Vacation Report by pirateaba —
Let me paint you a picture. Although I’m not much good at painting, I’ll try. I was once told that the United Kingdom in large and London especially was a miserable place (in some ways) purely on the weather.
In that it rained constantly. I have been to London—once—but I don’t recall that. Or much of anything. Scotland, now, I’m told, has the same problem.
The Nova Scotia region, Cape Breton specifically of Canada is wet. And it has that alpine nature that combines the coast with a lot of highlands that you can ride or hike through, as yet untouched by too much civilization. It can be a great place to go through a national park and Canadians are reportedly friendly and the entire thing would make a great few weeks off. Which is why I went for a vacation with my family.
Then everyone got sick. It was the virus. It was COVID and it struck them down one by one. But we were a day into the trip and then figuring out how to not spread it around and rebooking—then we headed straight back to the city in a 7 hour drive. I got to walk on a beach with no one on it along a marvelous coast for about 2 minutes then I went back and sat in a hotel room for three days.
…I think about it. There were fish in the waters and an otter was poking its head out of the sea. But was it an otter? I only saw it then we sat in a car then I sat in a hotel.
Not that I read much in car, hotel, or the 16 hour trip via airport with delays. Or on the trip back when I was awake for 29 hours before I slept. You don’t really enjoy reading books—or playing video games. And the family time was sort of stopped because I was trying not to get sick with COVID.
Ironically, I was the only person not to get it who hadn’t already contracted it. So yay. But I did a lot of existing. Existing in hotel rooms. Not thinking of writing. Not…reading or relaxing. Just existing. What is the meaning of all this? How is life going right now?
It was not a good vacation, obviously, but I may have rested a bit by sheer inaction. I did no typing and of the 6 books I brought, I read one—and another I hadn’t planned to read. That’s not atypical I’m told. Reading goals and whatnot.
I read Blood Meridian by Cormac McCarthy, a well-written book I cannot recommend. And Thunderhead by Neal Shusterman, the second book in the Scythe series which I thought was quite nice. I don’t think I’ll waste your time with book reviews, but I had a realization coming back from the trip, and it is this:
I can do better. I can write even better in the future, and I think my pace and the web serial nature of this is taking a slight toll in terms of fun or energy or creativity after seven years. I don’t think I can work harder, but I can do better.
All this to say, I appreciate you all waiting for my vacation. It was not fun, but here we go again. The virus does still ruin things, but I was glad we didn’t (to my knowledge) start a plague and just did mostly responsible things and kept away from everyone else. But yeah. Canada is a cursed vacation…nation. In my limited experience.
Ironically, I just disembarked and slept about 15 hours two days ago and now 6 + 4 hours since I had a weird night terror and then a nap after I got up for a bit. So I won’t jump right into the hardest stuff or even the side story. Getting back in gear. I did hope to plan some chapters while walking and enjoy nature, but no such luck. So here we go. I will say, the one highlight of all that is that I enjoy the calmness now I’m back.
They said a class changed a person. Whether by levels, Skills or necessity—like a piece of wood trapped in a vice or shaped by a clamp, a person could curve or grow—or twist—into something marvelous and wild, wondrous or glorious or wretchedly mundane.
For proof of that—look no further than Garia Strongheart. Yes, Garia. That lumpen, clod-footed coward who was only good for long-distance hauler jobs had lost over a hundred pounds and changed in literally every conceivable way.
Although if you shed that much weight from her face, one supposed there would be a positive change. It still was astounding and offensive. Because Garia didn’t deserve her toned body or her apparent popularity in Celum. Much less being considered for her Courier trials!
It just went to show that the world was unfair and people got away with being, well, worthless, until someone bailed them out, even if it was the system of levels and classes itself. But then, Persua had already known that.
Persua Alcherie Mavva was her full name, but to most everyone she was just ‘Persua’. Or should it be, Persua of the East? No, too generic. Persua Fleetfoot? She’d been considering that until she’d heard that Perorn Fleethoof was a famous Centauress in Baleros.
The fact that some [Strategist] from Baleros had stolen her nickname had outraged Persua for a month. Now, at this point, Raich had needed to point out that Perorn was not only twice as old as Persua, but a famous commander of the Forgotten Wing Company and thus, possibly, conceivably, a little bit more famous than Persua.
The look Persua had given Raich had made the other City Runner flinch, despite them both being Courier-candidates. Not because the other girl was frailer than Persua.
It was hard to be frailer than Persua and be a Runner. Raich, like many who ran, had long legs, hair in a single ponytail, and her hair was as black as her skin except for where she’d dyed it, so it looked like a single shining line stretching down her back as she ran.
It had given Raich her nickname, as it had reminded a few people of an illusory path in the darkness if she was ahead of them and running just right. Which was the point, and the City Runner had dyed her hair after hearing of Mihaela Godfrey’s famous Legacy Skill.
Raich ‘the Path’ was her nickname. A basic one for, as Persua reminded her, a basic City Runner. Even if you got a different nickname in time, where you started was important. Which was why Persua had no nickname, and Fleetfoot was such an incredibly uninspired nickname that she hadn’t really been considering it.
When Persua was angry, her face pinched. Another City Runner had described Persua’s face as ‘sallow’, but she had really meant that, despite Persua having fair skin, long brown locks of hair she paid attention to no matter how dirty the run, and athleticism—she always looked hungry, as if underfed.
Not even physically underfed, but a dissatisfaction with almost everyone and everything she saw. Although Persua was quite thin. She also preferred fashion over form, which, for a Runner, sometimes meant that she would be wearing the latest styles from Invrisil despite them not really working for a Runner’s lifestyle. She had once, famously in Toremn’s Runner’s Guild history, nearly died when a bit of lace in the Terandrian fashion had snagged on a wagon. The oblivious [Driver] hadn’t noticed the City Runner slowly being choked to death as the wagon towed her for a good ten minutes.
All of this had been an accident, and it had amused Toremn’s Guild to no end, mocking—and sympathizing—with the poor City Runner who’d come north from that distant, remote city of Celum. Second day running and she’s nearly killed by lace? She might not survive to Courier, hahaha, and so on.
…That was until it transpired that the [Driver] lost their job after Persua complained to the Merchant’s Guild about the negligence. Which seemed harsh. But when she had explained it, it was clear the [Driver] had either been drunk or a fool, because she had been striking the wagon and they had even looked back once and possibly, maliciously, ignored her.
Which was terrible, and a good reason to fire the [Driver]. In fact, as the City Runners of Toremn would soon find out, Persua had known many unkind and unfair people before. Why—she might now be a Courier-candidate thanks to her [Double Step] Skill, which allowed her to literally run twice as fast, but that was a reward for years of work.
Unlike, say—Ryoka Griffin. Unlike Garia Strongheart or the egomaniac, Fals, all of whom had conspired together to take over Celum’s Guild in a combination of treachery, working together to take the best jobs, and exaggerating their own abilities.
Who, the Wind Runner of Reizmelt? No, wait, Courier Ryoka Griffin, one of the newest stars of Izril? The person who had defied the Assassin’s Guild? Someone would ask if Persua was serious, and she would tell them a story about Ryoka Griffin.
Such as the time Ryoka nearly killed everyone in the Runner’s Guild with an avalanche and got away scot-free because the Guild was terrified of her. Or the time she ‘allegedly’ went into the High Passes but conveniently didn’t report any proof to the Runner’s Guild, or even a seal.
Or how everyone that Ryoka knew died, like the original Horns of Hammerad. In fact, had she really saved Tyrion Veltras or was that more of her getting a Named Adventurer and a host of other high-level people to do the fighting for her?
Ryoka Griffin might have—and Persua had no proof, only suspicions—‘leveraged’ some connections in an unprofessional manner. In other words, she had slept and bribed her way to where she was.
“I can’t prove it. Not entirely. But I know Ryoka, and I know she’s never honest. She always has a convenient bit of ‘help’. That Kaalblade she somehow obtained? Her ‘Windsword’? Where do you think she got it?”
“But the wind magic…”
“Where do you think she learned to cast that? She had this—thing. Barely more than a horrible pet. A Winter Sprite. Ryoka tends to befriend people who help her. Then she runs off. Don’t believe all the rumors about her. I knew Ryoka, and she was so thoroughly unpleasant she turned Celum’s entire Runner’s Guild against each other.”
At this point, Raich checked her truth stone and blinked at it. She glanced at Herove, and he raised his brows, but Raich just showed him a white glow from her stone and hid it while Persua was telling the other Street Runners about Ryoka. Again.
She never ran out of tales about her nemesis. But what amazed Raich was…she never managed to catch Persua in a lie. And she felt like Persua was lying, sometimes. But the truth stone always showed Persua as being honest.
“Persua—what about this Garia, then? What’s gotten you so angry?”
The City Runner, Herove, was one of three City Runners in Toremn who wasn’t local to the region. Like Raich and Persua, he was the newcomer, the person to beat, or haze, and the Courier-prospective.
People didn’t come to Toremn, or this region of Izril east of Invrisil, along the winding coastal roads and interspersed villages and lesser-used port cities and towns, because it was the place to be.
Invrisil, and even Celum these days, ironically, were the emerging hubs. Or First Landing, or…most places besides Toremn. However—this was the place where Runners came to train.
Consider Celum. Celum, like many cities in the area, was often twenty miles from another settlement, more or less depending on where you went. It was reasonably safe, not being directly near the High Passes, and got enough business to be called ‘average’, if such a phrase applied. The Ruins of Albez were a local, inactive dungeon, and its one claim to fame was that Magnolia Reinhart had a mansion in it.
By contrast, Toremn’s claim to fame was a seagull population that had migrated about sixty miles from the coast and annoyed the heck out of people. It was a quiet town…right along one of the major highways. So its real claim was that the Runner’s Guild in Toremn was the place every runner in the eastern coastal region would stop by eventually.
On average, each settlement might be three times as far apart as around Celum. Which meant that prices went up, and a Runner operating hereabouts had to be a long-distance runner. In short—if you were going to be a Courier one day, you might well come to Toremn and prove you could handle deliveries.
That was why Raich, Persua, and Herove were here. They had all leveled up beyond the normal standards of City Runners, hitting around Level 30, and they were on that cusp of being a Courier. To level further, their Guildmasters had told them to go to Invrisil, where they’d been assigned to Toremn. In a few years, they might gain another Skill that would warrant a full test to become Courier.
Or—the legendary Mihaela would pay them a visit, and if she did, you’d probably not get your Courier designation since she was infamously, horrendously tough. But if you did pass her trials, well, no one in the world would ever deny your right, not even the Sea Couriers and their odd ways.
However, it wasn’t fun being a City Runner in Toremn. The local runners were well aware it was the hotshots and rising stars coming here and would be helpful in misleading you. Oh, Invol? Horrible run, just head left at the crossroads and up into the hills.
…Whereupon, if you didn’t check your map before heading out, you’d spend two hours on the road before you realized you were going the wrong way and fail your timely delivery. Not just that—someone had sprinkled crumbs in Raich’s pack, and the damn seagulls had gone after her on her first day.
Herove had taken off his shoes after two days on the road, and someone had walked off with them while he took a nap. It was malicious, unfair, and the two City Runners had been prepared to grit their teeth and bear it until they hauled off someone they caught in a prank and settled it in a quick-and-dirty fight.
That was until Persua had come along. She had seemed, well, an easy target after the lace incident, with her clothing all fresh from Invrisil’s stores, friendless, looking for tips and help from the experienced Runners here. Raich had winced when she saw a Street Runner slipping a wet bit of seaweed into Persua’s shoes. She puts on the shoes, everyone laughs, right? Persua had even chuckled along ruefully and asked who got her.
The next day, the Street Runner who’d slipped seaweed into her shoes had been surprised to see Persua waiting as they descended from the rooms a Runner could pay for in the guild. She had calmly, and without breaking eye contact, sprinkled some glass shards into the Street Runner’s shoes.
“Just a prank. You caught me!”
She laughed and walked off. The Street Runner had checked their shoes, emptied them of the glass…shards…and run off, laughing about the weird new City Runner.
That lunch, they had come back, and Persua had given them a bowl of tomato soup, hot. She smiled as they tried to refuse it, politely, and watched as they ate it. The Street Runner had checked quite thoroughly for glass, and there wasn’t anything fishy about the soup.
Of course not. What kind of a maniac would have put glass in…? It was Persua being nice. Like when she bought a drink for the same Street Runner when they went to a bar two days later with a bunch of Runners.
Even months later, Persua would occasionally buy something for that very same Street Runner. A free drink, a meal—and, of course, there was never anything wrong with it. Never. She had replied to the pranking by being nice and shelling out some coins.
So, interestingly—Raich and Herove never saw anyone prank Persua again. No snotty Street Runners, no older City Runners—no one. And when she attached herself to their group as the ‘new Runners,’ the tricks slackened off on them very quickly.
These days, her two friends were used to Persua’s quirks, and they were often found together whenever they were in the area. They were friends.
Friends…the outsiders. That was how Persua had termed it when they were all new to Toremn. They had to stick together, and naturally, they’d fallen in as Courier-hopefuls. It was a natural thing. So they did some runs together, delivered things, shared tips, and Raich would accompany Persua on a run even if Persua was the only one doing deliveries, or Herove would cover for Persua if she was exhausted but let her claim the delivery and have her pay him back.
Raich had never done that before coming to Toremn, but Persua had insisted, insisted on doing a run for Raich one time when the City Runner had been fairly tired. Raich had felt guilty about letting Persua credit her, but then she’d done it for Persua in return. It wasn’t wrong, it was Runners covering for each other.
Then Persua had suggested a good way to get back at some of the Street Runners—kids, really, some only thirteen years old—would be if they went on a vacation when she knew all the other City Runners were out. Leave the Street Runners to do a City Runner’s job and spend five days on the road just getting to their destination and come back footsore and quiet.
Even now, as Persua talked to everyone about Ryoka Griffin—again—here Raich was. When she could have been…doing something else in Toremn? She hung around Persua constantly, and it bothered the other City Runner a bit.
“Raich? Raich, tell them how I felt when I heard Ryoka was in Reizmelt and what I said.”
Persua took Raich’s shoulder, and the other City Runner started. She had only a sleeveless shirt on over some modified leather armor. Very light—and again, nothing on her arms. Which seemed like a bad move, but the [Repeat Sprinter] had found that most arrows went for your center of mass. By the time a [Bandit] got another shot lined up, she was already using [Thousand Foot Sprint] to get out of danger.
She did have a tattoo of Mihaela’s Skill on one arm, though. Just the words. Raich grinned weakly.
“I think you said—‘oh dead gods, that’s another city she’ll ruin?’ Or something like that?”
Persua smiled, and Raich sighed in relief.
“That’s right. Thank you, Raich. And look who Ryoka hangs out with. That nag, Charlay, and Alevica the Witch. Heard good things about either, have you?”
The Street Runners looked at each other and shook their heads. Dustrider Charlay was notoriously difficult, and Alevica had been known to be the most unethical Runner possible. They clustered around Persua, young Street Runners and some of the City Runners—all young, looking up to her.
Persua gathered people to her. Not the older Runners, but she was always giving people advice. Helping out. Raich just wondered why…
It felt off. On paper, it looked like everything was great, but Herove had sometimes said—
Well, he was a [Knight]’s son. One of the rare [Knights] on Izril, and he’d inherited a few tricks from his father. Not that his father was dead, but Herove, or Shield-Runner Herove, carried an actual shield that he could use a number of Skills with. For all that, he was the fastest long-distance of all of them.
The as-yet unnamed Persua had the fastest and most enduring Skill in [Double Step], in theory, but her stamina and speed weren’t there yet. She, uh…also wasn’t much of a combat specialist. She could use a knife, but she just carried standard defensive tools.
But she had a dream. And that was to become a Courier, and well—she was going to do it. She just had to find her next step, and she would get there. Ryoka Griffin had cheated her way up, but Persua just needed…equality. The world was not fair to Persua.
“Only one Skill. One Skill, and I just don’t have a focus. Raich, you sprint from place to place. If you could do it for miles, you’d be a Courier—well, that and you need to look the part. Herove, you need to be a bit faster, but you have that shield. You could be Shield-Knight Herove. How about that?”
“I’d have to run with armor, and I don’t think I’m there.”
“Maybe not. I could help you pick some to practice with? Just let me know.”
The Street Runners were dispersing as Persua turned back to her friends. She sat very close between Herove and Raich, enough for them to be brushing shoulders despite the table being wide open now.
Herove flushed again, and Raich’s hand went up self-consciously. But Persua saw Herove trying to remove himself and threw her arms around both of their shoulders.
“Don’t you run off! We’re all getting there, guys. Raich, I told you, we will make sure you are radiant when you debut as a Courier. And you can pick out some armor, Herove—we’ll debut together and do a three-Courier run, like Hawk and Tritel and Salamani. I told you that I met them, didn’t I?”
She kissed Herove’s cheek lightly and rubbed at Raich’s hair, which she did for ‘good luck’, and the male City Runner turned red.
“You do meet people, Persua. I’m envious. I couldn’t get a word in.”
“Eh, Tritel was arrogant. Which is probably why he ended the way he did.”
Persua scowled, and Raich recalled how Tritel had been rude to Persua…but it felt rude to speak of the dead like that. She said nothing, just checked her appearance in a pocket-mirror she’d bought.
If Herove was distracted by Persua flirting…or just being close to him? Raich was reminded of her appearance.
Her nose was a bit off from being broken once in a bad fall, and a bit too big. Persua assured her it wasn’t notable and had given Raich a lot of tips. It hadn’t bothered the other City Runner before, but a Courier had to look, well, good. Persua kept pointing out how striking most looked, and Raich was profoundly grateful for Persua’s advice.
Herove repeated Persua’s old adage. Raich nodded.
“Courier in three years!”
Persua’s scowl emerged, and her two friends hesitated. The City Runner deliberately looked from Herove to Raich and spoke.
“Courier in a year. We’re only young once!”
“Then should we train or check more deliveries?”
They’d all done a run already. Persua pursed her lips and looked at the board, but stretched lightly. Then she rocked back and shot out of her chair. She was nimble.
“No, I think we should check out that travelling fair. Together. Then, maybe, we’ll check out the Courier-deliveries. That’s how Ryoka Griffin did it, remember?”
