Someone shoves me, sending me tumbling across the grass. At the same time, a blade slices past, tickling my scalp with a flare of wind. If I hadn’t ducked, it would’ve cut off my—
“Move!” The guy who shoved me (from my upside-down perspective, I glimpse a green cloak and a leathery vest) parries a slash and counters a thrust. As his attacker backpedals, he misses with a wheel-kick, then uses his centrifugal momentum to power into an aerial twist. His sword flashes and glimmers as he spins and whirls, scoring several cuts on attacker number two.
Both assailants (I notice they’re wearing blindfolds with glowing runes, just like Blindfold Guy) turn and run. My savior, Green Cloak Guy, runs a cloth across his sword, then slides it neatly into a hip scabbard.
“Name?” He walks over and extends a hand. I grab hold and pull myself up.
“Jon.” I brush twigs and grass off my clothes. If I had to guess, I’d say he’s the same age as me.
He pulls his hood back, confirming my suspicions. Early twenties, White-passing Middle Eastern. If not for his worn eyes and haggard features, he would easily be handsome.
“You hail from afar. Where?”
“Uh…” I look around and it suddenly hits me:
I’m not in San Francisco anymore.
“Is this Dragon World?” I whisper.
Before I can register he’s drawn a knife, he’s got one pressed against my throat. “Answer me.” He grabs the back of my head with his other hand, making sure I can’t get away. “Where are you from?”
“Earth. Bay Area.” With each syllable, the blade cuts deeper into my neck.
He stares hard, then abruptly lets go. I stumble back and dab my throat, gaping at my bloody fingers.
“You are not a threat. That much is clear.” He flicks his knife into a chest-sheath. There are six others like it in a diagonal line, going from his right shoulder to his left hip. “May light find you in dark places.” He brushes past me and starts walking.
“Wait!” I hurry up beside him. “Where are we?”
“Two faires east of Jynewind Township.” Without slowing, he gives me a once-over. “I’ve never heard of ‘Earth.’ Or ‘Bay Area,’ for that matter.”
I’m in a parallel dimension. My mouth drops open.
“It’s what?” His face darkens with mistrust. “Hasten your tongue.”
“It’s a different world.”
He stops, squares up with me, and stares me down. I’m suddenly aware of the distant birds, chirping faintly in the wooded backdrop.
Finally, he says, “Another plane?”
“Uh…yeah. I think.”
He puts his hands on his hips and bows his head. “ ‘The Traveler will hail from an adjacent cosm. He will depart and return before he eventually reaches the Unbound Realm…’ ”
“No. It cannot be.” He assesses me disbelievingly. “What do you wield? Do you know arcanix? Primal magic? Velic spells? Have you ever—”
I raise my palms in a slow-the-hell-down gesture. “Velvet what? Arctic who? The only things I’ve wielded are forks and butter knives, unless we’re talking World of Warcraft, where I traded Thunderfury for a—”
“Have a care.” He stalks forward, leveling a finger. “I am not in the mood for jests or riddles.”
I step back, raising my hands to shoulder level. “Whoa, dude—whoa! I’m telling you the truth!”
He stops a foot away, raking my face with a wire-tight gaze. I try not to shrink.
It seems to suffice. He backs off and adopts a thinking man’s posture—left arm crossing his ribs, left hand cupping his right elbow while staircasing his right hand’s fingers over his chin and his mouth. “In the Turning of Evermoor, it is written that an extraplanar migrant—the Prophesied Traveler—will reach the Unbound Realm and set things a-right. But it can’t be you. You cannot fight, cannot cast, you just—” He looks me up and down, as if he can’t believe I even exist. “You are not the one described in the tome.”
“Wait—Evermoor? What’s that?” My memory stirs; I’ve forgotten something important.
“Evermoor.” He spreads his arms. “That’s what we call this gods-cursed world.”
