I’ve listened to my share of alarm clocks over the years. When I was a kid, my parents gave me an old-fashioned one* that I had to wind up constantly or it wouldn’t go off. First chance I got, I switched it out for a digital alarm, and then my iPhone.
*Vintage, if you’re a hipster. And if you are, don’t talk to me.
I like to wake up early to run – thus as I got older, my alarm clocks got louder. The one in my room I bought because my iPhone wasn’t powerful enough. It could wake up the house if I left for my morning run and forgot to turn it off. And my folks have a big house.
But no alarm clock or blaring fire alarm has ever gotten me into the waking world so quickly. The instant I heard those two words I woke up. It was like magic*.
*Probably because it was magic.
I raise my head and instinctively brace for agonizing pain. I don’t feel any, which is alarming in itself. I should be in incredible pain—or dead. And if I am dead, who woke me up?
Please let it not be an old white guy who calls himself God.
Again, the voice of God does exactly what it says on the tin. I get up without even realizing I’m doing it. I was lying on the ground, but now the world tilts the right way up for me. What’s going on?
I remember collapsing onto the floor. On paved marble tiles, to be exact. Paved marble tiles in the middle of a vast cavern, surrounded by a treasury/armory/mage’s laboratory/library of some kind.
I’d like to look around, but my body is frozen. I sit completely still, unable to look around. I can see rows of dark bookshelves ahead of me, and then someone walks into view.
There’s a man—yes, a man standing in front of me. The strangest, most attractive—
Attractive? Him? He’s an old guy with a beard. I hate older men, mainly because they remind me of my dad. But this man—he’s different. Different from anyone I’ve met.
For one thing, he looks amazing in multiple senses of the word. His hair is a pale white, but not gray. Rather—silvery? It has a luster about it that makes me wonder if he uses this world’s equivalent of hair gel. But even the greatest beauty pageant contestants and supermodels of my world don’t have hair like that.
And he looks like a model. An Olympian athlete past his prime but with the same body. He looks like the kind of person Renaissance sculptors would make statues of, but even David wasn’t this in shape.
Plus, he’s wearing robes that look like they’re kin to the ones Ceria bought. Magical robes that look like silk and shine—except that his clothing is even shinier*.
*I think my brain’s literally shutting down. This is wrong. People…a person shouldn’t be this perfect.
And then I look up and meet a pair of eyes that are both blue and violet.
No. Blue and violet? What am I, in elementary school? The colors I see are far deeper than that. I look into this man’s eyes—
And I see a tiny bit of magic caught forever.
It should be impossible, but it’s like staring into one of those nebulas in outer space. The amethyst and azure—no, even those words aren’t good enough. When I see the celestial colors in his eyes the world heliotrope and cerulean spring to mind. Fancy words, to describe a wordless sight.
The colors shift together in his corona, exactly like the ever-changing colors of the solar clouds. Nebulae. The pupils shift towards me and I feel like someone’s tagged me with a cattle prod*. I still don’t know how I’m uninjured or what this place is, but I can guess by assuming what he is.
*I don’t know what that actually feels like firsthand but—it’s like my entire body is being shocked, and not just in a bad way.
A mage. Or maybe the word sorcerer or wizard applies here. Because if this guy is a mage, he’s an archmage or a magus.
The mysterious old mage-guy crooks one finger upwards at me.
I push myself up and onto my feet easily, again sans pain or the gaping holes in my body I know should be there. Why?
Now that I’m on my feet I see I’m also shorter than this man by at least a few inches. And I’m six foot one. He’s tall, handsome, and even if his skin isn’t dark it’s—
I blink for a second. Odd, I could have sworn his skin was white, but it’s darker than that. He looks…middle eastern? Yeah, a moderate olive brown whitened by a long time out of the sun maybe. But I could have sworn he had white skin when I first saw him.
His scales glow in the light. The golden dragon looks at me and—
No—it’s the light. I want to look up, but the light is changing in the room, somehow. It’s as if there’s a massive color filter over the room, making everything appear different. Is there a massive mirror or something…?