“Waking the Archmage of Izril. But that was so risky—”
“Yes, but we can do it. Three City Runners? We just need a big break. After all—”
Persua turned lightly, balancing on one heel and the other leg out as she spread her arms. A single ring flashed on her hand. It was brass and solid and didn’t fit the rest of her clothes, but she never went anywhere without it.
The Ring of Minor Protection that Persua wore had saved her life over thirty times. Everything from a pot heaved out a window by an enraged wife as Persua fled to an arrow in an ambush by [Bandits] had swerved or missed just enough for her to survive.
It, along with Persua’s [Double Step] Skill, were enough to put her on the path to being a Courier. Unfortunately, much to Persua’s regret, her backers had disappeared after the Circle had vanished. She had the ring, but the chance to rise in the Circle’s esteem and be granted further artifacts and favors was now lost. Thanks to, once again, Ryoka Griffin.
It was amazing how much Ryoka had dogged her life. In fact, Persua had even charted out the many ways Ryoka had ruined her future.
She should have done the High Passes run, not Ryoka. Then she would have leveled. It would have been Persua who ran the Bloodfields, Persua who saved Lord Tyrion—and it was just like Ryoka to hop into bed with the man.
Of course, you did what you had to in order to get ahead, sometimes. But Ryoka just had to get in Persua’s way. In fact—it was because of Ryoka that Persua had to rely on her ring.
And therefore, Ryoka’s fault that Persua had never leveled beyond her current class of Level 26 [Nimble Runner]. Also Ryoka’s fault that Persua had lost her friendship with Fals and never solidified her friendship with Garia. The girl had potential, but she’d been so…so…insipidly slow. Even when Persua reached out, Garia backed away.
Now, of course, she, along with the rest of Celum, was probably poisoned against Persua, which was why Persua hadn’t gone back even after hearing about the renaissance happening there. She had better friends here. She just needed a chance.
However, the truth was that when Persua looked around the quiet Toremn and stared at the seagulls calling as if they were on the coast, not surrounded by woodlands and sweaty [Lumberjacks]…she felt adrift. Empty.
Helpless because she had lost her way. She had thought she’d be a Courier by now, but she just…didn’t know what came next.
Faster, stronger? A combat class? A talent in…in magic? These things set Couriers apart. Even when they had been City Runners, Persua knew that Salamani had been a talented [Mage]. The Hundredfriends Courier had already had his Orangutan buddy, who’d pop out of a tattoo and beat up a [Mugger].
What was Persua’s thing? Hence her desire to come up with a worthy nickname. Her scheming to take on a Courier-level request. And thankfully, Toremn’s Guildmaster had barred her from even looking at them. Raich and Herove listened to Persua, but the truth was that they had leveled on time to make Courier by three years, both having hit Level 30 already. They just needed a few more good Skills. Persua had been saying the same thing for months. She was willing to take a risk—but keenly aware of how dangerous some of the risks that would propel her forwards were.
And that might have been Persua’s entire life. Aging from the new Courier-prospective into one of the jaded City Runners who moved on from Toremn or settled there and realized they might never really become the Courier they dreamed of.
So few did. And then Persua would find someone—perhaps Herove or someone with the right potential or position—and settle down. One day, one of her descendants would receive a mysterious ring in her will and find it was actually a powerful artifact.
Except that Persua, on the 12th day of Norium into the first month of fall, decided to go to the local fair. As such things went, it wasn’t a bad meeting of fates. Especially because for the person, the class which she would meet—
Travelling fairs, markets, bazaars and whatnot, even the corner of an inn by midnight, that was where he belonged. The [Soothsayer] passed his hand over the crystal ball again and one of the [Performers] leaned over the counter, looking amused.
“More tricks? You can’t just put on a [Scrying] spell these days. Everyone’s onto it, oh great and All-Seeing Rastandius.”
Rastandius the All-Seeing glanced up and looked away from the young woman after a moment. Then the [Performer] blinked, because this was no scrying spell she had ever seen. Would Wistram News Network feature some boring City Runner?
Rastandius chuckled and covered the ball with a cloth.
“It’s a paltry trick indeed, and damn Wistram for all their scrying orbs. It puts honest crystal balls to shame. But today, I think I’ll break out the real stuff.”
Not the ‘real magic’, but the real stuff. The [Performer] laughed lightly, but with uncertainty as she fiddled with her juggling pins, of which she had ten.
“Oh, come on. The last time you tried that, the [Lady] nearly hung you, and they ran us out of Ulta lands. If the [Caravan Master] hears you’re up to your tricks…you told me it’s mostly chance, even with your Skills.”
“Fate is never certain. But it is certain when it is uncertain. I may be old, but I have enough wherewithal to know when we come to a crossroads of fate, or when the strings of destiny pull taut.”
That was all Rastandius’ faded glory and faux mysticism. He shuffled open a deck of cards, and the [Performer] rolled her eyes…until he flipped a card up. The old man, who put on a white beard and whose mysterious robes were mostly ‘mysterious’ due to lack of washing, winked at the woman. Then she saw his one wooden eye gleam, and his gnarled hands move gracefully, twirling the card up and making it disappear and then appear on the counter of his wagon.
“Care to guess?”
“Every card means whatever you want it to mean.”
She scoffed. The [Performer] had known [Fortune Tellers] and [Charlatans] and sometimes never identified one from the other. She had been in the company of [Hedge Mages] and [Mystics], even a [Warlock], all of whom had a rare bit of magic or Skill that the towns and smaller places would pay a few coins for.
But Rastandius claimed he was the real thing, and sometimes…the [Performer] picked up his card. It was a standard tarot card deck—but when she looked down, she dropped the card with an oath.
The other [Performers] looked around, and a man swallowing swords nearly cut himself as he tried to see whether one of the [Firebreathers] had lit themself on fire again. They just saw the juggler striding away from Rastandius’ wagon and put it down to the old man again.
Chuckling, Rastandius picked up the card. Yes, part of fortune telling, the tricks and laughter, at least, was just a bit of showmanship. Knowing something about the client and using that to draw a connection. Any regular card in the deck might mean anything.
Tarot cards. You could have up to twenty-one in a deck. Or as many as seventy-eight. Minor and major arcana, as they were organized. Each card had many meanings, like The [Archmage], card number eighteen. Or—The Dragon, card fifteen.
The Dragon could be wrath—or a challenge—or a symbol of might—or wisdom—and so you were right for skepticism, especially if you let Rastandius draw three cards and palm the one he wanted and you were paying gold to hear your future.
In this case, he’d drawn the first card from his deck. The [Fool], a standard across many worlds. The first card, the zero card, actually. But what had unnerved the [Performer] was…
Instead of the japing fool, the card was of a young woman mid-stride. Pinched and hungry as it was, never quite content, thin but nimble.
Persua stared up from the painted card as Rastandius shuffled her back into the deck. His eye, his good eye, seemed to glow.
“Ah, yes. Today might be an important reading after all.”
The carnival was as dreadful as Persua had feared. A woman juggling flaming pins into the air caught them and bowed as a few dullards applauded and some children gasped, but it was a poor thing in a world where you could literally levitate and fly about.
Then again, Raich, bless her heart, seemed fascinated. She pointed out the [Juggler] to Persua.
“Isn’t it amazing, Persua? [Mages] can’t do that so—gracefully.”
“I’m so glad you’re enjoying yourself, Raich. Herove, can you get us something to eat?”
“Right away. What looks good?”
“Um…let’s have that corn. Why is it on display? Oh, it’s red!”
There were little red and blue corns, and much to Persua’s vague amusement, someone was touting the crisped corn as if it were the greatest thing. She heard the vendor shouting.
“Lupp’s Corn! Get some corn from the famous [Farmer]! Eldertuin himself eats the stuff!”
“Eldertuin the Fortress?”
And predictably, there were some buyers. Persua herself drifted over, although she let Herove buy what were apparently spicy and sweet varieties of corn. He was just coming back with some hot and steaming when Persua’s ears perked up.
“All the way from House Imarris! Lupp’s Corn from around Reizmelt! The Wind Runner herself came from there!”
Persua’s face soured so fast that she didn’t even have time to take a bite before the corn was as appealing to her as dirt. She handed it back to Herove, and he winced.
“The Wind Runner? How many places has she…?”
“It doesn’t matter. Find me something else. That—popped corn? No, um—go check over there.”
Herove walked off, handing the baby corn to Raich to eat. She was engrossed in the next act, someone eating a sword, and Persua folded her arms. The night’s air was brisk and cool, and the smells of a lot of good food were mixing with the less-pleasant smells of nature, horse manure, and whatever was in the tent that was making some children scream.
Goblins, a monster, or even something as ‘spectacular’ as a slime, Persua guessed. She had hoped for more. Still, the City Runner had thought it would be at least pleasant to treat her two friends…until Ryoka had ruined her mood.
So she took two steps back and grabbed a family heading for the stall.
“Are you having that corn? I wouldn’t.”
A mother looked concerned at Persua’s serious face. The young woman looked around.
“I saw the owner picking some of the corn he dropped out of a horsepat. Just…maybe wash it if you have to eat it?”
The horrified look on the family’s face and the way Persua had not really lowered her voice was enough to stop the people heading towards the stall. Persua watched, satisfied, as the vendor looked around, confused by the sudden lack of interest.
“Persua, did you find anything to eat? This is good. Maybe try one?”
Raich looked around as Persua walked back, whistling. The City Runner glanced around and shrugged.
“Not yet. Oh—fine. Let me take a bite.”
There was something like sour cream and a bit of cheese on the spicy red corn, such that it was dubious whether there was more condiment than baby corn. But Persua took a bite, and her face lit up.
“Oh, it is good! Give me some. No—actually, let’s have some more. You buy it. I’ll pay you back for a basket of each.”
The [Vendor] perked back up as Raich marched over, and Persua savored the snack. By the time Herove came over with a ‘ham burger’, both women were eating, and they traded snacks with him.
“I want to know what’s in that tent. It’s only three copper to enter. Want to bet on what they have inside? I bet it’s a Griffin.”
“It screeches like one, but there’s no way they can feed and hold the thing. It’s some aggressive, smaller monster. I bet…a Goblin? I saw some in another fair. Persua?”
“Let’s find out. I don’t know monsters well enough.”
They were on their way to the big tent that was admitting people with vaguely-satisfied faces and heading along the mercantile wagons set up in the small fair. The caravan knew their stuff—they placed all their wagons together such that if you wanted to get one thing, you would have to endure the mild Skills of the vendors hawking bits of magical charms and so on.
“Anyone want a charm against bug-bites? Only a silver piece!”
“Healing potions too expensive? We have an ointment from the north! A [Witch] brewed it up for—”
“—Enchant your shoes, Runners? Horseshoes, shoes—I’ll add some magic and a ritual for luck!”
Persua did stop when she saw the [Hedge Witch] beckoning to her, but Raich tried to pull her on.
“Come on, Persua. She’s not even a real [Witch]. Like we’d find one here.”
“There’s always room for more luck in my life, Raich. Maybe…”
Persua loved lucky charms and curses, not that she’d ever done more than buy a few hexes and drop blood and hair on them. And they didn’t seem to work, but she didn’t mind spending a few silver on a dream.
She was just walking past a wagon that seemed to have no customers, the curtains drawn over a faded sign with a crystal ball and deck of cards on either side of a name.
No class, no other title. But as Persua passed, the curtains flew open, and she jumped. A man was sitting there. As if he had been waiting for her.
The other pedestrians turned to this new entertainment, but the old man sitting just inside his wagon called out.
“Young City Runner! You there! Would you like me to read your fortune? I am Rastandius, a [Soothsayer] of great renown! And you, Miss Persua, are my first client of the night.”
Raich and Herove oohed a bit and looked at each other. Of course, they thought he had just looked up Persua’s name, but the City Runner halted and smiled.
“I am, am I? And who are you, old man? A…what did you call yourself? A [Soothsayer]? Is that like a [Fortune Teller]?”
He chuckled at that.
“Of a kind. But I don’t just ‘tell fortunes’. I look at more. My name is Rastandius, and I am the greatest [Soothsayer] left to this world. I have told fortunes for [Kings] and [Queens] and visited every continent upon this world. But for you—I will read your fortune for a single gold coin.”
Now, Persua did laugh. She had to admit, this person played his part well.
He was incredibly thin and incredibly frail, and she doubted he left his wagon much. Some kind of disease had worn his frame thin, and if he had been a powerfully-built man once…no longer. He was old. It was hard to tell if he was seventy or eighty, because his beard was obviously fake, bushy and white as fox’s fur, which was what it probably was.
His face was all lines and harsh divots, but what made him magical was a wooden eye with a bit of gold painted in the pupil in his left socket. The right was pale pink and red, like a sun dying in the east, and it was unnervingly clear.
Rastandius wore robes that were more filthy than fabulous, but as Persua peered closer, they had a sheen to them. Silk? Was it worn silk? Then she noticed the last interesting thing about the man.
He had only two fingers on either hand, excluding his thumb. Two on each hand had been cut off, but only the tips, so the stumps still moved about. The [Soothsayer] grinned at the look, and he had all his teeth, barely yellowed.
“What say you, Miss Persua?”
“I say—you just opened shop. Why not invite anyone else to do their fortune and I’ll come back later?”
She called his bluff, and the [Soothsayer] chuckled.
“Ah, but if I did that, I’d have no customers. You will be my first—perhaps only client of the night. I don’t know. But I would dearly like you to step up and enter my wagon.”
He nodded behind him and kicked something, and the door slid open to his actual wagon. Persua thought she saw a sleeping quarter, untidy, and an entire wagon of, well, someone’s possessions and home, but she folded her arms, smiling a bit.
“How about you tell Herove’s fortune? I’ll even pay a gold coin first.”
She just wanted him to have to tell someone else’s fortune first. The [Shieldbearer Runner] looked uneasy—he didn’t like this kind of thing, but Persua glanced around.
“Anyone else want to get their fortune told? I’ll pay for it—although I doubt it’s a gold coin per person or you’d never get work.”
“He never does, anyways!”
The [Hedge Witch] did a passable cackle, and there was laughter, but a few people drifted over. Rastandius never looked away from Persua.
“Miss Persua, step inside. Are those your friends? I seldom offer my services in truth anymore. But once again, for you? This is an opportunity you do not wish to miss. Tonight could change your life. Have you been feeling lost? Do you seek…inspiration?”
He was good. Persua wondered if he had a speaking stone hidden somewhere in the fair. She was half-tempted, half-annoyed.
“Give me one reason I should pay a gold coin for all this.”
Rastandius considered Persua, and then he smiled. Then he leaned forwards and whispered, and Persua jumped.
“…Because, I’ll tell Mister Toyle you ruined his corn-selling business otherwise.”
He grinned again, and Persua’s heart raced. How did he…? Rastandius’ eyes twinkled as he glanced around.
“I saw you. But then—I warned Toyle that he’d not sell well tonight. It was just a small reading. Now, do you want me to continue with the tricks or will you let me work my real art?”
He challenged her, tilting his head left to right. Persua was on the cusp of accepting, but she had to perform one last test. She’d met enough people claiming to be the real deal and ended up falling for their tricks. Rogue [Necromancers], confidence [Tricksters]—that was ironically how she’d ended up in the Circle of Thorns, hunting for real occult power among bad magic.
“You could do all this with tricks, [Soothsayer]. Do you know the future or the past? And if you’re so good, prove it. Something everyone can tell is real or not.”
Rastandius exhaled slowly. He looked at Persua, and she thought he might give up, but then he spoke in a slow, solemn voice more at home for a court where all listened with each breath bated upon his words, not the noisy fair full of chirping insects and laughter.
Yet for all that, those listening were drawn in, because his voice sounded so confident. So certain that they ate away at the tricks and charms of the rest of the fair.
“Soothsaying is an old art. Like [Sages], like [Oracles] and [Fortune Tellers] and even [Witches] and [Diviners]—the future from weather to omens is something all peoples wish to know. Yet I am no [Oracle] to receive inspiration. I do not rely solely on luck and the draw of cards like a mere [Fortune Teller], nor do I read only signs or the conduits of power like [Witches] and the rest. I go further. I look at if and when. Say yonder man trips as he walks the fair.”
He nodded at Herove, and the City Runner jumped and felt at his shield on his back uneasily. Rastandius smiled.
“I can tell you what will happen in both cases. And if I tell him—will he trip on purpose or never walk that spot? I do not predict the inevitable. I change the world when I speak.”
“And you haven’t spoken any prophecy yet.”
Persua pointed out to chuckles. Rastandius just looked at her, mildly exasperated, and reached for a deck of cards.
“Card reading. Fish entrails. The flights of birds—I met a [Witch] once who divined portents in tea leaves. I have a crystal ball, but I can do it all. You want a demonstration? Very well. Here. And here.”
He held the deck of cards, then flung something out from the wagon. Hanging there, Persua saw a map of Izril. Rastandius fastened both ends, then offered her a dart.
Just…a dart. Although she noticed the wings were made of metal, not feathers, and each was written with a tiny symbol. One looked like an eye, the other lips…
“Throw it at the map. But close your eyes first.”
The [Soothsayer] challenged her. He was shuffling the cards, and they made that pleasant sound as he ruffled them together—then flew up into the air and back into his hands in a complex pattern.
“And what will that prove?”
“Nothing. It will prove nothing. The dart will go wherever it pleases. And then I will draw a card—and tell you something true. You challenged me.”
Persua glanced at the old man uncertainly and then shrugged. She closed her eyes, lifted the dart—and tossed it straight down.
The point sank into the road, and Persua smiled mockingly as she opened her eyes. Now, the [Soothsayer] gave her a blank look.
“Come on, Persua. Just humor him.”
Raich murmured, half for the old man’s sake—he had to earn something—half because his attitude was making her uneasy. But Rastandius just called out as Persua bent down.
“Do not move it. You’ve thrown it where you please. Look. We have our destination.”
He pointed down, and Persua stared blankly at the ground. She saw the dart had landed among a lot of pebbles, kicked up no doubt by all the travellers. It was just above her shoes, which were placed together almost like…
Izril’s midsection. Was it just her or did she see some of the dust kicked up vaguely in the shape of Izril’s north? And along the bottom, Herove had dropped a piece of corn and some of the sour cream, and it looked like—
Slowly, Rastandius pointed to the map and touched a spot. Persua’s skin crawled despite herself. The map was old and didn’t have the new lands. But where the dart had landed, he pointed to.
