Ren halts before the massive gate, feet spread like a high-noon gunslinger.
“Announce yourself!” the tower guard calls.
“Ren of the Barrens!”
“You!” The guard points at me. “Name and purpose!”
“His name is Jon,” Ren says. “He is under my protection.”
The guard confers with someone out of sight, then turns back to us. “Ren of the Barrens, I would ask you a question!”
“Ask it in haste, guardsman! 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 busts into laughter and cycles a hand, signaling the others to open the gate. “Let them in, let them in.”
Giant chains clink and clank. As the doors swing wide, I notice they’re fitted with a ponderous network of levers and pulleys. Big wooden bands—each dotted with uniform craters—run lengthwise across the doors’ interiors.
I’m puzzled at first, but then I see a pile of logs beneath the tower. Ah, I see—if the gate came under siege, they could prop the logs against the bands and keep the doors from buckling inward. The depressions in the bands act as cradles for the logs (to keep them from sliding or slipping out of place) while stone braces dot the deck, ready to buttress the logs from the ground.
Ren walks forward and abruptly halts. I try to keep going, but he grabs my shoulder and pulls me back.
A man and a woman—up until now they’ve 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. “His guts would have spilled from his mouth and nose.”
The man grunts in acknowledgment. “All for the best. Not in the mood to clean up innards.”
He faces his partner and blows into his palm, releasing a mote of shimmering haze. She lets it alight onto her hand, holds it up to her tattooed face, then repeats what he did, only in reverse. A wall of blue-green light blinks into existence between us and the gatekeepers, then slowly disappears.
“You’re free to enter,” the man says. “We limit access from dusk ’til dawn. These woods are filled with feral Wildlyre—they can get a little rowdy come nightfall.”
Ren nods and strides forward. As I follow behind, the gatekeeper (wizard, I now realize) shakes his head in disgust and bafflement.
“What’s the matter with you? Trying to come through without any wards…”
He raises a finger like he’s about to scold me, then sits back down and crosses his arms.
We proceed onto a main avenue, bordered by a jumble of shops and kiosks. The people and creatures are rough and loud, heckling and bartering for wares and services.
Time to address my endangered innards. “Ren, after we entered…”
“Yes?” He shoulders past a man and what I think is an Orc.
“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. “It’s…I’ve never seen it before. I was just making sure.”
“Right,” he mutters. “I keep forgetting—you’re not from around here.”
(I think he’s being nice. If I were anyone else, I probably would have earned the Evermoor version of a Captain Obvious joke.)
“Was it Velic magic, or—”
We emerge from the crush of gate-side bodies—there’s a scatter of people wandering around, but they’re no longer standing shoulder to shoulder.
Ren locks eyes with me. “Your knife—you have it on you, aye?”
I do a quick check. Still there. “Yeah. Why wouldn’t I?”
“I forgot to tell you—watch out for pickpockets.”
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 the same thing, only stronger. A bit more advanced than charms and readings, but nothing special.”
(Nothing special. Riiiiight.) I force a casual nod. “Got it. One of them said I needed a ward, or I would die horribly when I crossed the force fie—the barrier, I mean. Do you uh…do you have a ward I can 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.
“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 there for all to—” His eyes widen in shock. “Your sight—it isn’t quickened.”
Now I’m 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 assumes a doubtful expression. “How did you manage to survive on your own? No awareness of theurgic flow…I’d rather be deaf and blind.”
“It’s not that bad.” I shrug. “No one on Earth 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 sticks.”
“If your senses weren’t quickened, 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 see I will have to act as your guardian.”
“I’m not a baby,” I argue. “You don’t have to—”
“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: 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 shall leave you in Naversé. It’s a small city with calmer folk.”
“Wait—you’re gonna drop me off in another city?” Sudden 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. Which is why we are going to Naversé Township.” He cocks his head, mildly puzzled.
