Read Part 1

The Fallen Odyssey (Book 1 of The Fallen Odyssey Series)

Chapter One

It was no specific noise that woke Justin Holmes. In fact, what he noticed most was the lack of sound. No hum of ventilation. No whir of electric power or hiss of plumbing. All the background noise supposed to be there was missing. His confused ears rebelled against the silence, constructing barriers of whining, mosquito-buzzing white noise.

What he noticed next was the pain. Every muscle and joint ached. His head throbbed, and opening his eyes only made things worse. Dressed in a sweaty crew-neck tee shirt, brand-name blue jeans and socks, he lay atop a quilted bedspread in a dark room, alone. The only light came from an old-fashioned lamp mounted on the wall above the headboard and giving off a feeble glow. He raised an arm to shield his eyes, and even this tiny movement was a labor.

This isn’t my bedroom, he realized.

His stomach churned, and urgency spurred him to action. He rolled off the bed and fell to the floor, searching frantically for something to be sick in. Tucked under the bed was a wide-brimmed, metal bucket. He grabbed it. His stomach was empty, and his heaving produced nothing but hollow echoes in the pail. Tears streamed down his face with the effort.

When the nausea had passed, he put the bucket back and looked around. The floor beneath him was made of crude, unfinished planks, like something out of a museum display of life on the 19th century American frontier. Tapestries decorated the unpapered walls, and there was not a single window. The lamp—an oil lamp, from the look of it—was the only means of illumination.

Justin spotted his tennis shoes at the foot of the bed, and he snatched them up.

This isn’t my bedroom, Justin thought, for the second time. His hands shook as he struggled to tie the laces. What’s going on? Where am I…?

He stood, and the blood rushed to his head. Another wave of venomous nausea hit him so hard that his vision blurred. Flashes and bubbles of darkness roamed across his vision.

As his sight returned to normal, he took inventory. Patting his jeans pockets, he found everything where it should be. Wallet, keys and phone. He took out his phone to check it, and the display emitted a white, electronic glow that seemed alien and unwelcome in this archaic place. It clashed with the oil lamp’s light, creating a strange, shadowy borderlands. No signal. No time. No date. And almost zero battery life.

Justin turned off his phone to save what little charge was left and slipped it back in his pocket. He flinched at the groaning of the floorboards as he made his way toward the room’s only door. To his relief, the brass knob gave with little effort. The hinges were well-greased, and ancient as it looked, the door swung open with barely a sound.

It took a moment for his eyes to adjust. He seemed to be in a kitchen, though it bore little resemblance to any kitchen he’d ever seen. In front of him was a small table, and a set of big game antlers hung on the wall above a wooden washbasin that had no faucet. Blue-gray moonlight spilled from a diamond-shaped pane set in a door across the room. It was the only window. Elaborate woodwork cast ghostly shadows of burrows and pits in the moonlight. A clock hung high on the kitchen wall, but its face was covered in symbols Justin did not recognize. The runic figures, to his confusion, indicated the time to be a quarter past sixteen.

A memory came back to him. This kitchen, in the full light of day. Sitting at that table, with a drink in his hand. An old man sitting across from him with a long, wide, white beard, dressed in black robes like a monk. A second man, tall and silent, standing in the corner. It was all he could remember.

Who the monk and the tall man were, Justin did not know. The fragmentary memories were distorted behind heat-shimmer; an avant-garde array of half-remembered pictures splattered and congealed on the inside of his skull. The only other thing he could remember was…

A boat…?

He shook his head, trying to physically force things straight, but it was no good.

The drink, he thought. Maybe it had something in it. Did they try to poison me? And what was I doing here in the first place?

“Got to get out of here,” he whispered.

He tiptoed forward, feeling the vibrations of his every movement. Creeping past the kitchen table, he wondered if the men from his memory were still here. Maybe he—

Another wave of sick agony crashed within Justin’s head, causing him to miss a step. He leaned against the table for support. Its legs creaked loudly under his weight.

Pull it together, Justin! Pull it together!

For a few moments, he focused on nothing but staying conscious. Only after the blackness had subsided did he dare leave the safety of the table for the front door. The creak of the table seemed to have gone unnoticed. He was still alone in the kitchen.

Groping blindly for the door handle, his fingers found bolts and chains. They whispered like chimes in stale wind as, one by one, he undid the locks.

He froze. Had he heard something behind him?

Slowly, he looked over his shoulder. Shadows distorted the kitchen into a hundred crooked hiding places. He could hear the pounding of his own blood. His throat and eyeballs pulsed with every beat of his heart. The last bolt slid free in his trembling hand. He turned the knob and opened the door. Summer breeze touched his skin, and he had to fight the urge to sprint off into the night as he slipped quietly out over the threshold. He inched the door closed behind him until the latch clicked. Turning, he made it only a few steps from the door before his feet faltered at sight of his surroundings.

Rolling plains stretched out beyond vision. Thin snakes of gray clouds drifted across the night sky. A lopsided, crescent moon peeked through the clouds and cast its influence over the steppes. There wasn’t another building, road or landmark in sight.

Turning around, he saw that the house he had emerged from was a small hut at the base of a slope. Atop a hill beyond were the gray silhouettes of other houses in the moonlight. Their windows were dark. Along the edge of the settlement, he saw movement. A repetitive catch of light. He squinted, and it became the blades of a windmill. There were dozens of them, rotating in ranks.

Justin’s gaze roamed the wild countryside. This was not his Pennsylvania hometown. In fact, it didn’t look familiar at all.

He licked his dry lips as he realized, I have no idea where I am.

Moss hung from the brown brick around the door of the hut. Creepers with flowers closed in slumber were tucked between the cracks. The hilltop village with the windmills was several hundred yards away.

A throbbing headache stabbed at Justin behind the eyes. He massaged his temples. Now that he was outside, the idea that the men had poisoned him seemed pretty stupid. He sighed, returning to the door. He couldn’t remember how he’d gotten here, but this situation was making him erratic and paranoid. Running off aimlessly into the dark wasn’t going to solve anything. Where there was a bed, he might as well get some rest. Maybe with some sleep, he would remember—

The bronze knob caught at half-turn beneath his hand. He jiggled it and twisted harder, but it wouldn’t budge. Locked.

Justin plowed his fingers through his hair, grumbling at his own foolishness. He raised his hand to knock on the door.

A sudden noise echoed through the night. It was faint and distant but definitely human, and as Justin squinted toward the town atop the grassy incline, he saw an orange flicker.

Justin lowered his hand without knocking. It couldn’t hurt to take a quick look around first. Maybe he’d find something familiar and recognize where he was. He didn’t know why his cell phone wasn’t working, but maybe if he could find a place of business that was open—the source of that light, perhaps—he could use their phone and figure out where he was. Giving the knob one last try, to no success, Justin stepped away from the door and started up a rutted trail, toward the gray silhouettes of town.

Beneath the lazy, turning arms of the windmills lay sprawling fields of grain. He walked along the edge of a field of waist-high wheat, pallid in the moonlight. With the exception of some weirdly ancient-looking buildings made of crooked, cut stone, the hut he’d come from was the only one so distant from the bulk of the settlement. It wouldn’t be difficult to find his way back.

Still, a growing sense of unease had taken root in Justin’s guts by the time he reached the village. The rutted path turned into a well-worn, dirt road. The buildings on either side seemed very old, yet very tidy, and abnormally close to one another. Even the size of the road itself was strange—hardly wide enough for two cars to pass at once. And come to think of it, he had yet to see any vehicles at all. The houses were silent. Not a single window was lit.

What day is it? wondered Justin. Tuesday? Wednesday? Last I remember, it was Christmas Day. That was a Tuesday. If today’s Wednesday, I’m scheduled to work. And I already had to call off once at the beginning of the month for dad’s appointment with the doctor. If I don’t figure out where I am soon—if I can’t find a way to get home before my shift starts…

“Think through it,” Justin mumbled as he picked up the pace. “How did you get here? What’s the last thing you remember?”

He caught the orange flicker again, between some buildings, and cut down a side street in the direction of the light. It was easy to follow. It seemed to be the only light in the entire town. He saw no porch lights, floodlights, or streetlamps, let alone any Christmas lights.

“Shoveling the driveway,” he said, riding an influx of memory. “Christmas Day. Afternoon. I’d just gotten back from borrowing salt from the Lewises, and I was shoveling snow off the driveway. Grandpa and Uncle Paul were coming over. Dad wanted the driveway to be clear for them…”

The light became a glare against the nearby building fronts that grew brighter with Justin’s every step. The sound of a voice echoed toward him, joined in immediately by a second.

Laughter.

Justin hurried toward it.

Turning a corner, he found the source. Firelight shone from the wide-open doors of a corner building, creating a shadow-puppet show across the street. Patrons within swooped and danced across the light. Puffs of smoke rose from the chimney. The sounds of laughter intensified and were soon joined by singing and the clinking of glasses. Somewhere behind it all, a stringed instrument began strumming high and merrily.