The High Passes.
North of Liscor, slightly. Without looking away from her, Rastandius drew a card and held it up for all to see. He showed them a riding Stitch-Man, upon…
“The Chariot. It betokens movement. Among other aspects. War and trouble. In a broader sense…something moving quickly. What next? And why?”
The second card he pulled made him grimace. He showed them a grinning skeleton, eyes aflame.
“Death. Odd. A death caused this? Or…hm. An aspect of death. Not an omen of what is to happen, but why. And lastly—ah. Interesting.”
The third card he pulled he blinked at, and despite herself, Persua leaned forwards with all the others. The last card was simply a pair of scales like a [Merchant] would use.
“Judgment. Something…some equalizing force, some great weighing of the odds that will upset things to come. So there you have it. From the High Passes comes the Chariot at the behest of Death. Judgment waits.”
He looked around, and his audience blinked as the three cards, each one old and possibly magical, glittered in the light, ancient paint refusing to flake, as the map fluttered in the wind. Persua held Rastandius’ gaze for a long time—then she burst out laughing.
“Nice trick! A nice trick, Master Rastandius! And with that—I think I’ll see what’s in the tent. Come on, Raich, Herove.”
She turned and walked off. The old [Soothsayer] was left sitting there as Persua left the dart in the dirt and headed off in a good humor. He watched her skip off and then do a cartwheel, laughing. She was quite nimble, and Raich had been impressed to know that Persua could even do a backflip.
Ruefully, the old [Soothsayer] looked around as his audience looked at each other uncertainly.
“Well now. Would someone else like to get their fortunes told?”
Persua was still laughing about the old man after they visited the tent and found—of all things—a screaming bat-monster terrifying children, but tame enough to feed bits of fruits to.
She was laughing right up until a Street Runner came racing into the festival and shouted.
“The High Passes are unleashing monsters! Thousands of Eater Goats and Gargoyles are rampaging! They’re calling for adventurers—all of ‘em!”
Herove choked on his drink, and Persua fell silent. Her first thought was it was a prank, but she ran to the Mage’s Guild—then realized the Mage’s Guild was truly afire.
The [Mages] inside were shouting and helping to send warnings, issuing clarifications, and bouncing [Message] spells. Persua stared at the pandemonium and heard bits and pieces.
“—Inform the Five Families at once. Any landed nobility in—”
“Wistram is suggesting a full evacuation, Mister [Mayor]. This is not a joke.”
“—Any Gold-rank Adventurers or Silver-rank be advised, the Adventurer’s Guild has issued a mass-bounty for—”
“Dead gods. Eater Goats? Have you ever seen them, Persua? I heard they’re horrific. They’ll eat everything and—”
Raich looked for Persua, and the City Runner was already pushing back outside. Not to the Runner’s Guild or the High Passes. They were far, far too far away for whatever was going on in the High Passes.
No. She wanted one thing, and now she was hoping he hadn’t closed up. Her eyes were alight, and her breath came quickly.
Fortune and fates. If he could do that with a dart and three cards…she felt it.
This was her moment.
The festival was packing up in light of the greater drama. The workers were grumbling, because the scrying orbs ate their business. But one wagon was still waiting for Persua.
Rastandius had done poor business and earned a few silver. But he smiled when he saw Persua.
“Aha. I hoped you’d be back.”
“You—you didn’t know?”
She was panting from having run back, and Raich and Herove were right behind her. Rastandius shrugged. Now that he wasn’t performing to everyone, his tone was more conversational. Yet no less certain.
“My work is like that. It’s not magic. Nor is it as certain as I would like it to be. I told you—I change things, and fate is a funny thing. For instance, I knew today would be bad for Irove, not why. In the same way—I knew you would be my first client of the night. It didn’t occur to me you’d walk off. I knew you might be important, as important as any reading, so I hoped you’d come back.”
He gave her a wry smile, and Persua blinked. Now that he mentioned it…technically that was true.
It only made her more excited.
“So you are the real thing?”
For answer, he just looked at the map, then gestured at the wagon.
“It will take some time for a proper reading. Your two friends are welcome, but I’ll take advance payment in that corn Irove sells. Buy me a dinner. Oh—and mind the ceiling. It’s cramped.”
It was indeed cramped inside Rastandius’ wagon. He sat at a small table, and Persua wrinkled her nose at the mattress in the corner and dirty bowls and, well, everything. He had all kinds of things hanging up—quartzite necklaces, charms for sale, all the things he could make a living off of.
But it seemed to her that the real things in the wagon were his deck of cards, the crystal ball, far larger than normal, and Rastandius himself. He gestured at them, then showed her a pair of lacquered sticks, an old cup, all of which looked more expensive than she might expect a regular [Fortune Teller] to own.
“Most of my tools of trade I’ve sold or given away. Or lost. These chopsticks came from Drath, a gift from the emperor before the current one. This cup I would never use to drink out of—I read from it in Terandria to a [Lady] and told her what her future might be. Three—no, four decades now—she read my fate in it for me as a [Witch].”
Unlike last time, there was no scoffing from the three Runners. Rastandius had proven something, and Persua leaned forwards eagerly.
“So you really have been to all the continents? What level are you?”
For answer, the [Soothsayer] just smiled.
“High enough so that, once, I was able to find clients across the world and dined with royalty. Famous enough so they knew me by a different name. But those days are gone, and I don’t believe I would enjoy the attention if some of my previous clients remembered me.”
Herove made a faint scoffing sound, and Rastandius swung his gaze over.
“You have your doubts, City Runner?”
“It’s Herove. I think you could have looked that up too, Master Rastandius. If you were so good—why quit? Or why remain here? Levels don’t decrease. You should still be world-famous.”
At that, the old man laughed and picked up some of the corn as Herove flushed.
“Soothsaying doesn’t allow me to predict everything! For instance—do you think I would have only one eye and be missing four fingers if I could help it? I don’t know many certainties, and the ones I do tend to trick me. For instance, I have learned how I will die. I have seen the portents of safety and danger—but I don’t know what dinner will be. Corn was a pleasant surprise, I suppose.”
He chomped down on it, and Persua spoke up.
“You know how you’ll die? Isn’t that impossible?”
“If it was—what would the point of my class be? I checked my destiny, and it has not changed for fifty years. It could—as I will explain, by my work, the future changes. But I know how I will die, not when or where. It’s some comfort.”
Raich looked unsettled by all this, and Rastandius grinned at her with all his teeth.
“I don’t know!”
At their looks, he clarified.
“It will be a complete surprise. I won’t see it coming. See? Somewhat comforting. But don’t worry, it’s just hard to see one’s own future so clearly. I can only do vagaries. For instance—this wagon, this sorry piece of trash, I know it will never be destroyed in an accident. More’s the pity. I was told I’d never have food poisoning, so I never bothered to wash my hands or all that nonsense.”
All three Runners instantly checked where they were sitting. Rastandius grinned harder.
“Yes, you see? I doubted it, and while it’s true I’ve never felt ill a day in my life from what I ate—you could say it’s coincidence. You could…and most low-level people in my class can only do vague omens and hints. But you, Miss Persua, asked for the immediate future, and I predicted something within hours. Tonight, I will show you something far, far more concrete.”
His eyes flickered to the crystal ball, and Persua nodded. She produced a single gold coin, but he held up his hands.
“Ah—the price has changed.”
“I knew it. This is all a scam.”
Herove almost got up, but Rastandius interrupted him.
“The price is something Miss Persua will pay me back for. Depending on how the reading goes. If it goes poorly? Well—I’ll take your gold coin either way, but I have had great omens and poor tellings. That was how I lost this.”
He pointed at his eye. Raich looked at it warily.
“H-how did you lose that?”
The old [Soothsayer] smiled tightly.
“…When I was at the height of my craft, I predicted something on the sands of the greatest desert of the world. To a dead man, I told him that his ambitions would mean little, for they would be swallowed up by a boy who would do everything he wanted. Rule a continent. Set a world ablaze with his name. He threatened to have me executed, but I told him how he could escape his fate.”
“Does he mean…?”
Persua saw Rastandius grimace.
“I told him to slay the boy and inherit the destiny. But I could not tell him how—only that one would die and the other would take that fate. In hindsight—that was what began the King of Destruction’s rise, when the neighboring kingdom of Hellios and their [King] made war on him. He could have abdicated his throne, left well enough alone and lived in the shadow of Flos Reimarch. He refused, and we all know what has come of that.”
The three Runners looked at each other, not sure whether or not to believe this. Rastandius tapped his wooden eye.
“The error in my reading…well, that man did not have time to exact vengeance. Unfortunately, those that loathed the King of Destruction blamed me. Perhaps—rightly. If I had never said that, would the King of Destruction have risen the way he did? I had made a prophecy with all my power, and the world suffered it. Or maybe it was destined, but for my arrogance, the Quarass of Germina, the one before the current, plucked out my eye. To give me perspective, she claimed. Myself, I think she just disliked me.”
He spread his hands and showed them his fingers.
“More bad readings. When I was a desperate man, I gambled fortunes. As I said, I am not certain. I can see—chance. Each time, I bet a finger upon steering someone to glory or fame, for a cut of what they received. I did it five times. The fifth time, I was allowed to rest and enjoy two decades of happiness—indolence.”
“And then? What happened?”
Rastandius gave them all a bitter smile.
“Well. Would you believe I had learned my lesson? I thought I had, because I made few prophecies. I enjoyed myself. I…did not take chances. And as a result? I failed to predict the Goblin King.”
“Ah, indeed. If I had done readings, I would have known he would come to Izril. As remote as he was…no. I fled my very gracious employers the day he landed. Let’s just say that afterwards, I’ve been keeping my head low. I have made a few other prophecies, but my interest is finding…someone.”
He looked at Persua hungrily.
“Someone who makes the dice of bone rattle in the cup. Someone for whom I can do them a great service. Something—pivotal. Reveal something and rest my last years in peace. I tried to, with others, but few love knowing their futures. Lady Pryde did not. Neither do many of the Five Families. Magnolia Reinhart, nor Tyrion Veltras. As for Lady Ulva Terland…”
“Well. Suffice it to say that I have pondered going south to the Drakes, or to other lands, but I am cautious of failure. I have very few chances left.”
Again, he held up his hands and showed them his face. And Persua—Persua loved it. Because all this, his grand hints, his story—it all meant that she was the one he’d waited for. It confirmed what she’d been hoping for all her life.
She, Persua, had a future.
“So, how does this work? Will you just tell Persua what’s coming and…? There’s not me or Raich in your visions, is there?”
Herove looked at Persua uncertainly, and Rastandius raised his brows.
“There could be. I believe your fates could well be intertwined in Miss Persua’s since you are in her company. However, for you, I will gladly spin your fates out. A Crossroads of Fates, perhaps?”
“What’s that? And if your Skills can only do one person, I think I should be the one.”
Persua interrupted urgently, worried. However, Rastandius just shook his head.
“I only know that our encounter might matter, Miss Persua. This could be what matters. It could not happen. Let me show you one of the services I offer. It’s often chosen, not always welcomed. The Crossroads of Fates…are visions of your future, Runners. But I caution you—do not chase them, but learn from them. For each one I show you?”
He lifted the crystal ball onto a pillow.
“—Will never come true. At least, not in this world.”
Raich sucked in her breath, and Herove struggled with the idea.
“So, you mean they’re not certain?”
“Oh, no. They’re as certain as stone. They just won’t come true in this world. In this…reality.”
He was trying to explain something to the Runners that another world’s grasp of times and reality would barely encompass. Rastandius clarified for Herove again.
“This could happen to you, what I will show you. In fact—if you learn from your possible futures, you may well inform your own future. But it will never happen exactly as I show you. When I predicted the King of Destruction’s rise, it was to the King of Hellios, Treland. But he thought he could simply avert it. Learn. Do you wish to see?”
“I don’t see why not.”
Herove blustered, but his face was slightly pale in the lantern-light hanging from the top of the wagon. It was getting late, and Persua wondered if it would be midnight when they got to her.
Well, good. Wasn’t that for the best? She sat impatiently, but willing to watch as Rastandius passed a cloth over the ball.
“Many people regret what they see. Lovers…lovers especially. I have a scar from a man who did not like seeing the many ifs of what might have been. These are not light tricks. The Crossroads of Fate is a term any true oracle knows, and one of the ways to make sure is to ask if they can read them. So, Herove Canidus. If you are willing—look deep and I will show you a glimpse. I passed the greatest capstone of any class three decades ago, but even since then…it is hard to show you the crossroads in their full glory.”
The greatest capstone? That meant he was over Level 50. But before Persua could speak, the crystal ball changed.
One second, the cloth was passing over fine crystal, not glass, but semi-transparent, even cheap-looking, perhaps, until you realized how fine the material was and that the sheen that reflected other lights never truly touched the depths. The next, an image appeared as the cloth whished gently over the surface, in a moment.
It was no scrying spell they saw. No…cheap magic.
A television screen from Earth, even the best ones, had pixels. They had—by their nature—a bright glow, that of electricity, that was unmistakable. Scrying spells, by contrast, could ‘fuzz’ and be indistinct, but never pixelate, because that wasn’t how they worked. They were still almost always unmistakably slightly slanted or angled or just—compressed, because they came through a mirror or a pair of eyes. When they blurred or defocused, it was like eyes did.
The picture in Rastandius’ orb was different. It was crystal clear, and despite the pun, it hurt Persua’s eyes and made her lean forwards, because she felt like she could see every detail, but the crystal orb was too small. Even if she pressed her face against the sides, she wouldn’t see, and it frustrated her.
Like staring up at a cloud or a distant object and being aware of the fine detail—it was a perfect image. A perfect image of Herove.
He was wearing armor. Or rather, putting it on, piece by piece. He looked—nervous. A few things instantly made Persua’s eyes widen.
Firstly? The armor was blue. But a strange kind of blue, brilliant, clearly magical, and it had an odd…engraving. She kept tilting her head to see, but Herove was fidgeting, standing in—what? A room? It looked like it. Some kind of guest room in an inn.
He jumped in the image as the Runners—even Rastandius—held their breath, trying to make sense of this. Someone had just knocked on the door and entered.
Herove shot to his feet, and a low voice chuckled.
“You don’t need to call me that.”
“Not that either. How’re you feeling? Don’t worry, it’s a simple ceremony.”
“I—I feel fine, sir, grand—Ser Normen. Am I—am I prepared? I know it’s simple, but I hope it’ll matter for me.”
The other figure spoke in a casual accent, which Persua associated with the street. He, too, wore armor, and he checked Herove over.
The City Runner was older. Older—in his thirties, not twenties. And the other man looked to be in his forties. He wore the armor like a glove, whereas Herove was clearly unused to it.
“Good. It might take on some water. We’ll teach you the rest of how to use it later. And don’t worry. I meant—simple for us, but she’ll make it matter. She’s waiting in the garden, now.”
“I should go—”
“In a second. Catch your breath. Have you gone to the outhouse?”
“Better now than thinking on it the entire time. An [Immortal Moment] of having to go to the toilet is not a pleasant one. When you’re ready—we’ll give you a little procession. Ser Solstice himself arrived for the first Runner to join our ranks. Courier, rather.”
Herove checked himself, flushing with pride. He straightened, turned—and for a second, Persua saw his look of nerves change to one of confidence. Of delight. Of pride and…a certainty that scared her.
Then the image blinked out of existence, and the crystal ball remained, and Herove sat there as if someone had split him from top to groin. He shook—because he had seen himself. He had seen truth and the future, and when he looked up, he feared Rastandius more than any man he had met.
The [Soothsayer] breathed in heavily, but not with much exhaustion. He nodded.
“I thought that was enough for a demonstration.”
“What? No—bring it back. Please. That was—I looked—complete.”
His voice was stuttering, he was so unnerved. Herove stood up and smacked his head into the wagon’s roof. He looked at Rastandius.
“Was that true? Where was that?”
“I don’t know. I don’t know—but that name sounded familiar. Normen. Normen…interesting. So he could become a Grandmaster of…ah! I saw it on the scrying orb!”
Then the [Soothsayer] looked cunning, and he hunted around for a piece of paper to scribble this down on. He glanced up and addressed the Runners casually.
“You understand my warnings? This is not certain. This will never happen exactly like this. It could happen almost exactly, but what we can take from this is…if. Perhaps it would benefit Runner Herove to visit Liscor.”
The young man whispered it with uncertainty. And—again, his eyes looked at the scrying orb. Rastandius had shown him a future, and that was a terrible thing. Something to live up to. Something to fear he might not achieve.
Something in his darkest days to measure himself up against and always come short. So when the [Soothsayer] looked at him and asked, ‘do you want to see more?’
Herove hesitated. Persua knew her answer, and she began to wonder what made her so exceptional. For Herove might have become some kind of Knight-Courier.
If so—what was her deserved claim?
“Show me another, then. Just another…possibility.”
Rastandius smiled. He passed a hand over the orb, and everyone leaned forwards. The next thing they saw was…
Raich slapped a hand over her eyes, and the sounds coming from the orb made Persua stare until she saw what was going on. Herove jerked back, and Rastandius laughed.
“I’m sorry, this does happen. I—oh, would you look at that?”
A couple were, in very graphic detail, consummating what was possibly a wedding. Persua based this—once she saw it—on the attire. Or rather, the dress hanging up since one did not toss it to the ground even in a fit of lust.
Then she focused on the two people in the orb. One was, predictably, Herove. Younger? Younger than his first appearance, maybe. Rastandius was getting a good look in, and Herove was about to demand he stop—when everyone realized who the second person was.
“What? No. No. That’s…”
Raich looked at herself in the orb, and Persua saw, instantly, why Rastandius did not offer this service to lovers that much. The future of what might be drew increasingly far away from present as Herove stuttered to Raich.
“I—Raich—I didn’t—I mean, I haven’t even—I’d never—”
“Oh, you’d never?”
She glared at him, cheeks dark with embarrassment. Herove tried to cut himself off, and Rastandius decided to end the crossroads.
“I believe you can see the dangers already. Perhaps it was a mistake to offer it to the three of you. Er—shall I do you next, Miss Raich?”
“Only if you don’t show us—you’re not going to cut back to that, are you?”
Rastandius smiled, a bit offended.
