Because it was magic, they were able to talk to each other despite being far apart. Over four hundred miles separated the two, but to Lady Magnolia and Teriarch, their conversation felt as if they were sitting side by side.
If he closed his eyes, Teriarch could imagine Magnolia sitting by him. Not the older, distinguished [Lady] of now, but the young girl of then.
Thirty years? Forty? He lost track sometimes. It seemed like it had all past in the blink of an eye, a single beat of his heart. But now the girl full of laughter and mischief was gone.
In her place was a woman no less than the girl she’d replaced. But she was different. Youth and energy had been overtaken by—well, more energy, but of a different kind. Hopes and dreams became ambitions tempered by practicality. Impulse and instinct became wisdom. Recklessness transcended to grace.
He loved her for it. But she was growing older. That was something neither he nor she could escape. In time, she would die. Not now—not for many years still. Decades, perhaps. But she would die, and he would remain. Unchanging.
It was his nature, and Teriarch felt it weigh more heavily whenever he found someone like Magnolia. A rare mortal with a spark. It was their nature. They brought light and passion to his life, but like sparks and fireflies, they died all too quickly.
Because it was magic, they could speak even from this distance. Because it was his magic, they could speak without fear of eavesdropping, even from the most powerful mages living on the continent. But it still didn’t mean she could be here, in front of him. Magic could do many things, but it was only a means to an end, not an excuse for miracles.
Teriarch harrumphed irritably. But power necessitated safeguards, especially in Reinhart’s case. It would be difficult—even for him—to disable her complex protections and teleport her all the way here. And vice versa. His home was warded with more spells against intrusion than he could remember. No, transport was impossible.
So they talked. Because it was magic, they could hear the emotions in each other’s voice, sense the subtleties of their dialogue. Sometimes, Teriarch wished this were not the case.
“I cannot believe you let her find her way into your little cave and let her go without even asking her name!”
Teriarch winced and adjusted his spell so Reinhart’s voice was less loud in his ears. He spoke irritably into the air, his left eye twitching.
“Do not take that tone with me, Reinhart. I thought she was just some Courier – and an inept one at that. I healed her and gave her a mission. How was I to know it was the girl? Besides, I did ask her name at the end.”
“And I can see it did you a world of good. Well done.”
Some said Magnolia Reinhart, the deadly flower blooming in the north, was a [Lady] of unflappable grace and cunning. But Teriarch had known Magnolia for a long time, and she was far more direct and cutting with her remarks with him.
“She survived. I teleported her back to the city. Besides, your information didn’t help me locate her. I tried to scry her numerous times before and after I met her, to no avail. This is on your head.”
Magnolia’s voice cracked back through the magical spell, making Teriarch wince and wish he could cast a [Silence] spell on her until she calmed down.
“I told you her name, and she told you her name. Ryoka Griffin. If you can’t scry her, it must be your magic that’s at fault. Perhaps she’s warded in some way.”
“No magic could defeat my spells so utterly. No, there must be some trick to her name.”
It was the only explanation Teriarch could think of. Scrying required the exact name of the person he wished to see, or failing that, a piece of clothing or some part of them. He wished he’d kept some of the blood she’d dripped all over his cave, but of course he’d burned it all away.
“She must have lied to me, and to you.”
“How, pray? She doesn’t have any skills—or levels! She’s a girl without a class, Teriarch. Do you know how extraordinary it is that she made it to your cave without any help?”
“I’m well aware. And my abode is not a ‘cave’.”
“Your little hovel, then. Your crack in the side of the mountain. Your little pit where you hoard shiny objects and hide from the world. I am telling you, that girl is important!”
Indignant, Teriarch opened his mouth to retort, but Magnolia rolled right over him, as she’d done so many times in the past.
“I asked you to tell me if she did anything unusual. But only now do you tell me that she threw off the spell you cast to make her deliver your ridiculous letter to Az’kerash.”
“It’s not ridiculous at all. It’s an important message.”
“It’s pointless. And a ring? Is it magical, or merely symbolic?”
“Of course it’s magical.”
Teriarch was somewhat miffed. Who would bother with nonmagical rings? He tried to regain control of the conversation.
“My message is—not as important as why Ryoka Griffin was able to break my spell. Are you sure she has no classes?”
“Very sure. Which is why I asked you to learn more about her.”
Teriarch ground his teeth together angrily. But Reinhart had a point. She always had a point. It was just that he disliked how her pointing things out tended to make it seem as if he was incompetent. He opened his mouth to retort and paused. Something was tugging at the edge of his thoughts. He frowned.
“Hold on. Something is approaching my cave—I mean, my place of residence.”
Teriarch muttered a word, and a picture appeared in his thoughts, depicting the surrounding area of the High Passes. He focused on the image and blinked.
His jaw dropped about three meters.
“I don’t believe it. It’s her.”
“She’s in the High Passes, heading this way.”
“How am I supposed to know that? Silence, woman. I have to concentrate.”
Ryoka was running straight through the pass towards his cave. Well, she knew the location, but she wasn’t under attack. Teriarch frowned. Why was that?
Lady Magnolia’s voice shrilled in Teriarch’s mind, making him wince irritably.
“Make sure she gets here alive! You must—”
“Yes, yes. But she doesn’t seem to need my assistance.”
There was something to it. Teriarch could see monsters nearby, but they were moving away from Ryoka. Why?
