Erin woke up with a huge smile on her face. Today was the first day of the rest of her life, and for once, it was all amazing.
Slightly less amazing was the huge mess in her common room. Erin’s huge smile reduced in diameter, but she maintained a cheery outlook. True, her inn was trashed, but the money.
Gold coins, silver coins, copper coins. She had far more of the copper coins than anything else, but Krshia had given her several gold coins as she’d brought goods up from the city throughout the night. Erin had a huge jar of money, and next to it was an even bigger jar, again filled with money.
And next to that…
Erin had to hug herself, she was so elated. It had worked! Her crazy idea had worked, and she’d earned so much!
She had to give some of it away, of course. She hadn’t paid Selys or Ceria or Olesm for their help, and Ryoka had cooked up all the food! She wondered if the prickly girl would accept being paid. She would, right?
If only Toren was here, life would have been perfect. That made Erin’s smile slip, but just for a second. He would have cleared up this mess overnight and be staring creepily at her in the morning. But without him she’d have to do it.
Well, it was a fair price for a wonderful night. Erin sighed, rolled up her sleeves, and got to work. She could get a head start before she made breakfast. Something involving eggs and bacon, she guessed. It would be too much work to mix pancakes.
As Erin began to hunt for dustrags, buckets of melted snow, and of course a mop and broom, she thought about last night. She’d leveled. So many times! Erin knew Level 20 wasn’t actually that high—almost everyone got to that before they died Selys had told her. But still. Level 21!
And the [Singer] class. Erin was surprised by that, but she had wanted to sing her best on the roof. And what were those skills?
[Perfect Recall] and [Control Pitch]. Did they work? Erin focused.
Yes. They did. Amazingly so, in fact! Erin could remember every lyric, every verse in every song she’d ever sung. And what was more—
“Testing, testing, do, re, mi, fa, sol, la, ti, do!”
Her pitch was perfect. Even someone with a autotuner couldn’t have improved her range. It made Erin feel weird; like her voice wasn’t her own anymore. But that feeling soon gave way into a greater desire to sing!
Ryoka had taken away the iPhone right before she fell asleep. But Erin could still sing without the device. Besides, it was still enchanted and would probably blow Erin’s eardrums out if she used it.
Now, what song could she sing? Erin remembered her warmup, and smiled as the lyrics popped into her head.
She bent to pick up a discarded dress, gingerly holding it between two fingers, and looked out to the brightening sky. Erin opened her mouth, and sang.
“Do, a deer; a female deer, re, a drop of golden sun…!”
Ryoka woke up to the sound of music. Because she had a hangover, this was a terrible, horrible experience. Each new verse was a nail being jack-hammered into her skull, and the pillow Ryoka pressed over her head was taking too long to suffocate her.
The heinous singing floated down from below, accompanied by the loud clink of porcelain being stacked together or silver wear being organized.
What Erin had forgotten was that last night, everyone had imbibed quite a lot of alcohol. She’d drunk it too of course; but Erin was immune to alcohol’s effects and so she was the only person waking up this morning without a hangover.
After Erin got to la, Ryoka could bear it no longer. She seized the nearest object she could reach, staggered out her door and hurled it down the stairs. It turned out that she’d hurled her beside dresser, and it crashed into pieces as it hit the ground floor.
Ryoka heard the shocked exclamation from Erin. She grunted something and stomped back to her bed.
But the singing stopped. Ryoka rolled back into bed and caught far more than forty winks.
When she woke up at last, it was an hour or two later and Ryoka was hungry. She stumbled out her door, and found everyone else was getting up as well. Their synchronization was probably due to the fact that the sun had hit all of their windows at the same time, and Erin still hadn’t bought any curtains for her new inn.
Sleepy faces, and wincing expressions. Ryoka nodded to the others.
The Drake staggered out of Ceria’s room and paused. He looked around at the other people in the inn. Slowly, he backed into the room and shut the door.
Ryoka stared at Ceria. The half-Elf shrugged. She didn’t quite meet anyone else’s eyes as they walked downstairs.
They found Erin bright and cheerful, and a steaming bowl of scrambled eggs, a plate of greasy bacon, and bread. Ryoka could have hugged Erin, but she was more interested in eating.
“So. How did you all sleep? Um, sorry about the singing.”
“I quite enjoyed it. It was an unusual song.”
Val smiled at Erin around his breakfast. Ryoka grunted. Ceria nodded as she massaged her temples.
“What a night. I can’t believe half of what I remember. And what I do remember—”
She broke off, not looking at Olesm. And he was pointedly not looking at Ceria. Ryoka eyed his twitching tail. Erin didn’t seem to notice either reaction. Instead, she pointed excitedly at the chessboard on the table.
“Guess what, guys? Look at this! The chessboard I got was magical!”
Everyone looked around. Olesm dropped his fork and Val whistled as he saw the ghostly pieces.
“I thought something was off. Well now, that’s not something you see every day.”
“What is it?”
“Some kind of duplication spell and magically connected board, I would guess. Obviously.”
