There’s an art to it. Like all things, tact is essential. A smile is important, because your first impression is probably your last. Always remember to be courteous, professional, and efficient.
I can do that last bit. For the rest…I’m working on it.
The blue-haired girl who opens the door blinks at me. I blink back. It’s the first time I’ve ever seen someone with dyed hair. But, as I quickly see, it’s not exactly an intentional dye-job.
The [Alchemist] brushes a bit of the blue dust out of her hair and raises a small cloud. She coughs, and I step back.
“Are you Rikku?”
She nods, eyes streaming. I hold out my package, a heavily wrapped…potato. That’s growing. A green sprout is coming right out of the top. Oh, and the potato is bigger than a baby. Probably the size of about two babies if we’re using that as unit of measurement.
It’s heavy. And I feel like it’s still growing. The run out to this small cottage had me feeling like my backpack was moving the entire time. Gah. I regret this entire delivery, but at least it’s nearly over.
“Got a Seal?”
Maybe it was thinking of [Alchemists] that made me accept this particular request. It was a mistake either way. Turns out a lot of requests are often magical or perishable, or in this case—both.
The oddly-named Rikku disappears back inside her hut and I wait impatiently, hoping the potato won’t explode or eat my head off. I’m not sure what it’s for and honestly, I don’t want to know.
Still. Rikku. That’s an interesting name for someone around here. It sounds almost…Japanese. Something from my world.
Then again, there is a place named Wales around here, so I suppose people just choose the same names now and then. I still have yet to run into a Lenny or a George, though. Although I did meet this one guy named Adrian a while ago. That sounds almost normal.
But then, who am I to talk? My name’s Ryoka. That’s probably weird to a lot of Americans back home.
Anyways, potato. I want it out of my hands and into the hut before it does something weird. It was a rush delivery—lots of pay to move it as fast as possible. I can see why. Plant this thing in the ground and you might actually get a magic beanstalk in the morning.
At last, the door opens and Ms. Blue Hair emerges with an equally blue Runner’s Seal for me. What the hell happened in there? Do I want to know?
“Here’s the package. Careful—it’s heavy.”
She takes it. She’s stronger than she looks, but I guess [Alchemists] have to be. I nod to her as she opens her mouth, probably to say thanks or something.
I’m running down the grassy hill and out the dirt road before she can even reply. Well, at least this time I said more than five words. It’s an improvement.
I don’t do well with people. I really don’t. It’s not even that I hate humanity in general. It’s just that I find conversations with strangers really, really awkward*.
*Yeah. Have you ever sat next to that silent person on the bus who just stares at you and then looks out the window the entire time? That’s me. It’s not that I don’t hate your guts – because I do, if you’re taking the seat next to me – but it’s just so awkward that I can’t deal. Seriously. Go away.
But being social is a skill I’ve got to learn here. Who would have thought? All those times my parents sent me to camp or cotillion, I’d get sent back or just disappear until they had to send out search parties and the police. And yet here I am, trying to be social.
The key word is trying. It’s really hard, okay? But I am trying.
I have to.
But hey, there is something to be said for brevity, right? As I power down the winding dirt road, I try to remember which delivery this is. Sixth one today? Or is it eighth?
It’s been a day since I pissed off Teriarch and got myself an eight hundred gold contract. You’d think that I’d be halfway towards the Blood Fields or wherever that magic stone is pointing me this time, but I’m still up north. Running deliveries for silver and copper coins.
I’ve got my reasons. First off, even if Teriarch’s delivery is really important, he’s an arrogant jerk and he can wait. Second, I need to prepare.
The last time I went down to the Blood Fields I ran past Shield Spiders, a few other monster types, but nothing more. I got lucky. But there’s no telling how many bandits or what-have-you might be out where I’m going, so I need some equipment.
It’s been made…painfully clear to me that I don’t have the skills to take down anything above the ill-equipped bandit or Goblin raiding party. I’ve got Teriarch’s potion, true, but I’m regarding that as a measure of last resort, rather than my first option.
So I’m lingering here, mainly because I’m waiting for some of my new equipment to finish being created. Or brewed. Concocted? Whatever the correct phrase is, Octavia’s doing it for me.
Her stink potion worked wonders in the High Passes. It was so effective, I got out of there even though Teriarch had taken it away. All the monsters were still gone, and I made it safely back to Celum without issue.
Now, I’m not going to carry around a bottle of that nightmarish stuff unless I can be sure, absolutely sure it’s not going to leak. Even stoppered up that potion somehow still smells. Octavia’s working on a more secure container, but she’s also got a few more projects to focus on.
The cost of hiring an [Alchemist]? Eight gold coins, both for the testing and experimentation process and delivery of the finished items. That’s insanely expensive, but Octavia wasn’t even sure some of the things I wanted were possible. I’ll get a refund if she can’t complete some of the things I want, but I think she’ll manage it. And if that’s the case, it will be eight gold coins well spent.
My bare feet churn the pleasant, warm dirt path. It’s so wonderful I half-wish I didn’t have to get back to the Guild to turn my Seals in. This is one of the few spots the Frost Faeries haven’t yet swept over, and as such, it still looks like it’s in the last stages of fall.
Mm. What a weird world this is, where winter is a product of creatures, not weather patterns. But is it like this across the world? These Frost Faeries seem quite slow—not to mention inefficient. I almost wonder if winter isn’t so much a world-wide event so much as a rolling condition that sweeps across continents, possibly changing course at the whims of the faeries. That would be quite interesting.
