Lucky’s instruction covers more than technique; it’s an insight into how he views the world. He’s handsome and charming, but I think he’s a sociopath.
As he drills me on fundamental skills—assessing marks, sleight of hand, and if you can believe it, pick-up artist style seduction—he throws in anecdotes about robbing people blind. It doesn’t matter if they’re a Knight or a pauper, he takes from everybody. An equal opportunist, only in the worst way possible.
“You learn quickly,” he says. He’s just shown me a trick where I drop an item into the top of your boot and fall to the ground, right before someone locks your hands behind your back. (Useful, he says, for when a Knight tackles you and wants to see what’s in your hands, but you want to keep him from finding and confiscating it). “That one took me a month of practice.”
“Thanks.” Much to my chagrin, I find myself blushing—I was never praised for anything back on Earth.
“My conviction grows.” Ren bites into an apple. “I believe you were right—you were meant to be here, Jon.”
“Thanks, man.” As weird as it sounds, his words mean a lot. I never felt like I belonged on Earth, but I actually feel kind of home on Evermoor.
Everyone stares at me, then bursts into laughter. Even Ren cracks a grin.
“What?” I ask. “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 exclaims, still laughing. “Why would you declare it? Why does it matter?”
Gyrax waves at him, as if to say Don’t worry about it. “It’s just how he talks. Where he comes from, they all talk like that.”
“I see.” Lucky shakes his head in mock befuddlement.
Elier chortles. “No offense, but I have no desire to visit your home. The inhabitants seem a tad strange.”
I’m about to retort that Evermoor is filled with magic beasts and humanoid creatures, when I realize all of that is seen as perfectly normal here.
Then I’m hit by another realization: when you put things in context, my life on Earth was definitely weird. I was ready to resign myself to a 9-5 office job, knowing it would get less and less fulfilling as time went on.
“You’re not wrong,” I allow. “But everyone has problems.”
“We have plenty.” Ren looks pointedly at Lucky. “You were born into riches. Yet through a twist of fortune, you were made the same as everyone else. And you use that as an excuse to prey on the weak? Disgusting.” He turns and spits (he does that a lot, I notice).
“Not just the weak!” Lucky cries. “I take from any who will share their unguarded wealth!”
“Your integrity is impressive,” Gyrax remarks dryly.
“Exactly!” Lucky gestures at the Wolven king. “Gyrax understands!”
Ren shakes his head and uncrosses his arms. “Let’s keep going.”
The trees give way to hills and prairie. We have rabbit for dinner almost every night, thanks to Lucky’s collapsible short bow. Elier seasons it with salt and pepper, while Gyrax flavors it with a dusting of herbs. Honestly, it’s better than a lot of the food I ate in San Francisco.
Before I know it, we’ve spent two months on the road. I continue training in knifework and thievery, and even start learning how to shoot Lucky’s short bow. He won’t let me hunt with it, but I’m starting to get some of the basics down.
I’m not gonna lie, it’s pretty awesome. Every day I learn martial arts, eat well, and listen to mind-bending stories before I fall asleep.
People would pay tons of money for this, but I get to do it for free. And I get to do it with a bunch of guys that could double as Lord of the Rings characters. Right now, if I had to guess my Dungeons and Dragons stats, I’d probably be close to a level-three fighter/thief. (Probably first level, but it’s fun to pretend.) When I was toying with the idea of joining the military, I was kind of hoping for something similar, but this is so much better than anything I imagined. This is exactly what I wanted all along.
The road starts firming and taking shape. For a long while it looked barely traveled, with tufts of grass growing throughout its breadth. Now, as we get closer to Naversé, it begins to look a lot more defined.
“So who’s this friend we’re going to see?” I ask.
“Terrelly Jindow,” Ren says. “Not just a friend, but a mentor as well.”
“He trained you?”
Ren nods. “He did.”
“So he taught you how to be a sour churl?” Lucky asks sarcastically. “Joy.”
“He taught me how to catch a cut-purse,” Ren counters. “As far as being sour, that can be attributed to the thieves I’ve gutted and left by the wayside.”
“I see.” Lucky smiles. “Then it’s a good thing I’m promised coin, else I’d foul your boots with my rancid guts.”
Ren snorts. Par for the course, but today, it actually sounds like he’s slightly amused.
Elier stops twirling his cavalry sabers (he passes the time by practicing as we walk). “Is that a hint of mirth I hear, Master Wanderer?”
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 that I would ever coax merriment from your bitter visage?”
“And who would have thought that any would bow to Lyderea Fairdyle?” Ren snarls. He stops walking and points at Lucky. “Here you stand, much like her, using laughter and charm to excuse your felony. Over the last two months I have heard it all—you say you’re guided by chance and fortune, or that you’re taking back what’s rightfully yours. All the while, you pilfer wealth from the less fortunate, then justify your theft with a cheery jest. You are a weight around our collective necks, Lucknar.”
