Lucky’s instruction covers more than technique; it’s an insight into how he views the world. He’s handsome and charming, but I legitimately think he’s a clinical sociopath.
As he drills me on the basics (assessing a mark, sleight of hand, and pickup artist-style seduction, believe it or not) he throws in anecdotes about past robberies. It boils down to this: he takes from everybody. Doesn’t matter if it’s a lord or a pauper. He’s an equal opportunist in the worst way possible.
“You learn quickly.” He says after showing me a trick where I hide an item by dropping it into my boot. (Useful, apparently, when a Knight tackles you and wants to see what’s in your hands). “That one took me nearly a month.”
Everyone stares at me, then bursts into laughter. Even Ren cracks a grin.
“What?” I ask, mildly irritated but mostly puzzled. “Why is that funny?”
“I’m sorry.” Gyrax wipes a tear from his eye. “It’s just that—”
“Of course I’m a man!” Lucky bursts out between guffaws. “Why declare it? Why does it matter?”
Gyrax throws him a good-natured wave: Don’t worry about it. “ ’Tis a common expression among his people.”
Elier shakes his head in seeming befuddlement. “I have no desire to visit your home. The inhabitants seem a tad bit strange.”
I’m about to retort that if you wanna talk strange, Evermoor is filled with magic humanoids and level 20 wizards. But then I remember that all of that is seen as perfectly normal here.
Which is followed by an epiphany: when you put it in context, my life on Earth was definitely weird—I was ready to accept four decades of 9-5 drudgery, knowing full well that it would slowly but steadily kill my soul.
“You’re not wrong,” I allow. “But everyone has problems.”
“We have plenty.” Ren looks pointedly at Lucky. “For example, some use their past misfortune as a justification to prey on the weak.”
“Not just the weak!” Lucky cries. “I take from any and all!”
“Your integrity is impressive,” Gyrax remarks dryly.
“Exactly!” Lucky gestures at him. “Gyrax understands!”
Ren shakes his head and continues walking.
Over the next three weeks, the trees give way to hills and prairie. We have rabbit for dinner every night, thanks to Lucky’s collapsible short bow. Elier dusts it with salt and pepper while Gyrax seasons it with a blend of herbs, kept in a twist-top can he stores in his carry. The meat tastes great—better than anything I ate in San Francisco.
If we need to bathe or wash our clothes, one of the others (sometimes Elier or Lucky, but usually Gyrax or Ren) magically summons a clearwater pond, along with a network of raveling tree-roots that weave together into a protective dome. Way better (and cooler) than a bathtub or shower.
As far as wardrobe, Ren has two spare sets of Evermoor clothes, which I gratefully accept. No boots, but that’s okay—I’m fine with sneakers. He’s also got some extra pairs of socks and clean undies, which fit surprisingly better than anything I wore back on Earth. Apparently, they have minor enchantments that wick moisture, regulate temperature, and boost comfort.
Before I know it, I’ve spent two months walking the road. I continue training in knifework and thievery, and even start learning how to shoot Lucky’s bow. Every day I get to mess with weapons, eat good food, and listen to mind-bending stories before I fall asleep under a starry night sky.
I’m not gonna lie—this is awesome. People would pay good money for this, but I get to do it for absolutely free. And I get to do it with a bunch of guys that could double as Lord of the Rings extras. If I had to guess at my D&D stats, I’d say I was a third level fighter/thief. (Well, probably first level, but it’s fun to pretend.)
The road starts firming and taking shape. For the past four days it’s been rough and untrod, with tufts of grass growing throughout its breadth. Now, as we get closer to Naversé, it begins to look a whole lot smoother.
Only now, after I’ve spent several months trekking through a parallel world, does it occur to me ask about Atriya. I wait until the others are talking amongst themselves (just to be cautious) and sidle up to Gyrax.
“Hey,” I whisper. “I never told you how I got here. There was this Marine recruiter named Chris Atriya—”
He holds up a paw. “Say no more, Jon. You were bought into Evermoor by an Eternal Archetype.”
Something about the way he says it lets me know the words are capitalized. “I’m guessing he’s important.”
Gyrax scratches his forehead. I can tell he’s trying to figure out how to articulate a difficult concept. “Not in the way that you…a better way to say it is he’s influential. He’s got his fingers in a lot of pies.”
“You don’t say.” I half-scoff, half-chuckle. “In my case, I guess he decided to stick his fingers in the transport-an-Earth-boy-into-a-fantasy-world-adventure pie.”
“It’s what you asked for at the deepest level of your causal being.” He shrugs. “Usually he comes to people in the form of a dream or an impulse, but in your case, it seems like you needed a stronger push.”
