* Midlothiac Forest *
At first, Wayne and Ashley were in high spirits as they walked through the dense forest, the two best friends just glad to not be alone. They talked casually, almost as if they weren’t in the terrifying position of being trapped on a strange world with absolutely no idea how to get back home. They had plenty of topics to keep them amused, and Wayne made sure to keep his friend laughing to distract her from their present situation. They eventually found a dirt path and decided to follow it south, assuming it would lead them somewhere.
But as the very last rays of sunlight gave way to a star-filled night sky, the reality that they may not make it out of the dense forest before they needed to rest was hitting both of them. They’d walked for over two hours, but neither wanted to face the possibility of spending the night in the woods completely unprotected.
Wayne was determined to keep going until they either made it out of the woods or found some sort of shelter, but even though he wasn’t tired, he could tell Ashley was exhausted. It was only a matter of time before she wouldn’t be able to push any further.
Just as Wayne was about to take a stab at a new topic of conversation to amuse his friend, he heard a noise behind them; it sounded like hooves.
“Hold up,” he said turning to face the noise. A few seconds later, they saw a horse rounding the bend pulling a large cart.
Wayne sized up the man driving the wagon. He was young; gauging by Earth standards he looked to be in his early twenties. He had dark skin and was dressed very smartly in a pair of black slacks and a button-up white shirt. He didn’t look dangerous at all, so Wayne took his friend’s hand and started toward the cart, waving his free hand at the driver.
The horse came to a stop in front of them. “Hello, are you kids okay?” the man said in a friendly tone.
Wayne didn’t even mind being called a kid in this context, just grateful to see another person who seemed nice. “No, not really; we’re lost. Is there a town nearby?”
“Weaver’s Road is just an hour down the road. It’s actually where I’m headed. Would you like a lift? I have all of my ustus fabrics back here, but I can certainly make room,” he offered.
The two teens were taken aback by the generous offer, but they quickly accepted. They walked to the side of the large open carriage where they could see several bundles of brightly colored fabric. Wayne climbed in first before helping Ashley in.
“Thanks so much for this,” he said as they settled themselves.
“It’s not a problem. My name is Salov by the way.”
“I’m Wayne, this is my friend Ashley.”
Ashley waved. “Hi, thanks so much.”
The cart started forward and Salov spoke again. “So where are you kids from?”
Before Wayne could think of what to say, Ashley answered. “We’re from Greengale.”
Wayne shot her an annoyed look.
“Greengale? I’ve never heard of it.”
“Well, it’s pretty far away,” Wayne said vaguely.
“I see. Well how’d you end up walking out in the middle of the Midlothiac Forest? It’s very rare anyone uses this path. The only reason I’m going the long way around instead of quickening is that I can’t on account of the ustus.”
Again, Ashley spoke before Wayne had a chance to think of a plausible excuse. “Well, we got attacked by some monsters and we just ran, ended up here, and we lost our friends too.”
“I’m so sorry to hear that.” Salov said, turning now. “I’d heard rumors about a few towns deep in the mountains getting attacked by strange monsters.”
Wayne nodded, pleased that Salov seemed to take the story at face value. “Yeah, we just want to see if we can find our friends and then somehow get back home.”
“These have been some trying and interesting times as of late,” Salov said.
Eager to change the subject and avoid any more questions, Wayne asked, “So what are you doing with all this fabric? It looks very expensive.”
Salov brightened before turning back to the road. “I’m a tailor. I’ve just moved to Weaver’s Road a few days ago and I’m about to open my shop. Yes, one of many I know,” he chuckled, “but I plan to make a name for myself. That’s why I only use the best materials which I choose myself by going to the source at Eddingsburg.”
“Oh,” Wayne said, trying to think of something to add to the conversation. “That sounds like a lot of work.”
“I know; it’s madness.” Salov laughed again. “It’s a full day’s trip each way since it’s impossible to quicken this much ustus in its raw form, and I could just as easily buy from local shops who’ve already done the leg work, but it makes a difference when you’re able to handpick your materials.”
“It sounds fascinating,” Ashley said sincerely, clearly more engaged than Wayne.
Salov beamed at her. “Even though I’ve only just opened this shop, I plan to distinguish myself as one of the best in Weaver’s Road. I have a lot to prove.” With that, Salov launched into a deeper explanation of his methods which Ashley was more than eager to listen to.
Wayne remained silent, glad the conversation had turned to something more mundane and that his friend was in good spirits. Though he was happy that they found a ride from a friendly stranger, the need to figure out their next steps once they reached the town was ever-present in his mind as they continued down the dirt path.
* Kepra *
“So, let’s go over the plan,” Becky said in a business-like tone. “We go to this weather station—”
“Weather Mountain,” Bernie corrected.