Lucky seems stricken. Even Gyrax and Elier look taken aback.
Finally, Lucky says, “I am nothing like her.” He’s quiet and subdued, but also angry.
“No,” Ren sneers. “She’s far more successful. Stay the course, Lucky, for you might become a close second. Taking from the needy without a care in the—”
Lucky screams and bum-rushes Ren. As they tumble and roll across the ground, Ren matches Lucky’s fury; he snarls and spits, throwing wild strikes and clawing for purchase.
Elier and Gyrax chase after them. Ren is on top, hands around Lucky’s throat, when Elier pins Lucky down and Gyrax pulls Ren off. Ren tries to stomp and kick, but he’s no match for Gyrax’s strength. Lucky props himself up onto an elbow and thrusts a shaking finger out at Ren.
“You know nothing about me! Nothing!”
Ren yells back, “I know everything about you! You and your ilk would burn the world, laughing merrily all the while! If you would have it burn, then do it quickly! I would rather be char than a smoldering ember, begging for someone to dampen the heat!”
“You know nothing!” Lucky’s handsome face twists in rage. “Nothing!” He screams and thrashes for a couple of seconds, but Elier pins him with a knee on his belly. Finally, he mutters, “Cry off, Elier. I have no desire to force you off.”
Elier gets to his feet and tries to dust him off. “Are you—”
Lucky swats him away. “Hands. Off.”
Elier raises his palms and backs away.
“My temper has leavened,” Ren says. “Cry off, Gyrax.”
Gyrax releases his arms from around Ren’s torso. We all step back, nervous and tense. They stare at each other like mortal enemies.
Finally, they both say, “I’m—”
Lucky dips his chin and raises a hand. “You first.”
Ren nods. “It’ll serve our interests to be at peace.”
Gyrax sighs in relief. “Grips, gentlemen—I’d see them now.”
For a split-second they both hesitate, then walk toward each other and squeeze each others’ forearms. An Evermoor version of an Earthling handshake.
“I plead thy grace, good wanderer,” Lucky says stiltedly.
“No need, Kai Yetshaw. I plead yours.” Ren reply isn’t as stilted, but it’s pretty close.
“All is forgiven. And don’t call me Yetshaw. I gave up that name long ago.”
“As you wish.” They both step away.
“ ‘Kai?’ ” I mutter.
“An honorofic,” Gyrax explains. “ ‘Kai’ is the masculine. ‘Sha’ is the feminine.”
“Oh. Gotcha.” Nice—now I know that instead of shaking hands, you squeeze forearms. And instead of saying sir or ma’am, it’s kai and sha. Ren and Lucky start walking down the road. The rest of us follow.
I grin at Gyrax and whisper, “Think I just leveled up. Or at least gained a perk.”
Gyrax chuckles. “You and your video games. I can still picture you staring at the screen, clicking away at that damned controller. Honestly, you were more fun to watch than the game itself.”
“Questing through Fallout while you chewed a rawhide or plastic squeaky. Those were good times.”
“But you didn’t realize it—not back 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 who’s petting him) but it’s not a big deal. Gribbles/Gyrax is a whole lot more than I ever imagined. I’m super grateful for it, because without his friendship \, I’d be stuck listening to Grumpy McGrumperson (my nickname for Ren) and a couple of mercenaries. (Which is what Elier and Lucky are, when you get right down to it).
For the next few days, Ren and Lucky stop speaking to each other. It’s not quite a girlfriend freeze-out, but it feels pretty similar. The only time they talk is for stuff like dinner or making camp.
Thankfully, Elier and Gyrax fill the conversational void. Most of it has to do with fighting or swordplay; Elier’s not interested in anything else. I’m happy to just listen.
Elier grew up in Khairach Taire, one of four nation-states that end with the word “Taire.” It’s an ancient derivate of the word Tairya, which loosely translates to “honor test.” Each Taire—Khairach Taire, Withily Taire, Genwick Taire and Relting Taire—is a combat society. Loose confederations of libertarian enclaves, dedicated to producing the deadliest duelists in all of Evermoor.
Within the Taires, there are several labels denoting rank and experience. Everyone starts as an Apprentice Duelist, which is basically a rookie. After documented approval from a master tutor, they’re awarded the title of Journeyman Duelist.
Elier Finn is a High Taire Duelist, a title earned after four hundred duels, all witnessed by Arbiter Duelists (the highest rank attainable, and the closest thing to a government official). He’s won all but one duel (it ended in a draw) against a woman named Idinia Skyfold. Due to her weaponry—a bladed forearm brace and a double-edged short sword—her style was centered around grappling and entangling. Elier, who uses a pair of twin cavalry sabers, was unable to keep her from closing the distance.
