accept the core of you, they do not deserve your company. But then—I also respect someone who would change the mountain to fit their passage.”
She smiled wide and wondered if Ryoka understood any of it. The City Runner looked at Ysara for a long time, and the Silver Merchant encouraged her.
“But if there are good sorts behind you—why not come back with us? My sister can be—well, I haven’t seen her for at least five years. But we could always use a companion on the road. It could be pleasant.”
Perhaps Ryoka didn’t know why she was being offered so much by the [Merchants], the Gnolls, and arguably, Gazi.
Perhaps she didn’t know how she looked. Runners always looked windblown, sometimes dusty, sometimes dirty, sometimes bloody or harried.
Few looked sad like this. Or as lost. Or as…desperate.
Ryoka Griffin stood there and wavered. And Ysara thought she saw part of Ryoka step forwards, take her hand, and turn back north. For a second, it looked like she was turning—then something, something in her, dragged her back. The City Runner stepped back and shook her head.
“I have to go. I…”
She trailed off, and her eyes flickered.
“I have to go.”
She stopped, and Ysara exhaled sadly. But then Ryoka added.
“Thanks. I’ll think about what you said. And I’ll stay away from the Bloodfields.”
“That’s all I can ask for. At least have a cup of tea or one of Buleth’s snacks, though. And—”
She was going to say, ‘and if you want me to take a message, I can’, but Ysara never got the chance. Because behind her, she heard a sudden howl.
The Gnolls? Ryoka and Ysara turned—and then an arrow shot through the canvas walls of one of the caravan wagons. Ysara dodged it, saw the red Roc’s feather—and then she heard the shouting.
“Stop fighting! Stop f—Lady Pathseeker, pl—”
Gazi Pathseeker stood in the middle of a firefight. What had begun it in the time they had taken to talk, Ysara didn’t know.
What she did see were the Silverfangs, all eighteen, racing for the horses. There were only ten that mounted, but the remaining eight charged after the riders—and all eighteen were showering arrows behind them.
Not at the terrified [Merchants]—but at Gazi. And she?
She was deflecting arrows with her claymore or letting them snap on her armor. Ysara, sword drawn, saw Gazi whirl her gigantic blade around with two hands and chop an arrow in half.
Chop in half an arrow shot at fifty paces by a longbow. Ysara had seen fast blades from Silver-bell duelists. This?
This was a legend. And she advanced, calmly, into the arrows as the Gnolls retreated. Why were they fighting?
“Buleth! Why are they fighting?”
Ysara grabbed the Drake; he had taken cover behind the wagon, and Ysara crouched down as Ryoka hunkered down; even she wasn’t unafraid of the arrows.
“I don’t know! They were both threatening the other, but then they fell silent, and I thought—then she got up and cut one of their heads off! Keep your heads down! Protect the goods!”
Buleth’s screams didn’t inspire anyone to shield the goods with their bodies, but everyone obeyed the first order.
Ryoka? Ryoka was frozen because she had seen the first body. A Gnoll lay on the ground—her head severed from the torso. Dead. Rometh was howling rage at Gazi as she deflected arrows, grinning as her bloody sword whirled through the air.
And Gazi was beginning to charge, still deflecting arrows away from her face—the Gnolls were fleeing fast, north, towards Liscor.
“W-what the fuck is going on?”
Ryoka called out. She dared to raise her head with Ysara while Buleth still hid—mostly because the Gnolls had good aim and they were just loosing at Gazi. The Named-rank adventurer was laughing as she ran, and Ysara saw the younger [Traders], [Merchants], Runners, shamefaced [Guards], all slowly emerging from cover. The fight was moving uphill at speed, and now there wasn’t even a remote chance of catching an arrow; the two groups had to be half a mile away already.
She glanced at the Bloodfields—and they were mercifully quiet. The nearby hills were silent, and the fighting was moving north towards the high ridgeline. The Gnolls had speed over Gazi, and they might make it.
But what was the battle about? Ryoka looked at Ysara, and the Silver Merchant turned to Buleth.
“Time to get going. We might need to skip Liscor.”
The pale [Merchant] could only nod.
“Are you sure you won’t come with us?”
It’s the oddest thing. I’ve barely known her for a hot minute—and yet I want to take Ysara up on her offer.
Maybe it’s because she’s not like Magnolia. Maybe it’s because I’m so guilty. Maybe it’s because she’s really not like Magnolia or anyone else I’ve met in the north, and she’s the gayest woman I’ve seen in this world so far*.
*Is that bad to think? The hair color, the tattoo, one earring? Maybe it’s different over here. I swear she was staring at me like Calruz does, though…
I like her. I like Calruz. I liked them. I was afraid of it.
She struck home. She struck a nerve. I…I think there’s something in me.
A little war. Part of me wants to go and keep running. To jump into the Bloodfields and never look back. The rest?
Go back and say sorry to Ceria. To the Horns. To the people you respect and bowed to and swore you would repay.
I want to. Oh, I do. But something is dragging me over.
The geas. Myself.
There’s something wrong with me.
More than magic.
I want to take her up, but I look Ysara in the eyes.
“I’ve got something to do. I’m sorry.”
She smiles and extends a hand ruefully. She’s got calluses as I take it. She’s actually a swordswoman.
“As am I. But if you catch us—at least let’s have a drink, agreed?”
“I’d like that.”
I think I whisper those words. I actually would. But then I’m shaking Buleth’s claws, trying not to stare at the Drake as he stares at my…hips? And the Gnolls and I want to go.
Find the Necromancer. Find the Necromancer. FindtheNecromancer. Findthenecromancerfindthenecromancerfindthenecromancer—
I want to go back.
I wish I could stay because I feel like something’s connecting in my head. But I can’t. So I go—and I keep looking back. Back, at Ysara, who’s watching me as the caravan begins to go around the final part of the Bloodfields. I’m jogging by that red terrain, staring at those alien forests.
How can I even describe what I’m seeing? Some of it is just—unnatural. Just like giant fungi—unsettling spores with huge veins that look alien, poisonous. But another plant looks like a giant…pillow? It must be four feet tall and just as wide across, and there are larger varieties deeper within!
Pale white…stalks. Long fronds of plants—all covered by a bit of frost. All dead. Or hibernating? Teriarch told me I could do this moderately safely. But I remember Ysara’s words and don’t go towards the Bloodfields. I’m just jogging with rocky slopes leading up to the cliffs beyond. Boring sandstone up there or some local rock.
Past the Bloodfields. Along the mountain range…a forest. How far is that, I wonder? How many weeks or months to find this guy?
Ceria and Gerial and Calruz are going into a dungeon. Ysara’s…nice. I want to go back. Why can’t I…? I want to run into the Bloodfields. I’m crazy. I’ve always been crazy, haven’t I?