“Hardly. I can differentiate the crossroads…in a sense. For you, I can show you something with a different criteria, but at the very least, I won’t show you that. You could ask me. Who will I marry? Or…”
The City Runner pressed her hands to her cheeks. She thought for a second and shook her head.
“No. Show me…show me…”
She looked around, caught sight of herself in the crystal ball, and saw her dyed hair, the tattoo on her arm.
“Show me if I’ll ever meet Mihaela Godfrey.”
Rastandius’ eyes gleamed, and Persua sat up. Herove turned back, and the scrying orb lit up. Raich looked into it…and then froze.
For all they saw was a grave.
It was a neat block of stone, unweathered, the letters fresh-cut in silver. A grave…with Raich’s name on it. There was no wind that blew across it, nor even a breeze, as someone bent down.
Mihaela Godfrey was not someone Persua had ever met face-to-face, but the old, weary Guildmistress of First Landing looked the part. Her mouth was closed in a thin line, and she laid a bright blue flower down on Raich’s grave.
Then she straightened and inhaled. But not…with her mouth. Not with air, because there was none.
Not in [The Courier’s Last Road]. The Courier stood and lifted a glass jar to her mouth, but the wind, the stored air blew at her hair slightly as she inhaled. Then she walked on.
No words, not in this place. Raich was frozen as Herove and Persua looked at her, but then everyone’s head swung back to the picture. Because Raich’s grave, simple and plain, but cared for, set across that road that led across the world…
Was one of many. Again, Mihaela bent down and placed a flower down. The next grave’s letters were hard to read—until Persua caught the name.
Fals Lenestre, City Runner.
No class, no age, nothing else. A single flower for another tombstone cut out of marble. Then Mihaela stood and waited a second. She took another step. Produced a flower.
And the graves stretched on. On and on, until—
Until Rastandius cut the image and looked gravely around the wagon. He spoke, a bit too quickly, the memory of what he had seen about to be transferred to paper.
“As I said—these are all possible timelines. I have seen many that have not come to pass. Terrible visions of the Demons overrunning Rhir, for example—I saw those decades ago, and they have not come true nor will they as I saw them. It is random.”
“I—what happened? That was [The Courier’s Last Road]. Why were so many Runners…?”
The [Soothsayer] rubbed at his forehead.
“We can only keep watching for clues, but it seemed unlikely we would get many. I apologize. I can only do this for so long, and I am holding much of my power for…”
He glanced at Persua. The City Runner sat and shivered. Raich looked at the old man and then raised her voice.
“At least give me one more! One more…”
“Of course. Would you like to see a happy future? I can find those.”
“No. No—give me something close in the future. Can you do that? Something within a year?”
Rastandius hesitated, then nodded.
“Of course. I can show you alternate pasts and presents. Something close, in the future…”
He closed his eyes. Everyone watched the orb, but hesitated. The cloth passed over it. Once, twice, three times…
Then it showed a Runner. No, a Human. No…
A body. It might have had black skin. And black hair…Persua saw a bit. And it was probably humanoid. What was left.
Perhaps she hadn’t been dead long, but all Persua saw was fungi growing on what remained of a corpse in unfamiliar dirt. Raich stared down at herself. Then she covered her mouth only for a thin trail of bile to leak from between her fingers.
Herove had to take Raich outside and help clean up. Persua did not. She stood, outside of the wagon, trembling in the night air. She paced left and right. She muttered to herself and rotated the ring on her finger.
When Raich tottered over to her, she found Persua stretching. The City Runner might not have had a Level 30 class or a…a great class, but she was a [Nimble Runner].
She could stretch and do a split almost without pain. She stood up and put her hands up, then did a run and a backflip.
“How did you learn to do that, Persua?”
Raich was still shaky, but Persua shrugged.
“I’m flexible. I saw a [Tumbler] do it one day and said I could do it too.”
“I—I envy you. Persua, are you sure you want to see what this [Soothsayer] is going to show us? You can walk away. I don’t believe—I mean, it’s just a drop in the bucket that anything will happen, right?”
Persua had seen the good of Herove’s futures and Raich’s frightening ones. But she still looked at her friend as if Raich were mad.
“I want to know what I’m going to be. Or who I could be, Raich. I’m…”
Persua clenched her hands. She struggled for words, trying to express what was in her heart. At last, she looked at the wagon and the quiet caravan, now devoid of all but the latest-night people, and came out with it.
“I’m Persua. Whatever it is, it will be great.”
In that moment, Raich saw Persua’s eyes lock onto the wagon and realized Persua had never asked about Raich or how she was feeling. She often told Raich how Raich was feeling. In silence, the City Runner stepped back.
Persua, and Persua alone, entered Rastandius’ wagon. Herove was helping Raich go back; he was interested in Persua’s future, but she had suggested he leave. Raich didn’t want to be around Persua, even to see what her future might hold.
“Are you prepared, Runner Persua?”
“I am. What am I going to see? What makes me different from…those two? From everyone else you’ve met?”
For answer, Rastandius just raised his shoulders, which made her frown, but he spoke.
“All I know is that, whatever I show you—your two friends might well change greatly from what you’ve seen.”
Persua thought about that. Herove and Raich might end up together. That would destabilize the careful balance she had between them. She’d flirted with Herove and considered sleeping with him, but only because they were all partners.
Well, good for them. Just so long as they don’t forget how much I’ve helped them. Too many people did. As for Raich, she might need someone to make sure she could handle seeing two deaths.
“It could change their lives quite a bit.”
“And change the world in some ways, too. A [Knight] and a Courier…but when I saw you in my tellings, I knew you were connected to much, much more. A single thread can, somehow, alter the course of a war. A hero in a siege. But you, my dear—in so many futures, you matter.”
Persua shivered, and a smile sprang to her lips. It didn’t reach her eyes. Not yet. She scooted forwards.
“Then show me. Show me, and I won’t look away.”
Rastandius was almost as excited. Like a younger man who had breathed fate and glory into the ears of the rich and powerful—he wanted to see it all himself. The voyeur. This was how he glimpsed the future, why he did this. He spoke, his voice trembling a bit.
“I can show you many crossroads. Some—some call to me brighter. Which ones should I pick?”
“Do you have to ask? Show me when I—when I was or will be my most glorious.”
And so the [Soothsayer] put his hands on the crystal ball, and he closed his eyes. Persua leaned forwards until her breath cast a fog on the sides, opaque and dark as a mirror.
Until an image swam out of the blank facade, like a dream.
If. Persua’s eyes focused hungrily on the truth until they grew confused. Outraged. But she never stopped watching. What she saw was Persua.
The same Persua of now. The same age. Even, funnily enough, the same clothing that Persua had once worn. The ill-fated costume of lace and Noelictus-style black-and-white hung around her like some kind of macabre doll or maid.
It certainly made the people passing by her give her a second look. In the scrying orb, Persua smiled at the people passing. She waved, blew a kiss at a fan, and scowled when they got her name wrong.
“It’s Persia, right? Persia the W—”
“City Runner Persua. Thank you. Look me up, tell your friends you met me. Excuse me, I’m waiting for someone.”
She snapped at someone, tucking the autograph card she’d been about to hand out back in her bag of holding. Persua went back to folding her arms, a huge scowl on her face.
The watching Persua, the now-Persua, was confused. Was this her glorious future? Or maybe she hadn’t reached it yet. This alternate-Persua didn’t seem much better off.
True, she hadn’t nearly died by self-garroting herself on a wagon if she were still wearing that dress. But she looked neither richer nor…well, wait a second.
The other Persua was missing something. She had no Ring of Minor Protection on her finger. The greatest artifact that the real one had was missing. Was she then—better off without it? Or had she never gotten it?
Then the watching version of herself spotted something odd. This other Persua had terrible boots.
Just—awful. Scale-hide, lime green, and completely mismatched with her current dress. She had on a terribly tacky sunburst amulet and some mismatched leather gauntlets. She would never, in any reality, have matched that clothing with those colors.
Unless they were artifacts. In which case, this Persua was wearing one, two, four—two rings, amulet, boots—
No, five artifacts. Because as she shifted, it became clear the young woman was wearing something under her outfit. A flash of color revealed actual chainmail. Oh, and she had a long shortsword strapped to her side.
Magic. She had enough gear to be called an adventurer! Silver-rank at least! Not only that, this Persua’s bag of holding looked very fine. She had more potions on her belt and a pair of wands strapped to her side.
More than that…people did recognize her. True, without the name, but in this busy street, even with the dress to help, some people saw her and knew her name.
Why? Persua was hungry to know. She watched her other self stand on her tiptoes, then smile and wave. And then every head was turning, pointing at someone coming down the street. A commotion—voices. But Persua, the waiting Persua, just spread her arms for a second, then put her hands on her hips.
“Took you long enough. I was getting sick of babysitting that brat.”
“Where’d you put him, then? Please tell me he’s alright.”
An unfamiliar…no, a familiar low voice spoke as someone halted just out of frame. Persua’s skin crawled. Her ears rang. Because she knew that voice, slightly husky, worried, but familiar, even relieved. Even happy.
Ryoka Griffin paced forwards, her bare feet walking down the streets of First Landing as Persua tossed her head to the side.
“Inn. I left him in Adventurer’s Haven.”
“Dead gods, Persua…Tyrion is just getting off the ship. You couldn’t have brought him here?”
“Nope. I had to sit on a ship with him for a week.”
Persua was completely unrepentant as she looked Ryoka Griffin up and down. Now, people were pointing. They pointed at Ryoka Griffin. And Persua.
“It’s the Wind Runner. From Ailendamus. The one who…Archmage Eldavin…”
“The Wind Runner and Persua. Persua the Weasel.”
At that, Persua’s head snapped around, and someone decided to hurry off. Ryoka covered her mouth, and Persua kicked her in the shins. Ryoka swore and then went to cuff Persua. In response, the City Runner took two steps back and flipped.
She did a backflip completely out of the way and landed, arms raised like a gymnast of another world. The people watching oohed, and Persua beamed around and stared challengingly at Ryoka, who declined to do anything like that. They held each other’s gaze, and then Ryoka threw an arm around Persua’s shoulder.
“I made it. Let’s get Sammial. Then I’ll tell you what happened in Ailendamus.”
“Sure. Did Tyrion mention me on the ship at all…?”
They began to walk down the street. Talking. Elbowing each other until Persua skipped sideways. Laughing until the Persua watching them nearly smashed Rastandius’ crystal ball.
“What is this?”
She nearly shrieked it in Rastandius’ face. Only the bile in her throat kept her from properly screaming. Persua felt sick, confused, betrayed. She went to seize the [Soothsayer]’s robes, but he looked as surprised as she did.
“The Wind Runner of Reizmelt herself? You would have known Tyrion Veltras. My, how—”
“You faker. You charlatan.”
Persua hissed in his face. Rastandius blinked at her and then realized she was truly upset.
“Do you know Ryoka Griffin?”
“She’s a fiend! That monstrous bitch, that—murdering, whoring—she’s the reason everything has gone wrong for me! Are you telling me we were supposed to be friends?”
Persua struggled with the mountains of injustices, but Rastandius knew none of this. He just gave her a solemn, even amused look.
“In the reality you wanted to see, your glorious one—you two were clearly friends. I warned you, Runner Persua, you might not like what you saw.”
“This is impossible. There is no way we would ever be friends.”
Her denial was flat and instant. If anything, Ryoka Griffin would have agreed. Yet Rastandius’ pitying look followed him passing a hand over the crystal ball. The image vanished, and he placed his hands on his haunches.
“I can tell you that it absolutely happened. Or could have happened. Perhaps you could mend—?”
“No. No, this is wrong. This is—perverse. Twisted! I cannot believe it would happen. There was nothing glorious about that. Persua the Weasel? How is that my most glorious future?”
She raged at him, but the [Soothsayer] simply raised his hands like a shield.
“That was now. I can focus on your moments of glory—which I was about to do. Yet the Crossroads of Fate showed us, clearly, the difference between the you of now and then. A friendship.”
“It couldn’t happen. We hated each other. From the very start. I can’t believe a thing you show me.”
“Then—would you like me to show you how it happened?”
Persua, about to pace in the small wagon, looked sharply at him. She hesitated. You can do that? But that was a silly question. So she wavered, bit her lip until it might bleed, and sat hard.
“If I don’t like what I see, I’m taking my gold coin and leaving. If I don’t believe it—”
“Just watch, Miss Runner. Watch.”
The [Soothsayer] frowned at her. He passed a cloth over the ball once more, and Persua sat, angry and confused. She stared into the ball as a different Persua appeared. This one…younger? By a bit, perhaps. Certainly less well-equipped. Her eyes flickered and narrowed. But then, Persua realized this was just one scene of many. Not just one moment flickered across the ball, but dozens. Little snapshots that mattered.
Rastandius was showing her everything. Her promised glory. But he began it—like a tale she didn’t want to hear—from the very start. And the first thing that he showed her that rattled the young woman to her core was something she rarely saw, even in a mirror.
Persua Alcherie Mavva was smiling. No facsimile of a smile, the lips stretched back, the teeth in the right place and the smile there everywhere but the eyes and the heart—a real smile.
She wasn’t good at it. It looked awkward, but perhaps that was fine. Because if misery liked company, awkwardness abhorred it. And so when joined by another smile like a cringe painted across a face—well, Persua grinned, panting, and the other young woman gave her much the same odd smile.
The other young woman. Not quite an adult. Not yet. That was as much her age as how she looked at herself. But she was getting there. In time, she would get there, step by step. And change. Like someone paying dues for each bit of age. Two fingers, scars, friends lost—
She had none of those scars yet. Just a wild impatience with everything, including herself. A challenging look in her eyes and grudging respect. Also—her hair was frizzled up and scorched. If you could have smelled the two, they would smell like sweat and dirt and burnt wool and hair.
“See? I told you we could do it.”
“You’re insane. I’m insane. I did it. I—I’m amazing.”
Persua’s reply was gasping. The other young woman’s smile widened. And then they both heard a shout, a whumph, and the roar of a [Fireball]. They dove for cover and hid behind a piece of rubble.
“Get the damn Lich! Someone draw it off—not you, Calruz!”
A female voice that the watching Persua recognized. A half-Elf went skidding around the corner for cover and nearly tripped over the two Runners.
“You two—get to safety!”
“We’ll just run out. Are you okay? Did you get all the potions?”
Ryoka assured Ceria, and the half-Elf gave her a strange look. She glanced over her shoulder at the undead warparty in the Ruins of Albez, and Persua yelped.
“We will? You’re mad.”
“We got in, we’ll get out. You want to sit here for ten minutes?”
She really was mad. Both Ceria and Persua gave her the same incredulous look, but Ryoka was already gauging her exit. And when she started running—the other City Runner went with her.
Persua, panting as she tried to keep up with Ryoka’s longer stride. Screaming and ducking a crackling bolt of lightning as Ryoka laughed like the insane City Runner she was. And all the while, Persua was cursing Ryoka, spewing invectives as she ran.
“I never should have come with you! You’re crazy! No run for Magnolia Reinhart is worth this! You crazy bitch!”
“You said you could keep up! I thought you said you were a real City Runner!”
And there it was. Ryoka’s needling, arrogant smile. The same smile Persua hated. The superiority that oozed off her when it came to everything from running to being so aloof, like someone condescending to talk to their inferiors.
Wild confidence. Combined with the attitude that said quite clearly that Ryoka would do anything she wanted, from taking the best requests to ignoring the Runner’s Guild conventions.
Almost, almost—Persua had debated showing Ryoka what happened to City Runners who wouldn’t play nice. But she’d relented, traded a delivery to Magnolia Reinhart for a crazy dare with Ryoka Griffin. Do an emergency-run for a group of Silver-ranked adventurers.
The Persua running for her life, half-scorched by spells the undead Lich kept throwing, regretted all her choices. She and Ryoka hated each other, rival City Runners in the same guild. Yet unlike another time, Ryoka Griffin’s leg wasn’t broken. And unlike then—Persua watched herself smile. Unwillingly, panting with fear, but risking her life.
Rivals, not enemies. Despite that, Persua cursed Ryoka all the way back to Celum. She told Fals, and every other Runner, how insane, brash, and frankly arrogant Ryoka was. Then she flopped into a bed and leveled up.
And that was how it began.
“I’m going on a run to, uh…Liscor. The Horns are heading that way. I might as well. Who took the request to Esthelm?”
Ryoka Griffin was standing in Celum’s Runner’s Guild, checking on the deliveries. She had a frown on her face and was addressing a shy City Runner. Garia Strongheart murmured, her voice low and hesitant.
“Oh. I thought we could do that run together—”
“Sorry, Garia. Maybe later. Who’s got the request?”
Ryoka Griffin was impatient to go. She hopped up and down on her bare feet. Then she looked around, and a resigned scowl crossed her face.
“I should have known. Persua. You don’t run to Esthelm.”
A familiar head of brown hair rose among a gaggle of laughing Runners. Some glared at Ryoka, but most looked amused. Especially when Persua put her hands on her cheeks, looking mock-horrified. Her voice was no less sarcastic.
“Oh no. Did I take your delivery request, Ryoka? What a shame. I’m so sorry I got in Ryoka Griffin’s way. No other runner could hope to do what she does. It’s not like I don’t know the Horns of Hammerad either.”
Ryoka’s jaw clenched, but she gave Persua a big smile.
“Why don’t we run down to Esthelm together, then? If you can keep up.”
Persua lost her smile.
“Go to Rhir, Ryoka.”
However, they did end up leaving the Runner’s Guild at the same time. A resigned Garia watched as Persua began to head out and Ryoka went after her. They weren’t halfway through the door before Ryoka ‘accidentally’ shoved Persua into the doorway. An enraged Persua chased after Ryoka.
…She never caught up. Ryoka was taller, came from a background of running herself, and had been far more fit than Persua when she came to this world. At her level, back then, Persua had been, oh, Level 15.
Although she had leveled up from running with Ryoka. Even so, the Ryoka of back then had never been the most pleasant. For instance, she stood over Persua, nudging her with a toe as Persua lay, panting at the sky, having lost all her energy in the last hour of off-and-on sprinting trying to attack Ryoka.
“Hey Persua, what’s wrong? We have to get to Esthelm in two days. No time for lying down.”
Persua stared up at Ryoka’s mocking grin, her face drenched in sweat. She whispered.
“I hate you. What’s wrong with you? I thought you were just an arrogant freak, but you’re just—insane.”