Ryoka turned her head, and saw Pisces lurch into the inn. He looked – and smelled – like he’d been sleeping outside. The trash that fell from his robes attested to that fact.
“Ceria. I see you are having breakfast. Allow me to join you.”
Pisces inserted himself at Ceria’s table, much to her displeasure. Erin glared at Pisces, but she didn’t oust him from the inn. Instead, she looked back at the chessboard.
“So it’s like a magic chessboard that allows you to play against someone far away? Cool! I had…one just like it back at home!”
Ryoka glared at Erin while Pisces and Val raised their eyebrows. Olesm was busy inspecting the board, murmuring excitedly over the ghostly pieces. They did look quite impressive, especially as it turned out that the ghostly wisps followed the pieces as the Drake tried moving them across the board.
The pieces were indeed cool to the touch, and Ryoka imagined holding solidified air as she touched them. Erin stared at the board, and at the pawn moved on the other side.
“Well, this is an invitation to play if ever I saw one. Sounds like fun!”
Ryoak tried to quickly run through the consequences of playing a game, but she couldn’t think of too many. Besides, whoever had sent the board clearly knew it had arrived.
Erin reached for a piece, but Olesm’s tail twitched and she paused, seeing it. The [Tactician] hesitated, and then looked at Erin pleadingly.
“Can—can I play a game? I wouldn’t want to impose, but I’m curious…after you’ve played a few games, do you think I could try?”
“Well, why not now?”
Erin moved aside and gestured Olesm into the seat. The Drake gaped at Erin and Ryoka smiled in her seat.
“What? But no—I couldn’t do that!”
Olesm protested as Erin pulled back the chair for him. She shook her head at him.
“Oh come on. It’s not like it’s that important who plays first. And besides, the other person has no idea who I am. Go on! I need to clean up anyways.”
“If you’re sure…”
Olesm’s hands were twitching as much as his tail as he sat at the chess board. Hesitantly he peered at the pieces, and then moved a pawn forwards.
While he was waiting—and Ryoka wondered if he’d be waiting for a long time given the time zones that could be involved for the other player, she looked at Ceria. The mage was looking at Olesm, but she turned to Ryoka and also turned red when the human girl nudged her.
“I’d like to talk with you about learning magic later. If you’re not too busy?”
Ceria smiled wryly.
“Not at all. I’ve got a few things to do this morning, but would a few hours from now be fine?”
“Sounds good. I’m going to run and then rest some more. I’ll meet you back here.”
“It moved! It moved!”
Olesm’s excited voice caught everyone’s attention. Ryoka glanced over, and saw a piece had indeed moved. Olesm was transfixed, but then he cautiously moved a piece. After a few seconds, the invisible opponent replied.
That was impressive. It hadn’t been what, more than a few seconds? Had the mysterious sender been waiting for someone to make a move? Ryoka liked chess, but she wasn’t nearly as fanatical as Erin and Olesm were.
“I’m going to stay here and clean up while Olesm plays, and then I’ll play. It’ll be a fun day!”
Erin collected plates and cutlery as she announced that fact to the room. Ceria nodded and gestured at the mage at her side.
“Pisces and I will visit the city. I want to see Yvlon and he’s going to get new robes.”
Pisces looked dubiously at Ceria. He plucked at his much-stained robes.
“My current garments are quite suitable.”
“They are not.”
Everyone agreed with Ceria’s statement. The half-Elf pointed at Pisces.
“You’re disgusting. You’ve still got that gold we paid you for Ryoka’s leg—use some of it!”
He hesitated, and rose to follow her as she walked towards the door.
“Ah. About that. You wouldn’t be able to give me a small loan, would you?”
The door shut behind them. Ryoka and Val left soon afterwards. That left only Erin and Olesm in the inn. Erin kept tidying up, getting rid of stains, forgetting everything in the rhythm of work.
It wasn’t easy. But it wasn’t hard either. In truth, only the stains and bits of food particles that got into cracks in the floorboards and under chairs and so on irked Erin. Now, why couldn’t she have gotten [Advanced Cleaning] or something instead? Although her two skills did sound useful. Erin wondered what kind of food she’d be able to make tonight. Hm. What should she make tonight?
After a while, she heard an odd thumping sound coming from Olesm. She looked, and saw his tail as smacking the ground as Olesm stared at the table. There was a helpless look in the Drake’s eyes.
“Olesm? What’s wrong?”
He turned to her. Olesm looked like he was about to cry as he pointed to the chess board. The white chess pieces were covering the board, while only a King and two pawns remained on his side.
“I—I’m sorry. I can’t do anything.”
Ryoka inhaled the fresh, cold air as she stepped outside. Winter. Ah, winter. She wasn’t a fan.
The cold and snow made it impossible for her to run barefoot, and so she hated the winter. That was all there was too it.
Technically, Ryoka could run barefoot in the snow. Some runners could even run through freezing water in the winter; she’d seen Youtube videos. But it was a bad idea to do on a long run, and dangerous. Besides, her parents had freaked out when they learned Ryoka was doing it, so that was that.