“The Lich. The High Passes. I didn’t care if I died.”
The words sound—wrong. Because they’re true. I want to go back, but two things carry me on. Myself. My damned self.
And the magic.
I think I’m fighting. I want to go back. I twist around, and if Ysara’s looking at me, I’ll—
I turn and spin and spin—and a lance of agony strikes my shoulder, and when I stop, I stare blankly at something wrong. Wronger than my head. A black…steel bolt, not like the Gnoll’s arrows. Compact and short and iron. It’s in my shoulder, and my skin’s deformed around it. And I hear someone screaming my name, and I stare at it.
A crossbow bolt?
Ysara saw the ambush as Ryoka Griffin slowed and turned. If the Runner had been looking straight, it would have gone straight through her side. As it was—it went through one of her shoulder blades. At first, she had no idea what was going on.
Then—she saw three figures wearing black cloth over their heads and faces and remembered something.
The three Humans. Hadn’t she seen…more Humans taking cover when the Gnolls were fighting Gazi? Hiding behind some rocks. She hadn’t—
They were on the ridge. One had a crossbow, and he’d fired it straight down at Ryoka. It would have gone straight through Ryoka’s chest—instead, it hit her shoulder, spun her around, and nearly dropped her onto her back with the force of it.
“Shoot again! Shoot again!”
Two voices echoed as, again, the [Merchants] took cover, crying out in alarm. A high-pitched, female voice, belonging to a thin young woman with pigtails screaming at a panicking young man holding a crossbow.
Ryoka Griffin stumbled, stared at the blood welling from the bolt in her shoulder, and opened her mouth to scream in pain. Then her eyes bulged. She looked up—and Ryoka spoke a name.
Persua, Claudeil, and Toriska emerged from behind cover. Faces covered—and the girl screamed.
“Kill her! Toriska, kill her!”
“Don’t hit me, Claudeil!”
The second Runner came sprinting down the hill, holding her daggers. Ryoka was still staring at her shoulder in shock.
“[Bandits]! Run for it!”
Buleth was screaming, but Ysara seized the same horse she’d kept handy—just in case she saw Ryoka going for the Bloodfields.
“No! Get to Ryoka! Someone’s trying to kill her!”
She leapt into the saddle, sword drawn—but the Runners were at least a thousand paces away, and Ryoka was stupefied. The one with the crossbow was trying to reload it, and the other was screaming at her companion.
“Kill her! Kill her before she shouts our names to—”
Then Persua looked up and saw Ysara riding down on them. The [Merchant] had a sword drawn like some [Cavalry Rider], and Toriska froze as she saw a real swordswoman coming at her.
But Ryoka was right there, and she was barehanded. Toriska charged with a scream.
Ryoka finally broke out of her stupor. She saw Toriska coming—pivoted—and kicked. Barefoot or not—Toriska was wearing light leather armor suited for running. The ball of Ryoka’s foot still slammed into her chest, and she went stumbling backwards, her warcry in her lungs. She staggered—then slashed.
Ryoka Griffin felt a line of pain cut down her leg and gasped. She hadn’t ever fought someone with a knife. She knew how to kick them, but the cut—
The cut laid open her calf, slashed through a muscle, and Ryoka screamed in pain as she staggered. Toriska’s daggers were sharp!
“Drop your weapons or die!”
Ysara was shouting. Toriska caught herself—and she might be bruised, but she saw Ryoka staring at the huge gash in her leg. And she had a crossbow bolt in her useless arm.
“Shoot the horse! The horse!”
Claudeil’s crossbow twanged again, and Ysara shouted and a horse screamed as it went down, a crossbow bolt jutting out above its left foreleg. The woman went down, tumbling from the saddle as [Guards] rode after her, shouting and trying to aim bows. The Runners were terrified.
“Persua, we have to go—”
Claudeil shouted, wanting to run into the foothills and hide, but Persua slashed at him. She had a knife too, and he flinched.
“Don’t say my name! If she lives, she’ll tell them. They’ll hang us—we’ll be wanted, you fool! Shoot her! Toriska, get her and we can go!”
The Runners looked at Persua and then at Ryoka. Ryoka saw Toriska advance, slashing with her daggers. And she…
She had levels. Ryoka did not.
Toriska’s blades blurred, forming a wall of uncoordinated but fast slashes. Ryoka backed up, but her leg was cut and—Toriska was still a Runner.
She got Ryoka, and the City Runner stared at her arm and a cut that went down to her bone. She screamed—and then she was turning, running, her good hand fumbling for a healing potion. She ran the only way she could: towards the Bloodfields. Toriska hesitated—then sprinted after her, and the two women were running.
“Persua, this is crazy!”
Claudeil had thought his best friend, Persua, was crazy when she told him that Ryoka had to die. But she had convinced him—Ryoka had cost them their City Runner careers. All they had to do was follow her, nail her with his crossbow, and no one would know. They’d even get the gold Magnolia had given her.
Until he’d been there, with her in his sights, he hadn’t realized how…how it would be him pulling the trigger. A [Guardsman] might ask him on a truth stone if he’d killed someone, and he’d have to say ‘yes’ or be found out.
He’d hesitated. Persua had grabbed the crossbow. She hadn’t hesitated. But then it had gone wrong.
The [Merchant] with the blade had taken cover behind her screaming horse. She’d tried to advance, but he had fired two crossbow bolts, and she didn’t look like she wanted to dodge them. But—
An arrow rattled off the boulders high, high overhead, and Persua screamed and he flinched. The [Guards] were shooting arrows. Very inaccurately, but Claudeil was terrified.
“They have [Guards]! I told you we should have waited!”
He screamed at Persua, but they had barely caught up with Ryoka drinking stamina potions after four days. Persua was white and red at the same time, somehow. She screamed back.
“We’ll lose them! Just shoot Ryoka already!”
Claudeil poked his head up as he put another bolt into his crossbow and feverishly drew back the drawstring. He stared down at Ryoka, flinching as another arrow landed well clear of them. One [Pinpoint Shot] and he was dead…
He saw, to his disbelief, two figures running into the Bloodfields. Ryoka and…
“Toriska’s doing her [Fast Sprint]! She’s barely able to keep up!”
Ryoka was fast! She was running for her life after all, and everyone knew she was the fastest Runner—but even without seeming to use a Skill, she was ahead of Toriska. But the other Runner had knifed her at least once—Ryoka was bleeding from the lower back.
Yet the blood was healing, and even as he watched, Claudeil swore he saw the crossbow bolt he’d hit her with falling out. Healing potions!
“We have to kill her. She’s going into the Bloodfields. Toriska can’t catch Ryoka. See? She’s already falling behind now that her Skill’s done. But three of us can get her.”
Persua swung herself up onto the boulder. To Claudeil’s astonishment, Persua, Persua who hated going through monster-infested areas, who never started fights but always seemed to get him and Toriska involved—pointed into a death-zone.