But of course how would I prove my hypothesis? Books are sort of low on my priority list right now. I don’t have much time to read, and I need to save up as much gold as possible for more important things. The lack of libraries in this world is offensive*.
*Public libraries, that is. Any wealthy merchant or noble probably has their own library of books, but I don’t see them letting me in. Hell, back in my world I needed to put on sandals every time I wanted in to a library.
Information. It becomes clearer with every passing day that even if I’m discovering some more fundamentals of this world, there’s an entire lexicon’s worth of data I haven’t even considered yet.
So what to do? Erin knows less than I do about some things, but she knows several groups of people who might have a lot of information. That Gnoll named Krshia, Klbkch, possibly Pisces…the only question is whether talking to them is worth the risk of giving secrets away.
I could try and contact BlackMage, or another one of the users in my iPhone if I knew how the spell worked. Pisces was able to recover the messages however briefly—could I send a one-time text to one of them?
Maybe. It seems risky, especially since it’s been proven that the iPhones can be hacked by magic as well. And anyways, I don’t know what the situation is with them. People can say anything, but even if we’re all in another world, we’re all still human. Politics, greed, and prejudice didn’t disappear with our old world.
No, no. Right now I need to focus on the task at hand. Teriarch’s delivery is my highest priority. Eight hundred gold will help me, Erin, and Ceria immensely. Moreover, it’ll help me with my next task as well.
Because I have a goal now. It’s to become a Courier.
The logic is simple. A Courier is considered to be an important figure, even vital depending on how you look at it. There’s influence there, and respect. They’re pretty much the same as a Gold-rank adventurer, or even higher. If I attained that position, I’d be able to go across the continent and ask questions and take deliveries anywhere I wanted without raising suspicion.
Plus, Couriers get paid a lot more than even City Runners for their deliveries. If I could support myself that way Erin wouldn’t need to worry about her inn. It would let me save up, use the money to…
Well, the larger plan’s still hazy at the moment. But Erin was always right. If I look too far ahead, I’ll trip on the things right in front of me.
Speaking of which—I hop over a jagged rock in the road. That would have hurt. But barefoot runners learn to watch the ground constantly, so the odds of us ever stepping in something horrible are pretty remote.
Hm. The things we see and don’t see. Is there a way to find out where the other people from our world are? We all have iPhones, so we should be able to locate each other that way, right? How did the magic find us? Just saying it’s magic is kind of cheap. Did it home in on some aspect of our iPhones? Are they sending out signals somehow?
Oh no. The GPS!
I halt in my tracks and throw my backpack to the ground. Ryoka, you idiot. How did you not consider that? Your GPS is the first thing people would think of. They could have been tracking you all this time! Everywhere you’ve gone!
My iPhone glows and I urgently tap my way into the Settings app. Then I pause. My heart stops trying to overload in my chest.
It’s already turned off. Right. Of course. I remember I turned off the GPS in my iPhone the day I got it, so my parents couldn’t spy on me. A smart move, since that was pretty much the reason why they let me have it.
Okay, that’s a relief. I close out of the settings menu. Battery’s still good, too. 30% or thereabouts. I could listen to some music while I run, come to think of it. It’s been a lone time since I took out my iPhone, but I want to conserve the battery now that Sostrom’s…
“What’s that, Human?”
And just like that, my day goes straight down the toilet. The air around me freezes, and I look up. A Frost Faeries is hovering over my shoulder, staring down at my glowing phone’s screen with curiosity.
God. I thought Teriarch had chased them away. But no, apparently nearly being fried only grants me a day’s reprieve. I glare at the Frost Faeries and put my iPhone back in its worn case.
The faerie just sneers at me. They never listen to what I say, or respond to my comments unless it’s because they want me to answer a question. She flutters around my iPhone until I tuck it away in my pocket. Then she shouts in my ear.
“Don’t ignore me! Tell us what that is! It is a thing of iron, but not. And it makes light without magic or fire! What is it?”
Another faerie flies lazily by my head. They don’t seem to need to flap their wings as much as a normal bird or insect. She points at my pocket, talking to her friend. The faeries always seem to travel in groups of at least eight or more.
“’Tis an object born of smog and flame, from another world! She brought it here, this foolish wench!”
That makes my head snap up. I stare at the faerie that’s spoken.
“Another world? What do you mean by that?”
She looks at me, and then away. They have no interest in answering any of my questions. But I desperately need answers. Just what did she mean by that? Does she mean what I think she does? If so—
The first faerie flies down and perches on my head, freezing the skin with her tiny feet. She bends down so her head appears upside-down in my vision.
“Smelly human! How does a mortal like you know the old smoker?”
I have no idea what she’s talking about. And as much as it pains me, I’m curious, so I respond.
“What old smoker?”
The faeries exchange an incredulous glance as they hover around my head. They chatter to each other, staring at me and shaking their small heads as they do.
“Does she not know? She just talked to him!”
“I think she’s as daft as the other one.”
“Two heads and not a brain between them! How sad!”
The fairy on my head leans down and slaps the skin on my head. I wince and grit my teeth. I really, really want to pluck the stupid faerie off my head, but the only thing that’ll do is give me frostbite. She’s giving me a headache just by standing there, but the faeries can get a lot colder if they want to.
“‘Tis the one of fire living in yon cave I speak of, you fool! The old grumpy one! How do you know of him, mortal and pathetic as you are?”
The one in the cave? They must mean Teriarch. But why would they call him…?
