A snarling shepherd appears behind his shoulder. “He is a Warrior Rex to the Wolven clans. Refer to him as ‘your majesty’ or I swear I’ll—”
“No, it’s fine.” Gribbles—or Gyrax, I should say—waves him off. “Be at ease, Kor.”
Kor backs off, muttering something-something-something about nasty little humans.
Gyrax studies me with wondering eyes. “You made it through,” he murmurs. “I can’t believe that…come here.” He envelops me in a giant hug. I instinctively hug him back.
“I thought I lost you,” I say tightly. “What are you, exactly? Besides my dog, I mean.”
He leans back, hands still on my shoulders, and grins self-consciously. “Careful—my warriors will take offense if you refer to me as ‘yours.’ ”
“Sorry,” I blurt. “It’s just that—”
“I know.” He takes a step back. “I was assigned to watch over you by an Evermoor Guardian. His name is Alijyar SyCajister, otherwise known as the Vagabond King.”
“Your majesty.” Ren gives a slight bow. “My apologies—I did not realize who you were.”
Gyrax scoffs. “Please. Enough with the titles.” Then he leans in and peers closely at Ren. “Nay, wanderer, perhaps I should apologize. I did not realize you were—”
Ren stiffens. “Ren of the Barrens and naught else. I do not wish to attract attention.”
I cast a quick glance around. Everyone else is talking quietly amongst themselves—I doubt they heard Gyrax and Ren.
Gyrax gives a curt nod. “As you wish.” He turns back to me. “Where is your cloak, Jon? You stick out like a sore thumb.”
“What?” I suddenly realize that everyone I’ve met has been wearing a hooded cloak. “Um…I just got here. I’m not really sure of—”
“The fault is mine,” Ren says apologetically. “I thought he was just a stranded child. I was going to take him to Naver—” His eyes widen. “Wait…you were assigned to watch over him by an Alijyar SyCajister…” His lips part in muted astonishment. “So that means…”
“Jon is the one in the Turning of Evermoor.” Gyrax nods. “Prophesied to reach the Unbound Realm.”
“Impossible.” Doubt and confusion play through his eyes. “He is completely incapable of swordplay or magic…” Ren shakes his head. “No. It isn’t him. It can’t be.”
“Take it up with Circle SyCajister,” Gyrax says. “Or better yet, take it up with Alijyar himself. The Vagabond King views it differently.”
“They’re Primal Mages, not oracles. Jon is not the one. I am sure of it.”
I’m inclined to agree. Dragon World has its ups and downs, but overall, I’m enjoying my role as a fantasy-world tourist. Heroic savior sounds a little grandiose.
“Ren’s right,” I say. “I’m not the guy you’re—”
Gyrax lifts a hand, cutting me off. “It’s not a concern. Take it step by step, moment by moment. The rest will take care of itself”
“Uh, okay.” I nod slowly. “Yeah. Step by step, moment by moment. I can handle that…I think.”
“Good man.” He claps me on the shoulder.
Ren meets my eyes and sighs in defeat. “I was planning to leave you with some nuns in Naversé, but mayhap…mayhap it’s better we travel together. At least until I know who you are and why you’re here.”
Whew. “Thanks. I appreciate it.”
Instead of replying, he looks at Gyrax. “Would you care to share travel? Our crossing seems fated.”
“I would be honored to join you, Rennare—” He stops himself short, then continues speaking. “Ren of the Barrens, I mean.”
He looks over his shoulder and beckons to the Wolven, who have hunkered together under a distant tree. They rise to their feet and stride over, forming a loose semicircle around Gyrax.
“Warriors.” He scans their faces with a steady eye. “Go on without me. Relay my missive to Argan Dyaar.”
One of the huskies says, “My liege, we were chosen to protect you during your journ—”
“Aye, Ripfang.” Gyrax nods. “Just as I—and all of you, in one fashion or other—was chosen to protect Evermoor. The fates call, and we must heed their summons. Remember: we may lose our way, but we are never off the path.”
They don’t seem enthused, but no one disagrees. Murmurs of “For Evermoor,” sweep through their ranks. As they turn to leave, Gyrax taps Ripfang’s shoulder.
“A moment, friend.” The Wolven Rex slips off a necklace. I only see it for a brief moment, but it’s strung with a medallion depicting a snarling wolf’s head. “Take it,” he says, holding it out.
Ripfang grudgingly accepts it. “I will protect it with my life.”
“You will not.” Gyrax growls. “If you cross into the Clear, then it will be for a worthy cause, not for the sake of a hide-strung medal.”
Ripfang grumbles under his breath. Gyrax 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 to me,” Gyrax rumbles. “I would hear you say it, packmate.”
Ripfang gulps and says, “I swear it, Rex. I will place my life above your cachet.”
“And the lives of your warriors, as well.”
“I swear it,” Ripfang repeats.
“Good.” Gyrax studies him. “I am all for loyalty, but it must be pointed in the right direction, else it cheapens into toxic dogma.”
“Cry off, will you?” Ripfang mutters. “Don’t let your title go to your head.”
Gyrax laughs, loud and hearty. “Well said.” He looks past Ripfang at the other Wolven. “Go.” He meets Ripfang’s eyes. “They need your guidance.”
Ripfang thumps his fist against his heart, then turns away and heads for the Wolven. He speaks quietly to them, and they leave the clearing.
