Names and titles. It was something, to be known by other people. Be it a local hero or an internationally-recognized name. It was also…strange, to be that person.
Named Adventurers. [Kings]. Archmages…few others could understand the feeling. It meant something. The list of names was always changing. And today—a few more names flashed across the consciousness of countless minds. They might not remain, but for a moment—many people knew the names of individuals they had never met.
The first was Ryoka Griffin. In conjunction with an old name—the Archmage of Izril, Valeterisa.
The Wind Runner of Reizmelt had awoken her. That was a feat no one had accomplished in ten years. It put her on the list. And the thing about fame was that it was an ebb and flow. Ryoka had made smaller impacts before.
The Runner who had delivered to the High Passes. A Human who could conjure the wind. Her delivery for Lady Bethal…
This was the most notable achievement of hers yet. So—those who paid attention to Runners out of necessity or just interest marked her name and recalled her past instances of fame. They might remember her next time, or decide to hire her.
It was how a career, a legend was made. Piece by piece. And it was the smaller appendage on the big news: the Archmage of Izril had returned.
…That piece of information was not reported by Wistram News Network that morning. Nor was the ongoing war with Jecrass and Reim. Frankly—it was a sign.
A sign that nothing of ‘note’ had happened in the war beyond more battles that favored Reim; Raelt had retreated and ceded his borderlands to the King of Destruction. And also that the public didn’t want to watch that kind of war. Rather—two events were both featured this morning, one planned, one unplanned.
The first was a battle in Baleros. Lest the world forget—Chandrar was not the only continent with wars of note.
This was only a single battle. But it was notable in that way of things. Names and titles.
“The Bannermare of Baleros has—has engaged Tulm the Mithril. We are reporting live with aerial footage thanks to our Garuda [Reporter] on scene. Our new Balerosian wing—ahem—of Wistram News Network, rather. Kerik, what can you tell us about what we’re seeing?”
It was weird. Erin Solstice had grown up on Earth watching television and the news. She wasn’t a huge TV person, but it had been part of her life. Of course—television had faded in favor of computers, tablets, and the easy internet. But television was familiar.
And here she was in her inn, watching the news on the scrying orb over breakfast. People kept complaining it was too small, but Erin wasn’t shelling out for a huge mirror like Rufelt’s—yet.
Not when she had Palt. The [Illusionist] had projected the scrying orb’s image onto a wall and everyone was watching as breakfast was eaten in silence. Mrsha silently ate from a bowl of berries and yogurt with a spoon, learning a new pastime.
…It wasn’t exactly kid-friendly. It was a battle. The two sides—one comprised of horse-people and some Lizardfolk and Humans, the other almost all Dullahan—were squaring off against each other. Erin saw the battle from above as whomever was flying and broadcasting the event tried to keep the ‘camera’ steady.
“Hello, Sir Relz! This is Kerik! It was an unexpected clash! This appeared to be a border conflict between Maelstrom’s Howling and the Iron Vanguard—but it grew into an actual conflict with the Bannermare’s arrival! Neither side has launched arrows or spells yet, but you can see they’re maneuvering.”
“Trying to outflank each other. The Centaurs are more lightly-armed than the Dullahan forces, but they have mobility. One of those classic Balerosian ‘sword-wand-bow’ battles, right, Noass?”
“Exactly, Sir Relz. And we have two second-in-commands for both Great Companies. This—this could be a huge event. Tulm the Mithril vs the Bannermare. Both younger leaders who might well lead their company after the Seer of Steel or Fellstrider retires…”
The two Drakes were commentating the battle. Erin scowled at them and then frowned.
“The Bannermare of Baleros. Where have I heard that before?”
It was Palt who answered. The Centaur was trotting nervously, clearly invested in the battle on the continent Erin had only ever heard about. It looked…very plains-y, at least this area.
“She’s the daughter of Gwelin Fellstrider. One of the highest-leveled Centaurs in the world—certainly for her age! She’s known as the Bannermare of Baleros—or the Battle Hymnist. She’s—look!”
The Centaurs had been circling the Dullahans who were sitting in net formations, ready to be charged at. They were being led by a glowing figure in the center of the defensive lines.
Tulm the Mithril. Erin had seen the Games at Daquin. So she remembered his name. Now—both sides opened fire and clashed.
From above, Erin saw the battle unfolding like…a video game. She shuddered as she saw the Dullahans on the right flank explode as Centaur [Mages] unleashed a volley of spells and an entire wing of the army plunged forwards.
She had lived through a battle and the distant conflict felt too pretty from above. But there was blood on the ground.
Centaurs vs Dullahans. Erin had no context for the battle. Nor did most of the people in The Wandering Inn. Palt, a native, had to explain.
“It’s territory conflict. The Iron Vanguard is always encroaching on Centaur lands. Maelstrom’s Howling protects the plains, but the Iron Vanguard builds forts and keeps ‘claiming’ more territory year by year. Normally it’s just a standoff—but the Bannermare must want to push them back!”
“Who’s going to win, then?”
Erin looked around for Olesm or Belgrade, but neither one was here. Fortunately—she had no end of armchair [Strategists] willing to tell her exactly how the battle would go, including Sir Relz and Noass.
“It’s Centaurs vs Dullahans, Erin. Fast-moving cavalry—”
“Excuse me, Montressa.”
Palt glowered. The [Aegiscaster] blushed.
“Sorry—I meant, Centaurs, versus heavy infantry Dullahans. Normally, there’s a break through the Dullahan formation or the Centaurs have to retreat.”
“In a straight conflict, Centaurs always lose.”
Menolit put in. Palt glowered around, yet his attention was on the screen.
“Normally we’d expect the Bannermare to quickly charge in, but you can see she’s just circling with her vanguard.”
“Wary of Tulm the Mithril no doubt. The main force of Maelstrom’s Howling is being pushed back by a strong Dullahan line—Humans and Lizardfolk can’t hold with Centaurs against that kind of armor even if the spells are making a difference. But this is Tulm the Mithril—yep, here we go.”
A mist rose from the battlefield. And magic—died. Erin saw the Centaurs retreating. She didn’t think they were losing that badly. Until she heard from the projection a sound.
The image cut to someone on the ground, staring at the fog-laden battlefield ahead. The Bannermare’s army was in full-retreat. Why? Then—something cut through the mists. Dullahan [Soldiers] marched below in ranks. And between them strode—
Giants. War Walkers. Sixteen of them.
“That’s…where were they hiding? They must have been camouflaged somehow. I’m instantly identifying Xol of Ingrilt, one of the highest-leveled War Walkers in the Iron Vanguard, and—fifteen others?”
The Bannermare and her forces fell back as the War Walkers advanced on the infantry. But Tulm refused to move too far ahead. The War Walkers turned, raising huge shields to protect themselves from arrow fire. They were watching one group of Centaurs.
Erin saw a female Centaur, holding a banner. She raced at the head of the line of Centaurs.
The Bannermare of Baleros. She was racing across the ground, so fast that even the best Dullahan [Archers] couldn’t strike her with arrows. Her elites were moving around Tulm’s army. Looking for a point in.
But of course—the [Strategist] knew that was what was going to happen. He’d arrayed pikes which constantly shifted, giving inviting gaps that would close if anyone charged in.
Stalemate. And all the time the Dullahans were attacking the magic-less Centaurs who couldn’t win a war against a foe armored from head-to-toe.
“I don’t think the Bannermare can delay any longer. Her vanguard is as strong as any heavy cavalry unit with her Skills! But the longer she circles, the more of her soldiers she loses. Is she going to retreat? This standoff is just losing her side soldiers. It might be a mark of her inexperience, frankly. She has a class equivalent to a [Banner Carrier]—not exactly a [Strategist], or even a [General]—”
“Hey. I think I nearly got that class once.”
Erin saw Lyonette turn to stare at her with Montressa. The [Innkeeper] watched.
“I can’t watch this. What do you think will happen, Erin? You know chess, right?”
Palt was so nervous. It was strange—but then, Erin supposed it was like Relc or Selys watching Liscor’s army fighting a battle. This was his people. He turned to her and she gave him a blank look.
“I’m not good at strategy, Palt. I don’t do…that. It’s messy. No taking turns. It’s just…action. Punch the other person in the face as fast as you can, y’know?”
“What would you do here?”
“Not fight? Or I’d…not fight that. Dudes in armor. Seems tough. I’d have like, twice as many soldiers and a trap.”
A sound. Noass broke off from his conversation with Sir Relz about battle tactics and the Bannermare’s youth. He squinted.
“What is that sound? It’s coming from—Kerik, is there something in the air around you?”
The view shook as the Garuda turned his head.
“I don’t see anything. I—oh.”
The ‘oh’ was soft. And it came as the strange sound became obvious.
Crunch, crunch. It was the sound…of someone munching on something. Some dried chip-like substance. And Erin, the audience—saw someone sitting in the air next to the Garuda.
A Squirrel. She was sitting on a carpet that hung in midair. She had been invisible. Now, she stared into the camera.
“Mm. Hello. This is a trap.”
“Foliana, you don’t tell people it’s a trap. You’ve ruined the moment. Just—just go.”
Someone spoke up. Erin squinted. She saw Palt throw up his hands.
“Oh, dead gods! It’s him!”
Palt rushed forwards, blocking Erin’s view. Erin craned her neck.
“Who’s that? I can’t see anything. Move, Palt!”
Someone stood on top of Foliana’s head for a second. Then—the entire image swung as the Garuda whirled.
Five more carpets hung in the air, motionless over the battlefield. Tulm the Mithril looked up as Niers Astoragon and Foliana waved down at him. The Dullahan’s calm expression turned to fury and worry in a second.
The Titan’s chortle was audible, but only that as the Garuda [Reporter] fled from the arrows shooting upwards.
“It was worth waiting for four days up here to see that. Alright—drop ‘em! Then let’s go.”
The five carpets heaved objects out of bags of holding onto the Dullahans below. Erin saw flashes—explosions covering the tightly-knit Dullahan lines.
“But—but the magic can’t work with Tulm’s Skill…”
“Alchemical weapons. I—was this all a collaboration? Are we seeing two Great Companies teaming up on the Iron Vanguard? Dead gods! And here she goes—”
The Dullahan ranks were in chaos. As the five carpets flew out of the range of the Dullahan bows, their jobs done, the Bannermare charged. Straight into the opening Niers had created, at Tulm the Mithril.
Erin saw the battle turn into chaos. She didn’t see all of it—she had to pee.
When she left the outhouse, it was mostly over. Thanks to the Titan of Baleros whom Erin hadn’t seen, the Dullahans had been defeated. They were retreating as the Bannermare harried them—from the threat of Niers Astoragon and Foliana as much as the erasure of their battle lines.
Tulm the Mithril survived. And he even saved the majority of his army—apparently he’d used his warlord skill or something.
Palt was raving about it, more excited than anyone else. To Erin—it was just a battle. Over territory no less. And it had implications for Baleros—not Izril.
She had seen several battles like that from WNN, some from Chandrar—others border fights in Terandria, a war between nobility in Chandrar in some kingdom…it wasn’t her thing.
But the sudden broadcast of the battle with the Bannermare of Baleros was winding down. Erin heard flutes, a hopping beat as she washed her hands and reentered her inn. Her ears perked up.
“What is that?”
It was…the Bannermare. Her escort had more than just an aptitude for fighting. They were playing music as she led a parade, celebrating the battle. Erin saw the Centauress dancing, prancing to the beat as she mocked the retreating Tulm.
“She’s considered the most eligible bachelorette in Baleros, you know. I met her once.”
Palt sighed. Erin saw the image turn to Sir Relz and Noass. The monocled Drake was talking.
“We’ll have more details on casualties, fallout, and perhaps an interview with the Titan or the Bannermare for you after the break. Now—back to our scheduled event with…our [Reporter]. Miss Drassi?”
The Drake bared his teeth in something that could be called a smile. And the image cut back. Everyone in the inn sat up.
“It’s happening! Someone go into Liscor and tell the others!”
The inn grew excited. Erin glanced out a window. It was weird that everyone was so excited to see it on TV. But…well…she saw a Drake standing outside, on an area of flat ground a few hundred paces away. She was waving at a Gnoll holding a scrying orb.
In the inn, on-screen, Drassi smiled into the camera.
“Thanks, Sir Relz. This is Drassi from Liscor! Reporting in! We had a little break for the battle coverage—everyone was watching the scrying orb. But I’m pleased to announce the first inter-city football game is about to begin! Pallass vs Liscor! I’ll be commentating!”