“Typically, I control the rhythm with range and tempo,” he says. “Dual sabers allow me to attack quickly, one-two, one-two—” he demonstrates with his hands in an alternating pattern, “—or defend and attack at the same time. It takes longer to learn, but increases my versatility. I am as comfortable against one as I am against ten.”
“How did Idinia hold you off?” I ask.
Elier sighs. “Her balance and footwork are nigh unmatchable. I have the advantage in height and reach, but the way she moves…” He shakes his head in grudging admiration. “She is utterly masterful at closing the gap, and she is even better at fighting in-pocket.”
“ ‘In-pocket?’ ”
“Extremely close range,” Gyrax says.
Elier nods. “My strength lies in medium distance—where I can slash and thrust, counter and press. Idinia is second to none at anticipating an attack and moving quickly into a sound position. From there, she is free to work havoc with her vambrace and shortsword.”
“She sounds intense,” I say.
Elier gives me a puzzled look. “I suppose. Why wouldn’t she be?”
Ren speaks up. “Some of us want peace, duelist. Not everyone enjoys conflict.”
“Conflict is life.”
“It doesn’t have to be.”
“But it is.”
“I tell you again, duelist: it doesn’t have to be.”
Irresistible force, meet immovable object.
Elier gives a noncommital shrug. “Believe what you want. Time will prove who is right.”
Lucky (for the first time in several days) responds to Ren, albeit indirectly. “Ren is right. Conflict isn’t necessary. I live well on faith and fortu—” He throws a quick look at Ren’s darkening face. “I get by fine without picking fights.”
Ren opens his mouth but an ear-piercing screech cuts him off. Everyone halts and abruptly straightens.
Three more screeches rip through my brain.
“AAAH!” I cover my ears and close my eyes. It sounds like a sawblade scraping over gritty cement.
“RUN!” Gyrax roars. “GET OFF THE ROAD!”
Ren breaks right, shouting, “On my heels! Toward the cairns!”
I take off running, heading for a ring of massive rock piles. I estimate they’re about a hundred yards off. It’s the only cover for miles around; we’re still in a stretch of unending prairie.
I glimpse a fleet of shadows dart across the ground. I look up and spot a V of silhouettes, made indistinct by the afternoon sun.
“MOVE!” Elier shoves my back, forcing me forward. “STOP GAWKING, JON!”
I do as he says. I’m not sure what’s chasing us, but if the others are panicking, it’s probably warranted.
We reach the rocks a gasping, sweaty mess. Everyone hunkers behind a cairn. Lucky draws his bow, snaps it open, and nocks an arrow. Ren puts a finger to his lips and meets our eyes, urging us all to stay silent.
Another screech pierces my brain. I cover my ears and duck down, trying not to scream from the ear-splitting pain. I see the others grimace and wince, but unlike me, they keep their composure.
Lucky shifts in place, adjusting his grip on his bow and arrow.
I hear the beat of leathery wings, then an angry whoosh. Everyone ducks a little lower. Waves of heat unfurl and roll, blanket my body in torrid warmth. Those things in the sky are burning the field.
Sweat springs out across my skin, soaking my shirt and dampening my cloak. The others are the same; sweat is pouring down their faces, darkening their clothes and slickening their flesh. Fear joshes through my gut, sloshing and spiking like shaken water.
I close my eyes but it doesn’t help. The heat is everywhere, filling every nook with a heavy sheen of 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. He flicks his fingers back and forth between his eyes and our skyborne pursuers. He wants me to look.
No way. No way. I shake my head from side to side. Ren waves his hand in dismissive disgust, then pokes his head out and looks across the field. He keeps looking for a couple seconds, hunkers back behind the stone, then turns his hands up and cocks his head. See? Nothing to worry about.
Lucky, still crouching with his bow at the ready, glances uncertainly at us. He takes a deep breath, lays his bow on the grass, then inches to the edge of his cairn. I can’t fault him for being nervous.
He stays where he is for a long moment, then ducks back behind the cairn. Sits back on his butt and leans against the rock, propping his forearms on his bent knees.
Elier gestures at the thief. Well?
Lucky jerks his head in the direction of the heat. Look for yourself.
Along with everyone else, I rise slowly from my crouch, peeking around the edge of my rocks. My lips part in utter amazement.
On the other side of the road, the prairie is tree-high flames are eating the prairie. Luckily, the road is acting like a giant firebreak, keeping the inferno from coming toward us.
Up above the red-lit char, a dozen dragons circle and swoop. Each one has a knight on its back, holding onto a pair of reins. Every so often, one of the dragons will spread its wings, curling inward like a reptilian comma, and expel concentrated fire from its mouth. As soon as the fire hits the ground, it blossoms into an enormous billow. Followed by waves of distorted air.
