“Down!” Someone shoves me. I fall and roll, tumbling across the muddy grass. A blade sings through the air, 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 with a bunch of buckles) parries a slash and counters with a thrust. He doesn’t stop—as the first attacker backpedals, he whirls into a spinning wheel-kick and uses the momentum to power into an aerial twist. His sword flashes and slices, scoring several cuts on attacker number two before he lands in a crouch.
Before I can finish, both assailants—they’re wearing black blindfolds with glowing runes—turn and run. Green Cloak Guy runs a cloth across his sword before sliding it back 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. 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.
“Jon.” He lifts his hood up and back, confirming my suspicions. He’s a young man, early twenties, who might have been handsome if not for his haggard eyes. “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.” I can hear the leather on his fingerless gloves rubbing together as he tightens his grip. I didn’t realize he’d grabbed the back of my head with his other hand, but there it is, making sure I can’t get away.
I try not to gulp, but I can’t help it. A trickle of blood slides down my shirt.
“Where is your home?”
“Earth. San Francisco.” With each word, the blade cuts the tiniest bit deeper into my neck.
He gives me a hard stare, then lets me go. I stumble back and dab my throat, gaping dumbly at my blood-dotted fingers.
“Apologies. You’re not a threat, that much is clear.” He wipes his blade and slides it into a sheath on his buckle-coated chest. There are several others like it arranged in a diagonal line, going from his right shoulder to his left hip. “May light find you in dark places.” He brushes past me.
“Wait!” I reach out as he steps onto the wide dirt road. “Where am I?” Part of me knows—I can feel it tickling the back of my mind—but for some reason, I can’t remember.
He keeps walking. “Two faires east of Jynewind.”
“Jynewind?” I fall in beside him.
“A township.” He gives me a brief once-over. “I’ve never heard of ‘Earth.’ Or ‘San Francisco.’ ”
I’m in another dimension. My mouth drops open.
“It’s what?” His gaze turns suspicious. “Hasten your tongue. My time runs thin.”
“It’s…it’s another world.”
He stops walking 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 so.”
He resumes walking, but a lot slower. He bows his head and rubs his neck. “ ‘He who will reach the Unbound Realm will hail from a cosm adjacent to ours…’ ”
He stares at me again. “No. It can’t be,” he mutters. His voice raises. “What can 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 not in the mood for jests or riddles.”
I step back, raising my hands a couple inches higher. “Whoa—whoa! I’m telling the truth, man!”
He stops a foot away from me, 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 arm’s elbow and cupping his chin with his right hand. A thinking man’s posture.
“In the Turning of Evermoor, it is written that a man who hails from a different world 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—did you say Evermoor? What’s that?” My memory stirs; I’ve forgotten something important.
“Evermoor.” He spreads his arms to either side. “What we call this gods-cursed world.”
My brain affirms it—it feels like a puzzle piece clicking into place.” And you said there’s some kind of prophecy that predicted my arrival? What am I supposed to—”
“None of your concern.” He turns away and continues down the road. “Clearly, it’s referring to someone else.”
“Hey!” I hurry up beside him. “How do you know? I mean, how many dimension-hopping guys do you know besides me?”
He pivots abruptly on his heel and storms toward me. “Countless heroes have tried to find the Unbound Realm, and none have succeeded! High Taire duelists, Fair Folk bladeshadows, wizards and sorcerers of all manner and caliber! And you—” he jabs a finger in my chest, “are not them!”
For some reason, 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 and stares me down. “Who are you, then? And what are you capable of?”
The questions takes the wind out of my sails. “I…I…” I raise a hand to my head. My expression falters. “I’m…” The bewilderment I’ve experienced over the last few weeks comes rushing back.
I’m Jon Dough. An unexceptional college kid who writes unremarkable stories. I have a dog, a part-time job, and a stable future. That’s it. That’s me.
But what about the visions? Here I am, physical proof that my previous life was just an illusion. Because apparently, all that Dungeons and Dragons stuff that I used to dismiss as pure fancy is undeniably real.
“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-switching ride.
“Come on.” He starts down the road. I follow in his steps.
“What’s your name?” I ask, trying to establish a semblance of normalcy.
“Ren. Ren of the Barrens.
A minute passes, then I feel a nagging at the edge of my brain. I’ve forgotten something important…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 him by the shoulders and shake him hard. To his credit, he doesn’t break my wrist or cut my face in half. “He’s my best friend! The only thing that makes any damn sense!”
“Jon.” He carefully removes my hands from his shoulders. “We’ll keep an eye out, aye? If we pick up his trail, we’ll mount a search.”
I stand there for a minute, clenching and unclenching my fists, wanting to hit something but not knowing what.
“Jon.” He holds my gaze. “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 I fail miserably. “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 close my eyes and take a breath. “So the greater part of you is the one that breathes, and the smaller part of you is just the dust. Right?” I open my eyes and crook an eyebrow.
