I had at least eight blisters by the time I ran through the gates of Celum, nearly two days later. I blame myself, really. Running in ill-fitting boots is about the stupidest thing you can do to your feet—aside from running barefoot in the snow, that is.
Yep. That’s me. Ryoka Griffin, not-so-barefoot Runner. You’d think it wouldn’t matter, given the winter, but it does.
“Hoi, running girl! Too cold for your feet, eh?”
One of the human guards on the rampart shouts down at me as I run onto the cobblestones and into the city. Briefly, I debate flipping him off or shouting something back. Instead, I run on.
Bad temper? Who, me? I don’t have a bad temper. It’s not like I’ve just run and slept in the cold for the last few days, all the while being pestered by evil incarnate.
Speaking of which, I hear the guards at the gates laughing, and then cursing and shouting as my traveling companions arrive.
“Hark! A human city! Full of nasty iron and wood fires! Let’s freeze the place, sisters!”
…And there goes the peace. The Frost Faeries I’ve brought with me rush through the air above my head, bringing Winter with them.
Winter, in a literal sense. Apparently, around here the seasons don’t just change with the weather. In this case, it’s literally a phenomenon that follows these fairies as they fly around. Where they go, the temperature drops, it starts snowing, and the damn things can seemingly conjure avalanches out of the air whenever they please.
I want nothing to do with them, which is unfortunate seeing as how they keep following me. But now they’re busy tormenting the human guardsmen, freezing metal to skin, pelting them with snow and so on, I’m in the clear for the moment.
I can even take my boots off and let my feet breathe. It’s cold around here, but the faeries haven’t turned this place icy yet. They don’t move around methodically, so I found entire sections of land that were still green and flourishing on my run back. Too bad the Frost Faeries froze everything they saw.
To the Runner’s Guild then, almost less pleasant than the place I’m headed to after that. But it’s got to be done.
I push open the door, wincing as my blisters hit the wood floorboards. I need to pop them soon, but it’s not going to stop the pain. A healing potion? Would it even be worth the cost?
The instant I’m through the doorway, someone shouts my name. Someone male. Fals. I see him striding towards me across the room, followed by none other than Garia.
Well, well, coincidence is a strange thing. But then, both Runners live and work in this area. I guess I should have expected to see them.
Fals strides towards me, dirty blonde haired, handsome, athletic. Garia’s type, which is why the shorter and stockier girl is right behind him. He’s smiling at me. I think my lips twitch in reply, but I manage a small smile for Garia.
But for once, Fals seems genuinely glad to see me, and not about to offer me sage advice. And to my surprise, even some of the other Runners are smiling. That’s…odd.
Fals and Garia stop in front of me, smiling. Fals has straight teeth, nearly white despite the lack of special toothpastes and dentists in this world.
“Ryoka, where have you been? We haven’t seen you in nearly a week!”
His cheerfulness bothers me. So I nod at him.
Boom. His smile fades a fraction.
“I’m well. How are you…Ryoka?”
“Fine, thanks. How’s it going?”
Now comes the pause of uncertainty.
“You do remember my name, don’t you?”
“Of course I do. Fall, right?”
Hah! That flummoxed him. But Garia frowns at me. And I realize—perhaps it’s not best to enter jerk-mode the instant I come back. Oops.
“She’s just having fun, right Ryoka?”
Garia elbows me in the stomach. Oof. I forgot she was that strong.
“I’m sure Ryoka remembers me.”
Fals pats Garia on the shoulder, and she blushes. I sigh.
“Of course. Fals. I’m surprised you lot are happy to see me, though.”
“Why? That business with Magnolia was ages ago, and besides, you are our fastest Runner. One of the best, too! We could use you here, now more than ever.”
Okay, if he wants to be buddy-buddy, I won’t stop him. I give Fals one of those half-smiles with more teeth than smile.
“Really? Business is good?”
He made a face.
“Business—our business—is slow, thanks to winter coming so quickly. Right now all the roads are frozen over so carts and wagons are going slow rather than break their horse’s legs. Until they get sharp shod, no one’s getting anything delivered fast.”
Sharp shod? What the hell is that? Must be some way to travel on ice.
“Sounds like it’s good for Runners.”
“You’d think so, but us City Runners are having a hard time in the snow as well. We’re overloaded with requests and no one wants to be outside for too long.”
Garia nods and shivers. Her attire—and Fals’ is different. They’ve got wool and warm clothes on, which I envy. Me? I need to buy warmer gear asap.
“Sounds like I arrived just in time.”
“It’s good to have you back, Ryoka.”
I smile at Garia. And then I lose that smile when I realize she doesn’t know about the Horns of Hammerad. Fals notices that, and changes the subject. He’s…considerate. Huh.
“Well now that you’re back, how many requests would you like to take on?”
“How many do you have?”
Garia elbows me again. Ow! That was a joke. But maybe she thought I was being sarcastic. I eye Garia’s elbow and decide to stop joking around.
“I’m looking for the highest paying jobs. Fast deliveries, adventurers in the field—”
“Well, there’s never that many requests for us Runners. Adventurers don’t like us—”
They don’t like most Runners, and for good reason. Don’t say it out loud though, Ryoka.
