Ryoka Griffin lay dreaming. It was a confused dream, a good one. And a sad one. She dreamed of familiar faces, of the dead who in her dream were living and laughing. An inn on the hill waited for her, and she found herself running towards the door and drawing ever further away.
With every step she took, she ran backwards. Until she came to a place where the ground was bare, and where frozen shards of ice glittered. And she heard the sound again, a fragile noise, as quiet as a heart breaking. Unforgettable.
Bad things had happened. Even dreaming, Ryoka Griffin knew that. Terrible things. Somewhere, in her dream, a girl was crying. And Ryoka was not there. She was far, far away.
But that was not the point of Ryoka’s dream. She was crouching, writing in the dirt next to the ice, when she looked up. She thought someone had called her name. Ryoka looked up and saw a face. It was not icy, nor was it familiar. But the voice was. And the figure laughed and reached out, from somewhere far away. She reached for Ryoka and told her it was going to be alright. And Ryoka reached up and tried to take that hand, believe that promise. She saw a smile—
And a thud nearly shot her out of bed. Ryoka felt the impact shake the floorboards beneath her, felt her heart leap into her mouth, and practically somersaulted out of bed. She landed on the floor, ready to fight whatever had struck her—until she remembered. Ryoka heard another thunderous impact, and the same, booming voice from below.
“Get up, you lazy Runner! You too, [Fist Fighter]!”
Ryoka slowly felt at her chest to make sure her heart was in one piece. She heard someone else fall out of bed. The thumping on the floorboards paused a second, and then Ryoka heard somewhere, down the hall, another impact. The inn’s third and fourth guests were rudely awoken the same way.
“Up! I’m not asking twice! Anyone not down in five minutes eats nothing! Wake up!”
“I guess it’s time for breakfast.”
Ryoka muttered to herself as she rubbed her face. She stared out the window, and noted that it was barely past dawn. She stumbled towards the door, opened it, and walked outside.
A young man was blearily staring at nothing. He was bare-chested, stocky, shorter than Ryoka, but well-muscled. Only, he didn’t give Ryoka the impression of a burly fellow, like the [Innkeeper] who’d just woke her up. He was more of an average frame that had put on muscle without fat. Sinewy was the word Ryoka was looking for.
One of the reasons for Ryoka’s observation of these facts was that the young man in question, Alber, was naked except for some boxer shorts. They’d been put on backwards.
She stared at him. He stared back, and then Ryoka realized she was nearly naked as well. The two gave each other another long look and then backed into their rooms. Five minutes later, Ryoka opened her door at roughly the same time as Alber. Both didn’t say anything as they walked downstairs, but then Ryoka caught herself. She cleared her throat.
Alber looked back over his shoulder. He hesitated, and then nodded awkwardly.
That was all they said, but Ryoka counted it as a victory. She walked down the rest of the stairs, avoiding a slippery spot halfway down to the bottom, and saw a huge man for whom the word ‘burly’ had been made. He turned as he set out five bowls of soup on the first of the relatively clean tables of his inn.
“Took you long enough! Here. It’s from last night. Eat up and hurry up—I’m going hunting.”
Ryoka chose one of the bowls and sat at a nearby table. Alber, without so much as a word, did the same. The [Innkeeper] didn’t care. He was already wolfing down his breakfast, which, Ryoka had to note, he’d added two eggs and a heel of bread to. Her bowl was unadorned.
“Good morning, Mister Madain.”
This time Ryoka didn’t get to greet him first. She’d been…choosing her moment when the other two guests of the inn came down the stairs. The person who’d spoken was a thin girl, wrapped up in layers of clothing. She spoke carefully, her pale face poking out of her clothing. She sniffed, and wiped her nose. Madain, or ‘Mad Madain’ as people called him behind his back and when they were sure he was out of earshot, looked up. He grinned at the young woman and the rather woebegone man behind her.
“Morning, Fierre. And morning to you, whoever you are. Enjoy your sleep?”
The fourth guest of Mad Madain’s inn, The Huntress’ Haven, blinked. He was a [Trader]. New to the city of Reizmelt. And apparently ill-liked, because no one had warned him of this inn’s particular idiosyncrasies. He blinked and looked at Madain.
“I, uh, did. Thank you, Mister Madain. But uh, I didn’t know we’d be waking up—”
“Like it? I came up with it myself. We all get up at the same time and eat together! I can lock up the inn that way. Here. Breakfast.”
The [Trader] looked into the last bowl of meaty soup—the double of the one he’d eaten last night. Fierre had already taken her bowl and was quietly eating it. He gulped.
“I uh, I think I might go out for breakfast, sir. Did you say you’ll be locking up?”
“Yeah. In ten minutes. You want something from your rooms, you get it now, got it? Otherwise I’ll be back in the afternoon.”
The question seemed to be too much for Madain. He slapped the table with an open palm.
“I don’t know! Sometime!”
The [Trader] looked around. He got nothing from Ryoka, Alber, or Fierre. All three had heard variations of this argument before and wanted no part of it. Ryoka’s only concern was filling her stomach, and then figuring out how to wish Fierre a good morning too.
“But this is an inn, isn’t it? Couldn’t you leave it open?”
“If I had a staff, yeah. I don’t. And I’m not leaving my inn open to get stolen from.”
“But if a [Thief] broke into it—”
“I’ll hunt him down, and cut his balls off. What’s the problem, man? Either eat or stop asking questions! My food’s getting cold!”
The two men stared at each other for a long moment. The [Trader] searched for words, and then shook his head.
“I’m—going to get my things. Please don’t lock up. I want to pay for my room.”
He went back up the stairs. Madain glowered and shouted at his back.
“You’re still paying for the nights you booked your room for!”
There was no reply. The [Innkeeper] turned back to his bowl. His three remaining guests didn’t catch his eye. Madain glowered at his meal.
“Good. I didn’t like him anyways.”
No one replied. The scene just witnessed was a common one at The Huntress’ Haven. Ryoka, who’d only been staying here for two weeks, was used to it already. And she had to be—you either learned to deal with the most infamous [Innkeeper] in all of Reizmelt, or you found somewhere else to stay. Most chose to find somewhere else to stay.
Mad Madain’s tale was a simple one. He was a retired adventurer. Gold-rank, or rather, he’d been part of a Gold-rank team, which wasn’t quite the same as being certified Gold-rank himself. But he’d been good enough to survive until retirement, and he’d done what most adventurers liked to talk about: open an inn. The problem was that Madain had exactly the opposite temperament that any good [Innkeeper] needed. He might have made a wonderful tavern owner. But [Innkeeper]? No.
One example of Madain’s style was how he woke up his patrons for breakfast. He’d decided early on that it was tiring to serve bed and breakfast all day and wait for people to wake up. So they woke up when he did and got out of his inn when he decided. Sometimes it was before dawn, others, late in the day. Regardless, when he was up, Madain served food, and then left his inn to fulfill his true passion: hunting. He had been a [Javelineer] and his arm was still as strong, even if he preferred to win his fights up close.
All of this just meant that his inn was very, very empty of regular guests. At least of the kind who stayed overnight. Still, if you could stomach mostly meat dishes, leftovers, waking up at dawn, and Madain’s own personality…you couldn’t beat those prices! Bed and breakfast, thank you. Plus you could be sure everything was fresh.
The inn had three regulars. Alber, the [Fist Fighter]. Fierre, who had sharp teeth and multiple jobs. And Ryoka Griffin. City Runner, otherworlder, and now, the Wind Runner as people had begun to call her.
It wasn’t really a mark of fame. Madain still called Ryoka by her nickname because he couldn’t be bothered to learn her actual name. As for Fierre and Alber—they kept to themselves. Alber was flexing his hands, and Ryoka knew he was eating lightly. He’d be out in the square nearest to the inn within the hour, with his little bowl and ring set up. He was a [Fist Fighter], and earned his coin challenging visitors and the citizens of Reizmelt to fights.
In a week, maybe three, he’d probably be off, to another city where people had never heard of him before. As for Fierre—well, apparently she’d been staying at this very inn for nearly a year. And Ryoka didn’t know what her class was, but she’d noticed Fierre’s teeth. They were sharp.
Ryoka finished her bowl quickly and sat back for a moment to let it digest. Despite her rude awakening, she didn’t feel bad today. Not particularly good either—it was another day. But she’d said one out of three good mornings and that was a partial win, wasn’t it?
“Oi, Wind Runner.”
Ryoka’s head snapped up. Madain was looking at her. He pointed with one stub of a finger.
“You’re always humming that tune. What’s it called?”
Ryoka coughed and turned a bit red. She looked at Alber for a second—she’d been staring at him.
“Uh—The Boxer. It’s…by Simon and Garfunkel. It’s just a song I like.”
Alber didn’t notice Ryoka’s stare. Nor did he seem to notice the title of her song. Madain just grunted.
“Who? Never heard of them. The names sound funny. Gnollish. You some kind of fur-lover? Been down south? I heard you came from that way.”
Conversation was unusual during breakfast, at least, two-way conversation. Ryoka scrambled for a reply.
“I did. Uh, I used to run around Celum.”
“Never been there.”
And like that, conversation ended. Madain went back to noisily eating. Ryoka stared at her empty bowl. Then she glanced at Alber again.
He wasn’t from her world. Ryoka was sure of that. And yet, he was a [Fist Fighter]. Not the first this world had ever seen, but unique to Reizmelt. After all, fighting with your fists was normal enough, but for money? Why not be an adventurer if you liked hitting and being hit?
This world had no boxers. No tradition of the sport, at least, not in Izril. There were [Gladiators] in Chandrar, [Mercenaries] in Baleros, and [Sellswords] throughout the world, but no boxers. At first Ryoka had been sure that Alber was from her world. But he hadn’t looked up at hearing the song’s name.
Oh well. Ryoka sat back in her chair. Eventually, Madain stood up. He didn’t ask for bowls or go around picking them up; Ryoka policed her dish and utensils and left them in the kitchen with Fierre and Alber. The three walked outside as Madain remained to eject the unfortunate [Trader]. The two young women and the young man exchanged a glance. The city of Reizmelt was still dark. Still waking up.
Ryoka saw Fierre coughing into the scarf wound around her head, for all that it was only cool. It was spring, and the world had warmed. Still, she was bundled from head to toe. She was certainly shivering enough to warrant it, but—Ryoka cleared her throat. Now.
The young woman jumped. She looked at Ryoka, and then gave her a smile that exposed exactly none of her teeth.
“Morning, Miss Ryoka.”
She hurried away before Ryoka could say anything else. Which was good because that was all Ryoka had. Good morning. Or ‘Morning’ to be hip and chill with the modern generation. Ryoka sighed. Then she brightened. Alber was striding away, already putting on his leather gloves. Ryoka looked back towards the inn.
“See you, Madain! And good morning!”
The [Innkeeper] looked up from threatening the [Trader] with bodily harm as they argued over his fee. He opened his mouth, but Ryoka was already gone. And she was grinning.
Mission accomplished. Three out of three. The [Trader] didn’t count. Ryoka hadn’t prepared her heart for a fourth good morning. She began running down the streets of Reizmelt. The city had paved streets, smooth brickwork that Ryoka was grateful for. She kept an eye out for crap on the ground, though. Literal poo was not something she wanted to step in, or broken glass or anything else. And as she ran, the wind picked up.
It had been still in the air. But as Ryoka began to move and her stride lengthened, a breeze ran through the city. It was gentle at first. Then it picked up a bit. It filled the air and Ryoka smiled. The wind swept down the street, filling the air around her back. And it woke the city up.
A shutter flew open as Ryoka passed underneath. A man staggered to the open window, got a blast of wind in the face, and shouted at her back.