But then the mage looks me up and down and I realize something else is wrong. Namely, something is wrong with my clothes.
My flesh is healed, but the fabric is weak. And when a bunch of pterodactyl-type birds start trying to shred you from above and Gargoyles are spitting stone chunks at you, a wardrobe malfunction is sort of inevitable.
One of the stone shards must have cut me on the right shoulder, because my bra strap’s been sliced in two. That wouldn’t be so bad—except that an important part of my shirt is missing too. Right around the chest area.
It’s cold in the cavern. But the old guy gives my breast one dismissive look and sighs. He doesn’t even seem vaguely interested, which annoys me more than I feel relieved he’s not some pervert-sorcerer*.
*Look, obviously I care about the dignity of women. Anyone whistling at me on the street I have an urge to throw into a trashcan. But when nakedness occurs, you expect at least some kind of reaction out of any male, gay or straight or asexual. Even if it’s covering their eyes and turning away politely, or staring like a monkey. But this guy doesn’t even blink. Even a blind guy would be happier to be told there was a naked woman in front of him. Respect is very important, but I’d like some acknowledgement I’m more important than a rock.
“Ah, of course. Clothing.”
He tsks and raises a finger. I’d really love to dodge or ask what he’s doing, but I’m helpless.
His finger doesn’t even glow. Unlike when Sostrom repaired my iPhone, I can see no flash of magic. But magic does happen.
In an instant my bra strap slithers back over my shoulder and reconnects itself. I feel without being able to turn my head my clothing growing to cover the missing spots, sealing over in a matter of seconds.
That felt…incredibly creepy. But I’m happier not to be catching a cold and the old mage seems happy too. He nods, once. Then he looks at me again.
“Human, be silent and still. Do not speak or move save that I require a response. I will ask you questions and you will answer to the best of your abilities, promptly and audibly. You will perform no magic, and act in no violent ways while you are in my home.”
He pauses. Wow. Most people just say hello when they meet me, or ask me if I want a pair of shoes.
“Also, do not defecate, befoul, or otherwise sully this place in any way, shape or form. And stand up straight.”
Okay, I’m not sure what humans he’s used to dealing with, but—my spine is already straightening. I can’t even glare at him. Crap. Is this some kind of magical hypnosis spell? But now he’s walking around me, slowly. Eying me like a piece of fish on sale at a supermarket.
“I care not about your name, but you are a Runner, a messenger, yes?”
I tried to say, ‘yes, asshole’, but apparently no violence means no backchat either. He nods like he expected that reply.
“Very well. But then tell me—why did you risk such a dangerous request? Three of your kind have perished already attempting to reach my home. What drove you to risk death for this delivery?”
Again, the response comes out of me instantly, before I even have time to really think about my reply.
“For the reward. Forty gold pieces.”
Now he looks disappointed.
“Simply for that? No other reason?”
Huh. Was this all some sort of test? Well, motor mouth, do your thing.
“I took the request for the money, but also because I wanted to challenge myself. There are no other requests in the Runner’s Guild I could have taken, either. I am being blocked from other deliveries by fellow Runners, and this is the only request I could take.”
“Hm. I see. How very mundane.”
He shakes his head. In my head I’m sort of annoyed. It’s nice to know even an archmage former athlete can be an arrogant jerk.
“Very well, then tell me: where do you come from? I have not seen features nor skin color such as yours on this continent for…a long time. Where were you born?”
Ah, now the hard questions come. But I’m ready for this. Well, not this obviously but after meeting Lady Magnolia I thought of the best way to deal with someone who can tell whether you’re lying, or compel you to tell the truth. Either way, the only deception is in part of the truth.
“I was born in Oakland, California.”
He pauses. A brief frown creases the mage’s face.
“I am not familiar with either name. What nation does this Oakland California hail from?”
“Hm. Another new nation. How troubling.”
The man strokes his silvery beard. Then he shakes his head.
