A snarling were-shepherd pokes his head above Gribbles’ shoulder. “He is Warrior Rex to the Wolven clans. Refer to him as ‘Your Majesty’ or I swear I’ll—”
“No, it’s fine.” Gribbles waves him away. “Cry off, Kor. I wish to palaver with these Human wanderers.”
Kor walks away, muttering something-something-something about nasty little Humans.
Gribbles studies me with wondering eyes. “You made it. I can’t believe that…come here.” He envelops me in a hug, which I instinctively return. (Whoa—there’s a giant battle-axe slung across his back.)
“I thought I lost you,” I say tightly. “What are you? Besides my dog, I mean.”
He breaks the hug and gives me a massive grin. “Gyrax Aclasian, Fenric heir to the Wolven Clans. And just so you know: the others will take offense if you refer to me as ‘yours.’ ”
“Sorry. It’s just that—”
“Don’t worry. A part of me—a big part—still remains your loyal dog.”
“Good to know. So are you a king or doggo? I’m a little confused.”
“Both. I was assigned to guard you by a Sentry of Evermoor: Alijyar SyCajister, otherwise known as the Vagabond King. He was the one who sent me to Earth, where I assumed the form you are most familiar with.”
Ren gives a slight bow. “Apologies, your Majesty. I did not realize who you were.”
Gyrax scoffs. “Fie on your titles.” He leans in and studies Ren. “Perhaps I should apologize. I did not know you were—”
Ren stiffens. “Ren of the Barrens and naught else. I do not wish to attract attention.”
I cast a quick glance around. The thief and the Duelist are several yards away, talking quietly. Everyone else is doing the same—I doubt they heard Gyrax or Ren.
My dog-turned-warrior nods in response. “As you wish.” He turns back to me. “Where is your cloak? You stick out like a sore thumb.”
“What?” I suddenly realize that everyone is wearing a hooded cloak. “Oh, um…I just got here. I’m not really sure of where to get a—”
“The fault is mine,” Ren says apologetically. “I thought he was but a stranded child. I was going to take him to Naver—” His eyes widen. “Hold…you were assigned to guard him by Alijyar SyCajister…” His lips part in muted astonishment. “So that means…”
“He is the Prophesied Traveler,” Gyrax affirms. “The one who will reach the Unbound Realm.”
Ren’s reply is immediate and firm: “Impossible. He is completely incapable of swordplay or magic.” He shakes his head resolutely. “No. It can’t be him.”
“Take it up with Circle SyCajister.”
“With all due respect, your Maj—Gyrax, I mean. They’re Primal Mages, not oracles. Jon is not the Traveler. I am sure of it.”
I’m inclined to agree. I’m enjoying my role as fantasy-world tourist. Heroic savior sounds a little grandiose. The only reason I argued that I might be the Traveler was because Ren wanted to leave me in Naversé, and I thought the possibility of being someone important might help to change his mind.
I chime in with, “Ren’s right. I’m not the guy you’re—”
Gyrax lifts a hand, cutting me off. “It isn’t of consequence. Not yet anyway. Take things moment by moment, step by step. Everything else will fall into place.”
“Uh, okay.” I nod cautiously. “Moment by moment, step by step. I can handle that…I think.”
Ren sighs in apparent defeat. “You’re not the Traveler, but mayhap…mayhap it’s better if we journey together. At least until I grasp why you are here.”
Whew. “Thanks. I appreciate it.”
He dips his head at Gyrax. “Would you care to share travels? Our crossing seems fated.”
“I would be honored to join you, Rennare—” He stops himself short, then says, “Ren of the Barrens, I mean.” He beckons to the Wolven, hunkered beneath a distant tree. They rise to their feet and stride over, forming a loose semicircle around their king.
“Warriors.” He scans their faces with a steady eye. “Go on without me. Relay my missive to Ardos Rygar.”
“My liege,” a husky protests, “we were chosen to protect you during your trek.”
“Aye, as I was chosen to protect life and light. The fates call, and we must heed their summons.”