“Are you mad?”
He looked at her, aghast, but she just stared at him. Her eyes were wide, and she was breathing hard through her nose, her nostrils dilating. Her face was white, but her eyes—she looked at Ryoka.
“She’s going to get away unless we go. And if she says we tried to kill her, Magnolia Reinhart will murder us in our beds. Come on.”
She dragged Claudiel up. More arrows landed around them, but the [Guards] must not have had [Archer] classes. He whimpered.
“That [Merchant]’ll kill us!”
“Not in the Bloodfields. See? No one’s going after Toriska. They’re afraid. But the Bloodfields aren’t moving. Come on.”
Persua grabbed Claudeil with more force than he thought she had in her thin frame. He debated refusing another time, but Persua lifted the dagger and looked him in the eyes. He saw the perfect calm in hers.
“If you run, I’ll make sure you die if it’s the last thing I do. Ryoka’s taken everything from me. This is all her fault. Fals, my City Runner rank…we’re going in there.”
Claudeil hesitated one more second—but then he leapt out from the boulders, skated down the rocks, and ran. Ysara came after them, but the Runners were City Runners—they charged into the Bloodfields, and the [Merchant] hesitated and backed away from one of the dormant Watchertrees. She stared at Ryoka, then whirled and shouted for a horse, for bows—
And Claudeil was running after Ryoka, aiming at her with a crossbow as she disappeared through a silent thicket of the strange trees. This time, he didn’t hesitate. First Ryoka died. Then…he never wanted to see Persua again. He’d go somewhere else. He had gone after Ryoka because more than the law, more than murder or the Bloodfields—
Persua scared him the most.
This was it. Ryoka knew it as she ran through the Bloodfields.
She was bleeding. Her wounds healed as she drank a potion, and the taste was foul—like acrid bitterness—the same taste you got if you ever accidentally found a bug in your mouth. Yet it was life, and every other sensation was far worse.
Glass under feet. A thousand tiny blades slicing her feet’s soles to shreds. The Bloodfields’ grass was—sharp.
She would have left a trail of bloody footprints behind her if it weren’t for the red already around her. Red—and the silent plants and gigantic pods that seemed to rustle as she passed. But the Bloodfields were silent.
Yet she felt she was in as much danger as in the High Passes—if not more. Like a trap waiting to be sprung. Even without Ysara’s warnings—
Ryoka felt like she was running into the depths of hell itself. Into a foreign land filled with nightmares and the wrong kind of aliens.
Even the creatures looked—wrong. She saw one of them staring at her. Then bounding away as a crossbow bolt missed her and thudded into the ground.
Was that a rabbit? It had…a face like a leech. ‘Teeth’, a flat face—combined with the regular rabbit’s fur.
Everything here wanted her blood. And she was bleeding.
“Ryoka! Come back and die!”
A scream, high and wild. Persua was coming. Ryoka would have gone back to fight her—but it wasn’t just her.
Claudeil’s crossbow twanged again, and it missed her again. He wasn’t the best shot, but he’d hit her twice. Once, in the shoulder. The second time—in the lower back, just above her hips. She couldn’t stop to pull the bolt out. Every time she moved, she felt it twisting and cutting her open from the inside.
But if she stopped, Toriska or Persua would get her. The Runner with her daggers had gained confidence after seeing Ryoka bleed.
She was trying to cut Ryoka down. Cripple her by cutting her hamstrings. Knife her enough times in the back or get to her throat where no healing potions would save Ryoka.
Monsters. They scared Ryoka more than the Eater Goats. More than the Goblins. They were people. They were supposed to be Runners—
They’d crushed her leg once. This time—they’d kill her.
Persua hung back as the two Runners spread out. Ryoka was slower than she needed to be. The pain from her laceterated feet and her injuries, even with the potion, made her slow—and they had Skills.
Claudeil ran in a sudden burst of speed, circling Ryoka as she ran towards another ‘forest’. She dodged behind one of the pillow-pods, eight feet tall and massive, and Toriska circled around the other way. Ryoka saw the young man raise his crossbow and covered her face with her arms.
The crossbow missed her by a foot. Claudeil cursed; his Skill had given him a tremendous backwind to help him run faster. It had also thrown off the aim of the bolt.
It thudded into the red, meaty pillow-thing next to Ryoka, and the entire plant shivered. Ryoka twisted around—and Toriska was coming the other way. Ryoka fumbled at her belt.
The belt knife Ryoka carried nearly stabbed Toriska in the face. She recoiled with a shriek.
She rolled away with amazing speed, dodging the first stab, and Ryoka charged her. Toriska screamed for help as Ryoka slashed as inexpertly as Toriska. But she saw an opening. Toriska was trying to block Ryoka with her daggers, forgetting that was nearly impossible.
There. Knife her straight through one of her orange eyes. Put the tip of the blade through the pupil and push—
The urge was in Ryoka. Every time she saw Toriska, Claudeil, Persua, people she didn’t like—
She had always wanted to do something to them like this. Something unforgivable. All the things the dark voice whispered and shouted at her to do.
Didn’t she deserve…?
Ryoka hesitated, and Toriska rolled away again. She scrambled back, and Ryoka missed her chance. She couldn’t do it.
Stab her through the face? She didn’t…
She didn’t want that after all.
The irony of realizing this, now? Ryoka nearly screamed, but she didn’t…she looked over her shoulder and ducked as something cut the air and hit the pillow-plant again, making it ripple and shredding the plantain fabric.
She didn’t want to become that.
Persua had a wand. She aimed it, and another dart of…stone blasted through the air. It had less punch than Claudeil’s crossbow, but it grazed Ryoka like a punch across one cheek and tore the skin. Ryoka dodged as Persua screamed.
“Toriska, flank her! Claudeil—”
He was dropping bolts. Persua made up for her lackeys’ failings by unloading spell after spell with the wand. She only stopped when she saw Ryoka had taken cover—and that her wand was dead. She tossed it aside and reached for another.
Madness. If there were anyone that Ryoka would kill in this or any other world, it would be Persua. The other Runner had a terrible look in her eyes.
Not madness, whatever that looked like. That was probably on Ryoka’s face, a snarl of desperation, too-wide eyes, and a hysterical urge to laugh. Persua…
Persua just looked angry. Frustrated. And a quiet little demon in her looked delighted. This is it. We’re settling this.
No one to interfere. Claudeil turned and ran, shouting in fear, as a few arrows landed around him, but the distant archers, including Ysara, weren’t in the Bloodfields. They were screaming at Ryoka to run. To get to them—but Persua, Claudeil, and Toriska were blocking her flight to safety. The only other way was deeper into the Bloodfields.