Val appeared next to Ryoka and began doing the same sort of stretches she was doing. She glanced at him, and wondered if they were thinking of the same thing.
A morning run. It was the best time for it. Her body was stiff, and her head was still fuzzy and hurting from last night. No help for it but to run it all off. Daily morning runs were a part of Ryoka’s life—if she wasn’t going on a delivery today, she wanted to run for a while.
“Are you going for a run? Want company?”
Val’s offer surprised Ryoka. She stared at him for a few seconds before replying.
“I’d just slow you down. You’re way faster than me.”
It didn’t even hurt to admit. There was such a huge difference between then it would hurt more to deny such an obvious fact. But Val didn’t seem to think so. He scratched at his neck and looked at Ryoka.
“That may be true, but why would that stop us running together? I don’t have to use Skills. In fact, I prefer not to. [Double Step] and [Quick Movement] might be great for long distances, but they make me far too tired to do whenever I feel like it. So, that run?”
It was odd. Ryoka wasn’t a social runner. On the track team in high school, she’d been just as antisocial as anywhere else. In fact, she was even more ostracized there because she was the track team’s best runner and she didn’t get along with anybody. A pariah who showed up for events and track meets and nothing else.
That had been her parent’s fault as much as hers. They’d forced the coach to let Ryoka train by herself, since she would anyways after the track team finished. A bad decision. One of many Ryoka hadn’t protested or had made over the years.
She hoped running with Val was a good idea. She let him set the pace, and he led here at a reasonably fast job through the snow. Not too fast; she soon realized he wanted to talk as they ran, which was another unknown concept to her.
“That was one wild night, wasn’t it? I’ve seen celebrations in cities that didn’t reach that level. And the music! Dragons above, I’ve never heard anything like it!”
“It was good, wasn’t it?”
Words didn’t capture that night for Ryoka. It wasn’t magical or anything life-changing, but it was special all the same. It was…slightly magical, okay. It was a good night. A rarity for her.
“And that device Erin was using—was that yours? It makes music?”
“It—plays back music.”
Ryoka fished out the iPhone from her pocket and showed Val. It was off, and he peered at it curiously before picking up the pace.
“I don’t understand it, but I’ve seen objects that record sight and sound. And smell. I assume it’s like that?”
“It’s from where Erin and I come from. You can think of it as magic. It’s close enough.”
Perhaps it had been a mistake to give away that she had the iPhone, but that conversation with the others had illustrated just how borked the idea of keeping their world secret was. Besides, there was a benefit to giving some things away.
“Let me know if you meet someone who has something like this, though, will you? I’d be interested in meeting them.”
“I would too, especially if they’re anything like you and Erin!”
“Well, they might be. But I haven’t met anyone else.”
Ryoka felt her legs warming up as they ran through the wet snow. The sun was warm on their skin, and she was feeling better by the second. Nothing beat a good run, and surprisingly, the conversation didn’t hurt either.
“Again, I’ve got to thank you. That charm you had—I want to repay you somehow. It was extremely expensive.”
“Like I said, forget about it. It’s one favor from a Runner to another.”
Ryoka shifted uncomfortably. What Val had said sounded a lot like what she’d heard Fals saying all the time.
“Still. It’s not a small thing. A thousand gold coins—”
This time Valceif made a face and slowed down so he and Ryoka were next to each other. He looked at her seriously.
“Ryoka, we’re Runners. When one of us needs help, other Runners give what they can. If we need someone to help carry a delivery, we ask. Because we are alike, you and I. Today you needed help; tomorrow I might be the one in trouble, or someone else. I’m just paying back favors I received in the past.”
She considered that. Val looked around and sighed.
“Look, I’m not too happy about losing that charm either. But that’s how life works. We lose and we win. The last Runner who helped me out took two arrows pulling me to safety after a [Bandit Lord] jumped me. It’s the least I can do.”
Ryoka nodded. Then she lowered her head.
“Damn it. I’m a fool.”
Ryoka tried to explain as best she could. It sounded terrible and confused to her ears—she wasn’t used to talking about…anything with anyone. But Val seemed to get it. He slowed slightly as he thought.
“Hm. I understand what that Fals guy was saying, but that’s not exactly how I view it. It’s a problem with small-time Guilds. Here—”
He changed directions as he jogged through the snow. Ryoka followed him, and noticed they had just avoided a suspiciously flat spot.
“Shield Spider nest?”
“Other Runners warned me they like to hide in the ground during the winter. Good thing they’re the only dangerous monster that lays traps—at least, during this time of year. I’d never come here in the Spring or Summer without preparing a wand or two.”
Val shook his head.
“Still better than Crelers. Dead gods, I can’t stand those things. But where was I? Oh, right. Small Guilds like that are different than what I’m saying. There it’s ‘follow the rules or get out’. But Couriers don’t answer to our Guilds in the same way. We back each other up if we’re in danger, but no one bosses anyone else around. What that Fals guy and the guild wanted you to do—I’d be on your side as well.”