They don’t seem enthused, but no one protests. As they turn to leave, Gyrax taps the husky who threatened me on his shoulder. “A moment, Ripfang.” Gyrax bows his neck and slips off a necklace: a hide-bound medallion depicting a snarling wolf’s head. “Take it,” he holds it out to his canine lieutenant.
Ripfang accepts it with a slight bow. “I will guard it with my life.”
“You will not.” Gyrax growls. “Cross into the Clear for a worthy cause, not for the sake of a meaningless trinket.”
Ripfang grumbles discontentedly, acquiescing with a sullen, “Aye.”
Gyrax doesn’t like it. He steps closer, looming over his recalcitrant subordinate. As his shadow falls across Ripfang’s face, it becomes strikingly clear that my dog-turned-king is a hell of a lot bigger.
“Swear it,” Gyrax rumbles. “I would hear it from your lips, packmate.”
Ripfang gulps. “I swear it, Rex. I will place my life above your cachet.”
“And the lives of my warriors, as well.”
“This I swear,” Ripfang says.
“Good.” Gyrax studies him. “I appreciate fealty, but it must be pointed in the right direction, lest it rot and curdle into dogma.”
“Cry off, will you?” Ripfang mutters. “Don’t let your title go to your head.”
Gyrax laughs, loud and hearty. “Well said.” He jerks his chin at the other Wolven. “Go. They need your guidance.”
Ripfang salutes by thumping his fist on his heart, then turns away and heads for the pack. He speaks briefly to them, and they leave the clearing.
The pickpocket, who edged closer during the exchange, asks, “Do my ears deceive me? Are you truly royalty?”
Gyrax responds with a faint smile. “All I can offer is debt and promises. Practice your larceny on richer folk.”
The thief chuckles. “I have more than enough money for food and shelter. Nevertheless—it is good to have a royal owe me a favor.” He turns to his Duelist friend—a dozen yards away, fencing with an imaginary enemy—and calls, “Isn’t that right, Elier?”
The thief shrugs. “I speak for the Duelist. As steel is sure and water is wet.”
Gyrax nudges Ren. “Two seek to join our party.”
Ren falls silent for a long moment. Then: “Let them join, if they so wish. But just so you know, the thief is incompetent. He poses little threat to your coin or carry.”
The thief steps forward, wagging a finger. “Careful how you speak, wanderer! I stand unmatched in my criminal skills!”
Ren’s eyes glint with amusement. “Perhaps you should tell our fellow travelers.” He nods at the traders, most of whom are leaving the clearing.
The thief pats the air with both hands, suddenly nervous. “No need, no need. You’re a sharp one, aye?” He glances back over his shoulder, making sure the traders haven’t heard. “I’m glad we’re friends, sure as my name is Lucky Hap.”
Ren grunts. “Right.” He looks at the Duelist, who has finished practicing and is sauntering over. “Elier, is it?”
“Aye. Elier Finn, at your service.”
“I somewhat doubt that,” Ren says dryly.
Elier laughs. “You say true, wanderer. I have sworn allegiance to both my sabers, while my companion Lucknar believes first and foremost in a bulging purse. Often at the expense of a trader’s wealth, I might add.”
Lucky grins and pats his carry. Suddenly, Ren’s threat to tell the traders about Lucky’s profession makes a lot more sense. Everyone who arrived with us…he’s robbed them blind.
“You stole from all of them?” I ask incredulously.
“Nearly.” He looks quickly at Gyrax. “But I am not without scruples—there are certain lines I do not cross.”
“Out of prudence, not fidelity,” Gyrax counters. “Nevertheless, I value your restraint.”
“No need to strike out just yet.” Ren shades his eyes and studies the sky. “We have an entire clearing to ourselves. Let us enjoy a good night’s rest.”
A half hour later we’re sitting around a fire, dining on bread and smoked duck. Ren lends me a spare bedroll, which I put to use as an improvised seat-cushion.