Teriarch frowned, drew in a deep breath, and coughed. He felt a terrible stinging pain in his nose and nearly gagged as a faint odor assailed his nostrils. He looked around.
“What is that smell?”
Half a day earlier…
I can’t do this. Dealing with pushy shopkeepers is one thing, but I can’t handle people. I just…never know what to say.
Garia and I took a break from Octavia once I’d pried my potion from her grip. I needed a break, and I also needed to tell her about the Horns of Hammerad.
I’d nearly forgotten she didn’t know. And the worst part was, she started asking me how their journey into the ruins had gone. She was so cheerful, and I wiped the smile right off her face.
I—didn’t know how to say it. I’ve never had to break bad news to anyone. And it was horrible.
She started crying. Garia just sort of folded in on herself and started crying. In the street, I mean. In front of everyone.
What are you supposed to do when someone’s lost someone? What would Erin have done? I just sort of patted Garia on the shoulder and waited for her to stop. But she couldn’t. I stood there, trying to calm her down and—
It took me a long time before she stopped crying. Her face after all that was…not a pretty sight. I gave her a handkerchief—a bandage I kept for injuries, really—and she told me she could find her way back to her inn.
That was it. I watch Garia as she stumbles down the street, eyes red and puffy. Damn it. What was I supposed to do? What was I…
People. It shouldn’t be like this. I shouldn’t have to deal with them. This is what comes of having people who think they know you. If I were alone I wouldn’t have this issue. And the Horns of Hammerad. They—
They shouldn’t have died. Not like that.
Sometimes I just feel so tired. But then I keep going, keep running forwards because that’s all I know how to do. I cling to what I know. Ceria is alive, and I owe it to the others to make sure she’s okay.
Money. Eighty gold pieces. Money for power, security, freedom. I never had to worry about that back home. I wasn’t rich—
Actually, I was. Having a father who counts as a big hitter in both politics and business means that I earned about as much as someone working just above the poverty line as an allowance. And that’s even without counting the things I got as presents.
Not a good thought. But it’s better than thinking of how miserable Garia is right now. Well. At least all of this has one good effect. I’m royally pissed when I walk back into Octavia’s shop, the accurately named Stitchworks.
She brightens up the instant I walk back in. The entire time Garia was upset, I could sense her watching us from the door. I think she was afraid I was going to leave with my potion before she could get another chance to study it.
“Oh, good. You’re back. What was that outside? Bad news for Garia? That’s a real shame; you let me know if there’s anything I can do to help, okay? The girl’s a good customer and I have a bit of a soft spot for her to tell you to truth.”
I just glare at her. Octavia doesn’t miss a beat. She’s ushering me inside in an instant, closing the door and locking it behind her. That doesn’t exactly worry me—if she wants secrecy that’s fine. But if she wants to try to rob me, I’m more than happy to introduce her to my shoe*.
*Yeah, shoe. I got a new pair and ditched the Gnoll boots I was wearing. They’re still tight, but I healed the blisters and at least these ones fit more or less. Damn snow. I hate running in shoes.
“Anyways, I’m sure she’ll feel better after a cry and a bit of a rest. Hot food—a bath—you and I, we’ve still got business to attend to.”
Octavia doesn’t quite point at the potion on my belt, but her eyes gleam with avarice. At least she’s honestly greedy. But it still annoys me.
The stitch-girl spreads her hands on her counter and takes a deep breath. Here comes the pitch.
“Now, I know I insulted you earlier with my offer. Well, I’m prepared to offer you quite a deal. Fifty potions, complete as soon as I brew them. I’ll trade that for…half of your potion, and I’ll even throw in—”
Gratifyingly, Octavia does. She blinks at me as I rub at my forehead. I try to get my thoughts straight. Why the hell am I back here? Oh yeah.
I point at Octavia, trying to keep my eyes off the stitches on her shoulders in case that’s rude or something.
“No offers. No deals. I don’t know how expensive this potion is, but I’m not selling it.”
Octavia’s mouth shoots open and I speak louder.
“But I’ll give you some. A sample. If you stop talking and give me what I want.”
I have her attention. And Octavia seems to be smarter than your average…stitch-person, because she doesn’t try to sweeten the deal or talk.
“Here’s what I want to know. First—information about alchemy and your kind if none of that’s a deadly secret. Second, I want a consultation on how to get through the High Passes alive.”
For a second Octavia blinks at me, surprised. And then her eyes gleam and she smiles.
“Well, I know a good deal for me when I hear it. And you’ll give me part of your potion?”
I hold up one finger.
“One tablespoon’s worth.”
“That’s not a lot. For as much information as you want, I should get at least half a cup.”
The potion isn’t that big. I glare at her.
“For what? Talking? I’ll let you have a 1/64th of a quart. How’s that?”
She hesitates and I can see her working out the numbers in her head.
“Heh. I’d prefer a bit more than that. How about three ounces? That’s quite fair.”
I raise an eyebrow.
“No. Five teaspoons.”
“I’ll take that.”
Octavia grins and gives in. She sticks out a hand and I take it. I can’t help but smile a tiny bit as I take her hand. She’s got a strong grip, and when we let go she smiles even wider.
“Even a small bit is worth quite a lot, you know. Far more than a few minutes or even hours of me talking.”
“I’d guessed as much.”
I probably could have bargained her down to one teaspoon or even a few drops, but that would be too much work. One of the few lessons my dad taught me that I took to heart was always know how much you can get away with in a deal and how far you can push the other side.