“Run somewhere else in the mornings!”
Ryoka waved an apologetic hand. The shutters rattled as the wind swept past them, seeming to delight in making as much noise as possible. She heard similar insults from other houses, but then a young pair of hands thrust open a house’s shutters on the ground floor. A little face poked out and shouted.
“Miss Wind Runner!”
A gust of wind blasted into the child’s face. She made a delighted noise, and climbed out of her window. Another child raced out the door. A young boy waved as he ran after Ryoka.
“Wind Runner! Miss Runner!”
“I’ve got work. Shoo!”
Ryoka tried to fend off the little kids running out of their houses after her. Of course, that only made them chase her harder. In the end it didn’t matter. Energetic as they might be, they were quite slow. Ryoka left them behind as she approached her destination. The Runner’s Guild of Reizmelt. She was a regular there. Or at least, the [Receptionist] knew her on sight.
There was a Runner’s Guild in almost every city. Big and small, where they knew every Runner’s face by name or where they had an assembly line. It was almost always a female [Receptionist] at the desk. Apparently that was a policy of the Runner’s Guild.
Ryoka slowed as she entered the building. She made sure to wipe her feet on the mat before entering, and she headed straight for the board filled with requests. The few other Runners chatting or doing overnight deliveries looked up when they saw her, but no one knew her well enough to call out. Ryoka studied the board and found nothing but cheap requests.
Deliver a package to the next city over. Do the daily bulk-letter delivery. Pick up a package from a village and deliver it. The fee for each delivery was marked and Ryoka saw nothing more than a few silver coin’s worth of work on first glance. Then she spotted a nice contract at the bottom. It must have been new, because it was good and no one had picked it up. She snagged it.
The [Receptionist] at the desk had been patiently waiting for someone to come to her. She watched Ryoka approach and then put on a cheerful smile.
“Good morning, Miss Griffin.”
“Good morning. Here’s my request.”
The [Receptionist] checked the paper as Ryoka waited patiently. She’d probably been the one to put it up, because she looked up almost instantly.
“Sixteen silver coins for a priority delivery to Blaiseford’s Lookout. Letter delivery. The deadline’s by evening. Will you take this request?”
The Runner hesitated.
“Any counter-offers on this delivery? Any bounties I should know about?”
Ryoka felt silly for asking, but she had to know. The [Receptionist] shook her head briskly. She would have said if there was. Ryoka nodded.
“In that case, I’ll take it.”
“Wonderful. One second, please.”
Ryoka waited as the young woman turned and went to a bunch of sorted packages ready to be delivered. She came back with the letter in question—high-quality paper emblazoned with a blue wax seal shaved with wood. Ryoka had expected it to be something like that. Whomever was paying for priority had to be fairly rich. The [Receptionist] briskly spread a map out in front of Ryoka.
“The path from Reizmelt to Blaiseford takes eight hours for the average runner. There is a road the entire way there. However, please be aware that you will be travelling through the Himalt Swamplands if you take a direct route. There is a road that skirts the swamps, but this is a priority delivery and the interior route is relatively well-maintained. Be on the lookout for undead, submerged monsters and bandits, however. We’ve had reports that the Bloodfeast Raiders were operating out of that area two months prior, and although they’ve moved, any signs of activity should be reported immediately. Do you need an illustration of the known raiders?”
The words were spoken quickly and briskly as she traced a path for Ryoka. The Asian girl shook her head.
“No, thank you.”
The [Receptionist] nodded and rolled up the map. Her leg buckled as she went to bend and put it away. Ryoka saw her catch herself. The two pretended the moment had never happened.
“In that case, here is your letter. The seal you will receive is not Blaiseford’s usual seal. It will look like the following: blue stripes on white painted wood and a little crest of a bird, drawn in red—”
Ryoka memorized the seal’s description and nodded again. The [Receptionist] finally handed her the letter in question and marked down the time Ryoka had picked it up. And Ryoka’s name.
Things were more complicated in the north. Around Celum, the process would have been quick. Get to the desk, get your package, hear what deadline there was and if there was a threat in the area—and go. But here Ryoka not only got a rundown of the nearby threats, but her progress was monitored. She was more accountable. And that was because her delivery mattered up north, where it didn’t further south.
To put it another way, the stakes were a lot lower around Celum, and the threats marginal—unless you were to venture near the High Passes. Around Reizmelt, which was further north than Invrisil, the dangers to a City Runner were higher, and not from the local wildlife.
Bandits, bounty hunters, and only occasionally monsters were what killed Runners in the north. When Ryoka had asked about bounties or counter offers, she’d been checking to make sure this delivery wasn’t contested. As in, no one would hire a [Bandit] group to take her out or try and kill her and steal the letter for themselves. It was something she had to be very careful of.
As a City Runner, Ryoka was a low-tier pawn in any power game. It was unlikely she would get involved in a major incident—that was a job for Couriers—but you never knew when you might attract the wrong kind of attention.
Still, this letter was only sixteen silver coin’s worth of cargo. On the other hand, it was almost a gold coin’s worth of money to deliver a single letter. True, it was an eight-hour journey, but it made Ryoka a tiny bit suspicious. So, as she left the Runner’s Guild she did not immediately head for the gates. Instead, she took a detour and went back the way she’d come.
There were more people on the street, and they looked up as Ryoka ran past, the gust of wind following her. It had stayed outside of the Runner’s Guild, but it was still there when she left. This time it was a light breeze on her back. Ryoka turned down the street, passed the Huntress’ Haven, and came to a little door set in an alley not a block away. She knocked twice on the door, and then kicked it once. There was a long pause. Ryoka heard a little slot slide open, saw an eye for one second that she recognized. The pupil was…slightly red. Then the door quickly opened.
A young woman stood inside the tiny little retreat. There was a door on the far end which led to a [Carpenter]’s shop, but it was locked, barred, and would never be opened. There were no windows in this…place either. And Ryoka was pretty sure that the entire room was under some kind of magical ward. She could feel it in the air. It hummed in her ears, but she just nodded.
“Just now. I’m asking for an open-and-check.”
She looked at the young woman as she walked behind her counter and sat on a high stool. Fierre, whom Ryoka had just seen, nodded and reached out.
“What’s the delivery price?”
“Sixteen silver coins. I’ll give you…three.”
“Three and six copper?”
“Done. What was the Runner’s Seal description?”
“Blue stripes on a white painted wood chip. Uh, a little bird in the corner. Red.”
“That’s…a [Lord]’s personal seal. Let me look it up.”
Fierre reached for a hand-bound book. She began flipping through it quickly. Ryoka interjected.
“Try Blaiseford. That’s where—”
Someone knocked on the door and kicked once. Both girls froze. Ryoka went still, and Fierre looked up. She reached for something on the counter. A bell. She rang it once. The two heard footsteps, and whomever was there left. They’d be back in thirty minutes. Or they’d find someone else.
Fierre looked at Ryoka as if nothing had happened. Ryoka nodded, glancing back at the door. Fierre noticed the look.
“Don’t worry. Even if they saw you come in, no one’s reporting you. If they do, they’re in trouble.”
Reassured, Ryoka nodded. Fierre went back to looking through the book. At last, she peered at a little entry and made a sound.
“Ah. Here it is. You’re delivering to Lord Beilkit. Of House Malt.”
Ryoka suppressed a smile. Fierre looked up. Her lips twitched for a second.
“They’re an old family. A hundred and…two years old. They earn their profits through their lands, actually. Sheep is big on their estates.”
“I see. How about the letter?”
“Let me check.”
Fierre reached for a drawer, pulled out an amulet with a clear stone. She ran it over the letter lightly and shook her head.
“No reaction. Want me to open it? It’s just a wax seal—there’s no trick to the letter that I can see.”
Fierre reached over for a little blade, very flat, and lit a candle. She began warming the blade before carefully teasing at the wax seal as Ryoka watched. The running girl had a moment of qualm as she watched. But only a moment. She watched Fierre begin to tease the seal off the letter. The girl looked up.
“You might want to stand back.”
Ryoka retreated to the end of the room. If Fierre had thought it was dangerous, she would have told Ryoka to wait outside. The girl opened the letter slowly, her movements careful, taking care to leave the seal intact. But both she and Ryoka were waiting to see what the letter contained.
Fierre was a Runner’s fence. Or perhaps information broker was a better word. Ryoka knew that Fierre didn’t really deal on the wrong end of the law—certainly not enough for the local authorities to worry about her. She was…an opener. And what she opened were envelopes.
The Runner’s Guild had a strict code. Runners delivered messages, through storms and mud, outrunning monsters and hiding from bandits. They were an incorruptible force that existed only to deliver goods and messages across the continent at lightning speed.
In theory. In practice, Runners were as corruptible as any organization. More so in fact; Runners didn’t earn a lot to risk their lives, at least, unless they were Couriers or had cushy, safe contracts available at all times. So that meant their loyalty towards the people they delivered for was negotiable.
Highly negotiable, in fact. In the north, where information was worth gold, selling details about who was sending what to whom was highly profitable. Ryoka hadn’t known that when she’d first come north, but after two weeks of earning barely enough silver and copper to survive, she’d picked up on how things were done. She’d paid for information, and found out that Fierre was one of Reizmelt’s local go-betweens, the person every Runner knew but didn’t talk about. The person they went to when they wanted to know what they were carrying.
It wasn’t something Fals or Garia would have done around Celum. Even Persua wouldn’t have stooped so low—not because she was unwilling, but because there was no profit in it in the south. There weren’t enough of the nobility to justify the risk. But up north? Here you could earn gold coins for delivering a letter, if you made sure to sell the contents of the letter to a few information brokers on the way.
“No tricks on the envelope. Hopefully the letter’s just folded and there’s no trick to folding it or a slip meant to tear…no dust or other contents…”
Fierre mumbled to herself as she gently inspected the letter. She was holding her breath too, in case someone had sprinkled something nasty into the envelope. Ryoka watched her, praying that Fierre wouldn’t accidentally rip anything or give away that the letter had been opened. If that happened, Ryoka was in trouble. And if the letter contained a trap, she and Fierre were in trouble. It wasn’t likely, but…
The Runner’s Guild had their own methods of checking for poison or traps. After all, they were the middlemen and if one of their Runners delivered the equivalent of a bomb to someone, they’d suffer for it. But again, there were always exceptions. And sometimes people warded their gifts in creative ways.
Risky business all around. A Runner who was deemed too untrustworthy wouldn’t keep their job. And if they annoyed the wrong people, they could skip being fired and end up dead. So everyone walked a tightrope. Was it better to be known to be trustworthy and get hired for that reason, or sell what you could and risk the consequences for profit?
Ryoka didn’t open many letters she was given. But ones from the nobility addressed to each other were a different matter. She waited as Fierre took out a rather lengthy message, again written on expensive paper as opposed to parchment. The opener looked up.
“Want me to read it?”
Fierre nodded. That was another service she provided. She scanned the letter, and to Ryoka’s surprise, the tips of her pale ears went red. She kept reading, though, scanning the letter from top to bottom. Then she looked at Ryoka and shook her head.
“Nothing. An affair, that’s all. Between—”
“I don’t want to know. Please seal it back up.”
Ryoka spoke quickly. Fierre nodded. She put the message back in the letter and began to delicately heat the wax seal to reapply it to the paper. Ryoka breathed more easily.
“So just an affair?”
Fierre smiled, and then covered her teeth with one hand.
“Um. It’s certainly worth something. The details alone would earn you—hold on.”
She pressed the wax seal back onto the letter and pushed it towards Ryoka. The girl took it, carefully blowing on the seal to cool it before she put it in the bag of holding on her side. Fierre was doing a bit of calculation with her quill, scratching into the wooden desk.
