In the city of Esthelm there was a slime. It oozed along the ground, leaving a trail as it went. It was a slime, a round little pebble of liquid with no real defining features besides its dark greenish brown insides, which pulsated as it moved.
But it was a slime, and as of such it attracted a young woman who followed it as it slowly roamed across the broken rubble of the city. Erin Solstice stared, captivated by the tiny slime. It was like a small puddle come to life, and it looked incredibly cute to her, even if she was inhaling a noxious odor from the nearby sewer.
She wanted to touch it. Erin was vaguely aware that even the cutest of monsters could be dangerous, but she assumed that a truly dangerous creature would have been destroyed on sight. So a touch wouldn’t hurt, right? She reached out to touch it.
Above the city of Esthelm there was a herd of faeries. They held their breath as Erin reached out.
“Erin! Don’t touch that!”
Someone shouted at the girl and the faeries released their breath in a collective sigh of disappointment. They watched as a half-Elf ran over to Erin, scowling. Erin turned, looking hurt.
“What? Why not?”
“Erin, you can’t just go around touching monsters—especially slimes!”
“Why? It doesn’t look that dangerous! What, is it acid or something?”
“Don’t be insane. Acid slimes? Dead gods, Erin, what a thought! No, this one is…look, do you know what slimes are? How they’re made?”
“It’s very simple.”
Ceria took a step back, pulling Erin away from the slime. It had begun rolling towards them, more inquisitively than with any real hostility. The half-Elf made a face.
“Look, slimes are…well, they’re closer to Golems than anything else, although they are alive. Actually, they’re closer to jellyfish. Um. Do you know what those are?”
“Of course I do!”
Erin looked insulted. Ceria shrugged.
“Some people have never seen the sea before. Anyways, slimes breed or spawn in bodies of liquid when the conditions are right. I guess some mana potions broke, or there were some already but—Erin, they take on the properties of their original liquid, get it? And this one clearly came from the sewer.”
The watching faeries saw Erin take a second to piece this together. Then they heard her horrified exclamation.
“Wait, you mean this is a poo slime? Aw!”
They laughed as she practically ran away from the small slime. It wasn’t as satisfying as if she’d stuck her hand in it—or if she’d fallen and put her face in the slime—but it would have to do.
The faeries flew across the city, pointing out more amusing sights for each other as they went. Esthelm was full of activity and four different species all trying to work together, which was a highly amusing sight for the watching fae.
That they didn’t swoop down and cause havoc or play tricks was perhaps the only sympathy the fae had to the people of Esthelm. At the moment they were content to simply be amused at mortal antics. What truly revealed their soft hearts though, was the fact that it had stopped snowing over Esthelm, even though fat snowflakes were falling several hundred meters away.
The fae loved children, sweets, mortal fools and heroes, and tricks. Other things too of course, but those were fairly universal aspects among their kind. Only a few, the old or the odd, liked actually interfering with the fates to any real degree.
Ivolethe didn’t like to meddle in mortal affairs, let alone Human, but she was of the mind it had to be done. And while she could watch Erin throwing rocks at the sewer slime forever, she reluctantly decided it was time.
She chattered to her fellow faeries and flew off. She had a mission, or rather, a cause. It wasn’t necessarily fun, but she knew it was important. The reason and end was important, even if the doing of it was a pain.
So the faerie flew away from Esthelm to a far more boring place. She flew up and up, and then sideways, and then in a direction not describable by words. Ivolethe flew through part of the world, and then flew through the air in the world and out of an empty bit of space behind a few books in a bookshelf. She sneezed and grumbled, brushing off dust from her wings as she circled the room.
It was a very large room, and very grand too, although decorations had been forgone for a more austere, solemn appearance. This was a library, and the towering bookcases were imposing, despite the rich wood that made up their frames. The books were all first-edition, spotless, and magical too. Ivolethe flew by them, seeing the spells worked into the bindings to keep the pages from dirt or harm.
And in that room sat a girl. She was Asian, dark haired, slightly darker of skin than most Humans on this continent, and taller than most Human females, if not Drake or Gnolls. She was athletic, her body toned, and could be considered attractive. Ivolethe personally thought Ryoka looked far too Human, but she had some affection for her ugly friend.
But that affection ended when she saw Ryoka was still reading. The girl was sitting in a chair, knees drawn to her chest, flipping through a large and rather heavy tome whose pages looked like they had been gilded with gold. The girl did not notice Ivolethe flying towards her at all.
“Stop reading, ye daft cow!”
Ivolethe screamed in Ryoka’s left ear. The girl jumped and tried to get out of the chair and twist simultaneously. The chair rocked backwards and she hit the ground.
“Ivolethe! Damn it, don’t do that!”
Ryoka swore as she picked herself up. She reached for the book and made sure it wasn’t damaged before she glared at the faerie. But the little Frost Faerie was full of far more wroth than Ryoka; she buzzed around the young woman, shouting angrily.
“Put down that book, fool! Go outside and do something! ‘Tis been forever and a day since you decided to stay here; stop dawdling and act!”
Ryoka scowled. She put the book back on the table and turned to it.
“It’s been only a few days. Okay, four, Ivolethe. That’s not forever. Leave me alone and let me read, will you?”
“Forever is a thought, not a number, fool. And I will not let ye waste away! There are things to be doing! Anything is better than staring at dusk and dead leaves and ink of the past!”
Ivolethe sneered at Ryoka as she hovered in front of the girl’s face, getting in the way of the text. Ryoka swatted at her; Ivolethe danced aside and flew back in the way, impossible to touch.
“Fine. Let me just finish this passage and I’ll go. Happy?”
The faerie scowled and crossed her arms. She blew a stream of icy air upwards, but then acquiesced less than gracefully.
“If ye must. But promise to put aside the book! Promise it!”
Ryoka rolled her eyes, but she did promise. It was an oath made to a faerie, and she would not break that lightly.
“I will be done in thirty minutes. Is that enough?”
Ivolethe shook her head.
“Ten minutes, okay?”
“Well…fine. But hurry up!”