“So, you’ve got questions. I’ve got answers.”
Octavia steps out from behind her counter and motions to a chair, but I shake my head and lean on the counter. There’s enough paraphernalia and objects around her shop that I’d be more afraid of knocking something dangerous over if I sat.
“I’m interested in alchemy and how it works.”
“And me, let’s not forget that. Is this the first time you’ve ever met one of the String People, Ryoka Griffin?”
“Well, let’s start with that. I can tell you I’m just like you, more or less. I feel sensations and it’s not like I have any special tricks. I can’t throw my arm at you and strangle you like a Dullahan and I die if someone cuts me apart. Well—I might survive that so long as my head doesn’t get too badly damaged, but I burn easily. Sort of a trade-off, don’t you think?”
Octavia speaks easily as she finds a stool and sets it behind the counter so she can sit and talk. She speaks fast and clearly, which is actually something I prefer when I have to converse.
“Anything else? I can change my body, it’s true. But it’s not like I can just turn myself into someone else like that.”
She snaps her fingers for emphasis. I nod, and try to focus. Gather information. Ask the unspoken questions, the good ones.
“But you can change yourself? That fabric that makes up your body—could you change how strong you are, or what you look like?”
“I could do that. If I wanted to. I told you, I added some muscle for this job, and I guess I could add a bit more. But the fabric doesn’t expand forever, and besides, that messes with my body if I disrupt the balance. It’s all quite complex, you know. Just like alchemy. Which, by the way, isn’t easy to pick up if that’s what you’re asking.”
“I wasn’t. I wanted to know how it works in theory. And can you change the pigment of your skin and the arm itself? Could you use another arm for instance, or are you limited to your original…fabric?”
“Hah! A scholar, are you? I’ve never met a Runner like that. Only mages are that interested, but they generally know how alchemy works. What we do is take magical effects and imbue them into potions, or other objects mainly. We use reactions—like how flint and steel create sparks—just on a bigger scale to make potions that perform a certain way.”
Octavia points to her arms. The skin of her bare shoulder looks completely normal, and it’s hard to remember the cotton fabric that had been there before.
“My arm’s just cloth. It’s not special, although I suppose there’s something here that’s not just stitching and cotton, huh? Back home, people argue about it all the time. Generally, you could say it’s the majority of me that makes Octavia. Take too much of that away and I die, but given time I could completely change out all of my body and still be me.”
“In war, soldiers often switch so many parts that sometimes a guy will come back looking quite attractive! It’s hard for a wife to find out her husband is even better endowed than she is.”
I have to laugh at that. Octavia chuckles too, and keeps going.
“I have dark skin because that’s what the folks around me sewed me with. I guess I could change it, but I don’t mind looking different even if other people do. Why? Does it bother you?”
“I’ve seen people with darker skin than yours.”
Oops. Crap. Steer the conversation away. I shake my head.
“Doesn’t matter. I’ve been around. But your alchemy—how can you just say it’s a reaction? I’ve seen healing potions work and that’s no mere reaction. There’s magic in the potions.”
“Well of course.”
Octavia looks nonplussed. I suppose that’s just natural around here.
“But do you have to be a mage to make a healing potion? How does it work exactly?”
“I’m no mage. No, all you need are magical ingredients. You render them down by boiling and mixing and then you combine the right ones and…poof!”
She makes an exaggerated motion and laughs.
“Well, it’s not quite that simple. But you get the idea.”
“It still doesn’t make sense. How does magic work like that? It’s not a substance, or anything physical. How can you convert it into liquid form? Or—change the nature of it? Unless there are healing herbs of something you just boil into a liquid.”
Octavia laces her fingers together and cracks them.
“Wow. You’ve thought about this, haven’t you? Well, to answer your question, it’s about magic in things. Everyone and everything has magic in them. Usually it’s not much—just traces in rocks and grass. But something like a mana stone has quite a lot of magic, and often the magic has qualities.”
“Qualities? Like certain effects?”
“Something like that. Nothing too impressive; you can’t start casting fireballs from a flame salamander’s skin, although it will give you a horrible rash and a burn. But it has its own qualities. You can turn it into a salve or cream to resist fire, but if you want to use it any other way you need to change the magic into something else.”
Octavia spins away from the counter and makes her way to the large racks of potions. She carefully takes one out of a holster and shows it to me. This bottle is full of a clear, faintly grey liquid.
“This is one of the secrets behind alchemy. Magic exists in the object it inhabits, but it can be extracted and contained in things. Like liquid. This is a base liquid—something we can use to store the magic. If I take an ingredient—like the salamander skin and dissolve it in this substance, it can hold the magic and let me add more things to the mixture.”
“So that’s the secret.”
I gaze at the grey liquid and imagine it. Sort of like chemistry but with a million reactions. Take a base, add ingredients and pray like hell you get it right.
“Pretty much. Of course, alchemy isn’t as simple as just adding the right things together. Sometimes there’s the order that matters, and stuff like heat and time affect magic as well. You can’t use moon dew in a mixture unless the moon’s actually waxing and it’s night, and Goblin ears need to be boiled while you’re mixing or they congeal.”
Goblin ears? I try to let that one go, but it’s hard. Octavia keeps talking, showing me other potions.
“It’s unpredictable, and of course, dangerous. But that’s [Alchemy] in a nutshell. It’s not just potions like a lot of people think. Mind you, a lot is potions. They’re just the easiest way to mix a lot of ingredients. But I can make a tripvine bag as well, although cramming all the seeds inside before they sprout is a trick in itself. Does that answer your question.”