“—But there are some long-distance contracts I think no one will fight you over. You’re best-suited for them, anyways. Plus, there’s always good coin to be made now that a Courier is heading this way.”
That is big news. I’ve heard of the special Runners who go long-distance. One of them was supposed to take the High Passes request. Fals nods at me and lowers his voice.
“Word is, there’s a special request that’s highest-priority. It’s coming all the way from First Landing and a Courier’s delivering it.”
He smiles at me and shrugs imperceptibly at the receptionist’s desk. Of course. Fals would know, since he gets along well with the staff. I suppose he’s sharing the information with me and Garia because…?
Well, a Courier, huh? But what was the place he mentioned?
“I’m not familiar with the place. Where’s First Landing?”
Now Fals and Garia both frown at me. Damn. I’ve made a mistake. He raises an eyebrow.
“The largest city on this side of the continent? The port city?”
“Right. First Landing. Of course.”
I should have read a book on local cities, but no one’s writing almanacs or travelers guides for this continent, or at least none that I’ve found. Play it off. I shrug casually as if I’ve forgotten.
“I wonder how much they’re getting paid.”
“More than we make in a month, I’ll bet.”
Fals makes a face and Garia looks dispirited. But that’s how it goes, right? The Gold-rank adventurers get rich and famous and everyone else below them gets screwed over in the adventuring world, according to Ceria. It’s like that everywhere, both here and in my world. Erin’s and my world.
“If you’re looking for requests, I can show you a few high-priority ones.”
“Not really tempted at the moment. I need to rest. I’ve been running all day and I’ve got blisters.”
I show them both my poor feet. Garia looks appalled and Fals just looks interested. He’s seen worse feet, I’m sure.
“Painful. How’d you get those?”
“You wear boots?”
Garia giggled at me. It sounds odd, coming from her. Girlish. Which makes sense. She is a girl, I just…didn’t expect it from her. I scowl at her.
“It was either that or frostbite. I wasn’t sure if healing potions could heal frostbite.”
“They can’t. Not well, anyways. But if you need better shoes…”
“I’ll go buy some afterwards. For now, I need some stuff from the guild.”
Fals spread his hands.
“I’m cooling down from a long delivery from Remendia. Need any help?”
He and I step to one side to let a snow-pelted Runner stagger in. She starts telling the other Runners about the Snow Sprites in the area as Garia follows us towards the receptionist’s desk.
“The first thing I need is a copy of the Guild’s rules. Do you have a book or something?”
“I think we do, but if you need to know something you can always ask the desk or me. Is something wrong?”
“I just need a copy of the rules. I’m not in trouble.”
But my tenuous plan hinges on something I remember one of the receptionists telling me when I first registered with the Guild. Fals shrugs and talks to the receptionist.
This one’s a young woman, perky, smiling at Fals and fake-smiling at me.
“Well, we do have a book, but it’s expensive. I’d have to charge you fifteen silver for it—”
She blinks as I slap down a gold piece on the counter.
“I’ll take it. Do you have enough to give me change?”
I actually have enough silver coins to pay for it, but I might as well exchange a few of the gold coins Teriarch gave me. Plus, she’s annoying.
As she fumbles for the coins Garia elbows me again. This time I glare at her, and she glares back. What? I’m being nice. Nice for me, that is.
“How are you doing, Garia?”
“I’m fine. The snow was sure something, wasn’t it? I saw the Frost Faeries on one of my runs. I nearly got covered in snow before I got to the city.”
“Mm. The faeries.”
Curse them. Those little monsters probably enjoyed harassing Garia. They’re like little bullies, only apparently practically invisible to everyone but Erin and me. I nod at Fals as he breaks away from the counter and tosses me a thin book.
“If you bring it back, we’ll reimburse you. But I hope it’s useful to you.”
I hope so too. But on to my next point of business. I move away from the counter with both Runners.
“Do you know where I can buy any artifacts?”
Artefacts? I’ve always thought the British way of spelling things was cooler. Fals shrugs and point back to the counter, where the receptionist is busy dealing with the half-frozen Runner.
“Artifacts? If you need magic, we do have some magical items on sale.”
“I’ve seen them.”
Crap they are, too. Runners around here don’t worry about monsters that much, so what the guild and shops mainly provide are healing potions, and one-time spells in the form of scrolls, bags*, and wands.
*Yes, bags. Don’t ask me why. I guess some things just store better in bag form. They’re some kind of tangling spell. You toss it at people and vines come out. A classic?
“I’m looking for more utility. Or something that can recharge itself so I don’t keep using up my supply.”
Fals frowns and strokes at his clean-shaven chin.
“But there is a market?”
“Not here—but with enough gold, you can get someone to deliver it. Pay a Runner.”
He grins and I have to as well. This social thing isn’t exactly easy, but at least it’s not as much of a chore as I thought it would be.
“Okay, let’s assume a proper artifact that renews itself is worth two hundred gold?”
I look at Fals. He shakes his head.
“Okay, four hundred. Six hundred? Eight hundred?”
“Probably around eight hundred gold for something cheap. But I can’t just give you a set number, Ryoka. The spell and object makes it an entire range of prices.”
Holy economics, Batman*. What’s up with that price range?
*Yeah, I thought that. I watched the old Batman show when I was a kid. Sue me.