Ryoka lost her smile.
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
Persua struggled to sit up. She panted as she stared at Ryoka.
“I thought you were trying to be a hero at Albez. But then you did the High Passes run. You’re not a wannabe Courier. You’re just insane. And you’re going to kill yourself.”
The other young woman put her hands on her hips. She scowled and suddenly looked ready for a fight.
“I’m just living my utmost. You should try it, Persua, instead of cowering behind doing the popular things in the Runner’s Guild. I thought you wanted to level up.”
Silently, Persua stared at Ryoka. So long the other young woman grew uncomfortable.
“What? Spit it out.”
“Who did you meet in the High Passes? Why are you in a tearing hurry to get to Liscor?”
Ryoka’s eyes shifted south. She clenched and unclenched her hands.
“I’ve got…a delivery. I have to go. Unlike you, Persua, I have more I want to do and see. Keep sitting there if you can’t do the run. I’ll take your delivery and ‘credit’ you, even.”
She tossed her head, and Persua’s face screwed up with frustration and dislike. And envy. And…she looked at Ryoka’s back and shouted as the Wind Runner began to jog off.
“I may not be as fast as you, but at least I don’t loathe myself like you do!”
Ryoka Griffin’s shoulders hunched. She slowed and looked back at Persua. The two Runners locked eyes for a long time on that long road south.
They fought in Esthelm. After Ryoka Griffin broke Yvlon Byres’ nose in a duel, she egged Persua into a fight despite the weight difference.
Persua was no hand-to-hand expert. She went flailing after Ryoka as the Wind Runner jabbed and kicked her onto the ground, and Ceria called for them to stop. Right until Ryoka planted her foot in Persua’s face.
Then Persua snapped. Calruz never had his chance to see what Ryoka was made of. Gerial, Ceria, and two of the other Silver-rank adventurers had to pull Persua off Ryoka. They had to use half a healing potion for her bruised face and the pummeling she received.
On the other side, Ryoka had mostly scratches. But Persua had taken a chunk out of her arm. With her teeth.
When they left, Ryoka was flipping Ceria off, and the two glared daggers at each other. Persua sat there as the Horns milled around discussing Ryoka Griffin.
Weeks later. Persua sat in the strange inn she’d found, sipping blue juice. She barely reacted as someone halted at the table.
The young woman didn’t look up. She stared pointedly at the back of an [Innkeeper] arguing with a [Necromancer]. She didn’t know if she liked the inn, but she did like the sweet drinks. The current guest made her itch to go, though.
“I’m…Persua, it’s me.”
“I’m aware it’s you, Ryoka.”
Persua didn’t look at the other City Runner. But she did notice Ryoka looked more—hesitant than before. She stood uncertainly, and some of the fire that burnt everything had gone.
Had she really run the Blood Fields? Persua didn’t know. If anything, Ryoka looked defeated.
“Can I sit down?”
“It’s not my inn.”
Persua deliberately turned and faced the wall as Ryoka sat down. She didn’t so much as look at Ryoka as the other young woman fidgeted. Persua was on the brink of drawing her belt dagger, until Ryoka spoke.
“I’m glad you survived. When I heard about the crypt…did anyone make it besides Yvlon?”
Persua’s shoulders hunched. She looked around, and Pisces Jealnet stared at a glowing butterfly made of magic on his fingers. She wondered what it meant, but she only glanced at Ryoka out of the corner of her eyes.
Ryoka’s head hung low. She stared at her hands, and Persua herself stared blankly at the wall. It wasn’t like she’d liked the Horns. Not at all. She’d just saved their lives.
That was it. They owed her a favor, and they’d never had a chance to become Gold-ranks. She’d thought they might. Then she’d be friends with a Gold-rank team, even if Calruz claimed she lacked ‘ample muscles and mammaries’. That idiotic Minotaur…
“I’m so sorry.”
Ryoka interrupted Persua’s blank staring at the wall. Persua glanced at Ryoka again, and the young Asian woman clasped and unclasped her hands.
“I’ve been terrible to everyone. And now—”
“Took you long enough to realize it.”
Persua snapped back. She saw Ryoka’s head duck lower, and a dozen things she could say to really drive Ryoka into the dust popped onto her tongue.
She held it. And she and Ryoka sat there until an [Innkeeper] exclaimed.
Slowly, Ryoka’s head rose, and she turned, a disbelieving look in her eyes. A little Goblin raised her head at a table as Erin Solstice shouted. Persua bit her lip as Pisces showed them the butterfly.
They argued, the few guests of the inn. There was the creepy skeleton, Ryoka insisting they had to go now. Persua found herself on Rags’ side, arguing not to get killed going after them.
But just like last time—just like every time and the times to come—when Ryoka Griffin went into the Crypt of Liscor to rescue Ceria and Olesm, Persua went with her.
Time passed in Rastandius’ crystal ball in jumps and leaps. Not every moment was about Persua, and many events passed her by, regardless of how her decisions had changed things.
Not all of it mattered. Though Persua couldn’t have known it, not much had changed from her different relationship with Ryoka Griffin.
Like Fals, like Garia—Persua kept running around Celum, though she did run to Liscor now and then. She was a higher-level runner, but she was no rapidly-evolving legend.
If there were a difference, it was that in this timeline, in this reality—
Ryoka Griffin sat with Persua’s friends, an uncomfortable smile plastered on her face. Instead of Garia and Fals, Persua sat there, retelling when she had led the expedition to save Ceria. Sniping with Ryoka when they got on each other’s nerves. And, oh, they did fight.
“You’re too focused on being popular and fashionable, Persua.”
“And you love standing out with your bare feet and ‘I don’t care how I look’ attitude, Ryoka. I can at least play nice.”
“To everyone except Garia. You bully her.”
“I don’t bully her—”
“You bully her.”
Ryoka stood with her arms folded. Persua tensed up, getting angrier by the second. She knew how this was going to end, but she kept snapping back.
“Well, I don’t think I’m too good for Magnolia Reinhart and that I know everything and I’m the [Moral Philosopher] of this age!”
Whereupon Ryoka put Persua into a headlock. But she didn’t fight Persua, because if Persua snapped, she would draw a dagger or fly into a fury, regardless of how badly Ryoka kicked or punched her.
It was that kind of relationship. Mutual distaste at times, but they had common friends in the Horns, even the inn where Persua had developed an addiction to blue fruit juice.
When did that change? Perhaps—with that subtle manipulator that even Persua took notes from. The [Innkeeper]. She and Persua didn’t really like each other, but even back then…Erin Solstice meddled.
Winter’s snows were already falling, naturally, across Izril when Erin Solstice beckoned Persua over. There were no Winter Sprites. There had never been Winter Sprites. Not here.
But there was still the request. There was still the job that was going to carry Ryoka south, past the Bloodfields. She was cagey about the details, but Erin whispered to Persua.
“Psst. Persua. Will you go with Ryoka and make sure she stays out of trouble? I’ll give you a blue fruit drink every day for a month. Two months.”
Persua didn’t know if she was being insulted or not. She opened her mouth, closed it, glanced at Ryoka.
“You want me to run with Ryoka past the Bloodfields? For free blue juice.”
“Um. Yeah? She makes it sound like it’ll be hard. Ryoka could use some backup, y’know? And you’re, like, her only friend.”
The [Nimble Runner]’s mouth worked silently for a good minute.
“…I’m not her friend.”
Erin gave Persua a blank look.
“Well, if you’re not, who is? Come on, I’ll give you a blue juice for three months. Assuming I still have enough fruits.”
Persua turned her head to look at Ryoka. She glanced at Erin and had to confess, she really wanted to know what Ryoka’s secret client was all about. She bit her lip, hesitated—
The [Soothsayer]’s eyes were focused on his crystal orb. He frowned. Persua, sitting silent, thought she saw a flash of something. A momentary voice.
“Ryoka. It’s him. It’s—”
Two young women stood petrified in front of…some kind of figure? A floating mass of something in the air. They were terrified, panting, in a room of…?
“Strange. I can’t—”
Rastandius tried to hold onto the encounter, but the moment skipped by. To—
“…anyone else make it? Did anyone…?”
Ryoka’s voice was choked. Persua was staring at Ryoka’s missing fingers. The runner bled onto the snow. Snow, as pale as the little Gnoll’s fur.
Some things never changed. Behind them, the Goblin Lord’s forces advanced. Persua just dragged Ryoka onwards.
They would have never made it but for that tribe slowing the Goblin Lord down. Perhaps—without Persua—Ryoka might not have escaped them.
Or perhaps she would have. Persua kept looking back. Snow was covering thousands of Goblins, who were struggling out of the freak avalanche.
What had that been? Just luck? A Skill? A spellcaster? One of the Drake’s Skills? Neither girl knew. But the little Gnoll howled as her tribe perished. They didn’t know it, but a bargain was a bargain. Even if the ones who had struck the bargain weren’t there, fate remembered.
Always, and always, Ryoka Griffin carried Mrsha away through the snow.
Thereafter, things changed slowly. From Persua idly tickling a little Gnoll’s tummy to try and get her to laugh, to following Ryoka into the High Passes.
What transpired there was lost between Rastandius’ projection, but it was a shared secret that left Persua visibly annoyed—and in Ryoka’s company more than ever.
Instead of a prickly Frost Faerie keeping Ryoka company, there was a Persua, and it was hard to tell which relationship was more acrimonious at times. From evading Magnolia Reinhart to meeting Laken Godart—there was Persua Mavva.
But a hanger-on. The unwilling accomplice to some of Ryoka’s antics. It kept her levelling.
By the time she and Ryoka arrived in Invrisil as ‘guests’ of Magnolia Reinhart, Persua could keep up with Ryoka. Her Skills meant that she could beat Ryoka in a quick dash for safety, but she still got winded too quickly. She wasn’t much of a fighter, either. If anything, Ryoka Griffin’s dubious hand-to-hand combat abilities, which were of little use against monsters, were only eclipsed by Persua’s weakness at fighting.
They ran away a lot. And then Ryoka Griffin felt the wind begin to call to her. She began to develop a kind of magic that no one, not even Ceria and Pisces, had a proper explanation for. As if she were meant to learn it.
Somehow, despite her levels and Ryoka’s lack, Persua found herself falling behind. And—were they even friends?
“Of course I’m not friends with her. She’s crazy. I just run with her because I level up. That’s why I haven’t been around Celum.”
Persua was defending herself to her former clique of runners. She was getting a lot of skeptically raised eyebrows. She kept glancing towards Ryoka, who was listening to Garia. The farmer-girl didn’t look at Persua once, and her face fell as Ryoka gestured energetically at Persua.
“Sure, Persua. You two just seem joined at the hip.”
“We’re not friends. We just—I—wait a second. What is it now, Ryoka? Can’t you leave me alone for one…?”
Persua jogged over, exasperated, and her group broke up, watching as Persua heard about Garia Strongheart inviting Ryoka—and by proxy, Persua—to the Wailant’s farm.
And wasn’t that an unpleasant encounter, with Wailant meeting his daughter’s bully? Garia wasn’t as close to Ryoka. Fals? Fals had gone north to try his luck as a Runner.
Small changes. Important changes. Mrsha still sat in the Wailant farm, gobbling down food, only it was Persua instead of Ivolethe.
But it was that moment that mattered the most. On a winter day—Rastandius felt it. He saw it. The crossroads never lied. They showed him, and the young woman in front of him, how long ago the seeds had been sown for Persua’s glorious fate.
The Wind Runner kept brushing at the wind blowing around her, wild and untamed. She was still learning her powers, but both Garia and Persua were fascinated by what she’d shown them.
Mrsha was doing backwards somersaults in the snow, trying to leap up like Ryoka had. But Garia was slowly making a fist and copying one of Ryoka’s punches.
Persua, though, was agog with how Ryoka had just moved. Ryoka grinned.
“Haven’t I ever shown you, Persua?”
“No! I knew you could do a backflip, but what was that?”
“Tricking. It’s a kind of…movement. It’s pretty complex. See, take a look at this. It’s called a flashkick, but you’d call this a standing flashkick…”
Ryoka leapt up and did a backflip where one leg shot forwards, until she landed—a bit too hard on her front foot—and swore as she hobbled around with one hand on her back. Mrsha patted her anxiously, and Ryoka waved a hand at the other two City Runners.
“See? It’s dangerous. Let alone parkour or doing this. Frankly, most people aren’t, uh, flexible enough for this to evolve naturally. The basis for athleticism like this—”
She broke off as Persua did a running start, did a backflip, and messed up the flashkick. She landed with her butt in the snow, blinked at Ryoka, and then smirked.
“What was that?”
And there it was. Ryoka Griffin stopped, her mouth open, and she looked at Persua. Really—looked at her.
The young woman had never been the most outstandingly built Runner, even naturally. She had more of a sprinter’s build, and of the two, Garia was more suited for long-distance runs.
But what did suit Persua was—well, suddenly Ryoka Griffin imagined Persua wearing a flashy gymnast’s outfit. Standing on a mat, possibly with an angry sports-mom watching her in the background as a bunch of judges held up cards. Did that fit?
It definitely fit. Persua was born to be a gymnast. Or a cheerleader? Or…slowly, as Garia began practicing some kicks and Mrsha rolled around in the snow and ate some of the fine crystal powder, Ryoka began showing Persua more tricks. And Persua’s eyes opened wide as she found something she not only was good at—but liked.
The Persua of now, sitting in the smelly wagon watching Rastandius’ crystal glow from scene to scene, was slowly losing her temper again.
Like a bull slowly going insane until its eyes rolled up in its head and it smashed through the steel gates of reason, regardless of the damage to itself—she was losing her mind.
“Tricking? Flips and stretches?”
That was her talent? Rastandius looked patently amused as the other Persua began working a routine, mostly for fun. Mostly—just to show off.
She did a cartwheel to cheer up a crying little Gnoll, turned it into a handspring, and evolved it into a roundoff, a kind of variant where a cartwheel turned into landing on your feet with your back facing the target. She could do a spinning tornado kick, a move that looked exactly like it sounded, and with practice, do frontflips standing, as flexible as a Drake’s tail in oil.
…All of it useless in a fight. Or running.
Persua sat under a table, trying to hide as the consequences of Ryoka’s run caught up with her and Regrika Blackpaw smashed through Celum after the City Runner.
She was still a coward who watched her knife turn on the Named-rank Adventurer’s fur and hid, shaking with fear. So much so that Regrika went after Ryoka instead of Persua.
Was she any better at fighting? No. Was she that much faster?
She had never learned [Double Step]. Instead, Persua was a [Gymnast], a class unique only in that it was green. She was not much richer than before, and she had come close to death so many times.
There was just one difference, and it was a strange friendship. Such that when Ryoka Griffin left The Wandering Inn, left Liscor after all the death and trouble she had brought—Persua went with her. North, far past Invrisil, to a city called Reizmelt.
What made her different in those days? The Persua of now, this Persua, watched the other one. She saw…similarities, and differences. The same woman, but altered imperceptibly. Rastandius’ eyes were locked on the crystal ball, but they turned to his audience, gauging her reactions.
“You’re not as cool as the Wind Runner.”
So spoke a twelve year-old girl, a local of Reizmelt. She pointed accusingly at the City Runner watching as Ryoka blew a bunch of kids on their parasailing landboats about. Persua…twitched.
Ryoka noticed and tried to forestall Persua’s temper tantrum. But her…friend…had a horrible temper.
Almost as bad as Ryoka’s. The difference between the two of them was that, while Ryoka was prone to wild fits of fury—Persua was petty.
“Oh, and you think you’re as good as a City Runner, you little brat?”
The twelve year-old looked mildly disconcerted to see someone half again as old as she was picking a fight. Then again, she was in her puberty, and Persua wasn’t that tall. The other children oohed as Ryoka covered her face.
“What can you do, huh? Run fast?”
The girl challenged Persua as Ryoka blew around a squealing boy with a resigned air of watchfulness. In reply, Persua did a perfect handstand. She held herself perfectly upright, then grinned mockingly at the girl.
“How about this?”
In reply, the girl hesitated, then motioned some of her friends back and…copied Persua. Her handstand wasn’t as perfectly balanced, but she did it a good ten seconds before she fell back onto her feet.
Ryoka covered a smile as the other children oohed again. The girl gave Persua an arch look.
“If that’s what it takes to be a City Runner, I’ll join up.”
Persua turned beet red. Without a word, she regained her feet—and then did a standing backflip. This time, she tucked in and rolled around with such grace that Ryoka was impressed.
She’d be perfect on a gym’s mat. The fact that Persua was doing this with cobblestones beneath her was a testament to her bravery.
Unfortunately—Persua had forgotten something that Ryoka had begun to learn. Which was that children could be incredibly talented. And they were all innately far more flexible than adults.
The girl had, perhaps, never seen someone perform a backflip in her life. But she was in good shape, possibly from helping at whatever job she was apprenticed to or running around all day. She gave Persua a narrow-eyed look, then did a running start and pulled off a backflip. She landed, wobbled, then raised her hands to the wild cheers of her friends.
“That’s great! Come on, Persua…”
Ryoka tried to let everyone come away a winner, but Persua was now turning red as the other children mocked her. Red—when white. Then icy-calm.
“You’re not bad. Why don’t we have a proper match. The first person who can’t copy the other loses.”
She smiled sweetly at her opponent, who was, by now, getting overconfident. Thus began the most petty battle of tricking that Ryoka had ever seen.
What was amazing to her was that this newcomer kept up with Persua as they slowly escalated moves. She had some natural talent—perhaps more than Persua herself. Persua did a front-flip, then a hand-spring, then a tornado kick, looking exasperated as the other girl copied her, if not perfectly, then well enough.
However—Ryoka hadn’t been trying to stop this impromptu trick-off for Persua’s pride. She had been doing it for the child.
Persua, oh, Persua. Unable to beat a Goblin. Nearly killed by a rogue slime—a big one, but still. When it came to fights in Mad Madain’s bar, she threw things behind Ryoka.
But if there was one thing Ryoka had observed—it was that Persua was invincible when it came to beating people weaker than she was. Which was mostly Street Runners and children.
A cunning look had appeared in Persua’s gaze. Blandly, she pulled off a double handspring and webster jump, a kind of single-footed frontflip. The beginning of a tricking routine.
Her opponent managed almost all of it, although she used both her legs for the webster. The audience hesitated, but Persua smiled.