Ryoka sighed as Ivolethe floated back over to the bookshelves, to go see if Erin had found the dead raccoon corpse that was bobbing in the open sewer main. The young woman turned back to the book, frowning as she lost herself for a few more minutes in the tightly-written scrawl of words.
It had been four days since the attack on Magnolia’s mansion. Four days and Ryoka had not left yet for Invrisil. Because she had had a thought. And that thought was…
I really don’t like faeries. I mean, okay, they’re nice to be around sometimes, and they’re wondrous beings of nature and otherworldly marvels and yadda yadda, etc. But they don’t read. I don’t even think they keep written records; they were around far before the invention of such things, after all.
So they have no patience at all with reading, except I guess if it’s about them. I can imagine a bunch of faeries finding a book about King Arthur or the fae. But they are like children in some respect.
Noisy, angry children who can turn a library into a blizzardy hell if they get bored.
Yes, I’m in Magnolia’s mansion. Yes, it’s been four days since she was attacked. The assassins are all dead, everyone’s patched up—hell, all the damage in the courtyard was gone the next day and I’ll just bet her sitting room is as perfect as it used to be. Magnolia and Ressa left the day after the attack, heading farther north to her estates.
She left me with promises of assistance, subtly dire threats, and Reynold. Apparently he’ll be my guide in Invrisil, which will open some doors I guess. I could go check out the city and get all I need done at any time; hell, I can even take the carriage since I’m going with Reynold. Apparently that’s the second-hand one; Magnolia went off in her personal vehicle which can probably fly and shoot lasers. There’s no one stopping me from leaving.
And yet, I’m still here. Yeah, that’s sort of surprising, but the reason I stayed is simple enough. Or rather, it’s a mix of reasons.
One. I don’t have to go to Invrisil…at least, not to get some good work done. The best thing about being in a mansion full of [Butlers] and [Maids] and [Manservants] is that you can get them to do things. Like haul a bunch of artifacts over to the most reputable [Enchanter] in the city to get them appraised. Magnolia even suggested that bit; she’s willing to foot the not-inconsiderable bill to get them looked at, although I’ll have to be the one to pay for any repairs or what have you. I guess she wants to know what Ceria and the others found.
As for all the deliveries, well, they can wait. Four days of waiting for their delivery is still a lot faster than you could ask for, especially since they’re coming all the way from Ocre.
Right, so I don’t have to leave the mansion. But why would I want to stay? The answer’s simple for me, and I realized it the moment I saw Magnolia heading off in her carriage. When the cat’s away, the mouse has got to play*. Or in this case, the runner girl gets to poke around in her private home and find out all of her dirty little secrets.
*Damnit, I don’t want to be a mouse. How about a rat? I could live with being a rat.
…Anyways. I failed on that venture. Polite servants get less polite the more intrusive you get, it seems. And while Ressa the ninja-maid is gone, Magnolia’s got some scary maids. The Gnoll one is especially intimidating.
So I failed to pry, but then I remembered that Magnolia has something else which is priceless: books. Frickin’ books. To be more accurate, a library, which is not a common convenience in this world.
And she’s one of the most powerful women in the world. And this is her personal library. How could I not spend some time here figuring out, well, everything? My god, there’s probably more pieces of the puzzle of this world in this room than anywhere else. And…
Yeah. It’s sort of boring trying to do research here. I won’t lie. Ivolethe has a point. It’s been four days. I’ve skimmed through over a hundred books at least, and read from dawn till dusk. I want to burn down this entire library and never read a word of cursive again. If I find the asshole who thought curly writing was a good idea…
At least I have a way to read the books. I push back the pair of bulky lenses over my eyes as I peer at the book in front of me, trying to make the script out. I need these glasses, as ill-fitting and heavy as they are; they’re magical and can translate the multitude of languages in these books.
But somehow, they still don’t translate weird handwriting. I swear, this was written by someone with two left hands. Which, considering the species in this world, might not be too far off.
“‘In the fall of the Strygian Empire we find peace for a time. And yet, the dead still rise from every grave and haunt the few souls still living. Something still calls them back, and Ghouls are but the least of the undead who continue to reanimate. Fifteen Wraiths wiped out a village in one night, and I fear that the curse of the Untombed One still lingers on our land…’”
Heavy stuff. I’ve got a pile of history books around me, and I’m currently reading through an account of some empire which fell a few thousand years back around these parts. I flip past that section. As fascinating as the history might be, I’ve read countless stories like this one.
The history of this world is…vast. As far as I can tell, some accounts claim that civilization was flourishing even twenty thousand years ago. That’s incredible. You’d think that such a world would have entered into a modern or post-modern age, or at least come up with some sort of industrial revolution by now. And yet—
When you read through the accounts of histories, skipping past the triumphal bullshit and the rewritten bits that make out each [King] as the one true savior and so on, it’s a simple picture.
War dominates this world. War, and little else. Each record is the same. War. Peace. War again, after a few decades or just a year. A border conflict between two grand nations escalates; proxy wars break out in five different nations. War drags in an entire continent into war; a second continent begins to fight that one. War. An armistice is declared. More war.
Few nations have the time to develop properly, I guess. Well, they might reach new technological heights, but that’s by this world’s standards, which means it generally comes in the form of mage-powered inventions, not science and steel. But in time, each nation or city will eventually find themselves fighting a battle to the death with someone else.
It’s not Human nature. It’s the nature of all these species. That’s the issue, as I see it. There are countless species in this world and while one species might be content with peace, the others are angry, touchy, prideful, jealous bastards who’ll attack if they think things are unfair, which is, of course, always.
And yet, by the same token, there’s never an end to the cycle, never a victor because it’s too hard. This world is far larger than our own; huge nations the size of the United States or Russia are normal countries around here, or even small. Forging a large empire that would put an end to wars by conquering everything in sight always fails due to a number of factors.
The first is size. It’s too hard to expand and keep supply lines going. Too, a larger nation faces a much greater risk of internal strife or dissent from within. And even if a nation gets a proper transport system and bureaucracy running, such empires usually fail simply because the [Emperor] or [Warlord] gets old and dies.
You can’t conquer the world in one lifetime, not here. And that’s the rest of the twist of this world; nations live and die by their rulers, not like the ones back at home. All the power of a high-level [King], well, once it’s gone a country is easy pickings.