Then again, given how much adventurers can make – I think Ceria told me once that an average contract can pay several gold coins per contract even without the bounty on monsters – it makes sense.
Healing potions? A gold coin or two. It goes up with potency. Spell books? Several hundred gold coins to thousands for the really strong stuff. Enchanted weapons fall in between, while ordinary armor is cheap by comparison.
One-time spells aren’t cheap, but you can buy some if you’re a seasoned adventurer with coin to throw around. Ceria’s robes cost her nearly a hundred and twenty gold coins – something she had to save up for years to buy. But they didn’t break or tear even after she nearly died in the Ruins. They’re about the only thing she did keep, but she told me her wand was half as expensive as that. It was just a focusing agent with some magic she had to constantly renew.
But self-sustaining magic? Let’s say…a ring of fireballs or something? One cast per day? That’s probably the kind of artifact they were hoping to find in Skinner’s lair. It would cost…one thousand two hundred gold pieces?
“How about a ring that shoots fireballs? Once a day?”
“I’d bet that would cost at least three thousand gold pieces. Probably four, and that’s if you don’t have to deal with some merchant from overseas.”
Garia’s jaw drops. She looks at Fals and me and shakes her head.
“Really? I had no idea they cost that much. I looked at a tripvine bag for protection, you know, but even that was out of my price range.”
She turns red and falls silent, as if she thinks Fals and I will judge her. It’s true, he and I could probably afford one or two, but I’m not that kind of person. And he’s not either, at least, I don’t think so. But Persua is, so I suppose in the past…
I’m glad she isn’t here. I still owe her a shattered leg bone, and she still has it out for me if I’m any judge. But magic.
“That’s an expensive ring.”
“Well, it’s more like adventuring gear. It would be nice for a Runner, but we don’t need that kind of weaponry, at least, not unless we’re doing Courier jobs. Why, are you hoping to become one?”
“It’s something to think about.”
Garia stares at me, as if I’ve announced I want to become a Gold-rank adventurer. Which is pretty much what a Courier is, right?
“So you’re saying anything worth having is at least a few thousand gold coins, right?”
“I’d have to imagine so. There’s a lot of limited-use magic for less, but if you want something you can rely on, you’d have to be rich.”
Okay, let’s see. That would make any kind of real magical artifact pretty much the equivalent of a supercar or…or a fighter jet from my world. The only difference here is that some people carry around the equivalent value of a nuke in their pockets. With probably the same effect.
Gazi wore armor that didn’t even take a scratch when she got hit. Her sword cut through everything but Relc’s skin easily. I wonder how much her equipment was worth? Or that teleportation scroll?
Fals draws me out of my musing. He’s looking at me seriously, and so is Garia.
“You really want to become a Courier? I don’t know what went on down in Liscor, but I’ve heard rumors. Undead attacks?”
“I missed that. But a Courier’s the dream, right? If it pays better, I’ll become one.”
Fals stops and glances at Garia for some reason. She looks uncertain as well. Which means they want to say something and they’re not sure how I’ll take it. I stare at Fals.
“Ryoka. If you never level up, you’ll never become a Courier.”
Fals says it straight to my face, meeting my eyes directly. He gestures at Garia.
“Garia told me, and the rumors are spreading. You’re one of our best Runners, Ryoka. But this is a dangerous job even for Street Runners. City Runners risk their lives, and a lot of us retire each year. But Couriers are different. You’re the fastest Runner in the local Guilds, but you’re nowhere near fast enough to become one of them, Ryoka. In a year or two, even Garia will be able to outrun you.”
I blink at Fals. I can’t have heard him right. Garia, outrun me? She’s got terrible form. She’s slow, even if she is strong, and her body’s not build for the kind of running I can do. She’s…
She’s got the [Runner] class. She’s Level 11, or at least she was when she first met me. And I guess if she keeps leveling she’ll get faster?
That makes sense, but I can’t imagine Garia ever beating me in a footrace. But Fals is serious, so I try to respond without biting his head off.
“It’s time for me to think bigger. Bigger and better.”
“I appreciate that, but you’ve never seen a Courier, have you? They can cover distances in hours where it would take you and I days.”
“Huh. Well…I don’t have a class.”
It’s liberating to say, although it makes Garia stare at me as if I have half a head. But Fals just frowns at me.
“Do you have…any reason for that?”
“Personal preference. And I’m not about to change.”
He shakes his head at me, uncomprehending.
“Well, I’ll be the first to admit that you can beat me in a race even without levels. All of my skills are geared towards sensing danger and preserving stamina, anyways. I don’t have any movement skills, but I was lucky. Mine have kept me alive so far.”
He gestures at the requests board across the room.
“Look, Ryoka. If you wanted to become a Courier, you’d either need to run like the wind…or complete enough requests to guard yourself even against bandit attacks and assassins and so on. Taking on dangerous requests like that job with the Horns of Hammerad and the one to the High Passes is a good start.”
“Good. But is there any way for me to make a name for myself?”
Money. Earn money. Eighty gold pieces for Erin’s refrigerated cupboards? She and I will need a lot more, and if my two stupid ideas don’t work, I need a fallback plan. Running is honest work.
“Most of the City Runners do a short run from city-to-city around here. From Celers to Remendia, Ocre, Celum, and even down to Esthelm, but almost never to Liscor.”