That surprised Ryoka, although perhaps it shouldn’t. Val clearly wasn’t one of the Runners in a guild, and he’d treated the other Runners like a different kind of people.
“We’re a community, not a cult. And it’s not like I go around tossing charms at everyone I meet. If that pinch-faced girl wanted help for instance, I would have let her get hexed all day long.”
He gestured at Ryoka as they powered up a steep hill.
“You’re different. That Fals guy, the girl I saved—”
“—Right. Well, they’re only going to become Couriers if they get really lucky and learn a good skill. That doesn’t seem likely to me. But you’re faster than them without levels. And you’ve got the grit to run all night to get here.”
“You think so? But I don’t—I don’t have any levels. I could never run like you do.”
Ryoka admitted that with a lot of regret. She’d always assumed that levels were just a cheap trick, a way to cheat or play someone else’s game. But of all the things in the world, seeing Val run like that had tempted her the most.
“If—if I decided to level up, maybe that would be better. Smarter. More sensible.”
She’d expected Val to agree with her, but instead he seemed wary of the idea.
“I personally don’t think it’s worth it.”
“Well, for once thing, and please take no offense, but—you’ll never reach my level if you start now. I know [Warriors] and other classes level up faster if they kill stronger enemies and so on, but [Runners] gain levels differently.”
“We level up based on how far we’ve run, and how challenging it is. True, you could do some horribly hard runs, but even then, I doubt you’d hit Level 10 by the end of the year, and it would just get slower from there. No, I’d say you’ve got your own unique style without levels. You should continue as you are.”
That was the first time Ryoka had heard that opinion. She glanced at Val’s profile and his bent nose.
“You think so? No one else I’ve met shares your opinion.”
“Well, it’s a preference thing. And besides, you probably don’t know this, but Skills aren’t the same even for people with the same class.”
Ryoka had inferred something like that from comments from other Runners, but she hadn’t even heard it from the horse’s mouth so to speak. She let Val go on as they ran a slow circuit of the Floodplains of Liscor.
“Skills are—how should I describe them? They’re like a gamble, but a safe one. As you level up, you’ll definitely gain some good skills and some not so useful ones. But you can generally predict which ones you’ll get based on your class.”
“Ah. A pool of options?”
Val lifted a thumb up and inclined his head at her.
“Precisely. There are rare skills you can get like [Double Step], and not-so-rare ones. For instance, almost every [Warrior] is going to get [Thick Skin] if they go for close-range combat sooner or later. But they might get it at Level 5, or Level 50. Well—not Level 50.”
“Why not—wait, there are rare skills every 10 levels?”
“Good guess! Yeah, I got my [Double Step] skill at Level 30. And of course sometimes you can learn a rare skill, but that takes training and some luck. I suppose if you had a class you could learn something that allowed you to move faster but…”
“Not worth it. Right. But how can I run faster without classes?”
“With magic, of course. I’ve met people like you before. People without levels, I mean. That’s how they overcome the problem.”
Ryoka slowed and her foot skidded over a patch of ice. She caught herself and ran after Val as he paused for her to catch up.
“Yeah. I meet them now and then. People of all kinds choose not to level. Well, they’re not too common as you can imagine, but I do run across them now and then.”
“Are there any difference between them and others?”
“Attitude? They way they get treated? Nothing else.”
That was disappointing, but maybe…Ryoka tried to keep the conversation going while she thought.
“And you think I can become a Courier even without Skills? With magic?”
“It’s possible. You just need the right equipment—the right magic if you’ve got the talent. Not all Couriers are fast. Some run a bit slower than you, but can’t be stopped. There’s a [Marksman] among us who rides a horse. She snipes anyone getting in her way down from a two hundred feet away.”
“Hm. So build up my résumé until I’m famous enough, huh?”
“Your what? Oh, you mean take a lot of prestigious requests? Yeah. Get a name for yourself as a trusted Runner and it’ll happen. You just need to take requests no other Runner will do.”
“Well, I’m on a good start.”
“Oh? How so?”
Ryoka hesitated. But she’d talked honestly with Val so far, and she wanted to be on a level. Besides…she told him briefly about Teriarch’s request, leaving out all of the really interesting details.
“Eight hundred gold pieces? You’re kidding. That’s…no wonder your guy was expecting a Courier.”
“Well, it was forty gold pieces and a potion until I started bargaining with him.”
Val had to think as they ran on. Ryoka had asked him whether he knew of the lands past the Blood Fields, omitting any mention of undead or the person she had to find, Az’kerash.
“The Blood Fields? And the southern lands, huh? You’ve got a problem there, but I’m not sure I can help you. I’ve only been down that way once or twice.”
“Pity. I’ll manage.”
“You shouldn’t have to go in there uninformed, though. And while I might know—hold on, let me see if I can find the other Courier nearby.”
Val reached into a pouch at his belt. He pulled out…a stone, of all things. It was vaguely like the one Teriarch had given Ryoka—a normal smooth stone, although this one was inscribed with glowing symbols rather than an arrow.