And there it was. Erin stared at the soccer game. Two teams, vying to kick the ball through the goals set up in the Floodplains—terraformed for a flat playing field. Liscor’s team had Drakes, Gnolls, and two Humans.
Pallass’ team had Garuda, a single Dullahan in the goal, Drakes and Gnolls. They were all dressed in uniforms; each team had been practicing non-stop since the game had been announced.
There were packed stands filled with Liscor’s residents and Pallass’. They’d come yesterday to let the door recharge—even some [Senators]. Erin saw the Watch patrolling the area outside of the field as they watched to make sure no Rock Crabs or other monsters interfered.
“Weird. I didn’t even have anything to do with it this time.”
Erin mumbled as she heard Drassi eagerly introducing both sides’ players. The audience was cheering—both teams were comprised of Pallass and Liscor’s citizens.
Even a pair of Gold-rank adventurers from Pallass, which had caused a fight when it was announced. But this was a game—and there were no rules on who could compete. There were rules on the usage of magic, potions, and everything else that had been worked out over the last few weeks, but not on Skills.
And Pallass wanted to win. So their team was made up mostly of fliers—Oldblood Drakes and Garuda and they’d given their team the finest training.
Except for one thing. And that was the captain of Liscor’s team.
Joseph. Someone else who’s name was suddenly known the world over. He had done nothing as provocative as waking an Archmage. But he had brought soccer to this world.
“And last we have Joseph Ortega, the inventor of soccer—excuse me, football! He came up with the rules of this very fun game in conjunction with Wistram Academy. Huh. I didn’t know that. For more details, consult with any Wistram alumnus about the rules or equipment for the game!”
Drassi read from the script she’d been handed. That…fact…was quite interesting if you were listening hard for it. Erin’s own eyes narrowed, but it passed unnoticed by most. The game was starting and Pallass had the kickoff. Erin heard a roar from the crowd as the Drake captain from Pallass—a former Gold-rank [Warrior] launched the ball at Joseph’s team.
“Here we go! Just like we practiced!”
Joseph blocked the ball with his chest. Erin saw Liscor’s team running ahead. Spreading out—it was familiar to her as someone who’d seen a few soccer games.
By contrast, Pallass’ team made a beeline for the ball, over half charging for it.
“Oh wow! Pallass’ team wants to get the ball in the air! We have Casil from Pallass diving—no, Joseph passes it ahead to Rumerk!”
The Gnolls from Liscor and Pallass cheered as the Gnoll dribbled the ball around one of Pallass’ player. The Gold-rank was fast, but Rumerk passed the ball through his legs, and the former adventurer had to stop or smash into the Gnoll. Rumerk kicked it down the pitch towards a Drake no one was guarding.
Ekirra was cheering from the temporary bleachers. He was wearing a Liscorian uniform—Ekirra was a member of the little league and Joseph’s soccer class.
Pallass’ team doubled back on the Drake. They were fast, with Skills boosting their reflexes. But…they weren’t soccer players.
A Garuda fluttered upwards as the Liscorian player kicked the ball up. The other fliers from Pallass flew back, ready to kick the ball through the air—
A Gnoll jumped and kicked the ball down and across the pitch. It flashed below the fliers and shot towards Joseph. The Human’s leg blurred.
The ball flickered. Erin blinked—she saw the Dullahan land on the ground. But the ball had curved as Joseph kicked it. It bounced out of the net. There was silence—then a roar.
The bleachers erupted into cheers. Liscorians were in uproar—Pallass’ audience sat there in shock. They hadn’t seen Liscor’s team practicing. Erin had seen that particular trick a dozen times.
The fliers, flustered, regrouped as they were given the kick-off. This time they tried to juggle the ball in the air. A Garuda flew up as a Gnoll kicked the ball. She kicked it towards an Oldblood Drake—
A Drake headed the ball out of the air. It went flying and Liscor’s team on the ground passed it around Pallass’ players in a flash. Erin saw the ball go flying into the goal—heard a roar from outside, and then an echo of it from inside the inn a few seconds later.
“Another goal! Not surprising—Pallass seems to think the air was the right way to go, but it’s too easy to knock it out of the air and then where are you? No one on the ground means you’re in trouble! 2-0!”
It was going to be ugly for Pallass. They had stronger individual players, as Joseph had told Erin. But they had yet to understand how soccer worked as well as someone who had grown up playing the game. Teamwork, passing…Erin sat in her inn, smiling as Liscor cheered their team beating a Walled City.
She hadn’t done anything to make this happen. In fact, The Wandering Inn wasn’t even selling food. People had seen Erin making a small fortune at the baseball game and soccer games before, so every hawker and street vendor in Liscor as well as many restaurants, inns, and pubs were all catering with food.
Can I have money for food?
Mrsha held up a note, pleadingly. Lyonette looked exasperated.
“Why do you want to buy food, Mrsha? We’re an inn!”
“It’s the experience of it, Lyonette. Come on, how about two silver? Three? Okay, three, if you share with Ekirra and Visma.”
Erin laughed. It was a fun day. She handed the coins over as Lyonette rolled her eyes. The [Princess] let Ishkr pass out food to the audience who wanted to watch the game from the inn. She went to sit with Pawn and the Antinium on the roof of the inn.
Soccer. On the field, Joseph shone as he led his players forwards towards the disoriented Pallassian team. A while ago he had been constantly drunk, disillusioned—well, it wasn’t like soccer had solved everything.
But it had given him a purpose. Erin had helped him find it, in less than a month, while Magnolia Reinhart had let Joseph and the others just…waste away their time and potential. Deliberately, perhaps.
It was notable, though, that a soccer game was tied for a battle between three of the Great Companies of Baleros in the news. But then again—that was how the news worked.
Ryoka Griffin stared at the image with Fierre, Salamani, and…Archmage Valeterisa. She hadn’t seen Erin, which was good, only Joseph.
“So this is now normal? Mass-broadcast via scrying orb? How strange. How strange. A useful concept, but…why did the academy come up with it? I must ask.”
Valeterisa was muttering to herself. The Archmage of Izril was distracted—Ryoka saw her flick a wrist.
“Memo—ask Feor about mass scrying spell. Television? No, Nailihuaile.”
A hovering quill scribbled furiously on a bit of paper. Then a note with the exact words in neat scrawl flew up and floated around Valeterisa’s head. The Archmage of Izril turned to stare at the game of soccer again.
Pallass was getting destroyed. The Dullahan was the wrong person to have in the goal. Ryoka wasn’t a huge soccer expert, but even with his ability to detach his limbs (which meant no soccer ball hitting his head which was watching from behind the goal), the Dullahan was just too slow in his armor.
Joseph hadn’t had time to teach Liscor’s team that many soccer techniques or strategies, so he’d gone with a good, basic one: passing from player to player before scoring instead of just charging the goal like Pallass’ team did. It meant half the time they got to the goal they scored.
“A new game too. Football. Foot ball. Hmm. How interesting. What else has happened aside from the King of Destruction waking up? That’s inconvenient. I wonder if Amerys is an Archmage? That would be—inconvenient. They said they were going to vote on it right when I left…”
Valeterisa was a woman from the wrong time. She had spent over a decade in isolation, working by herself, ignoring the world. Now she was…conscious…she had a lot to catch up on.
Ryoka eyed Valeterisa. She didn’t know what to make of the Archmage of Izril. She wasn’t trying to kill Ryoka, Fierre, or Salamani, which was a plus, but she was…
Odd. Ryoka was put in mind of a scientist—or rather, a caricature or stereotype of a scientist. Someone concerned with data, logic, to an absurd degree. Only, replace science with magic and that was Valeterisa.
For instance—the Archmage had been peeved to discover the three burning down her island and attacking her mansion. But after they’d explained why they were here, she’d thought about it—and then told them to come in and explain what had happened in the last decade.
Now they were here. In Valeterisa’ actual home—which was past countless layers of traps and so on. They’d teleported in; only Valeterisa or those with the right combination could enter her abode.
“Strange. Um. Oh, here it is. Let’s see. Merchant Guild reports…that’s a lot of money. Message, message…hm, so many people seemed to want me over the last decade.”
Valeterisa was flicking her hand in the air, dismissing dozens of glowing lines which appeared, writing themselves out. She was multi-tasking—glancing at the orb, writing responses—dividing her mind up.
That was what had kept her like this, apparently. Valeterisa had been grateful for being ‘woken up’, enough so that she’d forgiven the fire and attack on her home. Her reaction had been strange.
“At least three dozen people died trying to reach you, Archmage Valeterisa.”
Salamani the Mage Runner’s smile was forced. He stared at the Archmage. For a moment guilt flickered across Valeterisa’s expression. Then her face went blank.
“[Calm]. I did make it explicitly clear that I was not to be disturbed. I will apologize about it. But really…I came to this island to be left alone. That’s how it works. If the fake illusion didn’t chase intruders away—you know, I feel bad about them. I could donate some money to families or something. How much gold do I have? Memo—”
Ryoka felt a nudge at her side. She saw Fierre glancing at her. The Vampire mouthed.
Is she insane?
The young woman just shrugged. Valeterisa seemed more scatterbrained than insane. Actually—she seemed quite sheltered.
Salamani glanced at Ryoka and Fierre and coughed again.
“Archmage, I hate to bring this up since I did agree to the job. But I have to repeat—delicately—that I nearly died trying to reach you. There was evidence that many had starved to death in your prison.”
“Ah, of course. I forgot to tell the familiars to feed them. Little errors like that are how systems break. And placing the runes in an unguarded area. How did you break out again?”
Valeterisa glanced up, saw the glares from all three, and sighed.
“Oh. Right. I am sorry about that. Er…have some food. Food.”
She clapped her hands and Ryoka saw a shadowy—thing—float towards her. It was all-shadow, and thus hard to even focus on. The Shadow Familiar was bearing a plate of…Ryoka eyed the very stale tea and raw carrots.
“What is this?”
“F-food? I had a garden set up and the familiars pull from my stockpiles. I have been eating…I think…I was going to wear a Ring of Nourishment, but they’re not perfect and I needed no magical interference from artifacts.”
Valeterisa looked unconvinced herself. She took a carrot and sipped at a cup of tea. Her face fell.
“That’s disgusting. Did I eat this the entire time? Wait…wait…[Recall Memories]. Oh. Oh my. That’s a lot of raw vegetables…and I hate potatoes!”
Ryoka looked at Salamani. The Mage Runner’s slitted eyes were rolled up in his head. He looked at Ryoka and then cleared his throat.
She started and snapped her fingers. Salamani tensed warily; as did Ryoka and Fierre. Valeterisa wasn’t—reassuring to be around. But the Archmage of Izril swung around and smiled.
“How about this. You can keep the uh, possessions of everyone who came here? That’s a suitable…reward, isn’t it? I’m sure it’s quite valuable, some of it. Yes, yes. And I’ll commend your names to the Runner’s Guild.”
Valeterisa looked from face to face and hers fell slightly.
The City Runner hesitated. She had a feeling about Valeterisa. So she looked the woman in the eyes.
Valeterisa had grey hair, but she seemed to have staved off aging. She was thin—especially since she’d lived on tea and vegetables for the last ten plus years—but she mostly reminded Ryoka of a curious bird, peering around, looking surprised.
When she had been about to kill them, though, she had been quite…cold. Ryoka remembered that too. She licked her lips before gesturing at Fierre and Salamani.
“Archmage…we nearly died. I’m not mad about that—I did volunteer for the risk. But your mansion and traps…they’ve killed dozens of people.”
The Archmage’s eyes flickered. She tapped her chest. Ryoka saw Salamani grimace at her. Valeterisa inhaled and exhaled.
“How about a larger tip? I could give you a few wands. Or enchant something…”
“Archmage. People died because of you. They died of starvation. Alone.”
Valeterisa stared at Ryoka and then turned away.
She raised a trembling hand and Ryoka reached out. She felt a shock—snatched her hand back before touching Valeterisa. Her fingertips were burned.
But it worked. Valeterisa flinched. And her eyes filled up.
“I didn’t mean to. I just—I was trying to protect my work! The last time they hired a [Rogue] and stole my research. It was—oh, Ancestors. Those poor people!”
She sniffed. A familiar handed her a handkerchief. Valeterisa wiped her eyes and promptly got a decade’s worth of dust in her eyes.
“She is so weird!”
Fierre whispered to Ryoka as Valeterisa cursed and conjured some water. Salamani shook his head.