“But the best Runners travel across the continent.”
I nearly said ‘real’ Runners, but bit my tongue just in time. I’ve never run that far, and Garia is a Runner too, in her own way.
“It’s about trade and the nobility. And the ruins, too, I suppose. All of the really powerful nobles and the Five Families live closer to the north. And a lot of the really important adventuring areas are north too, so there’s more business there. And the trade happens at our port cities, so…”
“Which one’s the biggest?”
“First Landing. If you want to see our biggest city, you have to go all the way north until you reach the ocean.”
Garia jumps in. I suppose she wants to impress Fals. Or help me.
“There’s a famous dungeon up there, too. One of the magic ones that keeps spewing monsters and treasure.”
Magic dungeons? Like the Ruins? Or…magic? What difference does magic make? I guess I’ll find out.
“Okay, so let’s assume I take a request to go up there. How much would that pay? Are any available?”
Fals shakes his head at me. What have I said this time?
“Ryoka, if there were any requests from here, they’d be Courier-only. Besides, most people set their requests so one Runner takes it to a city along the way, and the next Runner takes it further and so on. You’re not going to find much work that way—”
Fals breaks off and frowns. I turn my head, and Garia blink and points at one of the windows in the Guild.
“Hey, what’s that?”
Heads turn as something bumps against a window pane. I take one look and cover my eyes. Fals squints and looks at Garia.
“I can’t make it out. Is that—?”
Half the Runners in the room groan or mutter. One of the Runners who was about to leave takes his hand off the door handle as the small, naked faerie* taps against the glass and leers into the room.
*Don’t get excited. There’s nothing to really look at, since the faeries don’t have any real features down there. Or maybe they’re just wearing skin-tight clothing? Either way, anyone who’d be interested in faeries is sick…or Gargamel. Mind you, I’d be rooting for him against the Frost Faeries.
“Oh no. Why is one of them interested in this place?”
“I’m not leaving if those things are hovering about. My request can wait.”
Garia stares at the window and exclaims as a second faerie joins the first.
“Look, there are more of them! It’s a swarm!”
Fals looks sick. He sighs and shakes his head.
“Worse luck. I don’t know if you have many of the sprites where you come from, Ryoka, but my advice is to stay clear of them if you don’t want another broken bone.”
Okay. Is it painful admission time or do I feign ignorance?
“I’ve…seen them before. They might be following me.”
Fals and Garia give me a look as if I’m crazy. But then Garia nods.
“That could be. Um, it might be because you…look different, Ryoka. The sprites like anything unusual.”
I guess Fals is only an expert on things that pertain to running. Garia nods though, and tries not to stammer as Fals and I stare at her.
“Um—well, as a child I liked them even if they did play awful pranks. Back at my farm—well, we had a dog that had a wonderfully black coat…but the fur around his head was white. He was interesting to look at, and every year the sprites would play tricks on him until they got bored. We had to lock him up in the house to keep him safe.”
She looks at me and blushes.
“Not that I think you’re like a dog, Ryoka. I just—”
“I get it.”
Great. The Frost Faeries are interested in the one girl with Asian heritage, and probably also because I can see or hear them. Wonderful.
I look back at the window. The faeries are still there, rubbing their butts on the windowpanes and freezing the glass solid. They’ve been a pain in my ass the entire run here, and I bet they’re planning on dumping snow on me the instant I walk outside.
They don’t listen to me, or even acknowledge my presence anymore, except as a target. Funny. I lost a lot of hair to those little freaks until I started shouting at them, but all they wanted was the attention. Not that I tried that hard to talk to them; I was hoping they’d leave.
No such luck. They’ve been following me for the last day. Apparently I’m amusing to them.
“Did they bother you while you were running, Ryoka?”
“You could say that. Once they got bored of dropping snow on my head and started attacking travelers on the road.”
The fairies – or perhaps faeries depending on how you wanted to think of them – were chaos and mischief unleashed. They didn’t seem too antagonistic, but they caused trouble wherever they went.
Cart wheels broke, horses spooked and threw off their riders, and snowballs flew down like heat-seeking missiles on the hapless people going up and down the road. It was pretty amazing to see, in its own way. Less fun when the damn bugs tried to tag me, though.
Fals shook his head and made a face. For once I’m right there with him. Is there any way I could get rid of them?
My knowledge of old fables and legends is rusty, but I can remember quite a lot. Trick memory. And I do remember stories about faeries. Not the cute ones from Peter Pan – although Tinkerbell was always a bit of a demon – but the really horrible ones about faeries spiriting children away and killing peasants.
What was it? Cold iron – horseshoes nailed over the doorways. And flowers. I remember stories about people hanging garlands around the necks of infants to keep them from being stolen.
Well, I don’t have any damn horseshoes, but it might be worth buying some. I also don’t need to worry about kids, but I’d better stay away from suspicious mounds* from now on.
*Those would be fairy mounds – mysterious hills of grass that supposedly lead to the land of the fae. I’m not sure about whether or not that legend’s true, but if faeries exist, I’d better not leave anything to chance.
Still. Faeries. They might be just as…well, frankly, just as horrible and annoying as the myths make them out to be, but there’s something about them. They’re faeries.