Ryoka Griffin lifted the dagger in her hand as she stared at Persua—then she cried out, swiped left—Toriska jumped away. Then a brand of frozen pain hit her in the temple, and Ryoka’s head snapped back.
Ice shard. Persua’s second wand fired miniature versions of Ceria’s spell, [Ice Spike]. And her aim was better than—
A crossbow bolt hit the pillow plant. Ryoka stumbled upright, resting her weight against the shivering plant. And then—as she wondered what to do—she looked at the red, heaving mass.
And she realized what the Bloodfields were.
Ryoka stared into the gaps left by the two crossbow bolts and Persua’s attacks. They had cut the thick lining of the plant opening, exposing the innards. The walls weren’t actually that thick. Ryoka would have guessed the ‘skin’ of the plant was a foot deep, but the reality was half that at most. Because the plant was actually a—
Ryoka Griffin stared into a dark chamber that—rustled—along with the shivering of the pillow-plant. It was hollow, mostly, with internal chambers filled with…
Insects. They lined the walls. The eggs filled the interior of the nursery. They were hibernating, hiding from the cold in this plant. The fighting, Ryoka’s proximity, and the cold was waking them up. She could see them rustling around in agitation—but the cold was keeping them—
Silent. Asleep. Ryoka’s head twisted. And she saw one of the spore-plants slowly rising. As if it were raising its head. Waking up.
One of the shivering pale trees was twitching. The Bloodfields—
Ysara’s voice in the distance. Ryoka looked up and saw the [Merchant] striding into the Bloodfields, warily, sword drawn as the [Guards] aimed bows, forcing Claudeil and Persua to retreat. She was beckoning.
Ryoka began to run her way. Then—so suddenly it shocked even Toriska, circling her—and something forced her to turn around, start running deeper into the Bloodfields.
FIND. THE. NECROMANCER.
She was screaming. Ryoka ran deeper, crying now, and her foes followed. Then she began laughing. She was cursed. This time there was magic—but she had been doing this from the start. The High Passes hadn’t killed her. Running deliveries against monsters hadn’t.
She wanted this. Ryoka dropped her dagger rather than put it in her belt-sheath. She didn’t want to kill—she didn’t have the guts to do it. Persua, though? Toriska? Claudeil?
“Let’s all die. Good riddance. You want me, Persua? Come and get me!”
Ryoka screamed, and Persua’s head snapped up. She fired three more shards of ice—then motioned. Claudeil and Toriska hesitated, but they were in too far.
Deeper. Ryoka ran towards the largest grove she could find and drew something else from her belt pouch. A thought crossed her mind. Truth without prevarication.
I feel so alive. Did I want this? This? To matter? To risk my life and not let anyone down?
I feel so lonely. I wish someone were here. Garia. Anyone.
She looked back, and it hit her as she saw Ysara, now running, far slower than the Runners. Persua’s twisted smile as she saw Ryoka’s weary, desperate faltering run.
I wanted a friend. But I was afraid.
I don’t know how to be a friend. I wish—
Then the fourth crossbow bolt hit her in the leg, and she went crashing into the sharp blades of grass. When Ryoka sat up, she saw Claudeil reloading his crossbow. Persua aimed the wand at Ryoka’s face. But she said nothing. She just fired the wand—twice.
The first went wide. The second hit Ryoka and might have cracked her skull. Ryoka’s head snapped back—and she fell back on the ground. Only to sit up again—but the skin across her forehead was torn. Blood ran down her face as Toriska stopped.
Ryoka had managed to tear the second crossbow bolt free of her back, but blood was slowly oozing down her back legs. It trickled down her face and made a mask that added to the desperate, despairing look as she stared back at her pursuers. Even Toriska hesitated and looked sideways.
Persua never looked at Toriska. If her friend had been lying with her throat cut—Persua would have had eyes only for Ryoka. She was smiling, just like she did in the Runner’s Guild.
The wand wouldn’t kill Ryoka. The runner was getting up even as Persua snapped more frozen shards into her skin, leaving icy shards embedded in flesh. She hit Ryoka in the stomach, arm, her bad leg—and then handed the wand to Toriska.
“Give me that crossbow, Claudeil. She can’t run any more.”
“She’s got a wand, Persua—”
Claudeil flinched as he saw Ryoka had a strange wand in her hand. Persua had a cheap one, made of spruce or something, with cheap gem and magicore fillings.
Ryoka’s…Persua looked up in sudden paranoia, and she snatched the crossbow as the three of them looked around—then found one of the pillow-plants. Toriska dove behind it—Claudeil found one of the pale mushrooms, foul-brown in color and with a huge cap to shield most of him. Persua poked her head out from behind the pillow, and Ryoka was standing, now.
The leg with the crossbow bolt stuck in it bore none of her weight. She was trying to pull it out, but her hand was slippery with blood. And the other was holding that wand.
It was…red. Red crystal? It looked hot. Steam was rising in the chilly air as Persua eyed it. Even her wand was more expensive than anything the other Runners carried.
“Dibs on that wand. Something wrong with your leg, Ryoka?”
Persua called out, and Ryoka’s head snapped up. Neither girl fired though—Persua was trying to get Ryoka’s head as it bent and then twisted to track her. And she was afraid of Ryoka’s counterattack.
“If it’s a wand of [Fireball]…”
Claudeil was panting with terror as he came to the most logical conclusion. Persua looked around.
“Toriska, run left. Distract her.”
Toriska instantly refused. Persua swung the crossbow around, and for a second, she and Toriska locked gazes as the other Runner went white—but then Ryoka shouted back.
“You want me, Persua? Let’s end this once and for all!”
Her voice was ragged and wild. But she was laughing. Laughing and coughing with each word, as if her lungs had blood in them. Ryoka lifted the wand, and all the Runners ducked. Ryoka stared at them and then around this terrible, red land.
“Then let’s die here. Come on, Persua!”
The wand’s tip ignited into fire so bright and hot it was white. Persua ducked back with a scream, and the crossbow bolt fired wide as Ryoka aimed the wand. A searing jet of flames blasted overhead.
“She missed! Run! She’s got a Gold-rank wand!”
Claudeil shouted, but then he realized Ryoka was shooting again. Flames shot from the tip of her wand. Not a cheap, Tier 1 or Tier 2 spell like Persua’s—but a jet of flames white-hot, so fiery that even dozens of feet overhead it baked him.
And she could keep firing the spell. The flamethrower froze the Runners, and Claudeil waited to see Persua go up in flames as the girl cowered and shrieked.
But—Ryoka didn’t roast them. She could have—but she swung the wand around. Left, right, overhead—behind her? But then Claudeil wasn’t paying attention.
“[Scatter Dash]! [Emergency Smokescreen]!”
“[Deflect Attention: Claudeil]!”