“I’ve heard stories, but she went into seclusion when I was still a City Runner, let alone a graduate of Wistram…they say she’s the best at magical theory. Not combat or politics or anything else.”
Ryoka had no idea about Wistram politics. She turned to Salamani.
“Well, our job is done. Assuming we get out of here alive…”
They all eyed the sniffing Valeterisa. Ryoka hesitated.
“…we can get paid.”
“You mean, you can. I gave you all the credit to Lady Ieka. And I still owe you a debt, Miss Ryoka Griffin. Speaking of which—you should tell me if you want to call it in, anytime. I could try to persuade the Runner’s Guild to give you a Courier’s certification as part of it. I think few people would argue.”
Salamani smiled at Ryoka. She blinked at the Courier.
“No, really, Courier Salamani—”
The [Mage] waved a finger.
“It’s Salamani. And as far as I’m concerned, I owe you and Miss Fierre my entire life. I’d never have escaped the way you two did. I take that seriously. You name it. If you want—I’ll run with you to wherever you’re staying and give you all the artifacts I took.”
Fierre nearly spat out the bad tea she’d been drinking. Ryoka’s eyes widened.
“What? No—we can’t even carry all of it! You have your share, Salamani…Fierre and I are rich. We don’t need more!”
They were still wearing the prisoner’s gear, armed to the teeth even after throwing a riot in front of the Archmage’s abode. Salamani looked at Ryoka drily.
“Then I’m twice in your debt, Ryoka.”
She opened her mouth and he pointed at her.
“Don’t pretend that’s just goodwill. You and I both know how much money we’re wearing. I’m serious about giving what I’m carrying to you. Mind you—I won’t turn it down. It’s far more than Ieka would have paid me. But I mean it. You need anything, you call for Salamani.”
The City Runner was about to protest. She wanted to say he didn’t need to do that. That it wasn’t all he was making it out to be.
But she knew that was—untrue. She and Fierre and Salamani had survived an Archmage’s traps and woken her up. Valeterisa’s mansion was like a proto-dungeon, even more dangerous because it was maintained.
It was just embarrassing and awkward for Ryoka to be the recipient of genuine gratitude or emotion.
“Well…thank you, Salamani. You helped us too. But I’ll remember that.”
“And me. This was the most fun I’ve ever had.”
Fierre smiled. Her smile faltered as Salamani and Ryoka gave her a look.
“Well, it was. I felt alive. I’m still shaking!”
The Mage Runner laughed and swept back his hair.
“Me too, honestly. Dead gods, but that was a rare experience for even a Courier. We woke the Archmage of Izril!”
“And I’m grateful. Really.”
Someone sniffed. The three jumped.
Valeterisa was wiping her eyes with a clean handkerchief. She blew her nose.
“Ancestors. I hate emotion. I…I really did let those people die, didn’t I? And I would have stayed like that, dividing my thoughts up again and again. I owe you three a lot. I shall repay it too. Somehow. And here I thought [Parallel Thinking] was a Skill without flaw. I wonder how Archmage Chandler dealt with it? I might have spent another ten years trying to perfect the spell. I’ve missed so much…”
Ryoka was stunned, half by what Valeterisa had said, half by the implications. Wait. [Parallel Thought] was a Skill? Archmage Chandler? The Necromancer?
Fierre’s had focused on the last bit. So had Salamani. They looked at Valeterisa. She sighed.
“I should explain, shouldn’t I? It’s why I was secluded here. I thought that if I had time—a year or two at most—to work on it, I could finish my project. See what happened? That’s what you get for not setting deadlines.”
She waved her hand around as if to indicate ‘whoops’, and saw the three looks. Valeterisa blushed. She coughed,
“Ahem. What was your question? Ah, yes. I was working on a spell. No—a theorem. Um, it would have been a revolutionary rediscovery. Even the proper [Archmages] of a thousand years ago didn’t know the spell. Not Zelkyr—but he was a [Golem Artificer]. Different disciplines. The point is it’s the lynchpin—cornerstone?—stepping stone?—building block of higher magic. Creating magical dimensions is possible, but rudimentary without constant management or this spell.”
She even talked like she had ten different trains of thoughts at once. Ryoka sussed out the important bits.
“What theorem, Archmage?”
“Oh. It’s very simple. Automated spellcasting. I was working so long on it—but I couldn’t bridge the final gap. It took me four years to assemble the right spell matrices—and the rest of the time was trying to bridge the final gap. It’s so frustrating. Plate!”
Valeterisa reached out. A familiar dropped a porcelain plate in her hand. She threw it down. It shattered on the floor and she kicked at it. After a moment, the plate rose and repaired itself.
“Isn’t that…automated spellcasting?”
Ryoka eyed the plate as the familiar bore it away. Valeterisa sighed.
“No. I know it looks the same to non-mages. And you can easily approximate automated spellcasting. That was a familiar equipped with a [Repair] spell bound into the mansion. But if I had the right spell—it would have auto-cast from my mana upon sensing the plate breaking, without the need for rules. It’s a lost magic, though. A fundamental building block no one else is willing to pursue. They’re all busy with…politics. Infighting. Eating cake.”
Salamani nodded as if that were obvious. Valeterisa peered at him.
“Wait. Are you from Wistram?”
“Yes, Archmage Valeterisa. I graduated about sixteen years back.”
“Oh! What schools?”
“Combat magic, physical spells, enchantment…those were my primaries, although I dabbled in some summoning and runecraft and I had an interest in astromancy.”
“Oh. One of the adventurer specializations. Are all the Archmages the same? Feor? Nailihuaile? Er…V—V—”
Valeterisa snapped her fingers.
“[Recall Memory]. Yes! I quite hate him so I keep erasing his name. What about Amerys? She came to the academy and we were going to make her Archmage. But if this King of Destruction is awake again…”
Salamani hesitated and glanced at Ryoka and Fierre. Particularly at Fierre, who was taking notes, having borrowed Valeterisa’s quill.
“I think that’s a matter for the academy, Archmage.”
Valeterisa sighed. She looked at Ryoka and Fierre.
“And you two are strange. So strange. You—are you Human? And are you Human?”
She pointed at Fierre first who actually jumped three feet into the air and turned—well, she couldn’t turn paler. And then Valeterisa pointed at Ryoka.
“That’s—private, Archmage. Neither of us are quite usual. But who is?”
Ryoka smiled and saw Salamani tap one eye and wink. Valeterisa scratched at her head.
“Oh. That sounds like a rebuke. Am I being rude? I’m being rude, aren’t I. I just recall you two did so well in the first few layers of my defenses. I wish I’d saved the memory, but I wanted to conserve space. Er…I didn’t meant to be rude. I just wondered if the little one—[Recall Memory]—Fierre, was part-Gnoll or something. I’ve met them where I grew up.”
Fierre hid behind Ryoka. The taller girl blinked at Valeterisa.
“Where you grew up…?”
Valeterisa nodded, looking around. She picked up a carrot and ate as she replied.
“I’m hungry. This is horrible. Mhm. I grew up in Fissival. The City of Magic, you know? But I went to Wistram.”
Ryoka was startled. She dug in her pouch reflexively and offered the Archmage some rations. Valeterisa shrugged and then saw the flatbread and dried cheese. She brightened.
“Oh! That looks better! Familiars—do we have anything that’s not a vegetable? Exclude rotten foods. Would you all like to eat too? Or sit?”
Ryoka found herself sitting in a small dining room with Valeterisa, Salamani, and Fierre. They knew it was a dining room only Valeterisa normally used because the rich wood was worn and so was the chair where she sat. A decade of sitting in the exact same spot.
“Make food. Food. I’m sorry. They’re terrible at specific instructions. In the past, [Mages] had far more intelligent familiars. I thought about summoned beings, but they take too much mana and Shadow Familiars can make food. But usually only boiling pasta. And don’t ask them to put in sauce; they always put in everything.”
“Well, they can run out of magic and die. But they’re more like…limited sentience. Not like undead, which have a purpose even if you don’t give them orders. Shadow familiars are a complex darkness-based spell derived from Golems—you see, the spell differs when it comes to intentional learning, which Golems were actually made with. Have you met Cognita? She’s a version of that ideal taken to the extreme. If you ever opened her root magical matrices, which she’s never let me do, I think you’d find that there’s actually a potentiality for interpretation of orders, which is where the shadow familiars differ. They were created by Noelyeen, a [Mage] of Chandrar around eight thousand years ago to my understanding, although he might have based that on previous—”
The words washed over the three like the ocean. Ryoka, Fierre, and Salamani were each intelligent in their own way. Salamani had even graduated from Wistram. Fierre opened envelopes and traded secrets for a living and Ryoka liked to think she’d had a decent education and was sharp enough to grasp most theories.
Valeterisa was beyond any of that. And—she didn’t lay out things like a good [Teacher] might, with a coherent ending, beginning, and narrative flow. She just followed her own convoluted thoughts, breaking off, clarifying, making anecdotal evidence…
“—so pasta is the most they can do. Although I have had wonderful experiences asking them to ‘lightly char’ meat. They get it cooked right sixty percent of the time.”
“I see. Er, Archmage Valeterisa, what will you do now?”
Ryoka rubbed at one ear. The Archmage stopped nibbling at some extremely al dente pasta with Ryoka’s bread and cheese.
“Get back to work?”
She saw their expressions and clarified.
“Once I deal with all these messages and fix up my mansion and so forth. I have so many of them…and a number of commitments I should honor. Consult memo.”
The pieces of paper fluttered down from the collection around her head. Valeterisa read them, sending most back up but incinerating six notes.
“Yes. Recompense the dead, connect with Wistram…oh, and at the top of my list is checking my income. If I have enough money to spare, I should see what there is to buy. I have an account with the Merchant’s Guild. I hope they don’t think I’m dead. And that I have money.”
She looked nervous about that last part. Ryoka looked at Salamani.
“Er…you are an Archmage, Valeterisa?”
“Oh yes. But I’m bad with money. I spend it on what I need—so I sometimes have to take jobs. And sometimes I’m tricked! People lie to me! An Archmage!”
Fierre muttered. Salamani snorted and pretended to cough into his robes. Valeterisa nodded, sighing.
“Tracking down the last [Merchant] who tricked me was difficult. But I found him and made an example and they stopped after that. It was a very disgusting way to die too. I still lose my appetite unless I forget. I’ve blocked the memory but I think it had to do with worms.”
Ryoka stopped chewing on her crunchy pasta. Fierre stopped giggling. Valeterisa ate on, calmly.
“As to your question, Miss Ryoka Griffin—no, two things. Firstly, I will contact Ieka Imarris. She did well to contact me. I would expect nothing less of my niece.”
“Secondly, may I have some of your hair? All of it? I feel like something about you is…interesting.”
Valeterisa craned her neck back and forth to stare at Ryoka. She went on.
“I’d prefer flesh and blood or something else, but hair will do. I will pay you for it. Um…a hundred gold? If I have gold. Familiars, find out how much gold I have.”
A shadow floated away and Ryoka tried not to protectively cover her hair.
“Archmage, I’m not interested in selling my hair.”
“Really? Can I convince you otherwise? I feel like you might have some discovery in your blood.”
“I could insist. I am an Archmage. Your help would fuel magical discovery.”
Valeterisa looked at Ryoka with what might have been an attempt at sternness. Ryoka edged back in her seat.
“What have you discovered or made so far, Archmage Valeterisa?”
She looked hurt.
“All kinds of things! I do enchantments, mostly. Or scrolls—anything to make money. Why, the last thing I did was…was…[Recall Memory]. Aha! I helped design some Kaalblades, based on an old design for the House of El. Oh! I wonder if the profits will have come in already? Maviola hasn’t sent a [Message]…no, wait, she has. Sort through all fifty six, in order of date…”
Valeterisa sat back, looking excited. Salamani winced at ‘House of El’ and ‘profits’. Ryoka felt her head explode.
Maviola? No way—but Erin had said—just a coincidence. Just…
And like that, Ryoka Griffin remembered.
The Summer Solstice. Time was running out. But—if Erin was to be believed, she had found a member of the Five Great Families. With Magnolia, that was two.
One more and they could do it! But she had to continue coordinating with Laken. Pay him a visit on top of the letter. And—
Ryoka stood. The absent woman looked up as Ryoka took a breath.
“Archmage Valeterisa. I’m afraid I’m not willing to sell you any of my hair. Or blood. I’m uh, attached to the body parts I have left.”
She showed the Archmage her right hand. Valeterisa pursed her lips.