“I could…I could give you six gold coins for the information.”
Fierre flashed Ryoka a grin.
“The details were very interesting. But um, I wouldn’t recommend it. Because the contents of the letter are private, so the risk’s high…”
“…That it would be traced back to me. Got it.”
Ryoka nodded and thought for a second. Six gold coins were appealing, but this secret sounded like it could bite her if the contents of the letter got spread around. She shook her head as she touched the bag of holding at her side. She could use six gold coins. Oh well.
“No thanks. Not a word about it to anyone. Here.”
She put three silver coins and six copper ones on the table. Fierre swept them up and nodded.
“Thanks for the business.”
“Thank you. And uh, see you later.”
The young woman nodded slightly. Ryoka coughed. Should she not have said that? On the other hand, it wasn’t as if they didn’t see each other every day. She walked back towards the door, slid the peeping slot open and checked the alleyway. No one was there. Ryoka opened the door, and slipped out.
Her encounter with Fierre had taken about ten minutes and set her back roughly four silver coins. Not ideal, but it had been worth the time spent. Or so Ryoka felt. She consoled herself over the loss of the silver coins as she ran towards the gates.
“It’s not like it’s not a waste of coin. I know the letter’s not trapped, that I’m not walking into a trap…probably…and I’m solidifying my reputation. You know?”
The wind blew around her in response, snatching her words up. Ryoka sighed, but then she smiled as the wind blew her hair and raced ahead of her, through the gates. The [Guardswoman] on duty looked up, and a man driving a wagon turned his head as Ryoka raced out of the city. The Wind Runner left Reizmelt behind.
“Everyone plays this game. I’m not a bad person for doing it. I’m a bad person for other reasons.”
Ryoka informed the wind. It didn’t seem to care. It blew at her back, lightening her steps ever so slightly. No, more than that, it made a difference. As she ran across the flat grasslands that was Reizmelt’s landscape, the wind blew more and more fiercely, and Ryoka felt herself take off.
The wind at your back. If you had ever run through a gale, you knew how hard it was to run with the wind in your face. But when it was behind you? Sailors on ships, airplanes, runners—it didn’t matter who you were. The wind would slow you down or make you run faster. And the wind was always at Ryoka’s back these days. It was why she was called the Wind Runner. It was…her one triumph.
Ivolethe’s last gift to her.
Ryoka turned her face up to the sky. It was clear. The sun shone down warmly, but the wind made her cool. It blew the scents of spring around Ryoka. Budding flowers, fresh earth—and she felt a chill of excitement run through her. The wind was at her back. Ryoka was running with the wind.
A young boy was sitting with his father as they moved towards the city in a wagon. They were probably [Farmers], or else they lived in a nearby village and they had business in the city. As they moved down the dirt road, they saw Ryoka run by. The little boy’s eyes widened as the wind blew in his face, nearly lifting the hat off his head.
“Look! Dad, look, it’s the Wind Runner! She’s leaving the city!”
He clung to his straw hat, pointing excitedly at Ryoka. She heard him only after she’d passed; the wind snatched up his words and sent them to her. She half-turned and waved. The little boy waved back excitedly, the wind blowing around him. Ryoka smiled.
This was her magic. Her power. She’d run from Liscor, left Erin behind, run far as she could after Ivolethe had…died. She’d run away from it all because she was too weak. Too weak to stand up to Az’kerash and Venitra. Too weak, and too destructive. So she’d run north, to try again. And on the way she’d found the wind.
It had taken her a month and a half. Not long. Not long at all. That was how long she’d been gone from Liscor. It felt like far longer. But Ryoka had counted every day. It had taken her two weeks of running, barely stopping to rest to find Reizmelt. She’d passed Invrisil, the City of Adventurers. She’d gone further north still, footsore, weary. And by the time she’d gotten to Reizmelt, she’d understood the wind.
Not by learning. Not by reaching some epiphany. Just by being alone. Alone, with nothing but the wind to keep her company. And her guilt. And it had reacted to her. Perhaps it was Ivolethe’s loss that did it. Ryoka could still remember the sound.
“I wish she could see this. She’d probably tell me not to get a big head. ‘I said run like the wind, not with it blowing about, you stupid fool!’ Or something like that.”
Ryoka laughed softly, and the wind carried her words away. She was alone. Alone, but for the wind. That was how she lived. There were other Runners on the road of course, and Couriers too. Ryoka sometimes saw them running like lightning across the ground. And there were people on horseback, wagons, adventuring teams marching to slay some monster or other…
But Ryoka ran alone. Alone, but for the wind, and her thoughts. Ryoka started talking to herself in short bursts. It was a new habit—mainly because she felt like the wind listened, even if it didn’t understand. It wasn’t a person. It didn’t think. But it was…something.
“My reputation. It’s probably…good? Fierre’s going to sell what I did, right? Can I…pay to check my own reputation somehow? I really don’t want to be known as a snitch.”
So far, Ryoka had only sold information about what she was delivering three times. And each time, it hadn’t been anything highly confidential. True, she’d never been handed something top-secret, but she liked to imagine she was establishing a reputation was someone who could be trusted not to open deliveries. Okay, she’d had all the expensive-looking parcels opened by Fierre, but she’d never asked to see what was inside. That was important, because Ryoka was sure that Fierre was reporting that detail as well.
Runners went to openers to collect information, but details of what they did with that knowledge would be sold as well. Ryoka had no doubt that Fierre was doing the same dance of selling what she knew to other information brokers, while maintaining some level of confidentiality. And if that was the case, Ryoka had a vested interest in maintaining a reputation as a reasonably-trustworthy City Runner. It was all politics in the north. Politics, alliances—information was coin.
“But at the end of the day, you still need to do the delivery, am I right?”
Ryoka turned her head as if the wind was a real thing, flying by her side. She grinned—and then sensed something. A changing in the winds. Ryoka missed a step and then threw up her arms.
The wind changed. Suddenly, it blasted southwards, buffeting Ryoka from the side. It tore at her clothes, and Ryoka found herself stumbling, cursing as grass stems and dirt were blown up and into her face. She staggered in the direction the wind was going, pushing, trying to make it stop, but it was like trying to heave a mountain uphill with just her mind. The wind howled for a second, ten seconds, seventeen—
And then it stopped. Ryoka opened one eye, wincing, and then wiped at her face. She stared a black bug crawling on her hand, and flicked it off. It took wing and a little gust obligingly blew it away. Ryoka looked around.
“Gust from the north. Ow.”
She sighed and shook her head. She thought about swearing or throwing something at…the air, but there was no point. It wasn’t as if the wind had done that maliciously. The winds had changed, that was all. The winds could get very strong around Reizmelt. She should have noticed they were changing sooner.
“I forgot rule one. Okay.”
Ryoka began jogging again. The wind blew at her back, obligingly helpful as always. And if Ryoka wanted, it could blow in her face, whirl away a cloud of gnats—even gust hard if she willed it. But she had to remember the first rule of running with the wind.
Rule #1: The wind is not your friend. It didn’t think, at least, not as far as Ryoka could tell, but it did have…moods. Unlike the fey, the wind was a force of nature and that meant it wanted to blow, to gust. Her control over it was personal. When the air currents changed and a gale blew up, Ryoka could either run with the wind, or fight it—and that was dangerous.
“How would I explain it to Erin? Hey Erin, I can run with the wind. I’ve got…wind speed. No, that’s awful. I can control the wind. Yes, like a super power. No, I won’t use it to sweep dust out of your inn. Okay, maybe. But am I getting paid?”
The young woman laughed. Then she grew sober.
“But the wind—I can’t control it. It’s…not mine. That’s what Ivolethe would say. ‘Ye fool, you. The wind obeys not you nor I! It only follows. If it changes its mind, it will blow your silly head off. The wind is stronger where ye move. But it is not yours. Force it and you’ll…’ I don’t know. But the backlash probably gets worse if I try and conjure a tornado. If I can even do that.”
The wind was stronger where Ryoka was. That was all. Stronger, and inclined to follow her. Where there was no breeze, one sprang up around Ryoka. Where the wind was a hurricane, it would be…a larger hurricane with Ryoka nearby. But she couldn’t control a hurricane. She could only suggest, push the wind slightly. And it didn’t obey her completely even then. Her mood affected the wind. If she raged, it raged. If she was calm, it was calm.
It was like having a magical, invisible friend. Slightly frightening. But oh, so grand. Ryoka looked up as some grass blew upwards. High, high into the sky. So far up that she couldn’t see it. But the wind still rose, ever higher. Some days she could just sit on a hill and stare up into the sky and feel the wind blowing. It made her smile.
Smile. Ryoka kept running. She felt her toes pressing down on soft grass. And she began to run faster.
And that was all Ryoka did for the next few hours. Just run, at a jog she could maintain for hours, watching the landscape change. People on the road passed by, and Ryoka came to a crossroads. She studied the sign, went north. Another hour on the road, and then she went east.
The ground changed then. From solid earth to marshy waters, filled with tall reeds. And unexpected places where the ground suddenly became water. Ryoka ran slower here, keeping to the smaller dirt road. There were fewer travellers around. More bugs. And the Runner girl checked her belt, wary of monsters lurking in the waters.
It was at this point that the wind decided to blow again. Ryoka yelped as some water sprayed her in the face. She took two steps forwards, slipped as the trail suddenly met a spot where the waters had flooded it with spring rains, and fell. She got up, cursing, and shook her fist at the wind.
“You’re as bad a Frost F—you’re half as bad as—you really piss me off, sometimes!”
The wind blew around Ryoka, and she imagined it was apologetic. Grumbling, Ryoka got up.
“I hate marshes.”
And apparently, the marshlands hated her. By the time Ryoka reached the city of Blaiseford’s Lookout, which sat far enough away from the marshlands, she’d decided that the ‘shortcut’ through the marshes was not worth it. True, it had saved her hours, and she’d reached Blaiseford in six hours, but she was muddy, and a few bugs had managed to bite her despite the wind’s protection.
“Is that a Runner I see, or a marsh monster?”
One of the [Guards] at the gate called down at Ryoka as she jogged up to the entrance. She opened her mouth to snap. And then she caught herself. Wait. He was smiling. It was a joke. Ryoka reconfigured what she was about to say.
“You try running through that damn marsh and not slipping. Why the hell did you decide to build a city at the edge of a marsh, anyways? Are you all crazy?”
The [Guard] chortled, and one of his fellows called down.
“It’s good hunting! And we’ve got [Farmers] who love the place! They drained a new patch of land and they’re growing crops faster than we can eat them! What’s not to love? So long as we don’t have to get near the place.”
Ryoka shook her head. There was a lot she could say about draining wetlands and ecology—but after slipping twice and finding the swampy waters around her, she wasn’t in the mood to speak up for the marshes. She looked up at the [Guards].
“Mind giving me directions? I’m on a delivery to the uh, Malt Estates.”
“Oh, it’s to the left. Just follow the nicer roads. You’ll see it poking over the rooftops. Big building. Blue roof tiles. You see it?”
The [Guards] pointed Ryoka over, smiling. She nodded and waved at them. See? Wasn’t that easy? And she hadn’t cursed at them or flipped them off.
Better. Ryoka ran down the street, attracting few head turns for her appearance. But no one had heard of her in this city. She stopped in front of a very rich mansion that was set inside the city. Rather incongruously, but Ryoka supposed that it was important to stay inside the walls. She walked up the steps to the door and rapped on it loudly.
“City Runner on delivery!”
She waited for a minute. Then the door opened. A very proper [Butler] opened the door and blinked at Ryoka. Not in surprise, but more distaste. His gaze went first to Ryoka’s muddied clothing and then to the two missing fingers on her right hand. And then to her bare and muddy feet.