It’s not like looking at one of those Drakes or Gnolls. Those…people just scare the hell out of me if I’m honest. I don’t know how Erin can talk to them so easily. Even that Krshia looked like a bear with a longbow, and she wasn’t even the biggest Gnoll I saw.
And the Antinium are horrifying. I hate bugs. Always have, and these ones carry swords.
God. When I think of how lucky I was to arrive in a human city, it makes me wonder how Erin survived at all. If I saw a Drake first, I’d run for my life and never look back.
But faeries. Faeries are different. They’re magic. They’re – from our world.
If you can believe faeries are real, you could believe dragons exist too. You could believe…that you could be a wizard. That you could be a hero or learn to fly.
And they’re beautiful. Wondrous, enchanting…if they weren’t such a pain in my ass, literally, I might actually like them.
How else could I get rid of the faeries, or at least deter them? Magic? I know only one spell, and that’s [Light]. It takes a lot out of me just to cast that, as well.
I need to learn more magic. Probably from Ceria or Pisces, but I need to finish my business here first. So.
Garia’s still watching the Frost Faeries warily. She can’t see them like I can, or hear them laughing and plotting to attack a cow, but she still sees something. I cough, and she looks at me.
“Do you need help getting rid of them, Ryoka? I know some old tricks. A horseshoe or something made of iron helps deter them, although they’ll throw things at you from far away if you do.”
“They’ll get bored. But there is one thing I would like to know. Where is Lady Magnolia at right now? Still in her house in Celum?”
Fals eyes me oddly.
“I’m not going to take any requests away from you. I just need to see her.”
“No, it’s not that.”
Fals shakes his head. He looks rueful.
“Don’t you know? Lady Magnolia always travels north for the winter. She was only here for a few months in her holdings. But she’s gone back home.”
“She’s in a large city far north of here. Invrisil, the city of adventurers.”
“Okay, so I’ll go there.”
Again, the look Fals gives me tells me I’ve made another mistake.
“That’s three hundred miles north of here. Even if you started now, I doubt you’d make it before the rest of the land is coated in ice.”
What? Wat? What?
“Three hundred miles?”
You’ve got to be joking. But no, no, the looks I’m getting from Garia tell me that Fals is not joking. Three hundred…I saw a map in one of the books I read, but I didn’t see the scale on it. Three hundred miles? Is this place really that big? And more importantly—
“How’d she get there in a week’s time? By horse?”
How far can you travel by horse in a day? No—since it’s her, how far can you travel by coach in a day?
“She travelled in a carriage. One of the fancy magical ones that the wealthy use. It can travel that distance in a day or two.”
“A magic coach?”
“One of the powerful ones. It doesn’t need horses; it creates them out of magic. Extremely quick, but I hear they have to replace mana stones or recharge the magic quite often. It’s not something that’ll ever replace us Runners.”
That’s not my real concern, although it is fascinating. Garia turns to Fals as he and she begin to talk about the competitive nature of running.
“Why don’t people on horses take our jobs? They’re faster, unless we get good skills. A horse can beat a low-level Runner any day of the week.”
Fals smiles at Garia and shakes his head.
“Until a Goblin spooks you out of the saddle, or your horse attracts a monster looking for a meal. Some Runners use them, but unless you’re a good rider and you want to spend half the time running next to the horse and waiting for it to rest, you might as well not bother.”
“Oh. Of course. I should have known.”
“Why should you? It’s a good question, right Ryoka?”
Fals grins at me, and I nod absently. Three hundred miles. I could make that journey. I’d have to buy supplies, or plan a route that allows me to stop in cities, but I could do it. It’s just—
Damn. I won’t be able to keep my promise to Erin. I said I’d be back in a week and there’s no way I’d make it there and back in that time.
Magnolia has more than one estate? Well of course she does. She’s rich. That only leaves my second option, and that one’s a hundred times more dangerous. I need to think things over.
“Sorry if that ruined your plans, Ryoka. We’re not too happy about it either, mind you. That’s a lot of good coin we’ll not see for another year.”
I look at Fals. He’s not such a bad guy. I still don’t quite like him, but at least I can hold a conversation. Because I’m changed? Because I met Erin, perhaps. Because I need to be at least at peace with most of the Runners to help Ceria and Erin.
“I guess I’ll hold off on that for the moment. I need to sleep. One last question for you, Fals. First Landing—that’s the north-most city, right? How far away is that?”
He shrugs and delivers the final bombshell of the day.
“First Landing is over three thousand miles north of here. Three thousand…three thousand and eight hundred miles? Closer to four thousand than not.”
My mind goes blank. Four thousand miles? Double that for the length of the continent. No—Celum isn’t even halfway down and the southern section is bigger than the north. How big is…
“I’ve always wanted to visit that city someday. Perhaps when I have a few years to spare and coin saved up I’ll make the trip.”
Garia says something then, but I don’t hear it. For a second, the scope of this world blows me away. The length. The distance involved. It’s…well it’s unimaginable. Because I know something about geography. I know how long South America is, for instance. And to imagine this—
I started laughing. Fals and Garia break off and stare at me. I laugh, and laugh out loud, ignoring the looks from the other Runners. When I finish, there’s only silence. Even the faeries are staring.
“She laughs like an evil thing, doesn’t she?”
“’Tis the sound of a coven of witches and Hekate herself!”