“Oh, not bad!”
As if she hadn’t noticed the other girl slipping up, she folded her arms, looking stuck for a moment. Then she turned, winked at Ryoka as she spun—and performed a genuine 720-degree kick. She spun so fast around in the air that her audience’s eyes bugged out.
But Persua wasn’t done. Not by a long shot. As she was landing—and by now, Alber had lowered his gloves to watch in frank amazement—Persua cartwheeled onto her arms.
On the street’s ground, she began to break dance. Persua landed on her elbows, swung her legs up, and rotated. Her legs spun around like a reverse top, and Ryoka hoped her shirt wouldn’t fall, but Persua swung out of the elbow air flare into a ‘classic’ flare, where her legs swung around in the air as she held herself up on her arms. Not once did her body touch the ground—it was all entirely core, back, and upper body strength.
Her opponent was watching, trying to figure out what Persua was doing until Persua flipped back into her handstand. She raised one hand until she had both legs and hand in the air.
“Dead gods, Persua. Really?”
[Perfect Posture]. The City Runner was laughing. Then she began doing one-handed handstand hops. Ryoka was covering her face, trying to pretend she wasn’t part of this bullying. And Persua kept going.
Her new Skills. [Redirect Balance]. Persua’s arm tensed—then she threw herself up and did a one-handed handspring. She began doing handsprings around her opponent, twisting in midair, switching to back handsprings, doing a hurricane that carried her into a circular cartwheel as the children screamed and applauded.
…Against a twelve-year-old girl. Lest anyone forget. But by the time Persua was done, her opponent was begging to know how she did that. And Persua, wiping sweat from her forehead, gave Ryoka a triumphant look.
“They’ve got to respect me too, you know.”
Ryoka Griffin rolled her eyes. But she didn’t argue with Persua. Even if she was rough around the edges—well, Ryoka was all sandpaper. They were working on it. And if Persua quietly complained about Ryoka’s wind powers, about falling behind—
Something was growing. Something was changing.
It came one night when Persua was sleeping over with Ryoka at Fierre’s castle-home. She still wasn’t quite over Fierre being a Vampire, but for some reason, Persua felt like she and Fierre got on almost better than Fierre and Ryoka.
It was all challenge and grandeur between Ryoka and the Vampire girl. Persua was, somehow, the intermediary. Perhaps it was because Ryoka claimed she had met an immortal Dragon.
“He’s not that impressive. All pretentiousness.”
Persua whispered in Fierre’s ear as Ryoka demonstrated a handspring for the interested Vampire; although, by now, the apprentice had long since passed whatever mastery Ryoka could claim.
Not that Persua knew who Fierre was. She wondered why the girl had such long canines. Rastandius was eying Fierre with a knowing look, but he knew better than to say anything. You kept your mouth shut most of the time.
Doing otherwise was a quick way to end up without a drop of blood in the sewers. He listened as Persua kept referring to…
“Why is it making that sound?”
Every time Persua told Fierre about the unimpressive individual, the scrying orb emitted a jet of what might have been static or a screech. Rastandius sighed.
“Someone important who knows how my Skills work. Fascinating. We may get hints later—but keep watching. This is important.”
Fierre was showing off her amazing flexibility as Ryoka watched. Like Persua’s legendary battle against the twelve year old, already enshrined in Reizmelt legend, Fierre could pull off most tricking moves without practice.
It just wasn’t fair, and, unlike with the twelve year old, Persua was having trouble beating Fierre. It was making her increasingly upset until Fierre pointed down the hill. Her home was on a steep plateau, and the hill was so lovely that some of the sheep would roll down it for fun, like Fluffles the Fifth.
“Can you do a handspring-thing down that? Or a cartwheel?”
Ryoka eyed the steep gradient.
“I’m not going to break my arms, thanks. Persua?”
“I—I could do it. What about you, Fierre?”
“Let me try.”
The Vampire girl, challengingly, did a little run up and tried to do a handspring down the hill. Halfway, she realized a cartwheel would carry her down. She did one handspring, slipped on the steep slope, and—
“Oh, dead gods!”
Fierre missed, hit her neck, twisted, and began slamming down the hill. She landed in a heap of limbs and got up, cracking her neck shamefacedly. But then she called up to Persua.
“Well—you have a class! You do it! I bet you’ll level! Do it and I’ll admit you’re better than me, Persua! Three handsprings or you cartwheel to the bottom!”
“Healing potions don’t fix broken necks, Persua. I wouldn’t.”
Ryoka whispered, but the City Runner looked down the hill and glared at Fierre’s mocking smile. Fierre blew her a kiss.
“I’ll kiss any wounds you get.”
“I’ll kiss—I can do—three handsprings? I can do that.”
The Wind Runner whispered urgently to Persua, but her eyes were locked on Fierre. The [Gymnast] backed up and took a few deep breaths.
Persua did a running start and began to do handsprings down the hill. For the first two, Ryoka saw her form was excellent, a rapid rotation backwards, hands, legs, landing as she spun.
—But Ryoka had seen this before. She had seen a video of someone doing this down a beach slope. And what she knew was that no matter how good you were, what you couldn’t stop was gravity.
Persua began to speed up. And the handsprings became quicker. She began screaming not ten feet down the hill.
“I can’t stop! RyokaFierresomeonestopme—”
“Wipe out! Wipe out, Persua!”
Ryoka shouted at Persua as Fierre watched with her mouth open. She meant for Persua to wipe out—it would be bad since this was grass, not sand, but the longer Persua went, the faster she’d end up wiping out.
But Persua was too terrified to stop the handsprings. So down she went. Ryoka was running after her—until she realized Persua was accelerating to a speed faster than Ryoka’s downhill run.
Like some kind of crazy toy-person, Persua flashed down the hill, still doing handsprings. She passed by a disbelieving Fierre, who reached out for her and jerked back.
A screaming City Runner was headed down the hill. No—down the plateau. And somehow, moving at a full-blown runner’s pace—she was still doing handsprings.
Down she went, past startled sheep, flipping over rocks, flipping past a road and a [Farmer] who stared at her along with the horses on the wagon he was driving. Persua’s screams began to recede down the hill as Fierre and Ryoka watched. But they’d halted going after her, because they were laughing too hard.
Not just with malice, but with sheer amazement. Because there she went. Persua eventually tumbled to a stop and lay sobbing on the ground three thousand feet away. She had gone down the entire slope without stopping, doing handsprings all the way down. Ryoka came sliding to a stop and offered her a healing potion for her hands, which had been cut on some of the rocks. Fierre just sniffed at the blood and then lifted one of Persua’s hands. She licked delicately at the bloody cut and made a face.
Persua gave her a wide-eyed look, and Ryoka raised both her brows. Persua bit her lip as Fierre caught herself and blushed.
“What was that about? She’s so—”
“Um. She might be gay. I have a tiny bit of intuition there.”
Ryoka and Persua had a quiet conversation on the run back from the Lischelle-Drakle home. Persua gave Ryoka a blank look.
The Wind Runner gave her a suspicious look and realized Persua was actually serious. She blew out her cheeks in amazement.
“Are you serious? No, wait, you are serious. You’ve never heard of…this world. I swear. There have to be—but it’s not in the public consciousness, is it?”
“What, what? Is this another stupid Earth-thing like your ‘cars’ and ‘airplanes’?”
Rastandius’ eyes were gleaming, but Persua almost missed that. She was staring at Ryoka, who had halted and was trying to explain a concept to Persua. But the Persua sitting in Rastandius’ tent kept clenching and clenching her hand, and she had a strange tingling in her palm, though it hadn’t been cut open.
She was watching her own face. And what she saw—no. But yes.
The other Persua looked at Ryoka, purely shocked. Then she began asking questions. Then—the Persua covered in grass, filthy from sweat, but levelling, able to flip down a hillside and come out standing straight, if dizzy?
Once again, she smiled.
There was no Ivolethe to save. No Summer Solstice to plan for—yet. But Ryoka Griffin had been looking into her strange powers of wind. She needed someone who knew magic. And, well, they both had great ambitions.
It was Persua who suggested it and Ryoka who eventually met Lady Ieka Imarris and was asked to meet the Archmage of Izril. Although that wasn’t what Persua took from the meeting.
“She was in to you, Ryoka.”
“No, she wasn’t. You’re just seeing it everywhere now that I told you—”
“Excuse me? I can tell. A [Lady] doesn’t just ask a smelly, barefoot savage like you to have dinner to ‘discuss’ the request. You should have accepted.”
“I’m, uh—that’s not me. I’m not opposed. Or bigoted, but Ieka? I don’t even know her.”
Persua turned back to Invrisil in the distance.
“I’ll go back and have dinner for you. And I’ll take Fierre.”
“Dead gods, Persua. Weren’t you just eying Alber? You and Fierre—there’s such a thing as being unfaithful, you know?”
At this, the [Gymnastic Runner] gave Ryoka such an arch look that the Wind Runner blushed.
“We’re not a thing. Plus, Fierre likes Alber too.”
“For his blood.”
“Yes. And I’m fine with his body. What’s the difference?”
Ryoka opened her mouth and threw up her hands. Persua was laughing as she jogged with Ryoka back to the carriages that would take them north. From the Unseen Coach all the way to Valeterisa’s island.
When they dared her mansion, it was Fierre, Ryoka—and Persua.
Did you see it now? A screaming Persua fighting her dopplegangers, emerging bloody, collapsing as Fierre and Ryoka poured healing potions on her. Her cheering on Ryoka with Salamani and Fierre in the prison cells?
Was she necessary? Did she change things or could Ryoka have done it all without her? Persua hefted a pair of lime-green boots out from the treasures of dead Couriers and adventurers, and Fierre helped her put on the chainmail. She snagged an amulet like a sunburst, eyes wide, and turned.
Then, she was a City Runner among City Runners.
But not a Courier.
Mihaela Godfrey stood over Ryoka Griffin.
“Get back up, Wind Runner. And you? Artifacts don’t a Courier make. Your friend is at least brave enough to stand up.”
Persua hid from the Courier of First Landing, begging not to be hit with a punch as fast as lightning. Mihaela dragged her up, stared at Persua’s terrified face, and turned as Ryoka lunged.
Down she went. Persua scrambled back and then lunged out with a knife at Mihaela’s leg. Without missing a beat, Mihaela kicked her so hard Persua’s eyes rolled up in her head.
Ryoka heard the crack. One of Persua’s teeth cracked. The City Runner spat out a bit of a tooth. She stared at it, the blood, and then she charged, screaming, swinging the knife. Mihaela’s brows rose as she punched Persua.
Once, twice—she backed up and dropped Persua after eight punches.
“Now there’s a rabid rodent. But a Courier doesn’t get lucky or backed into a corner. You both fail.”
She jogged off, leaving Ryoka to collect Persua with Fierre’s help.
Not yet. Persua was depressed, angry, snappish with Ryoka for a long time afterwards. Ryoka went off to the Unseen Empire with Charlay and Alevica. Persua, geared up, did runs that had been difficult for her before.
Now, with Boots of Speed, amulets, and rings, she showed off, doing a backflip as she entered a town, laughing, but trying to get people to remember her.
Persua! As now, so before. Persua the Flipper? No, that’s terrible. Persua the Inspiring? No one would call her that. Persua the Gymnast just sounded…bad.
She wanted a name. But her acrobatics weren’t on par with even Lancrel the Leaper. And always, always—
When Ryoka Griffin challenged the Assassin’s Guild of Izril, the Wind Runner’s name struck a continent. When she ran on that death-defying mission…
Persua didn’t go with her.
Garia Strongheart, now the [Martial Artist], glared daggers at Persua as she helped Ryoka win free of Invrisil. The Black Tide marched against [Assassins], and an [Innkeeper] led an army for her friend.
But it was Maviola El, Saliss of Lights, and Ryoka Griffin who made that long run across the continent.
Twice, now, Persua watched the Wind Runner shining. Flying high, battling [Assassins]. The Named Adventurer turned a river’s crossing into a lake. Maviola burned across the lands.
Higher, the winds took her as she unleashed her magic and flew into the magical hurricane. But this time, her mastery was not so perfect.
It blew her wide, wide of House Veltras’ lands, and she landed with [Assassins] and Couriers making for her position. Ryoka Griffin staggered to her feet and faced the last Faces of the Guild within a hundred miles of First Landing.
This time, Mihaela Godfrey found Ryoka Griffin lying with crossbow bolts in her front and back, clawing at a broken vial. She bent down and wondered why Ryoka was laughing.
“I did it. Are they dead?”
The Guildmistress stared into Ryoka’s laughing face as she coughed up blood. She looked around and saw in the trickling liquid the hopes of Lord Tyrion Veltras bleeding into Ryoka’s wounds.
“They’re dead. But the vial—?”
Ryoka’s unfocused gaze drifted upwards as a [Healer] ran towards them. And she smiled with a confidence the other Ryoka had not possessed. Relief.
“No. No. My friend has it.”
Then—Mihaela’s head rose. She turned, and as Lord Tyrion Veltras knelt by his sons’ sides, a City Runner jogged into House Veltras’ keep and proffered a vial to a stunned Jericha. Unnoticed—she’d even taken a carriage part of the way here.
Persua delivered the cure.
History changed so slightly. Or was this how it was meant to be? Instead of a trick by the Circle of Thorns, Persua tricked them for the Wind Runner. She basked in the glory of Izril’s attention for one minute.
Until someone pointed out that Persua hadn’t done much. Ryoka Griffin, the Wind Runner, had taken on the Guild of Assassins directly.
Noass leaned on the desk, tapping one claw meaningfully as he turned to Sir Relz.
“Really, Sir Relz. Do you think just…sneaking by all the assassins is worthy of being named a Courier? Ryoka Griffin, I can see. The Wind Runner of Reizmelt; it’s a fine name for a new Courier. But this ‘Persua’—I just can’t see it. She did deliver the cure, plaudits to her for that. But it was such a sneaky, underhanded way of doing it. Like a—a—what am I thinking of? Some kind of animal?”
In her room where she was watching Ryoka recover, Persua threw the bowl of soup at the scrying mirror.
“No! No, no—”
Persua the Weasel. The City Runner. Not the Courier. Forever in Ryoka’s shadow? Persua had to reckon with that. But she didn’t have much time. Because…
As the summer was reaching its midpoint, Hectval pulled off their raid. And Erin Solstice died.
Full stop. Ryoka Griffin came running into The Wandering Inn with Persua. They saw Erin’s bier. Searched for something that could be done.
The same things happened, just differently.
Archmage Valeterisa was there early. She inspected Erin’s body, and there was nothing she could do. But in her research for Ryoka Griffin, she had come across an old ritual that made use of the Summer Solstice.
All it might take was the right place. The right offerings. Members of the Five Families. Persua saw Ryoka turn and call in Lady Ieka and Lord Tyrion’s debts.
But something was different. Something was off.
The [Soothsayer] felt it, though he had no idea what had transpired at the Summer Solstice, only felt the fates changing along with everyone else. He watched hungrily, piecing together a puzzle—but not with clues so much as more gaps. He saw what was missing.
There was no banquet. There was no challenge of fae, no shining Melidore. There were shadows, but no six figures. Even the Crossroads could not encompass them.
But there was a door, and even now, Persua followed Ryoka Griffin into…
The Lands of the Fae?
Yes, and no. Even the crystal ball had trouble showing the confusing perspectives and lands the two young women went across. But what it did show was—odd.
A deserted forest, trees withered, only strange creatures dogging their steps. An ominous, broken city, where the buildings lured them into the darkness where things lurked and tried to consume them.
An empty field, a mountain with hundreds of holes fit for giant worms. All—empty. The only people they met, the only people, were a group of alien folk as lost and unnerved as the two. Travellers, exploring dead lands.
Dead—except for the center. The two had no guide. So they walked to the heart of these strange lands until they came to a ruined court. There stood a handful of strange, beautiful folk. But faded. But shadowed. Almost like ghosts or memories.
“I’ve come to find a cure for death.”
Ryoka Griffin’s voice shook as she spoke to the last remnants of the court of…who? A figure with blue skin turned to her and replied in a high voice wracked with…regret? No mockery. Just regret, even sympathy.
“Not here. Not you, mortal.”
“What? But I—what do you mean? Aren’t we in the right place? Aren’t you…?”
Those eyes flickered over Ryoka, the lost aliens, and then onto Persua’s face. The City Runner shivered as the person who was half-here raised one hand. She almost smiled at Persua, sadly.
“No. This isn’t the right one. I am sorry. What you seek was never here.”
Then she turned her eyes up and to the side and stared hard at the air. At something neither Ryoka nor Persua could see, but the figure narrowed her eyes, almost as if she was staring at an invisible…watcher. An invisible camera. She turned back and sighed.
“We cannot help you. Go. Play out your fate, child. Seek—yes. Seek Ailendamus. They have what you want. Be thou well.”
And like that, in plain language, she bowed and turned away. The rest of her kin gave Ryoka and Persua strange nods and looks of regret.
A mystery. They would never quite know what that moment meant, but the outcome was the same. In part.
This time, Ryoka Griffin performed a seance with [Witches] to beg a ghost for knowledge of what the vaults held, and a Wyrm kidnapped her out of paranoia.
This time, Persua went after her and brought Sammial Veltras back instead of the Hundredfriends Courier and the Waterbear.
And here they were. Back to the present, where Persua the Weasel and the Wind Runner regarded each other, one below the other.
On the same day that Persua met the [Soothsayer] in one world—another Persua walked down First Landing with Ryoka, speculating on whether Tyrion would be interested in her now he’d gotten to a fine age.
“You’re not marrying into House Veltras, Persua.”
“And why not? You’re giving poor Pellmia a headache.”
Persua was teasing Ryoka. The Wind Runner laughed, turned the corner, and walked right into a group of three [Knights].
“I have you now, you knave!”
Dame Thuile dropped Ryoka with a boot to her knee. Ryoka Griffin was lying on the ground as Persua screamed.
She dodged sideways with a scream as another [Knight] tried to grab her. Ryoka was being pinned by another [Knight] and Thuile.
“What’s going on? Get a scrying orb!”
Dame Thuile was standing over Ryoka, a beacon of fury.
“You thief and treacherous saboteur! I will bring you back to Ailendamus in chains and have you tried before the throne!”