I’m about to ask what a “causal being” is, but Elier decides to jump in with, “Ho, boy. What do you speak of?”
“Food and games,” I reply. (I’m a little proud of how smoothly I lie; Lucky’s lessons are stating to take) “Who’s this friend we’re going to see?” I ask Ren.
“Terrelly Jindow,” he replies. “Not just a friend, but a mentor as well.”
“He trained you?”
“So he taught you to be a sour churl?” Lucky grouses. “Joy.”
“He taught me to catch a low-shadow cut-purse,” Ren counters. “As far as my sourness, it comes from the would-be thieves who have crossed my path. I’ve had to gut more than a few.”
“I see.” Lucky smiles. “Then it’s a good thing I’m promised coin, else I’d foul your boots with my rancid innards.”
Ren snorts. Par for the course, but this time he sounds genuinely amused. Elier stops twirling his cavalry sabers (he passes the time by practicing as we walk) and cocks his head.
“Bless my ears—is that mirth I hear, Master Ren?”
Ren is quiet for a bit, then grudgingly says, “The world is mired in darkness and hate. Light is needed, from time to time.”
“Ha!” Lucky crows. “Who would have thought I would eke any cheer from your crabby visage?”
“And who would have thought that our world would allow Lyderea Fairdyle to declare herself Queen?” Ren stops in his tracks and points angrily at Lucky. “Here you stand, much like her, using laughter and wit to excuse your crimes. All the while, you pilfer coin from the poor, absolving your theft with a jest and a smirk. I regret my cheer, for you do not deserve a laugh or a smile—you are a weight around our collective necks.”
Lucky seems stricken. Even Gyrax and Elier look taken aback.
After a long, hanging silence, Lucky quietly states, “I am nothing like her.”
“No,” Ren sneers. “She is far more competent. Stay the course, Lucky, for she might take notice and appoint you as her trusted second. You two are a perfect match. You steal from the needy, while she creates the need that turns them destitu—”
That does it. Lucky screams and tackles Ren. As they tumble and roll across the ground, they strike wildly and claw for purchase. When we catch up a second later, Ren is on top, hands clamped around Lucky’s throat.
Gyrax hook’s Ren’s arms and drags him off while Elier kneels on Lucky and pins him down. Lucky flails and kicks, then thrusts a shaking finger at Ren’s face.
“You know nothing about me, wanderer! Nothing!”
Ren yells back, “I know enough! You and your ilk would scorch the world, laughing merrily all the while! Well if you would burn us all into ash and cinder, then do it quickly, damn you! I would rather be char than a smoldering ember!”
Lucky screams and thrashes, but Elier manages to hold him down. Finally, the thief mutters, “Cry off, Elier. I don’t want to fight.”
Elier gets to his feet and tries to brush the dirt off Lucky’s jerkin. “Are you—”
Lucky swats him away. “Hands. Off.”
Elier backs away, palms raised. “As you wish.”
A dozen yards away, Ren grumbles, “My temper has cooled. Let me up, Wolven.”
Gyrax releases him. We take a cautious step back as Ren and Lucky stare each other down.
They both speak at the same time: “I’m—”
Lucky dips his chin and raises a hand. “You first.”
“It will be in our interest to maintain peace,” Ren says stiffly. “At least while we travel side by side.”
Gyrax studies them, trying to determine if they’re being sincere. When he decides that they are, he says, “Grips, gentlemen—I’d see them now.”
For a split-second they both hesitate, then reach out and squeeze each others’ forearms. An Evermoor version of an Earthling handshake.
“I plead thy grace,” Lucky says stiltedly.
“No need, Kai Yetshaw. I plead yours.” Ren’s reply isn’t as stilted, but it’s pretty close.
“All is forgiven. And don’t call me Yetshaw. It has been a day and an age since I used that name.”
“As you wish,” Ren says. They both step away and we resume walking.
“ ‘Kai?’ ” I mutter. I’ve heard it before, but I haven’t taken notice up until now; there was too much stuff to think about.
“It’s an honorific,” Gyrax explains. “Kai is the masculine. Sha is the feminine.”
“Oh. Okay.” Nice—now I know that instead of shaking hands, you squeeze forearms. And instead of sir or ma’am, it’s kai and sha.
A few minutes pass, then I grin at Gyrax and whisper, “Think I leveled up. Or at least gained a perk.”
Gyrax chuckles. “You and your games. I can still picture you staring at the screen, clicking away at that damned controller.”
“Questing through Fallout while you sat on the couch eating a rawhide or squeaky. Good times.”
“But you didn’t realize it—not then.” He reaches out and ruffles my hair. “Now you do.”