“I wouldn’t want a finger…well, I’d want one, but I wouldn’t ask for one unless you were willing to pay—but very well. I suppose I owe you a debt of gratitude. Erm. Yes. I am very grateful. Is there anything I can do for you three…Runners? Rest assured, I will recall this debt. Memo—debt of gratitude to Ryoka, Fierre, Salamani…”
She looked at them with the clear effort of trying to look grateful, but hoping that they didn’t actually demand something. Ryoka glanced at Salamani and Fierre.
Valeterisa gave Ryoka mixed signals. On one hand, she looked defenseless, gullible. On the other—she mentioned worms, she had made the most evil set of traps Ryoka had ever seen and she could be unsettling. Ryoka thought about it and felt at her full bag of holding.
“You know what, Archmage Valeterisa? You can ship the rest of the uh, magical scrolls and potions we left to Reizmelt for us. And then you can direct us to the exit. Maybe with a boat?”
The Archmage brightened. She nodded, clapped her hands for her familiars, and Ryoka breathed a sigh of relief. She looked at Fierre and Salamani and they smiled.
Ryoka clapped a hand to the back of her head. A Shadow Familiar hovered away with a few strands of her hair. Valeterisa innocently turned her head.
A while later, Archmage Valeterisa watched the three set sail in a little boat from the island. The rats tried to hitch a ride, as the island was now half-scorched; Ryoka kicked them into the water, reminded of all the invasive species on Earth.
Valeterisa had summoned the boat from the coastal village with a spell and she had replied to other [Messages]. Wistram was abuzz. The world—or parts of Izril knew.
The Archmage of Izril had returned.
The woman had remained, although Ryoka, Fierre, and Salamani had tried to get her to come with them. Quite hard, actually; they were all clearly worried she’d relapse into her slumber.
They needn’t have feared. But Valeterisa had insisted on staying and she was an Archmage.
She wished she could have made them stay. Well—she could have, but she was grateful.
Not of Salamani. Valeterisa had read his magical abilities like a book and dismissed him. No, it was of Ryoka and Fierre and just who they were that interested Valeterisa.
She had lied. She was cleverer than most people thought. Valeterisa had hit some of her talking points for first introductions, like the [Merchant] whom she had caused to be infested with worms for double-crossing her. Valeterisa did not like Wistram’s politics and backstabbing, but she had survived there to become Archmage.
And she had lied about her memory of the traps. Ryoka Griffin and Fierre Nolastnamegiven were both odd. Neither had magical power in the ordinary sense, but Ryoka had used wind to great effect and Valeterisa was doubtful any Skill could do what she had done. She had a different kind of magic.
Fierre? Valeterisa was already investigating with one of her parallel thoughts what kind of species could have that much resilience, strength…and didn’t show up in mirrors. There was one match—two if you stretched a criteria. But that would be odd.
Oh—and one more thing. Neither Ryoka nor Fierre had any levels.
Valeterisa would have loved to keep them. But gratitude wasn’t unknown to her. She would remember Ryoka’s name, oh yes. She had added Ryoka to her priority memos. Everything about Ryoka, from her extraordinarily well-crafted bag of holding to her origin—Drathian?—to the query of why she ran around with bare feet was interesting.
But Valeterisa had much to do. So she contented herself with waiting. Because—after all—Ieka had sent Ryoka Griffin. The young woman was exactly Ieka’s type. Legged, tall, female…
Human women had never done much for Valeterisa. Due to her home, she had been more aroused by scales—and even then only physically. She had only two great loves, and that was Archmage Zelkyr and Archmage Chandler, the last two great [Archmages] worthy of the title the world had ever known. Valeterisa pursued their shades, and no lesser figure.
Besides. Ieka would help Valeterisa in so many ways. They were a good team, the two. The Archmage of Izril had helped her niece so much when Ieka was in Wistram, both before and after. The poor girl had always been getting into trouble with her interest in other women. Secrets held over Ieka’s head…Valeterisa helped her niece, and Ieka took care of messy politics.
Now Valeterisa was back, she would make up the lost time to Ieka. The Archmage of Izril cast a spell.
“Ieka? Hello. It’s me. Valeterisa. Have you forgotten me? It seems I was away for a while…don’t shout, Ieka…”
When they were away from the Archmage’s Isle, Fierre hugged Ryoka so tightly that the young woman was left breathless. Fierre actually lifted her a bit off the ground.
“We did it. We did it!”
She jumped up and down with Ryoka in her arms. And the smile grew on Ryoka and Salamani’s faces.
They had done it. They were alive. And—
They had done it. A task worthy of a legend. Wake the Archmage of Izril.
“Just one left. And maybe…maybe Ieka can help. We did it.”
“And we’re rich! Ryoka, we have to get this all appraised! We have armor, weapons—I could be an adventurer! Gold-rank by virtue of enchanted items alone!”
“And you have a fabulous, famous Courier in your debt.”
Salamani added. He was grinning from ear to ear.
“This is the kind of thing that makes Couriers, Ryoka, Fierre. And believe me—I’ll be telling this story for free drinks everywhere I go. When I’m not paying for the entire room, that is.”
He reached out and clasped Ryoka’s arm.
“I mean it. I don’t want to dwell on the point, but—”
“I know. Let’s—just get back to civilization. You might actually be able to help me, Salamani. If you knew one of the Five Great Houses—er, Terland, Wellfar, or Veltras that is.”
The Courier’s gaze sharpened as they left the boat. The [Fisher] snorted after them, having heard the entire conversation. He folded his arms, glaring at the three.
“Oi! Not even a tip?”
Salamani bounced a gold coin off his chest. The three walked on, feeling dizzy, high on reality—a feeling Ryoka had only known a few times before. She loved it. She did love adventure. There was probably something wrong with her, but Ryoka was just the kind of person who’d jump off a cliff into the sea. Or parasail. Or…
Word was spreading. Ryoka Griffin, the Wind Runner of Reizmelt had done it. Her name was out there. As the three walked through the night towards the village, debating how to get back, they were met with an interesting sight.
“—can keep up with you. It’s Ryoka who’ll fall behind. We could run to the nearest town and—oh.”
Fierre blinked. Salamani’s wand was in his hand faster than Ryoka could blink. But neither young woman tensed.
A black coach stood in front of the road. A familiar one. And the driver was certainly familiar.
“Good evening, ladies and gentlemen. My employer has decided to give you a free ride, gratis. Won’t you step inside for a personal, expedited trip back to Reizmelt or wherever you’d like?”
The Djinni, Karsaeu-Dequoa, or Karsy if you were Termin, gave Ryoka and Fierre a huge, pained smile. She was half-bowed, the front of the coach open.
“Fierre, Ryoka. Did you tell anyone you were coming here? That’s—not a normal person. I don’t even know if that’s a Human woman.”
Salamani drew back. Ryoka and Fierre exchanged a look.
“Her employer must have heard the news already. Karsaeu’s not dangerous, Salamani. I think. Fierre?”
“I…think we can take the coach. The Unmarked Coach has a reputation to uphold. Just watch what you say.”
“Got it. It beats walking or running. I am dead and the sun’ll be the death of us.”
“That’s true. I’m exhausted too.”
Salamani didn’t pick up on that last, but Fierre punched Ryoka lightly in the side as they piled into the wagon.
“Can I interest you in any refreshments? If I can do anything to make your ride more comfortable, please, let me know!”
The coach was changed. Salamani exclaimed at the three beds and comfortable table, plush seats…
“Dead gods! How have I never heard of this service?”
“It’s a secret, Salamani.”
“Wh—oh. Got it. You two are full of surprises, aren’t you?”
The three sat back. Mindful of Fierre’s words, Ryoka sat back as the Unmarked Coach trundled forwards. She eyed the magical food and knew it was made of Karsy—or her magic—but she couldn’t help herself.
The three scarfed the food down. After they had eaten—or tricked their bodies into thinking the magical food was nourishment, Karsaeu’s face appeared in the open door slot.
“Was your trip satisfactory, esteemed guests?”
She looked like she wanted to rip her tongue out and beat them to death with it. Ryoka eyed the Djinni’s strained smile, and took pity on her.
“If you have to ask us what we did, Karsaeu, we woke the Archmage of Izril up. Valeterisa’s alive and well. Er—alive. She didn’t complete her project. And that’s about all.”
Fierre opened her mouth, but closed it thoughtfully. Karsaeu eyed Ryoka. Then she nodded abruptly and relaxed.
“…Thank you. Go to sleep.”
The little panel slid shut. Ryoka sat back. She, Fierre, and Salamani looked at each other.
“I’m guessing it’s wrong to ask about the employer? Got it, got it…let’s talk later. I—”
Salamani caught himself in a huge yawn. Before she knew it, Ryoka was yawning too. She, Fierre, and Salamani lay back. Before they knew it—they were asleep. The Unmarked Coach travelled on. When Ryoka woke up—
They were at Reizmelt.
“Dead gods, that was fast!”
Fierre exclaimed. The Unmarked Coach had beaten the sun. That was…close to Magnolia Reinhart’s carriage levels of fast! Speaking of which—Ryoka had only heard about that as Fierre got the news while eating breakfast.
Ryoka’s head was spinning. Magnolia Reinhart had been attacked? And saved by Tyrion Veltras?
And Teriarch. Only he could have teleported her out. There was no recording of the attack, but the details were spelled out.
“This continent’s going to change after today. If she wasn’t at war with the Assassin’s Guild now—I’d hide if I was one of them. Then again—maybe Reinhart’s in trouble. The gentry of Izril are like sharks. They smell blood or weakness and you’re dead.”
Fierre and Ryoka nodded. They looked around. Karsy was already closing the door to the carriage.
“See you. Thanks for not being annoying. I enjoyed the silence.”
She slammed the door and drove off. Ryoka waved after her, smiling. She liked Karsaeu.
And now they were back. That was magic for you. A neat end to an adventure…well, the Unmarked Coach had made the journey trivial.
“It’s vehicles like that which make me feel like I’m not worthy of being a Courier. Then again—there’s only one of them and always more deliveries for us.”
Salamani said what Ryoka was thinking. The Mage Runner rolled his shoulders, yawning.
He looked at Fierre and Ryoka. The two hesitated.
There was so much that could be said. Ryoka could run around screaming, talk to Fierre about the moment when she’d gone insane and reassure her, get all her artifacts appraised, curl up into a ball and shake for a while at the near-death situations, get drunk, get a proper meal in her, capitalize on Ieka’s goodwill and Salamani’s to find the last great ruler of the land for the Solstice, arrange some other stuff for the party…
Fierre looked just as unprepared for the question. The older Courier took pity on them both.
“The first thing I do after I’ve done something great or nearly died is go home to my family. Girlfriend if I have one…since we broke up, that’s not an issue. Then I have something to eat, sleep if I need to, and then get to work. It’s finding an [Enchanter] to see what you’ve got, talking to Lady Ieka, and registering the run at the Runner’s Guild.”
“I know just the [Enchanter]. And I’m too far from…home. Maybe in Invrisil I can combine them. I can do the Runner’s Guild and Lady Ieka, though. Let them know I’m here.”
Ryoka took a few breaths. She looked at Fierre.
“Why don’t you go home, Fierre? I’m sure your family wants to know you’re back.”
“Me? But—well, okay.”
Fierre hesitated. But she flexed one arm and eyed the lightening skies.
“I have a lot to tell them. Ryoka. You are invited for dinner. Be there. Evening. We’re going to have to talk about a lot.”
The two grinned at each other. Fierre left, waving at Ryoka and running with considerable speed.
“If she’s not a Runner, she’s wasted.”
Salamani commented. He grinned and winked at Ryoka.
“Don’t worry. I know something’s up. Not sure what, but not many young women are like her. Or you, Ryoka.”
“I don’t need you to stick around, Salamani. Er—not that I want to get rid of you! It’s just—no need for your debt yet.”
Ryoka flushed. The Courier laughed.
“I appreciate you being honest. How about this? Let’s get to the Guild, make a report—and it’s going to take at least an hour with truth spells—and then you can tell me about the Five Families. I don’t have a big ‘in’ with them; I’ve done deliveries, but I can listen.”
Ryoka smiled. They trotted towards the Runner’s Guild. Ryoka didn’t know what to say. Salamani was just making light chatter.
“The amount of gear we have is insane. Frankly, you’re at Courier-level if you keep the wands and scrolls, which I advise you to do. You can make any [Bandit] group sweat hard with that alone. As for the equipment—it’s a tossup what you keep and sell. We’re not adventurers and sometimes [Thieves] go after us. Do you have a place to store your gold?”