The second factor, then, is probably levels. No nation can ever stay on top just by being bigger. They might have better gear, better training, better economy, but once a high-level individual pops up, even a tiny nation can turn into a powerhouse. Small rebellions that are easily suppressed turn into full-scale revolts as some [Peasant] becomes a [Hero].
Yeah. There were heroes, once. It’s a rare class, but apparently it does exist. I’ve read countless books, pored through them for useful details. One of the things I learned? There is a [Hero] class, even if none of the historians writing the books knows how it can be obtained.
And third? Technology in this world is not the same as in mine. In mine, people build industry and create ideas and inventions that can be built upon, permanent infrastructure like assembly lines and the technology to build steam engines. In this world?
Magic rules. But the problem with that is when an empire dependent on magical innovations loses all of its high-level mages, everything goes right back to the start. If they built huge factories and used machines perhaps the world would change. But I see how easy magic is to use. You can create a carriage that can outrun any vehicle from our world with magic. Hell, it could probably outrun anything but the Shinkansen bullet trains. But you can’t create a hundred, or a thousand. And once the mage who made it dies, so too does the means of creating it.
The other things I’ve learned? I push the book back and sigh. Ivolethe’s coming back any time now and I’m not feeling too keen on hearing how the Strygian Empire crumbled away. Let’s do a refresher.
“Important things…important things? One. There are no gods. Ever.”
No mention of them. Not one, in over ten thousand years of history, as far as I can tell. It’s hard to figure out the chronological order of the books; they use a dating system based on events, so eras come and go fast. It’s damn annoying, and finding a reference book to make sense of it all is a challenge in itself.
But like I said, no mention of gods. Not once, in thousands of years. Oh, there are hints—references to someone trying to bring back the [Cleric] class, a faded relic here and there, but no gods are ever referenced directly. They’re dead. I wonder why no new ones were ever made? It’s such a discrepancy I can’t quite believe it.
“But that aside—Rhir. It’s always at war. And the Antinium are new.”
Really new. In this millennium new; in this century new, in fact. They just popped up out of nowhere, and that’s odd for Rhir.
Or not. Rhir is a scary place. The more I read about it, the more it seems it’s always been at war. There’s always a Blighted King or Queen, or Blighted Princes…it’s always fighting against some threat or other.
“But it changes. It damn well changes. The Demons are new, too.”
Five thousand years back they emerged, catching a prosperous set of kingdoms off-guard. But they should have expected it, even though they had several hundred years of peace to grow complacent. Because Rhir is always at war.
Sometimes they fight off the enemy—it can be races of any kind. There’s a reference to a Blighted Princess holding off a marauding army of twisted horrors with no real name, but there’s always something. The kingdoms of Rhir, or kingdom in this case, is always fighting a battle. Sometimes they win. Sometimes they lose and the horrors spread across the world.
Huge armies from every corner of the world have come to take back Rhir. They slaughter the monsters, take back the lands, put a nation back there. Everything is peaceful. And then…
I go back to one of the open books on the table, find the passage.
“‘The continent is secure. The last of the tide of Crelers has been purged, although the other nations report infestations in their lands from time to time. Yet Rhir remains safe, apart from a few disturbances reported in underground mining incidents each year. However, infestations of monsters are put to the sword the instant they are uncovered…’”
And then? Black slime pops out, begins mutating everything around it, and this kingdom gets destroyed. I wish I could say I’m making this up. But there’s something in Rhir that keeps creating new things to destroy with.
Something. A dead God. Like Klbkch said.
I shiver. How could no one have known? Well, they did know. People can figure out when something’s wrong. After they fought back the evil slime stuff, a huge army made up of soldiers from three damn continents went underground, searching for the root of their problems. None of them made it back, but one year later a bunch of abominations made from parts of people came out and slaughtered everyone.
What’s the lesson here? Avoid Rhir.
I push the book back, feeling vaguely sick. Ivolethe is right. There are no answers here. Just more things to keep me up at night. If there’s any consolation I have, it’s knowing a bit more about the world.
I knew a lot, or enough, rather. Five main continents. Rhir, Izril, Terandria, Chandrar, and Baleros. Each one with different species, although Humans are on all the continents in some form or other. But it’s the major world powers that are interesting. Aside from the various nations, there are some standouts, some big players.
One of the ones I didn’t know about are the Slave Traders of Roshal. It’s apparently a city, or an empire that keeps itself neutral. It’s based in Chandrar and it’s about as powerful as Wistram, although it’s actually neutral, rather than political like the mages.
Also, the Minotaurs have an archipelago. They feud with other nations—hell, they tried to take over the world a few times, although almost every species has done that over the course of the world. They usually go to war with a bunch of mysterious foreigners—I never found a book about them, but they might be like my world’s version of Japan, or the Philippines. They live at the ‘edge of the world’.
So this world has an edge? Or have people still not figured out that the earth is round? Is it round? I can assume nothing here.
What else? There are Dwarves. Good to know. They live on Terandria, although they used to be everywhere. There used to be harpies, actual intelligent ones with a nation of their own. They’re dead. There used to be a people like djinn—highly magical, part spirit. They’re dead. There used to be undead kingdoms. They’re gone.
There used to be Elves, but every reference in the books I’ve read only talks about half-Elves. When did the Elves die out?
Don’t know. But the Dragons are mostly dead, too. Every few thousand years one gets slain, but the occurrence of such entries grew less and less the more I read. I guess, in a sense, this world is stabilizing. In that species are dying. Perhaps someday, after countless thousands of years, it might be only one or two species left.
Maybe it’ll be Goblins. Because no matter how many times they get wiped out, they always come back. And the reports of what happens when a Goblin King emerges…
I read the book Magnolia told me about, the one about the Second Antinium Wars. Yeah. There were no winners in that war, but it was clear that it was more like the ‘Goblin wars where the Antinium, Az’kerash, and everyone else barely manage to beat him while fighting with each other’.
So much for historical accuracy. I rub at my temples. I have a headache. Is there anything else…?
“You said you would stop reading!”
The accusatory voice makes me look up. Ivolethe glares at me. I push the book back.
