Ren halts before the massive gate, like a high-noon gunslinger laying down the law.
“Announce yourself!” the tower guard calls.
“Ren of the Barrens!” he calls back.
“You!” The guard points at me with a gloved forefinger. “Name and purpose!”
“His name is Jon,” Ren says. “He is under my protection.”
The guard confers with someone out of sight (his superior, I’m guessing) and turns back to us. “Ren of the Barrens! I would ask you a question!”
“Then ask it in haste! I would fill my belly and rest my feet!”
“Your last dalliance—how in the gods did she stand your odor?”
“Speak not of your mother, Eckle, lest she flog us both for your careless tongue!”
The guard lets loose with a hearty laugh. Ren smiles beneath his hood.
Eckle cycles a hand up by his head, giving the signal to open the gate. “Let them in, let them in.”
A giant chain clicks and clacks. As the doors swing open, I see they’re fitted with a network of levers and pulleys. Enormous wooden bands—dotted with a series of uniform craters—run lengthwise across the inside of each door.
I’m puzzled at first, but then I see a pile of logs beneath the tower. If the gate came under siege, the guards could prop the logs against the bands and keep the doors from buckling inward. The depressions in the bands are made for the ends of the logs, to keep them from sliding or slipping out of place.
Ren walks forward and abruptly stops. I try to keep going, but he grabs my shoulder and halts me in place.
A man and a woman—up until now they’d been leaning back in wooden chairs—rise to their feet and give me a mildly irritated (but mostly bored) look.
“Should have let him through. Would’ve liked to see him jump and twitch.”
“He has no wards,” Ren says. “Your spell would have torn his guts from his mouth.”
The man grunts in acknowledgment. “All for the best, I suppose. Not in the mood to clean up his innards.”
He makes an elegant gesture with his left hand, then a circular movement with his right. His eyes kindle with yellow light, then he faces his partner and blows directly into his upturned palm. Shimmering haze drifts from his fingers. She lets it alight onto her hand, then holds it up to her tattooed face. She repeats what he did, only in reverse.
A wall of blue-green light blinks into existence between us and them, then slowly disappears.
“There,” the man says. “You’re free to enter. Unchecked passage is from ten to four, but we limit access during night and morn. These woods are filled with feral Wildlyre—they can get a little rowdy after dusk.”
Ren enters the township. As I follow behind, the man (wizard, I now realize) shakes his head in disgust and bafflement.
“What’s the matter with you? Walking around without any wards…”
He seems like he’s about to scold me, but then he turns away and sits back down.
We walk along a main avenue, bordered by a jumble of shops and buildings. The people and creatures are rough and loud, heckling and bartering for wares and services. Almost everyone in Hafferly is worn and tattered—like they’ve spent years on the road with little rest.
Time to address my endangered innards. “Ren, after we entered…”
“Yes?” He shoulders past a man and what I think is an Ogre.
“That was magic, wasn’t it? When the man and the woman deactivated the uh…second gate.” I want to say force field, but I’m pretty sure that’s not what it’s called.
“Magic. Yes. What of it?” He’s irritated; apparently, I just asked a stupid question.
Wow. Magic. I mouth the word silently. “I’ve never seen it before. Wanted to make sure.”
“Right,” he says gruffly. “You’re not from Evermoor. ’Tisn’t a concern.”
I think he’s being nice. With anyone else, I probably would have earned the Evermoor version of a Captain Obvious joke.
“Was it Velic magic, or—”
We emerge from the initial crush of bodies and slow our pace. There’s still a bunch of people wandering around, checking out the goods, but they’re no longer standing shoulder to shoulder. Ren turns and looks me in the eye.
“Your knife—is it on your person?”
I do a quick check. “Yeah. Why wouldn’t it be?”
“Watch out for pickpockets.”
“Oh.” I think for a bit, trying to figure out how to guide the conversation back to magic, but he does it for me.
“Aside from Lyderea and her personal sorcerers, no one uses Velic spells. For the most part, the only magic you’ll see is lower hedge magic. Or in the case of those gate-side mages, some intermediary arcanix, which is a stronger version of regular hedge magic. A bit more advanced than charms and readings, but it’s nothing special.”
