Lucky’s instruction covers more than just technique and approach; it’s an insight into how he views the world. He’s handsome and charming, but I strongly suspect he’s a borderline 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. He takes from everybody; it doesn’t matter if they’re a lord or a pauper. An equal opportunist, only in the worst way possible.
“You learn quickly.” He’s just shown me a trick where I hide an item by dropping it into the top of 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.”
“Thanks, man.” As weird as it sounds, his compliment means a lot. I never felt like I belonged on Earth, but here on Evermoor, I actually feel welcome. His kind words underscore the sentiment.
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 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. “No offense, but I have no desire to visit your home. The inhabitants seem a tad bit strange.”
I’m about to retort that Evermoor is filled with magic humanoids, when I realize all of that is seen as perfectly normal here. Then I’m hit by a sudden 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 it would kill my soul as time crept by.
“You’re not wrong,” I allow. “But everyone has their own set of problems.”
“We have plenty.” Ren looks pointedly at Lucky. “For example: you use your past 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 the Wolven king. “Gyrax understands!”
Ren shakes his head and continues walking.
The trees give way to hills and prairie. We have rabbit for dinner on a daily basis, 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 procures from his carry. It’s pretty good—better than most of the stuff I ate in San Francisco.
Time flies. Before I know it, I’ve spent two months on the road. I keep training in knifework and thievery, and even start learning how to shoot Lucky’s bow. Every day I learn martial arts, eat good food, and listen to mind-bending stories before I fall asleep under a clear starry night. 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 probably be something like a third-level fighter/thief. (Probably first level, but it’s fun to pretend.)
When I was thinking about the military, I was hoping for something comparable, 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 the past few weeks 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.
“So who’s this friend we’re going to see?” I ask.
“Terrelly Jindow,” Ren says. “Not just a friend—a mentor as well.”
“He trained you?”
“So he taught you to be a sour churl?” Lucky asks sarcastically. “Joy.”
“He taught me how to catch a cut-purse,” Ren counters. “And as far as being sour, that’s from the would-be thieves who have tried to steal from me. 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. Which is par for the course, but he actually sounds amused this time.
Elier stops twirling his cavalry sabers (he passes the time by practicing as we walk). “Bless my ears and shush my lips…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 could eke merriment from your bitter visage?”
“And who would have thought that Lyderea Fairdyle would rise to power?” Ren stops 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 and oppressed, and justify your theft with a cheery jest. 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, awkward silence, Lucky quietly says, “I am nothing like her.”
“No,” Ren sneers. “She is far more successful. Stay the course, Lucky, for she might take notice of you—make you into her trusted second. You two are a perfect match; you take from the needy without a care in the—”
Lucky screams and tackles Ren. As they tumble and roll across the ground, Ren matches Lucky’s fury, striking wildly and clawing for purchase. When we catch up to them a second later, Ren is on top, hands clamped around Lucky’s throat.
Elier pins Lucky down, Gyrax hooks Ren’s arms and drags him off. Ren tries to stomp and kick, but he’s no match for the Wolven’s strength. Lucky props himself onto an elbow and 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 burn the world, laughing merrily all the while! Well if you would have it burn, then do it quickly! I would rather be char than a smoldering ember!”
Lucky screams and thrashes violently, but Elier holds him down with a knee on his belly. Finally, he 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.
“My temper has cooled,” Ren mutters. “Let me up, Wolven.”
Gyrax releases him. We all 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 interests to maintain the peace,” Ren says stiffly.
Gyrax studies them, trying to see if they mean what they say. When he decides they’re sincere, he says, “Grips, gentlemen—I’d see them now.”
For a split-second they both hesitate, then they lean forward 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. I gave up that name long ago.”
“As you wish,” Ren says. They both step away.
“ ‘Kai?’ ” I mutter. “What does that mean?”
“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.