As Justin approached the steps at the entrance, he was met by the conglomerate smells of smoked meat, warm beer and tobacco. A plaque hung above the door. Its symbols, like those of the strange clock in the old man’s kitchen, were foreign and unreadable to him, giving him pause.

Looking down at his feet, Justin scratched his tennis shoes in the dirt. He felt beads of sweat on his forehead.

“Shoveling snow,” he whispered. “But it feels like summer, here.”

He didn’t have the heard to verbalize the rest of his thought.

So where is here? And how the hell did I get here?

He took the phone from his pocket and turned it on. Still no signal. Still no time. And battery failing.

Even if I could call someone, thought Justin, what would I tell them? No way I’m still in Pennsylvania. Only way I can call someone to come get me is if I figure out where I’m at, first.

Justin took a deep breath. He didn’t know whether he was hungover, dreaming, hallucinating, or had fallen into a mail crate to Russia, but one thing was certain.

“Dad is going to kill me,” he said to no one.

He climbed the stairs and entered the door. Noise, light, and smell hit him from every angle. He forced himself to keep walking so as not to stand and gawk, but it was easier said than done.

The room was hazy with smoke. Men with long pipes clenched between their teeth sat at tables, nursing drinks. The bar had barrels for stools. Crudely upholstered chairs encircled a blazing hearth set in the far wall. Hanging at the center of the hall was a chandelier alight with glowing candles. It seemed to be made almost entirely of antlers.

Justin made his way to a corner and leaned against a wooden support beam in the shadows, staring at it all. His mouth was dry. His pulse raced. Despite the unseasonable weather, part of him had still expected to find a Christmas party in here. Instead, this place seemed like something from another time.

And so did the people. Their clothes were all earth tones, leather and furs, hanging with sashes and sheaths. Cloaks were draped from their shoulders to their boots. Faces were hidden by hoods. Worse still, Justin could tell by their mannerisms, their postures, and the way they gestured to one another as they spoke that these people were different from him in ways that went far beyond physical appearance.

A voice close by made him jump. He turned to see that a portly man in an apron had sidled up beside him. Balanced on his arms were trays of empty glasses and plates. His sparse hair was messed and damp. His flushed face cautiously studied Justin, and Justin gathered that he was being asked if he wanted anything.

“No, thank you,” Justin said. “I’m fine.”

The barman looked confused. He asked a question.

“I’m all right,” said Justin. “Don’t speak the language.”

He waved his hand, trying to pantomime a casual dismissal, but the little man only looked at him more closely. All the while, Justin became increasingly aware of heads turning his direction. Unfriendly eyes studied his tennis shoes and blue jeans.

“I know I’m not old enough to be in here,” he said. His nerves were taking over now, and he couldn’t stop talking. “I’m not here to drink, though. I promise. I’m only seventeen. Almost eighteen. Besides, it’s Christmas. I should really be home. I’m just lost and looking for a phone. English? You know English? A telephone?”

The barman, looking more annoyed now than confused, said something with a feeling of finality and shuffled off.

“Hey, boy.”

Justin turned toward the voice. A man stood from a nearby table and took an unsure step toward him. There was an ugly burn scar across his face, making it impossible to tell what sort of expression he wore. The eye on the injured half was glazed over and staring white. It was not the face that held Justin’s attention, though. It was the dagger in his hand.

“…Lost?” the man said, the first half of the sentence indiscernible within slurred mumbles. He took a staggering step at Justin and raised the dagger. “I’ll send you home.”

Justin looked around for help, but all he found were bleary eyes, watching with either callous disregard or worse, amusement.

“Look, I don’t want any trouble,” said Justin. “Can I buy you a drink? Do you know how to get to Oil City?”

But the scar-faced man wasn’t listening. On slow, unsteady legs, he came at Justin with his dagger raised. For every step he took forward, Justin took one back. He dared move no faster, nor any slower.

The smell of alcohol clung to the drunkard’s skin like a perfume. He was talking as he advanced, but it was garbled, and only half the words seemed to be in English. All Justin could see was the blade inching toward him, held level with his frantic eyes. Finally, he took one step too many and stumbled backwards.

Toppling head-over-heels down the entrance stairs was a painful, confusing blur. He hit the street in a cloud of dust and rolled. He scrambled to his feet, ready to run, but nothing pursued him except peals of raucous laughter.

Justin swallowed hard against a dense lump in his throat. The laughter died away in seconds, and the talking and singing resumed as if he’d never been there at all. In his hand almost automatically was his cell phone, and standing in the same spot where he’d been just a minute before, he powered it on to check again. Nothing.

Justin rubbed the back of his neck where he’d landed. “In most dreams I wake up before I hit the ground,” he mumbled.

But if this was a dream, it was like none he had ever experienced before. The rapid pace of his heart at sight of the drunkard’s blade. The smell of his own nervous sweat. The warm breeze of a humid night. He’d never felt these things in a dream before.

Briefly, he considered going back inside to give it another try.

Better not, he thought. They might decide killing me would be even funnier. What kind of people dress like that, anyway—?

His gaze wandering skyward, Justin’s thoughts all at once derailed. The wind had pushed the cloud cover across the endless sky, and through a break, the moon shone in a crescent. And even higher in the sky, half-obscured by the clouds, was a second moon, huge and bronze and also a crescent. So close to the world was it that even on this overcast night, Justin could discern elements of its landscape. Mountains, valleys, and craters—some round and some misshapen, the biggest nearly the size of the sister moon itself.

As Justin traced the line of a lunar canyon to where it ended at a large, slashing crater, he felt farther from home than any map could measure. Lost, in the severest definition of the word.

And then, he heard someone call his name.

Chapter Two

 

“Justin.”

Justin wheeled toward the voice, crouched low and ready to run. Not twenty paces away, a tall, dark figure stood in the street. The hood of a cloak was drawn over his face, revealing nothing of his looks except a high-ridged nose. The silver pommel of a sword sheathed at his side caught the light from two moons.

He stood still and silent as a statue. By his posture alone, Justin recognized him. It was the second man from the hut—the tall man he remembered leaning in the corner of the kitchen, while Justin and the old monk had been sitting at the table.

Justin wasn’t sure whether to run to or from this man. As he stood there, he had to bite his tongue to stifle the questions welling up in his throat: Who are you? What’s happening? Where am I?!

Before he could lose control, a bell tolled.

The tall man’s head snapped in the direction of the sound. Another deep gong came echoing over the rooftops, followed by another, and another. At first, Justin thought it was a clock tower chiming out the time, but then he noticed how the dissonance of the tavern had faded, as all within heard the bell, and responded with ominous silence. Gradually, the quiet evolved into sounds of panic—not just in the tavern but also up and down the entire street, from within every home.

“Justin,” the man said. “Follow me.”

The tall man turned, and he ran.

“Wait!” Justin called. “Is that some kind of alarm? Wait!”

But the tall man did not wait, and Justin sprinted after him.

With cloak billowing, the tall man dashed down the street, deeper into town, leaving the corner tavern behind. The bell sounded again and again, tolling in steady rhythm.

Justin breathed hard as he struggled to keep up. The faint glow of windows coming alight, one by one, was the only thing that kept the tall man from disappearing in the dark completely. He turned down a side street, and Justin followed. The ground beneath his tennis shoes changed from dirt to cobblestone. Every consecutive ring of the bell was louder than the last as they neared the source. The tall man turned another corner, and a few moments later, Justin followed.

Here was an open square, and people in their nightclothes were shuffling in from every adjoining street, converging on a building in the center. Moonlight shone on a swaying bell at the height of a tower. For a moment, Justin lost sight of his guide. Then he spotted the hooded figure, head and shoulders above the rest. The tall man had grabbed a frightened, mustached man by his nightshirt and lifted him almost off his feet. He shouted something at the man, got an answer, then dropped him to the cobbles.

He turned to look at Justin. His hood was thrown back now, and his gray eyes were narrowed and sharp as daggers. Chestnut hair hung shoulder-length, partially obscuring his face, where grew a neglectful beard. Any prepared words shriveled and wilted in Justin’s throat.

With a voice like gravel, the tall man commanded, “Stay close.”

Then he was off running again, with Justin doing his very best to follow. It was all he could do just to keep up as they passed through the town square, exiting on the opposite side. As the bell grew distant and fainter behind him, he became aware that other men were running around him, too, heading the same direction. They were slower, and Justin and his guide passed them by easily. A fleeting glance at one of them conjured uneasy implications in Justin’s head. He was faster than all of them, he realized, because they were weighed down by helmets, swords and shields.

Who are these people? thought Justin. And why am I running toward whatever they’re armed for?!

The cobblestones changed back to dirt, and the buildings thinned. Soon, they were on the outskirts of town, passing agricultural fields dotted with barns and small houses. Coming over a rise in the path, Justin’s eyes went wide. Now, their destination became frighteningly clear.