Nothing special. Riiiiight. I refrain from geeking out and force a casual nod. “Got it. One of them said I needed a ward or I’ll die if I cross the force fie—the barrier, I mean. Do you uh…do you have any wards I could borrow?”
“No. Mine are immaterial.” He waves his hand in a vague circle. “As you can see.”
“What do you mean, ‘as you can see?’ ”
“What do you mean ‘what do you mean?’ ” he snaps. “They’re right here.” He makes the same gesture, only faster and angrier.
Suddenly it clicks. “You said subtler energies a little while back. Were you talking about the wards? Are they invisible?”
“No.” (Grumpy McGrumperson is definitely grumpy). “These aren’t subtle. They’re right in front of—” His eyes widen. “Your sight—it isn’t quickened.”
I’m definitely confused. “As far as I know, my sight is just as fast as—”
He cuts me off with an open hand. “You haven’t been opened to the orphic sphere.”
“A formal name for the arcane realm.” He gives me a doubtful look. “How did you manage to survive on your own? No awareness of magic or energy…I’d rather be deaf and blind.”
“It’s not that bad.” I shrug. “As far as I know, no one on my world has ‘quickened sight.’ Well, maybe a few, but people dismiss them as crazy or fake. Sometimes they’re deified…but more often than not, we burn them alive or nail them to a stick.”
“Without quickened senses, you would never fall prey to the Crimson Reft. But at the same time…” he shakes his head. “Never mind. Until we reach safer harbor, I will have to act as your personal guardian.”
“I’m not a baby,” I argue. “I mean—”
“Do you know how to use that?” He points at the knife hanging off my jeans.
“I…touché.” I rub the back of my neck. “Okay, I’ll follow your lead. What’s the plan?”
“I told you before: I need to trade for goods and supplies. Stay close, because I have no desire to—”
“I mean after that. What are you gonna do with me?”
He blows through his lips—an irritable sigh, if I had to describe it. “I’ll take you to Naversé, where we can safely part ways. It’s a small city with calmer folk.”
“Wait—you’re gonna leave me in another city?” Panic rises in my chest.
“Is that a problem?”
“I just—” I grasp my hair with both hands. “I’m not supposed to be here, okay?”
“I know. That’s why we’re going to Naversé.” He looks mildly puzzled.
“No, that’s not what I—” I clutch the air and groan in frustration. “Look, I am way out of my league! I live in San Francisco! I take English 101 and watch Netflix! You can’t just leave me in…in…
“Whatever!” I throw my hands up and scream, “Dude, I walked through a door in a goddamn tree! And now I’m living in DUNGEONS AND DRAGONS!”
Everyone stops. And stares.
“Come here,” Ren hisses. He grabs me by the neck and herds me into a nook between some merchants’ tents. “This is not the place to act unwise.” He squeezes hard and I yelp in pain—he is strong.
But that doesn’t mean he’s right. I reach for my knife.
His other hand shoots to my hip, trapping my wrist before I can draw. “What are you doing?” he asks disbelievingly.
“Let…me…go.” I bare my teeth in a pained grimace. “Or I swear I’ll cut you.”
His eyes search mine, then he pushes me away with a rough shove. “You have spirit,” he says grudgingly. “Careful how you test it, or your lifeless boots will face the sky.”
“Is that your way of saying I’ll die?”
(Fantasy-speak. Cool.) “I wear sneakers,” I counter. (Pretty lame, I know, but it’s all I can think of.) “If you’re gonna leave me in a random city, then you might as well kill me. We met for a reason, Ren.” He can’t convince me otherwise. My humdrum life, signing the contract, walking into another dimension…none of it was random, and neither is Ren.
He’s quiet for a bit. Then: “I’ll think about it. Fair?”
I answer with a nod. “Yeah. Fair.”
“Come.” He brushes past me. “Time runs thin. I need food and water for the journey ahead.”
Suddenly, I’m back to being a nervous kid. “Uh, sure. Could I get one of those ward thingies? To keep my guts from flying out?”
He closes his eyes and lets out a sigh. “Yes. We’ll get you a ward.”
Whew. Not gonna lie—I like my guts where they belong, firmly seated inside my body.