The other Runners were screaming, using Skills to evade the flames. But Ryoka had the worst aim in the world—she was aiming far too high. As the three City Runners fled their cover, they saw more jets of flame landing. The fire…didn’t burn out immediately. It rained down from overhead, and Ryoka was shooting it everywhere. Trying to cut off their escape?
Five minutes. Five minutes of Ryoka blasting flame across the Bloodfields. She whirled a firestorm into the air—and it missed the Runners completely. Not that they were anywhere close to her. But she lobbed huge arcs of white flame into the sky and watched them spread out and bake the land.
Even her wand had a limit, though. The crystal went dead, and Ryoka let it drop. Then she grabbed the bolt in her leg and began to draw it out.
She flinched as Persua nearly nailed her other leg with a crossbow bolt. The Runner was laughing.
“You idiot! You missed!”
She had been dodging just a second ago. But now…Ryoka Griffin looked up. She had a healing potion in her hands, but no more weapons. She looked up at Persua as the girl slowly reloaded her crossbow. Claudeil and Toriska stood behind Persua, panting. They wanted nothing more but for this to be over. The air smelled of smoke, now, and was hot from the flames.
Ryoka was smiling. She looked relieved. Like someone who had been dangling on the edge of a cliff and at last…let go.
“Goodbye, Persua. I don’t think either of us are getting out of this.”
Persua just sneered as she brushed at the cloth covering her features.
“Those [Merchants] can’t do anything. Even if they claim we were here—they have no proof. Not even Lady Reinhart can get us. I have powerful friends.”
“Really? Then good luck.”
Ryoka’s smile was bloody. Persua’s brows crossed—then she heard a moan. It came from Claudeil, and he touched her shoulder.
She swung around, looking for the [Merchants]. Her first thought was that the one with the silver blade had caught up. But no—the woman with indigo hair was standing at the edges of the Bloodfields. If anything, she’d begun retreating towards the rest of her group. And the [Merchants] were…fleeing back?
Then Persua felt the heat on the breeze. She looked around, and the flames that Ryoka had shot everywhere were still burning. But mostly—it was just warm. Hot.
Ryoka’s aim had not been at the other Runners. It had instead been at—the interspersed growth on the Bloodfields. The plants and silent, slumbering Bloodfields. Sleeping in the cold.
Only now…Persua saw the plants moving. Rising. Growing…and her eyes went wide in sudden realization and horror. Toriska moaned.
“The Bloodfields. She woke them up.”
The plants were flexing, stretching, thinking that the winter had ended. It was not a slow awakening—Persua saw the first white spire slowly rising from the ground.
It had been maybe fifteen feet before. Now…the Watchertree rose and rose, a pale trunk spearing upwards. High, higher…it was thirty feet tall now, fifty. Seventy…
Eighty feet tall, the Watchertree was still rising—and more spires emerged out of the ground. Pale, white teeth out of dripping red lands. The Bloodfields began to buzz.
Ysara saw the Bloodfields moving. And everyone in the [Merchant]’s caravan was screaming. They had been the moment Ryoka fired the flames from her wand.
Buleth was screaming at her, his voice hoarse. The caravan was pivoting. They were headed—south. South and west, away from the Bloodfields. Why? Ysara didn’t understand until she saw where Ryoka and the other Runners were fighting. The area just ahead of them was waking up.
She was running now, but she slowed to see what was happening. She had time—the cumbersome wagons weren’t fast. Ryoka Griffin was standing there as the other three Humans wavered. And it was well they didn’t immediately move. Now they were in mortal danger.
Watchertrees. They were active, and now—unless you had an army—
She had never seen the Bloodfields awake, but Ysara knew the stories. She saw the first Sporemines venting their toxic gasses into the air, leaving shimmering clouds of death. They wanted you to run. And you had to run.
The first swarms of insects were emerging from their homes. They buzzed into the air, in a swarm—and they came for the [Merchants], the largest group, first.
“Abandon the wagons!”
“What? Our goods—”
“Abandon the wagons and get them later! Or we’ll all be dead! Get on a horse and ride!”
Ysara screamed at Buleth. They’d never make it up that steep incline towards Liscor—their only hope was to go south and hope the entire Bloodfields didn’t come to life.
The Drake realized she was right. One of the [Traders] slashed the leads off a horse, but the terrified animal was already bolting. The rest tried to get on a horse or just ran—but the insects were on top of them in moments.
And they were—huge.
One was the size of Ysara’s head and mothy—but it had teeth. It tried to land on Buleth’s face and tear off his scales. She stabbed it through the abdomen as he screamed. She might have stabbed him—but she saved his face. He tore it off, and the cuts on his scales ran with blood. But he had no chance to thank her—
It was one of thousands, and more were coming. Ysara ran, slashing left and right, as the [Guards] screamed. And more were coming.
“Gore Shambler! Gore—”
Ysara looked up as the first great beast of the Bloodfields unburied itself from the earth. Her lips moved as it disgorged soil, shambling forwards and ignoring the first arrow that buried itself in its hide.
“Silver and steel.”
She looked around for Ryoka—but she couldn’t see anyone. The Runners were trapped in the midst of the Bloodfields. They were dead.
Persua was cowering next to one of the bug-dens, shrieking and crying as she covered her head. Claudeil was smashing smaller bugs—but he couldn’t believe he was alive. His only explanation was that Ryoka had baked this plant with her first flame spells and the bugs were flying everywhere.
Confused in the cold—but more things were waking up. He looked around and spoke.
Toriska looked up and nodded. There wasn’t any more debate. Persua’s thirst for murder—even Ryoka seemed to have forgotten the death.
She was standing there, just looking around at all this horror. She seemed—peaceful. Horrified—but peaceful.
“I want to go home. I want…to go home. I don’t want this.”
What was she saying? She was mad. Claudeil heard her speaking, as if arguing with herself. But he didn’t care.
“Let’s go. North!”
That was his take. South through the rest of the Bloodfields? The [Merchants] might not make it north, but they were Runners. He stood up and shakily took a few steps forwards. Then he turned back.
“Toriska, get Persua up—”
He had the vague sense to grab his friend—and he turned around and took a step back. That saved his life.
The earth erupted, and a pale tendril as sharp as a needle and tall as he was shot up. It scored straight through his back, laying it open and ignoring the leather armor and clothing he wore. The impact hurled Claudeil to the ground, and he lay there on his front, stunned. Then he screamed, turned—and saw it.
The pale spires. The nearest one was about sixty feet away, towering over them all. The tendril slowly withdrew into the ground, sinking back with unnatural speed into the earth. What—what had hit—
“Its roots! It’s alive! It—”
Toriska screamed at Claudeil, and then as he jerked up, she shouted.
“Don’t move! Don’t—”
In the chaos around him, he saw something bound past him: a braying—deer? It might have been a deer, but it had too many eyes, red and bulbous, like a spider’s, and it had teeth pointed like a carnivore’s for ripping and tearing, and gnarled red horns.