The faerie glares and points. A bit of frost covers the pages of the books. Just a bit; Ivolethe’s magic is apparently very weak inside, even if the library doesn’t have much iron in it.
“Now ye are. Come on! Time to leave this stuffy place! I crave adventure!”
“I crave a sub sandwich.”
I mutter as I leave the room. I feel old as I walk through Magnolia’s grand estate, passing by servants who make way for me. I feel old, out of place.
Like an intruder.
It’s still only been a few days since the attack. I’m the only other person in the mansion not in Magnolia’s employ—I did ask about the other people from our world that Erin met, but I got no answers. I’m the odd one out, and I feel it.
Out of the corner of my eye I see a bevy of maids and a man in a black suit coat hurry into the library. They’ve got a lot of reshelving to do. Do I feel guilty about that?
Ivolethe flies happily through the corridors of the mansion, making people duck out of the way or hurry to one side. She seems to feel safe inside here, so long as Magnolia isn’t around, that is. And she quite enjoys terrorizing the people here.
In fact, one of her favorite targets is just up ahead. Ivolethe smiles widely as she spots him eating through one of the glass windows. I try to stop her, but it’s too late. I sigh and head outdoors. As I do, I smile, just a bit. Today I will go to Invrisil. Reading’s all very well, but I guess I’m just an active sort of person.
And I wouldn’t mind a bit of adventure myself, come to that.
Reynold the [Butler] was eating outdoors, despite the nip in the air. That was because eating indoors where he could get crumbs on the floors would get him in quite a bit of trouble with those assigned to cleaning. Right now he was enjoying a skewer of meat, still steaming in the cold air.
It wasn’t a very Human dish, but the people of Izril had adopted the foods of other species. This was a favorite food of Drakes, and it had spread across the continent. The kebab could have used some vegetables for flavoring, but Reynold had been late to lunch and only managed to snag one of the extras.
Still, the meat was hot, juicy, and Reynold was content to eat as he stood against one wall in the mansion. He was happy in life. That was, until he spotted the blue patch of indistinct light coming towards his face at speed.
Reynold ducked as the Frost Faerie flew past his head. But it wasn’t him that the faerie was after. He felt a tugging at the skewer in his hand and to his dismay, saw two chunks of meat disappear upwards into the air. Reynold watched in silent misery as the faerie began to devour a good bit of his meal.
“Ivolethe! Damn it, I told you not to steal food from people! Or at least don’t make it obvious when you’re doing it!”
An angry voice rang out in the small courtyard. Reynold sighed. So much for enjoying his lunch in peace. He turned and put on a polite smile as his profession dictated.
“Good evening Miss Ryoka. I trust this day sees you well?”
The tall young women jogged over, pausing to stop in front of Reynold. She glared at the orb of blue light Reynold thought of as a Frost Faerie, a force of nature rather than an actual being. But Ryoka could apparently see such creatures, and talk to them. Reynold had spotted this particular faerie indoors, and he had been flabbergasted to see the true identity of these beings.
That still didn’t make him any less wary of them, though. Reynold eyed the fuzzy patch of light as it swooped closer to his meal. He would have given it up rather than risk the faerie’s wrath, but Ryoka swiped at the Frost Faerie, making it dodge away.
“Stop that. Leave the poor man to his meal. I’ll buy you something to eat when we get to Invrisil, okay?”
“Ah, so you are planning on visiting the city today?”
Reynold straightened up as the faerie flew back towards Ryoka. She nodded towards him, distracted. She stared at the faerie and scowled.
“What? Why do I…? He can’t even see you properly, why the hell should—okay, fine, fine. Shut up.”
She turned back towards him with a resigned look on her face. Ryoka pointed towards the hovering faerie’s indistinct form.
“Ivolethe is here. She wants to be acknowledged.”
“Of course. My deepest apologies, Miss Ivolethe.”
Reynold bowed in the direction of the faerie, according her the respect and proper tilt of the back due to a member of an aristocratic house. He couldn’t hear her of course, but Reynold got the impression the faerie was pleased.
“Glad you enjoyed that. Okay Reynold, I’m ready to go. One or two questions before we go, though. You said you brought all of the artifacts to an [Enchanter]. Any word on whether it’s done?”
“The estate has not received any communications to that effect, Miss. However, I am sure you could visit the mage in person to ask.”
“I might do that. Okay, next question. Are your orders to show me around the city, or can I only count on you for the ride back?”
Reynold answered carefully, remembering all the things Ressa had told him to say—and not to say.
“I am at your disposal, Miss Ryoka. I will accompany you as long as is needed—within Invrisil. I am not permitted to escort you anywhere outside of the city and my help is limited to an, ah, advisory role.”
“Meaning you don’t step in if I’m in trouble?”
“That is broadly correct, Miss.”
“Well, that’s fine. Okay, last question.”
Ryoka stepped forwards and was suddenly uncomfortably close to Reynold. She narrowed her eyes.
“Where are the others? The other people from my world.”
The unfortunate [Butler] swallowed.
“Don’t lie to me. I know they were here. Erin told me. Where did they go?”
The man let the silence go on till the count of five. That seemed like enough time—Ressa had told him to pretend to be reluctant to tell Ryoka.
“They…are learning to become adventurers, Miss. I believe they have been escorted southeast of here to—to train.”
“Train? You mean Magnolia’s hauling a bunch of kids to—damn, that sounds just like her. Are they going to get killed?”
“I don’t believe so, Miss. They have competent escorts.”
“But knowing Magnolia, they won’t step in unless someone’s about to die.”
Ryoka shook her head. She eyed Reynold and he wondered if she was going to ask him where they were—that was something he couldn’t reveal. To his relief, she seemed to abandon the idea.
“I don’t need to see them anyways. The city’s what I’m concerned about. Why don’t we head over there?”
He nodded, relieved.
“I will have the carriage prepped and ready to go within five minutes, Miss. If you will follow me?”
“I don’t need a carriage. I’ll run to the city and meet you inside. At the Runner’s Guild, say.”
The [Butler] hesitated.
“I’m not sure that would be the most efficacious use of time, Miss Ryoka.”
She stared at him.