“Exactly.” He gives a nod. “So we’ll keen our minds and clear our senses, and stay alert for any signs. Gribbles is his name?”
“Yeah.” I put my hands on my hips and take a breath. “Yeah. Gribbles.”
“Good. We’ll call it out if we spot his trail. Otherwise, we’ll keep to ourselves—best to avoid unwanted attention.”
Despair grips me, but oddly enough, drops away a second later. 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 it is,” he replies. He turns away and starts walking.
Be dust upon your breath.
As I fall in step, he pulls his hood up, shading his eyes once again. His stride is purposeful but without 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. There’s no enjoyment in his face or posture; his lips stay set beneath his hood, seemingly dead to everything around him.
“Uh…where are we going?”
I wait a few seconds, waiting to see if he’ll offer more, but he doesn’t speak. 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 next to you, right?” I chuckle nervously.
Without moving his head or missing a step, he draws a knife and holds it out. “Here.”
I tentatively accept it. “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 to unlatch some buckles and undo some ties, then pulls it off and flips it toward me. I snatch it awkwardly out of the air with both hands and hug it against my chest. Much to my relief, it has enough buckles and ties to easily rig onto one of my belt loops.
“So, uh…” 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, infiltrating rebel gatherings and killing any they deem troublesome or defiant.”
“Are all of them blind? I mean they would have to be, right? Seeing as they cover their—”
“Far from it. Their vision rivals that of an Aerir hawk. The cloth they wear is highly enchanted. Not only does it enhance their sight, it enhances their strength and boosts their speed. It also helps them perceive subtler energies.”
“Ah, I see,” (not really, though). “Subtler energies. What about when they’re going undercover? I can’t imagine a blindfold would—”
He throws an annoyed look at me. “ ‘Undercover?’ ”
“Sorry—it means pretending to be someone else to gain your enemy’s trust.”
He grunts an affirmative. “They don’t always wear it. When it’s not on their face, they still benefit from it, but in a different fashion—it can change their features and make them appear to be someone else. It can also alter their body’s appearance, but not by much. They still have the same basic physique.” He laughs harshly. “The Nightkeepers were formed several centuries ago, in a time of peace. Their original mandate was to investigate threats, and to occasionally thwart them if they appeared dire. 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 can turn you into a ninja and also double as a Mission Impossible-style impostor mask, but if I start geeking out he might shut down and stop talking. So I decide to go with a simpler question.
He throws me another look. Not irritated, this time, but full-on pissed. “Are you trying to—” then he cuts himself short and takes a breath. “Apologies. You’re from a different world—there’s no reason for you to know.”
I’m a little proud that I didn’t flinch when he lost his temper (even though I wanted to). “No worries.”
His voice drops as he begins 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 covers nine-tenths of Evermoor.”
Holy crap. “So when you say ‘over half’—”
“I mean nearly all. Yes.”
“When did this happen?”
“Over twenty years ago, shortly before I was born. Before the Fracture, Evermoor was ruled by many leaders, each beholden to their own community.”
“The Fracture? What’s that?”
He almost gets angry again, but then 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 inhabitants of Evermoor lived in peace. That changed about a hundred years ago, when a wizard named Velys Skyseer constructed a network of interconnective magics. It allowed for instant communication throughout the lands, and in many cases, instant transport of material goods. We called it the Velic Tessellate.”
“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 more and more luxury. No one had to converse in person, and no one had to leave their home. Instead of aiming for consensus or logic, everyone lapsed into anger and vitriol. And since the Tessellate permitted mass indulgence, few—if any—reaped the consequences of their words or actions.”
I study the ground as we keep walking. “Sounds familiar. On my world we’re spoiled by tech instead of magic.”
He turns his hooded face a little toward me. “Aye?”
“Yeah. It’s helped us out in a lot of ways, but it’s also got some major downsides. I mean, we haven’t collapsed our civilization—”
“Consider yourself lucky.”
“But we easily could if we keep quibbling with each other. The virus only highlighted our vulnerabilities.”
“Virus? Are you ill?” He tenses slightly. I probably wouldn’t see it if I wasn’t looking for it.
“Not at the moment,” I assure him. “I was, but it passed. A bunch of people caught it. Some died, but most got better.”
He gives a brisk nod. “We stayed healthy, but grew increasingly irrational, many to the point of madness and murder. 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.” His voice darkens. “It functions much like a virus, only in a magical sense. It appeared out of nowhere 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 of malice and hate.”
“What does it do?” We’ve been walking up the road on a steady incline, but now it smooths into level ground.
“It taints someone’s aura, amplifying their anger to a destructive degree. Our best mages have yet to identify its exact cause or point of origin, but they believe it was due to a Primal buildup within the Tessellate.”
“Primal Magic is arcane energy in its truest form. An intentional channeling of pure emotion. Out of all the magics it holds the most power, but it’s wildly unpredictable. Only the most accomplished sorcerers are able to wield it with any control.”
