Lucky’s instruction covers more than technique—it’s an insight into how he views the world. Sure, he’s handsome and charming, but I’m almost certain he’s a straight-up 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 anyone and everyone. 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 how to hide an item by dropping it in 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, then bursts into laughter.
“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. “Forgive me, but I have no desire to visit your home. The inhabitants seem a tad bit strange.”
I almost retort that 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 forty years 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 issues.”
“We have plenty.” Ren looks pointedly at Lucky. “For example, some tout 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 just shakes his head and continues walking.
Over the next three weeks, the trees give way to hills and prairie. We eat fresh rabbit every night, thanks to Lucky’s collapsible short bow. Elier dusts it with salt and pepper, then Gyrax seasons it with a blend of herbs. The meat tastes great—better than anything I ate in San Francisco.
If we need to bathe or do our laundry, one of the others (sometimes Elier or Lucky, but usually Gyrax or Ren) magically summons a clearwater pond, concealed by a network of tree-roots that weave together into a protective dome. Way better (and cooler) than a bathtub or shower.
Thanks to Ren, I have three spare sets of Evermoor clothes. No boots, but I’m fine with sneakers. He’s also got extra socks and stretchy undies, which fit surprisingly better than anything I wore back on Earth. Apparently, they have minor enchantments that wick away moisture and regulate temperature.
Before I know it, I’ve spent two months traveling on the road. I continue training in knifework and thievery, and even start learning how to shoot Lucky’s bow. Every day I mess with weapons, eat good food, and listen to mind-bending stories before falling asleep under a starry night sky.
Life. Is. Awesome.
People would pay a lot of 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.)
For the past four days, the road has been rough and untrod, with tufts of grass growing throughout its breadth. As we get closer to Naversé, it begins to look a whole lot smoother.
Only now, after several months in a parallel world, does it occur to me ask Gyrax about Atriya. (I almost forgot, which is definitely strange—I suspect it’s because my interdimensional trip wasn’t that smooth; I still feel slightly scrambled if I’m being honest). So I wait until the others are talking amongst themselves 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. You were bought to our world by an Eternal Archetype.”
“I’m guessing he’s…important? Sounds important.”
Gyrax scratches his forehead. “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, 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.”
I’m about to ask what a “causal being” is, but Elier jumps in with, “Ho, Jon. What do you speak of?”
“Food and games,” I reply. (I’m a little proud of how smoothly I lie; Lucky’s lessons are starting to take.) I turn to Ren and ask, “You said we were going to see your friend, right? What’s he like?”
“His name is 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 thief,” Ren counters. “As far as my temper, 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, or else I’d foul your boots with my rancid innards.”
Ren snorts, which is 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 in surprise.
“Bless my ears—is that mirth I hear, Master Ren?”
Ren is quiet for a bit, then grudgingly says, “Our world is mired in darkness and hate. Light is needed, from time to time.”
“Ha!” Lucky crows. “Who would have thought I could eke any cheer from your miserable, woebegone visage?”
“And who would have thought that Lyderea Fairdyle would ever become Queen?” Ren stops in his tracks and points angrily at Lucky. “Here you stand, much like her, using laughter and chaff to excuse your crime. All the while, you steal from the poor, absolving your theft with a jest and a smirk. I regret my cheer, for you do not deserve a grin or a smile—you are a weight around our collective necks.”
Lucky seems stricken. Even Gyrax and Elier look taken aback.
After a 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 offer you a position as her trusted second. You two are a perfect match. You steal from the needy, while she creates the need that turns them destitu—”
Lucky screams and tackles Ren. As they tumble and roll across the ground, they strike wildly and claw for purchase. 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. Elier kneels on Lucky and pins him down. The thief flails and kicks, then thrusts a finger at Ren’s face.
“You know nothing about me, Ren! Nothing!”
Ren yells back, “I know enough! You and your ilk would ravage the world, laughing merrily all the while! If you would burn us down to 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 all take a cautious step back as Ren and Lucky exchange dagger-eyed death-stares.
They both speak at the same time: “I’m—”
Lucky dips his chin and raises a hand. “You first.”
