Someone shoves me from behind. I fall and roll, tumbling across the muddy grass. A blade slices past my face, tickling my cheek 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 with a thrust. As his attacker backpedals, he spins into a wheel-kick then uses the momentum to power into an aerial twist. His sword flashes and glimmers, scoring several cuts on attacker number two.
Before I can finish, both assailants (I notice they’re wearing blindfolds with glowing runes, like Blindfold Guy from my Dragon World visions) turn and run.
Green Cloak Guy runs a cloth across his sword, then slides it into a sheath on his hip.
“Name?” He walks over and extends a hand. I grab hold and pull myself up.
“Jon.” I brush twigs and grass off the front of my shirt.
By the timbre of his voice and what little I can see of his hooded face, I’m guessing he’s the same age as me. He pulls his hood back, confirming my suspicions. A young man, early twenties, White-passing Middle Eastern. If not for his worn eyes and haggard expression, he’d probably be handsome.
“You hail from afar. Where?”
“Uh…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 my question.” He grabs the back of my head with his other hand, making sure I can’t get away. I try not to gulp but I can’t help it.
“Where are you from?”
“Earth. San Francisco.” With each word, the blade cuts a little bit deeper into my neck.
He gives me a hard stare, then abruptly lets go. I stumble back and dab my throat, gaping dumbly at my bloody fingers.
“Apologies, stranger. You’re not a threat—that much is clear.” He wipes his knife and slides it into a sheath on his buckle-coated chest. There are several 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 beside him. “Where am I?” (Part of me knows—I can feel it tickling the back of my mind—but for some weird reason, I can’t remember.)
“Two faires east of Jynewind.”
“A township.” He gives me a brief once-over. “I’ve never heard of ‘Earth.’ Or ‘San Francisco,’ for that matter.”
I’m in another dimension. My mouth drops open.
“It’s what?” His gaze turns suspicious. “Hasten your tongue, stranger.”
“It’s…it’s another world.”
He stops walking and looks me in the eye. I’m suddenly aware of the distant birds, chirping faintly in the wooded backdrop.
Finally, he says, “Another plane?”
“Uh…yeah. I think so.”
He bows his head and rubs his neck. “ ‘The Prophesied Traveler will hail from an adjacent cosm. He will return and depart many a-time, then finally reach the Unbound Realm…’ ”
“What are you talking about?”
“No. It can’t be,” he mutters. He stares at me again. “What do you wield? Do you know arcanix? Primal magic? Velic spells?”
I raise my palms in a slow-the-hell-down gesture. “Velvet what? Arctic who? I’ve never wielded anything bigger than a butter knife, unless you’re counting World of Warcraft, where I traded Thunderfury for a—”
“Have a care.” He stalks forward, leveling a finger. “I am in no mood for jests or riddles.”
I step back, raising my hands a couple inches higher. “Whoa, dude—whoa! I’m telling 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 settles his left arm across his ribs, cupping his right elbow while cupping his chin with his right hand. A thinking man’s posture.
“In the Turning of Evermoor, it is written that an extraplanar 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 wide. “It’s what we call this gods-cursed world.”
My brain affirms it—it feels like a key clicking into place.” And you said there’s some kind of prophecy that predicted my arrival? What am I supposed to—”
He turns away and continues down the road. “Not a concern. Clearly, it’s referring to someone else.”
“Hey!” I follow in his steps. “Maybe you’re wrong! I mean, how many dimension-hopping guys do you know aside from me?”
He pivots on his heel and storms toward me. “Countless heroes have searched for the Realm and failed to reach it! High Taire duelists, Fair Folk bladeshadow, wizards and sorcerers of all manner and caliber! And you—” he jabs a finger into the center of my chest, “are not them!”
His on-the-spot judgment pisses me off. “You don’t know that,” I hiss, smacking 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 likes to write stories. I have a part-time job and a stable future. That’s it. That’s me.
But what about the visions? Because all that Dungeons and Dragons stuff I used to dismiss as pure fancy is actually real. It’s right in front of me.
“You’re shaken,” he says. “While you recover, you can journey with me.”
“I…I…okay.” I don’t know what to say. Up is down and black is white. I’m just along for the dimension-hopping ride.
“Come.” He starts down the road and I follow along.
“What’s your name?” I ask.
“Ren of the Barrens. ‘Ren’ will do.”
I feel something nagging at the edges of my brain. I’ve forgotten something else…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 lets out a mild, disbelieving laugh. “How is your dog a matter of concern?”
“You don’t understand!” I grab his shoulders in desperation. To his credit, he doesn’t break my arm, cut my face in half, or whatever else he’s been trained to do. “He’s my best friend, Ren! He’s the only damn thing that makes any sense!”
“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 the frustration out of my voice, but fail miserably at it. “What does that mean?”
“It means a greater part of you chose your circumstances. And though a smaller part of you may not enjoy them, the best course of action is to let things unfold in a spirit of readiness.”