“Seems like the simplest explanation would be that one of these Primal guys infected 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 and the increase in hate was the actual cause. Enough of Evermoor let their malice grow to where it conjured a malady, and the Reft was the result. The Fracture was the physical tipping point—in less than a week’s time, diplomacy vanished and conflict reigned. Bonds and treaties were thrown to the wind.”
“Gotcha. Why is the Reft ‘Crimson?’ ”
“The first symptom is a deep reddening beneath the eyes. This lasts for roughly a month, and then it affects an individual’s behavior. Depending on temperament, they become anything from angry to murderous. After the reddening fades, some will regain their original demeanor. There are many, however, who remain brutish.”
I ask a question I’m pretty sure I know the answer to: “Did people go to war?”
“Aye. Humans, Fair Folk, Wildlyre…”
“ ‘Wildlyre?’ ”
“A catch-all term for creatures, entities, and spirits.”
“There must have been some who didn’t get it. I mean, if it acts like a virus, then—”
He gives a nod. “Correct—most monks weren’t affected. Hermits as well. Isolation and contemplation, apparently, can keep your aura from being tainted. Some succumbed, but it wasn’t common.”
“What about you? Did you catch it?”
“As I said before: it happened twenty years before I was born. During my childhood, I witnessed the tail end of the Crimson Wars, when Lyderea Fairdyle came 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,” he says. “She captivated the populace with her fair looks and eloquent speech, but in reality, she was plotting to conquer all who opposed her. At first, people applauded her strength and efficacy. Men and women flocked to her side, and this gave us a false sense of hope. No one knew they had been cursed with the Reft. She wouldn’t have been able to do it so fast 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 physical pain. “We cast our ballots in desperation. We appointed Lyderea Designate Seneschal. After the wars, she refused to step down. And she appointed herself Queen.”
“Holy crap,” I whisper. “You elected her.”
He nods tightly and doesn’t say a thing. We walk in silence for a couple of minutes.
Then I say, “With the virus, it was all physical. Philosophy-wise, you could probably say it was a flesh-and-blood metaphor for what we’d been doing to each other for the past few decades.”
He gives me a quizzical look. “And that would be?”
“The same thing as you guys. We couldn’t stop bickering. Our communications degraded just like yours. People could say anything and everything without explaining themselves, and it drove us apart. When the virus hit, we had to physically keep away from each other to keep it from spreading. What started in our minds ended in our bodies.”
“Well it hasn’t ended for us,” he says. “Technically, the curse is gone, but Evermoor has yet to address the root of the problem. We have accepted oppression and brutality as the new norm. At the height of the Bright Age, that would have been unthinkable.”
“Before I came here, I started having visions of your world,” I say. “And I think I know what you’re talking about. The Stormtroopers were—”
“The what?” He looks over and his hood shifts. I can see his eyes crinkle in puzzlement.
I clear my throat, slightly embarrassed. “Uh, sorry—I don’t know what they’re called, so I made up a name. They’re soldiers, with uh—” I stammer for a moment as my brain filters out a bunch of pop culture references. “They’re dressed in armor…uh, do you guys call it plate mail? It looks smooth…a lot more aesthetic and way better designed than the stuff Earthlings wore. It’s also white—like impossibly white. Unless they’re fighting, their armor looks spotless.”
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 lets out a harsh bark of laughter. “Taxes? Taxes? They may call it that, aye, but taxes are meant to help 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, constantly seeking to expand their holdings. There is ne’er enough gold, materiel, or gimmickry to satisfy their lust for armies and riches. Each one owns several dozen castles, at the very least.” He spits again.
“Are you a rebel or something? Do you fight them?”
He falls silent. His hood shadows the upper half of his face, but I can still see his eyes growing cold. “I do what is necessary.”
“Uh…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. I call them Foresters—I know that’s not the right name, but it was all I could think of.”
“They call themselves the Birthright Alliance, or just the Alliance, for short. A loose confederation of insurgent warlords who pledge their swords to 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 bring light to our world, or simply mire it in a different kind of darkness.”
“It’s not as extreme, but kind of similar back on Earth.” Oddly enough, I feel right at home talking about dysfunctional politics.
Up ahead, the horizon gives way to a walled-off township. The road we’re on leads up to 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 can’t help but laugh. “You guys watch Star Wars?”
He 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.” I let it go with a shrug.
“Hrrm.” He’s silent for a while, then offers, “Perhaps we are connected in a subtle fashion, beyond what is immediately apparent. It’s not my area of expertise—I was never any good at arcane philosophy.”
“So. Hafferly Crossing. Anything I should know?”
“Stay near, but don’t be obvious, or someone might try and use you against me. Eyes open, knife close.”
“Sure,” I manage, trying to keep my voice even. “Eyes open, knife close.”
What the hell have I gotten myself into?