The fairy stamps on my forehead again and I wince. That’s it. They’re getting nothing out of me. I glare at the faerie and say nothing. If they can be rude jerks, so can I.
“Oh, ignoring us, eh? Well ignore this!”
Losing patience, the faerie on my head takes off. I know what’s coming and brace myself. A second later, a snowball catches me on the back of the head, making me stagger as I run. She laughs, and suddenly the entire herd decides that they want to join in.
The warm air and sunny skies turn cold and blustery, and snow begins to fall from the sky as the Frost Faeries work their magic, bringing winter to this last spot. The ground freezes under my feet, and all around me, snowballs the size of my fist pelt me from all sides as the faeries fly around me.
I run on, trying to ignore the cold snow as it strikes my face, my chest, my back, and my legs. I know they’ll stop. The faeries act just like bullies. They get bored if you don’t respond. They’ll stop throwing snow any second now.
Ten miles down the road, I stop and drop my pack so I can pull out my snow shoes and a fresh change of clothes. Not to change with; just to wipe all the snow and ice off my body.
The last of the Frost Faeries flies off, laughing, and I silently curse them as I shiver. I’m drenched, and nearly hypothermic from the pounding they just gave me.
Who knew tiny faeries could throw snowballs so damn hard? But they’re gone—at least until they get bored and come back to torment me some more.
“God damn it.”
I never thought I’d hate anything as much as I did faeries. Seriously. They’re worse than dogs that aren’t on leashes or broken bottles on the road. I’d rather run barefoot through a forest full of pine trees than have one of those faeries following me.
And why the hell do they bother only me? It’s like they enjoy making my life a misery more than anyone else’s. Isn’t there some way I can get rid of them? They don’t like iron, but it doesn’t seem to work nearly as well as the old stories say. Half the time I see some poor fellow raising an iron horseshoe at the fairies only to get blasted off his feet by a gust of wind.
And what was that they were saying? It was something about Teriarch. They wanted to know why I knew him? Do they know of him? He was able to chase them off, which is pretty unique.
Old smoker. Why would they call him…?
…No. No, that’s not right. It can’t be. I mean, that would be obvious. I would have noticed that instantly.
Teriarch is just a mage. A mage who looks suspiciously Elven, and he doesn’t do anything to hide that. And he uses weird expressions…and he has a cave…
…And a lot of valuable treasure in the cave…and he can conjure really hot flames…
No. I would have noticed earlier, surely. Why didn’t I? The pieces all add up. But Teriarch—did he do something to my head?
Of course he did. He did it once. Why not twice?
Magic. How can I tell anything’s real? It could make me believe anything, couldn’t it? Too much more of this and I’ll doubt my own memories. What if there were things I said or did around Teriarch, or things he told me that he’s erased from my memory?
Think. Cognito ergo sum. That is all I know. Ergo sum cognito. I am a thinking being, that much I can believe. But…
Omnia quae scis forsitan species vana sit. I think that’s accurate. My Latin’s rusty.
…If I take this off-hand quote from the Frost Faerie seriously – and how else would I interpret it? – then why didn’t I notice it? Magic? Or maybe I noticed it and was made to forget.
How do you undo a memory spell? Is one on me? Could you even check?
Slow down, Ryoka. Any more of this and you’ll turn into a conspiracy nut. Not that all conspiracies are wrong. Turns out the government is spying on us, half the wealth of the world is held in the hands of just eight people, and magic and other worlds do exist.
Yeah. I’m in trouble.
I run on, trying to get somewhere indoors before the melted ice and winter weather kills me. It’s time to turn in my Seals anyways. I could use a hot bath, a hot meal, and a hot bed. Hell, I’ll eat and sleep in the bath if I could.
Yeah. A bath sounds really good right now. One short stop at the Runner’s Guild and I’m off to an inn.
That’s the problem with plans. They never work out quite as well as you’d hope.
“Seven deliveries on one day? Come on Ryoka, I know I said we needed help, but try to leave something for the rest of us.”
“I’ll think about it.”
I smile faintly at Fals to let him know I’m joking. He laughs as if I’ve said something hilarious, and just like that, the conversation continues without any unpleasant silence.
I’m sitting in the Runner’s Guild, taking a moment to warm up and waiting for one of the receptionists to get back to me with my pay. Just so coincidentally, Fals happened to be done with his deliveries, so he came to sit next to me. He started talking, I didn’t bite his head off, and so here we are.
Mind you, we’re not the only Runners in the guild. A lot of people are inside, warming up. Including one person I was rather hoping died in a snowbank somewhere.
Across the room Persua glares daggers at me. If she had one in her hand, I wouldn’t be surprised if she threw it. I meet her gaze steadily, unblinking. If she wants a staring contest that’s fine. I can stare for at least five minutes before I need to blink.
Fals notices and casually moves his chair so his head is in the way. I look away and across the room I hear Persua laughing loudly at something.
When I’m in the Runner’s Guilds in these cities everything shrinks down, and all the little personal relationships and vendettas come right out of the woodwork. Remember, in this place Fals is the big shot Runner that all the female Runners and receptionists love. And Persua hates my guts because he seems to like me. And Garia likes Fals, which makes everything that much more complicated.
She’s not here right now, which actually makes me slightly relieved. We hadn’t spoken after I broke the news about the Horns of Hammerad, and I’m not sure what to say.
Meanwhile, Fals is doing his charming thing, which is to say he’s greeting all the Runners who come in by name, and talking animatedly with them. He’s a social guy. A good guy, perhaps. I still remember the problems I had with Magnolia and the Guild, but I’ll acknowledge he does his job better than any other Runner in the guild, including me. I might be faster, but he has a good relationship with all his clients.