I force myself to take a breath. “So the greater part of you is the one that breathes, and the smaller part of you is just the dust.”
“Exactly.” He gives a nod. “So we’ll keen our minds and clear our senses, and stay alert for signs of his presence. Gribbles is his name?”
“Yeah.” I take another breath. Still forced, but not as much. “Yeah. Gribbles.”
“Good. We’ll call it out if we suspect he;s near. Otherwise, we’ll keep to ourselves—best to avoid unwanted attention.”
A complicated emotion—a little like faith and a lot like resignation—washes through me. “I guess that’s all we can do, right?”
“Indeed.” He turns away and starts walking.
Be dust upon your breath.
His stride is purposeful but without any feeling—like he knows he’s where he’s going but it’s a long way off, and it won’t help to hurry or fret. His face stay set beneath his hood, seemingly dead to everything around him.
“Where are we going?” I ask.
I wait a few seconds, waiting to see if he’ll offer more.
Nope. So I prompt him with, “Is that a city or—”
“A trader’s outpost. Watch your step and mind your tongue. Let it wag without a care, and someone will cut it from your mouth.”
Great. We’re heading for an Evermoor 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 to me. “Here.”
I tentatively accept it. “Thanks. Uh…I don’t know how to use this.”
“Right.” I clear my throat. “Can I at least have a sheath?”
He grasps a sheath on his chest, gives it a few practiced flicks, undoing some buckles and a couple of ties, then pulls it off and flips it toward me. I snatch it awkwardly and hug it against my chest. 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. “Who were those guys you were fighting? You know, with the—” I make a vague gesture toward my eyes. “The blindfolds?”
“Nightkeepers,” he says. “Lyderea’s elite. They skulk through cities and townships, infiltrating gatherings and executing rebels.”
“They’re blind right? I mean they would have to be. Seeing as they cover their—”
“Far from it. The cloth around their eyes is highly enchanted. It enhances their sight along with their strength. It also helps them perceive subtler energies.”
“Ah, I see,” (but not really). “Subtler energies. What about when they’re going undercover? I can’t imagine a blindfold would—”
He looks annoyed. “ ‘Undercover?’ ”
“Sorry—it means to gain your enemy’s trust by pretending to be someone else.”
He grunts an affirmative. “They don’t always wear it. When it’s not on their face, they still benefit, but in a different fashion—it can change their features to a moderate degree. It can alter their body’s appearance, but not by much. They still have the same physique.” He laughs harshly. “Their motto is ‘We keep the night at bay.’ But given their loyalty to Lyderea and her thralls, many joke that it’s ‘We keep the night in place.’ ”
I want to ask Ren about magic blindfolds that give you nunchuk skills and also double as a Mission Impossible-style impostor mask, but if I fly my nerd flag he might shut down. So I decide to go with a simpler question.
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 could have known.”
I’m a little proud that I didn’t flinch (even though I wanted to). “No worries.”
His voice drops as he continues speaking, almost into a hateful growl. “Lyderea Fairdyle is a tyrant queen. 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 ago. Before the Fracture, our world was ruled by many leaders, each beholden to their own community.”
His face tightens with anger, but he takes a breath and says, “I keep forgetting you’re not from Evermoor. My apologies.” Before I can assure him it’s not a problem, he continues speaking. “For several millennia, the folk in Evermoor lived in peace. That changed a hundred years ago, when a wizard named Velys Skyseer constructed a network of refined magics. It allowed for instant communication, and in many cases, immediate transport of material goods. We called it the Velic Tessellate.”
“Instant communication? Instant transportation? How is that bad?” I cock my head, puzzled.
“It’s not. Not inherently, anyway. But as the Tessellate expanded and grew in power, it allowed for a glut of ease and luxury. No one had to converse in person, and no one had to leave their home. Instead of aiming for consensus or logic, people lapsed into anger and vitriol. And since the Tessellate permitted mass indulgence, few—if any—reaped the consequences of their words and actions.”
“Sounds familiar. On my world we’re spoiled by tech instead of magic.”
He turns his hooded face a little toward me. “Aye?”
“It helped us out in a lot of ways, but it’s got definite downsides. I mean, we haven’t collapsed our civilization—”
“Consider yourself lucky.”
“But we easily could if we kept quibbling. The virus only highlighted our collective vulnerability.”
“Virus? Are you ill?” He tenses slightly.
“I was, but it passed. Some died, most got better.”
He gives a brisk nod. “We stayed healthy but grew increasingly irrational. Our bickering manifested as an arcane malady: the Crimson Reft.”
I keep quiet, wanting to hear more. We’ve built a fragile rapport (which is pretty cool, since he’s obviously a hardass) and I don’t want to jinx it by speaking out of turn.
“The Reft is a curse. It appeared without warning and swept through Evermoor. The Velic Tessellate acted as a conduit—the Reft traveled through its pre-established channels, once used for communication and convenience, but now a vector for malice and hate.”