“I suppose it doesn’t matter. Now, I wish for you to answer this question freely, but also honestly.”
He points at me.
“My spells of appraisal and identification told me nothing of your class or level when I cast them. And yet you are neither undead nor construct, and you are entirely human. Why can I not see your class?”
At last, it seems like I can say what’s on my mind. I work my jaw and open my mouth for a few nice obscenities.
…Well damn. It looks like I still can’t just insult him, and I need to tell the truth. Fine. I look the mage in the eye and talk.
“I stopped myself from leveling. You can’t see my class because I don’t have one.”
For the first time since I’ve laid eyes on his face, the man looks genuinely startled. He tilts his head to peer more closely at me, and I notice that he has pointed ears. Oh. Of course.
“You have no level? And you refuse to accept a class? Why?”
“I don’t like being controlled. And I think—yeah, I think that classes and levels are a way for the world or some system to control people. I want no part of it. And—it feels like cheating.”
Again, I’m treated to an expression of frank incredulity. It’s the first time I’ve ever articulated my feelings as well, and even I’m surprised by my answer. Cheating. I guess that’s really one of the big reasons why I don’t like the entire basis of this world. But people level or die, which is probably why I’m getting the fish-eye from him.
“You refused to level up. Is that possible?”
I shrug. It’s the only thing I can do movement-wise that counts as a response.
“I can cancel the level up if I think hard enough. So it’s clearly possible.”
Alright, that little bit of sass made me feel better. He shoots me a frosty look.
“That was a rhetorical question; you need not answer. Although—you probably don’t even know what I’m talking about, do you? Human education being what it is—”
For a moment the mage’s eyes trail off. I’m pretty damn sure now that he isn’t human, but he seems to refocus on me and suddenly his attitude shifts. From being the imperious mage he becomes something like what I’d expect an old lecture-style college professor to be like. He walks around me, talking half to me, half to the air.
“You see, the rhetorical question was first invented by the Dragons. Only naturally. Of course, Elves and Dwarves adopted the practice, but it was Dragon-kind that first thought of a question that had no need for an answer. Elves were too in tune with nature; they expected answers to pop up, possibly from the rocks and trees they talked to. Dwarves on the other hand are literal creatures. If they ask you a question they demand an answer. Humans on the other cl—hand…”
He broke off, shaking his head and sighing.
“But I forget my audience. You don’t even know what I’m talking about, do you?”
He’s still an arrogant ass. But I get the distinct impression he’s also starved for company. Well, I can still answer back so let’s see if I can’t continue this. Even if swearing is out of the question, I’m great at getting under people’s skin. It’s practically one of my Skills – [Being a Smart-mouthed Jerk].
“I know what a rhetorical question is.”
He waves a hand at me and shakes his head pityingly.
“Yes, yes. I’m sure you do. Ah, I’d forgotten how humans exaggerate and lie.”
Does he forget I can’t lie at the moment? I try to glare, but my facial muscles still aren’t working.
“Would I really be that much of an idiot that I’d lie about knowing what a rhetorical question is?”
“Well of course, I would assume—”
Pause. I enjoy the look on his face for a few seconds before he gives me a flat-lidded stare. Well, if I died at least I died doing what I do best. You can put that on my gravestone*.
*Ryoka Griffin, 1995 – 2016. “Never knew when to shut up.”
“Ah. I see that you are marginally more intelligent than the others I have met. Very well then, perhaps you will be able to answer my next question as well.”
He gestures, and from out of nowhere a map flies over and unfurls itself in the air. It’s a real map, old and dusty. I really want to sneeze but I can’t. It stays motionless in the air as the mage shows me a map of the continent. Damn. I really wanted to see the world map.
Mr. Mage taps the old parchment with one finger.
“I wish to know of any ongoing major wars between multiple nations, new technologies or spells developed, legendary monsters sighted or slain—import of that nature. Tell me all the news you have heard of in the past several years or so. What has transpired while I have been…secluded here?”
Oh boy, I’m going to love this. I give him the most casual shrug possible and spread my arms out.
