Ren halts before the massive gate. He looks like a high-noon gunslinger laying down the law.
“Announce yourself!” a tower guard calls.
“Ren of the Barrens!” he calls back.
“You!” The guard singles me out with a gloved finger. “Name and purpose!”
“His name is Jon,” Ren says. “He is under my protection.”
The guard turns and confers with someone out of sight—his superior, I imagine—then 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 guardsman lets loose with a giant belly-laugh. Ren smiles beneath his shadowed hood.
Eckle, still chuckling, cycles a hand by his head, signaling the other guards to open the gate. “Let them in, let them in.”
I hear a giant chain clicking and clacking. The doors creak and groan, then open wide. They’re fitted with a system of levers and pulleys, reinforced with a set of enormous wooden bands that are dotted with evenly spaced-out depressions
I’m puzzled at first, but then I see a pile of logs beneath the tower. If the gate came under siege, the guardsmen could prop the logs against the gate and keep the doors from buckling inward. The depressions in the bands are made for the logs, to keep them from sliding or slipping out of place.
Ren walks forward and abruptly stops. I keep walking, but he grabs me by the shoulder and halts me in place.
A man and a woman—up until now they’d been leaning back in a wooden set of 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.”
He grunts in acknowledgment. “All for the best, I suppose. I’m not in the mood to clean up innards.”
But before I can speak, he freezes his hands in an elegant gesture and makes a circular movement with his right. His eyes glow with yellow light, then he faces his partner and blows directly into his upturned palm. A kernel of shimmering haze drifts from his fingers into her hand, which she holds up close to her face. She repeats what he did, only in reverse.
A giant 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. We limit passage during night and morn—these woods are filled with feral Wildlyre.”
Ren starts walking. As I follow behind, the man (wizard, I now realize) shakes his head and grimaces in disgust.
“What’s the matter with you? Walking around without any wards or basic protection…” He seems like he’s about to berate 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 around us are loud and rough, heckling and bartering for wares and services. There’s a faint smell of mildew and rot. Almost everyone looks worn and tattered, like they’ve spent years on the road with little rest.
“Ren, after we entered…”
“Yes?” He shoulders past some boisterous men and what I think is an Ogre.
“That was magic, wasn’t it? When the man and the woman deactivated the uh…the second gate.” I want to say force field, but I’m not really sure if Ren would understand.
“Magic. Yes. What of it?” There’s a bit of irritation in his reply; apparently, I’ve asked a stupid question.
Wow. I mouth the word. “I’ve never seen it before. Just making sure.”
“Right,” he says gruffly. “You’re not from around here. ’Tisn’t a concern.”
Judging by the context, he’s being nice with me. With anyone else, I probably would have earned the Evermoor version of a Captain Obvious joke.
“Was that Velic magic, or—”
He emerges from the initial crush of people and slows his pace. There’s still a bunch of people wandering around, checking out the goods, but they’re no longer standing shoulder to shoulder. He turns around and looks me in the eye.
“Your knife—is it on you?”
I do a quick check. “Yeah. Why wouldn’t it be?”
“Watch out for pickpockets. Forgot to mention them.”
“Oh.” I think for a bit, trying to figure out how to guide the conversation back to magic, but thankfully, 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 just a refined version of regular hedge magic. A bit more advanced than charms and readings, but it’s nothing special.”
I refrain from geeking out and nod casually. “Got it. One of them said I needed a ward, or I’ll die if I try and cross the force fie—the barrier, I mean. Do you uh…do you have a spare ward I could borrow?”
“Mine are immaterial.” He waves his hand in a vague circle. “As you can see.”
“What do you mean, ‘as you can see?’ Are you trying to be funny?”
“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?””
“No.” He’s definitely grumpy now. “These aren’t subtle. They’re right in front of—” His eyes widen. “Your sight—it isn’t quickened.”
I’m confused. “As far as I know, my sight is just as fast as—”
He halts me with an open hand. “You haven’t been opened to the orphic sphere.”
“Another name for the arcane realm.” He gives me a doubtful look. “How did you manage to survive on your own? Were you assigned a protector? I can’t imagine living without any awareness of magical energy—I’d rather be deaf and blind.”
“It’s not so 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 we deify them. But more often than not, we make their life miserable and burn them at the stake.”
“Part of me envies you. 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 arrive at safer haven, I will act as your 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…uh…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 near, because I have no desire to—”
“I mean after that,” I say. “Once you’re finished, what do you plan on doing with me?”