“You have a letter for Lord Beilkit? Please present it.”
“Here you are. May I request the seal?”
Ryoka fumbled for the letter. The [Butler] looked askance at her slightly grimy fingers touching the letter, but Ryoka wouldn’t give it to him until he presented the seal and she’d checked it. They exchanged letter and seal.
“Thank you. Is there a return letter? I’m available to wait if—”
“No. Good day to you, Miss Runner.”
The [Butler] coldly shut the door. Ryoka stared at the door and heard his footsteps moving off. She bit her lip. No tip. It sometimes occurred, especially in noble houses. Magnolia Reinhart had been famous for her tips—now, wasn’t that an old memory? But nope, not here. All she got was a dirty look after six hours straight of running. Ryoka turned and began walking away. She was hungry, tired, and she wanted a bath.
Okay, so some days aren’t the greatest. I can’t help but curse that [Butler] as I walk away from the fancy mansion. I try to shed as much dirt from my feet on the lovely white stone tiles as I do.
Jerk. He didn’t have to look at me as if I was pond scum. I know I’m dirty. And yes, my fingers are dirty. Okay, I could have wiped them, but I forgot. And what if Lord Beil—whatever wants to send a letter back, full of salacious sexual tension? I could take the letter and save him a trip to the Runner’s Guild. I could even wait outside and come back!
But no, instead I get sent off. Think it was easy running through the marshlands? I was on the lookout the entire time for a Swamp Troll or something moving in the waters. I nearly peed myself when that frog croaked.
Stomp, stomp, stomp. I calm down a few minutes after leaving the mansion. I have to remind myself to be calm. The wind helps. I take a few deep breaths. Speak in my head because speaking out loud tends to get people looking at you strange.
Calm down, Ryoka. You did your job. You got paid for it—well, you’ll get paid for it. You did it, you were professional, you didn’t snap at the [Guards] and you even made them laugh. You said good morning. Now you’ll get some food, maybe see if there’s a bathhouse, go to the Runner’s Guild…you can even use a tiny bit of healing potion for those bites. You did it. Now get out of your head.
The young woman shook her head. And she stopped obsessing over the last encounter she’d had, no matter how much she wanted to. It was hard at first, and then she looked up and felt the wind swirl around her.
“Hoi, Miss Runner! Got the boot, did you? That swanky butler tell you off before or after he took your delivery?”
The [Guards] on the gate were switching posts. Ryoka looked up and grinned. Suddenly, they didn’t seem so bad. She shouted at the taller, brown-haired one as the shorter one with red hair and freckles grinned at her.
“I didn’t even get through the front door. Last time I do a delivery to this [Lord]! Next time he can run through the swamps instead.”
They laughed at that.
“Our city’s not that bad! You just need to take the main road. No one maintains the swamp route—not in the spring.”
“No one told me that. The [Receptionist] at my Runner’s Guild said it was fine.”
“Hah! Where are you from?”
“Oh? Not far! Hey, I have a cousin who lives around there. He’s a [Butcher]. Do you think I could send a letter with you?”
“For a copper coin, sure. I’m going back there. If you can get it to the Runner’s Guild within the hour I’ll take it with the bulk letter delivery and anything else headed that way.”
The shorter [Guard] brightened. He nudged his companion.
“Hear that? All I need now is a [Scribe]. Who’s open at this hour?”
“Mm. Try the fat lady down Elmheart’s road?”
“But she’s no fun.”
“She’s married, Greilm.”
The two’s banter somehow reminded Ryoka of another pair of [Guardsmen]. She smiled.
“Right, but before that—do you know where I can get something hot to eat?”
“They’ve got wonderful seared fish at this inn—or if you’re in the mood, fresh bread’s being sold at this [Bakery] with cheese in the filling—”
The two directed Ryoka to a number of the best eats according to them. And soon Ryoka was chomping down a hot cheesy mini loaf of bread and a seared fish straight from the marshes. Belly full, she was even able to smile as she went into the Runner’s Guild this time.
“Delivery to turn in. Here’s the seal.”
“Lord Malt’s seal? I hope you didn’t go to him looking like…”
The girl at the counter raised her eyes at Ryoka’s condition. The young woman made a face. The girl was barely sixteen, but she was giving Ryoka the same knowing look the [Guards] had.
“It was a priority delivery. I thought speed was important.”
“Maybe. Next time come here and we can rinse you off first. Speaking of which…you want some hot water?”
“No, I’m headed back to Reizmelt. I’ll take the bulk-letter delivery and whatever else you’ve got. Is there anything?”
The girl looked genuinely apologetic. She handed Ryoka a small sheaf of letters. The Runner girl sighed. Copper coins for the lot, then.
The young [Receptionist] eyed her.
“Are you sure you don’t want a bath?”
Ryoka hesitated. She did want one. But she’d be on the road, and so what was the point? She could take one at Reizmelt. She smiled.
“Thanks, but I’ll pass. I appreciate it, though.”
“No problem! Have a good run, Miss…?”
“Oh, Ryoka Griffin. Here. I can sign—”
Awkwardly, Ryoka signed over her name and collected her earnings for this delivery. She wished the girl at the desk farewell and left the Runner’s Guild. And suddenly, Ryoka was in good spirits.
It had nothing to do with the bug bite on her ear, or the mud. Or her tired legs, which were asking for a Stamina Potion. But Ryoka felt good because here she was. Talking to people, making small chat, not blowing up. Being a Human. It shouldn’t feel so good. But it was hard. And she had to work at it. But when it did happen, she felt good.
Ryoka’s high spirits lasted all the way to the edge of the city. Then she started running and her good mood didn’t so much evaporate as…well, it took second place to running. When Ryoka was in the zone she stopped thinking as much. She would have put her ear buds in and zoned out to an audiobook or her songs on her iPhone, but it was dead. And there was no [Mage] she trusted to repair it. So Ryoka ran.
This was a Runner’s life. Run, and run, and run. And get back to Reizmelt footsore, pouring a tiny bit of healing potion on a cut on the bottom of her foot. Tired, exhausted, really. But Ryoka had gone the long way around the marshes and at least she didn’t have any more mud on her. She headed straight for the Runner’s Guild, dropped off her letters, and made one delivery in place of the Street Runner.
“Hey, are you Emid?”
“Who wants to know?”
The [Butcher] turned at his counter. Ryoka presented him with a letter.
“Fresh from your cousin in Blaiseford. Greilm sends his regards and says you should come over and try the fish sometime.”
The [Butcher]’s heavyset face brightened into a smile.
“You spoke with Greilm? How’s that lazy bastard doing?”
“He seemed to be enjoying himself.”
Ryoka smiled. She chatted with the butcher named Emid for a few more minutes. She’d spoken with his cousin earlier this day, but it had been eight months since Emid had last seen his cousin, at their family’s home. And again, somehow that made the run a bit more worth it. Ryoka even got a tip—four copper coins. Generous, for a letter like that.
Tired, Ryoka walked back down the street towards the Huntress’ Haven. She was so weary that she thought she might try climbing into her second-floor room from the outside if Madain wasn’t back yet. It was evening, after all. She paused in a square to look and see if Alber was plying his trade, but he wasn’t there. In another part of the city, probably. But Ryoka did hear a familiar voice.
“News from the Blood Fields! Gather round, gather round! Lord Tyrion met the Drakes in battle after challenging the Walled Cities to combat!”
A [Crier] was standing on a little platform, shouting loudly to his audience. He was a small man, but he had a Skill or his lungs were superb, because Ryoka could hear him clearly at a distance. She drifted over, and, spotting no handy benches or ledges, elected to sit on the ground instead. She saw a few children and adults come over, hungry from news from abroad. The [Crier] shouted his message at his crowd, starting with the news of Lord Tyrion Veltras—a name Ryoka had heard often this last month—first.
“Over forty thousand Drakes lie dead in the Blood Fields! Lord Tyrion Veltras is returning north with the majority of our army intact! Another victory for the north!”
A cheer went up from the crowd. Mostly muted, though. Ryoka saw that it was more adults that were happy about the news than the children. Forty thousand Drakes? It was just a number to them. For Ryoka’s part…she didn’t smile, but listened intently as the man went on.
“Lord Veltras personally led the charge and broke the disorganized Drakes’ lines twice-over! His [Mages] greatly outnumbered the green, and green-scaled [Soldiers] the Drakes took to the field, and our nobility laid havoc to their ranks! First, it is reported, Lord Veltras’ army opened up with a daring charge followed by wave after wave of our finest infantry, wielding Human-forged steel—”
“Which makes it better, of course.”
Ryoka sighed. She listened with one ear to the play-by-play, but then gave up. It was just details of the battle, not whether Liscor was doing well. Or anything else. The audience listened, captivated by the [Crier]’s words, though. He was a storyteller as much as a reporter. And in truth, Ryoka had only one label for his announcements and that was propaganda.
She didn’t believe it was the one-sided victory for Tyrion Veltras that the man claimed it was. And if it had been—why? By all accounts, the Drakes were very good at war. If forty thousand of them had perished, how many Humans had died? Or how had Tyrion Veltras won so decisively?
It didn’t matter. She was far away and nothing she knew could affect what had already happened. But Ryoka still kept and ear out for all news around Liscor. She still felt a pang every time she thought about the city. But if she went back now—no. Not yet. She wasn’t ready yet. She didn’t deserve to go back yet.
Ryoka bowed her head, tired now. She noticed the [Crier] was done, after relating a tale about a giant Griffin slain by some adventuring team up north and the death of a beloved [Toy Maker] in the local area. He didn’t have news about world events at the moment, or he’d judged his audience wasn’t in the mood for news like that.
Ryoka wished he’d talked about the other continents. Chandrar and the King of Destruction, maybe. It had been too quiet over there. Or what about Rhir? Baleros? She wished there was some other way to get gossip, but if she began paying for news she’d eat up her remaining coin supply. And she had spent almost all the gold she had paying for—
Ryoka was feeling the charms at her waist and the equipment on her belt when she noticed two things. Another person had taken the [Crier]’s place, to considerably more enthusiasm and a larger crowd. The [Crier] scowled as a [Troubadour], or perhaps just a [Bard] with a lute took up a spot on the little wooden stage. She began to sing popular songs on request, and in accordance, the crowd began dancing, singing along or just listened. Some [Shopkeepers] moved outside to sell and join the crowd, and a few of the artisans did likewise.
Among them was a familiar face. Ryoka picked Fierre out of the crowd in a moment; she was sitting outside a shop, keeping her body low and sheltering a mortar and pestle with one hand from the light breeze in the air. She was quite careful to let none of what she was grinding spill as she listened to the [Troubadour] sing.
Apparently Fierre had more than one job. Which…made sense. Openers probably didn’t get all that much work and there would be a lot less deliveries this late at night. Plus, Ryoka suspected that if a Courier wanted to use a go-between, they might go to someone with more experience and gear than Fierre.
There she was. Ryoka had a mixed reaction to Fierre’s presence. Part of her, old Ryoka, said to leave her be, to not talk to anyone, and to sit in her room and wait until it was time for dinner and then sleep. But new Ryoka, which was to say, the part of her that wanted to change, said to go over and say hi. But how did you do that? Ryoka had no idea. No experience. So she used her best technique.
What would Erin do? It was a question that guided Ryoka. It gave her courage. And it was one she could always answer. What would Erin do?
“Hey Fierre! I just saw you. Over there. Because I was staring. What’s up? Opened any interesting—uh, I mean, how’s the…’wax business’?”
Ryoka smiled. She filled her heart with the image of her friend’s face and got up. A bit of courage. She walked over to Fierre. And paused as an old woman threw open the door to her shop.
