Yvlon Byres knew the answer before they said it. She was not a silver-tongued socialite, but she had learned to read people’s eyes as a child. She had learned to dance with words before she had picked up a sword. Of course, she’d left that world behind to become an adventurer, but some things never faded.
Now she sat still and kept her face still, hoping that she was wrong. But the [Healer] just shook his head as he tapped on the silver and black metal that had become part of Yvlon’s body.
“I’m sorry Miss Byres. But I don’t believe the metal can be removed.”
Yvlon’s tone was light and free of negative emotion. She looked the man directly in the eye; an honest [Noble] would do no less. Feeling free to speak, the man went on, speaking candidly.
“I am not a high-level [Healer]. Perhaps one with a Skill might be able to deal with this…affliction. Or perhaps a [Bone Surgeon], although you would have to find a Gnoll tribe’s [Healer] with such a rare class. As it is…I can do nothing.”
The woman stared at her arms, at the metal that felt so alien and heavy on her skin. There was no pain—only a sense of invasiveness. She could feel the metal in her, and in truth she had expected no other answer from the man.
“What of the exterior?”
The tall, broad woman standing next to the [Healer] cleared her throat. She was a [Blacksmith], and she touched the cold metal with familiarity. Yvlon didn’t mind the intrusion, although the [Healer] looked askance. But the [Blacksmith] only saw metal, and how it could be shaped.
“That I could cut away. The pieces below the skin—if that is anchored to bone I won’t touch it. Normally we’d use a saw or snap the metal in two—”
The man hurriedly interjected and the broad-shoulder woman nodded placidly before continuing.
“—But with the right blade we could cut the metal. It’s warped; lost a lot of its strength in the melting. An enchanted dagger would cut most of it off and we could sand the rest smooth. It’s not easy, but it is doable.”
Yvlon looked at the [Healer] to see his opinion. The man nodded reluctantly.
“It would certainly allow the skin to breathe and prevent much of the possible infection. But even so, the metal has bonded with bone. Your arms—”
“I understand. Thank you.”
She couldn’t bear to hear any more. Both man and woman exchanged uncertain glances. At last, the [Healer] spoke again.
“I’ll leave you to get dressed.”
“And I will see if I can find a blade good enough to use. It will have to be enchanted—Dwarven-craft weapons might work, but even that would involve sharpening…”
Their words fell on deaf ears. Yvlon waited until they’d left, smiling politely and thanking them for their time—and paying them for their efforts. Then she sat back in the small room the [Healer] had examined her in and reached for her clothes.
She had still worn a breast band of course, but she had had to take off the clothing on her upper body to expose her shoulders and arms. Yvlon gazed at them now, and saw the metal. It had once been her armor, but now…
It looked almost like a scab. A dirty, discolored plating of metal that ran from her shoulders down to her hands. It wasn’t one unsplit seam either; jagged cracks had broken around her joints, allowing her to move her arms, albeit with difficulty. It was heavy. And as Yvlon stared at her arms, her shirt in one hand, her eyes filled with tears.
It was a moment of weakness. The only one she could afford, when everyone’s eyes weren’t on her. Yvlon dropped her shirt and felt her eyes sting as the world blurred.
Cool composure. Politeness at all times. It was the mark of a Byres, and she had kept the mask up. But she hadn’t dared invite her friends, the other Horns of Hammerad. She hadn’t wanted them to hear the news, see the looks on their faces.
Her hands were trembling, but all Yvlon saw was metal. Ugly metal. It wasn’t beautiful, not like the silver she had worn, the silver which she’d been so proud of, her family’s colors and fortune—the name she had taken for her adventuring groups. It was ugly and tarnished and black.
Just like her.
More tears trickled down her cheek. Yvlon wiped at her eyes clumsily, feeling the hard metal brush against her eyes.
“Oh no. Not this. Honor and hearth. Please, not…”
It wasn’t fair. That was what she wanted to say, but wasn’t it what she deserved? And she’d been the only one with a weapon. Ksmvr had been down, Pisces and Ceria’s magic had failed—
She’d done what she had to do. It was her duty, and she’d been prepared for death. But not this.
Her arms. The metal was so dull. Yvlon shook again. Strong. She had to be strong. If she let her friends down—
Would they think less of her? Abandon her? She had failed once. How could she tell them? What could she say? She’d already demanded almost all the gold they’d earned. What about this?
“I don’t know.”
It had been so easy a month ago. She’d been so sure. Yvlon pulled her tunic over her head, slowly, clumsily. The [Healer] had offered her to help, but this she had to do herself. The fabric was far too loose for her comfort, but it was the only way she could get it over her arms. She couldn’t even raise them fully over her head; the metal dug too much into her flesh to let her.
Part of Yvlon just wanted to sleep. To go to sleep and forget. But then she might dream she was in the pit again, imagining she was one of her long-dead ancestors. Or worse, she might dream of Skinner, the crawling monster with crimson eyes and the undead that struck down each of her friends in slow motion. Yvlon shuddered. Her eyes filled again.
Someone hammered on her door. Yvlon sat bolt upright. In an instant, her eyes stopped stinging, and she used her shirt to scrub at her face.
When the panting young man pushed open the door he didn’t notice Yvlon’s red eyes; he only saw her arms, and even that only held his attention for a second. He stopped and bobbed his head awkwardly to her, as if she were his liege lady instead of a common adventurer.
“Pardon, Miss Yvlon, but there’s trouble at The Nobleman’s Disgrace!”
Yvlon said the words and then remembered; that was the inn they were all staying at.
“I don’t know. A coach arrived—a fancy noble’s coach, one of the ones pulled by magic! And a man and a woman came out, and then they said they were going to take a Runner away!”
A Runner? Yvlon’s brows furrowed as she tried to make sense of everything.
“Who? And what does this have to do with us?”
The young man could only gabble on as he tried to explain things from his limited perspective.
“The Runner? Her name was Ryoka Griffin—”
“That’s right! And she said she wasn’t going,and the woman insisted, and then your Captain—the half-Elf—she said she wasn’t going either and folks started drawing their swords!”
Yvlon didn’t wait to hear anything else. She was out of her chair and pushing past the surprised young man in an instant. Her grief, her feelings of pain and regret—all of it she gladly surrendered to adrenaline and the need for action.