The tall man unleashed his true velocity, sprinting across a pasture at speed that betrayed his size. He leapt its fence like an athlete and took off across the field toward the objective: not a fight, as Justin had feared, but a farmhouse that was on fire.

Its framework was engulfed in a ball of flame, flickering like a jewel in the night. The surrounding pastures glowed orange from its light, broken by the larger-than-life shadows of would-be rescuers rushing toward the scene. The tall man was halfway there by the time Justin made it to the crossbar fence. Soldiers in ungainly armor were hoisting themselves up and over. Justin climbed over, lost his footing, and hit the ground. All was such chaos that the idea of not running toward the scene of the disaster never even entered his mind. He pushed himself up and sprinted as hard as his legs could carry him.

Livestock lowed in protest at the soldiers invading their fields. Justin passed animals he didn’t recognize. Some looked like horses but weren’t. Others looked like cows but weren’t. He cut close to a bison-like animal with long horns and recoiled when it snorted and pounded its hooves threateningly.

A few guards were circling the building, shouting to one another. Justin reached the fence just in time to see the tall man grab the nearest one by the collar and shake him for information. The guard pointed at the house and solemnly shook his head. Without a second’s hesitation, the tall man threw the guard to the ground, sprinted at the house, lowered his shoulder, and broke straight through the front door.

“No!” Justin shouted.

The guards were yelling too. A few tried to follow but came up short of the door, shielding their faces against the heat.

As Justin reached the house, the sweat coating his face turned searing hot. He tried to move closer, but the brutal heat sucked the air from his lungs and threatened to melt the flesh from his bones. He was forced to back away with his face covered.

Guards were still circling the house, trying to find a point of entry. Flames fluttered from the windows like beckoning maidens. Parts of the roof had already been eaten through. The doorway where the tall man had disappeared was a raging inferno. Surely, he had sealed his fate.

“Justin!”

Justin started at his name and turned, searching for the source. Amidst the gathering crowd of soldiers and onlookers, someone in black robes came jogging up to him. It was the elderly man from the hut.

The monk’s gnarled, old hand gripped Justin’s shoulder. His face was tight with urgency.

“Where is he?” he asked.

Justin, still panting from his run, pointed at the house. The bearded monk stared at the doorway. The urgency in his face hardened, and he began taking off his robes.

A swirling shadow appeared in the doorway, and a figure came charging out. It was the tall man with an unconscious guard thrown over his shoulder, flames riding both of their backs. He dove to safety just as the supports of the house gave way with a frightening thunderclap. The roof fell in, crushing the doorway and spitting sparks. Flames reared up in orange and yellow spectral arms.

Guards bludgeoned out the flames burning on their shoulders and backs. The unconscious guard lay on the ground, unmoving for a few frightening seconds. Then he woke, hacking out smoke, ragged and burned, but alive.

The monk rushed to the tall man, and Justin followed.

“Master Ahlund!” said a gleeful soldier in a gilded helmet. The tall man sat on the ground, panting and coughing. “Master Ahlund, you surely saved this young man’s life. On behalf of the town of Dean, I thank you—”

“Give him some room, would you?!” the monk snapped.

The soldier looked surprised, but he nodded and quickly backed away.

The tall man said not a word. More guards tried to approach him, but the old, white-bearded monk shooed them all away like troublesome children.

“Are you okay?” Justin blurted.

The tall man’s face was black with soot. Smokey fingers trailed from the edges of his charred hair. He pointed at the building and managed, in a painful voice, “My house.”

 

 

The sky glowed with the coming dawn. A crowd of townspeople and guards had assembled to watch in fascinated terror as the tall man’s house burned to the ground.

Justin had no idea where he was, but by now, one thing was clear to him. Here, there were no such things as fire hydrants or pressurized hoses. There were only swords and shields, useless against one of man’s most ancient, elemental enemies. He felt the vulnerability of these people reflected in the face of every onlooker. The alarm bell and the soldiers had been moot. There was no chance of saving the house; probably never had been. One brave guard had entered, searching for occupants in need, and ended up needing saving himself. Nothing could be done except to watch it all happen.

Some tried to offer the tall man words of comfort, but he coughed hard when he tried to reply. All of the guards knew him. They seemed to know who the monk was, too, though they did not address him. There was respect for both these men, and maybe a little fear. No one asked about Justin, but constantly their eyes wandered to him and his clothes.

Justin looked from the fiery wreckage to the horizon. With the coming morning, the sky was fading from black to navy to azure, revealing sprawling, verdant grasslands as far as the eye could see. The wind sent shimmers across the grass like ripples in a tranquil, green ocean. And there were mountains. A range of gray, purple-veined rock encompassed the entire northern horizon, with arms that seemed to wrap in a protective cradle around the steppe-country. Their peaks were jagged razors, violently overlapping and resting against and upon one another. So tall were they that the sun’s rays struck their snowy summits long before it had peeked over the eastern horizon. The crescent-shaped range jutted from the earth like the half-exposed lower jawbone of a fossil titan laid to rest, snow-capped fangs eternally bared.

By the light of morning, the scenery sparked a memory. Justin vaguely recalled lying in the grass, somewhere out on those plains, surrounded by blood and guts and sickness. The tall man, whose name he had learned was Ahlund, had been there.

It was hard to tell if these images were dreams or memories, but there seemed to be a lot of that going on recently. The next thing Justin remembered was being in that kitchen, then waking up in the middle of the night, panicking, and sneaking out.

Turning from the mountains, Justin studied the archaic, stone-built town, even more disconcerting in the dawn, with its windmills, fields of grain and pastures of grazing, unfamiliar animals. All recollection of life prior to waking up on the grasslands seemed a faraway fable. He knew who he was. Justin Holmes, seventeen-year-old high school student. He knew where he should be. Venango County, Pennsylvania. What he didn’t know was what had happened to bring him here—wherever here was.

Alone with his thoughts, Justin hardly noticed as the inferno died down to a smoking, stinking pile of blackened wood, brick and mortar. The excitement was over, the assemblage dispersed, and the guards began poking around the wreckage for spoils.

The tall rancher named Ahlund, however, seemed unconcerned with salvage. On the contrary, his attention was turned far away. He stood upon the crossbar fence of his pasture, scanning the mountainous northern horizon with a spyglass. His cloak and hood had been lost in the fire, and the shirt beneath was scorched. Hanging from his belt was a leather sheath holstering a long sword. His dark hair hung nearly to his shoulders, and his sharp jaw bristled with brown stubble. He had a hard face with strong, rigid features, weathered with scars of hardship and experience.

Justin’s stomach twisted into knots. He had pieced together the story of the preceding night by eavesdropping on the precious few English words exchanged between Ahlund and the monk. It seemed that upon finding Justin gone, the monk had set out looking for him, and he had called on Ahlund to assist in the search. It had been while Ahlund was looking for Justin that his house had somehow caught fire.

Sour guilt made Justin cringe as he watched Ahlund scan the horizon with his spyglass. Had he not been searching town for Justin, this whole disaster might have been averted.

This is all my fault, thought Justin. His home. Destroyed. And it’s all my fault.

Ahlund lowered the spyglass. He climbed down from the fence and went to the monk. As they exchanged words in a strange, foreign language, Justin could only stand quietly, gaping at the northern mountains as the sunrise opened the curtain to their majesty.

Finally, Ahlund joined the guards in searching the remains of his home. The old monk came to Justin.

“What was all that about, Father?” asked Justin.

The responding look on the monk’s white-mossed face was an expression of such disapproval that Justin felt certain he was either about to be scolded or smacked. The old man raised a hand, making Justin flinch, but instead it came down to rest gently on his shoulder.

“I’m no Father, boy,” he said.

“Sorry,” said Justin. “I guess priests are the ones you’re supposed to call Father. What do I call you? Brother?”

“Zechariah.”

“Oh. Okay.” Justin put his thumb to his chest. “Justin Holmes.”

“You mentioned that last night,” the old man said, and though he was rather ugly to look at, his voice sounded regal and ageless. “Come with me, Justin Holmes. There is much to discuss.”

“But,” said Justin, “his house…”

“There’s nothing more we can do here,” said Zechariah. “But I’m sure you’ll make up for it, in time.”

I don’t like the sound of that, thought Justin.

Chapter Three

 

The farmlands came alive with the dawn. Ranchers riding strange, horse-like animals patrolled their pastures, herding livestock to choruses of moos, whinnies and stamping hooves. There were black-furred bison, long-horned red steers, and a white breed of cattle that, to Justin, seemed like a mix between cow and buffalo. A stout dog barked in a nearby pasture as it rounded up stray sheep. In pens near the farmhouses, flightless, ring-necked birds pecked the ground and crowed as women and children gathered eggs. Farmers used oxen-hitched plows to till their fields in rows, bringing up rich, dark earth, while farmhands followed, throwing out handfuls of seed from heavy sacks.