It was chasing something he saw scuttling across the ground with a glowing body. Was that a Cr—
Both creatures vanished as the Watchertree struck again. The first tendril got the bug-thing. It lanced the moving creature, and the stag realized it was in mortal danger. It tried to leap away, making a braying howl—
Until the tendril withdrew into the ground. The stag was about a hundred and twenty feet away when a lance came up from the ground again. It hit the animal in the belly and kept going straight up. And this time…
A crimson pillar let blood soak the ground. Absorbing the blood. Claudeil saw the tendril leave the dead body as the blood was sucked away—and insects in the air landed and began devouring the corpse. More plants began to sense the blood, and some actually uprooted themselves to get closer to the blood and corpse.
Insects. Watchertrees. Death.
This was the Bloodfields. And it was waking up more and more. Claudeil looked around, and now he was frozen, lying on his front. Too afraid to even get up. Persua looked around.
“We’re dead. She’s killed us. That maniac.”
She whispered. Toriska was just…crying.
“Someone—where’s Lady Pathseeker. Someone—help!”
She looked about, but no one was coming. And Ryoka…Claudeil turned to her. She hadn’t moved. She’d seen the Watchertrees move. And he saw it on her face. Terror and—then she looked at him, and he flinched.
Ryoka Griffin stood there, inhaling, exhaling, and she finally pulled the crossbow bolt out of her leg. She drank her last healing potion and almost reached for a little vial on her belt. Or where it should be? Ryoka didn’t find it and after a second—let her hand drop.
She looked over at the frozen Runners. Then she smiled ruefully and, he thought, truthfully. Ryoka raised her voice.
“We’re quits, Persua. If you make it out, that is. I never had the guts to kill you. I’m…sorry it went down this way. I’m going back. I have to try again.”
She twitched. Claudeil saw Ryoka’s body turn north—then twist south. As if something were pulling her. She nearly took a step, and the Watchertree shivered. Ryoka balled up her fists.
“No. No! I will not—I will not make the same mistake again. I’m going back—and nothing will stop me.”
She was glowing. The City Runner stared at her with wide eyes. Was that golden writing in the air? Swirling magic—dragging her south? She pulled at it, and then Claudeil saw something burn up and down Ryoka’s arms. Like the [Merchant] with the silver sword—tattoos of magical writing? Only, this was gold and orange, fiery lines of magic that seared into his eyes.
They were—pulling her, like strings, south. The young woman fought them. She planted her feet—and he heard her cry out.
She turned back—and he saw the magic yanking her so hard he thought it might tear the skin off her bones. But this was her or it. And she pulled and pulled—and he saw the writing glow until the magic had a choice.
Her or it. And the spellcaster was not that—cruel—
Ryoka Griffin tore loose from something, and the geas spell exploded in the air like a burning sun. The magical words burst off her skin, flaking and disintegrating into the air with such force that even the monsters and creatures of the Bloodfields recoiled. The Watchertrees shrank and hid a moment. Then, Ryoka Griffin was free.
She stumbled—and then took a step. Her feet bled, and her first step looked as if it might pitch her into the ground. But then she took another and another, and her stride lengthened. In a second, she had taken six steps, and her stride was lengthening.
She ran. Ryoka Griffin ran faster than he had ever seen another Runner move. The earth erupted behind her. Once, twice—she dodged left suddenly, and the pale root of the Watchertree missed her by a foot. She was laughing.
She looked alive. She looked like…a Courier. Ryoka Griffin passed by the other Runners. She ran past the awakening plants, dodging the Watchertrees by sheer speed. She—
Left them behind. Heading towards the fleeing [Merchants]. Away. Leaving Claudeil, Persua, and Toriska to their fate.
“We’re going to die. This is your fault, Persua. Yours.”
Claudeil had dared to push himself up and into a crouch as Ryoka ran past him. But now she was gone—he realized he should have tried to run with her. They needed…
“Crossbow. Where’s my crossbow?”
“You can’t kill that thing. It’s a tree!”
“No, but maybe—throw it, Toriska!”
His friend looked at him—then realized what he meant. If they could distract the Watchertree…
The silent spire shivered when they hurled the crossbow far from them onto the grass. It twitched—but nothing emerged from the ground. Toriska had been ready to bolt—but when nothing happened, she nearly sobbed again.
“What? But it sensed that!”
“It’s not alive. It must know the difference. Why isn’t it getting us?”
They weren’t adventurers. Maybe…Claudeil didn’t know. Maybe it thought they were the other plants and couldn’t tell the difference?
Move and die. No—run. They had to run like Ryoka had. He turned to Persua, Toriska, and wondered if they could do it.
“We can outrun it. All together. We break north. Got it?”
There were more Watchertrees, but if they got out of range of this one, they might find a path around their attack ranges. They had to do it—now.
The insects were growing less confused. Most were heading back to their homes—but the rest? The rest were sensing that there were at least a few more things to eat here. A terrible buzzing was filling the air, but it was Persua who refused.
She shook her head repeatedly.
“We can’t! I’m not that fast—we’ll die.”
“We have to, Persua! There’s no other chance! We’ll all go together, on three. Okay?”
Claudeil shouted at her. He had forgotten her threats—forgotten why they had gone after Ryoka, even. He just wanted to live. He saw her head rise, and she looked more terrified than he had ever seen her.
Then a kind of silent resolve filled her eyes. Persua looked at him, at Toriska, and her mouth opened. She closed it after a second and nodded. Then she gave him a wide, big smile.
“I trust you. Let’s do it. On three.”
He slowly moved his knees around in his crouch, trying not to disturb the ground. The Watchertree was shivering as Persua looked north, and Toriska pointed.
“That way. That’s the most direct path away. Dodge the bugs…”
They were descending. He saw fanged maws, huge wings, moths and…Claudeil spoke.
“Three. Two. One—!”
The three friends were all tensed to run. He was ready. Like Ryoka—he saw the Runner reaching the edge of the Bloodfields. Do or die. Level up. Be a—
In that gap between ‘one’ and ‘zero’, as they were ready to go, Persua moved. She reached out, and with a steady hand—pushed Toriska, who was tensed to break into a sprint.
Pushed her hard enough that the other Runner stumbled forwards. Toriska twisted around, eyes wide, then realized her mistake. Her scream started high.
A crimson spire emerged from the earth in a flash. It ran through Toriska’s stomach, emerged from her back, and Claudeil saw his friend twist and scream, but there was no more air. He stared at her—but then Persua was running.
She took off, around Toriska. Toriska that she had pushed—
Toriska was dead. Claudeil ran after Persua, and if he had a breath to scream at her—he thundered across the ground as the Watchertree sensed the motion and tried to get the other two. Persua dodged left suddenly, and just in time. She screamed as the ground erupted—Claudeil jumped as the Watchertree’s root withdrew and felt another blow to his back.