She didn’t have one. Yvlon snapped at the young man.
“Get me a sword!”
She charged out the building and onto the street, running in the direction of the inn. She didn’t know why Ryoka was here, but she had saved Ceria, and if the other Horns of Hammerad were going to fight, so was Yvlon. She would not let her party die again.
Sometimes Ceria wondered if she could ever have a peaceful life. If she quit casting magic and stopped going on adventures and just lived in a quiet place somewhere for the rest of her life, wouldn’t that be worthwhile? She’d never have to fight monsters and she wouldn’t wake up with bugs crawling in her mouth while it rained. She could be happy.
But the flaw with that idea was that even if Ceria didn’t get into trouble, her friends would. Like Ryoka, and Erin for example. The trouble with those two girls was that they tended to attract monsters and chaos like a tower attracted thunderbolts in a storm.
And it seemed like they were getting better at it, or at least Ryoka was. Ceria stood warily by her friend’s side, staring at a tall, austere [Maid] standing in the middle of The Nobleman’s Disgrace. Despite the countless swords, daggers, and other weapons being pointed at her, the woman appeared completely unconcerned. And Ceria’s [Dangersense] was going off, warning her in no uncertain terms.
To be clear, it wasn’t the Horns of Hammerad, Ryoka, or even Ressa or the [Butler] who had unsheathed their blades. Rather, it was the clientele of the inn, the revelers who’d come to bask in the presence of the Horns of Hammerad, hear stories and get drunk.
Ceria agonized. How had it come to this? She’d just said that Ryoka wasn’t being taken anywhere against her will, and these idiots had drawn weapons. On a servant employed by Magnolia Reinhart!
And now this servant was demanding that Ryoka went with them again. Ceria gritted her teeth as the young woman standing by her side glared at the maid she’d called Ressa. The half-Elf knew her friend was stubborn, and she had no idea why Magnolia Reinhart wanted her, but she hoped she’d at least be tactful—
“Fuck you. I’m not going.”
If Ceria could have closed her ears off to not hear that, she would. Was Ryoka insane? Ceria was no native to this continent, but she had heard so many stories of the Five Families and their influence. You did not refuse their requests without good reason.
But it appeared that Ressa had fully expected Ryoka’s refusal. The [Maid]’s expression did not change; that was to say, she continued looking at like Ryoka like a filthy insect that was about to be smeared on the ground.
“You have no choice. Magnolia Reinhart has requested your presence. You will come with me.”
“And if I refuse?”
“Feel free to try.”
What could they do? Ceria looked around the inn. The other patrons were looking at the [Maid] and her, clearly waiting for her instruction. If she asked them to she had no doubt they’d throw the maid out of the inn. And then Magnolia Reinhart would probably burn down the inn and throw them off a cliff.
It had to be said again. Ceria stepped forwards in front of Ryoka protectively. Pisces, staggering slightly, took her right side, puffed up with alcohol and bravado. Ksmvr didn’t do the same—because he was flanking the [Maid], ready to charge her. Ceria could only hope he’d wait for her to make the first move if it came to that.
“If Ryoka doesn’t want to go, she’s not going.”
Again, the maid only flicked her eyes at Ceria and the other Horns of Hammerad dismissively. It was as if she couldn’t see how outnumbered she was.
“I would advise you to stay out of this matter.”
That was it. Ten words. Ressa knew they were adventurers; she had to know that. And she also knew the mood in the inn was against her for all her mistress’s influence, but she was still warning Ceria. That made the half-Elf hesitate, but what could she do? Let Ryoka be abducted? No.
She thought fast.
“In that case, we’ll go with Ryoka. If you take her, we’ll be right by her side.”
Ryoka blinked. She turned to Ceria at the same time Pisces did. But it was Ressa who spoke. Her eyes focused on Ceria’s face and then moved to Pisces and Ksmvr. Her eyes lingered longest on Ksmvr, although there was not a hint of expression in her face or tone.
Ceria challenged the woman, trying not to flinch from the cold stare. Did she have some kind of intimidation Skill? It almost felt like she was staring at Skinner again. But she held her ground despite the sweat running down her back.
“My orders were for Ryoka alone.”
“If you really want Ryoka to go with you at least tell us why.”
“She knows why.”
Ressa looked back at Ryoka. Ceria looked at her friend and saw a faint grimace cross Ryoka’s face. There was some history here, she knew, but she didn’t have time to ask for an explanation. Ceria changed tack.
“Then reassure us. Ryoka is our friend; at least promise us she’ll come to no harm while she’s with you.”
That would be simple enough, right? If they could nail her down to a promise or—
It felt like everyone blinked when they heard that word. Ressa’s face was smooth, though. She shook her head.
“No promises. No bargaining. Ryoka Griffin will come with me. Or I will be forced to bring her against her will.”
Pisces’ slightly slurred voice ran out. He took an unsteady step towards Ressa. The [Maid]’s left eye twitched as she focused on him, but she didn’t make any other move. Pisces pointed at her, sneering.
“You seem quite confident, Miss Maid, that we will so obediently roll over and accede to your Mistress’s wishes. But the good people of this city are not so spineless as to obey even one of the Five Families’ minions when they come here to abduct an innocent Runner.”
His words seemed to have the opposite effect that he had intended. Half the people in the inn shifted uncomfortably at the mention of the Five Families, and they seemed to realize they were pointing weapons at a servant of a Reinhart. Their blades lowered almost as one, although most still kept them out.
Pisces, oblivious, kept going.
“And as to your presumptuous statement—I feel obliged to point out the obvious. You are outnumbered and I very much doubt your [Butler] is a master of arms. To quote an oft-repeated phrase, you and what army will take Ryoka Griffin away?”
Ressa made no immediate response. She just stared at Pisces with contempt. Meanwhile, Ceria and every person in the inn slowly filled in her unspoken reply.
What army? What army would back Magnolia Reinhart? It was more like a question of which army wouldn’t mobilize at her word. Every garrison of every major city in the north would back her if she so ordered.
Across the bar, someone slipped out the back. Ceria saw the movement, and then saw weapons slowly being sheathed, and people starting to back away. Drunk bravado had had a moment to sober, and now people were correctly realizing that this standoff was not something they wanted to be involved in.