My brain affirms it—it feels like a key clicking into a lock. Evermoor. The name that arose when I entered the portal. “So there’s a prophecy that predicted I would arrive on your world? What am I supposed to—”
He turns away and resumes walking. “Clearly, it is referring to another.”
“Hey!” I follow in his steps. “What if you’re wrong? How do you know I’m not the Prophesied Traveler? Maybe I’m the guy who reaches the Unbound—”
He pivots on his heel and storms toward me. “Countless heroes have tried and failed! High Taire Duelists, Fair Folk Bladeshadow, wizards and sorcerers of every lineage! And you—” he jabs a finger into my sternum, “are not them!”
I hiss, “You don’t know that,” and smack his hand away from my chest. “You have no idea who I am, or what I’m capable of.”
He crosses his arms. “Who are you, then? And what are you capable of?”
“I…I…” My expression falters.
I’m Jon Dough. A basic college kid who writes unfinished stories. I have a part-time job and a stable future. That’s it. That’s me.
But what about the visions? All the D&D stuff I dismissed as imaginary…it’s real. It’s right here in front of me.
He gives me a moment, then states, “You’re shaken. While you recover, you may journey with me.”
I don’t know what to say. Up is down and black is white. I’m just along for the dimension-hopping ride.
“What’s your name?” I ask as we start down the road.
“Ren of the Barrens. Ren will do.”
After a couple seconds, I feel an insistent nagging at the edges of my brain. I’ve forgotten something…what could it be?
Then it hits me.
“Gribbles!” I look wildly around. “Where’s Gribbles?”
Ren stops, clearly irritated. “I know of no one named ‘Gribbles.’ ”
“My dog!” I rub my temples, at a complete loss as to what to do. “He came here with me!”
“Your dog?” Ren laughs, incredulous. “How is your dog a matter of concern?”
I grab his shoulders out of sheer desperation. To his credit, he doesn’t snap my arm, break my face, or whatever else he’s been trained to do. “He’s my best friend!!”
“Jon.” He carefully removes my hands from his shoulders. “There’s an old saying here on Evermoor: ‘Be dust upon your breath.’ ”
“What?” I try to keep my frustration in check, but I fail spectacularly at it. “What does that even mean?”
“It means a greater part of you chose your circumstances, and though a smaller part of you may not like them, the best course of action is to embrace the present and let things unfold in a spirit of readiness.”
I force myself to take a breath. “So the greater part of me is the one that breathes, and the smaller part of me is just the dust.”
“Exactly.” He gives a nod. “We’ll keen our minds, clear our senses, and stay alert for any signs of his presence. Gribbles is his name?”
“Yeah.” I take another breath. Still forced, but not as much. “Yeah. Gribbles.”
“We’ll call it out if we suspect he’s near. Otherwise, let’s keep to ourselves—best to avoid any unwanted attention.”
A complicated emotion—a little like faith and a lot like resignation—washes through me. “Yeah…okay. That’s all we can do, right?”
“Indeed.” He turns away and resumes walking.
Be dust upon your breath.
His stride is purposeful but without any feeling—like our destination is a long way off, but he knows it won’t help to hurry or fret. Beneath his hood, his expression remains still and unmoving.
“Where are we going?” I ask.
I wait a bit, waiting to see if he’ll offer more info.
Nope. So I prompt him with, “Is that a city or—”
“A trader’s outpost. While we are there, watch your step and mind your tongue. Let it wag without a care, and a blade will cut it from your mouth.”
Great. We’re headed for a medieval version of the Star Wars cantina, only I don’t have a lightsaber and Ben Kenobi’s nowhere in sight. “So I should stick by you, right?” I chuckle nervously. “In case we get hassled.”
Without looking over, he draws a knife and holds it out. “Here.”
I accept it tentatively. “Thanks. Uh…I don’t know how to use this.”
“Right.” I clear my throat. “Can I at least have a sheath?”
He grabs the sheath it came from and gives it a flick, undoing some buckles and a couple of ties, then pulls it off and flips it toward me.