“Um. No. But I could put it at the Merchant’s Guild, right?”
The Courier nodded.
“With that kind of gold you don’t keep it. One Level 40 [Thief] and you’ll be sunk. Frankly, we need to be careful when we go to Invrisil. Actually—sleep with one eye open if we can’t store the gear before getting to Invrisil.”
“Do you—do you think we should give some of it back to the deceased? I mean…”
The Mage Runner sighed.
“Some gold, maybe. But charity? I don’t think giving back the items is a good…precedent. Tends to backfire.”
“Right. So…what? Am I just going to wear enchanted armor?”
Salamani saw her expression.
“You’re going to be the most well-armored Runner for a hundred miles. And yes. Unless it’s too heavy. We. Are. Rich. Mind you—I’m going to sell most of my gear because it interferes with spellcasting, especially heavy armor. But I’m buying a spell tome with, what, a Tier 6 spell? If I can…the next few months might just be me running around with my nose in a book!”
Ryoka laughed. The two pushed into Reizmelt’s Runner’s Guild and Ryoka inhaled. Here and there and back again. It felt strange.
The Runner’s Guild was, as always, slightly full, even at the crack of dawn. Ryoka saw the [Receptionist], Alime, at the desk and smiled.
There was only one person in line in front of them so Ryoka slowed, embarrassed. Don’t get a big head. She was going to go to Invrisil—maybe with Fierre?—right after this. Maybe Ieka was still there, but Ryoka wanted to tell Erin. And Mrsha! And maybe Erin needed a suit of armor.
Scratch that—some of the artifacts needed to go to Erin. Not the sword. The thought of Erin with a sword was a terrible one.
Ryoka saw Alime glance up at her. The [Receptionist]’s eyes widened.
“Ryoka? There you are! What timing! Actually—”
She cut off. Ryoka saw the person in front of her, someone with short, silverfish hair, turn her head. It was an older woman. Tall, long-legged like most Runners. She turned her head and Salamani blinked.
“Whoa. Now there’s a meeting. Hey! Guildmistress, it’s me!”
“Salamani? Didn’t expect to see you here.”
The woman’s voice was lower than you might expect. Rugged. She coughed. But her eyes only flicked to Salamani once. She was looking at Ryoka.
The City Runner hesitated. Something about the look the older woman was giving her made her feel—uneasy. Salamani was oblivious.
“You’d not believe what just happened. But let me start from the beginning. The Archmage of Izril is awake! The delivery is done! And not thanks to me—I owe my life to her. Ryoka Griffin.”
“Really? The Archmage of Izril. Huh. About time someone did that. That’s a Courier’s errand, though. Ryoka Griffin. City Runner, right?”
“That’s right. I’m sorry. Have we met?”
Something about the woman was making Ryoka’s heart flutter in her chest. She felt…terribly unwell all of a sudden. Salamani blinked.
“Dead gods, you don’t know? Haven’t you been to First Landing?”
The young woman whispered. And now she was staring at the old woman. The Guildmistress of First Landing had violet eyes, but very dark and tinged with a shocking pattern of yellow. The two never looked away as Salamani grinned.
“Ryoka, let me introduce you. This is the Guildmistress of First Landing. A legend among Couriers—”
Ryoka Griffin whispered. The Mage Runner heard the note in her voice. Finally, he caught on and looked at Valceif’s mother.
Mihaela stood there, looking Ryoka up and down. She nodded, tersely. Her expression—
She was probably in her late fifties. But her hair was white or perhaps silver. She had more lines than Ryoka would have expected. More scars, too. She looked like the most in-shape woman her age that Ryoka had ever met, though. A marathon runner.
And her eyes never left Ryoka’s. Salamani looked at Mihaela.
“Guildmistress? Something wrong?”
“Not at all, Salamani. I came here to meet Ryoka Griffin specifically. Thanks for introducing us. Now. Get lost.”
Mihaela turned her head to glance at the Mage Runner. She looked at Ryoka.
“Step outside and we’ll have a chat, Ryoka.”
The young woman turned, feeling…she stumbled. Salamani blocked the way.
“Mihaela. What’s up?”
He smiled. But it wasn’t a smile. Mihaela looked at his arm. But Ryoka whispered.
“Let her go, Salamani. She has business with me. Valceif—I knew Valceif. He helped me out.”
Salamani’s eyes flickered and widened. Mihaela pushed his arm out of the way.
“Yes. He died. Let’s go for a run, Ryoka Griffin. Step outside.”
In more important news, Tyrion Veltras was the most significant person in Izril at this moment. His actions, his very existence had changed northern Izril’s fate, perhaps all of Izril’s. What he did was watched. His actions had already spoken louder than anything.
And what he was doing was extraordinary. Surprising—shocking.
The Lord of House Veltras was training on the tilting grounds again this morning. He was going to go hawking later this day, or visit Lord Pellmia on a social errand—which was inevitably practical given that Tyrion did not enjoy such activities if it was just to sit and talk.
It was so surprising because of what he had done just a day before. Rescued Magnolia Reinhart, fought the Assassin’s Guild and placed himself against the elusive Circle of Thorns.
To anyone who knew Tyrion—it wasn’t that surprising, just exasperating. He regarded what he had done as just and necessary. Never mind that Ullim, Jericha, even his sons gave him looks mixed between awe and incredulity.
“Jericha. I’m minded to go riding. Just for an hour.”
“At once, Lord Veltras.”
The [Lord] nodded. He’d normally go for a long ride around his estates at those insane speeds only he could match. It was no exaggeration to say he was probably one of the fastest Humans in the world, certainly on Izril. Mounted, he could catch Magnolia’s famed carriage—and since it was destroyed, he was now peerless.
There were other famed Humans known for their speed, of course. Like Mihaela Godfrey. But she wasn’t known for pure speed…Tyrion was.
Tyrion was breaking in a new warhorse since his beloved steed had died. It was a mark of the man how he had disposed of his horse’s remains. Gelden, the horse, had been butchered and the meat given to the dogs. Because it was a waste of good horseflesh to do otherwise.
The bones Tyrion had kept and buried himself. All this was pure Tyrion. He had downplayed his battle with the [Assassins] to Hethon who had been agog at the story. In fact, he was training because he was so annoyed with the battle itself.
The ride would settle his nerves. But not too far. Tyrion turned as Jericha rode up towards him.
“How is Sammial doing?”
Ullim was looking after Sammial. The boy had a summer cold, fever and coughing. Jericha smiled slightly, reassuring Tyrion who had given no sign of worry.
“He’s resting. I believe he wants to hear more stories of his father, but Ullim is keeping him entertained.”
“Good. Have the [Healer] standing by if his coughing gets worse. His lungs were always weak.”
Sammial had been possessed by coughing fits when he was younger. Perhaps this was a resurgence. Tyrion rode with Jericha and a small escort, defying his peers of Izril to find anything different in his behavior. He had made his choice. There had never been another option.
Reizmelt now. No one was looking at Reizmelt hard. But they would. Oh, it was about to become news. Just like the game of football. Bigger than the Bannermare and Baleros.
Because of her. Because her name was in the news. And—while few noticed, some remembered.
They gathered in the rally spot twenty miles outside of Reizmelt. Laughing, joking. A different group—only two were the same as last time.
“Alright, who called the Bloodfeast?”
One of them teleported into the spot. And there they were.
The Bloodfeast Raiders. One of them—the one on a carpet—raised a hand.
“This is a special occasion. We’re after prey.”
The others stirred. The carpet-rider nodded.
“We thought this Runner was dead. The name is Ryoka Griffin. Two of our members are very interested in her. Take her alive. Reizmelt? That’s all your discretion.”
They grinned and laughed. The Bloodfeast Raiders were eleven this time. They were mostly…younger. But one of their members was older. It was the difference of a decade. As they prepared for their entry and place in the news, which they would love and which would galvanize the other raiders—the older member raised a hand.
“Hold up. I just received a [Message]. There’s heat in Reizmelt. A Gold-rank team. A Courier. And…fuck.”
The others stopped. They looked at him as the older member put a finger to his temple.
“The Guildmistress of First Landing? What is she doing here?”
The other raiders were confused. Some were excited—others wary. A Courier and a Gold-rank team? They had killed Gold-ranks before. But that last name—the senior member of the Raiders raised a hand.
“Abort. The Bloodfeast is cancelled.”
The carpet-rider was furious. He pointed at the city in the distance.
“We could turn Reizmelt to ash! There are eleven of us! You think we’re afraid of a Courier or Gold-ranks? We—”
He fell silent as the oldest Bloodfeast Raider whirled and put a knife at his throat. The others fell silent, wary, listening.
“I said, the Bloodfeast is cancelled. Mihaela Godfrey isn’t someone you can outrun. Either you kill her or she’ll get one of us. You want to go there? Let me know. Because if you compromise the Raiders, we’ll kill you now rather than let you rat us out. Well?”
The other Raider held still, his eyes flashing with fury. The senior member turned and looked around.
“The Bloodfeast is canceled. Get lost.”
The eleven broke up, annoyed, furious. But no one died today. No one made trouble as they left, covertly as they came. It had happened before. A Named Rank adventurer or team—Tyrion Veltras on the move. The Bloodfeast Raiders didn’t fuck with that kind of person.
Including Mihaela Godfrey.
She stood outside the Runner’s Guild, listening. One of those people you might meet once. That your father might say he’d met. A living legend in our times, like Zel Shivertail had been.
The Courier who had outrun everything in the First Antinium War. When the Walled Cities had been under siege, as the Antinium overran Izril—only one Runner had kept delivering potions, secret battle plans, missives.
“Mihaela Godfrey. I’m sure of it. That’s the Unstoppable Messenger of Izril, right there. Dead gods. Mother has her autograph.”
Ylawes Byres peeked at the Guildmistress of First Landing with his team. The Silver Swords had heard the buzz; they’d been loitering in Reizmelt after finding that Ryoka Griffin had already been found by Erin. Killing monsters, enjoying the break—
Now they saw Ryoka and Mihaela and Salamani all standing together with onlookers watching covertly from afar, like the Gold-ranks. Ryoka’s face was…twisted. Mihaela’s could have been stone. Salamani looked worried, tense.
None of that escaped Ylawes. The [Knight] scratched at his clean-shaven chin. He’d been hoping to meet Mihaela. But this was another entry in the ‘Ryoka Griffin’ events, which seemed to tie into the ‘Erin Solstice’ madness.
“I thought she seldom ran deliveries anymore. Move it, Pointy Ears. I can’t see!”
Dawil growled as he stood on his tip-toes. Falene adjusted her spectacles.
“She’s mostly retired. But yes. That’s certainly her. Why does Ryoka Griffin know her?”
The Silver Swords exchanged a glance. Dawil sighed.
“You know, this is Erin Solstice all over again. Hey, you know if we’d stayed around Liscor we might have been able to commission Pelt, the master-smith to make us gear? Or—or bought potions from Saliss of Lights? Or we’d be getting those fat Wyvern bounties!”
“Erin wasn’t responsible for all of that, Dawil.”
“Yeah? And I’m a Minotaur in disguise. I’m just saying—first Erin, now this Ryoka. Stick with the crazy Humans, lad. That’s where the interesting stuff is.”
Ylawes shook his head. He didn’t know Ryoka well. She was standoffish. Friendly—but no Erin. Still—he glanced towards the crowd.
“Is that it? You can’t tell me?”
Mihaela’s voice was quiet. Her arms were folded; Ryoka flinched.
“I’m so sorry. I didn’t know. He—he was helping me. I was under a spell, but I can’t say more than that.”
“Be quiet, Salamani. This doesn’t involve you.”
The Mage Runner fell silent. He was visibly uneasy. Mihaela…walked around Ryoka. She had that swiftness Ylawes recognized. A passive movement Skill. She coughed once, a deep, wet cough.
“I heard Valceif had met a City Runner. That was how he lost his charm. I waited for you to come north. And here you are. You sent a [Message] to me saying Valceif’s death was your fault.”
The Silver Swords looked at each other. Valceif? Ylawes recognized the name. Falene blinked.
“That’s—Valceif Godfrey. Courier. Mihaela’s…oh no.”
They looked forwards, realizing what this moment was. Ylawes felt the tension in the street intensify suddenly as everyone caught on. The onlookers backed up.