Fals leans over the table, one leg bouncing gently on the floor. He, like all the Runners, is generally restless when seated. That’s one thing all of us have in common. We like to run.
“Liscor, huh? That’s a ways, but the Runner’s Guild in Esthelm might have a few requests going down that way. More if they know someone’s willing to do the route often.”
“Hm. Sounds good. I’ve got a…friend down there so I’ll be heading there a lot.”
Fals’ eyebrows rise, but he masks his surprise.
“Well then, I’ll talk to the Guildmaster down there when I’ve got the chance. We don’t deal much with the Drakes and Gnolls, but that’s because they seldom come north to trade. It could be good to open up a conversation again.”
I nod politely, and try not to say anything he’ll regret. Of course he’s surprised I have a friend. I’m surprised just saying it.
Guildmasters, huh? From what I understand, the ones in each local Runner’s Guild are retired Runners. The same goes for the Adventurer’s Guilds. The staff is either hired help or people too injured or old to work the jobs themselves. It’s a good system that gives work to people who’ve contributed to the guild.
Fals looks at me and then coughs politely.
“I was—wondering if you’d like to grab a bite at a pub later. I know a good chef who just learned the [Advanced Cooking] skill.”
Crap. This is what I was afraid of. I hesitate. Fals is a probably a good guy, but I’m not interested in him. I’m just not. But then, I can’t just refuse outright. I try to think of an excuse, and then the door opens.
Fals and I look around, and then both of us leap to our feet. Our chairs crash to the ground.
She stumbles into the room, unsteady on her feet. Her hand is clasped to a bandage around her temple, and blood is running down her left cheek. One of the Runners by the door seizes her before she can topple over.
I don’t remember crossing the room. But I’m next to Garia before anyone else, peeling back the bandage. Fals hovers over my elbow anxiously.
“How bad is it?”
“I can’t see. Get out of the light and get me some water. And—a potion.”
I’d nearly forgotten about healing potions. I’m remembering all my first aid training. I snatch a water bottle someone gives me and use a length of cloth someone else gives me to wipe gently at the blood. It doesn’t look like Garia’s skull is fractured, just bleeding, but I need to check.
Breathing? Good. Pulse? Strong. If the head injury is bad, I need to avoid aggravating it. But first aid training is always given with the theory that the injured person will receive more complete care later. This world doesn’t have doctors or hospitals, just [Healers]. If she’s injured, I might be the most-qualified person to help her.
Garia shudders a bit as I dab at the blood, but sits still. Her eyes are unfocused. Crap. I pray she doesn’t have a concussion. But that might be better than a broken skull.
Fals pushes a healing potion into my hands.
“Hold on. I need to check…”
I feel as gently as I can around the injury. That does make Garia moan, but I need to know that nothing is broken. If it is, a healing potion might make the bone knit wrong.
Garia’s skull isn’t broken. I don’t even think the bone is cracked. She’s just lost blood. I uncork the potion and pour some around her injury.
It begins to close as Garia whimpers. She grabs my arm—so hard I can feel her pressing down on my bone. But I don’t tell her to stop.
In a few seconds the injury is closed and Garia lets go. She takes a few deep breaths, and then looks at me.
I stare at her. She’s still pale from loss of blood, and the healing didn’t do anything for her concussion, if that’s what she has. I grip her shoulder to steady her while I look into her eyes.
As if I don’t know. But Garia just shakes her head. Her lip trembles. She looks at me, and then Fals, on the edge of tears.
“I got attacked.”
The story comes out as the other Runners find Garia a padded seat. We have her sit down and the entire room congregates around her. It surprises me, but then, I’ve never been in the Guild long enough to see someone come in injured.
Whatever you might say about Runners and their pack mentality, they do look after their own. One Runner gets attacked and everyone’s at risk. That’s why the receptionist comes out from behind the counter with something alcoholic for Garia to drink, and Fals sits next to her while the other Runners crowd around, listening to her story.
“It was bandits. They came over a hill when no one was around and tried to cut me off. Some were shooting arrows, and one had a club. I tried to out run them, but he got me—”
Garia gestures to her healed head and the dried blood on her cheek. She doesn’t seem to notice as another Runner wipes the blood off.
“Bandits? On the main road?”
Fals shakes his head and some of the other Runners exchange glances.
“They must be getting desperate. I’ve heard there was a band around here that was preying on travelers…”
“Can’t believe they hit one of us in the daylight. And arrows? Normally they just try to rob us, not kill.”
“How did you get away?”
That’s what I want to know. Garia blinks up at me.
“I—was saved. I was on the ground when someone else attacked the bandits. I don’t know who. A traveler, I think. Maybe another Runner?”
Fals frowns worriedly, and glances at the map on the wall. The main roads and cities are all marked.
“Someone from Wales? We could ask the Guild if they had anyone coming this way.”
“Should we go out and see if we can find them? If it was one person—”
“They either got away, or the bandits got them by now. We wouldn’t find anything and we’d only put ourselves at risk.”
The other Runners argue in the background. I’m still intent on Garia. Fals asks the question I was going to next.
“You got away? Why were you still injured? Didn’t you have time to heal yourself?”
“I—I just kept running. I didn’t think to heal myself. I couldn’t, even if I wanted to.”
“Why not? You lost a lot of blood. A healing potion would have stopped you from collapsing like you did.”
“I—don’t have one. I can’t afford it.”