They lit up as Val touched a finger to the rock. Ryoka heard nothing, but Val must have heard a voice, because he began talking to the air as they ran.
“Ah, hello? Am I speaking to Hawk? This is Valceif of Free Landing. I’m in the area, and I was wondering if you had time to consult with me and another Runner. We’re just outside the city, running. Would you like to—? Thanks.”
He tucked the stone back into his pocket and looked at Ryoka.
“I’ve called Hawk, a Courier who does runs around here. He’ll be with us in a few seconds.”
That was no exaggeration. Barely ten seconds after Val had spoken, Ryoka spotted something hurtling towards them out of the city gate. She barely caught sight of the Runner himself; the snow geysering up behind him was what caught Ryoka’s eye. He intercepted the two Runners within seconds, and the snow cascaded down around them as Hawk, Beastkin, giant talking rabbit, and Courier of Liscor appeared.
“Valceif! I’m surprised they sent you down here!”
“Hello, Hawk. Well, you know how it is. You were busy, and I was nearby and they needed a rush job so here I am.”
The two Runners clasped…hands. Ryoka stared at Hawk’s large paw, and at his furry face and at…him.
She couldn’t deal. No. No—she was lost. He was a giant rabbit. This wasn’t just seeing a Drake or a Gnoll, this was a talking rabbit with pants and a six-pack. Ryoka’s mind was dissolving at the edges.
“And this is Ryoka Griffin, a City Runner. I was hoping you could help her. Ryoka, meet one of the fastest Couriers on the continent.”
“Hawk. I’m the Courier around here. Please to meet you, Miss Ryoka.”
Ryoka took the paw gingerly, and shook it. He had…five fingers, but four toes on his feet. The fur felt smooth and warm in her hands and she met his brown eyes and tried to smile.
Val took over the conversation. He briefly explained Ryoka’s delivery, adding a few details she thought were unnecessary.
“She’s a City Runner, but a step above the other ones. I was hoping you could give her some advice.”
Hawk smiled at Ryoka and shrugged.
“Well, I can keep you from running into too much trouble, but there’s always some war or skirmish going on down there. It’s risky for a City Runner or even an inexperienced Courier. You might want to reconsider going down there, Miss. How much are you getting paid? Is this request really worth it?”
He wasn’t precisely arrogant, but he seemed too relaxed to be taking the conversation seriously. After seeing how fast he ran, Ryoka couldn’t blame him for thinking she was small-fry.
She steeled herself. Rabbit or not, he was still a person. Remember that. Erin made talking to other species look so easy. She grinned at Hawk, and decided to take him down a peg. Just a peg.
“You could say that. My delivery’s worth eight hundred gold pieces. Think it’s worth doing?”
Hawk tripped, but caught himself before he face-planted in the snow.
He eyed Val. The other human was grinning at him. Hawk smiled ruefully, and nodded at Ryoka in apology.
“Well, I’ve underestimated you, I can see. But my point stands about the danger, especially if you’ve got something that might attract attention. Want to give the request to me? I’ll do the delivery and cut you in on a hundred gold pieces.”
Ryoka shook her head. She wasn’t about to trade the request, even if it would mean no risk to her. After what she’d learned about Teriarch, she just had to fulfill his request, for more reasons than one. Val looked at the other Courier reprovingly.
The rabbit man raised his hands defensively.
“I’m just asking. Okay. I thought you weren’t being serious, but I’m sorry Miss Ryoka. Right then. This is a serious delivery.”
“And she’s doing it.”
“I just offered.”
“Thanks, but I’m fine.”
Ryoka gestured to her belt pouch, where the letter and ring were hidden.
“Besides, what I’m delivering is spelled to only be carried by me. You’d probably die if you tried to take it.”
“That’s…an important detail. Right. Well, advice I’m happy to give. What do you need to know? Travel routes? Current battlefields?”
“All of the above and local monsters and so on. Ryoka’s never been down that way.”
Hawk nodded. His ears twitched and he looked out at the pristine snow around them.
“Mind if we run and talk?”
“It’s fine with me. I know a good route around here with some nice flat spots. Want me to lead?”
They set off. Like Val, Hawk adjusted his pace so Ryoka could comfortably keep up. It felt odd, being the slowest person in the group. Hawk began to talk as they ran together.
“Now, do you know where you’re going or do you have a moving target? If it’s something like one of the Walled Cities, you’ll be able to get there pretty easily. If not…”
“I’ve got a spell that points me in the right direction. I have no idea where I’m going.”
“I hate those.”
Hawk nodded. The rabbit took long, easy strides that made Ryoka envy him. He didn’t even seem bothered by the snow as he ran through it. Well, he had pads on his feet…paws.
“Tricky. If you’re going by spell, you could run right into a monster nest or one of the warzones down there. There are a few conflicts going on, and any Human running past is going to get shot at, Runner or not.”
“What? Soldiers don’t attack Runners! If they know you’re a Runner, they should leave you alone!”