He blows through his lips—a sort of irritable sigh, if I had to describe it. “I’ll guide 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?” He raises an eyebrow.
“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. “There’s gotta be a reason for this! Dude, I walked through a door in a goddamn tree! And now I’m in a game of DUNGEONS AND FREAKING DRAGONS!”
Everyone stops and stares.
“Come here,” Ren hisses, grabbing me by the neck and herding 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 the knife near my hip. His other hand shoots down to my wrist, holding it in place before I can draw. “What are you doing?” he asks disbelievingly.
“Let…me…go.” My lips bare back 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. “But if you test it against the wrong soul, your boots will face the sky.”
“I wear sneakers,” I counter. (Pretty lame, 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 here and now. We met for a reason, Ren.”
Something inside me is certain and sure. My humdrum life, signing the contract, walking into another dimension…none of it was random, and neither is Ren.
He’s quiet for a second, then says, “Let me 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.”
And just like that, I’m back to being a nervous kid. “Uh, sure. Could I get one of those ward thingies? So my guts don’t turn inside out?”
He closes his eyes and lets out a sigh. “Yes. We’ll get you a ward.”
“Think nothing of it,” he grunts, and walks back out onto the street.
For the next few hours, I try not to gawk. Ren barters with humans and Wildlyre alike, altering his dialogue to match the vendors. Sometimes he’s normal—a mix of casual and formal—and other times he sounds completely different. With one merchant, he throws around gutter-slang patois that completely changes his carriage and bearing. It’s like he’s suddenly become a sleazebag who converses with winks and rhythmic nonsense.
As if that wasn’t enough, his man-purse doubles as a magical storehouse. I see him stuff it with several armloads of salted meat and wrapped biscuits, but it doesn’t change—it always appears the exact same size. I never would have guessed that a fantasy-world wanderer would need this much stuff.
As he finishes up with his sixth or seventh trade, he says, “Let’s get you a ward.”
We walk down the street and stop at a dirty stand, inhabited by a six-foot lizard-man in an armless leather vest.
“What are you looking for?” Hanging from the stand are dozens of amulets. Some are engraved with faces or symbols. Back on Earth, I would have dismissed them as 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 that has 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.”
Ren cocks his head. “That’s a first. Fair Folk goods are desired by all.”
“Not anymore. If Iaetrix Knights see anything Fair, they’ll take it away and throw you in lockup.”
Lizard Guy shakes his head, as if to say Unbelievable. “Lyderea’s Nightkeepers caught wind of a pact between Alaewyn Fair Folk and Alliance operatives. Word in the taverns is that it was just an agreement to trade wares, but that didn’t fall well on Lyderea’s ears. That much is rumor, but this much is fact: Lyderea has issued a kingdom-wide edict banning any trade involving 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 none of my business. None of yours, either.”
For a second, Ren looks like he’s about to retort, but then he relaxes and nods in agreement. “Speak your cost.”
Both go on autopilot, trading offers and counteroffers in a quick monotone. Before I know it, they arrive 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 hands 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 going, toward a tavern called Gantry’s Fire.
“What kind of…what kind of…”
“His designate? He’s Sauric. Of the Saura.”
“Oh. Okay.” I snap my fingers. “You know, it just occurred to me—I’ve been speaking English to you this whole time. Where did you learn how to—”
Ren scoffs. Not in disgust, but more of a WTF scoff. “What’s ‘English?’ I speak Scopic and so do you. I also speak a dozen other languages, with varying degrees of fluency. Ilianesti, Lyrdic, Enkonese—”
“Okay, okay.” I raise both hands. “I get it. Quit showing off.”
“You are a strange one,” he states. “Nearly every being on Evermoor speaks five or more languages. The only time that wasn’t the case was during the Decline, where most only knew a single tongue.”
“That’s right before the Fracture, right? When the Tessellate was starting to get out of control?” 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 occurred and the Bright Age ended. 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 can’t help but grin. Sure, I may be stuck in another dimension, but it’s way better than what I was facing. A few months ago, I was slowly being assimilated into a gigantic mechanism, driven by money and laws and societal standards. There were a couple of times when I low-key thought about ending my life. Why keep living if you have nothing to live for?
That damned contract changed everything. SOMETHING DIFFERENT.
Now, as I enter a tavern filled with rogues and wanderers and God knows what, I feel a rush of adventure surging 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.