“Fierre! Dead god’s sake, I told you—”
The woman had to be in her late sixties. She had grey hair, a smutched apron and clothing—only the stains weren’t from blood. In fact, they were in quite a number of colors. And the old woman’s skin was similarly tattooed by foreign substances. She was an [Alchemist]; the smell emanating from her shop told Ryoka that. And she was holding something. A light mask made out of cloth. She thrust it at Fierre as the girl looked up. The old [Alchemist] berated the girl as she pointed at the mortar and pestle.
“I’ve told you time and again—you can’t grind Duskwilter stems without a mask! And outside? That scarf’s not enough protection, not by far! You have to do it inside with the mask! And gloves—thicker ones! I’ll—I’ll fire you if you don’t remember next time!”
Her voice quavered with worry, giving away the lie. But Fierre did duck her head.
“Sorry, Miss Kelysta.”
The [Alchemist] shook her head as she picked up the little, sealed package of what had to be the dangerous Duskwilter stems with extreme care.
“You’ll get the shaking and paralysis within four years if you keep it up! And people will look to me! Your coughing—could it be—?”
She noticed Fierre’s shiver and turned paler with worry. The girl tugged the scarf further around her face—she’d been sitting in the shade too—and shook her head.
“It’s just a fever. I caught a cold.”
“Another one? But I gave you a potion that—”
Miss Kelysta disappeared back inside her shop, fussing over Fierre. Ryoka watched. Grinding up poison in front of the shop without a mask? Dangerous. But if Fierre was who Ryoka thought she was, maybe poison was low on her list of things to worry about. But then why was she shivering? To pretend she needed the heavy clothing? Maybe…
Ryoka saw the shop’s door close and realized she’d missed her chance to say hi. Of course, she could; Fierre was probably working away inside. Erin would brush right in, ask about the flowers and if they were good in a stir fry, and probably help Fierre out while chatting to Miss Kelysta. And Ryoka could do that. All she had to do was open the door…
For a solid twenty seconds Ryoka hesitated in front of the shop’s door. Then she turned away. She slunk off as a voice in her head berated her for her cowardice. But Ryoka kept going. Maybe next time. You couldn’t win them all.
Be a better person. Be sociable. Run faster. Learn to read the wind. Ryoka tried to put that mantra into practice that night, as she ate a Corusdeer steak. Rare. The Huntress’ Haven was bustling, Madain was in a good mood from a successful hunt, and Ryoka was enjoying her food.
What kept Madain’s unique inn afloat was the fact that he served meat almost every night, and that his alcohol was cheap. As such, the dining hour earned him a lot of his profits. That didn’t meant the inn was full to bursting—it just meant there were more people in it than his three regulars.
And Ryoka got a steak. Fresh, only a tiny bit too bloody, and she could have seconds if she wanted. If you could get over the early hours and Madain, staying at his inn really was rewarding. But it wasn’t the [Innkeeper] Ryoka was focused on tonight. Madain was busy serving food in between telling stories of his glory days to anyone who would listen.
No, it was Alber that Ryoka was interested in. And Fierre, but the girl didn’t let anyone eat with her. Ryoka noted—only because she made a point of spotting anything that confirmed her theory—that Fierre’s steak was so bloody it could have gotten up and walked.
Alber was sitting at a table, eating alone like Ryoka. He had several bruises unlike her, but it looked like he’d come out ahead without any fights against adventurers. He was eating slowly and Ryoka wondered if he’d cut his mouth. The [Fist Fighter] was surprisingly reluctant to use healing potions of any kind—maybe he’d learned that it wouldn’t toughen his body if he healed up right away.
Now was the time. Ryoka had exchanged good mornings with Alber for an entire week now, and she’d even had that bonding moment with him being knocked flat the other day. She got up and carefully walked over with half her steak on her plate. Alber looked up as Ryoka came over.
“Uh, hi. Mind if I sit?”
Brilliant opening. Just, 100% smooth style. But Alber just nodded and cleared his gloves out of the way. Ryoka sat across from him, which immediately felt like the wrong move. He glanced up at her.
“So. How was business?”
Alber looked up, slightly uncomfortable. That made two of them. Ryoka tried to smile, and then realized she looked even weirder. Calm down. Do the Erin thing.
“Uh—had any good fights?”
“One. A [Miner]. Good punches. Got me twice.”
Alber gestured to a bruise on his upper collarbone, and tapped his ribs. Ryoka nodded.
“I’ve seen you fighting every day. You’re pretty good. Self-taught?”
“Have you ever taken lessons? I mean, from someone else. I’m only asking because I know a thing or to. About fist fighting.”
Alber looked up from his steak.
Ryoka nodded, encouraged by the way this was going.
“Sure! I took lessons when I was a kid—I was wondering if you wanted me to show you a few moves. Your uh, style is good, but it could use work. I’d love to show you what I learned to improve it. When that Gold-rank adventurer got you, I thought that you could have had him if you were baiting him a bit more. If you changed the way you fought—want me to show you sometime?”
Too late, Ryoka realized she might have said too much. Alber was frowning. He looked at Ryoka and both of them heard a guffaw.
“You? Teach him to fight?”
Madain shouted over at the two of them. Somehow he’d overheard. He laughed and some of his buddies laughed with him.
“Sure, let the Wind Runner teach him how to dance about! Use magic while you’re at it! You don’t need tricks! All you need is grit, and this!”
He made a fist and his arm bulged. Half of the guests laughed. Ryoka flushed. She looked at Alber.
“I don’t think you need magic. I’m just trying to help. I know a few things.”
“I got that.”
Alber looked past Ryoka at Madain. He didn’t rise to the [Innkeeper]’s bait. Then he looked at Ryoka.
“Thanks for the offer. But I’m fine, thanks.”
Even Ryoka could pick up on that clue. She rose at once, taking her plate.
“That’s cool, I was just suggesting it. I uh, learned from watching some other fist fighters, but I don’t claim to be an expert. If you want to talk about it sometime—”
She edge back from the table. Madain was still laughing as Ryoka sat back at her table, ears burning. Ryoka scarfed down the rest of her steak—though her appetite was gone—and made her escape as fast as humanly possible to her room. There, she spent the next few minutes gently smacking her head against the wall.
Smooth, Ryoka. Sit down, tell him he sucks at his job, and offer to make him better. That’s the way to make friends. Why didn’t you talk about watching other [Fist Fighters] first? Lead in that way. But no, you had to take your foot, jam it into your mouth, and then—
Ryoka wished she could go back in time and start that conversation over again. Of course Alber would get offended! She wasn’t an expert, but what was her first line? ‘Your style’s good, but it could use some work’. And bringing up how a Gold-rank adventurer who outweighed him had beaten him, as if that justified her criticism. Idiot. Idiot.
Saying good morning to Alber was going to suck tomorrow. Ryoka tried to stop agonizing about that conversation, but she couldn’t. She spared only a bit of energy for sending bad vibes to Madain. But mainly it was to be embarrassed and berate herself.
She decided to hide in her room and pretend nothing had ever happened. Which involved rolling around in her bed with the goose feather pillow over her head until one poked her in the eye. Then Ryoka just sighed and sat in her bed.
She’d done one run, but it had been a long, long one. And while it hadn’t really been worth the coin she’d earned, it had certainly made Ryoka tired enough to sleep. But she felt like she should try and practice. Practice moving the wind.
It was here, in the room. Though the air was still, if Ryoka concentrated, she could feel the faintest of breezes. If she tried, she could conjure a gust, although Madain would probably bawl her out if she rattled the shutters. But Ryoka should practice. She’d tried making a little tornado in her palm these last few nights, but it was incredibly hard. And she didn’t think she was necessary getting better.
Controlling or guiding the wind wasn’t something you could practice. Just experience. But Ryoka knew there was more than just the wind. Ivolethe had told her she could run like the wind. Not just in it. But what else had she said?
The young woman tried to remember. But her body was weary. Her eyelids very heavy. The steak, eaten too quickly near the end, was weighing down her stomach. And the wind was calling to Ryoka, gently pushing her back. Towards her bed. After all, she’d have to get up early if Madain wasn’t sleeping off a hangover. So why not rest? She could practice later. Yes, later. Sometime later.
The Runner lay back and slept. On the whole, it hadn’t been too bad of a day right…? Near the end it had been embarrassing. But she could try tomorrow. She had to keep trying. Keep…
Ryoka slept for a moment. Only a moment, and then a hammering, a shouting din came from below. She opened her eyes groggily, expecting to hear Madain shouting in a drunken rage in the common room. But no—it wasn’t him. She heard the pounding come again, and then Madain’s voice, roaring at whomever it was. But the hammering sound only grew louder and then Ryoka heard a voice.
“Ryoka Griffin! I need Ryoka Griffin, now!”
Ryoka? That was her! The Runner got up, feeling adrenaline replace sleep. Someone was calling her. And that was important. There was only one reason they’d call for her in the middle of the night. She reached for her muddy clothes on the ground and threw them on, not bothering to grab clean ones.
“Wind Runner! Get down here!”
Madain shouted up the stairs. Ryoka was already stumbling towards the door. She went back for her belt. She could hear Alber waking up in the room next door. Ryoka pushed her way out the door and stumbled down the steps. She nearly slipped on the one near the bottom. She saw Madain, bare-chested, holding a lantern and glowering. And in the doorway was a young boy, probably only fourteen years old. His eyes were wide and he was panting. The instant he saw her he shouted, ignoring the late hour.
“Miss Griffin, the Runner’s Guild wants you now! An adventuring team needs an emergency delivery!”
A Street Runner. He’d been sent straight here. Ryoka shook her head, trying to dispel the half-drunken feeling of still being asleep.
“An adventuring team’s in trouble?”
“Yes, Miss! They want you at the Guild! As fast as you can!”
Ryoka’s heart, already racing, began to beat even faster. The wind picked up. Ryoka took two steps towards the door, and looked at Madain. He too was half-asleep.
“Sorry, I’ve got to—”
He pointed. For once there was no anger in his voice, just the same focused feeling in Ryoka. Ryoka ran, racing past the Street Runner and through the city. She could hear shutters opening as people woken by the Street Runner cursed and hurled insults at him and her. But none came from behind her. The [Innkeeper] would never throw her out for this. He had been an adventurer too, and he knew what the Street Runner’s summons meant.
An emergency delivery. At night. That meant an adventuring team was in trouble. It was the same request Ryoka had answered for the Horns of Hammerad. Somewhere, a team was out of potions or needed something delivered and they were sending out a distress [Message]. But if they were resorting to that, they were desperate.
It was an unspoken thing, but Runners didn’t like delivering for adventuring teams. The risk was too great they’d run into a monster, and if a team was in trouble, odds were that said monsters would go after the Runner as much as the adventurers. That earned them a reputation for reneging or ignoring adventurer’s requests. Hence, most adventurers disliked Runners as cowards and were looked down upon in return.
But Ryoka had known adventurers whom she was proud to call friends. Who she did not deserve to call friends. So she had put herself on a list of one, at least in Reizmelt. If an adventuring party called for help, the guild sent for Ryoka before trying to find a City Runner, much less a Courier willing to take the request.
Ryoka threw open the door to the Runner’s Guild. It was virtually empty, but the same [Receptionist] that had been there in the morning was awake, holding a piece of parchment. She was poring over a map by a lantern’s light. Ryoka strode over.
“I’m here. Where are they?”
“Out in the plains. Over an hour’s run away.”
The [Receptionist] looked up as the Street Runner caught up, panting. He closed the door and the [Receptionist] handed Ryoka the [Message] that had been transcribed on the parchment. Ryoka read it as the woman explained.