“Oh no. Dead gods—”
Unlike in her other timeline—there was no Faerie King to make Rhisveri reconsider. Nor a huge war of the ghosts. Fetohep had sailed to the Meeting of Tribes with only mortal wrath—although that was enough to humble three Walled Cities.
But not raise new lands. Because of that, Ryoka Griffin had resurrected Teriarch, but the Archmage of Memory was dead.
Because of that—she had escaped Ailendamus with the Lucifen and Agelum’s help, and Rhisveri had declared her an enemy of state.
And because of that, Dame Thuile was triumphant as she prepared to capture Ryoka. Persua drew her wand, and it vanished as one of the [Knights] broke it with a single quick chop of their gauntlets. She tried a Tripvine bag, and the [Knight] drew a sword and cut her belt in an expert slice.
“Persua, run! Get Tyrion! Get—”
Ryoka’s head was ground into the dirt. The Ailendamus [Knights] ignored the lashing wind as Thuile called out.
“Capture the other City Runner. Quickly—to the ship before House Veltras arrives!”
She was looking around nervously, but Lord Tyrion was off to see his son. Ryoka groaned, but Persua was backing away from the [Knight].
She drew her sword, and he pointed at her.
“[Disarm the Foe].”
Her dagger clattered to the ground, and Persua found herself empty-handed. She backed up, shaking; she was no good at hand-to-hand combat.
The City Runner was backing up to the exits when the Drell Knight accompanying Thuile pointed, and two walls of earth blocked off the streets. She was trapped, and the Hydra Knight was fast.
And he was threatening her.
“Surrender now or I will cut you down as an enemy of Ailendamus, Runner. You have one chance.”
Persua looked at Ryoka, and Thuile called out as Persua wavered.
“Capture her already, Ser Yoint. She’s no Courier.”
Oh, dead gods. Ryoka closed her eyes with familiar regret. Persua’s head snapped up, and she lost her temper. The Hydra Knight recoiled right before Persua punched his jaw through the open-faced helmet. Then Persua saw him raise his sword—he hadn’t even staggered.
She ran, screaming, as someone brought a scrying mirror up and began to broadcast the affair. There was Ryoka Griffin, the makings of a second international incident…and Persua the Weasel, running for her life.
Such glory. Persua was trying to circle the [Knight], but he knew how to corner a faster foe and was boxing her in. She squeaked, screamed, pleaded for her life—and as he swung, her back against one of the earthen walls, Persua looked around—and then leapt up, kicked off the wall, and did a front-flip over the [Knight]’s head.
The Hydra Knight, greatly surprised, swung around as Persua landed. Even Thuile looked slightly impressed, but the [Knight] was too well-trained to let a foe’s antics get to him. He lunged forwards in a stab—and Persua, squeaking, did a backwards handspring.
Straight out of range. So fast that the jabbing sword missed her belly. The [Knight] blinked, and Persua blinked too. Quick!
“Ser Yoint. Time is running out!”
Thuile shouted. The [Knight] lowered his other hand, gripped his shield, and rushed forwards in a charge. Persua, who had been staring at her feet in astonishment, moved before her mind caught up.
She cartwheeled left, but not a slow cartwheel. She did four rotations in a second, so fast she nearly slammed into a bystander. Ryoka’s mouth was open, and she was inhaling street dirt.
Persua was fast! Since when had she…?
Since the lands of the not-fae? Since going to war? Before that, with Fierre on the hill? Persua caught herself as the [Knight] swerved his [Shield Charge] and tried to advance on her again. Then—a cocky look entered Persua’s eyes.
A familiar look. The look she got when she was sure she was better than her opponent. Like the twelve-year-old girl. She faced the [Knight], and he came at her in a charge, plate armor or not, a dead sprint.
Persua waited until he was almost on top of her, and then she did a standing backflip. Straight up and back. The [Knight] swung—but he was just too short. Because Persua landed on top of the earthen wall, nearly ten feet up. Ryoka heard gasps as Persua waved down at the [Knight]. Then—she began doing cartwheels along the wall.
“Come and get me!”
Thuile growled, and Persua landed, spinning into a hurricane as she did. She looked up, saw the [Knight] coming at her, and yelped. She rolled backwards, turned it into a handspring, backflip, and then kicked herself back. A popflash, and Persua rotated in the air, both legs coming up before she landed like a gymnast, arms spread. A dozen paces away from the stunned [Knight].
Was that when someone began applauding? Or did the laughter start first? Not mocking, not at first, just in sheer surprise. Persua’s eyes were sparkling, and the [Knight] actually looked around for help.
“Dame Gatris—with Yoint. Capture the City Runner.”
Thuile was shackling Ryoka’s legs and arms, and the other Drell Knight rose. The two tried to capture Persua, flanking her on either side.
Tried, because now…the Djinni was out of the bottle. Ryoka saw Persua’s eyes light up. She was breathing hard, her pulse racing in her veins. But there was something in the way she looked at the two [Knights]. They charged at her, trying to box her in—and she did a simple backflip.
High, high, a [High Jump] Skill carrying her up impossibly high. But they were waiting for her when she came down.
No—Ryoka almost cried out. Then something impossible happened.
Mid-rotation, Persua’s momentum changed. She swung herself around an invisible point in the air and went soaring backwards. As if she’d suddenly caught something and redirected herself in midair.
“How did she—?”
The [Knights] went scrambling after her. Everything according to natural physics told them what Persua had just done was impossible. But like a [Tumbler], like a magician…
[Redirect Balance]. Ryoka’s eyes were wide. Her friend had just anchored herself in midair and used that to defy gravity! And Persua landed, kicked herself up into a gainer, and flipped backwards, laughing at the slow people in armor.
“Come and catch me! I’m just a City Runner! Come on!”
She landed, beckoning, and actually let them get within a sword’s reach of her. But no sooner did they lunge and swing than she performed a dazzling series of handsprings, just like she had going downhill. The two [Knights] ran after her now, not even trying to attack, just catch her.
And they couldn’t. Persua kicked off walls, she tricked, pirouetting, spinning through the air, even using their armor to bounce off of them as the audience watched and began to applaud. Dame Thuile grew redder and redder.
“You two are a disgrace to Ailendamus!”
She abandoned Ryoka, trussed up, and joined the pursuit. And even then—
They couldn’t catch her. Persua cartwheeled past Dame Thuile in a blur, leapt up onto a rooftop, and her spinning roll carried her out of the way of a wand’s spell. She was laughing. She landed on the ground, and the three [Knights], panting with disbelief, spread out.
“She can’t be caught, Thuile. She’s like an eel.”
The Hydra Knight opined. Thuile just made an inarticulate sound of rage. She went for Persua, but the young woman jumped up, and again—
It was like magic. She could move through the air just by redirecting her momentum. Her Skill had virtually no cooldown. Why not? Who could imagine you could fly by flipping?
And then—it was on the scrying orbs. On the news. A laughing City Runner evading three of the finest [Knights] in the world, literally mocking them as she flipped and kicked and twisted out of the way for ten minutes. Ten minutes, until House Veltras apprehended all three for their dignity more than anything else.
When it was done, Persua checked on Ryoka and helped her to her feet. The Wind Runner was staring at Persua, and the City Runner was speaking so loud and fast that she barely noticed anything else.
“Ryoka! Did you see that? I can fly! It’s like magic—what if I could keep flipping through the air? Could I actually keep going up? They couldn’t even touch me! I feel like I could cartwheel to Invrisil!”
“It’s like I’m free! I could probably climb a castle or Liscor’s walls like this! I’m untouchable, I’m amazing!”
“That’s something others say of you. But I’ll admit—even Lancrel couldn’t do that.”
A voice coughed in Persua’s ear. The City Runner froze. She turned her head, then squeaked and tried to hide behind Ryoka.
For there was Mihaela Godfrey. The Guildmistress coughed into her hand and looked Persua over.
Then she turned, and a veritable crowd of Runners, from the famous Hundredfriends Courier to City Runners, were all watching Persua. Mihaela addressed the crowd and the scrying orb, and only then did Persua realize she had been on television the entire time.
“What we just saw was a City Runner humiliating three [Knights]. Which is impossible, because no City Runner I know can do that. A Courier is untouchable.”
Persua’s mouth was open wide. She looked at Mihaela, and Ryoka’s breath caught as Tyrion Veltras came riding back, a lance in hand.
“Does that mean—?”
The City Runner was caught between elation and dismay. Just from dodging three [Knights] for ten minutes? Mihaela glanced at her, and one brow lifted in amusement.
“Not yet. But you’re getting there. When you do—think of a better name than ‘the Weasel’.”
And with that, she strode off. Persua looked at Ryoka, and then she picked up a piece of broken cobblestone and tried to brain Mihaela with it.
But that—that was the start.
They called her a City Runner for a long time after that. Not quite a Courier, but in most people’s eyes…it annoyed Persua to no end.
However, the gap that had opened between her and Ryoka began to close with a speed that was only possible for someone with levels. The flying Wind Runner was still one of the fastest Couriers and hard to catch.
But Persua—Persua showed off. Not just her tricking routine, which had begun a movement similar to Kevin’s damn skateboards or Joseph’s football, but the way she, well, bullied people.
Or just made a point. Like when she challenged a Street Runner in Reizmelt to a race and cartwheeled faster than them all the way to Lupp’s farm. Her Skills were varied—and odd.
“How are you doing that?”
Fierre snapped in exasperation as Persua demonstrated her new trick. Namely, a cartwheel that picked up speed as she went. Persua winked.
“[Springtoes]! And [Ten Second Routine]. See? [My Stunning Performance]!”
She cartwheeled straight into a perfect 900-degree kick, as if she’d had ten seconds to figure out how to execute the next move from the instant her toes touched the ground. Then she burst into a wild series of flips and kicks that she’d decided to make her performance.
Ryoka commented as she sat under a tree, watching Persua. To which Fierre and Persua gave her the longest stare imaginable. But it was true—Persua leapt up onto a tree-branch and held herself horizontally, one arm holding the branch.
“That’s physically impossible.”
The Wind Runner shook her head—Persua was doing a superman pose, yet somehow she was perfectly balanced. When Ryoka climbed up to figure out how, she found Persua wasn’t frozen in place or using some kind of intense strength to do that.
It was just that Persua’s weight had shifted until it was all in her hand. At first, she just thought it was a neat trick that allowed her to perform more confusing tricks in combat or for fun.
Then came the day that an exasperated Persua, watching Ryoka soar effortlessly over a hill, went running after Ryoka. The Wind Runner looked down and saw Persua run straight up a near-vertical cliff face. She redirected all of her weight so that each step carried her higher, leaping into the air with each step.
…Right until she wiped out near the top and nearly broke her neck on the way down.
Persua watched herself twisting and leaping across a continent’s stage. She was trembling.
This other Persua—she couldn’t fly, but she was untouchable on the ground and could climb and go anywhere. On a dare, she climbed up Pallass’ sheer walls from the outside and was arrested for three days.
Even Rastandius hadn’t seen this kind of ability. He glanced at Persua, but his eyes flickered over the crystal ball. And then he did reveal his avarice.
Not just for the secrets. Not just for the potential of his clients. Persua didn’t miss how he watched her assignations with people in private, or how her Skills worked.
Could she be that laughing Courier, content to while her days away with the Wind Runner? Persua stared at the confident Courier, who even looked taller, signing autographs, posing with the Players of Celum.
“This isn’t glorious. Where is my glory?”
Her fingernails were cutting into her palms. Rastandius heard her. His eyes lit up like filthy lanterns, painted wood and flesh.
“Impatient, are we? Very well. It may lack for context—but you want glory? Here it is.”
He grinned at her, and the scrying orb changed. It revealed a panting Persua, a cut on her cheek, filthy from grit and sand, stripped of her gear, wearing revealing rags, and the roar of a crowd. Jeering as she stared up.
“Here is Persua the Courier! Persua, the Weasel! Of Izril! Will she do better than the Silver Killer of fame?”
Boos. Howling jeers at that hated name. The [Announcer] mocked her as Persua felt at the shackles on her hands. Not her legs, but she had no weapons. And she was never much of a fighter.
“There will be no pity for her. Already—the signal is given.”
A veiled figure watching the coliseum’s floor from above had raised a hand. A thumb, pointed downwards. Persua stared up.
It was not Queen Yisame. Who…?
The panting Courier in the scrying orb looked around the Coliseum of Monarchs in Nerrhavia’s Fallen as [Gladiators] began to file through the gates. The crowd’s howling had reached a fever pitch.
This was no pretense, no act. This was an execution. The mocking [Announcer] was shouting.
“Weaponless? Will someone give this Courier a weapon?”
Even if they did—what would it do? Persua closed her eyes. She felt light, even now, but this was an arena. She could not run forever, and the [Gladiators] were nimble and quick. They had nets and worked in teams.
A few jeering guards hurled weapons into the sands after her, rusted swords, a crossbow, even a half-broken wand, a spear—
None of these things had ever worked with Persua. Even before she had learned she had wings on her feet, she had found them all so heavy. She didn’t have the muscles of a trained warrior, and even chainmail slowed her too much.
She waited, breathing in the rust and sand in the air as the crowds cheered her death. Persua stared up at the sky and thought she heard a voice on the wind. The Courier opened her eyes wide.
She looked around, but her friend was being hunted the length of…where would she be? Persua stared around the crowd. Then she realized where and looked straight up.
A dot in the sky. A few [Gladiators] followed Persua’s gaze and pointed up. The figure on the throne pointed, and a furor rose from below. But the Courier was just staring up. Up, her eyes straining for something. Anything.
Trusting in her friend. Then her eyes caught it, like a falling star, a glint of foreign metal. Plunging down as the winds howled. Persua’s eyes widened, and she took off running. Leaping, building momentum as the [Gladiators] surged after her.
Nets and tridents raised. Bows aiming. The greatest [Gladiators] in Nerrhavia’s Fallen and a lone Courier. Her arms reaching up, her body straining as she flew for a falling gift from the Wind Runner.
A weapon from another world, from travellers sympathetic to their plight. Persua’s hands reached for the weapon only two people in the world were allowed to use. A blade with no weight. A weapon as light as a handle of alien metal.
The Windsword. The Courier caught it, and a bright, pink blade of light cut apart her shackles as the [Gladiators] halted, uncertain. They recognized that famous blade.
Then, Persua turned. Nerrhavia’s Fallen was on its feet. The figure on the throne pointed down and lowered their thumb once more, and Persua looked up as her friend flew overhead. Alone, touching the Faeblade as it turned from a bright, painful glow to a burning torch, Persua looked at an arena of gladiators. Guards.
She leapt into the air, holding the flaming blade aloft. Spinning like a comet of pink fire. She set the Coliseum of Monarchs on fire. A burning flame sweeping across stitch-flesh and armor and even stone until the audience fled. Until she stood alone, sword held overhead.
Not a cut nor scar on her body. That was when they changed her name. When they started calling her Persua.
Persua the Untouchable.
“So long as I have space, no one can touch me. Unless I want them to.”
That was the Courier’s boast. Which she followed by putting an arm around the Wind Runner’s shoulders and planting a kiss on Ryoka’s cheek. Then spinning away and laughing as the embarrassed woman tried to fend her off.
Courier. In one moment, in the crystal ball, she was giving an interview to an older Drassi, the next—holding a letter over her head. A black letter, on black paper, which seemed to eat at the light.
She walked through a throne-room and offered it to a [King] with red-gold hair. He regarded her with more interest than the letter itself and rose to greet her.
Of course—Persua recognized him as the King of Destruction. So her lungs were so tight in her chest that it felt like she couldn’t breathe as the Courier walked from story to story.
From Izril to Chandrar, and then to Wistram, to witness a true [Archmage] being ordained. Someone she knew. From Wistram’s halls to Terandria, where the ruler of a kingdom greeted her by name. Even to Drath, to take a request from their emperor.
Drath to Rhir, running across a battlefield where spells screamed down like rain, desperately dumping potions from a satchel as she looked up and saw Demons. And behind them—the last Giants.
A Courier running across the world, even places neither Persua nor Rastandius knew. A panting Persua looked up and came to a rest. She collapsed, red liquid—blood?—all over her pants. She stared up at a sign, covered by ancient, red mold.
“So there you are.”
Persua reached up with trembling hands and wiped away at one of the signs. The Courier exhaled—and the [Soothsayer] and Persua read the name down one of the long roads.
Mershi, City of Stars.
“The Crossroads of Izril.”
Rastandius’ good eye shone like a moon with wonder. He looked up, and Persua was caught. Watching herself, resting under the aegis of that ancient signpost. And seeing herself in the reflection.
It was everything she’d dreamed of. A promise of glory. No—beyond glory. Rulers greeted her like friends or someone they wanted to know. Wherever she went, she was either at the heart of an adventure or the herald of one for her fans.
Persua the Untouchable. Persua, the Courier of Zeikhal.
Destruction’s Courier. The Runner of Pallass. Guildmistress Persua.
Persua of the High Passes. The Discoverer of the Crossroads. Drath’s Esteemed. Persua, Hell’s Warden, Persua—
Yes. That was it. No matter how many accolades. No matter how many stories…she was there.
Like cancer. Like poison, running across all of Persua’s triumphs. The Wind Runner.
The worst part was that the Persua in the crystal ball didn’t push her away. She welcomed her, laughing, and their story was intertwined.
From Chandrar, running across the Great Desert together, Ryoka Griffin hopping in agony as she seared her feet raw on the sands.
In Wistram, tears in her eyes as she attended the ceremony, until someone handed her a handkerchief to please blow her nose.
Terandria, as awkward and happy as a stuffed pig at a formal banquet, teeth bared in sheer discomfort.
Running across Rhir as the greatest war unfolded like thunder around them.
“Stop it. Stop showing me this. Show me something without her. Show me—another time.”
The [Soothsayer]. She thought he had perfect, pristine teeth, but now it seemed as though there were gaps in his teeth, thin cracks, so it looked like a gap-toothed smile.
Mocking her as the scrying orb shifted again. This time—Persua saw herself bending over, trying to kiss a protesting Ryoka.
She screamed at him, but Rastandius laughed.
“I am only showing you likely possibilities. Don’t you see? Your life and hers are intertwined. Look. See what happens?”
He showed her another image—this one of Persua and Ryoka, younger, rolling around the Runner’s Guild of Celum. But not, as Persua first thought, in a lover’s embrace. Ryoka pulled herself away, and Persua stared up at her as trails of red dripped away from her. Strings of life’s blood. The knife that Persua had tried to plunge into Ryoka’s chest was buried in her stomach.