Pisces seemed quite oblivious to this. He didn’t notice as more people began abandoning the tables around him and retreated from being active participants in the discussion to mere innocent bystanders, standing at the far end of the room. Meanwhile, the maid was waiting. Just waiting.
She wasn’t even really listening to Pisces or her, Ceria realized. Ressa was just waiting for Ryoka’s response again. And it was clear that saying ‘no’ a second time wouldn’t be a wise idea.
She murmured to her friend. Ryoka was breathing heavily, and her jaw was clenched. She had something in her hand—a potion? Maybe a weapon of some kind, an alchemist’s weapon. Ceria wished she could tell Ryoka not to use it at any cost, but she had no idea what Ryoka’s relationship with Magnolia was. What should she do? If she—
Someone shouted her name. Ceria jerked, and then Yvlon rushed into the inn, a sword in her hands. She looked around for an enemy wildly, spotted Ressa. She froze in place, and the color drained from her face.
It was remarkable how the [Maid] didn’t react to Yvlon’s appearance. She just stared at the woman, noted her arms, and dismissed her in an instant.
“Put the sword down. Lady Magnolia has requested Ryoka Griffin’s presence.”
Yvlon might have been expecting trouble, but she was clearly thrown by Ressa’s presence. Thrown into a barn door, by the look on her face. She wavered, but then gripped the blade more firmly with both hands.
“What did you say?”
The maid’s voice was cold. Yvlon’s was just as chilly.
“Ryoka is my friend, and Ceria’s. If she doesn’t wish to go with you, I will back her. Even if it means defying Aunt Magnolia’s request.”
“That is Lady Magnolia to you. And you would be well advised not to involve yourself in this, girl.”
The two women locked eyes, but Yvlon refused to back down. Ceria vaguely remembered—the Byres house was one of the Reinhart family’s branch houses, weren’t they? They were definitely subservient in some way.
“Say the word, Ceria.”
Yvlon’s arms trembled, but her gaze was square on Ressa. The woman only sighed; she seemed more irritated by Yvlon’s refusal to budge than worried about the sword aimed at her. She turned back to Ryoka.
“Well? Will you come peacefully?”
Ryoka was visibly hesitating. She bit her lip as she glared at Ressa. Ceria was tense; she didn’t know what was coming next and she feared whatever answer Ryoka might give. But then she saw Ksmvr raise his third hand.
“If I may have your attention?”
Ressa looked at him and her gaze could have frozen ice. Ksmvr paid no attention; his other two hands were holding a dagger and a bottle respectively.
“I advise you to surrender and retreat before my Captain orders me to attack. I am fairly confident it will result in your death or maiming.”
Ceria felt like she had inhaled her tongue. Everyone else in the inn goggled at Ksmvr. Ressa said only one word as her eyes narrowed.
The Antinium nodded at Ressa.
“You have the stance of a trained warrior, but you lack armor and visible arms. Unless you hold a magical item of considerable potency or possess unarmed combat Skills, I believe I will be able to kill you if my allies and I attack in tandem.”
The Antinium finished with this confident declaration and waited for the maid’s response. After a moment she realized people were staring at him.
“…What? Are we not intending to kill her if she insists on taking Ryoka?”
Ceria’s head was starting to hurt. She pointed at the Antinium.
“Ksmvr—stand down. No one is going to hurt her, and certainly not kill her.”
“Ah. My mistake.”
Ksmvr nodded apologetically and stepped back. Ressa turned back to Ryoka. Ceria tried to quiet her beating heart. Try again?
“Can we talk about this? If Ryoka doesn’t want to leave—”
“Fine. I’ll go.”
Ceria turned in astonishment. Ryoka sighed and stepped forwards. Ressa regarded her with what looked like surprise as well.
The Runner shrugged at Ceria, looking resigned.
“I’ve got no choice. I knew this was coming. Ceria, I’ve got to go.”
The look in Ryoka’s eyes told her not to ask any more questions. Ceria glanced around and remembered her audience. She held Ryoka’s gaze.
Ryoka turned and glared at Ressa.
“Where is Magnolia now?”
“Invrisil. You will be taken to her estate which lies next to the city.”
The name of the city made Ryoka and Ceria blink. She saw Ryoka turn and look back at her, and then her friend turned back to Ressa.
“Okay. I’ll go. But on one condition. Give me fifteen minutes to prepare before we leave.”
The maid seemed to think this over. She looked sharply at Ryoka.
“Running will do you no good.”
The two locked gazes for one more second. Then Ressa’s head dipped almost imperceptibly.
“I will wait for you in the carriage. Do not force me to retrieve you.”
Without another word, she turned and walked out of the inn. Ceria stared at her back in shock, and then saw the door to the carriage open. Ryoka sighed softly, and looked at her.
“You’ll have to tell Erin.”
Then the chaos began and Ceria could only try and keep up.
Holy crap, this is it. Either I’m dead or I’m going to be interrogated and tortured horribly before I die. Or maybe I survive, but I’m not placing my bets on a happy ending.
The instant Ressa walks out the door it’s all go. I turn and drag Ceria upstairs; too slowly, because people are already crowding around me and the other Horns of Hammerad, asking questions and shouting, speculating.
“Out of the way!”
I shout at them as I push for the stairs. Ceria seems to get what I’m trying to do and helps me push.
“Move aside! We have to hurry!”
They don’t want to let us go. People are pulling at me, asking me how I know Magnolia Reinhart, what my business is with her. I want to punch them but I don’t have time for a brawl—
Someone whispers the spell. I hear shrieks, and then feel the cold air blow past me, freezing me in an instant. Pisces lowers his hands as the crowd suddenly backs up. The spell he cast wasn’t deadly, but damn, it looks painful. He pushes both of us up the stairs and Yvlon and Ksmvr are behind us in a flash.
I push into Ceria’s room and take a breath. She looks at me, wide-eyed and bursting with questions, but I know I can’t answer any of them right now. I don’t even know if I should. I can’t drag her into this. God, what is Magnolia going to ask me?
“Fifteen minutes. Probably more like ten.”
I cut her off as I snap. I pace around the room, already trying to figure out the fastest way through the streets.
“Figure out how much gold you need to give me, and get all those damaged artifacts and whatever else you want me to get analyzed. I’ll take it—I’ve got a bag of holding of my own.”