I’m a little thrown by the reversal of roles (usually I’m the one petting him) but only for a moment. Gribbles/Gyrax is way cooler than I ever could have hoped for. If not for him, I’d be stuck listening to Grumpy McGrumperson (my nickname for Ren) and couple of shady mercenaries. (Which is what Elier and Lucky are, when you get right down to it).
For the next five days, Ren and Lucky stop talking. It’s not quite a girlfriend freeze-out, but it feels pretty similar. Thankfully, Elier and Gyrax fill the conversational void with fighting or swordplay (since Elier isn’t interested in anything else). I’m happy to just shut up and listen.
Elier grew up in Khairach Taire, one of four nation-states that end with the suffix “Taire.” The word is an ancient derivate of Tairya, which loosely translates to “honor contest.” Each Taire—Khairach Taire, Withywick Taire, Genwick Taire and Relting Taire—is a combat society. Together, they form a loose confederation of libertarian enclaves, committed to producing the deadliest duelists in all of Evermoor. Everyone starts as an Apprentice Duelist, which is another way of saying rookie. After documented approval from a master tutor, they’re awarded the title of Journeyman Duelist.
Elier Finn is one rank higher: he’s a High Taire Duelist, which is a title earned after four hundred duels, all witnessed by an Arbiter Duelist (the highest rank attainable, and also the closest thing the Taires have to a government official). He’s won all but one fight (it ended in a draw) against a woman named Idinia Skyfold. Due to her weapons—a bladed forearm brace and a double-edged short sword—her style gravitated toward grappling and entangling. Elier, who uses a pair of cavalry sabers, was unable to keep her from closing the distance.
“Typically, I control rhythm with range and cadence,” he says. “Two sabers quicken my tempo: one-two, one-two—” he moves his hands in an alternating pattern, “allowing me to attack and defend at the same time. I am as comfortable against one as I am against ten.”
“How did Idinia hold you off?” I ask.
He shakes his head in grudging admiration. “She is utterly masterful at controlling the gap. Even better at in-pocket fighting.”
“ ‘In-pocket?’ ”
“Extremely close range,” Gyrax explains.
Elier nods. “She dominates the match with position and footwork. Once she is close, she is free to work havoc with her vambrace and short sword.”
“She sounds intense.”
Elier gives me a puzzled look. “Why wouldn’t she be?”
Ren chips in. “Some seek peace, Duelist. Not everyone wishes for conflict.”
“Conflict is life.”
“It doesn’t have to be.”
“And yet it is.”
“I tell you again, Duelist: it doesn’t have to be.”
(Irresistible force, meet immovable object.)
Elier gives a noncommital shrug. “Time will prove which of us is right.”
Lucky speaks up. “Ren is right. Conflict isn’t necessary. I get by fine on faith and fortu—” He glances at Ren’s darkening face and amends it to: “I get by fine without picking fights.”
Ren opens his mouth, but an ear-piercing screech cuts him off. Everyone halts and straightens in place.
Three more screeches rip through my brain. “AAAH!” I cover my ears and close my eyes.
Ren breaks right. “Head for the cairns!”
We take off running toward a massive ring of standing rocks, about a hundred yards distant. They’re the only cover for miles around—we’re surrounded by miles of idyllic prairie.
Shadows flicker across the ground. I look up and spot a V of silhouettes, made hazy and dark by the afternoon sun.
“RUN!” Elier shoves the small of my back, pushing me forward. “STOP GAWKING, JON!”
I pick up the pace. I’m not sure what’s chasing us, but if the others are scared, I trust it’s legit.
We reach the rocks and hunker behind them. Lucky snaps his bow open and nocks an arrow. Ren meets our eyes and straightens his finger against his lips, urging us all to keep quiet.
Leathery wings beat the air, then an angry whoosh fills our ears. Waves of heat curl and roll, blanketing my face in torrid warmth. Sweat springs out across my skin, darkening my clothes and slickening my skin.
The heat is everywhere, searing my lungs, stinging my skin, filling every nook and cranny with perspiration. I can’t believe I walked into another dimension, only to get cooked behind a giant rock…
Ren points at his eyes with his index and middle fingers, then flicks them up at our airborne pursuers. He wants me to look.
No way. No way. I shake my head from side to side.
Ren’s face twists in disgust. He pokes out from behind the rock, takes a good, long look, then ducks behind the stone and turns his hands up.
See? Nothing to worry about.
The rest of us peek around the edges of our rocks. My lips part in utter amazement.
On the other side of the path, tree-high flames are eating the prairie. Fortunately, the road is acting like a giant firebreak, keeping the inferno from advancing toward us. Up above the red-lit char, twelve dragons—each one about a dozen feet long—circle and swoop, all mounted by armored knights. Every so often, one of the dragons spreads its wings, curls inward, and blows concentrated fire out from its mouth. As the flames hits the ground, they blossom into enormous billows; displaced air lashes and furls, warping the plains into a wavy mess.