“Mostly, but I’ve got another question about you.”
“Go ahead. I don’t mind.”
I gesture at her arm.
“Do you need all the details or can you just use something that looks like an arm?”
Octavia looks mildly surprised. She flexes her arm.
“You saw that? Most people get too queasy to tell. Yes, we do need bones and other things. It’s hard to describe to you, since you Humans never really see inside your body, but there are more things than just bone and blood and flesh. Bodies are quite complex, you know.”
“I’m aware. But can you shape your bodies like other creatures?”
For the first time, the stitch-girl looks hesitant.
“If…we have to. I’ve never seen it myself, but you hear horror stories sometimes. It can go horribly wrong if everything isn’t sewn just right. Heck, if it were easy we’d just stitch armies together and conquer the world, right?”
“Hopefully not. Last question about you. Does the fabric type matter?”
Another quick smile.
“You’re fast. Yes, it does. Cotton’s what us normal people use, but I’ve seen some poorer folks use wool or rougher stuff. Quality does make us look…different, and it can make us stronger or quicker depending on the fabric. Canvas makes really heavy, rough people, but they can take quite a beating!”
“What about someone made from silk?”
Octavia’s eyes widen incredulously.
“From silk? You mean, their entire body? Dead gods, I don’t think I know anyone rich enough to do that. You barely see more than a bolt of silk on some fat lady around here anyways. It might be good, but I have no idea what that would feel like.”
“No problem! Now, is that all?”
Octavia’s eying my potion again. I sigh and cover it with one hand.
“Not yet. I had one more thing I needed help with.”
“Oh yes. The High Passes.”
Octavia wrinkles her nose and shrugs.
“Can’t help. Sorry.”
“What, you can’t do anything?”
“I’m an [Alchemist], not a miracle-worker. There are countless monsters lurking in there. I don’t have much that’ll stop them.”
“What about an invisibility potion? Or your stamina potions? A regeneration potion? Wouldn’t that help?”
Octavia taps the counter with one finger and shakes her head.
“First off—if I could brew invisibility potions I wouldn’t be in a small shop like this. And you wouldn’t be able to afford one anyways. And a regeneration potion? Ask me after I’ve gained fifty levels. Stamina potions I can make, and pretty good ones too. But they don’t make you run faster.”
“Give me the run down on them.”
“Stamina potions? Sure. Ready for the sales pitch?”
Octavia turns and puts the base potion on a shelf and pulls the glowing blue potion out again. I have the distinct feeling it should be green, not blue. But then, this world doesn’t have a few decades of video games to standardize color stereotypes.
“This little gem will restore your energy and give you a kick so you can run further and faster than normal. But that’s only the potion giving you a boost. If you tear a muscle, it’s not going to heal it, and you’ll still be using up energy even with the potion. When it wears off you’re going to crash hard. But if you need to run for three days straight…”
She sloshed the potion in the glass bottle. I nod.
“I could use some. But that doesn’t solve my problem with the High Passes.”
“Don’t go is my solution. That place is a deathtrap. Unless—if that’s the place you got the potion from, I say go for it and get me another one.”
Octavia shrugs as she uncorks the blue potion. She shoves it under my nose.
“Here. If you’re buying a potion, take a sip and make sure you can down it. I’ve had adventurers complaining they threw up before they could down some of my potions.”
The smell that wafts up from the bottle nearly makes me hurl, and that’s without tasting it. I push the bottle back and cough a few times.
“That smells awful. Can’t you do something about that as well?”
Octavia looks mildly offended. She gestures at the potion.
“Do you know how hard it is to add something like a flavor to potions without creating an entirely different effect? I’ve seen adventurers add a bit of lemon juice to their potions to make them taste better and have the entire thing coat them in poisonous foam. Don’t try that, by the way.”
Well, that’s a comforting thought. I try not to gag as Octavia sniffs her potion. She clearly doesn’t seem to mind the horrible odor, but then, she probably inhales that stuff all the time.
But for me, it’s making my eyes water. Hell, it’s like being skunked. I’d better ask how thick those potion bottles are. If it breaks in my pack, I’ll either have the street to myself or get kicked out of the city. Not that I wouldn’t mind the privacy—
I blink. Waitaminute.
“Hold on, I think I know how you can help me get through the High Passes after all.”
Octavia raises her eyebrows.
“Well, if it means getting paid more I can brew up anything you want. Within reason, of course. Is there something that you think will help?”
I nod. Am I going to regret this? But it’ll probably work. If not, I’m going to hate myself.
“Yeah, but I’ll need to buy some nose plugs as well.”
“Nose plugs? Hah! How many do you need?”
Nearly a day later, I run towards the High Passes. What was it I thought the first time I came this way? Death and glory await? Something stupid like that, I bet.
This time I’m ready.
I run towards the high passes, mountains looming impossibly high in the distance. A range of mountains taller than Mt. Everest breaks only in one small part to let travelers through.
‘Small’ in this case meaning a gap that you could march a small army through. It’s all relative.
A tribe of Goblins runs towards me as I move towards the High Passes and snow changes to dirt under my feet. Looks like not even the Frost Faeries have gotten to this place yet.
The lead Goblin whoops and shouts as he runs at me. This tribe converged fast, and I’ve got the sneaking suspicion they might be the same group as last time. Do they just watch the High Passes or are they based in this location?