Garia blushes and turns red. She stares down at her feet as the other Runners look somewhere else. Of course. Of all the City Runners, Garia’s one of the slowest, even if she can carry a lot. She runs for only a few silver pieces at best, usually coppers.
The others are silent, but then Fals pats Garia on the knee. She looks like she’s going to cry from embarrassment.
“Nothing to be ashamed of. You got here on your own two feet, after being hit by a club. I couldn’t do that.”
The other Runners agree. Fals turns, and calls out.
“Don’t we have anything hot to drink? Not alcohol—can someone get a mug of goat’s milk? And food. And a blanket! Garia’s nearly frozen here!”
Some Runners immediately make for the doors at his words, and the receptionist darts into a back room to look for a blanket. I stare at Garia.
Not even enough for a healing potion. Jumped by bandits on the road. It’s never happened to me, but then I run so fast that maybe it wasn’t an issue.
Just when I think I know this world, something like this happens to remind me that you don’t need horrible monsters. Humans are evil and cruel enough to each other.
Fals is still trying to get Garia to sit still and calling out for something warm to drink and a blanket. I look at her, and the other Runners, and decide she’ll be fine.
Quietly, I make my way out of the crowd of people and towards the door. I slip out. I’ve got someone I need to visit. I was going to see her anyways, but now I’ve got two reasons to talk to Octavia.
I hear the screaming just before I push open the door. Damn it. What now?
I flatten myself against the side of the boarded up windows, listening hard. Octavia’s screaming inside. Will I get a face full of explosion if I open the door? No time to wonder.
Yank open the door, throw myself out of the way. Nothing explodes. I rush into the shop and see Octavia in the center of it.
The dark-skinned young woman is screaming and clawing at her face.
“My eyes! It’s in my eyes!”
A bright red—no, vermilion-colored potion is sitting on the table in front of Octavia. It’s uncorked. Immediately, I cover my own eyes and hold my breath, but it doesn’t seem to be toxic.
And—I’m pretty sure I know what it is. And if it is what I think it is, Octavia’s only making it worse by wiping at her eyes.
I make my way as quickly to Octavia as I can without knocking anything over. She’s clawing at her face, but her eyes are streaming so badly she probably can’t see.
“Aaaaagh! I can’t see!”
“Octavia! It’s me!”
I grab at her hands.
“Don’t rub at it—you’ll just make it worse!”
She isn’t listening to me. Octavia’s fingers are at her eyes, and she’s fighting me as I try to restrain her. She’s strong—maybe stronger than me.
“Octavia, listen to me, stop—!”
Her fingers dig into her eyes and I freeze. Octavia screams, pushes with her fingers, and her eyes pop out of their sockets.
I see the fleshy orbs moving, and then they’re in the air, real and horrible for one second, attached by red string to the sockets. And then—
Two cotton pieces of fabric stitched together to look like eyes land on the ground. I stare down at them, and see the orange-red stain of the potion soaking the front of the cotton.
Octavia sighs, and relaxes in my grip. She speaks normally to me as she turns two gaping empty sockets my way.
“Oh, hey Ryoka. Can you find my eyes on the ground?”
I stare at her. Octavia’s face is still flesh, but without her eyes I can literally look into two empty sockets. They gape at me, and I feel my lunch coming up.
“Oh wait, it’s the sockets, isn’t it? Sorry.”
She closes her eyelids and I can finally look away. I pick up both eyes very gingerly, and press them into her hands. Octavia smiles.
“Thanks, Ryoka. I wasn’t expecting that to hurt as much as it did. Wow. Good thing you came along, or I’d be looking for these forever.”
I nod dumbly, and then realize she can’t see me. Octavia carefully feels at the table in front of her as I stare at her.
“Oh, sure! Sorry if I scared you—I was just testing that potion you had me make. It’s strong stuff, let me tell you. Worth every copper piece you invested, and as soon as I clean the mixture off I’ll be happy to show you the others.”
She fumbles around, nearly knocks over the pepper-spray potion, and steadies it just in time.
“Hey, Ryoka, I’ve got a basin of water around here. Can you find it for me?”
Silently, I locate the bucket and put it in front of Octavia. She tosses the eyes in and begins to scrub at them gently.
“Hm. Feels like the oil in the potion is sticking rather well. I know I’ve got a cleansing potion on my shelves. Can you grab it? It’s green with streaks of blue.”
It takes me a few minutes to locate the correct potion, but when I give it to Octavia she adds a tiny bit to the water. It instantly turns clear, and less than ten seconds later she pulls her eyes out of the water and gently pats them down with a towel before popping them back into her face.
Octavia turns and beams at me, blinking a few times and wiping her eyes.
“Whew! Sorry about that. It’s always a challenge getting the cloth clean after a spill. I should just keep the cleansing potion on my belt, but you know how it is.”
I stare at her. I just can’t quite erase the image of her sightless gaze from my head.
“Just fine, thanks for asking! I’ll admit it hurt a lot getting that stuff on my eyes, but I can safely say that this potion’s complete. I’d ask if you want to try it, but you can’t pull your eyes out of their sockets, so just take it on faith, huh?”
I blink at the pepper potion as Octavia lifts it and recoil.
“Get that out of my face.”
“Oops, sorry, sorry. Let me just cork that.”
Octavia stoppers the potion before handing it back to me. I gingerly shake the potion and watch the thick liquid sloshing around inside.
“One pepper potion, ready to blind anyone you really don’t like. It should cover a lot of space. Just make sure you don’t throw it upwind or you’ll be just as blind when it hits you.”