“Whoa,” I whisper. “Dragons.”
“No,” Gyrax whispers back, “not dragons—wyverns. Smaller, weaker, and less intelligent. Dragons are ten times as big and they don’t breathe fire.”
“But they’re related, right?” I look over at Gyrax. “I mean, not that I’ve seen a dragon before, but…”
“They are.” He speaks louder, confident that the wyverns aren’t looking for us. “During the Wars, Lyderea stole a clutch of red dragon eggs and magically stunted them, causing the hatchlings to mature into wyverns. They became a different species altogether. Inbreeding and sorcery have taken their toll.”
“What about the riders?”
“Rainfire Knights. They’re trained to dismantle defensive spells, ensuring their prey are exposed to fire and talon. That’s why the Alliance sticks to the forest—it’s not exactly protective cover, but it can provide a degree of stealth and concealment.”
“What are they doing?” My gaze shifts back to the Knight-mounted wyverns. “Why are they burning an empty prairie?”
Ren wipes his brow with the back of his wrist. “Sending a warning, if I had to guess. The folk in Naversé must have angered the Justicers.”
The wyverns fly in a wide circle, one behind the other. After three big loops the leader breaks off and the rest follow, spreading out into a wedge-shaped formation. A moment later they disappear from view.
Lucky clicks a latch on his collapsible bow, folding it into a small baton. He stuffs the bowstring into the hollowed-out top and snaps the lid back into place, re-arming the springs.
Elier takes a weighted breath. “I thought they were going to roast us alive.”
“I’m halfway there.” Lucky groans, hooking his short bow onto his belt. “My skin feels cracked and stretched—like overworked leather.”
“Back on the road.” Ren steps out from behind his rock.
Gyrax offers a paw and hauls me up. “What are actual dragons like?” I ask.
“Dragons breathe lightning.”
“Whoa.” (Are you kidding me? Lightning-breathing dragons? What?) Suddenly I remember—I saw them breathing lightning in my Earth-side visions.
“Aye.” He gives me an amused smile, noting my all-too-obvious astonishment. “It’s a different color than their outer scales.”
“Cool.” My eyes grow wide, but I’m not the least bit embarrassed. (Come on, I just found out that dragons are real—if there’s ever a time to let your geek flag fly, this would be it.) “Are there any dragons that breathe black lightning?”
“There are. Yellow, purple, red, green…” His amusement fades. “After the Tessellate failed, it wreaked havoc on the arcane tides. Consequently, dragons grew terribly sick, as they are fairly sensitive to sorcerous upheaval. Lyderea killed hundreds in their weakened state.”
“Are there any left?”
As we step on the road, Ren casts a quick enchantment, protecting us from the residual heat. I instantly feel cool and comfortable.
“Two that I know of.” Gyrax raises his voice so he can be heard above the crackling flames. “A red and a green. They live in Aerie Denir—a city that juts from a sheer cliffside, inhabited by a race of flying men.”
He’s talking about the aerial metropolis I saw in my visions. Inhabited by people with bird-like features; some with a hawk’s head, others that could pass as regular humans.
I open my mouth, about to elaborate on my glimpses into Evermoor, then I glance back at Lucky and Elier, trailing a few yards behind us. Who knows what they would do (or who they would speak to) for the right amount of coin? They’re really just mercenaries, when you get right down to it.
Gyrax’s eyes don’t leave mine. I get the sense that he knows what I’m thinking. My suspicions are confirmed when he says, “You’re learning, Jon.”
“Just leveled up.” I throw him a grin. “Gimme a perk and some extra hit points.”
My former dog rolls his eyes. “I never understood how a glowing screen could hold your interest.”
“Show some respect,” I say mock-seriously. “Without video games, I wouldn’t have a context for fantasy-world life. I’d cower and hide instead of learning skills and looking for items.” I draw my dagger, slash the air, then make it disappear with a sleight-of-hand twist. “See? I’m probably like a fourth-level fighter/thief by now.”
Gyrax laughs. “Who knew that Diablo and Skyrim could prepare your mind for interplanar travel?”
“I know, right? Elder Scrolls V was a hint from the universe.”
His face turns thoughtful. “It very well could have been. Existence works in mysterious ways.”
We continue down the road, watching the horizon give way to Naversé. Half our world—the prairie on our left—is still ablaze. Distorted air rolls off the fire, dotting the wind with drifting sparks. Despite the inferno, I feel a deep sense of peace.
It’s all gonna burn, but something new will grow in its place. Something good, hopefully.
Maybe even great.