Val looked indignant, but Hawk only smiled at him.
“If you can prove you’re a Runner before they fill you with arrows, be my guest. Besides, they use spells that blast an entire area, so there’s no guarantee you won’t be caught up in one. My advice is just stay away, but if you’ve got to head into one of those zones…”
He began listing locations off, and Ryoka tried to memorize them. Val pulled out a map of the area and began marking spots for her. Another gift. She tried to refuse, but he told her it was only worth a gold coin or two. In response she tossed two at him as they ran.
“Just be careful. You can talk to soldiers if they aren’t trying to kill you and usually get past, so that’s not the real problem.”
Hawk leapt straight over a five foot high drift of snow and landed lightly. He turned and ran backwards while Val and Ryoka went around it.
“Things to watch out for? I’d start with the Gnolls. Keep away from them unless you’re absolutely sure you know which tribe it is. Some are friendly towards Humans and other species, but others will try and eat you. Believe me, I know from experience.”
He scowled, rubbing at his neck. Ryoka could just imagine the conflict that would arise…she looked at Hawk and decided she would never be able to eat rabbit again. Not that she was particularly a fan in the first place.
“There are several nasty Goblin tribes down that way. Don’t underestimate them; they’re not like the normal ones around here. Um—there are lots of monsters, but they’re mostly hibernating or hiding in the winter. Watch out for Snow Golems, though. They’re practically invisible in the snow. Oh, and Wyverns. The white ones come down from the mountains sometimes and they love the cold.”
Ryoka knew what a Wyvern was, but she couldn’t believe the other thing Hawk had said.
“Snow Golems? Do you mean giant snowmen?”
“Common mistake. I suppose you’ve seen what happens when some stupid brats make a snow Drake and forget to give it clothes? Imagine that, only ten times bigger and with icicles with claws and teeth. Plus, they can hurl snowballs filled with rocks.”
“I hate them so much. If you ever know you’re getting close to a group of them, bring some kind of fire spell with you.”
“And Wyverns—keep an eye on the sky If you see anything overhead, even if you think it’s an eagle, make sure you’ve got somewhere to hide where they can’t reach you. They can dive incredibly fast, so be careful if it’s cloudy.”
“And you’re not going to talk me out of this, despite the danger?”
Ryoka looked at both Couriers, amused. This sounded almost as bad as the High Passes, but then she’d just been told by everyone that it was suicidal to try to go there. Both Val and Hawk shook their heads. Val gestured at her as they began to circle back in the direction of the inn.
“If you’ve taken the contract, you’re bound to deliver it. And if you’re the type to give up just because you might die, you’ll never become a Courier.”
Ryoka grinned, and Hawk and Val returned it. It was odd, being in sync with other people.
“The undead. Be very wary of them.”
This time Hawk looked completely serious.
“You weren’t here for the undead that attacked were you?”
“I saw the aftermath.”
“Yeah, well…they weren’t nearly as bad as the ones you can find around the Blood Fields. I mean, there was that big one, but individually, the worst undead out there were Crypt Lords.”
“That’s nasty enough. They’re commander-types.”
“Yeah, but they were commanding zombies, skeletons, and ghouls. Not scary. But a lot of the undead you can find down there are leftovers from the Necromancer.”
Ryoka looked between human man and rabbit man.
“The Necromancer? You mean the one who raised the undead army? What kind of undead are we talking about here?”
“Horrible ones. Smart ones. He enslaved wraiths and ghosts and build new types of undead. Look—just before you go, buy some emergency gear. Something to get you away quick if you run into a group of them.”
Ryoka felt at the potion at her belt, and remembered the ones she’d gotten from Octavia.
“I’ve got some stuff. And four healing potions and three stamina potions. Enough?”
“As long as you don’t stray too far from the roads. Healing potions are only useful if you’re alive to use them. Best trick is not to get hurt.”
“Agreed. Just don’t get hurt.”
“And don’t give up! Delivery or die!”
Ryoka had to laugh. Both Couriers were like her. It was amazing! She took a breath and quoted from memory.
“‘Neither rain nor snow, nor gloom of night shall stay these couriers from the swift completion of their appointed rounds, huh?”
Both Val and Hawk looked at Ryoka in astonishment.
“That’s quite good! Where did you hear that?”
“Oh, it’s a quote from my home about Couriers.”
“‘Neither rain nor snow’…yeah, I like it!”
Hawk nodded his head and Val did as well.
“We might just have to use that line! Thanks, Miss Ryoka.”
“Call me Ryoka.”
‘Miss’ seemed to be this world’s way of being polite, almost like Japanese honorifics. She bowed her head at the other two Couriers as they slowed on their approach to the inn.
“Thank you, both of you. I owe you a lot. I’ll repay the favor someday.”
“Bah. It was nothing.”
Hawk waved a paw dismissively. And then he grinned at Val and Ryoka.