I don’t have an evil laugh. But I pat Fals on the shoulder anyways, to reassure him.
“Thanks. I needed that.”
I leave Fals behind, bemused. My business in the Guild is done and I’m too tired to run any further. I need to plan out my next step. Read that rulebook—think about magic and faeries and how to get to Magnolia. Learn more about this world.
Yes, that’s the real goal. I’ve been too withdrawn, too focused on petty things. My excuse is that I had my leg broken, and my life pretty much revolved around that for a while. But now…
Four thousand miles to First Landing. Over double that for the length of this continent. One among five.
Too big. Too vast for me to even imagine. That’s the world I’ve found myself in. For a while I thought it was too small, the people too petty. But that’s because I’m like one of those people who never venture more than a few miles outside of their city, or never leave their state.
I have not yet even begun to understand the scope of this world.
And that is good.
“I thought this world was too much like…a place I came from.”
That’s how I explained my creepy laughter to Garia after we left the Guild. I mean, creepy according to her. And not really creepy—I’m sure she was exaggerating when she said that.
Unsettling, perhaps. Dramatic—yes. But I don’t have evil-laughter. No matter what those damn faeries say.
They’re overhead now, or racing through the streets, bothering other people. Not Garia and me. She’s got a horseshoe on her which seems to be working, or else the faeries have finally lost interest in me. Either one works, and it gives us more time to think.
“I just forgot how large this continent is.”
“And that’s a good thing?”
Garia looks blank, and I struggle to explain. How can I, without telling her of my world?
“It’s just that it means there’s still parts of the world not yet explored. Places around her where no one’s ever stepped foot. A land this vast has secrets.”
It’s as if I told her the world was round. Or…is it flat over here? Never mind. Garia’s used to a world that isn’t mapped out with satellites and Google cars, but I’m not. The idea that there’s something to explore, something to find that’s completely new is what burns through my veins.
“But do you really need money that bad, Ryoka? I thought—well, you said you had quite a bit saved up from that delivery you did in the High Passes.”
The delivery. Right.
“I—need more money. There are things I have to do. And for that I’d need better jobs.”
She shrugs her broad shoulders. If Garia had been born in my world, she could have been the first female boxer to claim a title in the men’s division.
“Well, running is a steady job, but I don’t know that you’ll earn a lot quickly. Not unless you’re a Courier, and Fals said…”
Apparently even I’m slow compared to a Courier. I wonder what she’s like? Or he. Or it? If one’s coming down this way, I’ll try to measure myself against them.
First things first.
“I’ve got a few more advantages that might help, but I’m not sure who to go to. Do you know this city well?”
“Pretty well. And I’d be happy to help.”
Garia grins at me, again proving that she’s a good person who doesn’t deserve a friend like me. If we are friends. Are we?
I reach behind me and open my Runner’s pack with one hand. Ever since I got it back from Rags, I’ve been extra-careful with the potion I received as payment. It shines orange and pink, glowing with both colors in the grey sky.
“I need someone who can identify this potion. Know any [Alchemists] or mages around here?”
Garia stares at the potion in my hands, entranced.
“Is that—? Um, yes! I know someone who could help. She’s a friend of mine. This way!”
She leads me down a street, and then another, until we come to a smaller side-street off the main path. I don’t know Celum that well at all; just the way to Magnolia’s house and a few inns and the Runner’s Guild. But Garia was a Street Runner here before she became a City Runner.
The shop she brings me to has a small position next to two other shops. It has a nice façade, belongs to a decently-wealthy district…and it has boarded up windows and plywood in the display area instead of glass.
I look up at the sign over the shop.
Stitchworks. Potions, tonics, herbs.
Well, we’re in the right place. Garia seems nervous, though. She takes a deep breath, and pushes open the door.
“Octavia? Um, are you in?”
It takes my eyes a second to adjust to the darker room from the snowy bright city outside. The room I’m in—
Is definitely an [Alchemist]’s workshop. Definitely.
Let’s see. Herbs hanging from beams? Check. Potions on one wall? Check. Parchment, quills, some kind of desk for mixing potions? Check. Glass blown into squiggly shapes? Check.
A single lamp provides light for the room. It’s not your average lamp either; this one I recognize. It’s a safety lamp, the kind used in coal mines or in places where fire is a danger, like here. Glass walls contained a bright flame as the lamp illuminated the shop, the shimmering potions—
And the young woman carefully studying the glowing blue potion at one of the tables. She looks up as Garia and I enter, and smiles at us.
“Garia! And you’ve brought a friend? Welcome! Come in and get out of the cold!”
The [Alchemist] beckons us into the shop, putting the potion carefully on one of the shelves. And she’s a surprise to me as well, although she shouldn’t be.
She has dark skin—darker than any I’ve seen this far. Her black hair is braided and pulled into a ponytail. She looks like a young woman that I’d see down any street in America – or at least any street not in a white suburb, but here—
Most people I’ve seen around here had light skin. This place is probably close to Europe, which might be why. Geographically, it made sense. The sun isn’t too harsh here, so probably only the two continents of Baleros and Chandrar would have people with darker skins.
Plus, globalization is not a thing in this world, especially if it’s so damn big.
The important question was: did it matter? In this world, humans weren’t alone. So how did that shift attitudes about race?