“They were clearing a cave and ran into a complex of tunnels. They awakened a group of Wailer Frogs—”
“What are they?”
“Frogs that made incredible noise. They can deafen—and they’re able to scream so loudly they can shatter glass. The team, Pithfire Hounds, ran into them and lost all of their potions. Their [Mages] are out of mana and they’ve being pursued.”
“They can’t outrun them?”
Ryoka was surprised. The [Receptionist] shook her head. She pointed at a spot on the map, close to where Ryoka had just been running. It looked like the adventuring team had been working close to the Himalt Swamplands and retreated towards Reizmelt.
“The frogs are fast—but the main thing slowing them down is their wounded. They report that one of their [Warriors] was nearly consumed by the Wailer Frogs. He’s bleeding inside and has broken his ribs, arms, and possibly other bones.”
“Broken his—how big are Wailer Frogs?”
The [Receptionist] looked up.
“Big enough to eat some people whole. They have a powerful leap, but their main threat is their ability to scream. If you’re not careful they’ll paralyze you or make you deaf and then swarm over you. The Pithfire’s horses are all dead and they’ve been fleeing on foot. They need healing and mana potions.”
“Do you have them? If they’re made of glass, won’t the frogs—”
The [Receptionist] had nine bottles, three mana potions, six healing potions. All in wooden containers.
“It’s all we could fill. There are six more potions in these glass bottles—here. If you can leave them out of range of the frogs—”
Ryoka grabbed the potions and threw them into her bag of holding. She strode for the door. The [Receptionist] called out to her.
“The adventurers are fighting the frogs! How should they pick up your delivery? If you get too close—”
The Wind Runner’s head turned.
“I’ll give them an opening. Tell them I’m on my way.”
And then she was gone.
There was no time to think. No time to worry. Ryoka ran, and her mind was filled with fear. Fear, and the kind of focus she only felt in moments like this. Time felt slow and fast. One second she was running out of the Runner’s Guild, the next she was running down the street. The young Street Runner was running beside her, shouting something. Ryoka couldn’t hear him. Every stride seemed to be in slow motion. Slow, and then fast.
The wind howled. It sensed something. And it gathered in the air, blowing through the city, slamming against houses, nearly throwing the Street Runner off his feet. And Ryoka ran faster.
The [Guards] on the gates heard the sound. They looked back and saw Ryoka running towards them. The gates were locked. Ryoka didn’t wait for them to open them. She ran up the battlements.
Ryoka leapt. [Guards] shouted in horror as she leapt off the battlements. The walls were fifteen feet high. As Ryoka fell, a blast of air travelled up. It slowed her fall. Ryoka landed, rolling, and got up. She took off as the [Guards] watched her with open mouths and then had to cling to their posts as the wind followed her.
The grasslands were dark. The road empty. Ryoka sprinted down it. She was going at full-speed. There was no way she could keep up this pace. Not without help.
Stamina potion. And healing potion too. Ryoka took a gulp as soon as she felt herself begin to slow. The bitter-sweet potion burned going down her throat. And she felt a second wind burn through her.
That was all Ryoka said. Faster. Every second she spent running, the closer the adventurers were to death. The Wailer Frogs were pursuing them. And one of their number was wounded. Badly.
Slow and fast. Ryoka ran for twenty minutes. Thirty. Forty. It felt like forever. The stamina potion fell to the ground as she dropped it, empty. But now she was getting close. And the wind was telling her that her destination was ahead. It reserved itself, blowing the scent of blood back at Ryoka. A sound like a wail, loud as thunder even from far away.
Ryoka slowed. She had to get to the adventurers. But the frogs were in the way. She had a plan, though. She reached for the bag of holding at her side, and then a smaller pouch. She opened it and dumped the contents on the ground.
It was the smokescreen bag that Octavia had made for Ryoka. One of the last ones Ryoka owned. And with it, Ryoka reached into her bag of holding and, carefully, dumped a huge cloud of its contents out. Not anything important. Just dirt. Dried, crumbling dirt. Dust.
It mixed with the fine powder that Octavia had mixed up. Ryoka reached for one of her flour bombs and emptied the contents of that onto the ground as well, kicking at the flame that tried to ignite. The wind was calm as Ryoka looked at the huge pile of fine particulates. Then she looked up.
“Give me wind. Blow, winds! Give me wrath! Show me fury! Follow me!”
And the wind howled. It swirled around Ryoka and she covered her face as it whirled the dirt and dust and flour into the air. She began running. As fast as she could. And behind her the wind blew at her back, following her.
The Pithfire Hounds were fighting in the grasslands ahead of Ryoka. There were six of them. Two were carrying a downed teammate, his armor crushed, bones poking out of the chest they’d stripped of armor. The other three were fighting a group of ten or more huge, huge shapes in the darkness. One leapt, and another inhaled, its throat-sac inflating massively. The croaking, bellowing sound was loud beyond belief. And then it opened its mouth and screamed.
The sound deafened the adventurers, and stripped them of what hearing they had left. Their leader, pointing a wand, threw a bit of fire, but it was weak. His ears were bleeding. The frogs leapt back, wary, and then one jumped forwards.
A barking dog leapt at the frog. It was big, a proper wolfhound, but even larger than the ones from Ryoka’s world. It was half-maddened by the Wailer Frogs. The frog leapt back in alarm, and then it opened its mouth impossibly wide. It tried to envelop the dog.
At the last minute, a [Beast Tamer] charged forwards and tackled his dog. He dragged the animal back as the Wailer Frog narrowly avoided swallowing the wolfhound whole. His friend shouted at him, their words unintelligible. They couldn’t hear themselves.
“We have to go! Keep running!”
The [Pyromancer] in charge pointed at the man and woman carrying the wounded adventurer. They were panting, barely able to walk.
“We’ll never make it! We have to fight!”
The [Mage] pointed and threw another spark of fire. But the Wailer Frogs had learned the fire wasn’t nearly as strong and closed in. Hop, hop. It was comical—until one smashed into the second [Mage] trying to fend them off with a gust of fire. She screamed as the frog opened its mouth and bent over her.
The adventurers ran as one. One stayed with the stricken Lamont. The other three charged at the Wailer Frog as the [Beast Tamer] let go of his dog. The five adventurers and dog stabbed the frog, battering it and heaving it off their friend. She lay on the ground, clutching her ribs, screaming, as the frog leapt back.
They were too large. Too large, too many—if only they had their potions. Two of their [Mages] were out of mana and one of their warriors was down. The others had no healing potions. The adventurers looked at each other in desperation as the frogs screamed again. The dog wavered, then threw up. So did the [Pyromancer]. He wiped his mouth and found blood mixed with the vomit.
The sound was enough to make them ill. Even if they couldn’t hear it. He turned, desperately.
“Run! If we can get to Reizmelt—”
It was a futile thought. The adventurer’s Guild had been alerted, but they were too far away yet. Even if an adventuring team tried to get to them, how long would it take to rouse them, let alone run all this way? They’d send a request for a Runner, but would one really come?
Not any of the Runners from Reizmelt that he knew. But the leader of the Pithfire Hounds hoped. He hoped, because there was nothing else he could do. He was turning, grabbing at his friends, trying to urge them to run another hundred feet, when he saw it.
Something on the horizon. A cloud in the night. At first the [Pyromancer], Levil, couldn’t believe what he was seeing. He thought it was a trick of the light. Then he realized it was no cloud. Or at least, it wasn’t one from the sky.
It was a dust storm. Blowing across the grasslands. The wind made visible by all the matter it had picked up. Earth, dirt, grass. It raced towards them, a cloud bound to earth. The billowing cloud was neither long nor wide—it was as if it was following something.
Or someone. Levil blinked as he saw a shape racing across the grasslands towards him.
“Is that a Runner?”
The other members of Pithfire had spotted the cloud as well. They turned, panting, as the Wailer Frogs stopped advancing to eye the strange phenomenon with their bulbous eyes. And then they all saw her. Racing ahead of the cloud, the wind blowing at her back.
“Who is that? Hey, over here!”
Levil bellowed. He waved the wand over his head and conjured a last flicker of flames. The Runner spotted him. She bore down on them and then turned left.
“She’s running away!”
The other [Mage] cried out in despair. Levil stared at the Runner. She was pointing, gesturing with one flat hand. His eyes widened.
“No—get down! Down!”
The others looked at him. They could hear nothing, but they saw Levil throw himself to the ground. They immediately did likewise. The [Beast Tamer] covered his dog’s eyes and mouth. And then Levil saw the Runner charge past them, straight towards the frogs.
The oversized amphibians stared at her. They opened their mouths to scream at her. And then they noticed what was following her too late. A dust storm blew past Levil, stinging his eyes as he closed them and buried his face in the grass. He felt the particles stinging his exposed skin, the wind threatening to pick him up. And then he heard the Wailer Frogs scream—just for a second. Then they choked on the grit and dust blowing straight into their mouths.
Levil laughed and pushed himself up as the cloud blew past him. He heard a scream past the ringing in his ears.
Ryoka Griffin slowed and ran past the frogs, who were overbalanced, choking, their mouths and lungs clogged. She ran backwards, stumbling. The grass and ground around her was covered in dirt. The wind blew some more into her eyes.
“I’m a Runner! A Runner! Are you Pithfire Hounds?”
They were lying on the ground. One of them pushed himself up. He was wearing red leather, emblazoned with a fiery dog. And there was a dog, whining, writhing on the ground next to his handler. He looked at Ryoka.
“I’m a Runner!”
“What? Are you a Runner?”
He cupped one hand to his ear. Ryoka saw dried blood around his ears. She nodded.
She reached for the bag of holding. The pots of healing potions fell out, glass bottles and wooden ones. The adventurer grabbed for one.
“Healing potions! Lamont!”
One of the other adventurers charged over and seized a healing potion. She grabbed it and smashed the bottle in her hands. The potion splashed down over the injured man she’d been carrying. Lamont, the warrior, jerked as the healing potion ran onto his body. Ryoka saw terrible bloody splotches—internal bleeding and exposed bone around his ribs, his arm. His body had been crushed.
“He needs a [Healer]!”
“We need a [Healer]!”
The [Mage] shouted at Ryoka. He grabbed a mana potion, checked the label, then downed it, ignoring the grit in his mouth. He choked, forced himself to swallow, and grabbed a healing potion. The Pithfire Hounds were all doing the same. The [Beast Tamer] was feeding his wolfhound a potion as the animal whined.
“Can you hear me? He needs—”
The [Mage] twisted a finger in his ear, digging out dirt and blood. He looked at Ryoka suddenly.
“I can hear you! Dead gods, I can hear! Tally, Keima—”
He turned. The other [Mage] was drinking a potion. She wiped her mouth, spat dirt. Flames burst from the tip of her wand.
“Lamont. He’s healing, but it’s not enough. His bones are broken and they’re not going back—”
One of the adventurers was bending over her friend. Ryoka saw the exposed fragments of bone twisting in his chest and felt sick. He was groaning, his eyes white. She saw the woman reach for another potion.
Ryoka knocked the bottle out of her hands. The woman turned on her, grasping at a sword.
“His bones aren’t set. You’ll only make his injuries worse! He needs a [Healer] to set him or he’s dead! Do you understand?”
The adventurer hesitated. The [Pyromancer] was conjuring fire.
“We’re too far away from the city. We have to stand and fight. Those bastard frogs won’t let us get away!”
Sure enough, Ryoka saw the Wailer Frogs heaving up the dirt they’d swallowed. They were visibly sick, but still intent on the adventurers. And even angrier.
“We can’t leave Lamont. He’s still bleeding—”
The flesh had healed, but in the process, the exposed bones had torn open his skin again. The female adventurer was trying to staunch the bleeding, but she didn’t know how. Ryoka knelt, feeling at her bag of holding.