“Talk is cheap, but meeting other good Runners? It’s great to meet other people who can run! You wouldn’t believe how slow the ones around here are. And hey, maybe we can go back to that inn for some more hamburgers afterwards, hey?”
Val and Ryoka paused. Ryoka remembered how many she’d eaten yesterday, for both lunch and dinner. Val was clearly thinking the same thing.
“Not for at least a month.”
Both Val and Ryoka said it at the same time. Hawk looked slightly hurt.
“Why not? You were both at the inn last night, weren’t you? The one with the music? It was great! I must have eaten eight of the things, and then I got some tail, if you know what I mean.”
He grinned at Val and made a wiggling motion with his paw.
“Drakes. So slippery, you know?”
Val and Ryoka exchanged a look. Val looked at Hawk.
“Tail? You don’t mean—”
Ryoka’s mind literally shut down at the idea of Hawk eating eight hamburgers and then finding a female Drake and…
Neither human spoke, but they both accelerated at the same time. Hawk had to increase his stride to keep up. He glared at them as he kept pace.
“Oh come on! Do you think I’d be into fleshy people like you? I’d rather kiss a Minotaur first. At least they have something covering them! Furballs, you humans are so touchy.”
Olesm was not a Drake given to arrogance, but he still had his pride. It had been badly crushed, beaten, and stomped by a certain human and the undead, but it was still pride nevertheless.
He’d leveled up, risked his life, and tried to learn to play his favorite game as best he could. He’d learned from the greatest chess player in the world—Erin, and he thought he’d made something of himself.
But now he knew the truth. The cold waters of reality were lapping around his head, and Olesm was too downtrodden to even bother trying to swim.
He felt Erin come over, and wished, wished, he was the kind of person who could capture her heart. But he was a [Tactician] – not a good one, not nearly as good as one in Liscor’s army – but he had a special skill. He could read people, and she wasn’t interested in him.
At all. Oh, she liked him, but Olesm knew it wouldn’t be more than that. And of course, he’d found someone—
It was just that she was like a beacon to him, a font of knowledge and unexplained mystery that stirred his soul. And he had let her down. He could barely look at Erin. Shame made Olesm’s tail droop.
“I—lost. Three games in a row. I couldn’t even put up a fight.”
Erin stared curiously at the chessboard as Olesm cringed. He couldn’t even bear to see how badly he’d been demolished. It hadn’t even been a battle, really. Just the other player pushing Olesm’s head down into the waters and holding him there while he drowned.
“Huh. That other guy’s good. Or girl. Probably a guy, though.”
“You can tell what gender he is just by looking at the board?”
Olesm’s tail drooped ever further. Erin was so far above him—
“No! I just mean—well, all the Grandmasters back home were mostly guys. Girls didn’t play chess as much so I meant…hm.”
She stared at the board, and then started resetting the pieces. Olesm stared glumly at the board.
“I think I made him mad. Or—disappointed him. I’m so sorry.”
After the first game, the other play had reset the board quickly. But this time he – or she – let Erin put all the pieces back. Yes, Olesm could feel the disapproval radiating off the pieces. It scourged him, and he couldn’t deny it. If he had found out that the player who’d come up with that marvelous puzzle was just someone on Olesm’s level.
Olesm lowered his head to the table. He would apologize, leave the inn, go to the city, and not bother Erin again until he was ten levels higher. He would—
A hand brushed the spines on Olesm’s head and he jerked. Erin patted him gently on the head as she took a seat at the table.
“There’s no reason to be mad for playing someone worse than you are. Everyone has to learn. If this guy’s mad, I’ll teach him a lesson for you.”
Erin flipped the board around, and moved a white pawn. Olesm hesitated, but his pulse suddenly began to speed up.
“He’s quite good.”
“I know. I could see. So—I guess I’ll take this seriously.”
“I’ll just—I’ll give you some—”
Olesm backed up until he was a table’s length away from Erin. He waited, with baited breath as she stared at the board. Then, almost reluctantly, he saw a knight move to F6. His spirits sank again.
This was…what had Erin called it? Oh, yes. Alekhine’s Defence. It was an aggressive opening to counter the King’s Pawn with, and it hinted that the other player had grown tired of playing Olesm. At first he’d played very cautiously, but now—
Erin smiled. She moved another piece forwards—a knight to C3. Almost instantly, the other player countered, moving his knight again, but Erin didn’t stop. She started playing pieces rapidly, as soon as the other player moved his.
Olesm could feel the shock running through the board. The other player had probably just realized someone else was playing—Olesm hadn’t moved his pieces so quickly, and certainly not with such skill.
For five whole minutes, the game paused, and Olesm could feel the other side recalculating. When the game resumed, it was slower, and the other player took his time thinking his moves over.
It was a soft sound, in the gentle silence of the inn. It came from Erin as the game was more than halfway done. She’d made a mistake, and the other player had taken her queen. Olesm stared at the board in shock, and then at Erin. She was surprised, but she just looked at the board and started recalculating her position. He heard her murmur as she tapped her chin.
“He’s quite good. Yeah.”