“First, stop calling me Miss Ryoka. I’ve told you that. I don’t care what your [Butler] protocol says. Second, why would that take a long time?”
“The [Guardsmen] at the gates do a thorough check of all visitors entering the city, Mi—ah, Ryoka. The queue moves fairly quickly, but it would be easier to take Lady Reinhart’s carriage. Her servants and associates are never stopped on their errands.”
“The privilege of power, huh?”
Ryoka snorted and shook her head.
“It doesn’t matter how long the line is, Reynold. I’m a Runner. I skip the waiting around at the gates.”
“Not in Invrisil. Customs apply to all people entering, even Runners. There is a separate line, but…”
“What, they check Runners too? Why? Don’t tell me they’re at odds with their Runner’s Guild.”
“Not as such. But Invrisil sees far more magical artifacts and potentially dangerous items entering and leaving the city than most locations. Prudence is necessary.”
“They really get that many deliveries that could be dangerous? What about the Runner’s claim to confidentiality? Don’t tell me they’d open all of my packages.”
“I believe they have spells for that. As for the rest, well, Invrisil is slightly…larger than you might be used to, Ryoka.”
Reynold smiled slightly and stroked his trim mustache to hide it. Ryoka gave him an arch look while Ivolethe flew around her head.
“We’ll see. Let’s take the carriage, then.”
Invrisil, the city of adventurers. It was one of the features of Izril, a place that would appear on any map of the world. Ryoka and Erin had both heard the city’s name during their stay in this world. It was a place of adventurers, the heart of the northern half of the continent, where Humans would come to find the strongest of adventurers, undertake the most dangerous of requests. And of course, visit one of the most prosperous cities on the continent.
After all, where adventurers thrived, there had to be a city of equal size and resources to support them. Inns and food to feed countless mouths, [Mages], [Alchemists], and [Blacksmiths] to supply warriors with any number of aids in battle, and [Merchants] to buy and sell goods looted, [Guardsmen] to break up fights between rival parties, brothels, gambling pubs, enchanters and healers, trackers and cartographers, bards and laborers…
It was a city to rival any modern city from Ryoka and Erin’s world. If the buildings weren’t as tall as skyscrapers, well, many of them were far higher than normal architecture would allow thanks to magically reinforced walls. And if there were no cars or planes, there were enough carriages, coaches, wagons, and carts to make up for that.
But the rest was the same. In fact, the rest was even more than Ryoka had seen in places like New York City. For while that city could boast over eight million souls, each one was Human. Not so in Invrisil.
String People walked down the street, chatting, poking at loose threads in each other’s bodies right next to Drakes, who strode around, keeping their tails from being trodden on by impatient Minotaurs who towered even over the heads of the Gnolls in the crowd. Humans dominated the scene, but they walked cheek-by-dead flesh with Selphids, did business with Drowned Men and Women, and argued hotly with bird-people, coughed as dusty travelers whose bodies seemed part sand walked past them—
Ryoka stared as the carriage drove down the streets, making good time despite the huge amount of people. Ivolethe, sitting on Ryoka’s head, stared around in delight, laughing and pointing at individuals in the crowd. But Ryoka couldn’t focus on any one thing.
The buildings! Some were made of wood and stone yes, but many had colored roofs in every shade, and still more had been painted or given artistic fronts. When magic could easily make any relief permanent, the most prosperous buildings paid for [Painters] and [Muralists] to create wondrous images. Ryoka saw a group of adventurers battling a hideously large Troll adorning three buildings, each one showing part of the complete relief. Then her eyes turned and saw the lights.
There was no electricity in this world. But who needed that when magic provided an even steadier, softer glow? The hanging orbs of crystal shone even in the day, and some had been enchanted to shift color steadily, to catch and bewitch the eye.
“See the guards on patrol, Miss Ryoka? They’re fine warriors, all of them. As fine as you’d see in any Drake city! Some of them are retired adventurers, and but for a few old wounds they’re as dangerous as they were in their youth.”
Reynold pointed out a group of men and women marching smartly down the street. They certainly did look older than normal, but Ryoka saw the confident way each one walked. She saw them pass by as the carriage moved onwards.
That was another thing. The city had a street and sidewalk. There were no wagons mixing with pedestrians here—there was a separate route for vehicles such that they could keep moving despite the flow of foot-traffic. Ryoka saw a [Guardswoman] directing traffic and wondered if there were street lights too. That would be too surreal.
“I smell goat meat! And cow meat! And rat meat! And spices! Thyme and rosemary and paprika and qerix and bablyous!”
Ivolethe shouted and leapt from Ryoka’s head. She skimmed to an open stall and laughed as the vendor swore and tried to protect his wares on display. Ryoka passed by one of the open markets in the city and saw countless stalls like the ones in Liscor, all open, all filled with [Merchants] and [Traders] doing business with people there.
“How many people live here?”
She shouted at Reynold as he drove the carriage up a street. He had to raise his voice to reply.
“I couldn’t say how many, Miss! This city is so vast—and there are countless towns and villages only a stone’s throw away!”
It couldn’t be a million. Ryoka was sure…but well, why not? She knew cities like Paris and London had boasted over a hundred thousand people in the middle ages. This city was surely as large—no, larger than they were. If you counted the suburbs and outskirts, why not?
She whispered the words as the carriage rode on. Now Reynold was taking her into the heart of the business district, as far as she could tell. Shops passed by on the right and left and she heard people calling out to her as she passed.
“Milady, a moment, please! Would you be interested in the latest wares from Baleros? A shipment has come in from T’vault, please see!”
“I have the latest treats from Terandria, right here! Try our fabulous new treat, a frozen delight! You won’t be able to say no to another lick!”
The man was talking about ice cream! Ryoka saw it being served in a shop—the man there was putting it on little gold platters for people to sample. She looked over to the other side of the street and saw a huge plaza pass by. The people shouting there seemed to be aiming for warriors, judging by the calls.
“Want a Shield Spider? Invaluable protection—don’t fear it turning on you! An expert [Beast Master] has trained it to fight and obey your every command!”
“Our group is seeking work! A [Jarl] and [Raiders] are willing to fight at your command!”