Well, they might be a problem. Bows and whatnot. But I’ve got faith in my new strategy, so I run on.
The first Goblin runs towards me, and then the wind changes. He takes a few more steps, and then his face suddenly contorts. His eyes bulge, and then he’s running in the other direction. The other Goblins pause for only a second, and then they scream and run.
Yep. It works.
Run on. Now the High Passes are growing larger, and I hear a howl in the distance. Carn Wolves. The massive rust-red wolves that like the taste of Goblins and Asian girls. Well, I think they’ll be less hungry than usual.
I’m right. The wolves don’t even get near enough to me to see before I hear panicked yelping and the wolves beating a fast retreat. I am untouchable. Invincible.
Into the pass now, and running quickly. The magic or rather, aura that surrounds me doesn’t stop working even as the rock walls grow higher around my head.
The evil goats with teeth scream and climb away from me. The High Passes empty of life ahead of me as monsters flee from my presence.
Yes, I’m safe. Totally safe, from everything. I run on while the monsters flee.
By the way, this isn’t due to me gaining a skill or class or anything. Octavia’s potion is doing all the work.
Me? I’m just trying not to throw up. I’ve failed three times already, and I think I might be going down for a fourth time. The smell surrounding me is unbearable, and that’s coming from a girl who’s been sprayed by a skunk more than once.
Question: what is the most feared animal from our world? I sort of gave it away, but it’s the skunk. Fuck hippos or great white sharks or army ants. Skunks instill a kind of fear in suburban neighborhoods that you just can’t match.
And what makes those little rodents so terrible? One word. Smell.
They stink. And because I had a bright idea, and because Octavia knows how to brew a decent potion, so do I.
Long story? Short story. I asked her to make something that would chase away everything that might hurt me, and she did. I used it on myself, and I regret doing it.
The smell of the potion she made was so strong that it made everyone leave the block when she brewed it. Even sealed in an airtight bottle, I practically got chased out of the city and made great time on the open road.
Applied to the skin? God. I wish I were dead.
I’ve got nose plugs in, and I keep holding my breath until I’m dizzy. But the smell—
It’s beyond indescribable. I keep hoping my nose will shut down, like it does if you smell something really bad for a long time. But though my eyes are tearing up and my nose is burning, I can still smell it.
It’ll never go away. I’ll be able to walk into a skunk nest and chase them all out.
Above me and to the left, a ridge of innocuous boulders suddenly shifts. I dodge away, but the gargoyles aren’t attacking. They unfurl their massive stone wings and leap away from me, climbing the cliffs.
Huh. Well, it turns out gargoyles do have a sense of smell. That, or I stink so bad even things without a nose can sense it.
But I asked for this. I have to keep remembering that. It’s all part of the plan. And I can survive this. And perhaps the silent, noxious run wouldn’t be so bad normally. Yes, if this were the only price to enter the High Passes I might consider it a deal. But there’s one type of creature that doesn’t seem bothered, even by the smell.
High overhead, a small cloud of faeries flies overhead and laugh loudly as the gargoyles finish running for the mountains. One of them swoops down and lands on my head as I run on, laughing and speaking loudly to her friends.
“Smell her, sisters! She stinks like marsh bubbles and a witch’s brew!”
“Hah! Even the stony ones fear her stinkage! What foolishness!”
They flutter around me, and more settle on my head. I grind my teeth. These little demons followed me out of the city, much to my dismay. I thought they’d give up on me with an entire city’s worth of humans to bother, but no*.
*Yeah, that’s right. I was trying to pawn them off on other people. So what? If you had to deal with these supernatural freaks for more than five minutes you’d be ready to do the same.
One of the faeries laughs and pulls at my hair. I feel some hairs rip free of my scalp and I snap. That’s it. I know it’s a bad idea, but I swat at them and drive them from my head.
The faeries take off and my fingertip grazes one and goes numb. They’re too cold to touch, and they’re not afraid. One buzzes next to my face, sticking her tiny tongue out at me as she mocks me.
“Ooh, scary, scary! It bites!”
I growl at her, but she only laughs and flips me off. Where the hell did faeries learn that gesture?
“Why the hell are you following me, anyways? Don’t you have anything better to do?”
The faerie looks offended and tilts her head away. She looks to one of her friends and remarks loudly to the air.
“Hark, the stinky thing talks!”
“Disgusting! It should die!”
My foot slips on a patch of the ice and I crash to the ground. Ow!
I pick myself up and realize a shard of rock is embedded in my hand. I pull it out, and blood wells out of my palm.
You know what? I’m just going to keep running. And it’s not because I know I can’t do anything to them.
I get up and run down the long, winding rocky path. At least my shoes protect my feet from the sharp rocks. Now, where was that damn cave? I only barely remember reaching it last time—I was nearly dead as I recall. But I think Teriarch’s place should be just up ahead—
I turn past a cliff wall and suddenly a massive gaping hole taller and wider than the gates of Liscor appears in my view. Well. I’m here.
I hesitate as I stare up at the faded yellow scrap of cloth anchored by a boulder over the cave entrance. Only now do I suddenly remember exactly what Teriarch is. Let’s see. Now that you’re really thinking over your life choices Ryoka, does it make sense to bother a possibly Elven mage of incredible power who gave you a task that you did not carry out? Yes? Well then, go right ahead. This has been a message from your brain.