She grinned. It was an expression like many of the bright smiles Olesm had seen and felt before, but this one was different. It made his scales tingle.
Because there was a light in Erin’s eyes he hadn’t seen before. And as she moved the next piece, punishing the bishop that had stolen her queen, he thought she looked…
Hungry. Yes, that was it.
Whatever else you might say of Erin, her skill at chess was indisputable. In this world, chess had lived in the minds of a few players for less than three years. But Erin had grown up playing chess as a child. She had breathed and lived the game, playing more matches in a year than Olesm had in his life.
Erin had grown up studying over a 1,500 years of chess. She’d learned from Grandmasters and countless games she could look back on. Chess strategy had evolved much since the origin of the game, and Erin had learned to play to such a level that even among the 600 million players in the world, she still stood close to the top.
To Olesm, she was a god of chess that had come to this world. He had never beaten Erin; never even come close. But it is lonely, standing alone at the top. Only once he’d seen Erin challenged—only once had he ever seen her lose.
She’d played a hundred Workers at once and then taught them an Immortal Game. And then she had played one of her own. Olesm still remembered that game.
It must have been so lonely, afterwards. To play against players who couldn’t even make her take the game seriously. But now. But now—
Erin played silently, sitting with her back straight against the chair, posture perfect. She didn’t look around, didn’t chatter happily as she played. For once, she was concentrating completely on the game. And as the game drew close to its ending, her responses got faster, her concentration even deeper.
At the end, Erin took the black King, and Olesm remembered to breathe again. Erin sat back in her chair and laughed in delight. And that sound was pure and made him realize that she was happy.
Happy to have won. But happier to have played.
“Come on. Another game?”
Erin started resetting the board, but she tapped one of the ghostly pawns on the chess board once. And Olesm saw the black pawn move up and gently tap the board as well.
They understood each other. They were two players separated by hundreds, possibly thousands of miles, but they understood each other. They were here to play. So they did.
Another game. And another. Erin won both. Olesm watched as the fourth game began, and realized the truth.
Yes. Whoever was on the other side of the chess board was not Erin’s equal. But they were close. So close. And in each game, they sent a message to Erin, one written in every closely-contested exchange, every lost pawn and checkmate.
You are not alone.
Olesm wiped tears from his eyes. His heart ached, and he knew it would be silly to anyone watching. But there was a beauty in this that only someone who loved the game could see.
It took so much to look away, but he had to. Olesm walked into the kitchen and found what he was looking for. He’d found a bunch of parchment Erin had bought when he was helping out. It was still there, in a cupboard with an ink pot and quill.
Olesm returned to the living room and stared at the game. It was going slowly, and he looked at Erin’s face just for a second. She was closing her eyes, smiling gently, and his heart hurt for a moment.
He slowly picked up a quill and dipped it into the ink. Olesm began to write, noting down each move in the shorthand notation Erin had taught him.
And Erin smiled, and the chess pieces moved. They danced on the board and the Drake listened to history being made.
Far away, and in a large tent on the middle of a hot and humid day, Niers Astoragon, second in command of one of the Four Great Companies of Baleros, and highest-leveled [Strategist] on the continent, gently pushed over the king and stared at the chess board.
He ignored the sounds of battle around him. His soldiers would emerge triumphant, and his lieutenants had the battle well in hand. Interfering with them would only impede their growth.
No, instead, he stared at the shimmering board and the magical pieces arranged on it. He had lost. For the fourth time. It had been close—ever so close! But he had lost. For the fourth time.
Niers did not rage. He was not, in fact, angry. Instead, he smiled, in much the same way Erin had. He put one hand on his chin and stroked it, feeling stubble rasp under his fingers. He had forgotten to shave, or sleep for that matter. He had been waiting to play the puzzle-maker and after an initial disappointment, his patience had been rewarded tenfold.
For a second, Niers debated hunting for his razor. He would have borrowed one of his lieutenant’s blades, but he hated how they fussed over him. A dagger as large as he was was still a dagger, and he was more than strong enough to lift it. It was just awkward, that was all.
Appearance trumped desire. Niers was a Level 63 [Tactician], and on his shoulders the fate of his company rested. He could not let his soldiers down. But—perhaps after he had played another game?
Niers reached down for a chess piece, and then he paused. A sound was coming from outside—a dissonance in the sounds of battle. Niers listened, and sighed. Some fool had just deployed the other army’s elite vanguard against his soldiers, turning this skirmish into a far bloodier battle.
His soldiers would need his help. Niers raised a hand and said two words.
The air on the battlefield changed. Satisfied, Niers turned back to the board, ignoring the roar that came from his soldiers as the tide shifted once more.
He looked back at the board. He had sent it on a whim, judging the cost worth the possibility of a decent game. But now a bigger question loomed in his mind, one he’d wished he had asked sooner.
“Who are you?”
The chess pieces didn’t answer out loud. But as Niers saw the white side reset itself, he knew he would find part of the answer in the game. He sat down, concentrated harder than he had for what seemed like years—
And began to play.