It looks different than regular fire—it’s very narrow and very bright. Also, the volume of haze looks disproportionately large. You can see it unfurling into giant swirls, warping the plains into a wavy mess.
“Whoa,” I whisper. “Dragons are real.”
“No,” Gyrax whispers back. “These are wyverns. Smaller, weaker, and less intelligent. Wyverns don’t grow beyond a dozen feet. Real dragons are ten times as large, 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 a little louder—obviously, the wyverns aren’t targeting us. “During the Wars, Lyderea stole a clutch of red dragon eggs. She inhibited their growth and magically stunted them, making the hatchlings into wyverns. They’re an entirely different species—inbreeding and sorcery have taken their toll.”
“Who’s riding them?”
“Rainfire Knights. Iaetrix Knights that have an in-depth knowledge of battlefield magic. They pilot the wyverns, but they also tear apart defensive magic. It’s why they’re so damn deadly; the Knights deactivate wards and shields, then their mounts attack with utter impunity.” Gyrax shakes his head. “That’s why the Alliance sticks to woods and water. Ideally both, if they’re available. While the forest may not serve as cover, it provides a good degree of concealment. And water can act as an effective sanctuary, if the world around you has been set ablaze.”
“What are they doing?” My gaze shifts back to the Rainfire Knights. “Why are they burning an empty prairie?”
Ren wipes his brow with the back of his wrist. “They’re sending a warning, if I had to guess. Naversé is only a few faires distant. The folk must have angered the local 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.
Lucky clicks a latch on his collapsible bow, folding it down into a small baton. He stuffs the string into its hollowed-out top, then snaps the lid into place, rearming the springs.
Elier takes a deep, weighted breath. “I feared they were going to roast our flesh.”
“Halfway there, I think.” Lucky hooks his short bow onto his belt. “My skin is cracked and stretched, like overworked leather.”
“Back on the road,” Ren says, stepping out from his rock.
Gyrax extends a paw and I grab hold. After he hauls me up I ask, “What are actual dragons like?”
He gives me an amused glance as we start walking. “Dragons breathe lightning.”
“Whoa.” Are you kidding me? Lightning-breathing dragons?
“Aye.” He nods in assent. “A different color than their outer scales.”
“Cool.” My eyes grow big. “So are there any dragons that breathe yellow lightning?”
“There are. Yellow, purple, red, green…” His cheer fades. “Before the Fracture, anyway. After the Velic Tessellate went awry, it wreaked havoc on the arcane tides. Consequently, every dragon grew horribly sick. Lyderea’s armies took advantage—they killed hundreds of serpents, then stole their eggs and bred wyverns.”
“Are there any dragons left?”
As we step back on the road, Ren casts a quick enchantment, protecting us all from the residual heat. My body instantly feels cool and comfortable.
“Only two that I know of.” Gyrax speaks louder, so he can be heard above the cracking and popping of fire-swept grass. “A red and a green. They live in Aerie Denir. The very last of the Freehold Aeries. Cities that jut from sheer stone cliffs.”
Recognition clicks in my brain. He’s talking about the aerial metropolis—the one I glimpsed before I left Earth. Inhabited by people with bird-like features, some with a full-on hawk’s head, others that could pass as a regular human.
I open my mouth, about to tell him about my Earth-side visions, but then I glance back at Lucky and Elier, trailing a few yards behind us. I’ve spent a few months with both men…but they’re friendly mercenaries, when you get right down to it. I’d rather not say any more than is necessary. Who knows what they would do for a couple extra coins?
Gyrax’s eyes don’t leave mine. After a few seconds, he gives me an approving nod. I get the sense he knows what I’m thinking, and that he agrees with my reasoning.
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 why a glowing screen was so damned interesting.”
“Show some respect,” I say mock-seriously. “Without video games, I’d have no context for living in a fantasy world. I’d cower and hide instead of learning new skills and looking for items.” I draw my dagger, slash the air with three flashy strokes, then make it disappear with a sleight of hand twist. “See? I’m probably like a fourth-level fighter/thief.”
Gyrax laughs. “Who knew that Diablo and Skyrim could prepare your mind for an interplanar quest?”
I chuckle along. “I know, right? Elder Scrolls V was a hint from existence.”
His face turns thoughtful. “It very well could have been. Existence works in mysterious ways.”
I respond with a shrug.
We keep going, watching the horizon give way to the city of Naversé. Half our world—the prairie on our left—is still ablaze. Warped air rolls off the flames, dotted by sparks caught in the wind. Despite the devastation, I feel completely at ease.
It’s all gonna burn, but something will eventually grow in its place. Something good, hopefully.
Maybe even great.