I take a deep breath and instantly regret it. But I’m here, and victory belongs to the bold. Also, bullets in the head belong to the bold, usually instead of victory, but I’ve got to do this.
The Frost Faeries swoop down around my head, oblivious to my trepidation. They laugh as they fly into the cave, chattering still.
“Ooh, does the human think we’re afraid of caves?”
“At least she’s not smart enough to use iron. We’d freeze her nose off for that!”
“Shall we drop the ceiling on her? Or maybe—”
I hear the booming words as a rumble in my bones before I realize their words. A massive voice booms out of the cave, full of irritation and command.
The effect of the massive voice is instantaneous. The Frost Faeries react as if struck. They scream and flee in every direction a second before a huge stream of fire blasts over my head. I throw myself to the ground as the heat cooks me then dissipates.
For a while all I can do is lie on the ground, shaking a bit. Holy crap. That’s a scary spell. I get up at last, not so much because I want to go in, but rather in case I need to run.
The same voice echoes from within, not quite as loud, but just as huge. It sounds out in tones of disapproval, addressing me.
“Enter, Ryoka Griffin.”
If I were religious…I’m not, so I just hope with all my heart as I enter. I hope I’m not about to die.
The cave is open and vast, not so much a cave in truth as a plane hangar, only a bit bigger than most of the plane hangars I’ve seen. It makes me feel as though I’m in some kind of other world, and huge as the cave is, it’s far from empty.
In no time, the rough ground changes from stone to smooth marble. The rough walls…still remain, but suddenly they’re covered by paintings, weapons hanging on walls.
Pedestals appear, holding magical objects and bookshelves full of old tomes share space next to odd things I can’t even describe. A mirror gilded with gold that doesn’t reflect my shape? A suit of armor made out of stone? A…keyblade?
The wonders around me are unreal, but that fits the sole occupant of the cave. There he stands, in the center. He waits for me, and I feel the change in the air as I draw close.
There he is, the person responsible for at least some of my misery over these last few weeks. A mage. A man? A mystery. A dragon.
The first thing he does is get rid of terrible stench surrounding me. A click of his fingers, and now not only am I smelling fresh as a daisy, but the potion at my side is in his hands. I should say—in a bubble in his hands. It looks almost exactly like a bubble, as the delicate membrane swirls with all the colors of the rainbow in his hands.
He looks much the same as I remember. Which is to say, too perfect. Teriarch stands in front of me, nearly six foot six, an old man dressed in clothing fit for a king.
He’s like an archetype of humanity, a tall, faintly bronze-skinned man with white hair, but the physical presence and body of an Olympian god. He stands in front of me and looks down, his pointed ears and celestial eyes narrowed in disdain.
A massive bronze-scaled Dragon stares down at me with annoyance. His massive wings unfurl and beat once, stirring the air—
A gust of air strikes me in the face and I blink. What was that? A spell? Teriarch looks irritated, and waves his hand. Whatever caused the disturbance in the air stops.
I don’t know if it’s the magic or just him, but Teriarch’s voice is deep and resonant. He looks at me, and my knees go weak. And not just because he looks like some kind of unattainable vision of male beauty. He’s also scaring the crap out of me, and I can’t tell why. Maybe I just sense how much power he’s got in him.
“It has been a while since I last saw you. And now, you show up just when—and bringing those pests as well. How curious.”
Holy crap, this is hard. My entire plan revolved around me getting here and I didn’t honestly think I’d manage to do this. But I’d completely forgotten how intimidating Teriarch is. Here’s a guy who can teleport me with a few words and shoot fire hot enough to scare Frost Faeries, and I’m about to—
“It’s nice to see you too.”
My first and last response to any situation is sarcasm, followed quickly by irony and scorn. Teriarch looks at me as if I’m a bug and shakes his head.
“Mm. And so I must ask you why you have returned. The last time I saw you, I gave clear instructions. You were to deliver a ring and a letter to the mage known as Perril Chandler, also known as Az’kerash. You have not done so.”
“Yeah. I’ve been busy.”
I gulp. Teriarch’s gaze is nearly impossible for me to meet. I stare just over his shoulder instead.
“None of your business. But I came back to tell you I won’t deliver your letter and ring to Az’kerash.”
“Why not, pray?”
“You cast a spell on me.”
He looks completely disinterested. That’s enough to get me angry. I raise my voice.
“And I don’t like having people tell me to do things against my will. You cast a spell on me against my consent. For that, you can forget having me deliver anything.”
Teriarch blinks in surprise, and then his eyes quickly narrow at me. He shakes his head darkly, and I feel the ominous presence around me grow stronger. Fear is eating a hole in my stomach.
“Effrontery. You come here into my home and tell me—but that is your kind, isn’t it? But there is something more to this—this display of insolence, isn’t there?”
He strokes at his beard as he stares hard at me. Teriarch’s eyes narrow.
“You would not have returned after ridding yourself of my spell just to tell me you refuse to serve me. You want something else. Tell me why you are here.”
He points at me, and I feel like answering him. But I bite my tongue.
He frowns. His finger glows, and his voice deepens.
He looks in my eyes and I feel something touching my mind. It’s the same as the first time I met him. I feel an overpowering urge to obey, to spill the beans and let him know everything and anything he wants.
But I fight back. I’ve done it once before. It took everything I had, but this time is easier. I refuse to open my mouth, and the pressure builds and builds before it suddenly stops. I shake my head and glare at him.
“No. Stop that.”
