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 (his superior, I imagine) 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 hearty laughter and cycles a hand up by his ear, signaling the others to open the gate. “Let them in, let them in.”
Giant chains click and clack. As the doors swing wide, I see they’re fitted with a ponderous network of levers and pulleys. Enormous wooden bands—each dotted with a series of uniform craters—run lengthwise across the inside of the doors.
I’m puzzled by them at first, but then I see a pile of logs beneath the tower. Ah, I see—if someone attacked the gate, the guards could prop 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.
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 his nose.”
The man grunts in acknowledgment. “All for the best, I suppose. Not in the mood to clean up innards.”
He makes an elegant gesture with his left hand, then a circular movement with his right. His eyes shine yellow as he faces his partner and blows into his upturned palm, releasing a fist-sized mote of shimmering haze. She lets it alight onto her palm, 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. “Unchecked passage is from ten to four. We limit access between dusk and dawn. These woods are filled with feral Wildlyre—they get a little rowdy come nightfall.”
Ren nods and walks 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, but then he turns away and sits back down.
We proceed forth onto 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.
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. “I’ve never seen it before. Not in person, anyway. I was just making sure.”
“Right,” he says gruffly. “I keep forgetting—you’re not from around here.”
(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 gate-side bodies. There’s a scatter of people wandering around, but they’re no longer standing shoulder to shoulder.
Ren looks me in the eye, suddenly alert. “Your knife—you have it on you, aye?”
I do a quick check. “Yeah. Why wouldn’t I?”
He relaxes and nods. “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 spellcraft. For the most part, the only magic you’ll encounter is lower hedge magic. Or in the case of those gate-side mages, some intermediary arcanix, which is the same thing as hedge magic, 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 any wards 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 anyone 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.” His face settles into 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 we deify them, but more often than not, we burn them alive or nail them to sticks.”
“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. “You don’t have to—”
“Do you know how to use that?” He points at the knife hanging off the side of 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 meant 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 behind 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. That is why we are going to Naversé.” He cocks his head, mildly puzzled.
“No, that’s not what I—” I clutch the air and groan in frustration. “Look dude, I am way out of my league here! I live in San Francisco! I take English 101, binge-watch Netflix, and play World of Warcraft on a daily basis! You can’t just leave me in…in…
“Whatever!” I throw my hands up. “You can’t just abandon me in a strange city! 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 into a nook between trading tents. “This is not the place to act unwise.” He squeezes hard and I yelp in pain. Man, 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 incredulously.
“Let…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. “Be careful how you test it, 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, then you might as well kill me here and now. We met for a reason, Ren.”
He’s quiet for a bit. Then he says, “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.”
Whew. 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. During one trade, 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 discover that his cowboy man-purse is a magical storehouse with unlimited (or so it seems) carrying capacity. 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 this much stuff.
After he finishes his seventh trade, he says, “Let’s get you a ward.”
We head over to a dirty stand, inhabited 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 drapes the strap 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. “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 for themselves and throw you in gaol.”
Lizard Guy shakes his head, as if to say, Unbelievable. “A pact was struck between Alaewyn Fair Folk and Alliance operatives. 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.”
For a second, Ren looks like he’s about to retort, then he takes a deep 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 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 as I’m 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.