I touch the bag Teriarch gave me at my side.
“It should fit everything. Can you put a bag of holding in a bag of holding?”
“Do not attempt that.”
Pisces stares at me intently as he stands against one wall. Ksmvr and Yvlon are just staring as Ceria sits on her bed. I nod at him.
“I’ll keep the backpack and the other pouch separate, then. Have it all ready before I get back; I need to go and that stupid maid isn’t going to wait.”
“We can do that.”
Yvlon speaks, looking at the others for confirmation. I meet her eyes; should I say anything? We didn’t even say hello, and suddenly we’re doing this. I still remember punching her—
“Ryoka, are you sure about this? You don’t have to go if you’re not sure.”
I tear my eyes away and look at Ceria.
“I think I have to. If I don’t, there will be trouble.”
Now that I know how big a fish Magnolia Reinhart is, I have no desire to push her. Pisces nods.
“It would be best if Miss Ryoka went with the servants without a fuss. We are only fortunate that the fools down below were not completely insensible to reason, or else we all might be in a serious predicament.”
We all stare at him. Pisces still reeks of booze, but he doesn’t look nearly as unsteady as he was a few seconds ago. Ceria gapes at him.
“Wait. You did that on purpose, didn’t you?”
He sneers. Of course. I nod at him, and turn to the door.
“Get everything you need to give me. I’ll be back—”
“Where are you going?”
Ceria looks worried. I turn.
No time to answer. I rush down the stairs, nearly trampling the innkeeper who’s trying to listen at the door, and push out of the crowd. I get one glimpse at the coach—surrounded by a crowd of people who don’t quite dare to get any closer—and then I’m running full-tilt down the icy street. Damn. My feet are cold. At least I have one of Erin’s jars of Corusdeer soup. I should have gotten more.
As I run I fumble at my belt. I call out, ignoring the looks I’m getting as I run down the street towards the Guild.
“Ivolethe. You’re going to have to get out.”
The faerie flies from my pouch and up to my head.
“You go to meet this woman? The others seem truly fearful of her name; it betokens much of her, does it not?”
“It does. And you—you’ve got to stay away from her. You can’t go in her house. Magnolia’s extremely dangerous.”
Is she? I’ve never figured out how dangerous she is, but I know that she’s smart and she employs [Assassins] and she’s rich. I’m going with maximum paranoia to be on the safe side, and at the top of my list is not getting Ivolethe in the same position as she was with Persua.
“I will follow ye.”
Ivolethe agrees readily, which makes me feel relieved. But then she flies closer to my face.
“Know this, Ryoka. I am your friend, but in matters of life and death, I must not interfere. We have broken the rule twice; but we had cause and sacrifice, you understand? It must not, will not happen thrice. Remember that.”
I’m on my own. Ivolethe nods, and flies up. She lets me run on until I get to the Runner’s Guild. How much time has passed? Only three minutes? Five?
I slam the doors open and rush up to the front desk. I thrust aside a female Runner, ignoring her shout of anger and point at the [Receptionist]. He blinks at me.
“Get me…every delivery you have for Invrisil.”
Everyone says that word. Why? It just wastes time. I pant as I clarify my statement in as few words as possible.
“I’m about to go directly to Invrisil. Today. If you have a multi-part delivery…Courier deliveries…anything. I want it.”
Multi-part deliveries are like Courier deliveries, only the people sending the packages can’t pay the exorbitant amounts demanded by Couriers. So they hire City Runners to take the delivery as far as they can go, and then another Runner will complete the request. It’s a useful relay system, although it still costs a lot.
The man at the desk spreads his hands as I try to calculate how much the carriage can carry.
“I’m sorry Miss…Ryoka, is it? I can’t just—”
I grab him and drag him over the desk. He yelps, and I growl at him.
“I don’t have time for this. Give me the deliveries.”
Ten minutes later, I’m rushing back down the street. Turns out even a [Receptionist] can run fast when you’re literally kicking him around. I have a bundle of deliveries in my hand and more in my pack—some are damn heavy. Two more Runners are racing after me, carrying more things bound for Invrisil. I couldn’t take everything, but I got a huge amount.
Ressa stares at me as I fling open the carriage door and start shoving packages inside. Her intimidating glare* doesn’t stop me from piling the rich seat next to her with deliveries. I’m secretly enjoying every second of this, but I keep my face straight.
*Yeah, I’ll admit it, she scares me a bit. She’s like a perfect Victorian maid if you secretly suspected that they could kill you with their bare hands.
“Sorry, you’re going to have to budge over. I’ve got some really big stuff to take as well.”
“What are you doing?”
“Deliveries. I’m a Runner.”
I slam the door in Ressa’s face before she can respond and turn to the panting Runners behind me. They’re breathing hard from that little run? Disgraceful.
“Okay, load the rest of the deliveries into the coach.”
Is it a coach or carriage? Wait, they’re both the same thing, aren’t they? My mind’s running too fast to focus on anything. I point to the vehicle, ignoring the hesitation on the faces of the Runners.
“Are you sure?”
The female Runner looks hesitant. Understandable I guess; this definitely doesn’t look like a bulk transport. I nod.
“Get it on there. Hurry up!”
The voice of command is a wonderful thing. They get to work, and I look around and see if I can spot Ceria and the others. I wonder if Ressa will snap when I bring all of their gear as well.
God. This is the stupidest thing I’ve ever done, and I’ve got a list. But it makes sense! I’m getting a free ride to Invrisil, or rather I don’t have any choice, so I might as well milk it for all I’ve got. I’ll get paid, I can help my friends out—
The Runners are hesitating as they open the door and find Ressa glaring at them. I think they’d be more comfortable with a snake in the carriage. I certainly would be.
“Well? Go on; toss it in. Ignore the [Maid].”
I’m playing a dangerous game here. I’ll probably end in me getting my ass handed to me, but I don’t care. If Ressa thinks she can push me around—
Well, she’s right, but I’m getting my revenge this way. I gesture at the Runners, and hear a cough behind me.
“Miss? There is a trunk, as well as space above.”
I turn and see the [Butler]. Honestly, I’d put him completely out of my mind. But now that I look at him and his dapper suit—I sort of want to deck him as well as Ressa. He reminds me too much of my folks’ home. True, they didn’t have servants, but…
Actually, we did, didn’t we? I mean, it wasn’t as if we had our own butlers and so on, but gardeners, pool people, personal masseuses and so on—that’s a lot of people at your beck and call.
