Every head in the Runner’s Guild turned as the door opened. It was a conditioned response; those who ran were either quick to notice things or they were dead.
Ryoka walked over to a counter on one side of the room, ignoring the appraising looks she received. She waited until the female receptionist at the counter looked up.
“Good morning, Ryoka.”
The receptionist treated her to a friendly smile. Ryoka nodded back. She did not smile.
“Do you have any requests to turn in?”
Ryoka nodded again.
“Very well. I’ll witness your claim.”
The receptionist waited patiently as Ryoka scribbled down her name and listed the seals she’d brought in. She had to write down the composition of each seal. Two red hardwood seals and the expensive silver/sapphire seal.
“Oh, is that Magnolia’s seal? You were lucky to pick up that delivery.”
Ryoka finished writing and slid the paper and quill over to the receptionist. The other woman’s smile flickered, but she added her own signature to the log.
“Most runners fight over the right to deliver something to her. She pays extra for speed, and of course she’s been known to tip generously too.”
The receptionist waited for a response. She got a silent nod.
Ryoka turned away. She walked over to a large bulletin board with pieces of paper tacked to it.
Like the Adventurer’s Guilds, the Runner’s Guild used a first-come-first-serve system when it came to giving out delivery requests. It was this board that Ryoka studied intently, ignoring the eyes still boring into the back of her head. She was used to it.
What she wasn’t used to was the loud, cheerful voice that cut through the silence.
The young woman tensed up. Her head twitched towards the door, but it was too late. Another girl was making a beeline towards her. She was shorter than Ryoka, but wider. Not from fat; rather, she looked sturdy without having the obvious muscles of a man.
Garia Strongheart slapped Ryoka on the shoulder. The taller girl’s left eye twitched, but Garia didn’t notice.
“Did you just finish your deliveries to Celers? That’s fast! I normally have a bite to eat in the markets. They do a wonderful cinnamon bun in the mornings, but I guess you already ate, right?”
The taller girl looked over at Garia and gave her a fractional nod.
“And you did it barefoot? I thought the others were just playing a prank on me when they said you ran everywhere without shoes.”
Ryoka sighed inaudibly.
“I run everywhere without shoes.”
“Why? Too cheap for them?”
Garia laughed. Ryoka did not.
“I’m just slower with shoes, that’s all.”
“Oh, so it’s a class thing? That makes sense. But is the uh, [Barefoot Runner] class better than the [Messenger] class?”
Ryoka shrugged. Below the bulletin board was a table with bundles of deliveries yet to be made. She picked out a bundle and weighed it experimentally. Too heavy. She put it back and tried another one on. Light enough to run with.
Her continuing silence and clear disinterest in conversation didn’t bother Garia, at least outwardly. The friendly girl continued to press Ryoka, asking about the road, what dangers she’d encountered, and so on. She got monosyllabic responses if she was lucky.
Ryoka studied the requests. Most were generic delivery requests. Unfortunately, they were all spaced out so that it would be hard to do more than a few without running twice as far.
A scrap of paper hiding behind two other requests caught her eye. Ryoka pulled it out and studied it. Then she showed it to Garia.
“What’s the reward for this one?”
Garia looked at the piece of paper and shook her head.
“Oh that? It’s one of the old-style requests. You get them now and then. Someone sends a message that they want a delivery and they promise payment. But we have no idea how much they’re willing to pay and who they want the package delivered to. At least it’s confirmed.”
“That means we can at least prove they’re not bandits. Who’s this one from? Oh. Don’t take this request.”
“It’s for the High Passes. Very nasty place. More runners have died there than—well, it’s bad. Tons of monsters live around the area.”
Ryoka’s expression didn’t change as she studied the request. But then she looked elsewhere. Garia picked out another request and showed it to Ryoka.
“How about you and I do this delivery of ore to Pelingor? It would be a long haul, but they’re offering a gold coin for delivery today! Plus the roads are very safe. Whaddya say?”