“Got it. I mean—thanks.”
Yeah, a pepper potion. To be more accurate, this is this world’s equivalent of pepper spray. Octavia took every hot pepper and painful substance she could and mixed it into something that would probably make mace look like lemon water.
And yes, I asked her to make it for me. I just didn’t expect her to test it out on herself.
I eye Octavia’s eyes. They’re still a bit red and the skin around her face is a bit irritated.
“You’re sure you’re okay? That stuff is giving you a rash.”
“Eh, it’s not worse than anything I get from spilling acid on myself. I might try and get it fixed later, but I’m fine for now.”
Of course. Stitch-people wouldn’t need healing potions. Or if they did, it would only be as a last resort. But it’s far easier just to replace some fabric or stitch something together.
“…Well, good. I uh—”
I shake my head and remember why I’m here.
“Do you have any healing potions? Good ones. I need one.”
“Healing potions? I’ve got lots! Any particular potency you desire? The good ones are all over a gold coin’s worth.”
“I need one for Garia.”
Briefly, I explain to Octavia what happened. The stitched girl’s eyes widen.
“That’s terrible! Of course I’ve got a healing potion. The girl needs it! Here, I’ll give you a discount. Garia can pay me back.”
She reaches for a potion, but I stop her.
“Garia said she couldn’t afford one. She’s not rich, so she could probably afford only a few silver coins’ worth.”
“That’s…not really enough. I suppose I could give her something weak, but if she’s running she’ll need a strong one.”
“Right, so give me a healing potion that’s only a few silver coins. Here’s the payment.”
I place a gold coin and four silver coins down on the counter. Octavia’s eyebrows shoot up and she stares at me.
“Got a problem?”
She hesitates, and then pushes the coins back towards me.
“Keep it. Garia’s a good kid, and she’s been a long-time customer of mine. I’d hate to see her get hurt—more than she already is, I mean.”
That surprises me, but Octavia takes a yellow potion off the shelf and puts it on the counter.
“This one should be worth only a few silver coins. And best yet, she can use it sparingly if the wound isn’t deep. Tell her I’ve got more in the shop. Tell the other Runners, too!”
“I will. Um. Thanks.”
Awkwardly, I take the potion. Octavia smiles at me.
“Now, is that all? As you can see, I’m still in the middle of testing and creating some of the things you asked for, but I’ve got some if you need them.”
I hesitate, then nod. I might as well. I’m not due to head back to Erin’s inn for a few more days, but better safe than sorry. Garia’s just illustrated that point.
“I’ll take whatever you’ve got ready. How many did you manage to complete?”
Octavia turns and moves to a small crate, talking as she opens the lid and shows me what’s within.
“The pepper spray potion is ready, although I didn’t come up with a way to spray it like you asked just yet. But you can still hurl it. I’ve got two bags done, and two more bottles for you.”
She hands me some bags with the drawstrings tightly closed. They’re supposed to be special cloths that won’t let anything through, but I make sure the knots are tight before I put them in my pack.
Octavia places a warning hand on my arm before she gives me the two other potions.
“Careful with these. I had to buy enchanted glass for both. There’s a cork on the top—pull it out and the glass will weaken so you can smash the bottles if you want. But be careful. Break it anywhere near you and—”
“I’ll be careful. You’ll keep working on the other two?”
“Of course! When you come back I’ll have multiples of each. And then we can talk about another deal, perhaps? I’d love to work on any more projects, if you’ve got the coin.”
“I should, when I get back.”
I store all the potions in my pack, carefully wrapping them in the blanket I bring for long runs. I nod at Octavia.
“I’ve got to get back to Garia. I’ll see you—”
“—Later. You Runners are always busy. Come back soon, and with more coin!”
I leave the shop and jog down the street. That was an exciting few minutes, but the most important thing is that I’ve got a potion. With that in mind, I double-time it back to the Runner’s Guild and nearly run into another Runner coming in.
“My fault. You first.”
He grins at me, and I nod and walk inside. I haven’t seen him before, but then maybe he’s from further away. I find Garia and the others more or less where I’ve left them, only now Garia’s got food and drink in front of her and a blanket on her shoulder.
Fals looks over as I walk towards him. He raises his eyes.
“Ryoka, where have you been?”
“Getting something. Here.”
I take the potion out and put it on the table in front of Garia. She goes wide-eyed at the sight of the glowing mixture.
“Free of charge. Octavia’s compliments. She says she’ll give a discount to any Runner who wants a healing potion.”
The other Runners murmur appreciatively, and I feel more than one hand slap me on the back. Well, maybe Octavia will get some business from this after all. Probably as she intended.
That thought’s unworthy of her. She gave me the potion for Garia’s sake. She might have known it would engender goodwill, but that’s just good business sense along with a kind heart.
Garia stares at the potion and then up at me. She turns red again.
“I can’t—this looks expensive. I can’t take this. I’ll pay you—her back.”
“It’s a gift. Take it and use it.”
Fals nudges Garia gently and winks quickly at me. For once I’m grateful he’s here.
“Listen to Ryoka, Garia. Octavia knows she can get us buying her potions if she can prove she’s got quality. Besides, you need something for emergencies like today.”
He pauses and snaps his fingers lightly.
“I’ve got a spare wand with a single cast of [Slow] enchanted in it. It won’t stop arrows, but it should let you get away from any group of bandits next time. You can come by my room later and pick it up.”
