A snarling were-shepherd appears behind his 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 (or Gyrax, I should say) waves him away. “Cry off, Kor.”
Kor backs down, muttering something-something-something about nasty little humans.
Gyrax studies me with wondering eyes. “You made it. I can’t believe that…come here.” He envelops me in a hug and I instinctively return it. (Whoa—there’s a giant battle-axe slung across his back.)
“Thought I lost you,” I say tightly. “What are you? Besides my dog, I mean.”
He breaks the hug and grins self-consciously. “Careful—my warriors will take offense if you refer to me as ‘yours.’ ”
“Sorry. It’s just that—”
“I know.” He looks me up and down. “I was assigned to guard you by an Evermoor Sentry: Alijyar SyCajister, otherwise known as the Vagabond King.”
Ren gives a slight bow. “I apologize, your Majesty—I did not realize who you were.”
Gyrax scoffs. “Enough with the titles.” Then he leans in and peers closely at Ren. “Perhaps I should apologize. I did not realize you were—”
Ren stiffens. “Ren of the Barrens and nothing more. 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 or Ren.
My dog-turned-warrior gives him a nod. “As you wish.” Then he turns back to me. “Where is your cloak? You stick out like a sore thumb.”
“What?” I suddenly realize that everyone I’ve met has been 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. “Wait…you were assigned to watch over 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.”
“Impossible. He is completely incapable of swordplay or magic…” Ren shakes his head. “No. It can’t be him.”
“Take it up with Circle SyCajister.”
“They’re Primal Mages—not oracles. Jon is not the one. I am sure of it.”
I’m inclined to agree. I’m enjoying my role as a fantasy-world tourist. Heroic savior sounds a little grandiose.
“Ren’s right,” I chime. “I’m not the one you’re—”
Gyrax lifts a hand, cutting me off. “Take it step by step, moment by moment. Everything else will fall into place.”
“Uh, okay.” I nod slowly. “Step by step, moment by moment. I can handle that…I think.”
Ren looks at me and sighs in defeat. “I was planning to leave you in a quiet nunnery, but mayhap…mayhap it’s better we travel together. At least until I figure this out.”
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 straightens up and beckons to his Wolven, hunkered together under 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 Argan Dyaar.”
A husky says, “My liege, we were chosen to protect you during your journ—”
“Aye, and I was chosen to protect Evermoor. 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’s shoulder.
“A moment, Ripfang.” Gyrax bows his neck and slips off his 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 holds it out to his canine lieutenant.
Ripfang accepts it. “I will protect it with my life.”
“You will not.” Gyrax growls. “Cross into the Clear for a worthy cause, not for the sake of a stupid medal.”
Ripfang grumbles something discontented under his breath. 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 the bigger of the two.
“Swear to me,” Gyrax rumbles. “I would hear you say it, packmate.”
Ripfang gulps. “I swear it, Rex. I will place my life above your cachet.”
“And the lives of my warriors, as well.”
“Thus I swear,” Ripfang says.
“Good.” Gyrax studies him. “I appreciate loyalty, but it must be pointed in the right direction. Else it rots and curdles into blind 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, then back at Ripfang again. “Go. They need your guidance.”
Ripfang thumps his fist against his heart, then turns away and heads for the Wolven. After he speaks briefly to them, they leave the clearing.
The pickpocket, who has finished with the traders and sensed a conversational opening, ambles up to Gyrax. “Do my ears deceive me? Are you truly royalty?”
A faint smile. “All I can offer is debt and promises. Save your larceny for richer folk.”
The thief chuckles. “I have more than enough coin for my immediate needs. Right now I am in need of adventure.” He turns to his friend who’s a dozen yards behind him, fencing with an imaginary enemy. “Isn’t that right, Elier?” (pronounced EH-lee-ey)
No response. The thief shrugs. “I speak for the duelist. As steel is sure and water is wet.”
Gyrax nudges Ren with the tip of his elbow. “Two seek to join our party.”
Ren is silent for a long, hanging moment. Then: “Let them join, if they so wish. But just so you know, the thief is incompetent. He poses little threat to coin or carry.”
The thief steps forward. “Careful how you speak! I am a consummate professional!”
Ren’s eyes glint with amusement. “Perhaps we should inform our fellow travelers.” He nods at the traders who are leaving the clearing.
The thief pats the air, suddenly nervous. “No need, no need. You’re a sharp one, aye?” He looks over his shoulder at the last few traders, making 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 now walking 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 fealty 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.”
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 appreciate your restraint.”
“No need to strike out yet,” Ren declares. “We have an entire clearing to ourselves. Let us enjoy a good night’s rest.”
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. “Lots of butter in it.”
“Makes everything better,” Lucky states, ripping a hunk off his bread and maowing it down
“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 preferable to one. The prettier, the better.”
Gyrax reaches in his carry and pulls out a cloak. At first glance it appears jet-black, but upon closer inspection, the fabric ripples with midnight blue.
“Here.” He holds it out to me.
I set my food down onto the tin plate that Ren has given me. “Thanks. Why does everyone wear a cloak?”
“A leftover habit from the Crimson Wars,” Elier explains. “From those afflicted by the Crimson Reft. At first, they were deeply ashamed of their reddened eyes and tried to conceal them with a hooded cloak. Those with cloaks were shunned and scorned, but after entire towns were stricken by the Reft, everyone wore them.” The duelist shrugs. “Now they’re a part of everyday life.”
“Very practical,” Lucky remarks. “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.”
“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 begin conversing about random things, which is fine by me. It gives me the chance to learn about Gyrax.
“You were born on Evermoor, right?”
Gyrax nods. “I came of age during the Crimson Wars.” His face grows still, but I sense deep sadness behind his words. “I left my kingship in the hands of a steward, so I could heed Alijyar’s call and seek you out.”
“I met him in Golden Gate Park. He was disguised as a homeless man.”
Gyrax smiles. “There are numerous wizards throughout your city. Interplanar travel is hard on their minds. Sometimes, it drives them to madness.”
“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 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 is revealed as 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, you were goofy and loving and that was it. You made me laugh and inspired 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 think 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 squeezes my shoulder and turns away.
“Sleep well, Jon.”