The other girl studied the notice and eyed the packs. They were filled to bursting and were as heavy as they looked.
Garia looked disappointed. Ryoka shrugged awkwardly.
“I’m not good at running in groups.”
“Well, if you’re sure. But we should run together sometime. How about in a few days we do the Tern Road run and deliver the spices to Celers and Remendia?”
Again, Ryoka’s expression didn’t change, but she looked up at the ceiling as she considered Garia’s request.
Garia beamed and slapped Ryoka on the back. Again, the other girl’s eye twitched.
“Great! I’ll let you know when it comes up.”
Ryoka selected a piece of paper as Garia turned away. But then the door opened and she heard Garia call out.
More runners walked into the guild. Their arrival was greeted with much more enthusiasm and energy that Ryoka’s had been. A few other runners moved over as the three people who had entered strolled up to the receptionist’s counter and offered her silver seals.
Garia joined the group around the runners and grinned up at the tallest one. He was a blonde, tanned runner with long legs and red clothing that was better quality than the other runners around him. He also wore two daggers at his belt.
“Fals, how’re you doing?”
Fals grinned at Garia and exchanged slaps on the shoulder. He pointed to the other two runners accompanying him, a young man and a woman.
“We just finished a run to a group of adventurers out near the old ruins. Brought a bunch of potions and supplies. They tipped well, so we’re going to celebrate.”
Garia sighed enviously.
“And you don’t have a scratch on you.”
“We’re not stupid enough to get near the monsters.”
Fals laughed and the other runners laughed with him.
“So why are you here? Going to accept another assignment?”
He shook his head.
“Nah. I’m too tired for that. No, I just wanted to have a word with our newest runner here.”
He walked over to Ryoka. The other runners who’d congregated around him fell away, leaving just his two friends and Garia.
“Ryoka, how’re you doing?”
The other girl had finished picking out two requests. She looked up from stowing the deliveries in her backpack.
Fals waited, but that was it. Garia shifted uncomfortably and the other two runners glared at Ryoka. She looked expressionlessly back at them. However, Fals took the lapse in stride.
“Good, good. I was wondering if you needed any advice, what with you being so new. Normally, most runners begin as Street Runners first.”
Ryoka shrugged. Again, Fals broke the silence before it grew too onerous.
“Well, I noticed you took Magnolia’s request this morning. It’s a good run, isn’t it?”
“There were a few Goblins on the road.”
Fals scratched his head and shifted uncomfortably. Ryoka finished tying her pack closed and hoisted it onto her shoulders. She looked at him expectantly.
“The thing is, it’s a really good delivery. It pays well, it’s safe—well, mostly safe—and runners like Magnolia. She tips well and shares her deliveries.”
“She once gave me a few treats she imported from overseas. They were frozen bits of fruit and sugar. Tasted amazing.”
“Exactly. We all like her. I know she wanted someone to deliver that blue drink she likes so much. Did she share any with you?”
Ryoka shook her head.
“I wasn’t interested.”
This time she definitely got a glare from every runner in earshot. Fals shifted again.
“Right, well, it would just be best if you let another runner take the request next time. Not that you don’t have a right to it—it’s just that we like to share the request. Give others a chance to take it easy, okay?”
He gave her a smile which went unreturned. Garia eyed Ryoka nervously. Ryoka stared at Fals expressionlessly, and then nodded.
The two other runners accompanying Fals shifted on their feet. They looked at Ryoka with a lot more hostility than Fals and Garia. For his part, Fals nodded and gave Ryoka another friendly smile.
“Just so you know. Good luck on your run!”
Fals and the other runners walked away. Ryoka watched them go. Her face betrayed no emotion, but Garia saw her hand go up and tug at one ear.
Something was off about it. Normally, Ryoka’s long hair covered her ears, but now Garia saw that her left ear had been torn sometime in the past. The lower part of her earlobe was missing, and the remainder had healed jaggedly around the round gap.
Ryoka noticed Garia staring at her ear. She dropped her hand and turned away.