Damn it, mom and dad.
Anyways, what was he saying? A trunk?
He points. My eyes find a subtly disguised trunk on the back of the big carriage.
Holy crap, there is! Do all carriages have trunks? Well…obviously. I haven’t ridden in any before now, in my defense. And can it fit all the deliveries? I open it and peer inside. Wow. It can!
But then, this is no ordinary carriage. If the ones from my world are like regular cars, this one’s pretty much a combination of a truck, limousine, and race car. It’s huge, plenty big enough to hold a full assortment of passengers and the deliveries I’m bringing, and it looks lavish. Plush upholstery, gilded exterior—magic horses. Did I mention that?
I turn from supervising the Runners as they pull the deliveries out of the carriage and redeploy them in the trunk to see Ceria and the other Horns of Hammerad. I realize I haven’t even said hello to Yvlon, Pisces, or…the Antinium.
Who is he? I remember Klbkch and Pawn, but this is the other one, isn’t it? How many Antinium does Erin know? I see they’ve got a bunch of pretty beat-up looking weapons in their hands. Are those the magical artifacts? God, they look so beat up. They don’t even glow—well, one is glowing, but it’s very faint.
They shove the weapons at me and I fumble at my side. My bag of holding can hold everything they’ve got—one buckler, a sword, the blade of a sword, and a dagger. The pack and small bag that looks sort of like mine* goes into the trunk. Ceria pours gold into the bag, several hundred gold coins! The crowd watching us is murmuring, and I just pray like hell they don’t try and rush us.
*Definitely a bag of holding. I mean, who wouldn’t use one? Forget wallets; I want this thing if I ever get back to my world. I can literally fit the kitchen sink in here.
“Do you have everything?”
“Think so. Did I miss any items?”
“No. And you’ve got the gold…? Good. And you know what to do?”
“I’ll get all of it looked at. Don’t worry.”
“And if you have to make a decision—”
“If I need to I’ll send a [Message] spell. I’ve got it.”
Ceria and Pisces try to tell me how to find the best mages to analyze the weapons. Yvlon tells me what price is worth paying for a mage and when I should walk away. Ksmvr tells me that I should attempt to use aggression and tact in my dealings, whatever that means. And then…then we just stand around awkwardly.
“Well. I guess I’ve got to go.”
Ceria smiles at me, worry clear in her eyes.
“I don’t believe this is happening, Ryoka. This is so—sudden.”
Pisces remarks as he nods at the carriage. He eyes me.
“I would advise you to guard your tongue when you are meeting with Magnolia Reinhart, Miss Ryoka. It would be…unfortunate if something untoward were to occur on your journey.”
“It would be a zemblanity, you mean?”
I grin at Pisces’s face. He’s not the only person who can use words to befuddle people. I turn and nod at Yvlon. My eyes fix on her arms—I’d barely seen them before, but looking at them now, I’m both sickened and amazed at how her skin seems to meld with the metal. But I jerk my gaze away and meet Yvlon’s eyes instead. She nods at me, smiling with a trace of bitterness.
“Good luck, Ryoka.”
It feels like there’s a thousand things we should say, but that’s all I have time for. I nod to Ksmvr—not much to say to him, really, and then I look at Ceria.
“I’ll be back soon.”
That’s all. I know, it’s like the worst thing I could say if I were in an action movie or a horror film. But really, I feel the same sort of foreboding come over me as I open the door of the carriage and step inside. Ressa doesn’t even look at me as I scoot into the spacious interior and wave at the Horns of Hammerad.
Famous last words. But I said them—and I did all this, offer to analyze the weapons, even grab all those deliveries—because I am afraid. I’m doing this because I want to believe there’s a time after meeting Magnolia. There probably is. I shouldn’t worry, but part of me does.
I ran from her at first. It was so long ago, I’d nearly forgotten. But she knows. She was the first person to figure out where I came from, and I still remember how she could command me so easily. And now I’m on a trip to meet with her. I can only pray it’s not one-way.
I try to make the word challenging as the door closes and I look at Ressa. She glances up at me, and turns her head.
“Reynold? Take us away.”
I hear the [Butler] moving outside the carriage—he’s in a pretty decent seat outside, even if it is exposed to the wind. He doesn’t crack the whip since there are no horses; rather, the coach begins to accelerate with only the faintest shift in equilibrium.
I stare out the window and see the world moving with surprising speed as the butler drives us down the street. I look outside and then see something odd.
People. Waving at us. Their mouths are open, and I open the door slightly to confirm what’s happening. Noise immediately enters the carriage. Not just noise; cheering.
Yes, that’s right. There’s people lining the streets, the crowd at the inn and countless people who came out to see what the fuss was about. Now they’re giving us a sendoff as if we were a bunch of celebrities—which we sort of are, I guess.
It’s still unbelievable to see. A sea of faces passes me by as the coach picks up speed. The citizens of Ocre are waving and laughing and even throwing…is that colored flour? Why? They’re waving and cheering—do they even know why Ressa is here or that it’s me? Or are they just that thrilled by the nobility?
“You fucking people.”
I pull the door open and flip off the cheering crowd. I hear the cheering falter, much to my satisfaction. Then I notice Ressa looking disapprovingly at me, which is to say like normal. I pull my hand back in and flip her off as well. That’s the beauty of the middle finger. It’s multi-purpose and reusable.
Once again though, the maid doesn’t rise to my bait. Ressa just sits in the carriage, not staring at me but rather looking out the window on her side in silence. I can tell she’s aware of me, but she’s giving me the cold shoulder. The freezing shoulder, if I’m honest.
As we speed out the gates to the city, I see the landscape begin to blur as we move impossibly fast. Holy crap, how fast are we going? I barely feel the acceleration, but it feels as if we’re easily passing eighty miles an hour. How can we do that in the snow? And what if we hit a rock? Or a pothole? These roads aren’t like the highways in my world!
But Ressa appears unconcerned, and I can’t even feel the coach jolting along. It must be magic that’s keeping us stable as well. That’s a lazy explanation, but I don’t exactly have the opportunity to analyze the way the wheels are interacting with the ground.