I snatch it awkwardly out of the air. Much to my relief, I’m able to rig it onto one of my belt loops.
“So…” I slide the knife into the sheath, tugging and turning it to make sure it’s secure. “Those guys you were fighting…you know, with the—” I make a vague gesture around my eyes. “The blindfolds?”
“Nightkeepers,” he says. “The Eldritch Protectorate’s clandestine service. They infiltrate gatherings and execute rebels.”
“But they’re blind, right? I mean they would have to be. Seeing as how they cover their—”
Ren scoffs. “Far from it. Their cloth wrap is highly enchanted. It augments their sight along with their strength. And it helps them perceive subtler energies.”
“I see.” (not really, though). “What if they have to go undercover? I can’t imagine a blindfold would help them blend in.”
He looks annoyed. “ ‘Undercover?’ ”
“Sorry—it means to gain your enemy’s trust by pretending you’re someone else.”
He grunts an affirmative. “They don’t always wear it. When it’s not on their face, it can change their features to a moderate degree.” He laughs harshly. “The Nightkeeper motto is ‘We keep the night at bay.’ But given their allegiance to the White Veiled Queen, many joke that it’s ‘We keep the night in place.’ ”
I want to ask more about magic blindfolds that bless you with nunchuk skills and also double as Mission Impossible impostor masks, but he might shut down if I start geeking out. So I decide to go with a simpler question.
“What’s a ‘White Veiled Queen?’ ”
He throws me another look. Not irritated, this time, but full-on angry. “Are you trying to—” He cuts himself short and takes a breath. “Apologies. You’re from a different world—there’s no reason you would know our history.”
I’m a little proud that I didn’t flinch (even though I wanted to). “No worries.”
His voice drops into a hateful growl. “The White Veiled Queen is Lyderea Fairdyle, our sovereign tyrant. She has imposed her will on over half of Evermoor.”
“Are we in her kingdom? Or…is it ‘queendom?’ Not really sure if—”
“We are.” Ren picks up the pace. “The Eldritch Protectorate comprises nine-tenths of Evermoor’s surface.”
Holy crap. “So when you say over half—”
“I mean nearly all. Yes.”
“When did this happen?”
“Over twenty years prior, during the Fracture. Before Lyderea, our world was ruled by many leaders, each beholden to their own community.”
“The Fracture? What’s that?”
“A time of great upheaval. Rife with chaos, war, and low-shadow treachery. It marks the end of the Decline and the beginning of the Shadow Age.”
“How did this happen? I mean, did everyone go apeshit, or—”
“For several millennia, the folk of Evermoor lived in peace. That changed a hundred years back, when a wizard named Velys Skyseer constructed a network of intricate magics. It allowed for instant communication, and in some cases, immediate transport of material goods. The network was known as the Velic Tessellate.”
“Instant communication? Instant transportation? How is that bad?” I cock my head, puzzled.
“They aren’t. Not inherently, anyway. But as the Tessellate expanded and grew in power, it spawned an excess of ease and luxury. No one needed to converse in person, so instead of aiming for consensus or logic, folk lapsed into anger and vitriol. And since the Tessellate allowed for toxic discourse, few—if any—reaped the consequence of their words and actions.”
“Sounds familiar. On my world, we’re spoiled by technology instead of magic.”
His hooded face turns toward me. “Aye?”
“Yep. It’s definitely helped, but it’s got its downsides. I mean, we haven’t collapsed our civilization—”
“Consider yourself lucky.”
“—but we easily could if we kept on quibbling. When the virus hit, it highlighted our weaknesses. One of our biggest was the inability to get along with each other.”
“Virus? Are you ill?” He tenses slightly.
“I was, but it passed. Some died but most got better.”
He gives a nod. “We stayed healthy in life and limb, but grew increasingly irrational. Our bickering manifested as a transmissible curse: the Crimson Reft. It appeared without warning and swept throughout Evermoor. The Reft corrupted the Velic Tessellate—once used for communication and convenience—and made it a vector for hate and malice.”