Ren and Lucky continue 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 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 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 (usually I’m the one petting him) but a second later I realize it isn’t a big deal. Gribbles/Gyrax is a way cooler than I ever could have hoped for. If he wasn’t around, 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 few days, Ren and Lucky stop talking to each other. It’s not quite a girlfriend freeze-out, but it feels pretty similar. Thankfully, Elier and Gyrax fill the conversational void. Most of it has to do 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 “Taire.” The word Taire is an ancient derivate of Tairya, which loosely translates to “honor contest.” Each Taire—Khairach Taire, Withily 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, a title earned after four hundred duels, all witnessed by an Arbiter Duelist (the highest rank attainable, and also the closest thing in the Taires 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 demonstrates with his hands in an alternating pattern, “and allow me to defend and attack 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 absolutely masterful at controlling the gap. She is even better at in-pocket fighting.”
“ ‘In-pocket?’ ”
“Extremely close range,” Gyrax explains.
Elier nods. “She takes the initiative with uncanny speed, dominating the fight with positioning and footwork. Once she is close, she is free to work havoc with her vambrace and shortsword.”
“She sounds intense.”
Elier gives me a puzzled look. “Why wouldn’t she be?”
Ren says, “Not everyone seeks conflict. Some of us want peace, Elier.”
“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. “Time will prove which of us is correct.”
Lucky (for the first time in several days) 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 to speak 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 still in a stretch 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 me in the 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, it’s probably legit.
We reach the rocks a gasping, sweaty mess and hunker down behind a cairn. Lucky draws his bow, snaps it open, and nocks an arrow. Ren meets our eyes and straightens his finger against his lips, urging us all to keep quiet.
Two more screeches assault my brain. I slap my palms against my ears, trying not to scream from the head-splitting pain. Leathery wings beat the air, then an angry whoosh spills across the prairie. Waves of heat unfurl and roll, blanketing my face in torrid warmth. Those things in the sky are burning the field.
Sweat springs out across my skin, darkening my clothes and slickening my skin. The heat is everywhere, filling every nook 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 side to side.
Ren’s face twists in disgust. He pokes out from behind the rock, looks across the prairie for a couple seconds, then hunkers 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 road, 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, a dozen dragons circle and swoop, all mounted by armor-clad knights. Every so often, one of the dragons will spread its wings, curl inward like a reptilian comma, and blow concentrated fire out from its mouth. As soon as the fire hits the ground, it blossoms into an enormous billow. The displaced air lashes and unfurls, warping the plains into a wavy mess.
“Whoa,” I whisper. “Dragons are real.”
“No,” Gyrax whispers back, “these aren’t dragons. They’re wyverns. Smaller, weaker, and less intelligent. They never grow larger than a dozen feet. Real 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 a little louder, confident now that the wyverns aren’t looking for us. “During the Crimson Wars, Lyderea stole a clutch of red dragon eggs. She magically stunted them, making the hatchlings mature into wyverns. They’ve become a different species altogether—inbreeding and sorcery have taken their toll.”
“What about the riders?”
“Rainfire Knights. With their in-depth knowledge of battlefield magic, they can tear apart defensive spellcraft, exposing their prey 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 their 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, rearming 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 freaking kidding me? Lightning-breathing dragons?)
“Aye.” He gives me an amused smile. “It’s a different color than their outer scales.”
“Cool.” My eyes grow wide, but I’m not the least bit embarrassed. I just found out that dragons are real—there’s no better time to let my geek flag fly. “Are there any dragons that breathe yellow lightning?”
“There are. Yellow, purple, red, green…” His amusement fades. “After the Tessellate went awry, it wreaked havoc on the arcane tides. Consequently, dragons grew terribly sick. Lyderea killed hundreds of wyrms, then stole their eggs and bred them into wyverns.”
“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.
“Only two that I know of.” Gyrax raises his voice, so he can be heard above the crackling flames. “A red and a green live in Aerie Denir—a city that juts from a sheer cliffside.”
He’s talking about the aerial metropolis—the one I saw before I left Earth. 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 tell him about my Earth-side visions, but 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 a couple extra coins? They’re really just mercenaries, when you get right down to it.
Gyrax’s eyes don’t leave mine. 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 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 a 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.”
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.”
I respond with a shrug.
We continue walking, 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 completely at ease.
It’s all going to burn, but something will eventually grow in its place. Something good, hopefully.
Maybe even great.