“Down!” Someone shoves me, sending me tumbling across a muddy patch of grass. 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 and uses his momentum to power into an aerial twist. His sword flashes and glimmers as he spins and whirls, scoring several cuts on attacker number two.
Before I can finish, both assailants (they’re wearing blindfolds with glowing runes, just like Blindfold Guy) turn and run. Green Cloak Guy runs a cloth across his sword, then slides it neatly into a hip sheath.
“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.
Judging by his voice, I’d say he’s the same age as me. He pulls his hood back and confirms my suspicions—early twenties, White-passing Middle Eastern. If not for his worn eyes and haggard expression, he would easily 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 slip 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 deeper into my neck.
He stares hard, then abruptly lets go. I stumble back and dab my throat, gaping dumbly at my bloody fingers.
“You are not a threat—that much is clear.” He slides his knife 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 up beside him. “Where am I?” (Part of me knows—I can feel it tickling the back of my brain.)
“Two faires east of Jynewind 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.”
“It’s another world.”
He stops walking and squares up with me. I’m suddenly aware of the distant birds, chirping faintly in the wooded backdrop.
Finally, he says, “Another plane?”
“Uh…yeah. I think.”
He bows his head and rubs his neck. “ ‘The Prophesied Traveler will hail from an adjacent cosm. He will depart and return before he reaches the Unbound Realm…’ ”
“No. It can’t be.” He gives me a look of pure disbelief. “What do you wield? Do you know arcanix? Primal magic? Velic spells, perhaps?”
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 not in the mood for jests or riddles.”
I step back, raising my hands to shoulder level. “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 with his left hand while cupping his chin and mouth with his right fingers. 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. “That’s what we call this gods-cursed world.”
My brain affirms it—it feels like a key clicking into place.” And there’s some kind of prophecy that predicted my arrival? What am I supposed to—”
He turns away and resumes walking. “Clearly, it’s referring to someone else.”
“Hey!” I follow in his steps. “Maybe you’re wrong! I mean, how many dimension-hopping guys have you met today?”
He pivots on his heel and storms toward me. “Countless heroes have quested 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 my sternum, “are not them!”
“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’s written some unfinished stories. I have a part-time job and a stable future. That’s it. That’s me.
But what about the visions? All that D&D stuff I dismissed as fancy…it’s real. It’s here 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.
“What’s your name?” I ask as he starts down the road.
“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?”
I grab his shoulders in 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! 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 from sounding frustrated, but fail miserably 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 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. “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. “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 his destination is 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 forgot my 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 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 grabs one of the sheaths strapped to his chest, gives it a practiced 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, hugging it close with both hands. 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 ensure it’s secure. “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, infiltrating gatherings and executing rebels.”
“But they’re blind right? I mean they would have to be. Seeing as how they cover their—”
“Far from it. The cloth around their eyes is highly enchanted. It enhances their sight along with their strength. It helps them perceive subtler energies.”
“Ah, I see,” (but not really). “What if they have to go 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, it can change their features to a moderate degree. It can also alter their body’s appearance, but not by much.” He laughs harshly. “The Nightkeeper 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 about magic blindfolds that bless you with nunchuk skills and also double as Mission Impossible-style impostor masks, but he might shut down if I start geeking out. 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 know.”
I’m a little proud that I didn’t flinch (even though I wanted to). “No worries.”
His voice drops, 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, during the Fracture. In earlier times, 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 war, chaos, and treachery. Technically speaking, it marks the end of the Decline and the beginning of the Shadow Age.”
“And how did this happen? I mean, did you guys just start fighting, or—”
“For several millennia, the folk of Evermoor lived in peace. That changed a hundred years ago, when a wizard named Velys Skyseer constructed a network of highly refined magic. 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 needed to converse in person. Instead of working toward consensus or logic, folk 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’s helped us out, but it’s definitely got downsides. I mean, we haven’t collapsed our civilization—”
“Consider yourself lucky.”
“But we easily could if we kept on quibbling. The virus only highlighted our vulnerabilities.”
“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 a total 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 vectors 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 its cause, but they believe it originated from a Primal buildup.”
“Primal Magic is an intentional channeling of pure emotion. Easily the most powerful of all magics, but it is wild and 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 reason. We let our malice grow and fester, and it eventually transformed into 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 beneath the eyes. After a week or two, it begins to affect a person’s behavior. Depending on their temperament, they become anything from angry to murderous. Once the reddening fades, a few regain their original demeanor. There are many, however, who remain brutish.”
“You said people went 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’s anything like a virus—”
He gives a nod. “Most monks weren’t affected. A few succumbed, but it wasn’t common.”
“What about you? Did you catch it?”
“No, it happened before I was born. During my childhood, I witnessed the last of the Crimson Wars, when Lyderea Fairdyle rose to power. Some 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 fiery speech, but in reality, she was plotting to conquer any who opposed her. At first, people lauded her strength and conviction. Men and women flocked to her side, and this gave us a sense of hope. She wouldn’t have been able to cause such harm 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—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 of 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 guys. We couldn’t stop bickering. People said anything and everything without explaining themselves, and it drove us apart. What started in our minds ended in our bodies—when the sickness spread, we had to physically distance ourselves to keep it in check. We found cures and preventatives, but—”
“I wish it were so on this gods-cursed world,” Ren says vehemently. “The Reft is gone, but we have accepted brutality as the new normal. At the height of the Bright Age, that would have been unthinkable.”
“I’ve had visions of your world; I think I know what you’re talking about. The Stormtroopers were—”
“The what?” His eyes crinkle in puzzlement.
I clear my throat, embarrassed. “Uh, I didn’t know what they’re called so I made up a name for them. 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. A lot more aesthetic and way better designed than the Earthling version. It’s also 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 aid the populace. 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 ne’er enough gold or gimmickry to satisfy their lust for armies and riches.” He turns to the side and spits again.
“So 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. 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 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 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—what?” I laugh involuntarily. “You guys watch Star Wars?”
Ren looks puzzled. “Why would a star go to war? I was merely speaking 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. 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 level. “Eyes open, knife close.”
What the hell have I gotten myself into?