I stare back at Ressa. She’s still sitting and not looking at me. And as the adrenaline and excitement of the last fifteen minutes finally fades from my system, I realize this is happening.
I’m going to meet Magnolia Reinhart. I’m not ready for this.
And I’m nervous. I stare harder at Ressa, but I know she’s not going to talk to me. She doesn’t like me, probably because I’m a rude asshole. So what should I do?
I could…sit here. I guess. The inside of the carriage is very spacious and I can stretch out my legs. There’s plenty of room, and even a small table in the center. There’s something covered by dark blue cloth on it. I wonder what it is? Yeah, I could be a peaceful guest and let this [Butler] and [Maid] take me to Magnolia like a good little girl.
The dark upholstery of the carriage is almost sinfully comfortable. I sink into it, and then twist. Ressa’s eyes turn as I prop my legs up on my side of the carriage and put my bare (and dirty) feet on the lovely padding. I cross my arms as I sit with my back to one wall of the carriage and stare at her. She looks pointedly at my feet but I don’t move them.
“So. You did it. You got me here, and now you’re delivering me to Magnolia. Well done, you.”
No response. Ressa stares at me for another second and then goes back to staring out of the window. I sigh, loudly and as obnoxiously as possible.
“So what does Magnolia want from me? More juice? Something else? Or does she just want to chat?”
Silence. I edge a bit lower in my seat, so I’m nearly lying down.
“You know, it’s odd that she sent you to pick me up. Aren’t you the most important servant? The demi-head honcho? Isn’t it demeaning to have to come all this way?”
No response. But I’m pretty sure I’m getting to her. And let’s be fair, among my few talents, I do have one skill which I’m unrivaled at: pissing off people*.
*I might not be a world champion or anything, but I’m probably at least a state or national champion when it comes to authority figures. It’s not just being a jerk or stupid; you have to be willfully annoying. It’s an art and I’m a connoisseur.
“So what does she want? Can you give me a preview? A hint? Or is it meant to be a surprise?”
Ressa looks over at me with clear annoyance. She seems to consider a range of options, and then indicates the table with the covered cloth.
“Lady Reinhart has sent provisions in case you are hungry. Please avail yourself.”
Translated, what she really means is ‘eat something and shut up’. I pull back the cloth and find a rather impressive spread of food. Cheese, meats—even wine! I’m tempted, but I’d be an idiot if I actually had some.
Right? I’m tempted, but I wonder if it’s spiked with something to make me more truthful. Then again, couldn’t Magnolia just have her servants restrain me and pour the truth serum down my throat if she wanted?
Even so, I’m not hungry and I’d rather just annoy Ressa.
“Any idea how long this trip is going to take?”
No response. I smile a bit; I’m enjoying this.
“No? What about games? It’s sort of boring just sitting here. Do you have anything fun to do?”
Ressa’s eye is twitching again. I grin wider. She looks up, and speaks briefly.
“Would you like me to hit you?”
I…pause. My instinct is to goad her, but Ressa’s eyes are very serious. And as I’ve noted, she’s not exactly one to shy away even when outnumbered. I could probably beat her in a fight—but why would Magnolia send her by herself if she was incapable of defending herself or subduing me?
As all that flashes through my head I remain quiet. Ressa holds my gaze for one more second and then nods.
“In that case, be silent.”
And then she goes back to staring out the window.
I don’t think I’ve ever been—
Back home, back in my world when I was younger I got that threat once or twice, when I’d exhausted every other possible response from the adults I was needling. My response back then was ‘try it’, and if they did I was ready. But here, even with martial arts which I’ve admittedly been neglecting to practice, I’m at the bottom of a very tall totem pole in terms of fighting ability.
I stare at Ressa. She wouldn’t—
Yeah, she would. Crap. What do I do now?
It takes me exactly five minutes to figure out what to do. Ressa looks up sharply as I open the carriage door.
“What are you doing?”
“I’m going up front. I think I’ll like the view up there.”
As I open the door, wind howls into the carriage. I jerk back—I’d forgotten how fast we’re going! Flying snow blows in and I see the world whirling past, impossibly fast. But hell, I can see Reynold up ahead and if I climb…it would be instant death if I fell out.
Ressa watches me as I hesitate at the door. For a second I wonder if she’ll yank me inside, but then she turns and calls.
“Reynold. Slow the coach.”
There’s a little window he can hear us through. The [Butler] immediately slows the coach. I wait until it’s at a stop and then hop out. Ressa stares at me impassively as I walk up to the front and jump up next to the astonished [Butler].
“I’m sitting up here.”
He just stares at me before he nods.
“Very good, Miss.”
He pulls at a bunch of reins tied to the ghostly horses and the carriage begins to move again. I hear the door click shut behind me, and wonder why Ressa let me get up front. Maybe she just doesn’t want to deal with me. That makes sense.
Meanwhile, I instantly regret my choice as the carriage picks up speed again. It’s not the snow buffeting me that gets me down—the magic coach actually seems to deflect the snow particles. More magic, I guess, and a flying pebble or stick could probably kill the driver.
But it’s still frickin’ cold. And I’m not moving and Erin’s soup has worn off. I’m shivering, but I refuse Reynold’s offer of a coat. Instead, I just sit up front and let my body get used to the low temperatures. And as the carriage continues to pick up speed, even the freezing weather is banished from my mind by the speed.
I’ve been in cars. Hell, I’ve driven them pretty damn fast and gotten arrested for it. But this—this is totally different.
Consider, a car moves up to…eighty? Ninety miles per hour? Maybe a hundred if you were insane, but that’s pretty much the upper limited outside of race cars. And even open-roof cars have a windshield and a good bit of car in front of the driver. But this—
This is something else.
The wind blows by my face, a tempest of snow and air. The landscape flashes by impossibly fast in my face, and I see all of it, not just the narrow view from the windshield. I’m staring, and I know my jaw is open.
This is life in the fastest lane. This is the sight every runner chases, but more than any normal person could imagine. Maybe Val and Hawk see this as they run. But this is a first for me. I look out, and see a mile flash by in moments. I see people flick by, small shapes on a road. We’re off road—surging smoothly up and down a hill, almost as if we’re anchored to the ground.