“I have a pot of Everburning Flame here! Make me an offer, quickly!”
“The Windfrozen Riders are available for commission—”
“Hire the Celestial Trackers and we will find your quarry or your coin back—”
The voices were swept away as Ryoka passed by. She turned her head to look and spoke to Ivolethe.
“I might have to get an Everburning Flame while I’m here. It could be seriously useful, especially if I can build a primitive steam engine or something. Hell, I could probably find a [Blacksmith] to make me the parts.”
The Frost Faerie laughed.
“Hah! Yon fool lies. That pot is filled with naught but oil. ‘Tis an alchemist’s trick—it will burn for a week before running out.”
“Damn. How can you tell?”
“‘Twas not magic. And I caught the odor of the burnt oil as we passed. How could you not tell?”
Ryoka stared at Ivolethe, impressed.
“I’m going to take you when I go shopping.”
“After you buy me meat! You promised!”
“I need to take care of business first. Reynold, where’s the Runner’s Guild in the city?”
“We’re arriving at the largest branch now, Miss Ryoka.”
Reynold pointed, and Ryoka saw a large building to one side. It was painted like most of the buildings in the city—a light blue color, and she saw there were three sets of doors that were constantly in use as citizens came in to claim a package or have one delivered, and Runners went out to make said deliveries.
“Looks like that’s my stop. Should I wait for you there?”
“I’m afraid I will have to park this carriage at a spot designated for Lady Reinhart’s vehicles. Please do not wait for me. Instead, if you will accept this seal, I will locate you.”
Reynold produced one of Lady Magnolia’s iconic seals, half-gem, half-silver. Ryoka eyed the translucent sapphire melted together with shining silver metal into a single disc.
“Expensive. Are you sure I need it?”
“It will allow you unfettered access to many establishments, I think you will find, Miss Ryoka. Of course, Lady Reinhart asks that you not make any claims against her name with her token—lending it to you is an act of great trust.”
“And it has a tracking spell, doesn’t it? That’s how you’re going to find me.”
“Yes, Miss. This is most convenient in such a large city.”
Ryoka sighed, but took the token reluctantly.
“Find me as soon as you can and we’ll go visit that enchanter.”
“Yes, Miss Ryoka.”
“And stop calling me Miss!”
Ryoka shouted as she leapt out of the carriage and Reynold drove off. She sighed as Ivolethe flew down and landed on her shoulder.
“Are ye going to take long in yon building?”
“Not too long if I can get past the receptionists without too much fuss. But they’ll have to tally all the deliveries I’ve got…look, just get inside my pouch and wait, alright?”
“Ach, the things that friendship requires.”
Grumbling, Ivolethe flew into Ryoka’s pouch. The Runner adjusted her belt, and then strode into the Runner’s Guild.
Whatever she had been expecting, Ryoka hadn’t quite expected the scope of this Guild. She stared around for a second, blinking, as her eyes took in the main Runner’s Guild of Invrisil.
“Wow. That’s a lot of Runners.”
There had to be over a hundred people in the building. That was three times as many as Ryoka had ever seen in Celum’s guild at any one time, and this was only the main building? She saw Runners coming and going, people of all species. A Gnoll with a package tied to a sling around her chest brushed past her, and Ryoka realized there was a steady stream going in and out the doors.
Quickly, the young woman stepped towards the receptionists. There were quite a few of them, and they were dealing with Runners quickly, changing seals for coin, handing out deliveries, and so on. Ryoka stepped into line and found herself advancing in the queue at startling speed.
There was no waiting long in a Runner’s Guild it seemed. Ryoka could already see the brisk [Receptionists] talking with Runners at the front. They seemed older than the normal group of young women, and there were men in the mix as well.
Ryoka fidgeted as she reached for her Runner’s Seal and bag of holding carrying all the deliveries from Ocre. She still hated talking to new people, especially when it came to Receptionists. They were so chatty—
“Next! Over here, Miss.”
Two receptionists finished with their Runner at the same time. Ryoka walked over to a woman in her mid-thirties. She was a String Person, although interestingly, she had pale skin, rather than Octavia or Revi’s dark tone. She held out one hand where all the fingers had stitches where they met the hand.
“Your seal, please.”
Ryoka placed her personal Runner’s seal on the counter. The [Receptionist] snatched it up and produced a magnifying glass to study it in an instant. She only gave it a brief look before sliding it back towards Ryoka.
“Ryoka Griffin? You’re a long way from Celum. Are you transferring, or doing a delivery? We didn’t receive word you were heading this way.”
Ryoka blinked. This receptionist was far more business-like than Ryoka was accustomed to. She hesitated a bit on her reply.
“I’m not transferring. I—was in Ocre and had the chance to come here. I’ve got a bunch of deliveries from the guild there.”
“Really? May I see them?”
Ryoka produced her bag of holding. The [Receptionist]’s gaze sharpened and she held out a hand.
“Wait. Are any of the packages marked confidential or otherwise uniquely addressed in any way?”
“Not that I was told.”
“Very well then. Proceed.”
Ryoka carefully took wrapped item after item out of the bag of holding, piling it up on the desk. In the end the receptionist had to call for a bin—she began transferring each package into it with quite deliberate movements.
“Well, that accounts for every package we had coming this way. I suppose we’ll get less on the weekly delivery.”
The [Receptionist] idly commented as she peered at the bin full of deliveries. Ryoka had to smile a bit; she could see some of the other Runners staring jealously at her. The [Receptionist] nodded as she tallied up each delivery on a receipt and stamped it.
“Not bad. But a Courier could have done it just as quickly, or faster if they were heading here directly. If you’re going to make a long-distance trip in the future, please inform the Guild so they can send a message, Miss.”
The smug smile on Ryoka’s face vanished. The woman at the desk looked only vaguely impressed with Ryoka’s feat. She handed the receipt to Ryoka.
“You may exchange that for coin now or at any guild, as I’m sure you know. Now, was there anything else, Miss?”
Caught off-guard, Ryoka thought quickly.
“…There is one thing. Do you happen to know if the Courier Valceif Godfrey is in the city?”
The woman at the desk raised her eyebrows.