“Summer is nearly over,” said Zechariah, noticing Justin’s interest in the activity as they trod the road toward town. “They hurry to plant the last of the late-season seeds and prepare pasturages to fallow. Keeping the soil fertile on the Gravelands is a delicately balanced art form.”

“Gravelands?” said Justin.

“A Nolian word for these grasslands. Keep up, lad.”

Nolian? thought Justin as he hustled after.

They took a narrow street into town. Men and women in strange clothing went about their morning routines, chatting with one another in the same short, choppy language Justin had first encountered in the tavern the night before. Some children dashed by, chasing one another, as an irritated mother called after. They passed an open-air shop with a hundred or more metal tools hanging on the walls. Justin marveled at the large, mustached blacksmith at the anvil, striking a red-hot slab of something-or-other with a hammer, producing blooms of sparks.

What is this place? Justin kept asking himself. A Renaissance fair, maybe?

His eyes wandered to the double moons in the sky, still visible but faded to white with the dawn.

Who am I kidding? he thought. This isn’t even planet Earth…

They emerged on the opposite end of town, where daylight provided stunning new insights on the geography. Beyond the windmills and Zechariah’s hut, where he had only been able to see darkness the night before, now could be seen only green folded on top of more green. The grasslands rolled on like a vast ocean, maybe for a thousand miles, maybe forever, without a single visible landmark.

Zechariah led Justin downhill to his hut. At the door, he mumbled something Justin took to mean, roughly, “Home, sweet home,” in a language other than English, and inserted a key into the lock.

Upon entering, Zechariah disappeared into one of the adjoining rooms, talking to himself, leaving Justin alone in the kitchen.

The room was the same as it had been the night before, but now he saw it with wiser eyes. Having seen the town, the farms, the guards, the people and their way of life, the house now fit just right. Now, Justin was what didn’t fit. The clock on the wall with the strange symbols taunted him with the tick-tock of each passing second.

For a few minutes Justin stood quietly and watched Zechariah emerge from one doorway, disappear into another, and come out again. Sometimes he carried things in his hands, and sometimes he carried nothing. At one point, he came into the kitchen wearing new, pale gray robes and boots instead of sandals. He tossed a bundle at Justin, who barely got his hands up in time to catch it.

“You’re about my size. Put those clothes on, won’t you?”

“What are you—?” Justin tried to ask, but he was gone again.

Justin unfolded the bundle to find a pair of tan, woolen pants, a linen undershirt, a brown shirt, and a brown jacket that felt about as comfortable as a burlap sack.

“You’ve got to be kidding me,” Justin said.

Zechariah was back, a book in one hand and a pair of boots in another. He slammed the book down on the table and opened it. His finger traced its weathered parchment, and his beard bobbed up and down as he mouthed the words.

“Um, Zechariah?” said Justin.

“Tell me, Justin,” he said. “What languages do you speak?”

Justin shrugged. “Just English.”

Zechariah’s eyebrows scrunched up. “Just what?”

“The language I’m speaking right now,” Justin said.

Zechariah nodded. “And can you read and write?”

“I’m not stupid.”

Zechariah spun the book around and held it in front of Justin. “Then read something.”

Justin made a haughty show of clearing his throat, but when he leaned over the book, he saw that the letters were not from the English alphabet. Like the clock and the plaque at the tavern, the symbols were unlike any with which he was familiar.

Justin bit his lip. “I can’t.”

Zechariah nodded. Then his face sharpened, and he shoved the boots into Justin’s hands. “What are you waiting for? Put those clothes on.”

Justin held up the shirt—plain, earthy brown, with laces instead of buttons, no pockets, and no collar.

“I’ll look ridiculous in this,” he said.

“You look ridiculous now,” said Zechariah, pointing at a nearby door. “Try that cloak in there, too. The gray one. With a little luck, you’ll pass for normal. Hurry up. We have to get going.”

He snatched up the book and left the kitchen, muttering, “If I just had some time. As many of the books as I can carry…”

“Get going where, exactly?” Justin called, but no reply was given.

Justin grumbled as he rolled the clothes into a ball and went through the door. It was the room in which he had spent part of the previous night. The chamber pot was exactly where he’d left it. There was, as Zechariah had indicated, some gray fabric draped over the bedpost that turned out to be a cloak, though Justin had little idea what he was expected to do with it.

“Well,” Justin said, with a sigh of begrudged resignation. “I guess if it’ll make this old guy happy. How do you put any of this stuff on, anyway?”

It took him several minutes to figure out how the clothes were supposed to go on, and in the end, he still wasn’t sure everything was where it should be. There was no mirror to confirm it, but the new clothes made him feel even more ridiculous than he’d anticipated. His comfortable and familiar jeans were exchanged for a rigid pair of trousers that were very rough against his skin. His broken-in tennis shoes were replaced by stiff, unpadded boots half a size too large. He abandoned the linen shirt and instead kept his tee, over which went the brown lace-up shirt. Next came the jacket, buttoned up the front and with forearm-length sleeves. Overtop of it all went the gray, hooded cloak which, much to his confusion, fastened by way of a brooch at the neck. By the time he’d figured out how to put it all on, Zechariah was pounding on the door impatiently.

“I’m coming,” Justin growled. He lowered his voice to a whisper. “Can’t believe this.”

He fished his wallet and keys out of his jeans and slid them into the pockets of his new jacket. With a silent prayer, he attempted to power on his phone. Justin chewed nervously on the inside of his cheek. The display lit up for a split second, and then it went black.

“Dead,” he said, slipping the phone into his jacket pocket. “And I have a feeling I won’t find an electrical outlet anytime soon.”

Giving his jeans and tennis shoes one last fleeting and regretful look, he left the room.

He found Zechariah with a stack of at least ten books on the kitchen table. Several packs were slung over his shoulders, and though there was a manner of haste about him, he was still taking the time to read.

“What are the books for?” Justin asked.

“Research,” said Zechariah without looking. “A pity I can take so few, but your back is only so strong.”

“Where do you plan on taking these—wait, my back?”

Zechariah looked up at him. “You wouldn’t force an old man to carry such a load.”

“Well…”

“That’s a good lad.”

Justin flinched as he watched the old man load the books—all thick, hardcover monsters—one by one, into a sturdy satchel.

“How far do I have to carry those things?” he asked, but after it was out, switched to a different line of questioning. “What happened to Ahlund’s house?”

“It was no accident, if that’s what you mean. The culprits took something very valuable to Master Ahlund Sims, then razed his home to the ground.”

“You mean they stole something? Who did it?” Justin squinted at the old man. “And for that matter, who are you?”

“I am a scholar and a scribe,” said Zechariah. “And as for your first question, I suppose we’ll find out, soon enough.”

“We?”

Zechariah froze. His penetrating eyes came to rest on Justin’s. The boy began to feel very small under his scrutinizing gaze, and again, he felt as if he might be struck for his callousness.

“Yes. We. Do not forget, Justin, that Ahlund was out searching for you when his home was attacked and his precious item stolen.”

Justin shut his eyes, feeling as if he really had been dealt a physical blow.

“I know,” he said. “It’s all I can think about. And I’m sorry. I know it was my fault. But I can’t be running off anywhere right now.”

“Oh? You have somewhere more important to be?”

“Yeah. My home! I don’t know how I got here, but I’m not supposed to be here!”

“Apparently, you were lying unconscious out on the plains,” said Zechariah. “Ahlund found you and brought you to me.”

“I don’t mean how I got to your house. I mean how I got here. To this place! To this… world! I should be trying to figure out how to get back. Not dressing up in funny clothes, or hauling a bunch of books around, or… Or wasting my time trying to explain all this.” He paused to catch his breath. “Sorry, Zechariah, but you wouldn’t understand.”

“Probably not,” said Zechariah. “Where are you from, Justin?”

“Pennsylvania.”

The old man nodded, but by the look on his face, Justin might as well have said “Neptune”. For some reason, this condescension, however polite, lit an angry fire in Justin. Suddenly, he felt more furious than he had ever been in his life.

“You’ve never even heard of it!” he snapped. “I bet nobody in this God-forsaken, backwater town has heard of it. Just look at this place! Look at the clothes I was wearing! Look at me!” He took the cell phone from his pocket. “And you think this thing does me any good? You think I can call anyone to come and help?!”

Justin was seeing red. His emotions had the better of his self-control, and he was only partially aware of his own actions as he hauled back and pitched his phone across the room. It hit the wall above the washbasin with a crack.

Watching his phone’s screen shatter and the pieces go skittering across the floor, Justin gritted his teeth so hard it sounded like the grinding of glass marbles in his ears. Now he was angry both at the situation and at himself for behaving so stupidly. His hands balled into fists.

“I’m not some lost boy who just wandered into town,” Justin breathed, lower than a whisper now. “Where I come from, we drive cars, and we go to work, and we watch football, and—and we only have one moon! Where I come from is nowhere close to this place. It’s not even far away. It’s completely different. It’s… another world.”