For the next few hours, Ren barters with humans and Wildlyre, changing his dialogue to match the vendor’s. Sometimes he sounds perfectly normal—a mix of casual and formal—but at other times he sounds like a different person altogether. In one instance, he throws around gutter-slang patois that completely changes his carriage and bearing. It’s like he’s suddenly become a rhythmic sleazebag, who converses mostly with winks and nudges.
Over the course of his bartering, I discover that his cowboy man-purse is a magical storehouse. He stuffs its main compartment with several armloads of salted meat and wrapped biscuits, but it doesn’t change size—it always appears exactly the same. I never would have guessed that a fantasy-world wanderer would need that much stuff.
After his sixth or seventh trade, he says, “Let’s get you a ward.”
We walk over to a dirty stand, inhabited by a six-foot lizard-man in an armless vest. Hanging from the ceiling are dozens of amulets. Back on Earth, I would have dismissed them as chintzy trinkets, but here, they could mean the difference between life and death.
“Basic protection,” Ren says. “Nothing lavish.”
Lizard Guy picks out a dull bronze amulet with a pair of boots embossed on its surface. He holds it out by its hide neck-strap. “Traveler’s ward. Made in Tarcony.”
Ren takes it and holds it up, appraising both sides with a cursory glance. “Who is the craftsman?”
“A witch named Parsily. Best one around for a hundred faires.”
“Never heard of her.” Ren grunts. “But it’ll do. What do you take?”
“No coinage from Karos or Chime Shadow. Also—nothing from Fair Folk.”
“That’s a first. Fair Folk goods are desired by all.”
“Not anymore. If Lyderea’s Knights find anything Fair, they’ll take it away and throw you in lockup.”
Lizard Guy shakes his head, as if to say, Unbelievable. “A pact was struck between Alaewyn Fair Folk and Alliance officilas. Word in the taverns is that it was just an agreement to trade wares, but Lyderea didn’t care for it. That much is rumor, but this much is fact: the Queen has issued a protectorate-wide edict banning Fair Folk merchandise.”
Ren’s voice tightens with anger. “Alaewyn lands are a thousand faire distant. We have nothing to do with them.”
Lizard Guy gives him a weary look. “It’s not my business. None of yours, either.”
For a second, Ren looks like he’s about to retort, then he nods in agreement. “Speak your cost.”
They go on autopilot, trading offers and counteroffers in a quick monotone. Before I know it, they’ve arrived at a price.
“May light find you in dark places.” Ren hands over a trio of coins.
“Aye, wanderer. The same to you.”
And then we’re off. Ren gives me the ward. I slip it around my neck.
“What uh…” I’m not sure how to ask about Lizard Guy’s race or species. “He’s Wildlyre, right?”
“Yes.” Ren keeps walking, toward a tavern called Gantry’s Fire.
“What kind of…of…” (How do you say race in a world with lizard-people?) Is it species, or—
“His designate? He’s Sauric. Of the Saura.”
“Oh. Okay.” I snap my fingers. “You know, I just realized—you’ve been speaking English this whole time. Where did you learn how to—”
Ren scoffs. Not in disgust, but more of a WTF scoff. “What is ‘English?’ I speak Scopic and so do you. I also speak Ilianesti, Lyrdic, Enkonese—”
“Okay, I get it. Quit showing off.”
“Nearly everyone I know speaks five or more languages. The only time that wasn’t the case was during the Decline, where most only spoke a single tongue.”
“That’s right before the Fracture, right?” I’m not sure, but I’m reasonably confident in hazarding a guess.
“Correct. The Decline refers to the last hundred years before the Fracture. Now mind your tongue and shorten your aura. We’ll talk more after food and drink.”
As we walk through the door of Gantry’s Fire, I find myself grinning. Sure, I may be stuck in another dimension, but it’s a hell of a lot better than what awaited me on Earth. I was slowly being assimilated into a gigantic machine, driven by money and laws and societal standards.
That damned contract changed everything. SOMETHING DIFFERENT.
Now, as I enter a tavern filled with rogues and wanderers and God knows what, a surge of adventure rushes through me—like a springtime breeze laden with promise.
You were right, Atriya. You were right about all of it.
There are other worlds than these.
I wouldn’t have it any other way.