“Valceif? His usual circuit is closer to First Landing, but he comes here regularly for deliveries…I haven’t seen him of late, which is unusual, but I will ask about his location. If you return here later, I, or another receptionist at the desk will know more.”
“My pleasure, Miss Griffin. Next!”
Bemused, Ryoka wandered away from the desk, seeing a rather battered-looking Dullahan step forwards. She heard him beginning to complain about being attacked by dogs again before she stepped out of the guild.
“I guess a big city means the Runners here are that much better.”
“Bah, ‘tis not as if they can run that fast.”
Ivolethe poked her head out of Ryoka’s belt pouch as the young woman stood in the street. Ryoka shook her head; she thought the Runners in that building might all be at Fals’ level, or better. If that was the case, they were all nearly as fast or faster than she was.
“I’m starting to really feel like a country yokel seeing the city for the first time. Until Reynold finds us, how about we go look around? You can get something to eat, and I’ll…take in the sights, I guess.”
Ivolethe happily agreed, and so Ryoka set off down the streets. At first she was uncomfortable, but she quickly got used to the flow of the city.
This place reminded her a lot of New York. There wasn’t any stopping and chatting here, not with such a press of people. If you didn’t walk fast you got dirty looks—or pushed. The sidewalk was crowded, and when the wagons on the street halted to let pedestrians cross you moved fast or you got shouted at.
Ryoka had the insane urge to shout ‘I’m walking here!’ just for the hell of it. But that would probably get something hurled at her head by one of the drivers. They certainly traded insults with the foot traffic in a refreshingly familiar way. Although, Ryoka had to admit, she had never seen a pedestrian throw a ball of magic at a driver who shouted obscenities at him.
But aside from the city press, the city of Invrisil was still a city. And Ryoka had grown up in the urban sprawl. There were places to get food on the sidewalk, and in no time she was eating her own hot skewer and quickly sliding off hot chunks of meat to cram into her belt pouch from another.
Her pouch was going to get greasy and disgusting, but Ivolethe seemed only concerned about the food. Ryoka could feel her rustling around and making happy noises as she ate. And a happy Frost Faerie was one that wasn’t freezing your stomach and giving you horrible bowel movements.
“Where to next, I wonder?”
Ryoka stopped in a busy plaza, looking around for signs, perhaps to the market, or maybe to a specialized store specializing in magical artifacts. She had coin after all—a lot of it. It might not be enough for a powerful magical artifact, but it was time to buy a ring or—or enchanted clothing perhaps. What about a wand—
“Watch where you’re going, Troll!”
An outraged shout made Ryoka’s head turn. She saw a group of armored men and one woman—adventurers?—standing in front of…
Ryoka had to rub her eyes. It was a Troll. Or—no, not a Troll maybe, but a half-Troll?
There was no other word for it. Ryoka hadn’t seen a Troll before, but she imagined they’d be a bit bigger, a bit rounder and more…monster-like. But while this…person wasn’t a full Troll, they definitely had some Troll blood in them.
It was hard to describe. Ryoka’s first impression was that someone had taken this poor young woman—a young woman with far bigger bones than even Garia—and painted her a greyish color. But that alone wouldn’t account for her tough, almost pebble-like skin and towering height. She was over seven feet tall and she looked like a goliath. Not like a tall and lanky basketball player, no, Ryoka thought she looked more like a walking tank. Broad-shouldered didn’t even begin to cover it, and her arms were thick.
She was wearing rough, simple clothing that looked hand-stitched. The half-Troll was trying to step away from the angry adventurer she’d apparently run into. He wasn’t letting her go. He was angry, and, Ryoka thought, overly hostile towards her.
“Of course. Racism at its finest.”
Ivolethe poked her head out of Ryoka’s pouch, cheeks bulging. The second she saw the scene she went still. Ryoka shook her head as the adventurer began insulting the half-Troll girl.
He looked like he wanted a fight. Briefly, Ryoka considered stepping in. She had no patience for bullies. And she had a pepper potion and the other items Octavia had given her ready to be used. Except that this adventurer had a group of his friends backing him up. Ryoka eyed them and shook her head.
“Not my business.”
That was what Ryoka decided in the end. She could imagine what would happen if she picked a fight with real adventurers. She’d not only lose, but probably get hurt and maybe get thrown in jail. It wasn’t worth it.
“Don’t go! Stay! I want to watch!”
Ivolethe shouted as Ryoka turned to leave. The young woman frowned down into the pouch.
“Why? Do you want to help? I won’t stop you, but be careful. If they think that half-Troll girl is doing it, they’ll attack her.”
“What? Not the half-child, ye daft fool! I want to see what he does!”
Ivolethe pointed, and Ryoka saw to her surprise that the Troll girl wasn’t in fact alone. She hadn’t even seen the young man standing by her side; she sort of dominated the scene. But he was standing in silence, listening to the adventurer get angrier and angrier.
The adventurer was trying to pick a fight, Ryoka could tell. He had a sword and this half-Troll didn’t. He was a piece of crap, and she would have loved to drop-kick him and stomp on him a bit. But she had a feeling he’d kick her ass if she tried.
She didn’t want to stay and watch this unfold. And yet, she watched the adventurer continue to pick on the half-Troll with narrowed eyes, unable to just walk away.
“Enough. Please stop bothering my companion.”
The young man spoke up at last. He seemed to be talking to the entire group, rather than the belligerent adventurer in front.
“She did nothing wrong. If she walked into you while escorting me, I apologize on both our behalf. But you have no reason to attack her like this.”
The other members of the group seemed to accept this, but the man who’d been knocked into seemed to find this apology too weak, or perhaps he just wanted to cause more trouble for the pair. He swaggered up to the young man, glaring.
“Is she your bodyguard? In that case, you should apologize to us directly! Don’t you know who we are?”
The young man turned his head towards the adventurer, and Ryoka blinked as she saw his eyes were closed.
“I don’t know, or particularly care. Please move aside—we are trying to go about our business and you should do the same.”
“What, are you too good to look me in the eye?”
Outraged, the adventurer seized the young man’s arm. Immediately the half-Troll reacted. She reached for the adventurer to push him back. He immediately leapt back and his friends grabbed for their weapons. Protectively, the Troll girl moved in front of the young man.