What was the receptionist’s name? It’s still bugging me. I think it started with an ‘S’. Or was it a ‘Y’? No. I’m sure it was an s.
Either way, at least that’s done with. And now I can get out of the city and away from annoying people.*
I feel a lot better as I jog out of the city gates. Running calms me down. And I need some calming down after having to deal with idiots.**
Okay, okay, calm down. I adjust my pace as I sprint out of the city gates. People are staring. Not that it matters too much, but I don’t want to waste my energy running too fast right now.
Destination: Remendia. It’s about thirty miles away, which makes it one of the furthest cities to travel to. I’ll get over there in a few hours and then jog over to its neighbor, Ocre. Or whatever it’s called. But I’ll stay the night in Remendia since it’s bigger and has better inns.
There’s a Runner’s Guild in Remendia. There’s one in almost every big city, so I can receive more requests wherever I go. That’s handy, and it means I don’t have to come back here and deal with the annoying runners around here.
Then again, they all do city-to-city deliveries as well, so I tend to run into all of them sooner or later. It’s a pain.
Well, Garia isn’t a pain. She’s just too friendly. But she’s the best of them. The rest of the City Runners can go to hell. Especially Fals.
City Runners. From what I understand of these Runners, they’re like postmen. Or postwomen. Whichever. But you can divide them into roughly three categories. There are the Street Runners, the City Runners, and the Couriers.
Street Runners cover individual cities and don’t stray outside of them very far. They take the safest, easiest jobs and receive the least amount of money. They also seem like they’re not that high in the social hierarchy in the Runner’s Guild. They’re the youngest or the oldest, and that’s about all I know.
City Runners is what I guess I fall into. They—we run from city to city and make deliveries in a general area. A City Runner might run for a few days if he has to make a really long delivery, but he won’t stray from his ‘territory’*. They take on the more dangerous jobs, but again, they’re not adventurers so a City Runner mainly runs away from any trouble and tries to make their deliveries as quickly as possible.
*Territory. What are we, dogs? But apparently we are, with all the little groups and infighting the runners seem to do. It’s a mess of politics and friendships in each Runner’s Guild.
Then there’s Couriers. I haven’t personally met one, but I hear they’re the equivalent of long-distance mail. They can go from one end of the continent to the other, or even across the sea if their delivery calls for it. They’re quick, efficient, and apparently they cost incredible amounts of money to hire. But they’re also supposed to be really good at their jobs.
From what Garia told me, each one is at least Level 30, and they all have levels in other classes as well so they’re not easy to ambush. And that’s…
I look around as I run. I’m going down one of the main roads, but it’s empty at the moment. Still, I jog off the road and into the short grass. It’s not like I’ll go much slower out here. I wait until I’m a ways away from the road before I shout.
“That’s so stupid!”
Well, it’s not much of a shout. It’s hard to shout and breathe at the same time, and it feels really awkward to talk to myself. Who does that? Anyways, I’m still not over it.
Levels. It’s one of the weirdest things about this world, and this is a weird world. It’s like a game, but it’s not a game. At least, there’s no evil demon lord or end of the world coming, and I’m no hero from another planet summoned to defend this place from evil.
I’m a girl from Wisconsin. I’m a Freshman in college, and I run barefoot. I found myself here when I was on my run, and I ended up in this crazy place with my iPhone, my wallet, and my watch. I’m no hero.
But this place is exactly like a video game. Or, failing that, a fantasy book. Something out of Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, except the cities I’ve visited don’t have any Elves or Dwarves. In fact, they don’t even have many humans with skin darker than tan. I’m practically an outsider because I look Asian.
Back to the road. It’s not good to stray too far from it, I guess. But I hate having to dodge around wagons and listen to every idiot I meet shout at me about my bare feet. But it beats Goblins, I guess.
Anyways, what was I thinking about? Oh yeah. This is a stupid world. A really stupid one, and the worst part is that it’s just like the one I left.