The guy who picked my pocket has been watching the exchange with marked interest. Now, sensing a break in conversation, he edges closer to Gyrax. “You’re royalty, eh?” The thief’s eyes light with interest.
A faint smile. “All I can offer is debt and promises. Save your larceny for richer folk.”
The thief chuckles. “Not what I meant. I have more than enough coin for my immediate needs. Right now I seek adventure. Isn’t that right, Elier?” (pronounced EH-lee-ey) He turns to his friend, who’s fencing with an imaginary enemy.
When the duelist fails to respond, the thief shrugs. “I speak for the duelist. As steel is sure and water wet.”
Gyrax nudges Ren, who looks extra dour and extra suspicious. “Two more seek to join us.”
Ren is silent for a long, hanging moment. Then: “Let them join, if they so wish. And just to be clear, the thief is incompetent. He poses little danger to our pockets or carries.”
The thief steps forward in mock anger. “Careful how you speak! Lucknar Hap is no amateur!”
Ren’s eyes glint with amusement. “Perhaps I should ask our fellow travelers.” He nods at the traders who are leaving the clearing.
Lucknar goes from mock angry to nervous and jesting. He pats the air with both hands. “No need, no need. You’re a sharp one, aye?” He looks over his shoulder at the last few traders, just to make sure they haven’t heard. “I’m glad we’re friends, wanderer, sure as my name is Lucky Hap.”
Ren grunts. “Right.” He looks at the duelist, who has finished practicing and is walking over. “Elier, is it?”
The duelist replies with a rakish grin. “Elier Finn. At your service.”
“I rather doubt that,” Ren says dryly.
Elier laughs. “You say true, milord. I have sworn fealty to my twin sabers, while my companion Lucky believes first and foremost in a bulging purse—often at the expense of a trader’s wealth.”
Lucky grins and pats his carry. Suddenly, his exchange with Ren (when Ren threatened to ask the other traders about Lucky’s skill in thievery) 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 throws me a smile, then looks quickly at Gyrax. “But I live by a code—there are some lines I do not cross.”
“Out of prudence, not fidelity,” Gyrax counters. “Nonetheless, your restraint is appreciated.”
“No need to strike out yet,” Ren declares. “We have an entire clearing to ourselves. Let us enjoy a good night’s rest.” Elier, Lucky, and Gyrax voice their agreement.
And just like that, we become a party of five.
Half an hour later we’re sitting around a fire, dining on traveler’s bread and smoked duck.
“Not bad.” I appraise the bread with a critical eye. “They put a lot of butter in it.”
“Butter makes everything better,” Lucky says.
“The 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 throws us all a cheeky smile. “Same with a bedroll—two bodies are preferable to one. The prettier, the better, I say.”
Gyrax reaches in his carry and pulls out a cloak. At first glance it looks black, but upon closer inspection, the fabric ripples with midnight blue.
“Here,” he says, handing it to me.
I set my food down onto the tin plate that Ren has provided. “Thanks.” I accept the offering with a curious look. “Why does everyone wear a cloak?”
“A leftover habit from the Crimson Wars,” Elier explains. “From those afflicted by the Reft. Before they succumbed to madness and rage, they were deeply ashamed of their reddened eyes. They tried to conceal it with a hooded cloak. At first, people with cloaks were shunned and scorned, but after more folk were stricken by the Reft, everyone started wearing them.” The duelist shrugs. “Now they’re a part of everyday life.”
“They’re practical too,” Lucky says. “Lots of pockets, lots of items.”
“Lots to steal,” Gyrax says amusedly. “For an enterprising pickpocket.”
“Thief,” Lucky corrects. “There is more to thievery than mere pickpocketing. I am an artist, Master Wolven.”
“My mistake.” Gyrax watches me 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 the broach against the fabric, “—and the cloak will bind around your neck.” The broach flickers with purple light. “If someone tries to choke you, the cloak will sense it and detach on its own.”
“Wow.” I study the broach with wondering eyes. “Thanks.”
“So you were assigned to guard me?” Now that everything’s settled down, maybe I can learn more about my once-elderly mutt. “You were born on Evermoor, right?”
“Correct.” He nods his massive head. “I was only a pup during the Fracture. I came of age during the Crimson Wars.” His face grows still, but I sense deep sadness behind his words. “A powerful wizard sent me to find you. Alijyar SyCajister, or as he is more commonly known: the Vagabond King.”
“I met him in Golden Gate Park. He was disguised as a homeless man.”
Gyrax smiles. “There are numerous wizards within your city. Interplanar travel drives many of them insane.”
“Whoa…” I’m taken aback. “So all those homeless people…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 studies a chunk of traveler’s bread, then snaps it down in a single bite. “But not to Alijyar. The Vagabond King is a sorcerer amongst sorcerers.”
“Man, who would’ve thought…” I shake my head again. “A powerful wizard, disguised as a homeless guy in Golden Gate Park.”
“And who would’ve thought that an unassuming teen 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. Not to those with jaded eyes, but once you know what to look for, life becomes a maze of wonders.”
“I don’t get it. Back when you were Gribbles—”
A flash of annoyance tightens his eyes. “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, you were goofy and loving and that was it. You made me laugh and inspired me with kindness. But here on Evermoor, you’re this giant warrior who’s super courageous and hella wise. What gives?”
“Jon.” He lays a 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. “I’m gonna turn in. 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 pats my shoulder again and turns away.
“Sleep well, Jon.”