“It was my fault. I was under a spell and Valceif helped break it. But I can’t—”
“Really? You can’t tell me why Valceif lost the charm that would have kept him alive?”
Mihaela stepped forwards. She was taller than Ryoka. She looked down at the young woman. Ryoka hesitated again. But she didn’t step back. She just nodded. She couldn’t run from her responsibility. She had been prepared for this moment since she had asked to notify Valceif’s family of her responsibility.
“I’m sorry. But it’s not my secret to give away. It’s…the Runner’s code.”
Salamani made a sound. Mihaela’s eyes narrowed.
“Really. What integrity, for a Runner.”
There was nothing for Ryoka to say. She waited as Mihaela looked her up and down. The Guildmistress stared at Ryoka, and then straightened.
“Well then. I suppose if it’s the Runner’s code of integrity. There’s nothing to say. That’s that.”
Ryoka started. But Salamani—he just watched Mihaela, licking her lips. The Guildmistress stepped back.
“That was personal business. Now. Ryoka Griffin of Celum. The ‘Wind Runner of Reizmelt’. Today is your lucky day.”
Mihaela smiled. Ryoka said nothing. Mihaela—even after meeting her for five minutes—was not someone to whom a smile and ‘good news’ came naturally. The Guildmistress waited for a second and then went on.
“Your achievements have been logged. The Runner’s Guild has certified you at base Courier speed and you have performed a number of impressive deliveries. Thus—you are being considered for certification as a Courier. I’ve come to personally check your abilities.”
The word ran around the street. Some of Reizmelt’s runners, the Silver Swords, they stirred. That was huge news. It was deserved too—especially in light of Ryoka’s gear, which no one knew about but Salamani.
But the Mage Runner looked even more nervous.
“You, Mihaela? Is that—that necessary?”
“Shut up, Salamani. One more word and I’ll make you a Street Runner.”
Mihaela looked at Salamani. Ryoka thought it was just an empty threat until she saw Salamani turn pale. The Guildmistress looked back at Ryoka.
“Congratulations, Ryoka Griffin.”
She waited. Ryoka made her dry mouth work.
“I—I don’t think I’m ready to be a Courier, Guildmistress Mihaela.”
“Really? Well, we’ll find out. It’s just a few tests of your running speed, other abilities. Oh—and combat competence. I won’t take up much of your time. Let’s start with combat.”
The Guildmistress ignored Salamani. She gestured at Ryoka.
“I’m told you’re a good hand-to-hand fighter. Go ahead and show me how you’d defend yourself if I was a [Bandit].”
“Attack me. Or I’ll attack you.”
Mihaela waited. Ryoka Griffin looked around. She was tense. Part of her was telling her to kick Mihaela as hard as she could and run like hell. Fight—the air was heavy.
But no. No running, and no…Ryoka raised her hands.
“I can’t just attack you, Guildmistress. I—”
“You can defend yourself, then. Here I go.”
Mihaela raised a fist. Reflexively, Ryoka brought up her hands. She saw a blur, heard a shout.
Something hit Ryoka in the jaw. It felt like a hammer. Ryoka stumbled, caught hers—
A blow to her sides. She doubled over, reflexively. Then a third punch landed before Ryoka could blink.
She was on the ground. Ryoka tasted blood in her mouth. Her head was ringing. She—Ryoka tasted blood. What was—was—?
“Silver and steel!”
Ylawes exclaimed. He’d seen all of it. The Guildmistress had punched Ryoka in the jaw before the young woman could even raise her hands. Then she’d hit Ryoka in the side and while Ryoka was folded up, Mihaela had hit her in the back of the head.
Ryoka was lying on the ground, blood coming from her mouth. Mihaela stood over her.
“Not good. Get up and we’ll try again.”
Salamani blocked her, arms outstretched. Ryoka might not even have heard Mihaela; she was trying to get up, clearly dizzy.
“Salamani. You’re starting to annoy me.”
Mihaela saw Ryoka pushing herself up. The City Runner looked around muzzily.
She was fumbling for a potion. Mihaela pointed at Ryoka’s belt, with a friendly…smile.
“Heal up. This is just a test.”
Ryoka spat, gagging on the blood, and drank from the potion. Some of the dizziness and confusion faded. She spat again.
“All healed up? Let’s try again.”
This time Salamani tried to stop her. Ylawes saw it. But however fast the Mage Runner was—and he was quick—Mihaela was faster. She blurred down, ducking Salamani’s hand. Ryoka bl—
Her feet left the ground for a second as Mihaela hit her in the ribs. Ylawes heard something crack. Ryoka fell down and doubled over, clutching at her chest.
“Healing potion. Let’s try again.”
Mihaela stood over her. Salamani whirled.
It was enough for Ylawes too. He strode forwards. Dawil grabbed for him, cursing.
“Lad—this isn’t a good idea—”
“Guildmistress Godfrey. Isn’t this enough? Ryoka can’t defend herself.”
Ylawes saw Mihaela turn. She looked at him blankly, then Falene and Dawil. The half-Elf hissed with annoyance as she and Dawil joined their captain. But what else was there to do? To Ylawes, nothing.
He blocked Mihaela as Ryoka reached for a high-grade potion, still on the ground. Mihaela looked at Ylawes.
“Who are you? This is Runner’s Guild business, [Knight]. Out of my way.”
She looked around. Some of Reizmelt’s citizens were staring at the Wind Runner, who was part of their city, even if she was only new by a few months. But they were hesitating. They had all seen Mihaela move.
Ylawes felt his skin crawling. But he blocked Mihaela, with Salamani as Falene and Dawil took up his back.
“Guildmistress, I am Ylawes of House Byres. Captain of the Silver Swords. I don’t believe this is just or fair to Miss Griffin. I understand you have reason for anger against Miss Griffin. But please—”
“Get out of my way.”
Mihaela looked past him at Ryoka. The City Runner was looking up.
“That’s right. Get up, Ryoka. Show me your abilities.”
Mihaela smiled again. Kindly. Ylawes slowly reached for his shield.
She looked up at him.
“I’m warning you, boy. I know your mother. Get out of my way or I’ll remove you. You too, Salamani.”
That came from Dawil. He had already drawn his hammer. He was just looking at Mihaela. So was Ylawes.
If there was a Named-rank version of Couriers—that was Mihaela Godfrey. But the [Knight] gritted his teeth.
“No, Guildmistress. Enough. This is not honorable.”
Mihaela said nothing. She just narrowed her eyes.
“Mihaela. Ryoka saved my life. Enough.”
Salamani had drawn his wand. Falene took a few steps back. She pointed at Ryoka.
A shimmering wall formed around Ryoka. Mihaela sighed. Dawil groaned.
“Dawil, would you stop saying t—”
Ylawes half-turned his head. Mihaela stepped forwards and hit him in the jaw. He stumbled as his head went blank. Without his Skills he would have dropped like a log. As it was—Mihaela slapped down Salamani as he shouted.
She stepped back. Ylawes stumbled upright, drawing his sword and shield. Falene aimed her staff at Mihaela. Dawil raised his hammer with a curse. Salamani was moving, aiming a wand and reaching for something at his belt.
Ryoka Griffin saw it all. She even saw the Pithfire Hounds charging at Mihaela from behind. Makki and Mousey, the two dogs, and Levi, Bram, Lamont, Tally, Keima, Ullica, as well as the Silver Swords, Salamani, and two idiots in the crowd who thought this was a good idea—all of them rushed Mihaela.
It was like slow motion. That surge of adrenaline where time took it easy. Ryoka saw Mihaela moving, stepping back.
She walked backwards, the only one moving at normal speed in this moment. So fast. But she didn’t attack. She reached for her belt and plucked something from her waist.
A wand. She looked at Ryoka, glancing down with her cold eyes. Violet torn by yellow. She could have been a Dragon if the two irises were mismatched.
She was just Human. Just…Mihaela raised the wand as Ylawes lunged, shield raised. Falene, Salamani, casting. She said something that lingered in Ryoka’s ears.
“[Transfer Momentum]. [Lightning Bolt].”
The wand flashed. Ryoka saw something. A flash of light. A—an arc of electricity.
Hanging in the air. For one second, two, Ryoka saw the bolt of lightning coalescing, trying to discharge the stored energy. But it hung in the air, virtually without any momentum, until it finally exhausted the charge and grounded itself on the street with a flash of light. But slowly. All of the blinding speed of the electricity had been stolen away.
A flash of light. Ryoka heard the thunder. She felt the [Forcewall] explode and something hammered her onto the ground.
Ylawes, Dawil, Falene, all went flying. So did Salamani and everyone around Mihaela. They landed on the ground, each struck by a single blow. Ryoka lay there, stunned.
The street was silent. Mihaela stood there, coughing, amid the fallen figures. She looked at Ryoka.
The Courier of the First Antinium Wars.
“Get up. Your test isn’t done.”
The young woman could have begged. Or curled up, tried to run. She looked up, then found the strength to push at the ground. Ryoka Griffin stood, then followed Mihaela as the woman pointed. She went to accept Mihaela’s wrath.
“Again, I’ve got to thank you. That charm you had—I want to repay you somehow. It was extremely expensive.”
“Like I said, forget about it. It’s one favor from a Runner to another.”
“Still. It’s not a small thing. A thousand gold coins—”
“Ryoka, we’re Runners. When one of us needs help, other Runners give what they can. If we need someone to help carry a delivery, we ask. Because we are alike, you and I. Today you needed help; tomorrow I might be the one in trouble, or someone else. I’m just paying back favors I received in the past.”
It felt like a long time ago. Ryoka remembered Valceif. Not strongly. He hadn’t been someone whom she’d known as long as Fals or Garia. But she did remember him.
“Get up again.”
Ryoka uncurled. She got up. Her arms shook. They did not want to carry her up. Mihaela waited.
The City Runner stared at her, muzzily. The Guildmistress pointed.
“Heal yourself up. Now. Attack me.”
There was nothing to do but obey. The potion tasted like blood. Ryoka—swung. Fast, desperately.
Mihaela hit her just hard enough. Not hard enough to make Ryoka faint or to kill or break her bones like twigs. Just hard enough to—Ryoka clutched at her side, making a faint sound of pain.
“Let’s try again. Why don’t you show me your best kick? I’m told you can hit pretty well.”
The Guildmistress smiled down at Ryoka. There was no one to interfere; they were outside of Reizmelt. Mihaela had led Ryoka away so they couldn’t be interrupted.
She seemed…kindly. Right up until she hit Ryoka or you looked at her eyes. Ryoka was panting, sweating.
She couldn’t run. This was—what she deserved. It actually felt like a relief. Finally—someone was hitting her.
Brunkr had died because Venitra and Ijvani had followed her. The Stone Spears tribe had been slaughtered because of the Goblin Lord that Az’kerash had ordered to attack them. Periss had followed Ryoka to her death. Ivolethe—
She couldn’t die. Ryoka stood up. This time she went back in time. A roundhouse kick towards Mihaela. Ryoka remembered Calruz—
On the ground. Mihaela was twisting her arm up.
“Show me. Wind magic, right? Show me or I’ll break your arm.”
Ryoka tried to twist. Mihaela pulled the arm up and Ryoka screamed.
The wind blew. Mihaela went flying. She caught herself—
The wind dropped her, suddenly sapped of fury. The Guildmistress blurred over to Ryoka.
“You could have done that from the start. Get up. This time attack me like you mean it or I will kill you.”
Ryoka got to her feet. She thrust a hand out.
Mihaela blurred left. Ryoka felt the wind howling. It blew at Mihaela. Desperately, Ryoka let it blow sand, a storm of grit and rocks and leaves and dust—
The Guildmistress ran around the storm as the cloud of sand blasted towards her. She was too fast! Her final blow made Ryoka double over and then retch.
Was this how she died? No—she couldn’t! But Mihaela was too fast. If Ryoka tried—
It was just a beating so far. Ryoka got to her hands and knees, spitting to clear her mouth. She looked up.
“And that’s all?”
The woman folded her arms. Her grey hair blew in the weak wind. Ryoka whispered.
“I see. Stand up.”
Ryoka did, fumbling for the healing potion. Mihaela let her drink it. She coughed into one hand, reflexively, one of those light coughs that you got instead of the full-throated one, and scowled.
“The combat test is over. Not exactly Courier-level. Now, the speed test. Show me your fastest sprint.”
The young woman looked blankly at Mihaela. The woman pointed.
“Go on. From here to those trees. Fast as you can. Imagine I’m about to shoot an arrow at your back.”