Fals. He was hinting—no, he was telling me not to take any more of the good delivery requests. And judging by the crowd back in there, they all think the same way.
Politics. No one takes all the good deliveries or we’ll make life tough for you, huh? And this Fals is their…what? He’s popular, I know.
I grit my teeth. I don’t like him. He’s always giving me advice, usually about things I should or shouldn’t do. And since he’s a senior Runner he’s got some kind of priority with deliveries and everything else. I really hate running into him in the guilds.
Already. It’s only been a week and a half*, but I’ve gotten used to this world, at least a bit. You really can get used to anything. But I’ve never liked social climbing, and it feels like half of being a Runner is doing just that.
*Has it really only been that long? It feels…so much longer.
I hate Fals. I run into him too much. And now I’ve got to run with Garia, dragging a massive backpack thirty miles for terrible pay. Why did I agree to run with her? Because it was too hard to say no.
Damn. Damn me, damn her, and Fals can…there’s not enough damnation around here for him. I hate all of this.
So I run. Keep running. I increase my pace and my thoughts flow out of my head. That’s better.
Things come and go, but at least I can run. Ironically, in this world I can run even more since it’s now my job. That’s the only good thing about my predicament. The only good thing.
Well, that and one more little fact. I grin as I remember, and the wagon driver gives me a weird look as I run past him.
This world has a bunch of Runners. And they’re okay. They really are. They run far, and the ones like Garia are tough and strong enough to run with huge bags on their back for quite a long ways. But you know what? Maybe it’s their diets. Or maybe they don’t know about proper hydration, or running form or—
The point is, they’re okay. But they’ve got nothing on a girl who earned a scholarship for track and field.
I take off, and the miles flow behind me like rain. I may not be a social runner, or even liked. At all. But I’m pretty sure that I’m one of the fastest.
It’s a long run. But I get it done with and enter Remendia just as the sun’s turning the sky orange. Two deliveries. One here, and the other in that other city. Ocres? Whatever.
I take care of it, and then turn in my seals at the local Runner’s Guild. Here I get more silent stares, but that’s fine. Keep the poker face up, turn in the seals, and leave.
That done, I find an inn. Hm. The first one I go to advertises bed and board for three silver coins. It’s pricy, but I’ve earned over thirty silver today. I’ll treat myself.
If you’ve got the motivation and you don’t die from being shanked by a Goblin hiding in the grass, a City Runner can make good money. True, a large part of my earnings was from that Magnolia request, but I still earn more than most people. Or so I gather.
The average worker makes about 3-4 silver coins* per day. But that’s pittance compared to what merchants or shopkeepers can bring in. Even taking away their daily expenses, they probably earn upwards of twenty silver coins each day. But that’s pittance compared to the money adventurers can make.
*Local currencies differ from city to city or by region. Here the currency is called Thestals, but that just means they have a unique weight and percentage of actual silver or gold used in each coin. Those who deal with money a lot care about the currency, but they’re all roughly silver, gold, and copper coins.
The famous adventurers. Heroes. People who can slice, dice, and blast things apart. I think about them as I soak in one of the public bathhouses. It feels great, but what was I—oh, right.
Adventurers. They don’t exactly look like the flashy characters with insane armor and gigantic swords you see in video games. Mainly, they look like medieval soldiers. At least, the low-level ones do. Again, Garia tells me the high-level ones look really impressive, but I’ve yet to meet one of those.
And why am I thinking of adventurers? And where’s the towel? And is that bath attendant giving me a dirty look?
Oh, right. Because of my feet. Hey, they’re dirty but probably less dirty than other people’s disgusting body parts. Leave a tip? I guess.
Back to the thinking. Adventurers? Yeah, they’re like…starving artists? They don’t earn much from hunting monsters, but the ones who survive their raids on dungeons or old ruins can earn unimaginable amounts of wealth in an instant. I guess it’s appealing for people who think they’ll survive. Not me, thanks. I’ve seen what Goblins do with people, and they’re the weakest monsters around.