I look sideways at Garia and realize she’s looking at me to see if I react to her friend’s appearance. Well, fuck. Whoever said humanity would band together if ever confronted by a new species was clearly mistaken.
Garia clears her throat as Octavia comes out from behind her counter to greet me. The [Alchemist] certainly doesn’t look like the person I imagined her to be.
Not her skin. I mean her age, and her physique. She’s no bodybuilder, but she’s got clearly-defined muscles and she dresses in comfortable, sleeveless shirts and long, loose pants. Something’s up with one of her arms. She has…stitches going all down her right arm, and the threads coming loose.
Garia clears her throat and smiles at the dark-skinned woman.
“Hello, Octavia. This is Ryoka Griffin. She’s a friend, a City Runner like me. She needs an [Alchemist], and I thought…”
“Ryoka Griffin? I’m Octavia. It’s great to meet you; I can see we’re going to be very useful to one another!”
She takes my hand and gives me a solid handshake. I blink. This Octavia is all-go from the start, which I don’t necessarily hate. Fine, time to do the same.
“Nice to meet you. You’re an [Alchemist]?”
“The youngest in the city, but one of the best! You want cheap potions made with quality ingredients, come here and nowhere else. Everyone else will rip you Runners off, but I’ll give you the best deals so you keep coming back!”
…Yep. She’s a business person, alright. It feels like I’m being attacked by the salesperson of the year at a shop.
“Here. Take a look at this.”
The shopkeeper swings back behind her counter and brings out the blue potion she was studying earlier. Before I can so much as speak, she presses it into my hands.
“This is a stamina potion I’ve been working on. It’s a newer product than the old recipes you see on the market.”
I stare down at it. It’s deep blue, the color of azure and flecked with hints of yellow within.
Octavia flicks her fingers impatiently.
“Potions can be any color, as I’m sure you know. I’m trying to standardize the colors so adventurers don’t have to worry about using a mana potion instead of a healing one but color is irrelevant here. I can always dye the potion later, but take a sip!”
I’m not sure I want to, but Octavia is staring at me. I shoot a look at Garia and she looks uncertain.
But hell, I’m pretty sure this Octavia’s not going to poison me, so I take a sip. The potion tastes—
Well it tastes like someone scraped regurgitated corn mash onto my tongue and flavored it with prunes. Rotten prunes. I nearly gag, but swallow the terrible stuff.
And it’s like I swallowed Red Bull if Red Bull were ten times stronger and contained actual magic rather than caffeine and sugar. My tired body, sore from running for so long in the cold, heats up, and I feel every fiber in me surging with energy.
Holy crap. I feel like I could run another forty miles with this stuff! Octavia grins and takes the bottle from me.
“Good, isn’t it? I’ve added to the formula, replacing larvae extract with—well, it doesn’t matter. The point is that these new potions are only slightly more expensive, but they’ve got a bigger kick to them!”
“It’s certainly effective.”
And useful! That’s a potion I’d buy, and Octavia seems determined to make the sale right here and now.
“Alright then, I’ll put you down for a batch of stamina potions. You can leave me a down payment now and pay the rest on completion.”
She whips out a piece of paper and finds an inkpot and starts dipping the quill impatiently.
“These new potions are twice as effective as the ones on the market. For you, I wouldn’t charge much. Let’s say a gold piece and eight silver pieces for each one? That comes to…sixteen gold and sixteen silver for a batch of twelve, but I’ll give you a discount and make it an even fourteen. How does that sound?”
Octavia glances at me as she scribbles on the piece of paper. I try not to smile. She’s pushy. Garia looks like she’s swallowed her tongue as she glances at me. Did she get suckered into buying a bunch of pricy potions? Of course she did.
Fortunately, I know how to deal with pushy people. Hell, the people my dad worked for are all like the worst kind of used-car salesmen. You have to know how to deal with people like that. With care, tact, diplomacy…
Octavia blinks, but I don’t. The best way to deal with someone like this is to shut them down hard. She turns to me, holding out the paper with figures scribbled down on it.
“It won’t be any trouble. I’ll just write your name down here. Ryoka Griffin, was it? How about you get back to me on—”
“I said, no.”
“Oh come now. You’ve tasted my potion. I can make it more palatable if that’s what you’re worried about. This is an investment! You can’t just turn your back on this. Stick with me and I’ll offer you a discount on future potions.”
Octavia pushes the paper in my face and I lose my patience. I push her arm up. Not too hard, but enough to make her realize I can keep going until she dislocates something. She blinks—
Her arm falls off.
It just…unravels. The black stitches I saw along her armpit come loose, and her arm drops from Octavia’s body onto the ground. I’m stunned for a second, but Octavia moves faster.
“Oh, darn it. I should have double-knotted the stitches. Hold this for a second, will you?”
She shoves the paper and quill into my hands as she bends down to pick up the severed arm. I stared at her, open-mouthed.
“It’s okay, Ryoka, really!”
“What the hell—?”
Garia comes over to me, sidling around the messy tables as Octavia picks up her arm. She points at Octavia and the thing which is not truly an arm in her hands.
“She’s one of the String People.”
Octavia looks up, concerned.
“Oh, you haven’t met one of us before? I’m sorry, it must come as a surprise. But don’t worry—as you can see, I’m made of fabric. Losing my arm didn’t hurt a bit!”