—Another. Persua saw the culmination of multiple Persuas’ dreams. She wed Lord Tyrion Veltras.
The older man, not the young one he had become. He looked as stiff as a board, but she looked—happy? The Persua wearing the wedding veil turned and scowled a second. But then the barefoot Courier gave her a sardonic salute and a bow, and she nodded at Ryoka with grudging respect—
Rastandius’ hands hovered over the ball. He was panting now, sweating, but he watched with a note of triumph in his eyes as Persua clutched at her head.
“This is all a lesson. Do you truly want to look away?”
Persua’s eyes were rolling. She was…going mad. She whispered.
“…Impossible. Impossible. It’s her fault. Not mine. Not mine. It couldn’t happen.”
“That you could be friends with the Wind Runner? Are you really so blind? Are you so mad? Stare again.”
He challenged her. Now, his voice was deep and wide, like a man twice his size booming at her. The [Soothsayer] seemed too large for the wagon, yet he pressed at her, and she shrank back.
“What are you doing to me?”
Rastandius was grand and imposing, like a prophet. He was twisted and grinning, enjoying prying into lives. He was wretched and desperate, trying for one last great truth.
Persua was cowering against the wagon. A hundred lifetimes were flashing in front of her, and she felt like something was breaking in her head. Rastandius pushed—but Persua kept whispering.
“Impossible. Show me. It’s impossible.”
“You two could have been the best of friends.”
His whispers were undeniable. Whatever was happening—Persua felt it pressing on her like a brand, forever changing. But one part of her kept repeating the word. It rose out of her mouth and spewed out like hatred.
“Impossible. Then—show me my greatest days. Show me how I died. For I will never believe it. Not once, not ever. Prove to me there is a way Ryoka Griffin does not ruin me.”
Then the [Soothsayer] froze. His eyes clouded over with uncertainty. He backed up, and Persua rose.
“I don’t know—”
“Neither do I. But I know, nevertheless. Show me.”
She advanced on him, and the [Soothsayer] looked at her. He hesitated, one long moment, and then passed his hands over the crystal ball. Persua, teetering in her mind, stared down.
Like Raich—she felt a mortal fear. For it was a terrible thing to behold your end. And it painted itself in her gaze like—
Glory. All the glory in the world. In a moment, she understood why this would be her most glorious death.
They would sing her name. Yes, sing it—but in this moment, the chorus was only wails of horror. A chorus of faces blind with grief and rage and…denial.
But free. Liberated. Even so, how had they come here?
Ryoka Griffin knelt, breathing hard. Sweat stood out on her brow, and she gasped. Only now did it seem like she felt her wounds.
Her arm. Something had torn it straight off her body. She was bleeding to death, but she barely noticed. She only bent down.
Persua rose, spitting blood. She was no less wounded, but she bent down and yanked something up. It came away with a tearing sound.
“Yes. It’s done. And he—he’s coming.”
They both heard it. A howl like vengeance, echoing through the corridors of this rich place. Torn silk, fleeing figures. More kneeling, weeping with relief or regret. Ryoka looked back.
“He’s free, but he doesn’t know it. He’s mad—we’ll never stop him.”
Persua laughed. She bent down and held up the head as the body collapsed. It was charred around the Faeblade’s cut. She showed it to the figure in the distance, to all those who looked up.
How had they come here? The younger Persua stared in horror at what it meant. But the older one simply uttered a phrase as if it had long since become commonplace.
“Let all those who hold chains beware. He’s dead. He’s dead!”
And then she threw Yazdil’s head across the room. Ryoka started laughing. But then she slipped.
“Get out of here. Do you have a way out?”
Persua calmly held out a teleportation scroll. She coughed as she opened it.
“Hold it a second for me? I need to activate it.”
Ryoka nodded dumbly and held it clumsily with one hand as Persua traced the words. The Wind Runner was gasping.
“Persua. Tell them…tell them I…”
She saw the other Courier step back. A look of familiar, uncomprehending stupidity crossed Ryoka’s face, then she realized Persua had taken the Windsword back. And the scroll was glowing.
“Tell them yourself. I’ll be right after you.”
Persua lifted the glowing blade and grinned at Ryoka. The Wind Runner shouted, trying to reach for her, but Persua’s scroll was bearing her away.
“Persua, don’t—it’s me he wants.”
The howling Gnoll, the servant of the Naga, Iert, was coming. Blades bared, like a storm across the marble floors, each step cracking marble. Persua whirled, the familiar blade in her hands. She looked back once.
“Don’t worry. I’ll make it. I’m Persua. I’m—”
A flash. Persua’s smile was wide and bloody and triumphant. Relieved. She breathed the rest of it out, for she had no boast. Not untouchable, not invincible or immortal.
“I’m your friend.”
Then she turned to meet the howling servant.
Rastandius had seen many deaths. Many foul ones, and some so horrific or graceful they had scarred him.
This was not the worst he had seen by far, so he watched the younger woman’s face. And what he saw, amidst her jagged confidence breaking, her warring soul—amidst the last of his hopes and ambitions—made his heart sink.
For the young woman had seemed as though she might vomit or scream or collapse. But when she beheld her end, she did none of those things. Her tears stopped. The bloody gashes she had clawed on her own face stopped as her hands clasped together. She looked at her death and smiled like broken glass, as sweetly as someone tasting water after drought, or feeling land underfoot.
Like a constant of the world was back. Persua stared at her death, then looked up at Rastandius. And she said:
“I knew it. Even in my best life, she ruins it.”
He calmly held the gaze, although there was something there that made his own stomach twist.
“It is one vision among many. Do you want to see one where you die happy? Look at what it has shown you, Persua.”
Slowly, she rose, and she seemed neither tall nor grand, not the Courier of legends, nor the young woman freed from the ground. She seemed…small, thin, and hungry. But Persua’s eyes gleamed.
“I’ve seen everything. Thank you for your prophecies, Soothsayer Rastandius. You truly are a man of great craft.”
“I could show you—”
“No. I think I’m done. I’ve paid you my gold coin. I’m going to lie down, now.”
Slowly, Persua turned and began to shuffle away. Rastandius tried to rise, but he was tangled in his robes, and his power was receding. He was old and weary, but he called out, desperate.
“Come back tomorrow! I will show you dozens more lifetimes! As many as it takes!”
She never replied.
Persua left the old [Soothsayer]’s wagon and stood in the darkness for a long time. Rastandius came rushing out a minute later, but she had already walked into the distance of the fair and sat in the shadows.
She saw and heard him cursing himself, his Skills, her—and returned to his wagon, but it was a long time before the lantern light guttered out. Far past night, into the dawn.
That was fine. He had to sleep, and she…
She sat there, barely thinking. What she had seen replayed itself before her eyes, all of it. She shook occasionally, her face staring straight ahead.
She almost felt like she could taste and smell what she had seen. It was so real to her. A smile, an awkward smile, a friend’s embrace.
Presently, Persua rose. When she was certain no one was moving, in that clear minute between the last sleepers and risers, she walked back over to the wagon and found something in her bag of holding. She uncorked a vial, poured it over a handkerchief, and looked around.
Aha. A flag from the travelling fair. She had it down and bundled it with the handkerchief. Then she drew a Wand of [Sparks] and lit the oil-soaked handkerchief.
Calmly and carefully, Persua stuffed the burning cloth along the edges of the wagon and watched the old paint burning. Then she produced a bit of [Stickywebs] contained in a vial, an alchemist’s creation, and lined the bottom of the door with it.
Then she walked off. Persua stood, far in the distance, watching as the faint smoke began to drift upwards. Then a flame, growing.
It was conceivable, of course, he might sense it all, but it was hard to open a door like that, and she doubted he could get out one of the tiny windows. The flames grew, and she heard not a peep from within the wagon.
Only when they had begun to engulf the door, part of the wagon, did someone hear and see the flames. But by then, even when they rushed out with buckets of water, it was too late.
The old wood wagon burned fast and bright. The rest of the caravan began to hurl buckets onto the wagon, and someone called for a water spell. Anything! They were shouting at Rastandius to get out, but it was a bake oven inside, and even if he had tried to get out the door…
When the door was thrust open, the explosion of heat and flames inside nearly killed two of the wagoners, and they stared at the sea of flames and backed away in silence. Persua watched the wagon burning without a trace of emotion on her face.
She was turning to leave when a figure hobbled out of the darkness, saw his wagon, and fell to his knees.
Rastandius wailed. Persua spun around, a look of terror and shock on her face. Rastandius’ absence became clear as the shocked caravaners took him in. His robes were bunched around him, and he had some unfortunate leaves and, uh, toiletry paper still tangled around the hem of his robes.
He had gone into the forest, lacking an outhouse, and it seemed he’d really had a bad time. Not as bad as burning to death.
In dead silence, Persua’s heart began to race as people exclaimed and pointed out the freak fire. Only now did she recall something he had said off-handed as the [Soothsayer] watched his wagon burning.
“I know my wagon will never be destroyed by accident.”
He was looking around, searching the dawn for…Persua’s blood ran cold. Now, she began to shake, almost close to vomiting. She was terrified—but she held herself still, peeking out at him from behind a tree.
“—later. I need to rest. Just lend me your wagon. Later, I said.”
Rastandius was talking to the [Caravan Master], who was rightly upset by the prospect of losing not only one of his workers’ homes, but means of earning a living. Rastandius stood there as the other wagoners disappeared into their own wagons for a tiny bit of rest—or breakfast.
Now. Persua’s head darted around, and then she ran. She ran around a wagon and then slipped on a patch of mud. Persua nearly went tumbling, then she threw her hands out. She…
Cartwheeled. Clumsily—and then caught herself up right. In silence, panting, Persua stared at her hands.
Mine. And that sword! And…her eyes rolled. Emir Yazdil? Even she knew that name.
All of it she’d seen. But so had he. Persua almost tried to do a backflip there and then, but she hadn’t practiced. She…she knew she could do it.
But first. The [Soothsayer] was staring at his charred home. He was muttering to himself, but grinning. A terrible grin of someone making plans. He clenched and unclenched his hands and never saw the young woman sneaking up behind him. She raised the dagger, aimed for the base of his neck, and stabbed.
Persua’s blade skidded left. It was like an invisible hand seized her wrist and moved it. The blade still cut the back of Rastandius’ neck, and he yelped. Persua stared in horror as he whirled—and then the [Soothsayer] was staring at her.
“There you are. I thought you’d try that.”
He grinned an insane grin as Persua backed up. She almost dropped the knife in horror.
Rastandius was laughing. Now, he sounded like the stage magician, the purveyor of fates. He contemptuously rubbed at his neck.
“I told you I’d die without knowing what killed me? Foolish Runner. I am allowed to lie. And you…you’re not that Persua we saw. But you could be. You should be. You’ll pay me back for my wagon, first. And then—and then we’ll see.”
Persua wasn’t able to speak for horror. His eye was boring a hole into hers. But how had he avoided her knife? Was it a Skill or…?
Then she saw the brass ring around his finger on his left hand. And she felt at her hands and realized—her ring was gone.
The [Soothsayer] laughed at her stupefaction. He put one hand in his robes and scratched at his stomach as he stared at Persua.
“The first thing we’ll do is find some rooms. Then—then we’ll see what my future holds. Our future. Aha. You burned my home, but you couldn’t have burned…”
He hurried over to the burnt wreckage of his wagon and began to sift through the ashes as Persua stood, transfixed with fear. She didn’t know…what to do.
“Why are you doing this to me? You’re just like Ryoka. I have done nothing wrong.”
Her voice trembled. Rastandius turned with a sneer towards her. He had the crystal ball in his hands. It had weathered the fire untouched.
“Idiot. Do you think you’re the first, the greatest of my projects? You have more potential than most. I could have been the King of Destruction’s most trusted advisor! I could have been—look at you. Do you think I want a murderous, pathetic chit like you?”
Spit began to fly from his lips as he pointed at Persua, striding back towards her. She backed up a step, but Rastandius held up the ball.
“Look at how your life could have been but for your pettiness.”
“I don’t owe Ryoka anything. I refuse to believe she—I—I can be a Courier without her.”
Persua’s voice rose in a shriek, but she flinched as Rastandius passed a hand over the crystal ball. He snapped, his eye flashing.
“You think so? Then let me show you your future now. Not an if, Persua. You—I will drag you to greatness if I must. But this is what will become of you, you pathetic waste.”
His hand passed over the orb, once, twice, three times, and Rastandius glared grimly into the ball. Persua stared at the dark interior and waited.
But no image ever came. Rastandius’ face, though, grew puzzled. He held the ball away from him and stared at it—then Persua.
“Who is…who is that?”
“What are you talking about?”
Persua’s voice was quavering, but she was trying to find an opening to steal her ring. She could deny burning his home. Truth spells, though—did she run? But he’d find her, and if he really was that famous—
Yet Rastandius kept staring into his blank crystal ball. He looked confused. Then unnerved. He held it away from him and stared at something.
“She’s staring at me. Just like those strange beings. Who is this? A Dragon? A greater being? A Demon? Who—no. Stay back!”
He dropped the crystal ball suddenly. Persua jumped, but the [Soothsayer] was backing up. He was rubbing at his arm. The man shrieked and tore his robes back. Persua saw a pale, dead white patch of skin on his ruddy flesh.
It was pale, the imprint of something. Like—a hand? The [Soothsayer] backed up further, tearing at it. As if trying to remove the pale brand. Then, as Persua watched, the pale white outline began to spread.
“Stop! Stop! I didn’t mean to offend—”
He began screaming at the sky. Then he seized Persua’s dagger. The man began sawing at his arm. Trying to cut the pale spread of flesh off. But the paleness travelled up his arm, and then—Persua saw Rastandius’ mouth open wide in horror.
He fell backwards. Clutching at his heart. Persua stood over him, looking around wildly, backing away from the crystal orb.
“What was that? What’s going on?”
She shouted at Rastandius, but feared to touch him. The [Soothsayer] focused on Persua. His lips moved, and he croaked as the color drained from his face.
“But I was supposed to die somewhere else. I didn’t predict—”
His eyes rolled, and he whispered at Persua as gooseflesh erupted on her arms and a cold chill ran down her back.
“You will meet her if you walk down this path, Runner. Persua Mavva. She has three faces.”
Then his face turned into a rictus of terror, and his eyes bulged and his mouth opened wide, wide—
And he was dead. Persua stared down at Rastandius’ body in dead silence. Her eyes only began to dart around when she heard someone calling out Rastandius’ name.
She hesitated—then stopped, tore her ring from his hand, and fled, leaving the dead man, the crystal ball, wiping her own hands on her shirt. She ran, panting, terrified of whatever he had seen.
Persua never spoke of that moment. Not to Raich, nor Herove, although both had heard about the freak fire. Yet the [Soothsayer] dying without any true wound…
Raich still avoided Persua as the City Runner returned to her rooms. Persua’s eyes were too wide, and she panted, even now. But she stopped at Raich’s rooms and tried to smile.
It was a poor smile. Probably because it was trying to be genuine. It was afraid, nervous. A hungry smile, but most of all—uncertain.
Like someone who had suddenly lost her comfortable place in the world. Come adrift. Raich saw Persua, normally with a comment, at a loss for words.
“Can I help you, Persua?”
At last, the other woman stopped smiling and spoke.
“You look quite pretty, you know, Raich. Anyone would find you attractive.”
The other Runner turned red with embarrassment and began to get angry. But she hesitated as Persua smiled wider.
“Maybe we should train together.”
Persua turned her head left and right, as if searching for something. She looked at Raich.
“I think I know how I want to improve. Later today, maybe? If you want. Have—have a good morning.”
Then she was gone. Raich stared blankly at Persua’s back. She went to Herove’s room to speculate, but he was looking at a map of Izril and a city in the High Passes so thoughtfully she left him be. Raich herself stared around Toremn’s Guild and wondered if her time was running out.
Alone, Persua wandered down to the Mage’s Guild. Then she reconsidered and found an Opener in Toremn who served Runners. He patiently waited as she inquired about pricing and told her it would cost her no less than six gold coins.
“Six minimum. Sixteen if you want me to keep it silent. Given who you want to send a [Message] to…”
The man licked his lips.
“…I’ll waive the fee. Who knows, you might earn more back. If it’s important. It should be. That’s your warning, and I can only get it to him.”
Persua took a long time with her letter. She kept it short. In the end, she looked at a short missive. It read:
Someday, Ryoka Griffin, the Wind Runner, will be your death. The great [Soothsayer], who called himself Rastandius, foresaw it.
The destination was the Emir Yazdil of Roshal. Persua stared at the message for a long time until the Opener asked if she wanted more time. She looked up, and her eyes flickered uncertainly.
“…I’ve changed my mind.”
She looked as surprised as he did, but she tore up the pieces of paper, then burned the ash. Then she glanced at his carefully-neutral expression and blew the pile of ash outside.
He cursed over that, but he made a little note anyways and sent it to Roshal. Because even a secret unspoken was worth something.
Persua Alcherie Mavva wandered out of the private Opener’s basement in a daze. She looked around, and began to run. But no matter how far she ran, across the shop windows, in a passing shield of a [Warrior], the reflection from a puddle, she kept seeing her there. Haunting her.
A Courier, leaping through the air, laughing and spinning and dancing from point to point, her feet barely touching the ground. She smiled so gracefully it hurt.
Author’s Note: And we’re done. Like I said, the vacation had less of the rest I wanted, so I decided to go with this. I know it lost the poll, but it has a time limit for what it can be written.
Honestly, it was about having a character everyone ‘knew’ but didn’t know that bothered me. I hope that in one chapter you understand more about Persua. Regardless of whether you like or hate her, understanding sometimes matters.
Well, that and having entertaining chapters. Entertaining, not fun. I think there’s a big difference.
I’ll get back into the groove of things soon. For now, we’re back to it and I want to do better, as I said. This chapter…I can do better. I can do better in general, but my schedule doesn’t always produce the best content. Consistency? Nailed that. Let’s work on improving the rest, and see how it goes. Thanks for reading!
…I’m still holding a grudge against Canada. All of it.
Erin Adventure by dydreamr!
Tolveilouka’s Forms by MrMomo!
Spice Goblin by Spanner!