So, if adventurers represent the top earners, Runners fall somewhere around the mid-categories. It’s a dangerous job, but not nearly as dangerous as fighting monsters.
Why do I care? Oh, right, money. I’ve got enough.
Back to the inn. I’m tired, but my mind is still racing. It’s been how many hours? I’m still annoyed by those idiots back in the Runner’s Guild. And Garia. I’m more annoyed than mad at her, but—
She was staring at my ear. Which is fair. Are ear injuries that common around here? It’s a distinctive pattern—perhaps that’s why she’s curious. And about me running barefoot. It’s not common even in fantasy worlds, I guess.
Back to the inn. Time for a meal. Let’s eat and think. What kind of meal? Chicken. I could go for chicken and mashed potatoes. It tastes good, especially since I’m hungry. But focus. Is that guy staring at my breasts? Yes. I hate you, random stranger.
Ignore him. Eat chicken. Gravy goes on top of potatoes. Think.
Let’s go over it again. Priorities. First and most important? Money to live on. Right now I’m earning enough for a room at an inn and regular meals, but keep saving.
Second, I need more information. Libraries don’t exist around here, or at least, they aren’t open for the public. I need maps, but I also need a book on the cities around here. History, culture—I need a local. Can’t ask them too much, or they’ll get suspicious. Put that one on the backburner.
Next? Um. Equipment. The job I’ve got is pretty much the only one I can do. Alternatives? I could be a scribe…if my handwriting were better. But being able to write more than my name is helpful. Too bad it’s not too useful.
Focus. Equipment. There’s magical items on sale in the markets. Not many—and they’re expensive. But runners have different kinds of enchanted items. I want one. But I’m still trying to earn enough money to buy a good healing potion for emergencies. That has to be the first priority.
Meal’s done? Do I leave the plate or…? Hm. Let’s see. Looks like they’re leaving plates. And the innkeeper puts it on my tab…? Yeah. I’ll pay it tomorrow.
Back up to my room, away from prying eyes and people who want to sit and have a drink with me. I’m not against drinking* but I really don’t need to deal with lonely men right now.
*Well, I am if it’s alcohol.
My bed’s pretty good this time. You definitely get what you pay for. I guess I’ll spend at least two silver coins on my inn from now on. It’s expensive, but it beats a bad bed.
Hm. Final check before I got to sleep. Fals? Hate him. Got to run with Garia sometime. Get it over with. Using money for…healing potion. And then equipment. Right.
I know what to do tomorrow. I’ll go to the Runner’s Guild first thing and get some good, high-paying requests. Save up, buy that healing potion. But something else nags me as I lie in the bed with a feather poking the back of my head.
Here’s the problem. And it’s a big one. I have no idea what to do next. Not ‘next’ as in tomorrow, but ‘next’ as in what I should be aiming for in the future. I can earn enough money to live off of, but what’s my end goal? To live and die here? Or to return home? And how in the blue blazes* am I going to do that?
*Where does that quote come from? No, focus. Focus.
When I run I can keep the doubts from floating about in my head. But when I stop and when I’m about to sleep I feel it crawling back up from the depths.
Uncertainty. I still don’t know why I’m here, what magic or fate brought me to this place, or what even to do next. I earn money and I keep it, but I don’t know what to do with it. I run and run, and someday I’ll run into something nasty. This world is full of monsters, and I don’t know what to do.
Still, I can’t worry about it now. I have to sleep. If I’m tired or I oversleep tomorrow I’ll miss the good deliveries.
I close my eyes. Time to sleep. My mind is racing, but at least my body’s tired. I’m drifting off in my mattress. It’s not that much different from my one back at home, to be honest. Maybe more lumpy and less comfortable as a whole, but it will do. And I’m so tired.
Damn. I forgot. Before I sleep. Concentrate. Block out the messages—
[Barefoot Runner Class Ob—]
[Barefoot Runner Le—]
I hate having to do that every night.