“No, that’s not what I—” I clutch the air and groan in frustration. “Look dude, I am in way over my head! I binge-watch Netflix and play Fallout 4! You can’t just leave me in…in…
“Whatever!” I throw my hands up. “You can’t just abandon me! For Christ’s sakes, I walked through a door in a goddamn tree! And now I’m living in DUNGEONS AND DRAGONS!”
Everyone stops. And stares.
“Come hither,” Ren hisses. He grabs my neck and herds me between a couple of trading tents. “This is not the place to act unwise.” He squeezes hard, causing a yelp of pain to fly out from my mouth. Man, he is strong.
But that doesn’t mean he’s right. I reach for my knife, intending to show him I’m deadly serious.
His other hand drops, trapping my wrist before I can draw. “What are you doing?” he asks incredulously.
“Let…go.” I bare my teeth in a pained grimace. “Or I swear I’ll cut you.”
His eyes search mine. Then he lets me go with a rough shove. “You have spirit,” he says grudgingly. “Test it with care, or your lifeless boots will face the sky.”
“Is that your way of saying that someone will kill me?”
(Fantasy-speak. Cool.) “I wear sneakers,” I counter, “not boots.” (Lame, I know, but it’s all I can think of.) “If you’re gonna leave me in a random city, you might as well kill me here and now. We met for a reason, Ren.”
He falls silent. Then, “I’ll think about it. Fair?”
I answer with a nod. “Fair.”
“Come.” He brushes past me. “Supplies and a meal, and then we’re gone.”
I’m back to being a nervous kid. “Uh, not trying to nag, but 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.”
Not gonna lie—I like my guts inside my stomach.
For the next few hours, Ren barters with humans and Wildlyre, changing his dialogue to match the vendors’. At times he sounds perfectly normal—a slapdash mix of casual and formal—but just as often he sounds like a different person altogether. During one exchange, he throws around gutter-slang patois that completely changes his carriage and bearing. It’s like he’s suddenly become a rhythmic sleazebag, conversing mostly in winks and nudges.
Over the course of his barter, I realize that his cowboy man-purse is a magical storehouse. He stuffs its main compartment with several armloads of meat and 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 so much stuff.
After his seventh trade, he says, “Let’s get you a ward.”
We head to a dirty stand, tended by a six-foot lizard-man in an armless vest. Hanging from the ceiling are dozens of amulets.
“Basic protection,” Ren says. “Nothing lavish.”
Lizard Guy picks out a bronze disc 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 lets the strap drape onto his fingers, appraising both sides as he holds it up. “The artisan?”
“A witch named Parsily. Best one around for a hundred faires.”
“Never heard of her.” Ren grunts. “It’ll do. What do you take?”
“No coin from Karos or Chime Shadow. Also—nothing from Fair Folk.”
“That’s a first. Fair Folk goods are desired by all.”
“That’s no longer the case. If Lyderea’s Knights find anything Fair, they’ll take it for themselves and throw you in gaol.”
Ren focuses on the merchant. “What? Why?”
Lizard Guy shakes his head, as if to say, Unbelievable. “A pact was struck between Alaewyn Fair Folk and the Birthright Alliance. The word in the taverns is that it was simply an agreement to trade wares, but Lyderea was angry nonetheless. That much is rumor, but this much is fact: the Queen has banned Fair Folk merchandise. No exceptions.”
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 tired look. “It’s none of my business. None of yours, either.”
Ren looks like he’s about to retort, then takes a breath and nods in agreement. “Speak your cost.”
They go on autopilot, trading offers and counteroffers in a quick, efficient monotone. A minute later they arrive at a price.
“May light find you in dark places.” Ren hands over a trio of coins.
“Aye, wanderer. May it ease your eyes and guide your feet.”
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. “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, hit by a sudden epiphany. “You know…I just realized: you speak English. 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, okay—I get it. Quit showing off.”
“Nearly everyone here speaks five or more languages. The only time that wasn’t the case was during the Decline, where most only spoke a single tongue.”
“The Decline…that’s right before the Fracture, right?”
“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. Yeah, I might be stuck in another dimension, but it’s a hell of a lot better than what I was facing on Earth—slow assimilation into an uncaring 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 purpose 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.