The other Runners like that notion. One offers a stamina potion, and another tells Garia he’s got a dagger she can have. The good mood lasts right up until I hear the high-pitched voice from just opposite me.
“Some of us make enough money to provide for ourselves. We don’t need to bother other Runners.”
I look up. Now, why couldn’t the bandits have attacked Persua? She sniffs at both me and Garia. Her eyes flick towards Fals, and then shoot daggers at Garia.
“What’s the big deal? Garia got away with only a little scratch. If she were faster, she wouldn’t have been caught at all.”
I’m no expert, but even I know that was the wrong thing to say. A lot of Runners glare, but to my disgust, some seem to agree with Persua. Bastards.
“Anyways, Garia should pay Ryoka—I’m sorry, I mean Octavia back for the potion. We all earn enough, don’t we? At least, I do.”
Garia’s face is a tomato, and my chest is too tight. My hand clenches. Can I punch her? She’s not too far away. I could turn her stupid face into a paste before anyone could stop me.
But—no, damn it. I can’t do that. I loosen my hands and force myself to smile at Persua. She wants to use words? I can do words.
“Oh, really? How much do you earn, Persua? I’m curious. Do you earn a few silver coins each day or are they all copper? I earn quite a lot. Want to compare numbers?”
Persua’s sallow* face goes slack, and then she gives me a look of pure, unrefined hatred.
*Still not sure that’s the right word.
“At least I don’t run off whenever I please. I’m a dedicated Runner to the Guild, not some aimless drifter.”
That was weak. I open my mouth to retort, and Fals breaks in. He glares at both of us from Garia’s side.
“Persua. Ryoka. Not the time.”
She tosses her hair and I close my mouth, ashamed. Damn it. That was catty. I should know better, but Persua—
I’ve never had girls in high school run me over with a wagon. Just try to push me down the stairs. Persua’s on a whole new level. But Fals is right.
He waits until he’s sure we’re not going to start anything, and then turns back to Garia. He talks to her soothingly.
“We’ll ask the Watch to put a few patrols on the roads. What happened to the ones who jumped you, Garia?”
She shudders, and begins to speak, but someone cuts her off. A tall guy steps forwards and raises his voice.
“They’re all dead. I’ve reported the incident to the local Watch.”
Everyone looks at him. Garia opens her mouth and gapes, and I realize I’m standing right next to the guy who I saw outside the Runner’s Guild.
The tall Runner who I saw entering the Guild nods to the other Runners. He looks with interest at Garia’s head and speaks to her.
“Good to see you didn’t get too badly hurt, Miss Runner. I was worried, but you got away before I could look for you.”
Garia’s eyes widen, and she tries to get to her feet. Fals stops her, but Garia points her finger at the newcomer.
“You—you’re the one who saved me!”
He’s not quite as handsome as Fals is – someone broke his nose once, and it was never set quite right. But he’s got something the other Runners don’t, and that’s a presence. He looks like some of the athletes you see in the Olympics and in sports—someone with enough self-confidence in what they do that it shows in everything they do.
Fals smiles at the new Runner, and gets up to extend a hand.
“You saved Garia on the road? Thank you, from me and everyone in the Guild.”
“Think nothing of it.”
The stranger returns Fals’ handshake and smiles in reply. His eyes flick towards me, and then at the other Runners.
“It’s a good Guild you’ve got here. Allow me to introduce myself. My name is Valceif Godfrey. I’m a Courier from First Landing. I’ve come down this way to do a delivery to the city of Liscor.”
He nods at the stunned room.
“Pleased to meet you all.”
“I can’t stay. I’ve got an important delivery to make.”
That was the first thing Valceif said after the uproar had died down enough for him to be heard. He balanced on the balls of his feet, looking from Fals to the map on the wall.
“In truth, I’d like to have been on the road an hour ago, but I had to take care of those bandits and deal with the local Watch. And…I’m lost.”
He stands in the center of the room as if he’s used to the looks of amazement he’s getting. I’m the one who’s not used to it. The other Runners, both City Runners and Street Runners, are treating this guy as if he’s some kind of rock star. Even Fals looks amazed.
“It’s great to meet you. I’ve only seen two Couriers before, and never this far south. My name is Fals. I’m sorry the guilds didn’t notify us you were coming down this way, ah, Valceif.”
“Call me Val. It’s a pleasure to meet you, Fals.”
“Can we get you anything? You must be tired. Again, if we knew you were coming…”
Valceif shakes his head.
“I haven’t stopped running since I passed Invrisil. Unless you’ve got a mage in your guild, I’m not surprised you haven’t heard I was coming this way.”
A mage in a Runner’s Guild? I could see how that would be helpful, but that speaks to a far larger guild than the small one here. And did he say he came from Invrisil? Isn’t that the city six hundred miles north of here?
Fals looks like he can’t believe it either, but Val just smiles.
“I’m fine. Truly. I wouldn’t have stopped, but I’ve never come this far south and the snow makes it hard to tell where I’m headed. If you could point me to one of the main roads, I’d be grateful.”
“But we’d love to talk to you. If it’s not an imposition—I know a lot of Runners aspire to be a Courier one day. Could you spare an hour from your journey to rest?”
Again, the Courier declines.
“My delivery’s a priority. I can’t stop even to chat. Apologies, but I’ll be coming back up this way. There will be plenty of time then.”
Fals nods immediately. I wonder what’s so important that a Courier wouldn’t even be allowed to stop to rest.
“We can have a Runner show you to the spot. We also have a map if you need one—”
“A Runner is fine. Preferably someone fast?”