“Whatever—We get our friend, then from there we search for places that have these rifts or traveler quartz, right?”
“In theory,” Hamen said, “but that’s a huge undertaking, especially since we don’t know how to locate rifts; they come and go for one thing. Though you are correct, the biggest indicator is the presence of traveler quartz. It forms naturally in caves where rifts have existed for long periods of time.”
“The dwarves destroy any traveler quartz they find,” Bernie added. “They’re afraid that a surface quickener might be able to use it to transport into the country. That’s what they thought I did at first.”
“It’s mostly paranoia,” Hamen said dismissively. “A quickener couldn’t do something like that without a marker or some connection to a dwarf. However, we were able to keep track of rifts formed in Glorandor because of how diligent they are at tracking down and destroying traveler quartz.”
“Well, I’m still learning this stuff, but I get it for the most part.” Becky put her napkin on the table and gave her stomach a satisfied pat.
She’d joined Bernie, Hamen, Findler, and his son Elmore at Hamen’s house on the ground level of Kepra, which was also where Bernie stayed. The group enjoyed what Hamen had called a ‘light’ dinner, which consisted of three roasted meats and two types of potato dishes. They had been eating and discussing for over an hour.
“So, you have no idea who’s at Weather Mountain? You didn’t get a name or any identifying characteristics, nothing?” Bernie asked for the third time.
Elmore gave his friend a consoling smile. “Unfortunately, the information was received second-hand. I didn’t talk to the messenger directly. All of this was passed to me from Prinapy; she’s Chief Minor’s daughter.”
Hamen nodded. “It just troubles me how this information came to us, almost at random. It seems we should have known about this sooner. I’m at a loss as to how we are just finding out about this.”
“It makes perfect sense to me,” Becky said with a shrug.
Bernie, who was seated across from her, raised an eyebrow at this. “What? Why?”
“You don’t see it? I haven’t even been here ten years and I get this,” Becky said brashly. Bernie gave her a blank stare, so she continued. “Okay, so think about it: you, a human, land here in Glorandor, and no one’s happy about it. They want to keep you locked up for the rest of your life, but Hamen intervenes. They’re all angry about it, but I guess Hamen’s status along with Chief Findler standing up for you makes them back down.
“But it’s politics, right? Some of the other chiefs don’t like that Findler got away with this. They want to make him and Hamen look like idiots for believing some human got thrown back in time. So of course, when they hear about someone arriving at Weather Mountain with a similar story, they decide not to share that news. That would just validate the whole thing and make Findler and Hamen right. So, they hide it from you guys hoping it just goes away.”
Findler smiled at Becky. “She’s got the measure of our people better than you do,” he said to Hamen. “I’ve always said you’re far too trusting and noble. I think all that guardian training made you soft.”
“But it makes no sense to keep this from us. It just means that Bernie would stay here longer,” Hamen said with a bit of a plea for reason in his voice.
“That doesn’t matter if it means making me look foolish,” Findler retorted with a chuckle. “Minor has had it out for me for decades. I think he hopes to discredit me so that his eldest son can become chief of Holeman.”
“It does explain why Prinapy seemed to think I already knew about it,” Elmore added pensively. “When we crossed paths, she told me that the Commander of Weather sent word that he needed Hamen to promote a new weather master. Her exact words were that the new weather master was ‘that other off-worlder that landed in Weather Mountain a few years ago,’ as if I should’ve already known. That’s when I pressed her for more, but as I said: she’d only heard about it in passing to begin with.”
Findler nodded. “Prinapy probably just overheard it in her father’s dealings, and he never thought she’d encounter Elmore and repeat it.”
“I think she just wanted an excuse to talk to you anyway,” Hamen said with a grin to Elmore.
“Politics, same as on Earth; it never changes.” Becky stretched and realized for the first time how truly tired she was. “So, when are we leaving?”
“Not till morning,” Hamen said. “It’s about a half day journey and we must travel by foot.”
“Really?” Becky looked confused. “I thought the whole point of quickeners was that you could travel anywhere instantaneously.” She turned to Bernie for confirmation, having learned the concept from him.
Hamen chuckled. “It’s slightly more complicated than that, but more importantly, we have no quickeners in Glorandor. It’s exceedingly rare for a dwarf to be born with that ability, plus, as I said, my people are not fond of quickening, as it could allow outsiders into our domain.”
“Fine then, I guess we’re walking,” Becky said resolutely. “We’ll go to Weather Mountain, grab our friend, and then start searching for the others.”
“We still don’t know where to begin,” Bernie reminded her. “We can’t just roam the planet looking for traveler quartz; that’s insane.”
Becky folded her arms and gave them an incredulous look. “You’re telling me no one has some fancy magical way to track down quartz or find rifts? You said you’ve been researching this for years.”