“I’m [Healer]-certified. Let me see!”
They let her see the wound. Ryoka sucked in her breath as she saw the damage. She had no idea how to go about setting an injury like this. The bones of the rib had splintered through the skin, and the man’s shoulder looked dislocated and broken. He was making small sounds, as if screaming was too much.
“He needs to get back to the city.”
“We can’t spare two of you!”
The [Pyromancer] argued with his friends. Ryoka looked up.
“I’ll go. Let me take him.”
The other adventurers looked back incredulously at Ryoka.
“You? Lamont’s heavier than anyone else! You’ll never—”
“Take his armor off. All of it. I’ll carry him on my shoulders. If I can find a wagon on the road, I’ll get him to it. If not, I’ll stop. But he can’t stay here!”
Ryoka pointed back at the frogs. One was trying to wail. The female [Mage] blasted it with orbs of fire, shouting in fury as the frog’s hide charred and turned black. It recoiled, making a gagging, pained noise.
The other adventurers looked at each other. The [Pyromancer] looked down at his friend.
“Save him. Please.”
That was all Ryoka said. She helped him strip the rest of the armor off of Lamont and then reached for him. It was wrong to move an injured man. Especially with broken bones. But she had to do it.
Lamont screamed once as Ryoka hoisted him up in the fireman’s carry. She felt something sharp dig into her shoulder, but ignored the pain.
“I’m going to the road. If I find a wagon, I’ll take it. Otherwise—”
“If you see the frogs, run.”
The [Pyromancer] nodded. He turned, and his wand and his arms burst into flame. The other adventurers were getting up. The wolfhound growled. The Wailer Frogs leapt forwards, still retching, trying to dislodge the dirt. The [Mage] with the wand checked his belt, ensuring the potions Ryoka had delivered were in place. Then he bellowed.
They ran forwards. Ryoka heard loud barking, a cut-off wail, and felt a burst of fire warm her back. She began to run. The wind blew her forwards as Ryoka made for the road. She tried not to jostle Lamont, but she could hear terrible sounds coming from his body. She ran as fast and as carefully as she could.
The sky was dark when Ryoka got to the road, but lightening. Ryoka looked up and down it for a sign. For life. She found nothing. She put Lamont down, stretching him out and checked him.
But his bones had shifted terribly during that short interval. Ryoka grabbed a potion and poured it into his mouth, forcing it open. She saw his flesh rearrange and prayed he would live. Then she stood up and looked around.
“Hey! I need help over here!”
A man with a wagon jerked as Ryoka ran onto the road. He was going fast and one of his horses tried to rear. The man swore and pulled his wagon to a stop.
“What in the—”
He spotted the adventurer. Ryoka shouted.
“I’m a City Runner! That man’s an adventurer! There’s a monster attack!”
Ryoka pointed. She could smell fire in the air. Were the Pithfire Hounds winning or losing? She didn’t know.
“That way, a few hundred feet. This man needs a [Healer].”
“I can see that. Well then—”
The [Wagon Driver] hesitated, but only for a moment. Then he cursed, leaped into the back of his wagon and began shoving things out of the way.
“Get him up here! Hold on—I’ll make a bed! We’re not far from Reizmelt!”
He helped Ryoka lift Lamont onto a bed of the hard sacks of something. Ryoka stared at a pile of what looked like crucible iron, or maybe steel.
“Dragons take me, what happened to his body?”
Ryoka didn’t know how to explain. She was still going a mile a second. She knelt over Lamont. Even that small movement had opened up his injuries. The man urged his pack horses onwards.
“I’ll make us go as fast as I can! But I can’t abandon my cargo or I’m lost, you understand? Don’t worry, Erma and Fox can go as fast as maybe with me guiding them. You just keep that young fellow steady, you hear? Do you have healing potions?”
“Yes! Thank you!”
Ryoka held Lamont, trying to keep him from suffering as the wagon jolted forwards. He was moaning. That was good. That meant he was alive.
“Thank you for stopping.”
That was all Ryoka could think to say when she’d caught her breath. Her body felt like rubber now, and she was shaking. She imagined the adventurers fighting after a night of running. Fighting those…frogs. She shivered, and saw the [Wagon Driver] turn and give her a grin.
“I could hardly run you over, could I? And adventurers—you stop for them or maybe they won’t bail you out next time! I’m pleased to meet you, Miss. My name’s Termin. What’s yours?”
“Ryoka. Ryoka Griffin.”
And she reached out and shook a weathered hand. They spoke little as the wagon picked up speed, rolling towards Reizmelt. For a moment, Ryoka caught her breath. And then she saw the city and she and Termin waved their hands and shouted, and the gates opened. She and three [Guards] carried Lamont into the city on a makeshift stretcher that was made out of Erma and Fox’s blankets, and the [Healer] was roused by the same Street Runner who’d gotten Ryoka. And then…and then…
And then Ryoka sat down.
An hour later, Levil was walking towards the road. He could barely move, but he forced himself to. In his hands he held something. A bag, filled with charred tongues. Wailer Frog tongues. It was all that he’d collected. Trophies, proof his team had slain the lot. And in truth that was all he could find the energy to collect. Wailer Frogs weren’t worth much, and there wasn’t any point in trying to collect other body parts. The scorched, hacked remains lying in the grass weren’t worth much to anyone.
Four of his teammates walked with him. And one of their dogs, Makki. The other one, Dassa, was gone. Levil didn’t know what to say to their owner, Bram. The man was wiping tears away as he forced Makki to follow him. In truth, Levil was just tired and relieved.
They were alive. The Wailer Frogs had gone down to fire and more fire. With healing potions and mana potions, his team had put them down in a long fight. They still might have lost, but the frogs had lost their ability to wail. Their lungs had been filled with dirt. So they’d been saved twice over by the Runner who’d answered their call.
“Levil. I got in touch with Reizmelt’s Runner’s Guild.”
The other [Mage] of their team, Ullica, came over to Levil. She was pale from overusing her spells, but held herself upright through willpower as much as anything else. She was clutching her ribs—the healing potions must not have fully worked.
Levil looked up.
“That Runner. Did she make it back? Is Lamont—”
“He’s alive. I told them she came here and made the delivery—and that she was bringing him back. They told me—he’s alive. All broken up, but the [Healer]’s with him. We can see him when we get back to the city.”
A sigh ran through the adventurers. Keima hugged Bram. He just stood still, closing his eyes.
“Thank the houses. Can you get them to send us a transport? I don’t think we can walk—”
Levil croaked. Ullica nodded. There was a moment of silence as she conveyed the request, and then Levil looked up.
“That Runner. Who was she?”
He could still remember the cloud, and the wind that had followed her. It had been magic. Or—or something. He wasn’t sure. Ullica looked back at him.
“She’s the Wind Runner.”
For a second Levil’s heart constricted as he worried about what a Courier might charge for an emergency delivery. But they’d pay it if they had to. They were alive—but Ullica shook her head.
“No. A City Runner.”
“That was a City Runner?”
Keima looked disbelieving. Bram shook his head.
“I’ve never heard of her. IF she’s got a title, why haven’t we gotten word? We keep up to date with all the big names around here.”
“Probably because she’s not a big name.”
“But she’s called…?”
Levil was confused and tired. He went to sit down. Ullica did likewise. The Pithfire Hounds sat in the grass, too tired to move. Ullica spoke exhaustedly.
“I don’t know. That’s what they named her. And I guess it stuck. She’s really, really popular, apparently.”
“With who? Runners?”
That was all Ullica said. Levil waited, and then he realized she’d passed out. She lay in the grass, sleeping. He nearly laughed, and didn’t when he saw Bram and Makki lying together.
“Well, I’ll remember her. We owe her. The Wind Runner. It’s…”
Levil searched for words as the others slowly drifted off to sleep. The [Pyromancer] blinked.
And then his head fell back and he fell asleep.
“Miss Griffin? Miss Griffin?”
Ryoka woke up. She looked around, realized she was sitting at a table, and looked up. The [Receptionist]’s face was filling her vision. Ryoka sat up, realized sunlight was shining through the windows of the Runner’s Guild, and looked around.
“Where—how’s Lamont? Are the Pithfire—”
“All alive. Miss Ryoka, your job’s done. You should rest.”
Ryoka spoke automatically, and then realized she had an audience. A few Street Runners and some City Runners were staring at her. And so was the [Wagon Driver] she’d met. Termin. He was sitting at a table, a mug in his hands.
“How long was I asleep?”
“Six hours. You should get to a proper bed, Miss Ryoka. But before that—I hate to trouble you, but I’d like to give you this.”
The [Receptionist] handed Ryoka something. The Runner blinked at the small bag of gold and silver coins. She looked at it stupidly.
“Your fee, Miss Ryoka. We included the healing potions and other items you used. There’s more money for rescuing the wounded adventurer too.”
Ryoka stared down at the gold and silver coins. Then she looked up.
The [Receptionist] smiled at Ryoka’s vacant look.
“Maybe you should go lie down. You have an inn, don’t you?”
“It’s closed. Probably.”
Ryoka rubbed her face. She woke up a bit, and then stood up.
“I can climb in through the window. Thank you. I’ll—thanks.”
The [Receptionist] stood back and shook her head.
“No need to thank me, Miss Griffin. I just did my job. But you—well, I’ve heard of Runners doing emergency deliveries, but you helped take out the Wailer Frogs.”
“I just…used a bit of wind magic. I have a Skill.”
Ryoka lied automatically. The [Receptionist] nodded.
“Be that as it may. I feel like I owe you an apology, Miss Griffin. I heard some rumors that—well, I think they were wrong. But you should know, someone’s told every Runner’s Guild north of Invrisil about you. And not in flattering terms.”
“Really? Well, I’m sure they were only half-true.”
Ryoka gave her a blank look. The [Receptionist] covered a smile.
“It was my pleasure, Miss Griffin.”
“I’m Ryoka. And who’re you?”
“My name is Alime. It’s a pleasure to meet you.”
“Likewise. Thank you, Alime.”
Ryoka shook the hand. Then she waved at Termin. He waved back. Bemusedly, Ryoka looked around. The other Runners blinked at her. She smiled.
“Hi. Good morning.”
And then she wandered out of the Runner’s Guild.
The sun was bright. Ryoka half-asleep. But she woke up as she wandered about Reizmelt. Outside of the Runner’s Guild, few people gave her a second look, except perhaps to note the color of her skin, her different complexion. They hadn’t heard about the Pithfire Hounds yet. Only the [Guards] on the gates had.
Ryoka didn’t care about that. She kept feeling the little bag of gold. It was more money than she’d earned in two weeks of running deliveries. She remembered the panic, and felt the relief course through her again. She’d done it. Lamont was alive. She didn’t know him. She’d never said a word to him, except to tell him to stay awake or warn him he was about to be in pain. But she was happy he was alive.
She’d done it. The wind blew around Ryoka, warming her. And then Ryoka was in the plaza square. Alber wasn’t there. But she saw a pale, hooded figure walking past her with two extremely heavy-looking pails, one in each hand. The lids were covered, and the pails were clearly full of some kind of liquid.
“I thought you only had two jobs.”
Fierre turned as Ryoka blinked stupidly at her. She blinked in surprise, and then smiled.
“I work multiple jobs.”
“Oh. What’re you doing?”
Another man stopped, his forehead already covered in sweat, and put down the pails he was carrying.
“What’s it look like? Hauling this crap from a storage house to a caravan”
He grunted and pointed. A wagon was parked ahead of them, being loaded by other men and a few women who were placing the heavy pails in the back. A man in rich clothing was supervising. Fierre nodded.