“What does it do? If it infects you or whatever.” We’ve been walking up the road on a steady incline; now it smooths into level ground.
“It taints your aura, amplifying your anger to a destructive degree. Most believe that it originated from a buildup of Primal energy.”
“Primal? You said that earlier, but I’m not sure if it means what I think…”
“Primal Magic is an intentional channeling of pure emotion. Easily the most powerful of all magics—extremely wild, extremely dangerous. Only masters are able to shape it.”
“Did one of these Primal guys infect the Tessellate?”
“No.” He shakes his head. “That was the first possibility our mages ruled out; there were too many points of arcane entry. They think it much more likely that a breakdown in dialogue was the primary cause. We let our malice grow and fester, and it eventually took form as the Crimson Reft. The Fracture was simply the physical tipping point. In the span of a week, diplomacy vanished and conflict reigned. Bonds and treaties were thrown to the wind.”
“Why is it Crimson?”
“The first symptom is a deep reddening around the eyes. After a week, it begins to affect a person’s behavior. Depending on their temperament, they become anything from angry to murderous.”
“Is there a cure for it?”
“After a month, most regain their original demeanor. There are a few, however, who remain brutish and savage.”
“Did people go to war?”
“Aye. Humans, Fair Folk, Wildlyre…”
“ ‘Wildlyre?’ ”
“A catch-all term for creatures, entities, and spirits. Non-humans.”
I resist the urge to blitz him with questions about magical creatures. “There must have been some who didn’t get it. I mean, if it’s anything like a virus—”
He gives a nod. “By and large, monks remained unaffected.”
“What about you?”
“It happened a year before I was born. During my childhood, I witnessed the last of the Crimson Wars, when Lyderea Fairdyle rose to power.” His eyes turn distant. “Many thought she would bring back the Bright Age.”
I think of the Stormtroopers punishing the peasants. “I’m guessing she didn’t.”
“No. She entranced the masses with her fiery speech. It was part of her plan—she was plotting to conquer all who opposed her. At first, people lauded her strength and conviction. She wouldn’t have been able to wreak such havoc if we hadn’t…if we hadn’t…”
He clenches his jaw and shakes his head, as if his words are causing him pain. “We cast our ballots in desperation and appointed Lyderea Designate Seneschal. She refused to step down and made herself Queen.”
“Holy crap,” I whisper. “You elected her.”
He nods tightly.
We walk in silence for a couple more minutes. Then I say, “With the virus, it was mostly physical. Philosophy-wise, you could probably say it was a flesh-and-blood metaphor for what we had been doing to each other.”
He gives me a quizzical look. “And that would be?”
“The same thing as you—we couldn’t stop bickering. People said anything and everything without ever having to explain their reasoning, and it drove us further and further apart. What started in our minds ended in our bodies. When the sickness spread, we had to physically distance to keep it in check. We found cures and preventatives, but—”
“I wish it were so on this cursed world,” Ren says vehemently. “The Reft is gone, but we have accepted brutality as the new norm.”
“I think I know what you’re talking about. Before I arrived, I had visions of Evermoor. The Stormtroopers were—”
“The what?” His eyes crinkle in puzzlement.
I clear my throat, embarrassed. “Uh, I didn’t know what they were called so I made up a name. The soldiers with the uh—” I stammer for a moment as my brain filters out a slew of pop culture references. “They always wear armor…do you call it plate mail? It looks smooth and white—like impossibly white.”
He turns away and spits in disgust. “Iaetrix Knights:”
“Lyderea’s foot-soldiers. Low-level thugs by and large, but some are formidable. A few are dangerous.”