Ryoka flinched. But Mihaela produced no bow. She just waited, tapping her foot.
“I said, sprint. Didn’t you hear me?”
Mihaela’s eyes flashed. The young woman hesitated. Then she set herself into a sprinter’s position, waited—
Ryoka ran. As if she were on the track and field, doing a 400-meter dash. She felt slow. Aside from the fact that her body was healing every blow Mihaela had given her for the last twenty minutes—she had seen speed.
Skill. There was no way to match Mihaela. She had taken the speed of a damn bolt of lightning and she could outrun the wind itself! Ryoka strained for every step, feeling like she was in jello—
Mihaela zipped past her as Ryoka nearly reached the tree. The Guildmistress stood there.
“Slow. You can’t boost your speed?”
“W—with a potion or…”
Ryoka gasped for air. She might have shattered a state record with that run. But it was still upwards of forty seconds at least, even with the wind at her back. Mihaela might have taken less than ten. With her Skill? Less than a second?
Unfair. But Ryoka didn’t say it. Mihaela was the highest-leveled Runner that Ryoka had ever met.
“But no Skills. No…anything. You’re fast on your feet. You actually have good running form. Long legs—and that’s it. Half the City Runners in First Landing could leave you in the dust.”
Mihaela shook her head. She looked at Ryoka and then turned.
“You know Laiss? Small city, thirty miles south of here?”
“We’re running there. Do your best. This is a priority-delivery. An…antidote. Lives are on the line. Every minute you waste, someone dies. Got it? Show me your best.”
Ryoka gulped. She hesitated, then nodded.
Mihaela folded her arms.
The young woman turned and ran. She felt worthless, especially as she saw Mihaela appear next to her, watching her sidelong as Ryoka ran just a hair slower than her max sprint. Within the first four minutes, Ryoka needed a stamina potion to continue her top speed. With one she could match the best marathon runners; but even then. Mihaela just jogged next to Ryoka.
[Double Step]. [Enhanced Movement]. [No Air Resistance]? Ryoka was just guessing. She ran as hard as she could.
She knew what Mihaela was doing. The Guildmistress looked impatient after the first five minutes and she jogged slightly ahead of Ryoka as the wind blew at their backs. Ryoka didn’t think Mihaela even needed to curse at her or tell her how worthless she was—she hadn’t done it yet, but Ryoka felt that way just running next to her.
She had made a choice. She had made a lot of mistakes. Now—someone had come to collect. Simple as that. Ryoka faltered.
“They are dying. Run, you worthless idiot! Are you a City Runner or some cowardly puke of an adventurer? Run!”
Ryoka faltered and then picked up speed. She gasped for air. The wind blew harder, but Ryoka wasn’t able to make it gale. She had one last trick. The folded cloth in her bag of holding. But—she’d probably die. She could not control the wind perfectly at the best of times. And now—
“Stop, stop. I’ve seen enough. We’ll take forever to get there at this rate. And this is your best? With lives on the line, you need a potion or spell to eclipse that?”
Mihaela stopped. Ryoka slowed, and, panting, nodded.
The Guildmistress pushed a hand through her short-cropped hair.
“Dead fucking gods. I shouldn’t expect anything less from someone without a class, but—I thought you had something. A bit of wind magic or whatever that is isn’t enough. Even the weakest Courier could destroy you without magical items.”
Ryoka froze as Mihaela looked at her. The Guildmistress folded her arms.
“You don’t have anti-[Appraisal] spells. Your idea of fighting is punching someone with your bare hands without Skills. You can command the wind which is something. Beyond that? You’d fail First Landing’s Courier-test even if it wasn’t me.”
“I know. I know. I’m slow.”
Ryoka lowered her head. She waited for Mihaela to hit her again. The Guildmistress unclenched one hand. A muscle stood out in her jaw.
“This is a waste of my time. I could have saved the effort.”
What else could she say? Ryoka knew Mihaela’s wrath wasn’t expended. Not even a fraction of it. She bowed her head. Mihaela looked down at her.
“Pathetic. Show me something. Why you? Show me what was worth Valceif wasting his charm on! Show me—”
She shook her head. Ryoka looked up. The Guildmistress looked past her. Ryoka felt her throat lock up.
“I can’t. I’m sorry. I can make the wind blow harder sometimes. But I’m not—a Courier. Valceif shouldn’t have helped me. I’m so s—”
“Would you stop apologizing?”
The City Runner hung her head. She waited once more. Mihaela looked down at her. She turned away.
“What a waste of my time. I shouldn’t have bothered.”
She turned and walked away. Ryoka’s head rose.
“Wait! If you—I won’t do anything. Just—just let me have it. Whatever you want. I deserve it.”
The Guildmistress of First Landing looked back at Ryoka, her eyebrows raised. Ryoka flinched. She expected another blow. But Mihaela just turned back and snorted. She began jogging without another word.
The City Runner tried to follow her. Mihaela ignored Ryoka’s voice. She jogged, contemptuously moving just past Ryoka’s top speed. Letting the Runner try to catch up. But—no. Mihaela was done. She took a breath, trying to calm the fury running through her.
The breath caught. Mihaela began coughing. She slowed, thumping at her chest. For a minute, she had to cough and nearly run in place.
Ryoka caught up. She saw Mihaela reaching for something. A vial. The woman uncorked it, took a sip. Looked back at Ryoka and scowled.
“We’re done here. You failed. I’m going home.”
She turned and began running again. Ryoka ran after her. No. If Mihaela had beaten her unconscious, that would be one thing. If Ryoka could explain in any way—as much as she could without talking about Teriarch—that was another.
Ryoka wanted Mihaela to vent whatever fury she had. This? This wasn’t anything.
The woman picked up speed. But she began coughing again. It was some kind of attack. Ryoka saw Mihaela grasping at her chest.
Yellow Rivers? No—wasn’t there a cure? And besides—this wasn’t the symptoms of that. It looked like—an asthma attack. Or close. But Mihaela didn’t slow.
“Damn. Get lost!”
She ran on. This time Ryoka ran as hard as she could. But Mihaela was pulling away. And then—the older woman spoke. To lose Ryoka, she spoke a Skill. A truly powerful Skill.
Mihaela was done. She didn’t know what she had expected, but Ryoka Griffin had splendidly betrayed it all. She hadn’t been what the Guildmistress wanted, in either direction.
She was done. The Courier coughed again. Her damned lungs. So—to leave, to outrun Ryoka, she used a Skill.
Her greatest Skill. The one she had gotten at Level 50. She had gotten another capstone Skill since—and possibly more powerful.
But this was the most significant of her life. She had never been more honored by a Skill before or since. Mihaela whispered it now.
“[The Courier’s Last Road].”
And she ran into another world.
It was the same as the first time she had run here, lungs burning, dying. Mihaela Godfrey inhaled and felt her lungs clear. The grass and trees around her vanished. The land around Reizmelt—gone.
There was only the road. It stretched ahead in a world with almost no terrain. Just flat ground. No sun. But there was light—of a kind. Ambient, coming from everything and nothing.
The Courier’s Road. A road that many had run down, passed from the greatest Runners of each generation. The safest place. Here—Mihaela breathed. She ran on, covering ground in the other world at impossible speed. She felt light. She could run forever here.
It was only after a few moments that Mihaela realized she wasn’t alone. She looked back; the intrusion was noticeable in this place, impossible to miss. Someone had violated this sacred ground.
Ryoka Griffin. She had followed Mihaela into the Courier’s Road. The Guildmistress scowled. It was possible, especially to those around her when she opened the way through. But—Ryoka wouldn’t stay.
Because there was no air for her to breathe. Mihaela saw Ryoka clutching at her throat, realizing that this land was not meant for her. It was dark to those who did not run the Courier’s Road. No light. Nothing—Ryoka stared around, lost.
Mihaela slowed, watching. If Ryoka did not turn around—she died. Like the Antinium. Like so many enemies of Couriers. Many had died on this road; she had seen them.
Couriers, who had ended their lives running here. This was a glorious place. A terrible place. Mihaela saw Ryoka staggering. Falling to her knees as her lungs tried to inhale nothing.
Mihaela spoke, one of the few times words had ever been spoken here. She saw Ryoka Griffin look up. She was crawling—forwards.
She was going to die. Mihaela watched. There would be no aid, no drawing back from her. Not here. She saw Ryoka collapsing—then—suddenly, raise her head.
She stood. Mihaela saw the young woman inhale, slowly. Closing her eyes. She could not see. But she was breathing.
The Courier stared. Then she felt it. Something blew on her face. The woman jerked in surprise, even fear.
Wind. But there was no wind here! The Courier’s Road was breezeless unless she willed it! It was—she felt the wind blowing against her. Weakly at first, then stronger.
Harsher. Ryoka ran, stumbling, unable to see the ground or anything else. But running towards Mihaela, breathing, following the wind. Mihaela turned. She felt the wind blowing, daring her onwards.
The woman looked back. Ryoka ran on, through the dark oblivion. Through the land that had claimed an army of Mihaela’s foes in decades past. No one had ever remained in the Courier’s Road for more than ten minutes. But she ran.
There was nothing. Not light. Not sound. Ryoka ran on. She had heard Mihaela’s voice once, but that was all. She felt like she was dead.
Only the sensation of her feet striking the ground was real. This…this was like a dream. But she had to find Mihaela. Talk to her. It couldn’t end like this. Ryoka was terrified as she ran, but the flat world continued forever.
Until there was light. She stumbled, shielding her gaze. But then—she saw it.
A light in the skies. A barren world, like a drawing. Just a single road, stretching forwards into oblivion. In the distance—a few things. A tree, standing in not dirt but pale nothingness. A fallen shape. A…stick? They were impossibly far away, but stood out because there was nothing else there to see.
The Courier’s Road. And there stood Mihaela Godfrey. She looked at Ryoka as the wind blew, letting Ryoka breathe. The City Runner did not know where it came from. Only that the wind had answered her.
She slowed as she ran towards Mihaela. There was no telling what distance was, here. But the woman waited. She looked Ryoka up and down, from head to her bare feet. And at last—the woman’s look was no longer hostile.
It was—had been—disappointment. Disgust and hatred, but mainly disappointment. Now—Mihaela looked at Ryoka Griffin. And she nodded. She spoke, and gave sound to the world where Ryoka had ceased to hear even the beating of her own heart.
“Okay. Let’s talk.”
“It’s called The Courier’s Last Road. It’s made of a Skill. Only one person has access to it. Me. In the past—other runners ran there. Together, perhaps. No one else is worthy of it today, it seems.”
Mihaela Godfrey spoke as she stood on a small bluff of rocks. Ryoka had no idea where they were. In some lovely grassland, far north of Reizmelt.
What had taken them only a short while in the Courier’s Road had allowed them to bypass countless miles in this world. It was a Skill worthy of Mihaela Godfrey. But—like the [Garden of Sanctuary]—it was not hers alone.
“Who made it?”
“I don’t know. But I’ve seen traces of others there. Bodies—possessions. Even memorials. They lie scattered across our world. Even in the sea. I could run to Terandria with this Skill. I’ve seen…things in Courier’s Road where the sea would be. So Runners crossed the world using this Skill.”
“Really? Then—why haven’t you?”
Ryoka heard Mihaela cough. The woman coughed almost consistently, every few minutes. She took a drink from her vial, grimacing. She didn’t look at Ryoka.
But they were talking. About the Courier’s Road, first.
“There’s danger. Anyone can enter the Courier’s Road. Anyone. As I pass by—you can step into the world. Most can’t breathe or see—but I’ve been attacked. And if I slow, especially to rest or sleep—I reenter this world. You want to try that at sea?”
Ryoka sat on the rocks. Mihaela looked down at her.
“You called the wind. Only I can do that. How?”
“It’s my power. I was…given a gift. It’s not magic—at least, not the kind [Mages] use.”
That was all Mihaela said. She looked down at Ryoka. The City Runner braced for something…but Mihaela just shook her head. She walked past Ryoka and said one word.
The Guildmistress looked across the grass, towards a real, paved road where Ryoka could see people travelling. On horses, wagons…she saw only one person not on the road. Running.
A City Runner. The two watched the distant figure jogging on his or her journey. Mihaela nodded.
“If. If it was a few months ago we had met, when Val’s death was fresh. You would have died.”
Ryoka was silent. The woman went on.