“Don’t do that! He’s blind!”
A blind guy? Ryoka had seen few people with disabilities in this world. She wondered if that was because of a lack of pollution or other genetic factors—or if such people died out because they couldn’t defend themselves or contribute.
Either way, the young man’s lack of sight didn’t stop him from being a target. The adventurer began mocking both him and the half-Troll girl, much to Ryoka’s distaste.
“A blind man and a half-Troll! Hah! I suppose that’s the only person who’d put up with something like that!”
The gigantic young woman glared at the adventurer.
“Go away. If you bother Laken, I’ll protect him. I’m his—”
She got no further, because the man interrupted her with a sneer.
“Protect him? You couldn’t protect a fly! I’ve seen real combat, not like some half-monster country bumpkin.”
The half-Troll said nothing, but there was an unfriendly look in her eye, and one of her hands clenched into a fist. A big fist. Ryoka eyed it and wondered what would happen if she hit the adventurer with it. His buddies looked a bit worried, but the man in front was drunk on bravado.
“Do you know how many Trolls I’ve killed with this sword? I could etch another notch right here, and no one would care.”
The man put a hand on his sword as he stepped forwards. The half-Troll girl flinched, but then to Ryoka’s surprise the young man moved. He took a step forwards and turned his head towards the adventurer. He was clearly angry, and when his mouth opened the word he spoke echoed across the square.
Ryoka felt something press at her chest and had to force herself not to react. The adventurer stumbled back as if something physical had hit him. He put his hands on his sword with a snarl and the half-Troll girl raised a threatening fist. Before the conflict could escalate into bloodshed, Ryoka heard a shout and thumping of boots.
“What’s going on here!?”
The Watch had come, and remarkably quickly too. Ryoka wondered if it had to do with the half-Troll being there—and then corrected her thought. Of course it did. She watched as the two sides explained what had happened from their point of view.
Predictably, the adventurer claimed that the half-Troll had nearly knocked him down and he had simply reacted to the provocation. The blind young man and the half-Troll claimed the opposite. The young man—he was named Laken apparently—was explaining things to the Lieutenant, who didn’t seem too inclined to listen to his side of the case.
“She did nothing wrong. Durene was guiding me through the streets when this man decided to take objection to her existing.”
“So you say, sir. But this adventurer and his friends—a Silver-rank team—claim otherwise.”
The young man’s brows drew together as he snapped.
“I may be blind, but I know what I heard. And other people saw what happened too. Why not ask them? Or better yet, use a truth spell?”
“I hardly think that this situation calls for that.”
The man in charge dismissed the idea as if it were silly. He glanced at the adventurer, who looked pretty damn confident for someone who was probably lying, in Ryoka’s opinion. The lieutenant glared up at the half-Troll, who was looking chastened as well as upset.
“I’ll let it go with a warning—for both of you. Be on your way sir, and you, Miss—”
He hesitated, made a face, and then went on.
“—Cause no problems in my city while you’re here. If I hear of any more disturbances, there will be trouble.”
The adventurer took that as his cue to go and swaggered off. Ryoka glared at his back, but the young blind man was still irate.
“You have got to be kidding me. Is this really fair, officer? You and I both know that Durene did nothing wrong. Is it because she’s a half-Troll that you’re blaming her? Or do you simply not care about justice?”
The lieutenant did not like being told off. His cheeks reddened and he put a hand on his sword until he realized the blind man couldn’t see the motion.
“I apologize if you’ve been inconvenienced sir. Now, move along.”
“Come on Laken, let’s go.”
The half-Troll pulled gently at the young man’s shoulder. He clenched his fists, and then relaxed his hands. His fury seemed to wash away in an instant and he looked resigned, rather than upset. Laken nodded and patted Durene’s hand.
“Very well, I suppose this guardsman is just doing his job. As we say in my homeland, fahr zur Hölle du Bullenschwein. Ah entschuldigung, SIE Bullenschwein. Good day, officer.”
The blind man spoke the words directly to the lieutenant, and then smiled at him as if what he’d said had been a compliment. It clearly wasn’t, but no one knew what he’d said. The lieutenant frowned, but didn’t make an issue of it.
But standing across the street, Ryoka Griffin’s eyes suddenly went wide. She felt as if her entire body had suddenly been shocked. She knew what had been said. But more importantly, she knew in what language that had been said. That was no foreign tongue from this world. That was German!
Ryoka’s heart beat rapidly in her chest as she saw the group of guardsmen stride away, leaving the duo behind. That had to be just a coincidence. Or was it? There weren’t any people who spoke German in this world, were there? Well, if everyone here spoke English, why not? Another country could have adopted other languages. And yet—Ryoka’s gaze fixed on the blind young man standing next to the upset half-Troll.
“Ivolethe. Why is that guy so special?”
The faerie’s voice was tiny in Ryoka’s ear.
“I see it on him. The mark of command. The old destiny of leaders.”
That made no sense to Ryoka. But she was distracted by the Troll-girl. Durene? She was bending and whispering to the young man, although her voice was quite audible to anyone listening. Ryoka glanced around. Not many people were. They were hurrying around and away from her, rather than stopping to listen.
“What did you say, Laken?”
He turned his head towards her and Ryoka saw him smile. She heard him clearly whisper to the half-Troll as she stepped closer.
“I’ll tell you later, Durene. Let’s just get to that Runner’s Guild first, hm? We can see about adventurers later.”
Hesitantly, the half-Troll took the young man’s hand. She cast around, and then began to set off through the street, easily clearing a path for him to walk by her. Ryoka hesitated.
She could ignore that and go to the enchanter. She couldn’t believe she’d find someone else from her world right here, just like that.
And yet—Ryoka glanced down at her belt pouch. Ivolethe had poked her head out, and she was chewing the last bit of meat. And her eyes were fixed on Laken. The Frost Faerie glanced up at Ryoka, and then away.
Coincidence? Or fate? Was she being led, or was this all some huge chance event? Ryoka didn’t know. But as the half-Troll and blind young man walked through the crowds, Ryoka slowly walked after them.