For the first time since I’ve met him, Teriarch looks well and truly floored. He stares at his fingers, and then back at me in disbelief.
“You—resisted my spell. How did you do that? You have no class.”
“It’s called willpower.”
“By willpower alone? That should not be—I suppose it might…”
He trails off, eyeing me with a bit more interest and possibly respect than before. He spreads his hands.
“Very well. What is it you wish to say? Why have you returned without delivering my ring and letter to Az’kerash?”
He’s still so intimidating, for reasons I can’t even explain. But I hold my ground. I have to answer back. I’m not going to just roll over, am I? Come on Ryoka! Sass this stupid mage! You can do it! You can throw some shade—you’re the shade master! That’s what they called you in school!*
*No, they didn’t. They called me ‘bitch’ and other uncreative names.
“I couldn’t find him. I checked the Blood Fields and found nothing. Oh yeah, I also found out I was under a spell and broke that too. Got a problem with that?”
Whoever Teriarch is, he’s clearly not up with modern retorts. The proper response is ‘fuck you’ or something to that effect. He glares at me.
“The exact location of Az’kerash is irrelevant. I gave you his general location. It is up to you to find him and deliver the message.”
I glare back. For once, I think I’m being out-glared, but I don’t give in.
“How am I supposed to do that? I have no idea where he is. And why should I do anything for someone who cast a spell on me to make me do that against my will?”
He shakes his head as if he could care less.
“You are a Runner. I have made a request. The logic is simple. You will complete the delivery.”
I grit my teeth hard enough to hear my jaw creak.
“No. I won’t.”
I shake my head. It takes more effort than I could have imagined.
He growls at me. Actually growls!
“You agreed to fulfill my request. You were paid—”
“To collect your request and the payment. I was going to deliver it to the Runner’s Guild so someone could fulfill it. Possibly me. That’s how an unmarked request works. I didn’t agree to do the delivery myself, much less be enchanted and forced to do it!”
“So what will you do? Refuse my request? Destroy my delivery? Throw it away?”
Teriarch looms over me. Was he so tall before? He looks furious.
“Or did you just come here to complain, Ryoka Griffin?”
I stare up at him. Don’t flinch. Drop the bomb.
“No. I came to tell you that you’re being blacklisted.”
My Runner’s pack is on my back. I flip it open and pull something out. The small Runner’s rule book I bought at the Guild. I open it and point to a passage I’ve bookmarked.
“Rule 21 of the Runner’s Guild states that ‘any Runner affected by spell or Skill may refuse to provide services and cancel any request made.’ Also, it says that anyone who attacks, hinders, or otherwise alters a Runner in the course of their duties can be banned from receiving or requesting any future deliveries. You can see it right here.”
I raise the book and throw it at Teriarch. He blinks and only a flick from his fingers stops the small volume from striking his face*. The look of irritation and incredulity on his face is almost worth whatever horrible fate I’m about to endure.
*Oh yeah. I threw the book at him.
He opens the book and flips through the pages, his face a portrait of disbelief. He looks up at me.
“You—cannot be serious. Do you know who I am?”
“No. Why not enlighten me?”
His left eye twitches.
“I am Teriarch, and I do not obey any requests of a mere—I will not be censured by you or the Guild of Runners.”
“Fine. In that case I won’t complete your delivery. You can have your ring and letter back.”
I open the belt pouch at my side and pull out the folded letter and ring. I thrust it at Teriarch and he blinks in disbelief.
“I’m keeping the potion, by the way. That’s also in the rules.”
“You cannot do this.”
For a second I think I’ve gone too far and the mage is about to explode. Teriarch’s face goes red, he yanks on his beard, and then starts shouting at the air.
“No. I will not—be silent, woman!”
I’m too scared to make a comment about sexism, but Teriarch doesn’t seem like he’s talking to me. He paces back and forth, mutters darkly into the air, and then looks furiously back at me.
“I must have that delivered. And I will have you do it. No—! I insist! It will be so!”
“I’m not doing it without another deal.”
“Then ask! What is it you desire, human?”
Okay, keep your cool Ryoka. I gesture with my hand aimlessly at the entrance of the cave.
“I went to the Blood Fields, but didn’t find anything. You said he’d be there or surrounded by the undead, but how can I find them? This continent is big. I have no idea where this Az’kerash is. If you want me to do the delivery, you also have to give me some kind of map.”
Teriarch stares at me. He takes a breath, releases it, and nods curtly. His hand raises palm up, and he says five curt words that make my ears ring. I can’t even remember what he said, only that when he’s done, he’s holding a…stone?
Yes, a stone. Just…a rock. A smooth one, but not much larger than my palm. It’s completely normal, aside from the glowing arrow of golden light etched in the center, of course. It rotates around and then points southwest fixedly in his palm.
Teriarch tosses it at me and I nearly drop it. It’s warm.
“Here. This will point without fail towards his magical signature. Would you like anything else? Or should I give you a flying carpet as well?”
“Do you have one?”
The look Teriarch gives me should fry me in place, but his gaze twitches just a bit to the right side of the room. No frickin’ way. But he recovers and when he points at me this time, the tip of his finger is glowing ominously.
“You will deliver the ring and letter to Perril Chandler or you will regret it, Ryoka Griffin. That is a promise.”
The sight of that glowing finger scares me more than a zombie trying to eat my throat or Gazi with her sword. I’m terrified out of my wits, but my mouth and body are on autopilot. I hold up a hand.