“They were collecting taxes. They seemed—”
Ren interrupts with a harsh bark of laughter. “Taxes? Taxes? They may call it that, aye, but taxes are meant to spread opportunity and access. No, if you have any bit of sense you’ll call it what it is: a tribute. Lyderea and her ministers are addicted to luxury—there is ne’er enough gold or gimmickry to satisfy their lust for armies and riches.” He turns his head and spits again.
“That makes you…what—a rebel or something?”
Beneath his hood, his eyes grow cold and hard. “I do what is necessary.”
“Uh…okay. Didn’t mean to pry. But on a related note, I’ve also seen people fighting with the Knights. They wear dirty gear and stick to the woods.”
“They’re called the Birthright Alliance, or just the Alliance, for short. A loose confederation of insurgent warlords, led by a rogue named Ardos Rygar. A capable man, but also cruel.”
“He wants to overthrow Lyderea?”
Ren nods. “And claim rule for himself. I cannot say whether he would make things better or worse.”
“Hmm.” I let the silence grow, then clear my throat.
“Earlier you mentioned the Prophesied Traveler—who is that exactly?” I raise my hands in capitulation. “I know, I know—it’s not me.”
Ren grunts an affirmative. “The Prophesied Traveler is a mythical figure. Some believe he is a real person, others think he is simply a metaphor. There are differing opinions of what he will do, but everyone agrees on two things: he will come from a plane not our own, and he will be in possession of Laiddinic powers.”
“The story of Laiddin Altaenic is possibly the oldest tale in all of Evermoor. It tells of a boy that stumbles upon a magic lamp. One that—”
“Contains a genie!” My eyes flash with excitement. “Who grants three wishes, right?”
Ren looks miffed. “A what? No, the lamp grants wishes, but not just three—an unlimited number. At first Altaenic thinks it’s three, until he uses the last wish to wish for more wishes. Then he discovers that the lamp was left by his future self, who has already gained access to unlimited wishes, and is, in essence, a god.”
“Huh.” I scratch my head. “Interesting. So what do ‘Laiddinic powers’ mean?”
“They trump all magic, but not because they are higher up on the arcane hierarchy. They’re…” he struggles for a second. “They form the hierarchy, but at the same time, they are apart from it.”
“That doesn’t make sense.”
“I know.” He shrugs in defeat. “The Turning of Evermoor is filled with paradox, ambiguity, and contradiction. E’en now, scribes pore over its dusty breadth, trying to wring meaning from its ancient scrawl. A waste of time, if you ask me.”
“What about the Unbound Realm? What is that, exactly?”
“From what I understand, it is the final destination. Not death—for death is simply the beginning of another life—but a definitive endpoint for all of existence. According to the Turning, the person who discovers it will gain the ability to control reality.”
The cloudless sky looms above us. I take a moment to appreciate the sunlit blue, then turn back to Ren. “You said a bunch of people have tried to find it. Why didn’t they?”
He shakes his head. “It switches locations at random intervals. And according to the Turning, it can only be found by one who has been there.”
“That’s absurd. Why seek omnipotence if you already have it?”
He shrugs again. “Like I said—it’s not in my purview.”
Up ahead, the horizon gives way to a walled-off town. The road leads up to a thirty-foot high, iron-banded gate that’s bordered by towers on either side.
“Hafferly Crossing,” he says. “You will never find a more wretched hive of scum and villainy.”
“Wait—what?” I laugh involuntarily. “You guys watch Star Wars?”
Ren looks puzzled. “Why would a star go to war? I am merely speaking of what I know to be true.”
“Oh, okay. It’s just…you said a line from a famous story. Famous on my world, anyway.”
“Hmm.” He’s silent for a moment, then offers, “Perhaps we are connected in a subtle fashion. It is not my area of expertise—I was never any good at arcane philosophy.”
(Arcane philosophy. Cool.) “So. Hafferly Crossing. Anything I should know before we arrive?”
“Stay alert. Eyes open, knife close.”
“Sure,” I manage, trying to keep the tremor out of my voice. “Eyes open, knife close.”
Jon, what the hell have you gotten into?