“I don’t pay attention to world news. You probably know more about what’s going than I do.”
Blink, blink. Oh yes, score one for Ryoka Griffin*.
*He’s still up by a few hundred thousand points, though.
Again, the mage harrumphs and glares at me, but his truthiness spell on me is working and both he and I know it. He sighs, tugs at his beard again and tries a different tact.
“Do you at least know if Magnolia Reinhart still lives?”
“Indeed, indeed. That is good. Well then, have you heard of a strange child known as Ryoka Griffin? She is a Runner, like you, although presumably high-level in the [Runner] class, unlike you. I am told her leg is currently injured, or she may have been recently healed. Do you know of her?”
Oh gods. Poker face. P-p-p-poker face. Okay, stop. Don’t think of the Lady Gaga song right now. There is so much I want to ask in those last few sentences but – stick to the truth!
“I know of a Ryoka Griffin, yes.”
“Indeed? Do you know her address, a location where she stays at night? I have tried scrying her with magic, but either the name I was given was wrong or she is protected by powerful magic.”
Now why the hell would Magnolia…? No, that’s a stupid question. I know the answer to that. But why wouldn’t he be able to find me? I don’t have any magical protections on me, not any that I’m aware of*. And how the hell am I going to answer? Ah, got it. Again, with the truth.
*Note to self: have this checked out and buy something soon.
“Ryoka Griffin—Ryoka doesn’t have a permanent place of residence. She moves around a lot and she doesn’t stay in one city or inn for very long if she can help it.”
The old man sighs at me and shakes his head.
“Very well, very well. I shall have to ask again for her true name, if that is the case. Although why Reinhart would have failed to extract her full name astounds me.”
Aha! I’ve got it. I know why he can’t find me with magic. He might be able to cast the highest-level scrying spell or whatever, but it’s no use if he can’t spell my name. Turns out having a dad who gives you a traditional Japanese name comes in handy once in a while. Ryoka. Trying spelling the kanji on that one, sucker*.
*Kanji, the written language of Japan. My name is Japanese, and although my U.S. birth certificate shows the English reading of it – Ryoka, my real name as given to me is 涼香. I’m willing to bet that he’d need to know that in order to find me.
Being stumped at anything seems to be a unique experience for this guy. He looks put out, at any rate, but then he turns his attention back to me and I get the full intensity of his stare again.
“Well, as interesting as this has been I have no further questions of you. Runner, tell me, are you one of the better Runners in your guild, despite your lack of levels?”
No exaggeration or deceit needed there. The old guy looks unconvinced, but he nods reluctantly.
“Very well. In that case, hear my request. You have come here seeking payment and a delivery. I will offer you your paltry sum, but you will complete my request, sparing no effort to fulfill it, either by your own hands or one more qualified. Is that understood?”
I really don’t like the sound of that. And I’ve got a bad feeling that whatever he’s going to ask of me, I’m going to be bound to do. A geas*. Damn.
*A geas, or geis if you prefer the Irish spelling is a type of quest. Or…an oath bound by fate and magic. Look it up if you don’t know. Old myths and stories were full of them, and they never ended well for the people who took them on. Here’s hoping this one’s a simple task.
He points at me. I can already hear the silent orchestra in the background playing. Great. Why not add some wind and special effects to make it even more dramatic, old man?
“You will go to the area known as the Blood Fields and locate the individual known as Az’kerash. Or—perhaps he uses his former, human name. Perril. Perril Chandler, I believe.”
Perril Chandler? That’s a far cry from Az’kerash. But since I can still talk, I guess it’s time to ask as much as I can.
“Who is this guy?”
The man eyes me again, as if I should know. I shrug and he sniffs and shakes his head.
“He is a powerful mage. A [Necromancer], to be exact. But I believe he would be most easily identifiable by appearance. His hair is pale white, as is his skin. His eyes are violet. Although—he may use illusion spells to conceal such features when moving about.”