“Not so fast. Casting a spell on me means you forfeit the payment for the request you made. If you want me to deliver your damn letter and ring, make me a better offer.”
A blood vessel throbs on Teriarch’s temple. I gulp.
“Yeah. Pay me. Or else. Asshole.”
I really, really should have shut my mouth before I said that last word. I wait for the fireball, but Teriarch just stares at me. I think…he might be too stunned for words.
Teriarch stared slack-jawed at the impudent human in front of him. He had half a mind to simply blast her into little pieces, but it was a very small half. Really, the only thing in his mind besides shock and outrage was a tiny bit of admiration.
Tiny. Miniscule. But he’d never been challenged to his face quite so…so…so originally as this. Rules and regulations? As if mere words could restrain him.
But he had to admit, the rules did have a certain hold on him. He was a creature of his word; he might be above the law, but he respected it as a concept. And indeed, perhaps something he should pay heed to. He did little communication by Courier, but if he should indeed be banned…
“Very well. I suppose restitution can be made for your…inconvenience.”
The human stared up at him, unblinking. She was so strange. Who’d ever heard of someone willing to brave the High Passes not once, but twice? And to complain? About him casting a spell on her? It boggled Teriarch’s mind, but he wasn’t about to show weakness.
He tried to look around surreptitiously while trying to decide what was appropriate as recompense. He spoke offhandedly to Ryoka, trying to appear casual.
“I suppose forty gold pieces is not sufficient for such a task?”
The human narrowed her eyes up at him.
“That was the price for getting here and retrieving your request. You gave me a single potion as the price for delivery. That’s not nearly enough.”
Of course. Blast. Teriarch had forgotten how the request system worked. And even he had to admit, a single Potion of Haste was a paltry reward for even a simple delivery. He was just so used to commanding Couriers that he’d forgotten entirely what was worth giving.
Teriarch cast about, with his magical senses as much as his eyes. What could he give her that would placate her anger? He had quite a lot to give, but what was appropriate? A weapon? No, surely Runners wouldn’t use them. Jewels? Gold? Spell books? And how expensive was a delivery, anyways?
“Magnolia. What is the current rate of exchange in your wretched cities?”
Teriarch whispered the words, trying not to let the human see his uncertainty. He knew Magnolia was well-versed in the minutiae of human affairs, being one herself, but she was too busy laughing at him to reply.
Scale rot. Without her to help him, Teriarch was forced to bluff. He stroked at the wretched beard humans seemed to love and tried to look stern.
“For such an easy delivery, especially with the seeking spell, I feel some gold should be sufficient. Say…two hundred gold pieces?”
He had no idea if that was appropriate. The human girl paused, and then shook her head slowly. Tooth decay! She was probably offended.
“Two…hundred? Of course not.”
“Mm. Of course. Four hundred—no, eight hundred would be more appropriate, would it not?”
“P-possibly. Fine. I’ll accept that.”
Teriarch narrowed his eyes, but Ryoka had already schooled her expression to neutrality once more. He nodded slowly, still listening to Magnolia howl with laughter in his head.
“Very well. It is agreed.”
Below him, Ryoka nodded. She looked towards the entrance to his cave and patted her belt pouch where he could sense the letter and ring he had given her were stored.
“Right then, I’m off. I’ll complete your delivery when I have time. I’m heading towards Liscor in a few days anyways.”
Teriarch nodded. It was all he could expect. He’d let her go and hope she got there quickly—
Teriarch doesn’t seem to quite get it. I take a step back as I repeat what I’ve just said. My heart is pounding out of my chest.
“I’m going. To do your delivery. That’s what you want, isn’t it?”
“Yes—no. Human—Ryoka Griffin, I have much to ask of you.”
Two more steps back. Teriarch frowns at me and raises a hand.
“You cannot leave just yet. I have questions for you, and you will answer them.”
I shrug at him as if I could care less.
“Too bad. I’m A Runner. I deliver your stuff. You don’t get to ask me questions.”
“What? No. You will stay here.”
Again, I feel the force of his magic trying to slow me, but this time I’m ready for it. I flip him the bird and turn.
“Try that again and I’ll double my fee. You hired a Runner, and that’s what you get. I don’t do interviews.”
I begin walking away. It’s terrifying, and I feel his eyes on my back. He raises his voice angrily.
“You cannot leave! Stop! I command you!”
I raise one hand in goodbye.
“Come back here!”
Teriarch’s voice is thunder, but I ignore it. I begin jogging out of the cave, tensed at any second for a fireball to turn me into a flaming pile of flesh.
But nothing happens. Instead, I hear Teriarch choking and spluttering in outrage. I increase my pace, and realize I’m close to the exit. Bright daylight greets me and I run out of the cave and back the way I come.
Behind me, I hear a roar of fury that sounds almost…bestial. But I’m too busy running to think about that. I sprint until I’m nearly two miles away from the cave before I feel like I can safely slow down.
My mind is in a whirl, but as I keep running without any consequences, I slowly, slowly relax. And then I realize: I’ve done it. I’ve actually done it!
I run down the High Passes. They’re still empty, and the sky is sunny and clear overhead. Well, even these damn winter days can be quite nice if you have a mage around to scare away the Frost Faeries.
My step is light, and my body is slightly sweaty, but quite bearable to be around. I’ve got a speed potion at my belt, a letter and ring worth eight hundred gold coins in my pouch, and a destination in mind.
And oh yes. I’m grinning.