Justin hung his head. An embarrassing silence filled the room where his irrational passions had formerly run rampant. The blood drained from his face, and all that anger, just as quickly as it had surfaced, now devolved into spiraling despair. Little gulping noises came from his throat as he fought the lump there, trying to keep it from surfacing, where it would surely bring either tears or hysteria.

“I believe you, Justin,” said Zechariah. “And I may be able to help you. But first, I need you to help me.”

Zechariah waited for Justin to look him in the eye before continuing. His face was at once reproachful and compassionate.

“A young lady is in trouble,” he said. “The men who burned Ahlund’s home, as I said, were searching for something quite precious. I should clarify this. It was not a thing that they were after, but a person. A woman, living under Ahlund’s protection in secret. We can’t possibly know who the attackers were, but their plans apparently did not involve killing her outright, as her body hasn’t been found. Ahlund believes that she was kidnapped. To what aim, we can only speculate, but chances are it’s unsavory.”

“So while Ahlund was searching town for me,” Justin said, “they took her? I caused this?”

“They must have been watching the house, seen Ahlund leave, and taken the opportunity to steal her out from under his nose. But to say you caused anything is self-defeating. Ahlund has left her alone in the house before, without incident. This night just happened to be the one time he shouldn’t have. And who knows? Even if he had been home, they might have overpowered him or killed him in his sleep. Odds are, you unwittingly saved his life.”

Though his mind was fevered and weary, Justin tried his best to process all the information he was being given. It was hard enough to follow some of the eccentricities of the old man’s lilting accent. His voice was like a church song, with pleasantness at the foreground and underlying intensity just waiting for a chance to erupt.

“In any case,” Zechariah continued, “this is the way things now stand. A young woman is in the hands of an enemy that seeks to do her harm, and Ahlund will soon leave town to attempt her rescue. We don’t know how large or how capable a force this enemy is. Ahlund could be killed if he tries to hunt them down alone, but he’s too stubborn to listen to reason. He may need our help, Justin. Certainly, she needs our help. I know you must be very afraid right now, but sometimes, a man must forget himself. Sometimes, he must act.”

Justin sneered, shaking his head bitterly at this nonsense. Did this stupid old man think he actually cared? Justin didn’t care what Zechariah had to say about being a man or about anything else, for that matter. He didn’t care about this town or its people. He didn’t care about Ahlund or his house. He didn’t care about the girl. He didn’t care about anything in his world.

And try as he might to convince himself of all those things, Justin knew not a single one of them was true. There was no fooling himself. The feelings were there, just as real and all-encompassing and uncontrollable as any rage or confusion or fear. He couldn’t not care.

He looked down at his new clothes, from his cloak to his boots.

This is crazy, he thought. Absolutely bat crazy. I wonder what dad would say if he could see me right now.

The answer came instantaneously, from the part of Justin’s brain that did the knowing, not the thinking.

He would say, “Do your best, and don’t look back.”

Justin walked to the kitchen table and picked up the satchel of books. He buckled slightly under its bulk. It must have weighed sixty pounds. He hoped he wouldn’t have to carry it very far. Zechariah smiled.

Chapter Four

 

With every step, it felt as if he were about to fall over. His new outfit was ten times the weight of his old clothes, and the stiffness of the fabric didn’t make walking any easier. In addition, an extra sixty or so pounds were slung over his shoulder, badly interfering with his balance. He must have been a pathetic sight, lugging the heavy satchel of books, tripping over his too-large boots, cloak dragging in the dirt as he tagged along behind Zechariah.

He and the old man almost matched now. His glaucous cloak was nearly an identical shade as the old man’s gray, clergy-esque robes. Still, looks weren’t everything. Even in the proper attire, Justin knew that under anything less than casual scrutiny, he wouldn’t pass for a local. He didn’t even know what half of these clothes were for.

“Come along,” Zechariah barked from up the hill.

He adjusted the satchel of books and double-timed it. The old man kept a swift pace as they traveled between the swards and agricultural fields north of town. The morning was still young, and the crossbar fences cast long shadows across their way.

He managed to close the gap, matching Zechariah’s pace as they topped the hill. Ahead, a ghostly vapor of stale smoke rose from the remnants of Ahlund’s house, blurring an otherwise cloudless, sapphire sky.

“Her name is Leah,” said Zechariah. “Princess of Nolia.”

“Nolia?” Justin said. “Is that this place?”

“No,” said Zechariah. “This town is called Dean. Nolia is a country to the west, beyond the Gravelands. Weeks ago, assassins murdered the king and his entire family. The queen, their children, brothers, sisters. All possible successors were killed in a single evening. The royal bloodline was severed in one, clean cut. Almost, anyway. Somehow, the king’s only daughter—a young woman not much older than you—escaped the regicide unscathed. The royal advisors so feared for her life and the future of Nolia that it was decided she should remain in hiding until the masterminds behind the plot could be brought to justice.”

Zechariah stopped talking as they passed an adolescent boy mending a fence joint along their path. The kid paid them no mind. He barely even looked up from his work except to wipe the sweat from beneath his straw hat. Still, Zechariah remained silent until they were out of earshot.

“Some suspect that the coup might have originated from inside the Nolian government,” Zechariah continued, under his breath. “So hiding her within the borders was too risky. Instead, she came to the unassuming little town of Dean, and, so as to not draw attention to herself, brought only a single bodyguard.”

“Ahlund?” said Justin.

Zechariah nodded. “She’s been here, secretly under his protection, for upwards of two weeks. In the interest of her safety, the people have been allowed to believe that she was killed along with the rest of her family. But, apparently, someone knew the truth. And last night, they acted.”

Justin shook his head. It was bad enough that this kidnapping was partially his fault, but for it to be a princess? He just couldn’t catch a break.

“Isn’t that a little risky to begin with?” said Justin. “Putting just one soldier in charge of keeping her safe?”

“Oh, but he’s no soldier. He’s not even a man of Nolia. The people of Dean think he’s a wealthy rancher from inner Darvelle, come here to stake claim on prosperous land. Little do they know he’s actually a sword-for-hire. A mercenary paid by the Nolian government to keep their princess safe.”

“A mercenary?” Justin said, with a thrill of excitement.

“Yes. And somewhat of a legend in the world’s inner circles. A very dangerous man. At any rate, now you understand a little of what’s at stake. Now you see why we must help rescue this girl. I don’t know who took her, whether it was insurrectionists or someone else entirely. But I suspect that with the potential of a royal ransom to be made, almost anyone would be interested in finding a princess of Nolia. Oh, and a word to the wise: for now, don’t bring any of this up in front of Ahlund. He wouldn’t be pleased to know that I told you.”

By now, they had nearly arrived at the wreckage of Ahlund’s house. There was no visible fire, but the blackened pile still smoked like a chimney. Beside it stood Ahlund, silhouetted against the northern mountain range.

“The question is,” said Justin, “how do you know all of this?”

“Pardon?” said Zechariah.

“I mean, if this is all supposed to be a secret, what makes you the exception?”

“Rather forward, aren’t you?”

Justin shrugged.

“Ahlund and I are acquaintances. We’ve discussed these issues before. Privately, of course.”

You’re friends with a mercenary? What do you do, anyway?”

“I told you. I’m a scholar and a scribe. A keeper of histories. And I make it a point to know people, and their business.”

A vaguer answer, I could not have asked for, thought Justin, but he let it go.

“But then why would he bring me to you?” asked Justin. “And how did he find me in the first place?”

“I suggest you ask him that,” Zechariah said. “If you can find an opportune moment.”

Justin turned his attention to Ahlund. The tall man was outfitted for travel, having replaced his burnt and ruined clothes with new ones. He wore a cloak of forest green, with hood drawn, and one gloved hand rested atop the hilt of his long sword.

A mercenary… thought Justin, and wondered just what sort of “opportune moment” there could be to demand answers from a man like that.

Standing nearby were three of Ahlund’s ranch animals. They had umber-brown, muscular bodies, similar in size and shape to a horse, standing tall enough to look Justin eye-to-eye. Like horses, they had short hair, hooves, and wiry tails, but their long faces had the pronounced brow ridge of a camel, and their snouts were elephant-like trunks that hung halfway to the ground. To Justin, they looked like the kind of bizarre, extinct species he might see painted on the wall at a natural history museum. An ice-age, mammalian precursor to modern life. He stared at the odd creatures, watching their trunks pull up clumps of grass and place it in their awaiting mouths. All three had saddles on their backs.

Justin squinted at the creatures. He had a vague recollection of being slung over the back of one of these things, and realized this must have been how Ahlund had brought him here from out there on the grasslands, where he’d been, as Zechariah had put it, “found”.

As Zechariah and Ahlund drew near and began conversing in that foreign language again, Justin took great pleasure in dropping the heavy pack to the ground beside him. He glared at it as he massaged his aching shoulder.

Just how long does this dusty geezer expect to be gone? he wondered. What’s he need books for on a search-and-rescue mission?