“Well, it’s not something that dwarves really study.” Bernie shrugged. “Everything I know about rifts I got from Hamen’s small collection of books.”
“Wait, actually there is a way,” Hamen said, suddenly getting an idea. “Becky’s right. There is someplace we can go that might have the expertise to help us. The quartz engineers in Clandestine have studied traveler quartz and rifts in detail. They’re some of the best in the world.”
“Great,” Becky said. “We’ll go there after Weather Mountain.”
“Isn’t Clandestine the capital of Acumen?” Elmore asked. “That’s all the way in Sunntondra. How are you going to get there?”
“Well, won’t Weather Mountain have quickeners?” Becky asked.
“No; it’s a highly secured government facility,” Hamen said. “They use translifts to get around.”
Becky’s brow furrowed at the unfamiliar word. “I know I’m new here, but it seems like you guys make things more difficult than they need to be.”
Hamen laughed again. “You may be right there, but trust me, there are good reasons for it. Security dictates that certain places be as hard to get to as possible. Worry not though; I’m certain we can use the Weather Mountain translift to reach a place where we can hire a commercial quickener to take us to where we want to go. It will not require much more effort.”
Becky nodded, again only understanding in part. “I’ll take your word for it. Anyway, I’m exhausted. If we’re not leaving till morning, then can someone show me a bed?”
“Of course,” Hamen said. “You can stay here in one of my spare rooms.”
“I’ll show you where,” Bernie said standing up and guiding Becky from the large dining area through a door that led to the back stairs of the house.
Elmore turned to his father. “She really is exactly like Bernie described her.”
“A strong-willed, take charge, determined woman.” Findler laughed. “It’s a pity she’s not a dwarf.”
* Pocket Woods *
“He hasn’t changed one bit,” Daniel said, plopping down on a small couch next to Terri, who was repairing a shirt with needle and thread.
“Of course he hasn’t changed,” Terri said with a chuckle, not looking up from her work. “It’s only been a few hours for him. What did you expect?”
Daniel glanced at the door of the room in which Jandor had gone to bed a few hours prior. He’d waited to be sure Jandor was truly asleep before broaching the subject that was bothering him.
“Honestly, what I expected was for you to back me up,” he said in a low voice. “What was that back there, just agreeing with him like that?”
Terri finally stopped her sewing and looked up. “What do you mean?”
“We searched for our friends for years. It was hardest on you: the nightmares you had about what happened in that cave, and then all of those war-torn towns we visited. ‘Never again,’ that’s what you told me when we finally stopped.”
Terri frowned at him. “I know, but this is different.”
“How is this different? Because it’s Jandor? You’re going to put yourself through all that again just because he wants to go on some adventure?”
She put down her needle and thread and put a hand on his knee. “Danny, it’s not like that. Besides, he’s my brother.”
“Stepbrother,” Daniel corrected, “and what am I then?”
“Danny,” Terri sighed, “it’s complicated; you know that. You and I…we just sort of fell into this whole thing.” She gave him a reassuring smile. “Besides, do you really want to just stay here if there’s even a chance that we could go home.”
Daniel shrugged. “Sure, I miss my family, but this is our home now. Technically, I’m from this world anyway, and think about all we’ve done since settling here. We bought this house, you trained hard to become a healer, and I’m a couple of months of schooling away from elevating to mind mage. We’ve got a good life here and you just want to throw it all away.”
Terri shook her head. “It’s not our life though. None of this is real.” She gestured at nothing in particular, more indicating the cottage as a whole. “You of all people know that this was supposed to be temporary until the right time came. Well, it seems like this is the right time.”
“Temporary, right,” Daniel folded his arms, “until Jandor showed up to save the day. Now that he’s back, you can go back to your real life.”
“It’s not like that and you know it. Stop being so sulky.” Terri gave him another smile, this one playful. “Besides, wasn’t it you who saved the day?” She ran a hand along his side before leaning in to give him a brief kiss. “I meant to do that earlier, but then Jandor woke up and by the time he went to bed, it slipped my mind.” She stood and yawned openly. “If you hadn’t killed that pog, both Jandor and I would’ve been done for; I think that deserves a reward.”
Daniel gave her a slightly confused look. “So, you didn’t want to kiss me in front of Jandor?”
“Of course not. I didn’t want to freak him out. He was already dealing with enough change.” Terri headed to the open door at the back of the living area. “Are you coming to bed?”
Daniel’s answer didn’t come immediately. “No,” he said finally, “I’m going to sleep out here on the couch. Technically, Jandor’s in my room, and like you said, we don’t want to freak him out.”
Terri stood at the threshold and frowned as she watched Daniel settle himself on the couch before turning off the lights using his mentus. With a shrug, she headed into the room and shut the door, leaving Daniel to stare at the ceiling in silent contemplation.