It tossed him onto the ground, and he lay there, screaming and crying—but then he realized he wasn’t being impaled. He was—he looked back, and the Watchertree was shaking, but he was out of its range.
“I’m alive! I…Toriska?”
She was lying crumpled on the ground. Bugs covered his friend. Claudeil looked back and then got to his feet.
She hadn’t stopped. But he began to catch up as he ran north. Around the Watchertrees—he was faster than she was. They were both breaking their personal records, though. Claudeil stared at Persua’s back as the bugs came for them. Larger creatures were shambling around, confused by the cooling Bloodfields—but the bugs were fastest.
One tried to take a chunk of his face off. It tore the top of an ear, and he ripped it off with his flesh, screaming. But they were going to make it! Persua threw a centipede with wings off her that was trying to burrow into her flesh. They were going to—
Claudeil saw the bug flying past him, and then Persua’s hand rose. She shot her ice-shard spell into the bugs trying to land on them, then looked at him. Their eyes met as they neared the edge of the Bloodfields, a thousand paces to safety. And he realized she was looking at him with that same big smile. And he realized—
He’d seen her murder Toriska. She—
He tried to dodge. But she shot a shard of ice into his kneecap, and he went down, screaming.
He would have gotten back up, but she calmly slowed down, aimed her wand, and shot him in the leg eight times. Then she tossed the spent wand aside and kept running.
“This is her fault. Not mine. Sorry, Claudeil—”
She left him as, screaming, the City Runner tried to drag himself forwards. But the bugs were coming. And Persua?
She never looked back.
Ryoka Griffin emerged out of the Bloodfields and into the midst of the fleeing [Merchants]. Ysara couldn’t believe her eyes.
“You made it?”
Ryoka seemed just as surprised by Ysara. She panted.
“I just—I ran.”
“You woke up the Bloodfields! Those other Runners—murderers, Gazi the Omniscient, Gnolls—this is a disaster!”
Buleth was babbling, almost sobbing as he looked back at his abandoned wagons and goods. But Ysara just exhaled—hard. Her chests were behind, some lying on the ground—one was on a horse that had run with them.
“We’ll recover it when it freezes, Buleth. Hire a Courier or an adventuring team. Or before—the Bloodfields are cooling down. But there’ll be no more traffic until winter.”
Not for them, at any rate. And Ysara doubted anyone else would want to risk it.
That they had escaped was purely due to their distance from the Bloodfields and the fact that it was off-season. The insects and larger monsters had retreated fast in the cold, more than they had from the magic and blades.
Four [Guards] were down, either wounded or dead. A [Trader], Twodeals, had a huge chunk taken out of one leg, and Ysara had seen one Gnoll merchant who’d been hit by a stray arrow. It was the most merciful battle she had ever seen.
She herself had a gash across her collarbone, and something had taken a bite out of her hand. She only noticed the web between thumb and finger was missing when she checked the blood on her sword.
Ryoka Griffin stared at the ruined caravan. She looked guilty—but even Buleth took one look at the Human’s shredded feet, the bloodstains from the crossbow bolts, and her ragged clothes and shook his head.
“Nothing to be done. Damn Runners. At least they didn’t make it. I didn’t see more than one running, and hopefully she’s poisoned.”
“Persua…? Then Claudeil and Toriska didn’t…”
Ryoka twisted around and gazed back. She didn’t look happy to realize that two of the Runners were dead. Ysara pointed her blade as she sipped from a potion and handed another to Ryoka.
“I saw one taken by a Watchertree. The other fell—the bugs are all over him. Poor bastard. He might survive if he’s got a potion. If he’s lucky—he won’t have a potion.”
She pointed to a shape two thousand feet behind them in the red grass. She could see little things moving on him even from afar—and he was definitely alive. For now. If she hadn’t pointed Claudeil out, Ryoka would never have picked him out.
The Bloodfields were cooling down, and the Watchertrees were beginning to shrink back down again. But the bugs…Ysara looked around.
“Anyone have a longbow? We could try putting him out of his misery.”
“Let him die slow.”
Buleth muttered. The [Traders] were flowing south, around the Bloodfields, already arguing over who to hire to collect their things. They’d need horses to either tow the broken wagons or buy new ones—recalculate their route for a southern trip.
Ysara doubted she’d see her sister or go north this winter. She had mixed feelings about it. But frankly, even if it was cold, she didn’t want to come back here. Not this year.
“You might want to come with us, Miss Griffin. Looks like you’re going on a delivery after all. Why don’t you join us?”
She looked at Ryoka, and the City Runner said not a word. She was just staring at the figure in the distance. He was trying to drag himself forwards. Claudeil even got up and swung around as if drunk. Ysara thought she could hear a scream, choked. She wanted to put her fingers in her ears.
“I have to go back. I have to say—I’m sorry.”
“Maybe wait until the winter?”
Buleth’s voice was sarcastic, but Ryoka Griffin just looked at the stumbling figure as he fell down again. And her voice…
“Oh hell. I’m…”
She lowered the healing potion from her mouth, and Ysara saw Ryoka Griffin slowly take a step back towards the Bloodfields. This time, the Silver Merchant caught Ryoka’s arm.
“I know you must be crazy—but you barely made it out alive. He can’t run. Those Watchertrees will get you if you slow down. There’s at least one in between you and him. He shot you. He tried to kill you. I’m all for forgiveness, but is it worth dying?”
The other [Merchants] slowed down. Buleth turned in his saddle, and he looked entirely blank—until he saw where Ryoka was looking. Then his gaze turned incredulous.
“Let him suffer. You want to try and…? That’s a terrible way for you to die.”
Claudeil was still screaming. Ysara knew it was true, but her eyes searched Ryoka’s face. Searched for something like her brother. Crazy nobility, the idea that he had to do the ‘right thing’. As if she were looking for the lie in the facade Ryoka was putting on.
But she didn’t see it. She just saw a confused young woman. Hands balled up. Breathing hard, and sweating cold in the fall air. She looked scared…but her feet were pulling her north.
And this time, she gazed back at Ysara.
“Let me try.”
“Tell me why. And it has to be a better reason than ‘you’re not afraid of dying’. Or I swear on my levels I’ll stab you in the leg to save you from yourself.”
The Silver Merchant tightened her grip on Ryoka’s shoulder. The City Runner looked Ysara right in the eyes, perhaps for the first time since they’d met. And her green eyes flickered with guilt and regret.
“I…I could let him die. He’d let me die. But I want to be better. To my friends. To—everyone. I don’t know how. I’m only good at running. I want to do something good.”
The [Merchants] looked at each other, and one of them laughed at her. Ysara? She looked in those earnest eyes. Then she traced the route Ryoka would have to take.