Something seemed to be decided between the two men, and Justin worked up the courage to say what he had prepared.

“Ahlund,” he said. Despite having heard the name aloud various times, he still wasn’t sure if he was pronouncing it right, but Ahlund seemed to be paying attention, so he pressed on. “Last night, you were out looking for me because I was stupid and ran away. This whole thing is my fault. I didn’t realize what trouble I was causing. I just wanted to say that I’m—”

Ahlund turned away in disinterest, walking toward the largest of the animals. In one quick movement, he swung himself up and into the saddle. He said something to Zechariah, but it was in words Justin did not know. Then he shouted a command, and his mount reared with a whinnying cry. Hooves thudded against the ground as Ahlund galloped off. He did not look back.

“…Sorry,” Justin finished. He looked at Zechariah. “What did he say?”

“He told us not to follow him,” said Zechariah, “if we want to live to see another day.”

Justin wondered whether it was supposed to be advice or a threat.

A trail of trampled grass marked the tall mercenary’s path. In only a few moments, there was an impressive distance between Ahlund and his former home. He was headed toward the mountains.

“It doesn’t seem like he wants our help,” Justin said.

“I never said he wanted our help,” said Zechariah. “I said he needed it. We’d best be off, ourselves.”

Zechariah slung his packs over one of the remaining animals and strapped them securely to the saddle. Justin approached the other one, but he didn’t know what he was supposed to do. The thing seemed to be watching him, and despite its docile manner, he was suddenly wondering what kind of teeth were under that trunk.

Imitating Zechariah, he lifted the satchel of books and carefully draped it over the animal’s back. It didn’t seem to mind, so he searched the saddle for a means of attachment.

The animal shifted its weight, and Justin jumped back, thinking he was about to get kicked or something. Zechariah laughed.

“What are these things?” Justin demanded.

“Oh, come now,” said Zechariah.

“I’m serious. This thing is huge. How am I supposed to get on?”

Zechariah cleared his throat and moved to assist him.

“This,” he said, placing a hand on the animal’s neck, “is a steed.” He quickly and efficiently slung some leather straps about, attaching the satchel of books to the saddle. “You ride it. To get on, you put your foot in the stirrup here, grab the pommel there, pull yourself up, and swing your leg over to the other stirrup.”

“Steed,” said Justin. “Okay, but I don’t know how to—”

“They are smarter than they look. It will know to follow. All you have to do is not fall off. Now, come on. We must hurry to stand any chance of catching up. Step lively, boy.”

Justin gave the animal another quick look and then shrugged. He grabbed the piece at the front of the saddle, slid his foot into the stirrup thing, did a few warm-up motions, and pulled himself up. His stomach was the first thing into the saddle, and he tried to work his body like a lever to get up to a sitting position. When he tried to swing his leg over, it got caught behind his first leg. The momentum carried him up and over the animal, and he let out a shout as he toppled head-over-heels into the grass on the other side.

The steed huffed and stomped its hooves in irritation. From his position on the ground, Justin could see the two steeds and the old man, all watching him. Maybe it was his imagination, but even the steeds seemed to be wearing looks of disapproval.

Justin pushed himself up, shaking his head. “Sorry. Foot got caught, and I couldn’t pull it up to… Well, it’s trickier than it looks.”

Zechariah said nothing. Justin tried again. This time he almost made it, but had to lower himself back down when things started to go awry. The steed shuffled with discomfort. By now, it knew that it was dealing with an amateur. The third time, he made it up and got his leg over, and—though slowly and lacking anything akin to grace—he did manage to get his foot into the other stirrup and his butt settled in the saddle.

He held tight to the pommel with both hands and jerked his shoulders from side to side, fighting balance. His thighs ached from the position already. Smiling from ear to ear, he looked up at Zechariah, expecting a word of congratulations, but the old man was just staring off into the distance and stroking his beard.

“Zechariah?” he said.

“Hmm?” said the old man. “Oh! Yes, well. We’re off then.” He bunched up his robes in one hand and hopped onto his steed with such ease that Justin’s smile turned to disgust.

Zechariah tugged at his steed’s reigns, and the animal started moving. He said something over his shoulder, and Justin’s steed followed.

Justin seized up with the movement, fighting gravity that seemed to tug at him first from one side and then the other. Every step was a battle, and his attempted adjustments were just as perilous as the steed’s movements.

The slow walk sped up to a canter, and now Justin was fighting the additional movement of bumping up and down. He held for dear life to the pommel. As the canter became a run, Justin gave up on sitting straight. He dug his feet into the stirrups, grabbed the edges of the saddle with white knuckles, and leaned his body against the animal’s neck.

They sped to a sprint. The grass whizzing beneath him was as dizzying as it was frightening. Hooves thundered over the steppes. When he dared to hazard a look ahead, he saw that his steed was following Zechariah without incident.

He noticed something else, too. Jostling with the steed’s movements, strapped to the old man’s side, and formerly hidden by his robes, was a scabbard. At its head, the bronze hilt of a sword gleamed in the morning sunlight.

Justin looked over his shoulder, saw the line of smoke from Ahlund’s home retreating behind them, and wondered, What have I gotten myself into?

Chapter Five

 

The hilltop town of Dean faded behind them until it was only a speck. Then a rise overtook it, and it was gone.

The steeds thundered over the grasslands with trunks curled prone beneath mouths gasping for air. Justin was trying so hard just to hold on to the saddle that sightseeing was easier said than done. There wasn’t much to see, anyway. The vast, grassland wilderness was practically empty. There were hunting birds gliding on the currents high above, which meant there must have been small ground animals, though he saw none. A few times, he saw brown spots that turned out to be roaming herds of wild bison. They passed no landmarks to speak of. There were no other towns, no sign of human life; only the embrace of the crescent-shaped mountain range, wrapping its rocky arms around the horizons as they rode.

Zechariah looked back frequently to check on the boy. Not once did the three riders stop or communicate, except for choice words shrieked from Justin whenever he lost his balance and thought he was about to experience a short fall to a quick end.

As the mountains grew larger and Justin’s legs grew number, he found it impossible to avoid dwelling on his strange plight. Introspection was a frustrating thing, caught in a situation as seemingly hopeless as his. He thought of the people in this place: the barflies in cloaks and hoods, the farm boy in breeches and straw hat, and the soldiers in chain mail armor and helmets. He thought of the culture: a small farming town gathered around a bell tower, with volunteer guards, and no traces of fossil fuels or electrical power. But most of all, he thought of the geography: vast grasslands, many hundred miles from end to end, lapping at the feet of a mountain range of such height and expanse as to dazzle the imagination. To Justin’s knowledge, there simply was no such place. It did not exist.

The other great conundrum was how he had gotten here. The memories of his life were in perfect condition. His childhood in mid-western Pennsylvania. Key events of his life. His senior year of high school. Touring colleges.

The recent memories, however, were foggy. Time drifted into a silent movie dreamscape of feelings and images. Driving his pickup truck down Allegheny Avenue with a bag of rock salt for the driveway. Snow. Lots of snow. A Christmas tree, and a model ship. Shoveling the blacktop. Then, nothing.

Cross-fade to fragmentary memories of waking up on the ground, lying in the grass, with a tall stranger, Ahlund Sims, checking him for injuries. There had been blood, but not his blood. Something was dead beside him with its guts hanging out, and the sight of it had made him throw up. He’d felt dizzy and sick, and Ahlund had loaded him on the back of his horse—no, not a horse, but a steed—and taken him away. Then he was in that kitchen, accepting a drink from Zechariah and looking at an eighteen-hour clock before feeling sick again and passing out, only to wake up in the night, scared and confused.

At first, finding a way home had seemed like the obvious priority. Now, it was becoming painfully clear that whether he would ever see home again was a matter up for debate.

Don’t think about that, Justin told himself. This is all just a dream or something. You’ll wake up soon. You’ll wake up, and you’ll be home.

But he hadn’t woken up yet.

Presently, Justin spotted something up ahead. He blinked, thinking it might be some sort of illusion, but the image stayed the same. Atop a mound-like hill stood a tower made of stone.

Minutes later, Ahlund brought his steed to a halt beneath the shadow of the tower. Zechariah did likewise, and Justin’s steed obediently followed. In its heyday, the tower would have been very tall, maybe the size of a lighthouse. Now, only half of it still stood. Stone blocks as big as hay bails lay scattered like the bones of a desecrated ossuary. The dilapidated structure was covered with thick moss, and the fallen portion was overgrown with creepers, as nature worked long and hard to destroy what man had so quickly created and abandoned.

Justin was the first off his steed, though not entirely on purpose. He tried to lift his leg over, found too late that it was cramped into position, and fell off the animal’s back. He landed on his back with a thud, half buried in the high grasses.

The pain in Justin’s legs was everlasting, and rather than try to get up, he just lay there, staring up at the cloudless sky, making no attempt to move.