“What does it do?” 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. Our mages have yet to identify the cause, but they believe it originated from a Primal buildup.”
“Primal Magic is an intentional channeling of pure emotion. It’s easily the most powerful of all the magics, but it’s wild and dangerous. Only the best 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—they found too many points of arcane entry. They think it much more likely that a breakdown in dialogue was the primary reason. Enough of Evermoor let their malice grow to where it conjured a malady, and the Reft was the result. The Fracture was simply the physical tipping point—in less than a week’s time, diplomacy vanished and conflict reigned. Bonds and treaties were thrown to the wind.”
“Why is it Crimson?”
“The first symptom is a deep reddening beneath the eyes. After a month, it begins to affect someone’s behavior. Depending on temperament, they become anything from angry to murderous. After the reddening fades, a few regain their original demeanor. There are many, however, who remain brutish.”
“Did people go to war?”
“Aye. Humans, Fair Folk, Wildlyre…”
“ ‘Wildlyre?’ ”
“A catch-all term for creatures, entities, and spirits. Non-humans.”
“There must have been some who didn’t get it. I mean, if it acts anything like a virus, then—”
He gives a nod. “Most monks weren’t affected. A few succumbed, but it wasn’t common.”
“What about you? Did you catch it?”
“It happened shortly before I was born. During my childhood, I witnessed the tail end of the Crimson Wars, when Lyderea Fairdyle rose to power. Many thought she would bring back the Bright Age.”
I think of the Stormtroopers punishing the peasantry. “I’m guessing she didn’t.”
“No. She entranced many with her eloquent speech, but in reality, she was plotting to conquer all who opposed her. At first, people lauded her strength and confidence. Men and women flocked to her side, and this gave us a sense of hope. She wouldn’t have been able to do it if we hadn’t…if we hadn’t…”
He clenches his jaw and shakes his head, as if what he’s saying is causing him pain. “We cast our ballots in desperation, appointing Lyderea Designate Seneschal. After the wars, 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 of minutes.
“With the virus, it was all physical. Philosophy-wise, you could probably say it was a flesh-and-blood metaphor for what we had already been doing to each other.”
He gives me a quizzical look. “And that would be?”
“The same thing as you guys. We couldn’t stop bickering. People could say anything and everything without explaining themselves, and it drove us apart as a society and culture. When the virus hit, we had to physically distance to keep it from spreading. What started in our minds ended up in our bodies. Eventually, we discovered cures and preventatives, but—”
“I wish it were so on this gods-cursed world. The Reft is gone, but we have accepted oppression and brutality as the new norm. At the height of the Bright Age, that would have been unthinkable.”
“I’ve had visions of your world, and I think I know what you’re talking about. The Stormtroopers were—”
“The what?” He looks over and his hood shifts. I see his eyes crinkle in puzzlement.
I clear my throat, embarrassed. “Uh, I don’t know what they’re 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’re always in armor…do you call it plate mail? It looks smooth; a lot more aesthetic and much better designed than the Earthling version. It’s also white—like impossibly white.”
He turns away and spits in disgust. “Iaetrix Knights: They’re Lyderea’s foot-soldiers—low-level thugs, by and large, but some are formidable. A few are dangerous.”
“They were gathering taxes. They seemed—”
Ren interrupts with a harsh bark of laughter. “Taxes? Taxes? They may call it that, aye, but taxes are meant to aid the collective. No, if you have any bit of sense you’ll call it what is: a tribute. Lyderea and her ministers are addicted to luxury—there is never enough gold, materiel, or gimmickry to satisfy their lust for armies and riches.” He turns to the side and spits again.
“Are you a rebel or something?”
His hood shadows a lot of his face, but I can still see his eyes growing cold and hard. “I do what is necessary.”
“Uh…okay. Sorry, didn’t mean to pry. But on a related note, I’ve seen other 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 cruel man, but also capable.”
“He wants to overthrow Lyderea?”
Ren nods. “And claim rule for himself. I cannot say whether he would make things better, or mire our world in a different kind of darkness.”
Up ahead, the horizon gives way to a walled-off town. The road we’re walking on ends at a thirty-foot high, iron-banded gate, bordered by towers on either side.
“Hafferly Crossing,” he says. “You will never find a more wretched hive of scum and villainy.”
“Wait, seriously?” I laugh involuntarily. “You guys watch Star Wars?”
Ren looks puzzled. “Why would a star go to war? I was merely speaking of what I know to be true.”
“Oh, okay. It’s just that you said a line out of a famous story. Famous on my world, anyway.”
“Hrrm.” He’s silent for a moment, then offers, “Perhaps we are connected in a subtle fashion, beyond what is immediately apparent. 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?”
“Stay alert. Eyes open, knife close.”
“Sure,” I manage, trying to keep my voice calm and even. “Eyes open, knife close.”
What the hell have I gotten myself into?