“Part-time job. We’re hauling fresh milk bound to Invrisil, and grain. Sorry, I’d stop to talk but we have to get these in the wagons before they spoil. There are no runes of preservation except in one of the wagons—for the milk.”
She picked up the pails and continued onwards. The man groaned and grasped the wooden handles of his pails as well. He spoke out of the corner of his mouth as he indicated Fierre’s shrouded body.
“I don’t know how she does it, scrawny as she is. I’m a Level 14 [Laborer], and I think these damn bags as heavy as one of those fat [Merchants] paying us. Fat sacks of lard they are, too. Too bad we can’t milk them.”
Ryoka grinned. The [Laborer] smiled too.
“Hey Wind Runner, mind conjuring us a breeze?”
Ryoka raised a hand and a breeze sprung up. The men and women sighed in relief. And Ryoka sat and watched them fill the wagon until it was creaking under the load. And then the next wagon, and the next. Fierre really was quite strong for a girl who looked like she was in her teens. Very strong.
It was then that they found her. Ryoka’s fans. They came to her, clamoring, already having heard the latest tale about her. But they would have loved her even if she hadn’t just helped fight monsters. They all knew her name.
And that was her. Ryoka Griffin. Not famous. Liked a bit by adventurers, but not by her fellow Runners. And yet, she had a nickname. A title, which was an honor reserved only for famous City Runners and Couriers. Wind Runner. She had not been awarded that title by the Runners, who didn’t really know or like her. Or by the citizens of the cities around here, who had yet to know her. No, only one group had given her the nickname, but because it was them it had stuck and become part of memory.
It was them. Children. Some as young as four, some as old as ten or eleven. They raced down the street, holding mud balls made of wet dirt and grass. Laughing, and calling her name.
“Wind Runner, Wind Runner!”
“Wind Runner! Are you busy today?”
The Runner turned. She gave the children a smile.
“I’m not running today.”
“Then can you play?”
A little girl demanded. She was richer than the other children, at least if the white dress was any indication, but on the streets it didn’t matter. She held a mud ball and looked at Ryoka. The Runner laughed. She leaned back and waved a hand. And the wind blew.
“Do I have a choice? Well? Come at me, then.”
The children shouted in delight. As one—and to the horror of the [Shopkeeper] whose glass frontage Ryoka was leaning against, they threw their ammunition. Mud balls flew through the air towards Ryoka. She looked up—and the wind blew. The children watched with gaping mouths as the spheres of crumbing dirt reversed-course in midair and flew back at them. They scattered with screams of joy.
Kids. For some reason they really liked Ryoka. It was probably the wind. And Ryoka running with bare feet. And her showing them how to do tricks, like standing flips. And—maybe because she sort of liked them. Ryoka laughed as the kids threw mud and dirt at her, watching as sticks were caught in the wind and blown around her. The winds protected Ryoka like an ever-shifting shield.
One of them charged her, mud ball in hand. Ryoka felt the wind twist as he lunged at her, and he went flying backwards, rolling over and yelping. She laughed, and he did too when he got up.
“Come on, is that the best you can do?”
She lay flat on the ground. Outraged, the children charged her and the wind blew them back and forth, sending mud balls flying back at the thrower. Ryoka laughed and felt as silly as she’d ever been in her life. She felt young. And happy.
“Wind Runner! Do that thing! Please?”
Ryoka looked up. A group of children had made a sail. They’d already learned how to play with bed sheets, and a group of children soared past Ryoka, holding up a large white sheet like a sail, laughing madly. She smiled too.
The wind was not her friend. It was unpredictable, and that made it dangerous. But right now, right here, there was nothing to worry about. She smiled, weary, but relieved, and she knew she was at the strongest she could ever be. She pointed, and the group of four children screamed with delight and alarm as the wind threatened to blow and the sheet them upwards, like the precursor to a hot air balloon.
“A moment of grace.”
Ryoka looked up. Fierre was watching the children play, a smile on her face. The girl stood in the shadows, tugging the hood over her face. Her pale skin looked…burnt. Despite her barely being in the sun. Ryoka sat up as the kids soared past her, screaming to go higher.
“Are you off work?”
“I don’t have to work at my job with letters, if that’s what you’re asking. There’s not enough in the Runner’s Guild. And I just finished doing the hauling job.”
“Oh. Did it pay much?”
“A silver coin for an hour’s work. Good money if you don’t mind sweating hard.”
Fierre showed Ryoka a coin in one gloved hand. Ryoka noticed she was not sweating. The two waited together, watching the children play. Fierre looked down at Ryoka.
“I heard about the adventuring team. Mad Madain kept us informed. He’s happy. I think he’s grateful to you.”
“Well, he is a former adventurer. I guess they stick together.”
“Yes, they do.”
Fierre gave Ryoka an older smile than her face and body should have held. She looked at Ryoka.
“I didn’t know you volunteered to take on requests like that.”
“I…knew some adventurers. Down south. It’s just something I want to do if I can. I’m glad it worked out. It doesn’t always.”
“No. It doesn’t.”
Ryoka felt sleepy, but content. In this moment, talking to Fierre felt easy and pleasant. The girl looked down at her and suddenly asked a question.
“What’s it like? Being a Runner?”
“It’s not easy. Why, do you want to be one?”
Fierre looked wistful.
“I don’t think I could be. Maybe at night—but it’s harder than it looks, isn’t it?”
“Yes. It’s lonely. And dangerous.”
“Have you been doing it long? You’re new, as Runners go. I don’t mean to pry, but I hear things in my job—”
“No, it’s fine. I am new. I’ve been running all my life, but I’ve only been a Runner for less than a year. And really, I’ve only started taking my job seriously…now.”
“Really? But you were a City Runner in Celum. A good one, or so I heard.”
Fierre coughed. It might have been her cold, or an allusion to her profession. Ryoka nodded, frowning.
“Yeah, but I don’t think I understood what it meant back then. I didn’t take my job as seriously. It was just…a job. But now? When I’m running for adventurers, it matters. People’s lives are on the line. So I do my best. Sometimes I’m too late. But I’ll keep getting faster. Better.”
“Until you become a Courier?”
“Huh? Maybe. Until I can go back. I’ve…decided to get better. I’m not going back until I can be useful. Until I can actually…you know?”
Ryoka looked up. But Fierre nodded as if she did know.
“It’s hard. Even Couriers struggle up here. Especially if you get mixed up in bad deliveries. I hope you can get better. You can certainly do—that. It’s a Skill, right?”
She pointed at the children, playing in the wind. One of them threw a handful of grass and watched it fly upwards, laughing. The wind blew it into a pair of open shutters and there was an exclamation of outrage. The children scattered in fear and Ryoka winced.
“Yeah. It’s a Skill. I can’t control it. But it’s uh, [Runner’s Wind]. A very rare Skill.”
“It must be nice.”
Fierre looked mildly jealous. Ryoka shrugged.
“It’s frustrating sometimes. I wish I could do more. You know the feeling?”
“All the time.”
A rueful smile. And a flash of sharp canines. Ryoka glanced at Fierre.
“So uh, what’s it like being a vampire?”
“Well, you kn—”
Fierre paused. What color there was in her face drained completely away. She looked down at Ryoka and the Asian girl grinned sheepishly at her.
“You—how did—I’m not—”
Fierre leapt up. She backed away from Ryoka, stammering. Her hand went to her mouth. Ryoka got up hurriedly, held a hand out.
“Wait a second, I’m not going to tell anyone. I just guessed. I am right, aren’t I? Fierre?”
“I can’t talk about it. Please don’t tell anyone. Please don’t.”
Fierre backed up towards an alleyway, her eyes wide and pleading. Ryoka nodded slowly.
“I won’t. I promise. I just want to talk. I won’t tell anyone, I swear.”
“Good. Thank you. I have to—have to go. Now. I’m sorry.”
Fierre turned and fled. Ryoka half moved to go after her, but her legs were wobbly. Behind her, the children exclaimed in disappointment. The wind died down. They dispersed, and Ryoka stayed where she was. She cursed inside, but only mildly. It hadn’t gone that badly.
After a while, Ryoka realized she hadn’t had lunch. So she trundled over to a tavern and got a hot potato loaded with extras. It was as close to fast food as she could get, so Ryoka walked back to The Huntress’ Haven, eating it and listening to her stomach voice approval. She hoped it was open so she could sit in her room. Take a bath, get the dirty clothes off her—and think about what to say to Fierre. This time she’d be smooth about it. Just tell her she was a…historian? No, that she knew some of the old legends and she was totally fine with vampires, just curious. And then she had all the questions she wanted to ask—tactfully—
Ryoka reached for the door and discovered it was open. Much to her relief. She stepped into the inn and didn’t hear Madain banging about. Which was fine. Ryoka walked up to her room, eating the last bits of her potato. She pushed on the door to her room before she remembered she needed a key. She reached for her pocket—
And the door swung open. Ryoka blinked. She’d forgotten to lock it. Damn. Well, it wasn’t as if she had anything important in there. It was all in her bag of holding. Which reminded her, she needed to stock up on more loose dirt to repeat her sandstorm attack. Sand-attack. Hah! Pokémon wins again. Ryoka walked into the room and saw a shadow move. She spun—
The slim arms encircled Ryoka’s neck before she could speak. She choked, and threw herself back. But Fierre was clinging to her back, and she was strong. Ryoka couldn’t even throw her off.
Ryoka gasped for air. She hammered Fierre with her arms and elbows, but the vampire girl didn’t so much as flinch. She tightened her grip further and the world went—
Ryoka woke up somewhere else. Her body hurt. Especially around the neck. Not because of a vampire bite. More because of her crushed windpipe. Ryoka coughed, tried to sit up, and then felt weak all over. She felt bruised, knocked about—and then she realized it was dark. She’d definitely missed dinner.
And there were voices. Above her. Ryoka looked around. It was almost completely dark, but she could sense she was lying on something hard…cold…flat. A smooth surface. A counter?
A coffin. It was made of grey stone, smooth with time. And as Ryoka looked up, she sensed a vast ceiling overhead. Tall rafters. The impressions of statues. And then a commanding voice.
“Serafierre val Lischelle-Drakle, what is it you have brought into our home?”
Ryoka Griffin looked up. And she saw a shadow move ahead of her. It had been so still that Fierre had been part of the darkness. Now she bowed.
“A Runner, mother. She knows who we are.”
The lilting voice rose with surprise. Ryoka looked up, and then she saw a shadow move. Moonlight shone down. A figure leapt down, twenty feet, and landed lightly on the ground. A body moved. And a woman stepped out of the darkness. Fierre rose to greet her, and another shadow appeared. Another figure moved with inhuman grace.
And that was the word for it. Inhuman. They joined Fierre’s mother. One by one. Four of them. Pale skin. Eyes with red pupils. And, in the moonlight, they grinned and their fangs were brilliant, their every movement powerful.
Vampires. Ryoka stared up as they gathered, standing on the lids of the coffins around her. Fierre’s mother glided towards her. She was tall, beautiful, her hair pale, bordering on white. To behold her was to see an image out of legends, given undying flesh.
There she was. Immortal. Graceful. Pale as moonlight, sinuous and powerful. Rashy. Ryoka stared at a red rash running down Fierre’s mother’s right arm. And then she noticed Fierre was wiping her nose on her sleeve. A vampire, a creature of the night, gave a wet, weak cough. The third had an odd swelling around his pale neck, just under his jaw.
The vampires eyed Ryoka. She eyed them. One of them coughed again. Ryoka blinked. She felt at her neck, shrugged. Her stomach rumbled loudly.
“At least you don’t sparkle.”
Then she lay down and promptly passed out again. It seemed like the only appropriate thing to do.