“Get up,” said Zechariah. “And get that burden off your steed or he’ll get saddle sores.”

“I’m the one with the saddle sores.” Justin tried to sit up and groaned. “I can’t move my legs.”

Ahlund disappeared through the tower doorframe. There were echoes from within as his boots clacked against stone stairs.

“Why did we stop?” Justin asked from the ground.

“The steeds need rest.”

“I don’t know how much more I can ride. Are we getting close?”

“I suspect Ahlund will tell us, once he’s had a chance to look from the top.”

“What is this place anyway?”

“A watchtower,” said Zechariah. “Long ago, a great kingdom ruled this part of the world. They had a citadel in the mountains and used watchtowers on the Gravelands to relay information. There were once many like this one, but most have been salvaged for the stone. Any more questions?”

There might have been, had Ahlund not reappeared from the tower at that moment. Justin and Zechariah waited for news, but he said nothing. Finally, Zechariah asked, “Any change?”

Ahlund poured water into his mouth from a bladder-container. “We’ve gained ground,” he said. “A dozen of them, still heading north. They run their steeds too hard. We may catch them within the day.”

“A good thing we came along,” said Zechariah. “Twelve against one would have been slim odds. Where could they be taking her, I wonder. Perhaps one of the hamlets at the foot of the mountains?”

“I suspect there’s a detachment waiting nearby. If we can intercept before then, we have a chance.”

“Be encouraged. If they haven’t killed the princess by now, then that is probably not their intention.”

Ahlund’s gaze came to rest deliberately on Zechariah. His face was a block of stone. Then he gave Justin the same look, and had Justin been standing, that glare would have been enough to sit him down.

“Oh! Yes, I told him about the princess,” said Zechariah matter-of-factly. “No point hiding it from him, Master Sims. Who is he going to tell, after all?”

“You shouldn’t be here,” Ahlund said, pointing at Zechariah. He turned his glare back to Justin. His gray eyes flashed. “And neither should you.”

You’re telling me, thought Justin.

“On your feet, already,” Zechariah growled.

It was a painful endeavor, but Justin managed to stand. The inside of his legs felt blistered and raw, but the stiffness pained him the most. He had clung his legs so tightly for fear of falling that they felt permanently locked in that position, and he stood bow-legged.

“That guy’s delightful,” said Justin.

Zechariah cocked a bushy white eyebrow. “I pray I’m half as delightful the day my own house burns down.”

“Noted,” said Justin. “So what’s going to happen when we find these guys?”

“We take back Princess Anavion.”

“Uh-huh.”

“And I don’t suspect they will part with her willingly.”

Zechariah rifled through his saddlebag and came up with a weapon. He handed it to Justin.

Justin held it balanced on his hands, staring wide-eyed. It was a blade, though certainly not big enough to be called a sword. It was sheathed in a scabbard of tough leather and had a knobby handle made of polished, black wood.

“Do you know how to use it?” asked Zechariah.

“Absolutely not,” said Justin.

Zechariah took back the weapon. He bent down and tied the scabbard to Justin’s lower right leg.

“Now, if you need it,” said Zechariah, “you can draw it easily on steedback. If you’re on the ground, you just stoop a bit to draw it. Let me see it.”

Justin hesitated but took a grip on the black handle and pulled. The scabbard stayed where it was, and the weapon slid out in his fist. For some reason, he expected the steel to ring brightly as it was drawn, but there was only a dull sliding noise. It was a dagger with a blade the length of his forearm. He studied it before giving it to Zechariah.

Zechariah held it in his right hand. He ran his other hand along the edge of the dagger. Justin gasped, thinking the old man had surely just cut himself badly, but to Justin’ surprise, Zechariah presented his palm, and there was no blood. Not a mark.

“A dirk has only one cutting edge,” Zechariah said. “The other edge is unsharpened, like a knife. See how the tip is sharply pointed? It’s meant for thrusting and stabbing, not for slashing.”

“Hold it like this for defense,” he said, and held it pointed forward, with wrist bent. “It isn’t a strong blade, and it has no crossguard. If someone attacks, you’re better off to dodge than block. But if you have no choice, do this.” He held the handle with both hands—the left cupping the right—and demonstrated how to brace oneself for the impact of blade against blade. “Now, when attacking, use only quick thrusts. Never swing it wildly like a sword, and never fully extend your arm, or else you leave yourself open.” He stabbed at the air in a flourish of lighting-quick attacks. “This weapon is meant to disable and discourage, but a well-placed cut to the throat—” his wrist spun with a slash at the air, “or a careful stab—” he threw his body forward, leading with the knife, “can kill a man. However, both put you very close to the target, which I would not recommend.

“The most important thing to remember is this: a dead man can still kill you. Even a perfect, lethal strike will not kill instantaneously. It can take minutes, or even hours, and a man in his death throes can kill you just as easily as a healthy one can. Sometimes more easily. After all, what has he to lose, once the killing blow has been dealt?” He held the knife by the dull edge of the blade with the handle presented to Justin. “Not a very thorough lesson, I admit, but it will have to do for now.”

“Uh, thanks,” Justin said numbly as he took the dagger and carefully, gracelessly replaced it in the scabbard at his calf.

Zechariah nodded. “If all else fails, just treat it like normal, old fisticuffs. There’s more at stake, but the same rules apply.”

“Okay,” said Justin. He decided not to bring up the fact that he had never been in a fistfight in his life, nor even harbored feelings of aggression toward another human being strong enough to merit physical action.

I don’t know how I got here, he thought, but maybe I died in my world, and this is some kind of purgatory. Maybe if I die here, I just go somewhere else. Or even back to Earth.

The next thought came unbidden to his mind. Or maybe you just die.

He let a shuddering breath leave his lungs as he felt sweat start to bead on his forehead.

He was torn from his thoughts as a dented canteen was tossed his direction. He juggled it, but managed a catch. He could have downed the whole canteen but took only a small gulp and swished it in his mouth to savor it before swallowing. He gave the canteen back to Zechariah.

“Zechariah,” he said.

Zechariah looked at him, but Justin chewed on his tongue for a moment before proceeding, trying to put the words together before they came out.

“I’m… I’m not from here. Like I told you back in town, I’m from a different world, far away, where there’s no such thing as steeds. But we have horses, which are kind of close. I’ve never been outdoors for this long in my life, and I don’t go rescuing damsels in distress. I go to school and work part-time for minimum wage. I don’t belong here. I don’t know how I got here or why. And you don’t either, do you?”

With a sigh, Zechariah conceded. “No. No, I don’t. I have a guess, but…”

“What is it? What’s your guess?”

“It can wait,” he said sternly. “For your sake, I hope to prove myself wrong. We have enough to deal with, at present. And besides, there’s no point in bothering with it right now.”

“Why?” Justin asked.

Because,” said Zechariah. “We’re bound to catch those kidnappers soon, and you might not survive the encounter. Then both of our problems will be solved, and I will not have wasted time pondering this dilemma, only to have it solved within the day. Now if you’ll excuse me.”

He turned away, and that was that.

Chapter Six

 

Justin woke with a start. All above him was dull gray. He wondered what time it was, and whether he was going to be late for school.

But a strange breeze was tugging at the edges of his hair. It was not his bedroom ceiling above him but a cloudy sky. For a moment, confusion took him. Then a boot dug into the vulnerable spot between his ribs and pelvis.

“Ow!” he yelped, sitting up.

“Up, already!” barked Zechariah. “Never have I met a man who spent so much time on the ground!”

Justin blinked hard. He’d fallen asleep in the shadow of the broken tower. They couldn’t have been resting for more than thirty minutes, but it felt as if he’d been asleep for hours. Zechariah was saddling their steeds, and Ahlund was already astride his own.

All Justin wanted to do was shut his eyes again. He was exhausted. His stomach ached with hunger. He hadn’t eaten anything at all since arriving in this world.

Thought I was back home, thought Justin. For a split second, I thought I was—

“Come on!” Zechariah said again, and started at Justin to kick him again.

Justin scrambled to his feet and fled from the boot. “I’m up! What’s the rush?”

“They’ve stopped to rest,” said Ahlund. His face was emotionless, as always, but his steed tramped its feet almost as if channeling Ahlund’s impatience. “We can catch them within the hour.”

Within the hour, thought Justin as he shook off the clinging weariness and rushed to his steed. Thought I had more time. Now I’m being rushed off to my death!

He managed to get into the saddle with a little less trouble than that morning. No sooner had he and Zechariah mounted up than Ahlund shouted, and his steed took off over the grasslands.

Justin licked his lips, but his mouth was sticky and dry. He looked at his own hands, amazed at the way they quivered of their own accord like frosted autumn leaves.

“Can’t I stay here?” he asked. “You can come back for me when it’s over.”

“No. Are you ready?”

“I don’t know.”

Zechariah nodded. “An honest answer, and a wise one. Follow my lead, Master Holmes.”