It’s so beautiful. It’s wild and quick and magical. And as if that thought calls her, I see a flicker of blue flying out of the white landscape. Ivolethe laughs and flies next to us, flying next to the coach as if she’s coasting on a breeze.
My words are snatched away by the wind, but Reynold hears them. The [Butler] glances at me and I shake my head. The faerie hears me too; she flies closer and speaks in a little voice audible even over the howling winds.
“Look, Ryoka! Look! This is what you need to see!”
The faerie flies closer, next to me and points. She laughs as a flurry of snow engulfs her and then flies out of it, trailing vapor, a blue spark of color amidst the gale.
“The wind! Can ye see it? The wind blows! We run with it!”
She flies out, skimming across the land in front of us. She darts up and around, catching a current moving so fast that it speeds her past the carriage. Then she’s zooming behind us, flying up, low, around, like azure lightning.
I follow her, entranced, seeing her shape, the sole constant in a world lost to the blur. And as she flies about, following some unseen path, I glimpse something. It’s faint; it’s like a trail in the air itself. It doesn’t have color; rather, it’s like a ripple, just like heat makes the air shimmer across the ground. I see it flex ahead of Ivolethe and accordingly she flies up and down and then spins away.
“I see it!”
Reynold jumps in his seat as I half-stand and scream at Ivolethe. She does a double-take in the air and flies towards me.
“Yes! I see—”
I hesitate. The trail is gone. I squint at where it was, and then look at Ivolethe.
“It was there. I’m sure of it.”
The small faerie grins at me, delighted.
“I believe ye. This is the first step. If you saw that then—”
“You think I can do it again?”
A voice interrupts Ivolethe’s reply. I look over and see Reynold staring at me, eyes wide.
“Are you, ah, speaking to me?”
“What? No. Of course not. I’m speaking to—”
I pause and stare at Ivolethe. I glance back at Reynold and realize that he can’t see the Frost Faerie, or if he can, she’s only a faint blur. Ah.
“Um. I’m speaking to myself. Don’t mind me.”
Slowly, I sit back down. Ivolethe grins at me.
“Are ye scaring the poor mortal?”
I glance over at Reynold. He’s hunching over in his seat, pretending he can’t hear me. His [Butler]’s façade is a bit ragged as he studiously ignores my one-sided conversation, at least from his perspective.
Ivolethe shrugs, as if she couldn’t care less about Reynold. Which is probably true. She points to the whirling scenery and grins.
“Yon contraption is quite a thing! It moves almost as fast as ye did when you drank the magic brew.”
“When? Oh, you mean in the castle. Do you think I could ever learn to run this fast?”
The faerie considers this and shrugs as she props her chin on her hand. She sits on the air next to me.
“Perhaps. But not at first. I can sense the magic in this thing; it is rough, but there is an art to it. Does the lady who sends her servants to you have much wealth like this?”
“A lot. I don’t know how much, but she’s one of the wealthiest and most powerful individuals on the continent.”
That makes me worried again, but having Ivolethe around dispels a lot of my fears. The faerie nods seriously.
“Then perhaps a bit of respect is in order. The lords and ladies of the land were always touchy and prideful, even to the King of Knights.”
Ivolethe smiles and points. I turn my head and see Reynold is actually edging away from me on the front of the carriage. That makes me smile too. I wonder if I should explain to him what’s going on—but nah.
The faerie pauses as she seems to glance at the horizon ahead of us. She frowns at me.
“There is much moving in the world this time. Much happens even as ye ride about.”
“Oh? Like what?”
“Like the children. They are marching.”
“The youngest. The ones with small ears and crimson eyes. They burnt a city, did they not? And they fight amongst themselves. They are moving about in the snow.”
She means Goblins. The children? The youngest? I frown at Ivolethe, but decide to pursue their movements before I ask about the other bit.
“What do you mean they’re moving? Moving where?”
“Everywhere. They run about in their hundreds, coming north from south. A vast army sits below the pass—you have seen them once.”
The Goblin Lord. I shiver. Ivolethe nods, and then points ahead of us.
“But another army—smaller, but thousands strong—lies ahead. They march north as well. Fleeing their own kind.”
I sit up in the carriage, heart pounding. Ivolethe nods at Reynold.
“Yon clueless fool is about to drive you straight into the center of them.”
For a second I just stare at Ivolethe in horror. She grins at me, exposing a mouth full of sharp teeth. Then she flies up and away.
Instantly, I turn in my seat.
“Driver, turn the coach around!”
Reynold stares at me. He looks around, and then points to himself.
“D-do you mean me, Miss—?”
“Stop the carriage! We’re about to run into Goblins!”
He just stares at me incredulously. I see a large hill approaching, and curse. I reach for the reins. Instinctively Reynold pulls away.
“Please don’t, Miss Ryoka. I can’t let you—”
“What is going on?”
Then a panel slides open behind us. I see Ressa’s impatient glare as she looks at us. There’s no time to explain. I try to grab the reins. Reynold pulls away, Ressa shouts. The carriage swerves as we crest the hill—
And then there are Goblins. They march in a vast column across the valley in the snow, trampling slush into mud as they walk a hundred abreast. I see Hobs, dragging weapons in the snow, massive, dwarfing the smaller Goblins that run before them.
Children, what look like pregnant mothers and of course, warriors walk in some semblance of order, carrying packs, lugging improvised sleds—some are even herding horses, mules and other pack animals! It’s the most hodge-podge collection of equipment I’ve ever seen. And at the head of that group is a detachment of Carn Wolves. Ridden by Goblins.
My heart stops. The sudden surge of fear and panic makes the world slow as the carriage shoots over the hill and directly into the mass of the Goblins. I turn my head and see Reynold frantically pull the reins left. The carriage immediately turns, but it’s too late.
Goblins, hearing the sound of the carriage and the shower of snow, turn and cry out as we speed past the column. I hear their high-pitched screams, and then horn calls.
Instantly, the group of wolf riders at the head of the column turns. They run towards us and I shout.
“Take us away!”
Reynold desperately pulls, and the carriage turns. But although we’re already speeding away, the Goblins are everywhere. And this particular bunch is smart, because the wolf riders are already running to cut us off. We must have passed some scouts because they come from behind us, trying to run us down.