Silver-beard strokes said beard again and pauses. He seems to think for a moment and then nods.
“I suppose the easiest way would be to go wherever the undead are most prevalent. He has an army. A kingdom of the dead, to be exact.”
Oh fuck. Oh geez. Oh gods almighty and deceased tap-dancing on my unmarked grave. That does not sound like a survivable request.
The old mage is already turning away, but I can’t just take that and run off. I clear my throat and he turns and reluctantly looks back towards me..
“Ah. If this guy—Az’kerash is surrounded by the dead, how am I supposed to get to him without being killed?”
He looks annoyed at the question, or perhaps my stupidity.
“Naturally his bodyguards will attempt to slay you. No doubt they regard all living beings as a threat. You must simply make your way to him, regardless of the peril. Besides, most of the animated dead are slow and easy to outrun.”
“Yeah, but they have arrows. How am I supposed to dodge those?”
“You are a Runner, are you not? Can you not simply outrun arrows?”
“…No. I can’t outrun spells either, and I’ve seen undead mages. I won’t survive more than a few seconds if I run into a Lich by myself.”
Silver-beard looks put out. He tugs at his beard again, almost as if he wants to rip it off.
“Confounded hair—I suppose I should have expected as much from a human Runner. Very well. If that is the case…”
He trails off. Looks like he’s deep in thought, but I still have more questions. I clear my throat and his brows snap together as he glares at me.
“Why can’t you just send the package or whatever it is with magic or something? Is it too heavy to transport? Because if it is—”
“Magic is not the solution here. The one I wish to deliver a letter and small item to—he is shielded from location or communication from any form of spell, either malign or beneficiary. As am I. I cannot discern his location nor speak with him save through the slowest of methods, which is why I requested a Runner. Thus, I will also require your return to report success.”
Even better. I really should not open my big mouth.
“I barely survived getting here. I probably won’t a second time. And if finding this [Necromancer] is as dangerous as it sounds—”
“I heard you. Be silent.”
Well, there goes speech. I helplessly stand and watch as the old man talks to himself.
“This is why…Humans…it cannot be helped. Hm. A Courier would have been far more preferable. But if the issue is simply a matter of survival and speed, I suppose…”
He looks around. Then he points and beckons. From a corner of the cavern I can’t see a bottle flies into his hand. Mages can use the Force. Who knew?
Silver-beard holds the bottle out to me. I stare at it. It’s an orange—no, a glowing orange-pink mixture contained in a glass bottle. It looks like nothing I’d want to put in my body, but my hand reaches up to take it anyways.
“Here. Take this as your fee for delivery. As to your fee for arriving here, albeit injured—”
Another gesture, and a shower of gold swirls up into the air and down into a bag he holds out in his hand. Despite the amount of money, the bag doesn’t even ripple as the coins flow into it.
The mage hands me the bag and I find myself placing it at my hip.
“The potion is a concoction that will enhance your speed greatly. Do not drink it all at once. A single dose should suffice for any monster, undead or otherwise that you encounter. With it, you should be able to reach Perril Chandler more or less intact. Be sure not to confuse mana potions with health potions either. Your mana poisoning was most inconvenient to deal with.”
Oh. Was that what it was? Damn. It all makes sense now. No wonder I wasn’t healing. But I could have sworn Ceria gave me the right potions.
“Was the mana poisoning bad? If so—thank you, I guess.”
Silver-hair raises his eyebrows as if surprised.
“Mana poisoning? You would certainly not have died from the amount of mana you imbibed. Violent illness, fever, and uncontrollable bodily excretion would have been the worst you would have suffered over the next few days if I had left it alone.”
Wow. Suddenly I’m really glad he took the time to heal that.
“Was it intentional? If you were attempting to augment your body, I must tell you it was done poorly. A minuscule increase to your diet is the only way to properly acclimatize the human body to magic. Not that I would expect modern mages to know how to naturalize magic within themselves.”
Okay, if my ears could move they would definitely perk up at that. And I’d love to ask more questions, but suddenly my employer seems eager to have me gone. He shakes his head and flicks his fingers at me.