She holds out the arm towards me.
I can’t help it. I jerk back reflexively, but the arm touches my fingers before I can pull away. The sensation is—
Odd. The arm is odd. It’s just…cotton. I can feel the cotton skin below my fingertips, just like normal fabric. And inside is…more cotton. It’s so clearly cotton.
But the detail! Someone has taken the time to create the inside of the human body in fabric form, albeit with a few liberties. Not every muscle is in the arm, but there are red sinews that look like pieces of colored yarn, yellow bone in the form of delicately woven stuffed cotton, and even red stitched into the interior of the arm to make it look like there’s blood inside.
I stare at the arm, and touch it gingerly. It’s just cotton. Plain cotton. Octavia grins.
“You see? Nothing special. But give me two seconds and…!”
She pushes the arm against her shoulder. It’s amazing, but for a second I can see into her body from the missing socket. There’s bone and flesh woven into Octavia’s frame. Garia shudders and looks away until Octavia begins threading that black stitching back together, literally sewing her arm into place.
“Hold on. It’s always hard to get the back stitches in right.”
And then the arm is suddenly flesh again, or close enough. It turns from mere fabric into what looks like skin, so seamlessly that only the black stitching around her shoulder stands out.
Octavia claps her hands together, a fleshy sound so real that I nearly jump. She grins at me and flexes her arm. The muscles ripple under the skin exactly like normal flesh.
“Good as new, you see? It’s inconvenient when the stitching gets loose, but I don’t have to worry about that most of the time. Plus, being fabric means I can adjust my body however I like. For instance, I bulked myself up a bit. Added a few more muscles so I could lift everything properly. It slows me down, but—hey!”
She takes the parchment and quill back from me. I’d completely forgotten I was holding it.
“I can see you’re a discerning customer. Okay, we’ll hold off on the stamina potions order until we’ve gotten to know each other better. But if you need a healing potion, mana potion, tonic for an ailment or anything else, come to me! Building connections is a basic skill for Runners, and as I level I’ll be sure to make you a priority customer. How about that?”
She just doesn’t quit. I blink at her, and shake my head.
“I’m not looking for a potion at the moment. If I am—I’m here to get an appraisal.”
Octavia instantly brightens.
“Well why didn’t you say so? I can identify almost any potion by sight alone. Give me just a few moments and I’ll have the location, brewer, and efficacy of your potion locked down. I can even—dead gods, what is that?”
Octavia breaks off, speechless for once, as she catches sight of the potion I’ve tucked into my belt. She’s past Garia and has the potion out in her hands before I can blink.
She ignores me as she holds the shimmering orange and pink potion up to the light.
“Where did you get this?”
She ignores me as she paces around, and then swiftly moves to one of the tables full of alchemy equipment. She places the potion over an odd stone set in a box—and taps the thing. The stone sparks, and suddenly a blue flames bursts into life under the potion.
Is she trying to heat the potion? What will that do?
“Don’t do that—”
Octavia peers into the potion as, suddenly, the pink streamers of color thicken and darken to red and the orange fluid begins to glow even brighter. Garia gasps as the light from the potion begins to illuminate the shop. Octavia doesn’t even look back at us as she murmurs out loud.
“It’s beautiful. Whoever blended this used the highest-quality ingredients and heated the mixture perfectly. I can’t think of an [Alchemist] around here who could do that. Did it come from up north?”
“No. It’s a potion I received. I wanted to know exactly what it does. It’s supposed to make me faster—”
“It’s a potion of haste, or perhaps even a higher-level version.”
Octavia pulls the potion off the stand and the colors begin shifting back to normal. She gestures at it, so excited that I begin to get a sense for how much Teriarch paid me for that delivery.
“This potion—I haven’t seen anything so potent in my life! You could sell it for—I’ve got to study it! Who made it? Was it found in some ruins? How much do you want for it?”
“It’s not for sale. I just wanted to see how much it was worth and what it would do—I wanted to talk to an [Alchemist] about potions, not—”
Octavia isn’t listening. She’s already looking around, muttering about empty flasks and equipment. I reach for the potion and she turns back to me, a broad smile on her face.
“Okay, you give me a sample of that potion and I’ll answer any question you want. I’ll even throw in a potion or two of my own, free of charge!”
“No, I don’t want that.”
I reach for the potion, but Octavia takes a step back. She’s holding the potion like it’s the elixir of life.
“I could get you an excellent price for this on the market. Give me a bit to show around and I’ll have a figure for you by the end of the day. You’re looking at a hundred—no, at least two hundred gold coins at least.”
“No. I want my potion back.”
She doesn’t want to give it to me. Garia opens her mouth, and Octavia’s instantly next to her, slinging an arm around her shoulders.
“Your friend Garia bought some wonderful healing potions off me just last month! Tell you what, I’ll give you a 20—no, a 40% discount on potions at my shop and I’ll throw in a batch of samples as well for a bit of your potion.”
“Give me the potion.”
“How about twenty gold? I’ll give you that and the stamina potion for a sample. I’ll even toss in a few tonics I’ve made – highly saleable! Just give me five minutes an tiny bit of it to copy and—”
“Give me the potion or I’ll hurt you.”