A Watchertree closest to the edges of the Bloodfields was still standing sentinel. Even if Ryoka ran around the rest—Ysara stared at the pale tower of death. She felt the bloodsoaked hilt of her sword in one hand and exhaled slowly. Then she let go of Ryoka.
“Run. I’ll cover you.”
Ryoka Griffin blinked. Buleth twisted around to look at Ysara.
But the woman was striding towards the Watchertree. Ryoka Griffin looked at Ysara, and the Silver Merchant turned her head.
“I said run!”
Ryoka Griffin turned. She began running, and Ysara followed her into the Bloodfields. She saw Ryoka speed up, so fast that she thought the young woman was flying across the ground.
She crossed under the aegis of the Watchertree—and the earth exploded under her. But she kept running, and the Watchertree missed her. She was headed straight for the Runner. Ysara?
She halted at the edge of the Watchertree’s perimeter, and saw Ryoka pass by the tree. But she’d have to come back. So Ysara studied the tree. She’d seen how fast it moved.
Ysara was not her brother. She was no [Knight]. Her years training as a [Warrior] were long behind her. But…she lifted the blade overhead, and silver flashed from her grip as she called out.
“This sword is the heirloom of my house. It is my past. Silver and steel be my guide. In the name of the Silver Dragon!”
Then she walked forwards onto the crimson grass. The Watchertree shivered, and Buleth shouted with the rest of the [Merchants] and [Guards].
The Silver Merchant stepped left, whirling in a single move as if she were on the practice courts of the keep back home. She unsheathed her sword and twirled with it in two hands. It slashed down as the first root-spike shot from the ground.
Her sword bit deep into the Watchertree’s roots, and red ichor, thick sap, ran from the wound. Quick as a flash, it withdrew into the earth, and Ysara saw the Watchertree shaking ominously. But she was already leaping back as a second root rose.
The sword of an ancient family cut the air, and she was dancing, stepping, refusing to stand in one place.
Her blade was ringing with the force of trying to hew through something elastic, rubbery, hardened flesh or wood. Blood ran down her arms. Or was it sap?
Something struck her in the sword-shoulder. It lanced straight through her flesh, and Ysara staggered. But then she took her sword in two hands again and hacked through the root. When she looked up—
She saw Ryoka Griffin running back towards her. The Silver Merchant saw a tide of insects following her. But the young woman had Claudeil over one shoulder, and she was running—running—
She passed into the reach of the Watchertree, and she was slower than the first time, weighed down, tired. But Ysara was there, and Ryoka dodged the next root as the bleeding Watchertree struck. She pivoted—and swung with all her strength.
Her blade shattered as it lodged halfway through the root, and the Watchertree jerked, and she felt a tremor run through the ground as its agony made the earth shake. Ysara felt her blade crack and shatter, and she saw the silver blade vanish, still embedded in the root. She gazed at the hilt of her broken sword. Then—Ryoka was running past her, a wide-eyed young man clinging to her, covered in blood. And Ysara?
She laughed. She raised the sword hilt high as she stepped back—then she threw the hilt down. The broken tip of the sword stuck in the grass. Ysara turned and walked back the way she’d come.
When I stop breathing hard, when my lungs stop screaming—I can’t believe I’m alive. But the Silver Merchant, Ysara, is the person I stare at.
She—killed a Watchertree? Or beat it. I saw her dodging the roots and cutting like some kind of heroine from stories. Even Yvlon couldn’t do that, I think. Could Gerial? Calruz?
I’ve cost her and the merchants their caravan. They’re still heading south, although they’ve stopped to pour healing potions on Claudeil. He’s alive. He’s staring at me, and I…
“Forget it. I never liked it, anyways. It’s just a sword. I used it for something worthy. I think even my father would be proud.”
There’s a hole in her shoulder, and she looks like she’s badly hurt. But Ysara gives me a smile and—she’s so badass.
I want to thank her. I have to—but Ysara just looks north.
“If you’re going to make it, that Watchertree will probably be dangerous in an hour or less. I’ve just wounded it. If you come south, I’d love the company. I’ll wager we’ll get free drinks enough to recoup my losses, at least.”
She winks at me, and I waver. But Ysara is looking north, and I stare back the way I’ve come.
Liscor. Liscor, right? I’m shaking. I’m—sad that Toriska is dead. I look at Claudeil. He’s panting, staring at me like an idiot.
“She tried to get me killed. Persua. You…why’d you come back for me?”
“I don’t know.”
He looks at me as confused as I am. But Ysara just exhales. She rubs at her shoulder as one of the [Guards] presses a rag dipped in potion onto it.
He flinches because none of the [Merchants] look happy to see him. But Ysara just points down at him.
“You won’t be going north. That girl—Persua? Did she get away?”
“I think so. I…”
Is she going to kill him? Buleth, the Drake, looks ready to, but Ysara’s lip just twists.
“Swear on a truth stone you’ll never join her. Swear—and we’ll settle your debts like [Merchants]. We’ll take care of him.”
She nods at me. I hope that doesn’t mean he’ll be tortured—but it sounds like they have an idea. Buleth nods sharply.
“We’re not Roshal. We’ll just work you like Lizardfolk. Maybe we’ll make him grab our Chests of Holding.”
“Later. Let’s get out of here. Miss Ryoka?”
She knows. I’m shaking again, and I’m trying not to cry.
“I should stay and thank you—”
Ysara’s eyes are pale silver and faintly, faintly, brown. She smiles at me.
“Do you have more people you need to apologize to? Your friends?”
Her and the Horns and…the Silver Merchant points a bloody finger along the Bloodfields. The wounded Watchertree is half-buried in the ground. It’s dangerous—but the magic on me is broken.
“Then go and apologize to them. Then—when we meet, you can thank me in person. I will see you again, someday. Next year or later. [Merchants], like Runners, go everywhere.”
She is so. Cool. Then Ysara offers me a hand, and I take it. I turn—and despite my wounds, despite all of it, I feel—what’s the word?
Shriven? Lighter? At peace? Nothing is perfect.
But I want to try. So I begin to run. I run and run—back the way I’ve come. There’s nothing for me this way. Only death and some kind of meaningless thrill before I die.
My friends are back there. I want to meet them. I want…
So Ryoka Griffin runs. She runs, crying like a baby and tripping over her steps. But she’s free. To Liscor. Running through the evening into night, back the way she’s come. She doesn’t care about Persua. Even if the other Runner is alive—it doesn’t matter.
She just wants to go home. Even if she doesn’t know where it is yet.
[Skill – Indomitable Will learned!]
[Skill Refused. Skill Canceled. Level Up Cancelled.]
She doesn’t need it. She just wants to be free. And—she wants her friends.
The Bloodfields by Enuryn