“Regardless, do not injure yourself unnecessarily while fulfilling my task. Take this letter and this ring.”
Two more objects fly out of nowhere and the mage hands them to me. The first is a scroll, tightly sealed with wax. The second is a small ring made of what looks like silver and an onyx gem. I say ‘looks like’, because when my hand closes over the metal it feels warm, and both gem and metal seem to be shining from within. Magic. It looks amazing, though.
The old man eyes me sternly and points to both items.
“Do not wear the ring, or you will suffer excruciatingly. The same goes for opening the letter, is that clear?”
He eyes me again and shakes his head.
“I trust you will do your best to survive. Retrieving my gift and message would be inconvenient.”
“Nice to know you care. I guess I should just see myself out, then?”
“And waste time? No. I will expedite the first leg of your journey. Regardless of my healing, you will need several days no doubt to fully recover from the magic used and prepare for the journey ahead of you. Do not delay.”
He points at the ground at my feet. I nearly jump out of my skin as an intricate circle of countless interconnected shapes and runes appears at my feet.
Oh, apparently I can move now. But Silver-mane scowls at me and my feet immediately shuffle back into the center of the circle.
“What—what is this?”
“A teleportation spell. Have you not—but of course, I suppose your mages are too weak for that. Now, where do you live?”
“Celum. But hey, I can run back. The potion you gave me—”
“Do not waste its effects. It is worth far more than the gold I gave you. Now, this city Celum – it is not too far from here, yes?”
“Less than a hundred miles. Not too far, yeah.”
He seems immune to sarcasm. The mage strokes at his beard as he talks to himself.
“Celum? Celum…ah. I believe I remember the general vicinity.”
He points again, and the circle glows. I wonder if he needs to chant spells like some of the mages I’ve seen. But then – this guy seems to be head and shoulders above every other mage, so I guess words are optional.
At last, the mage nods. The magic runes at my feet begin to glow brightly.
“The spell will take you to the heart of the city. Go, and carry out my request as soon as you are able.”
“Thanks for the encouragement.”
He waves his hand at me, and then pauses. Reluctantly, he looks at me as the glowing magic circle at my feet begins to shine with multiple gradients of light.
“I suppose it would violate the basic rules of hospitality not to inquire. So tell me Runner—what is your name? I am Teriarch.”
I grin at him. Well, I guess I can go for one parting shot. The runes at my feet glow—and I feel myself being dragged away by something massive. I open my mouth and say two words.
Then I’m gone.
Teriarch stopped and stared at the place where the Human known as Ryoka Griffin had just been. Desperately, he reached out but even with magic she was already out of his grasp. Short of casting multiple undirected spells that would teleport quite a bit of the city back here, she was gone.
Cursing silently in his own language, Teriarch berated himself for not observing basic etiquette. True, it was with a Human but—how was he supposed to know it was that exact Runner who would show up on his doorstep?
Ah, well. He knew her face, and that would make her marginally easier to locate. Teriarch was still unclear what strange power shielded her from his scrying spells, especially since Ryoka had no magical power or even classes of her own. She was a strange human, but now he understood part of Reinhart’s fascination with her.
It would be a truly problematic occurrence if she were to die delivering his message. If he’d known it was her he would have given her another item of far greater ability. If she died, Magnolia would have his hide.
That was one of his concerns. The other was that either the earth had lowered again in the last few years, or he’d miscalculated the exact coordinates of the city of Celum. To be more accurate, he’d been spot on in every geographical specification except one—
Teriarch winced as in his magical view of the city of Celum he saw Ryoka appear. She was more or less in the center of the city as he’d claimed, but she was definitely too high up. He watched her plummet down out of the sky from roof-height.
“Oops. Ah, well. This is why humans use healing potions after all.”
He turned. Ryoka would live, and he was busy. Teriarch made it a few steps, and then tripped again. This time it was over his robes. He growled.
“Flayed scales and hoard blight!”