“It is in our interest to maintain the 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 went by that name.”
“As you wish,” Ren says.
They both step away. We resume walking.
“ ‘Kai?’ ” I mutter.
I’ve heard it before, but I haven’t paid attention up until now; there was too much stuff going on.
“It’s an honorific,” Gyrax explains. “Kai is the masculine. Sha is the feminine.”
Nice—now I know that instead of shaking hands, you squeeze forearms. And instead of sir or ma’am, it’s kai and sha.
I grin 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 beside me with 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 (back on Earth, I’m the one petting him, not the other way around) but only for a moment. Gribbles/Gyrax is way cooler than I ever hoped for. If not for him, I’d be stuck listening to Grumpy McGrumperson (my nickname for Ren) and some 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 communicating. It isn’t quite a girlfriend freeze-out, but it feels strikingly similar. Thankfully, Elier and Gyrax fill the silence by talking mostly about fighting or swordplay (since that’s what Elier’s mostly interested in). I’m just happy to shut up and listen.
Elier grew up in Khairach Taire, one of four nation-states that end with the suffix “Taire.” It’s an ancient derivative of the word 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 earned after a hundred and fifty 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 match (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 around 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 alternating patterns, “allowing me to simultaneously attack and defend. 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.”
I clear my throat. “She sounds…intense.”
Elier gives me a puzzled look. “Why wouldn’t she be?”
Ren, for the first time in several days, decides to speak up. “Some seek peace, Duelist. Not everyone wishes for conflict.”
“But 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 breaks his silence with, “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 to reply, 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 by the afternoon sun.
“RUN!” Elier shoves me in the small of my back. “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.
After what seems like an eternity (but in reality is less than a minute) we reach the rocks and hunker behind them. Lucky snaps his bow open and nocks an arrow. Ren meets our eyes and straightens a finger against his lips, urging us all to keep quiet.
Leathery wings beat the air, then an angry whoosh fills our ears. Feverish swelter curls and roll, blanketing my face in torrid warmth. 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 ro—
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 pokes out from behind his rock, takes a good, long look, then ducks behind cover 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 super-wide road is acting like a firebreak, keeping the inferno from advancing toward us. Up above the red-lit char, six dragons—each one about a dozen feet long—circle and swoop, all mounted by armored knights. Every so often, one of the dragons flexes inward like a reptilian comma and blows concentrated fire out from its mouth. When the flames hit the ground, they blossom into enormous billows. Displaced air lashes and furls, warping the plains into a wavy mess.
“Whoa,” I whisper. “Are those…dragons?”
“No,” Gyrax whispers, “Wyverns. Smaller, weaker, and less intelligent. Dragons are ten times bigger 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. Trained to dismantle defensive spells and expose their prey to fire and talon. That’s why the Alliance sticks to the forest. It’s not exactly cover—although many of their mages can enchant it so it is—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. “They’re 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. A moment later they disappear from view.
Lucky clicks a latch on his bow, collapsing it into a small baton. He stuffs the bowstring in the hollowed-out top and snaps the lid back in place.
Elier takes a weighted breath. “I thought they were going to roast us alive.”
“I’m halfway there.” Lucky groans, dropping his short bow into his carry. “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 real dragons like?” I ask.
“They breathe lightning.”
Are you kidding me? Lightning-breathing dragons? What? Then I remember—I saw them breathing lightning in my Earth-side visions.
“Aye.” He gives me an amused smile, taking note of my excited geekery. “It’s a different color than their outer scales.”
“Cool.” My eyes grow wide, but I’m not the least bit embarrassed. (Come on—if there’s ever a time to let your nerd flag fly, this is it.) “Are there any dragons that breathe black lightning? That’d be awesome.”
“There are. Yellow, purple, red, green…” His amusement fades. “After the Tessellate failed, it wreaked havoc on the arcane tides. Dragons grew sick and exhausted, as they are fairly sensitive to sorcerous upheaval. Lyderea killed hundreds in their weakened state.”
“Did any survive?”
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 blue and a green. They both 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 attention.”
“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 leveling up 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 the left—is still ablaze. But 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.