I see a tall Hobgoblin on a Carn Wolf running at us, shouting as more riders run with him. The main column of Goblins is in panic—warriors are surging towards us en masse as the children and other Goblins try to run back.
“What should we do?”
Reynold shouts in fear as the wolves box us in. He’s trying to pull us away, but the wolves are everywhere.
“Go through them!”
I point at a few wolf riders and pray like hell the carriage can take a hit. Reynold hesitates—
And then I feel a hand grab the edge of the carriage. I jerk, but it’s no Goblin. Ressa pulls herself up as the carriage speeds along and shouts a word.
Instantly, the world around us goes dark. I see runes on the carriage glowing, and the Goblins around us cry out, their eyes tracking the air where we were. I look around. Are we invisible? I can’t tell, but we must be. It’s as if someone’s put sunglasses on the world.
Ressa points and Reynold immediately turns the carriage, making a break for an opening in the ranks of Goblins and wolfriders. After a moment I hear more shouting, and look back to see pursuit has resumed. How…?
“The snow! They can see it!”
I shout and Ressa nods. The Goblins can indeed see the geysering snow from the carriage’s passage and they follow that. But the moment of hesitation has given us an opportunity. If we can just get ahead of them the carriage will easily outdistance their riders—
As we pass by more Goblins, I see something strange. A knot of huge Hobgoblins is dead ahead of us, and they’re turning, weapons raised and ready for us. Reynold takes us right past them, but then I spot something odd. In the center of the armed group of elites, a small Goblin is riding a wolf. And she has something in her hands. She raises a black crossbow, almost as big as she is, and points it at us. She can’t see us, surely. But she knows where we are. And she’s aiming—I shout.
The carriage swerves as I pull Reynold down and I see Ressa blur beside me. The crossbow bolt streaks towards the side of the carriage and shatters as it touches us. The bolt doesn’t break the magically-reinforced sides of the carriage—
But it does end the spell. The world goes bright again and I realize we’re visible. The Goblins shout and Reynold desperately flaps the reins to move us faster. I glance back at the Goblin with the crossbow—
And recognize her. Rags meets my shocked gaze for one second, and I see her own eyes widening. And then we’re past her in a blur of snow.
“We’re almost away, Miss Ressa!”
Reynold shouts in relief as the Goblins fall away behind us. Then he shouts in alarm as someone runs ahead of us. The tall Hobgoblin is streaking at us from the side, on a direct collision course as he rides his massive Carn Wolf. I hear Ressa mutter something from my side. I’m scrabbling at my belt for a potion, one of the bags—anything. But I’m too slow, and the tall Hobgoblin’s mouth is open in a roar as he holds a crimson sword over his head—
On the carriage beside me, Ressa stands up. Her hand blurs, and something flashes at the Hobgoblin. He jerks, and his sword deflects a flying object with a ringing sound. Ressa’s hands move again and the Hob snarls and jerks his reins. The Carn Wolf dodges away as five more black blurs fly at him. He strikes down each one, but while he does the carriage flies on. In a second we’re past him, and his howl of fury confirms that we are safe.
Then we’re gone. The Goblins racing after us stop as they become distant figures, and then just blips on the horizon. We race on through the snow, once again lost in a void of silence.
The three of us just sit on the front of the carriage, breathing hard. At least, Reynold and I am. Ressa is still sitting on the edge, still gripping the open door she came out of. Reynold’s hands are white on the reins and I’m wondering if I’m going to have a heart attack.
Gods. What just happened? Goblins, obviously. But so many? Where are they going? Was that Rags, Erin’s little friend!? And the other Hob—I could have sworn he was the one at the inn! What’s going on?
And Ressa? My head turns and I stare at her. She returns my look impassively.
“We’re safe now.”
That’s all she says. Slowly, she begins to pull herself back into the carriage, ignoring the wind ripping at her maid’s uniform. I call out to her.
“Wait! What was that?”
She just stares at me. And shrugs.
“My orders were to keep you safe.”
I point to her with a trembling hand. It was just a blur—hell, all of that was a blur. But I saw what she threw at the Hobgoblin.
“That was a throwing star. Are you—?”
Ressa slams the door to the carriage without a second word. I stare at the door. Oh my god. That can’t be true, can it? Is she a ninja mai—
Nah. I sit back with the [Butler] and shake my head. I’m going nuts. This entire thing is nuts. I’m nuts, I want to eat nuts—I’m shaking—
So is poor Reynold. His face is pale, although he still looks pretty damn composed for someone who just drove us through a Goblin army. More props to him, I guess. If this is how all British people are, no wonder they didn’t crack when they were getting the shit bombed out of them during World War II.
I’m generalizing. And panicking. I take a few more breaths of cold air to still my beating heart. That was—jeez.
After a minute I rap on the little window that connects us with the coach with a trembling hand. It doesn’t open.
“Hey. You in there. Pass us a bottle, will you?”
I shout it at Ressa and hear no response. But after a moment, the window slides open and one of the bottles of wine is handed through, bottom-first.
I pop the cork after six tries, and then drink from the top. It’s probably high-grade stuff I gulp down; I don’t even taste it. After I down a third of the bottle I nudge Reynold. He jumps and the carriage swerves; when he sees the bottle, he gratefully accepts it and drinks from it without a word.
We just sit in silence for a while, passing the bottle back and forth. After we finish it, I throw the bottle into the snow, ignoring every instinct in my body that tells me not to litter, and I get Ressa to pass us another one.
Reynold drinks, I drink. We stare at the landscape, and I look at the side of the carriage. The crossbow bolt didn’t even scratch the paintwork. God.
I want this carriage.
After I’m feeling a bit warmer and the cold sweat has mainly evaporated, I glance at Reynold. He’s got a bit of a flush as well. He’s just a [Butler], wearing a light grey jacket over his dark clothing. He’s holding the reins steady, guiding the magic horses forward.
“Is it always like this?”
He shudders, and shakes his head for a second before changing his mind and nodding weakly.
“Sometimes. On bad days.”
I sit back, and stare ahead. The world is white. It rushes past me with a roaring sound made faint by the carriage’s magic. I sigh, and look ahead. My friends and Goblins lie behind. And in the distance I see a faint shape on the horizon. Dark buildings, rising out of the ground as the light in the sky fades to nothing.
Invrisil, the City of Adventurers, awaits. And after that—