“If you had tried to run when I met you, or hadn’t looked so damn guilty—if you hadn’t remembered who he was, I would have made sure you couldn’t walk again. If you hadn’t sent that message and I’d listened to the rumors—or if I was more vengeful—”
“I deserve it. Anything—”
“Shut up. What does beating a City Runner to death do for me or Valceif? Why is it your fault alone? He could have bought a charm before he went on a run. He didn’t. That was his responsibility and he was careless. That’s how Runners die. I knew it. And I taught him that.”
Ryoka closed her mouth slowly. Now—she felt guilty. She’d been pursuing Mihaela to get her to unload all her grief over her son’s death. As if Ryoka had killed him.
She hadn’t even known where or how he died, really. Mihaela looked at Ryoka.
“You can use the wind. You’re also an idiot. Few people live without levels. There are some. That Drake in Zeres, one of their Admirals. Mostly though—people like you never become anything. The gap is too wide. You’re pathetic as well. But I can see why Valceif liked you.”
Ryoka hung her head. She didn’t know what to say.
“He really did help me. I can’t—”
“Shut up. I almost liked you until you opened your mouth.”
The young woman was silent. Mihaela looked past her, at the road back north.
“I could see liking you. If you had been just some snotty City Runner who made it to First Landing and Valceif was alive…yeah. But I will never like you. Still. There’s nothing here for me. I knew that.”
She shook her head. Ryoka bit her lip. Mihaela went on. She clenched her fists and then stared at her hands.
“Valceif was killed by some no-name [Bandits] with a [Sleep] spell. He’s dead. My son. All that time…he would have eclipsed me. He would have been a great Courier. He already was, at his age! What am I supposed to do with this fury? It’s not for you. It’s wasted on you.”
She turned to look at Ryoka and shook her head. Ryoka searched for proper words. Not reflexive, guilt-laden words that invited all the blame.
“He—was the first Courier I really met who took the time to talk to me. He gave me good advice, taught me what it was to be a Runner. Pay it forwards. That’s why he helped me out. Because of all the favors other Runners did him.”
Mihaela blinked. Then she smiled.
“That sounds like the kind of stupid thing my boy would have said. Runner’s Guild politics.”
She turned ahead, facing the breeze. Mihaela coughed. Took another sip.
“You’re his legacy. You and all the other idiots he ever helped out. I don’t like you, Ryoka Griffin. And I mean what I said. You’re no Courier. You could be—but you’re too weak. And we must be strong. Valceif should have stayed a City Runner a while longer.”
The young woman from Earth hung her head. Mihaela coughed again. Ryoka looked up at her.
“Mihaela. I’m sorry if everyone knows, but—”
“Yes, I’m sick. Shut up about it. I have a potion. That’s why I’m retired. Can’t run like I used to.”
Ryoka bit her lip.
“Is it—? If it’s something like uh, asthma—that’s where you cough a lot, you’re short on breath—if you were born with it, I could help. I know some tricks from my home.”
The Guildmistress glanced at Ryoka and shook her head wordlessly. She coughed into her hand.
“I wasn’t born with this. And you can’t help me. Not unless you can fix years of damage. I got this on my last run during the First Antinium Wars. One of them did this to me. Wrymvr the Deathless. He couldn’t stick in the Courier’s Road. But he got me.”
Ryoka felt a lurch in her stomach. She saw Mihaela cough again, her lungs rattling with poison—or the aftereffects that had damaged her body permanently. She tapped her chest.
“It’s in here. Even the Healer of Tenbault can’t remove the poison, just restore the flesh. It’s a lesson. I’m the greatest Courier of Izril. And I’ll die of this. We all die. Val…myself…Salamani nearly bit it at the Archmage’s damn mansion, did he?”
“We all die. That’s our fate. But the run is glorious.”
Mihaela looked ahead, and then shook her head. She looked back at Ryoka. Not angrily. She—Ryoka and Mihaela might have wished it could be that simple. Blame it all on one person.
If only life was that easy. If only Val could have been brought back or avenged. Ryoka saw Mihaela turn.
“I’m going home. Not a waste of time after all. You failed your Courier’s test. But—Ryoka Griffin is certified as a City Runner. And if those idiots at Celum and Invrisil keep barking about her record, I will break their legs.”
She walked forwards, hopped down off the rocks. Ryoka rose to her feet, wanting to say something. But all she did was stand there.
Mihaela Godfrey turned once. She looked up at Ryoka Griffin and nodded. The young woman called down to her.
“The Courier’s Road is beautiful. I’ve never envied a Skill before. But I wish I could run there.”
“Val’s buried there. He’ll be there forever. I couldn’t give him anything else.”
Mihaela turned away. She raised her hand.
“I just wanted to hit you a few times. Thanks for that. See you.”
She jogged away. Slowly, at first, and then running. Ryoka saw the world shift—and for a moment she saw that glorious, eternal road. Then Mihaela was gone.
Ryoka Griffin sat there. She wept for Valceif for a while. But she hadn’t known him long. She wished…Ryoka stood up. Then she went home to Reizmelt.
“Ryoka! You’re alive! Thank goodness!”
Salamani and the others rushed towards Ryoka when she returned, jogging slowly. Ryoka felt sick, battered, weary—but better.
“Is that surprising? Mihaela wasn’t about to kill me.”
Salamani gave her an odd look.
“You think so? She’s famous for her short temper. No one makes her angry, even other Couriers. Even the Assassin’s Guild walks lightly around her.”
Ryoka thought of Mihaela’s stunt with the lightning bolt and then the Courier’s Road. She eyed Ylawes, who had a lump on his head and Falene’s black eye, nearly healed.
“I can see that. Thank you for trying to stop her.”
“We—didn’t do anything. But I’m sincerely glad you’re alright, Miss Griffin.”
Ylawes looked sheepish as he rubbed at his head. Bruised egos for the Gold-rank team. They looked strangely at Ryoka.
“You’re very calm for someone who just had the snot kicked out of her.”
Dawil pointed out. Ryoka smiled crookedly.
“I’ve had worse days. Today was actually—good in a way.”
Everyone exchanged a glance. The worst part was that Ryoka sounded so casual about it. Makki and Mousey came over to be petted and to lick Ryoka.
It was one of those days. Bittersweet, unexpected. Painful—but Mihaela had come and gone. In truth—Ryoka realized now that the Guildmistress had probably dealt with Valceif’s death long before Ryoka had come to Reizmelt. She had probably indeed only stopped by to kick Ryoka’s ass for a bit.
The City Runner could respect that. In a way…she could envy Mihaela’s retirement. Not the damaged lungs, but a retirement where she just went around scaring the hell out of people and beating up anyone she didn’t like before running off into another dimension. Yeah, yeah.
Ryoka was scratching Mousey’s ears as the huge Aldasian Warhound panted happily.
She looked at Salamani. The Mage Runner hesitated.
“Lie down, curl up into a ball and shake for a bit?”
The two laughed as the Silver Swords gave them a weird look. Dawil rubbed his hands together.
“Or—and hear me out—I hear you’ve got a lot of magical gear. What if we made a few bids on some of it?”
Ryoka saw Falene and Ylawes scowl at their friend, but she laughed.
“Why not? But I have to get most of it appraised at Invrisil.”
“Perhaps. Or you could let a certified Wistram-[Mage] do it for you. I doubt anyone was carrying cursed gear. So I’m perfectly capable of divining basic enchantments.”
Falene adjusted her spectacles. Ylawes coughed into one gauntleted hand.
“Er—mostly. You missed the Curse of Sticking enchantment that one time. I had that shield glued to my hand for a month.”
The [Battlemage] colored. Salamani raised his eyebrows.
“Certified Wistram [Mage] here as well. I suppose Miss Falene has a point. Why don’t we rest, Ryoka? You’re probably a bit…unsteady.”
Ryoka reflected that she might have a concussion. Although it seemed Mihaela had been careful to only damage her slightly. She nodded.
“The Huntress’ Haven. Drinks on me. Er…yeah. Yeah. Let’s all go.”
“Perhaps not Master Madain’s inn?”
Ylawes looked uncomfortable. Ryoka glanced at him and then nodded.
“Uh—maybe, now that I think about it. He’s sort of—”
“Insane? Short-tempered? Persistently drunk? And dirty?”
Falene wrinkled her nose. Ryoka smiled.
“And he has his bad qualities.”
The unlikely group trouped into Reizmelt, asking the Pithfire Hounds—who were in awe of the Silver Swords and Salamani—about good inns to have a night off. Ryoka was trying to explain she and Mihaela had really dealt with the issue peaceably. The Silver Swords were extending their stay another day to negotiate about the artifacts; they’d cleared all the big bounties around Reizmelt in the last three days.
The sun was setting and Ryoka was sitting at the table with the Courier and adventurers when the door to the Scheming Golem opened. Ryoka looked up.
“Oh shit. Fierre. I forgot! I’m so sorry, there was this—”
It wasn’t Fierre. Ryoka blinked, because the black clothing, the hood—all of it was reminiscent of Fierre. But the owner was taller. Similar, with a lithe form, pale skin, and hair bordering on white.
Colfa val Lischelle-Drakle looked like the stereotype of Vampires she clearly loved. Her long clothing concealed the rash on her arm. Right now, she wore none of her haughty façade that the farmer and expert shepherdess normally wore.
The woman saw Ryoka and strode up to her with incredible speed. Her eyes glowed red as she glanced at Ylawes, then grabbed Ryoka with bone-crushing force. The City Runner gasped as Colfa hauled her up with ease.
“What did you do?”
Colfa hissed at Ryoka, too furious to conceal her fangs. Ylawes didn’t see; Colfa was holding Ryoka in front of her, shaking her.
“Who is this?”
“A friend! Stop—Colfa, what’s wrong? Where’s Fierre?”
Ryoka’s heart lurched. Colfa was distraught—and the doors blew open to reveal Bamer and Rivel, both members of the Drakle clan that lived in Fierre’s ancestral, ruined home.
“She’s sick! She came back, telling us you’d cured her. Then—she fell sick within hours! She’s barely alive. What did you do?”
The Vampire’s fingers dug into Ryoka’s neck. Ryoka gasped for air.
“Miss. Ryoka has been with us all day. Please—”
Colfa recoiled with a cry from Ylawes’ touch. He blinked; Ryoka stared at the [Knight]’s gauntlets.
Silver and steel. The son of House Byres was innocently worried. Colfa recoiled from him and looked at Ryoka. Bamer and Rivel drew back.
“Fierre is sick. What. Did. You. Do?”
Colfa looked at Ryoka Griffin. The young woman’s mouth was dry. She stood up.
“I—I don’t know. I thought she was better. Please. Take me to her.”
Fierre’s mother hesitated. She opened and closed her hands, desperately. Bamer looked at Ryoka and nodded.
“Come. Hurry. Colfa, help Rivel get everything you can think of from the alchemist. You, girl. With me.”
It had been such a good day. Ryoka ran into the street, shouting at the Silver Swords to stay. Salamani as well. She ran after the Vampires as they moved with incredible speed.
What was wrong with Fierre? She had been so healthy this morning! She had been looking forwards to going home. What had happened?
Why couldn’t she ever have one good day? Ryoka closed her eyes and ran into the night. And she knew—whatever was wrong lay at the heart of what was afflicting Vampires.
Parents. Mihaela Godfrey stopped at her son’s grave in a world where nothing would ever disturb it. Colfa ran through the night, back to her husband who stood over his daughter.
Cured. Feverish. Barely breathing and screaming with pain for a reason he could not understand. Calling out for her friend, Ryoka.
Tyrion Veltras found that night that Sammial was doing worse. By morning—his son was barely responsive. He lay, fighting for breath. The [Healer] couldn’t understand it.
The second [Assassin] came to call later that day.
Author’s Note: The end. For now! But this is a story with a continuation! What will happen to Fierre? Why is she sick? Does Ryoka ever get her gear appraised?
I don’t do many cliffhangers like this. Of course, all of The Wandering Inn is ongoing, but this is more direct than usual. I feel like a TV Show. But you only have to wait uh, three days. Two days if you watch the stream.
Lots longer if you’re a current Public reader. No time at all if you’re from the future of when this was written! Time is weird.
Anyways. That’s all from me! A shorter chapter! But I hope, an entertaining one. For today—I think it’s time to show a long-overdue picture commissioned by fans of The Wandering Inn, drawn by Stephanie Chen! It’s this beautiful image of Erin and Lyonette! Give them lots of love and as always, thanks for reading!
See you next time on The Wandering Inn!
Lyonette and Erin by Stephanie Chen, commissioned by Yarrick, Rat, Richi, and Gorexn!