Fals nods. Flustered, he looks around. Well, this seems like a good opportunity. I raise my voice and step forwards.
“I’m heading down that way myself. Mind if I join you?”
The other Runners look at me, and Val glances questioningly at Fals. He nods, relieved.
“Ryoka is the fastest City Runner in the region. She can take you to the road fastest.”
“Well then, if it’s not too much trouble, I’d like to move out soon. Is that okay with you?”
He raises an eyebrow at me, challengingly. I think I almost like this guy. He’s confident, not just cocky. He reminds me of other athletes I’ve met.
“Give me five minutes. If that’s not too long?”
Fals looks like he’s going to inhale his tongue, but Val grins broadly.
“Five minutes is fine. I’ll be here.”
I nod and move towards the counter. The receptionist is staring at Vals behind it, but she jumps and looks at me as I cough.
“I still need my payment.”
“What? Oh! Of course! Just let me—”
It takes her slightly longer than five minutes to get me my coin, mainly because her hands are shaking so bad. But eventually I have my money and I secure my pack as I tighten my shoes.
Vals nods at me and extricates himself from the crowd of Runners.
“Ready to go?”
He turns and nods at the room.
“Runners, Miss Garia. It was a pleasure to meet you all.”
“Thank you for saving—”
Oops. The door closes behind me and Val. We’re already out the door. I glance at him. He’s a Courier? I wonder how fast he is.
As if he’s reading my mind, Val glances at my feet and then at the open street.
“Slippery road. If you want to take it slow, I’ll match your pace. Just point me in the right direction and I’ll be on my way.”
“I have business in Liscor too. I might join you.”
“You’re welcome to.”
If you can. Neither he or I need to hear the unspoken words. I grit my teeth. My body’s tired, but this is a challenge. This is a race. Me against a Courier. Time to see how high the bar is.
“Let’s go. Try to keep up.”
I don’t break into a sprint right away. Unless you’re running a race that’s a terrible idea. But I do set a fast pace through the city.
Val keeps pace effortlessly with me, and I can tell he’s watching me as I run. I know because I’m doing the same.
“You have good form. It’s nice to see someone else who knows how to run.”
He says that, but that’s my line. When I first came to this world, I thought no one else knew how to run properly. Even Fals tends to waste a bit of motion in his movements, and most of the Runners don’t have good posture or form.
But Val runs like any athlete on the track. Short stride, center of gravity light, stepping with the fore and middle of his foot rather than landing on his heels. He and I both run as if we’re falling forwards, bodies relaxed, feet flashing across the frozen ground.
The city disappears behind us and I decide it’s time to test how fast this guy really is. I move into my fast run, the speed I run at in a marathon. Val doesn’t even blink as he speeds up.
I move faster. I’m at a dead-run now, racing speed. He stays right next to me, not even blinking. So I sprint. I push into the ground and take off. My feet might be hampered by these damn shoes, but even with them I can go terrifically fast.
The world blurs around me and becomes a tunnel. I strike the frozen earth with my feet as fast as possible, leaving a flurry of powdery snow as I dash ahead. That should do it. That should—
Val runs right next to me, legs flashing through the snow, grinning. Not mockingly; not even in challenge. He’s enjoying the run, and he’s right next to me as I run as fast as I ever have.
You’ve got to be—
“You don’t have any Skills, or Classes, do you? That you can run this fast is truly impressive.”
Val shouts that over the rushing wind. I can’t even spare the effort to look at him—I’m putting everything I have into the run. But I hear his voice, not even out of breath. I feel like I’m gasping for air over here.
“That’s what the pinched-face girl in your Guild told me. She doesn’t seem to like you.”
Persua? In five minutes—she talked?—what a bitch.
Can’t even think. I try to increase speed, but Val doesn’t even look strained.
“I don’t want to hurt your pride, but I do have a job to do. You’re quick, but I need to get to Liscor by tonight at the latest. So—pardon me.”
He runs a tiny bit faster, so he can nod back at me. Then he says two words.
The world is a blur around me, but Val was like the center of a focused lens. Since he and I are keeping the same pace, it’s like we’re the only two people in a world of blurred colors. But when he speaks, he suddenly blurs forwards.
I can’t believe it. But suddenly, Val is taking two steps for every one of mine. His feet aren’t just blurring on the ground—I can barely see his legs moving. He accelerates forwards, running twice as fast as I do.
In seconds, he’s a hundred meters ahead of me. It’s like I’m standing still while he’s running. That’s how fast he’s moving.
The blur of motion that is the Courier accelerates to the main road, and then seems to pause. Suddenly the blur reverses direction and Val appears by my side, effortlessly keeping pace with me.
“I’ll see you in Liscor! I’m looking for some strange person who plays chess there. I’m told a Drake [Tactician] is the best player in the city. After I locate him we can have a drink or two.”
I can’t do anything else but nod. Val grins, and raises two fingers to his forehead. He accelerates, and then he’s moving faster than I am, faster than any human from my world has ever moved. He dashes down the snowy road, kicking up massive spays of snow into the air.
In less than a minute, he’s pulled so far ahead of me he’s a speck in the distance. I lose sight of him shortly after that.
I slow down and stop sprinting. My shoes slide a bit on packed snow, and I feel my feet rubbing at the leather and chafing horribly. I probably already have a blister or two, but that doesn’t concern me at the moment.
My heart is beating out of my chest. The cold air burns my lungs. I feel my body trying to recover as my legs scream in agony. I stare down the empty road, and say one word.