He made a clucking noise in his cheek, and his steed was off and running. Justin’s was eager to follow, and he nearly fell off its back at the unexpected momentum.

“No,” said Justin. “Don’t go. Turn around. Stop! Whoa, pony, whoa! Halt! Stop, Seabiscuit! Please?”

Pleading wasn’t helping. His steed only picked up speed, following Zechariah down the grassy slope. He grabbed the reins and tried pulling, but nothing happened. Desperate, Justin kicked his heels into the tender part behind its ribs—the spot where Zechariah had kicked him seconds before. The steed huffed loudly, but far from coming to a halt, it quickened its pace even more.

They were riding faster than they had all day, and all Justin could do was hold on. Ahlund’s steed seemed to possess unearthly stamina. He was far ahead of them, making a beeline for their quarry.

Justin’s heart was in his throat, beating nearly as fast as the hooves of his steed. In his mind’s eye, he watched Zechariah’s little stabbing motions in the air with the dagger, imagining blood spurting with every thrust. He looked over the side of his steed, considering abandoning ship, but the ground whizzed beneath him like rushing water. He dared not jump.

Zechariah looked back and seemed satisfied that Justin was still with him. They rode over a small rise, and, overtaking the crest, they were suddenly there. And battle changed from an idea to a reality.

The enemy encampment was less than five hundred yards away. Men scrambled for weapons and steeds at sight of Ahlund’s approach. He was halfway there before any of them could gain their mounts. He drew his sword, holding it aloft as he rode, and a moment later, carried on the wind, Justin heard the sound of his bellowing war cry.

Justin spotted a woman being forced onto the back of a steed just before its rider took off with her. The rest turned to face Ahlund, mounting steeds and charging at him. He never slowed. Just like barreling into the burning building the night before, he plunged into them, headlong.

With swords drawn, two riders closed on the mercenary from either side. Summer sun reflected off steel as one swung and the other stabbed. Ahlund jerked with a wicked block, knocking the first attacker from his steed to hit the ground in a bone-snapping roll. Before the second enemy’s blade could land, Ahlund slashed him across the chest, and he dropped his weapon and slouched in the saddle. A third came in head-on with a lumberjack chop. Ahlund ducked it. Though their steeds grazed shoulders as he passed, he still did not slow.

Justin could hardly breathe. He was so close now that he could see the faces of the enemies. He could see their eyes, their beards. Ahlund had broken through and was chasing down the rider who had taken the woman. The enemy soldiers, every one of them armed and mounted on steedback, split up. Half went after Ahlund. Half turned to meet Zechariah and Justin.

Ahlund’s hand whipped forward. A hunting knife pinwheeled through the air and found its mark with a sickening thump in the soft spot between the fleeing rider’s neck and shoulder. He went rigid and tumbled sideways from the saddle, leaving the young woman alone on the steed.

Zechariah drew his sword and rode straight for the enemy. Justin, out of no desire of his own, was right behind him. All thought and emotion within Justin was gone now. There was only unbridled, crystalline terror.

Soldiers were suddenly all around him. Five or six or seven. Some coming from the front, others circling around to attack from the side. He could see the colors of their eyes, the imperfections of their faces. Some wore countenances contorted with fury. Others were tranquil. Some were even joyous. All were locked with intense focus on the task at hand.

And then, all hell broke loose.

One of them swung his sword at Zechariah, and steel rang as the old man blocked the attack and then drove his blade through the man’s neck. Justin would never have guessed that the human body contained so much blood. Like the juice of a ripe tomato, it squirted from the wound as the man writhed, hand clutching his neck in hopes of containing it, but with every heartbeat, a fresh jet shot between his fingers, soaking his shirt, his face, his beard, his steed, the grass. He fell, and just like that, a soul was taken.

Fear clutched Justin’s stomach with razor-sharp talons. There was vomit in his throat. His shaking hands were locked tight on the reins as he tried to look everywhere at once. An enemy rider came at him with weapon poised to kill. Zechariah was there, attacking from the flank and catching the rider off balance. Their blades sang, and he drove the soldier back, sword-arm flashing quicker than a man of his years should have been able to move.

Another came from the side and stabbed at Justin. Out of reflex, he turned away from it, and his lucky tug on the reins saved his life. The steed turned at the pull, and the oncoming blade instead hit a glancing blow to the animal’s hindquarters. It cried in pain and anger and reared up on its hind legs. Justin was thrown backwards from the saddle.

He hit the ground on his back. Urgency and terror gave him no time to be stunned. He pulled himself to his feet as quickly as he could and watched everything in wide-eyed fear and disgust. All was mayhem and yelling and the ringing of metal on metal. The men attacked Zechariah from every side, and he wheeled his steed about, ducking swings here, blocking slashes there. A blade caught Zechariah across the shoulder with a splash of red. He retaliated with an elbow to the attacker’s nose. The man fell from his steed, and Zechariah seamlessly turned his sword on another, running the blade deep into the soldier’s stomach. He fell, gargling.

Farther off, Ahlund had been knocked from his steed, but was on his feet and still fighting. Justin watched as he ran at a man on steedback, swinging mightily with his broadsword. He swatted the sword from the rider’s hands and then slew the stunned man without hesitation. An attacker cut him from behind, but Ahlund wheeled on him and carved him open, painting the grass in blood.

“Justin!”

He saw Zechariah in the midst of defending against two attackers. Blood was flowing from the wound at his shoulder, but there was no pain in his face. Instead, there was fear, and his eyes were on something behind Justin.

Justin turned on rubber legs. A soldier was sprinting at him—the man Zechariah had earlier unseated. Blood from his broken nose soaked his mustache. There was a sword in his hands, and his eyes were all rage. His teeth were bared as he charged.

Justin’s blood was cold. He couldn’t move. He couldn’t think. Only one notion managed to break the surface of his horror: I want to go home.

There was no epiphany. There was no out-of-body experience. There was no slow motion. There was no flashing of his life before his eyes. There was nothing in the world but this man with the murderous eyes and the sword as he charged at Justin. Time had no meaning. There was only this moment, the moment in which Justin watched his own death.

I want to go home.

On the other side of the battle, Ahlund hacked at a rider’s legs, then stabbed him beneath the ribs. A sword came down at him, but Ahlund caught it by its cruciform crossguard with one hand. With the other, he swung the heavy sword high and sliced the attacker’s head asunder.

He turned Justin’s direction, but the distance was too great. Roaring a vicious war cry, Ahlund stabbed his sword forward.

The sword glowed white-hot, and a blast of yellow and orange flames exploded from the blade.

Justin saw it coming. Furious, raging fire. It rolled over itself and flowed like water, coming at them in a blazing cloud. It hit the man charging Justin, and he disappeared within the billowing flames without so much as a single scream. The heat alone knocked Justin from his feet like an explosion, and the sound of the roaring onslaught made his ears ring.

For a long time, Justin lay where he had fallen, looking up at the clear, blue sky. He was vaguely aware of some fighting still going on, but his head was somehow both hot and cold, his senses somehow heightened and dulled at the same time, and his body a quivering, hollow thing that he could not force to move.

I want to go home.

And then it was all over. The ring of steel ceased. The clomping of hooves ended. There was still some painful and gargled yelling. Justin listened as the victorious visited each of the defeated and drove their swords through the hearts of any who still clung to life, and, one by one, those voices were forever silenced.

For some reason, all he could think about was how fast it had all been. The entire thing had lasted less than a minute, so quick he could hardly remember how any of it had happened. And the result of it all: a dozen men—a dozen human beings, no more or less alive than Justin a minute ago—brought all the way from birth along lifelong journeys to die right here.

Zechariah came and stood over him. There was a rip in his robes at the shoulder, and his sleeve was soaked reddish-black. He lowered a hand to Justin, but Justin did not take it. He sat up of his own accord without looking at the old man. There were tears on his face that he didn’t remember crying. Zechariah walked away.

Riderless steeds were milling about, munching at the grass. A dead man still hung in the saddle of one. The rest were on the ground. Justin tried not to look, but he couldn’t avoid seeing the closest of the bodies. The fire that Justin had almost dismissed as imagination had surely been real. Ash floated in the air, and a sharp, pungent aroma stung his nostrils. The earth before him was scorched black, with smoke rising in little trailers from the grass. A few feet away, the soldier’s body was half intact. The part hit by Ahlund’s fire had been obliterated. There was no skin. Only slippery-looking muscle, charred jet black. Half of his face was gone, exposing his skull. An empty eye socket gazed at Justin with cruel envy for the living.

Justin leaned away and emptied his stomach into the grass. He’d had nothing to eat for the past day, and his body trembled with the effort as he retched. After it was over, he shut his eyes, and fresh tears rolled down his face. Never had he felt so far from home.

While Zechariah looted the pockets of the dead, the tall mercenary named Ahlund freed the young woman of her bonds and helped her to stand. Dark clouds were rolling overhead.

The adventure continues in The Fallen Odyssey

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