“Not bad.” I appraise my loaf with a critical eye. “Lots of butter in it.”
“Makes everything better,” Lucky states, maowing down a hunk of bread.
“Duck’s good too,” I say. “Chewy, but it’s got a little spice to it.”
“Try eating it for months on end,” Ren mutters.
“Full belly’s a happy belly.” Elier flashes a cheeky smile. “Just like a bedroll—two bodies are better than one.”
Gyrax reaches in his carry and pulls out a cloak. At first it appears jet-black, but upon closer inspection, the fabric ripples midnight blue.
“Here.” He holds it out to me.
I scarf my food and set my plate down. “Thanks.” I hold it out and give it a once-over. “So why does everyone wear a cloak?”
“A leftover habit from the Crimson Wars,” Elier says. “From those who ended up catching the Reft. At first, they were deeply ashamed of their reddened eyes and tried to hide them with hooded cloaks. After the Reft spread throughout most of Evermoor, everyone began wearing them.” The Duelist shrugs. “Now they’re a part of our day-to-day life.”
“Very practical,” Lucky remarks. “Lots of pockets, lots of items.”
“Lots to steal,” Gyrax says amusedly, “for an enterprising pickpocket.”
“Thief,” Lucky corrects. “And there is more to thievery than picking pockets—I am an artist, milord.”
“I stand corrected.” Gyrax watches as I throw the cloak around my shoulders. “Here.” He fiddles with a black opal broach sewn into the upper left corner. “Squeeze the broach against the other side—” he presses it against the fabric, “—and the fabric will bind around your neck.” The broach flickers with purple light. “If anyone tries to choke or entangle you, the cloak will sense it and detach on its own.”
“Wow.” I study the broach with wondering eyes. “Thanks.”
The others fall into easy conversation. Fine by me—it gives me a chance to learn more about Gyrax.
“You were born on Evermoor, right?”
The Wolven nods. “I came of age during the Crimson Wars.” His face grows still, hinting at deep sadness behind his words. “Once I was grown, I left my kingship in the hands of a steward, so I could heed Alijyar and seek you out.”
“I met him in Golden Gate Park. He was disguised as a homeless man.”
Gyrax smiles. “There are numerous wizards in San Francisco. Interplanar travel is hard on their minds. Often, it drives them to madness—they account for many of your city’s displaced folk.”
“Whoa…” I straighten up, taken aback. “So all those homeless…some of them are wizards?” I shake my head. “That’s cool and sad at the same time.”
“It can happen to the best of them.” Gyrax holds up some bread, studies it briefly, then snaps it down in a single bite. “But not to Alijyar. The Vagabond King is a wizard amongst wizards.”
“Man, who would’ve thought…” I shake my head again. “A powerful sorcerer, disguised as a homeless guy in Golden Gate Park.”
“And who would’ve thought you could end up in Evermoor?” Gyrax grins.
“Or that my elderly dog was Wolven royalty?” I look Gyrax up and down.
“Truth is often stranger than fiction. If you know what to look for, life becomes a maze of wonders.”
“I don’t get it. Back when you were Gribbles—”
His face tightens with annoyance. “I’m still Gribbles, Jon.”
“My mistake.” I can’t help but smile. My lifelong friend is still with me—he’s just a whole lot more than I ever imagined. “Back on Earth, I should say. Back on Earth, your daily routine consisted of making me laugh and inspiring me with kindness. But here on Evermoor, you’re a beast-mode dog-warrior, super courageous and hella wise. What gives?”
“Jon.” He lays a giant paw on my shoulder. “On your world, laughter is courage. Kindness is wisdom.”
I feel my eyes welling, feel a lump growing large inside my throat.
Because that was the truest thing I’ve ever heard.
“Right,” I manage in a slightly choked voice. “Well…I’m gonna snooze. Big day tomorrow, you know?” (I have no idea if it is or not, but if I end up crying, I don’t want the others to know or see.)
He squeezes my shoulder and turns away.
“Sleep well, Jon.”