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“Over the river and through the woods, to Rebel’s Rest we go.” I sang.
Az laughed. I liked his laugh. It was so cheerful and innocent.
It turned out Az had plenty of life experience and was willing to share for my amusement and astonishment. We were getting along famously. 
“So Az,” I said, “where is the most interesting place you’ve been?”
“Newcomer,” he replied. “In my time, I have been to seven different cities in several different states. I have been from the far north to the deep south. I have seen exotic palaces and natural beauty. But perhaps there is no place like the mountains of the east. There I have found tranquility and an interesting culture.”
He kept calling us newcomers. I think he liked to remind himself that we were as alien to him as he was to us. I also think he liked being a guide. Or maybe he just liked having company. 
“So,” he said. “You come from another world.”
“Yeah,” I said. In our world we have stories about people getting sucked into other worlds. But those were just fantasies. This was real. I still couldn’t believe my misfortune. Or was it luck? 
Back on Earth I was a gym coach at Granger High School. I lived with my girlfriend Rachel for the past three years, and dated her for two more before that. She worked in human resources, and thoroughly hated her job. To be honest, spending some time away was doing her some good. She had been a lot more relaxed. Up until she combusted Langruis. I wondered if that was bothering her, but she denied it when I asked her. 
“What is it like there? Is it like here, do the trees glow with spiritual light?” Az was genuinely curious. It was as if he actually believed our crazy story about coming from a planet called Earth where pollution and politics and corporations reign, “where there is exotic beauty and mundane boredom” as Neil put it. 
“You have got to be joking.”
“I am serious, solemnly.” he said.
Clearly Neil’s answer was not satisfying enough. He wanted specifics. My mind wandered to the many things that are Earth and settled on Halloween, which was coming up in a few weeks. In our world anyways.
“We dress up in costumes once a year and eat a lot of candy.”
“Why do you dress up?”
“I don’t know. Because it’s traditional I guess.”
“Is it a sacred day?”
“Uh- to some people I suppose. Mostly we just do it for fun.”
“Fascinating. What other holidays do you have?”
“Well there’s one called Christmas, where we chop down trees and decorate them with lights. But it’s not magic. It’s electricity.”
“Electricity? Like lightning? Your mages must be very skilled to control such a force.”
“We don’t actually have any mages, or magic. It’s all science.”
“Ah yes, of course. Natural science has certainly been ignored by mortals for far too long.”
There was a hint of spite in his voice. I realized that humans might be the bad guys in this world too. If they existed, anyways. Maybe it was all mice. But part of me wondered how much world experience he actually had.
“How old are you exactly?” I was curious.
“That depends. How many days are in your year?” 
It was a good question. “About 365.” Az looked astonished. 
“Those are long years indeed.”
“How long are they here?”
“The humans go approximately 400 days before their new year. In my culture we celebrate the new year every 673 days. It all depends on what stars are in the sky to me.”
“Woah wait, there are other humans?”
“Of course. Did you think this world was only populated by djinni?”
“We met a village of mice who would disagree.”
Az laughed again. “A village of mice! Now that would be something to see!”
“So how old are you? By your culture’s standards I mean?”
“Seven.”
“You’re joking.”
“I’m serious. I would be interested in converting the years to your standards later. How old are you?”
“Twenty three.”
“You are mature? For a human?”
“Yup. I’m a big boy.” That got another laugh out of him. 
“Then I presume you have lain with many partners.”
I stopped him. “Not in front of the girlfriend.” I whispered. 
He nodded his understanding. We slowed down until we were behind everyone else. 
“My first girlfriend was Hannah. She certainly taught me a few things, but ultimately ended up being a total bitch.”
“That’s a rude thing to call her.”
“I know. Except it was kind of true. Rachel knows a little bit about her, but honestly I prefer she doesn’t know too much.”
“Why?”
“Because she did some pretty mean things. She got me to do mean things. Things I’m not proud of.”
“Everyone commits evil in life, and most live to regret it. It is up to the individual to move past it and be better. Are you better, newcomer?”
“Of course I am! But Rachel, well, she can also get a little jealous. Especially if I’m talking about my exes.”
“Exes?”
“Previous girlfriends. She just wants to be the only special one in my life, and hearing about them makes her upset.”
There was more to that truth that I wasn’t sharing. The night we met at Stephanie’s and Lucas’ engagement, I was planning on breaking up with Rachel. I thought she was too immature for me. But then I saw that engagement ring and I thought: how long do I want to keep looking?
Maybe that’s not the best idea for settling down. But I’ve always had lousy luck with girlfriends. I meant what I said. Hannah was a bitch. She thought being popular was the most important thing. I was just a desperate jock with testosterone for confidence. 
After senior year she dumped me for another boy at her college. There was no doubt in my mind she was cheating on me. 
After that I became a bit of a sleazeball when it came to dating. I told myself I was just having fun while I was young. 
And then I met Rachel. She was a sophomore, I was a senior. She acted. I did tech crew. We did a shitty production of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern and started dating. I convinced myself she was the one, even though I was eying other girls. Now here we are two years later.
She was starting her final year. She was going to nursing school. I was looking for a new job in marketing. Depending on how time moved here, I might have already missed the interviews. I had never cheated on her, but I had thought of it. I hated it, and myself for it. I wished I could love her the way I was supposed to. Like I said I do.
“What about you?” I asked Az, shifting the attention to him. “Surely you’ve had some exploits.”
“Let’s see. I first made love when I was five.”
“You don’t hear that very often.”
“I know. By our standards, I’m considered a late bloomer. It was with Zorial, my playmate. We discovered many things together. Then there was princess Opagata. Then there was princess Lazuli. Then I had to leave the kingdom in a real hurry.”
I laughed. “The parents discovered your scandalous affair?”
“No, there was a revolution. I figured I should get my tail out of there before I lost my diplomatic immunity.”
“Oh. You didn’t try to stop it?”
“Why would I? It is not my people’s way to get involved in the politics of others. Change is inevitable. Sides are subjective.”
“But what about the Dark Lord?”
“He is a special case. He is pure evil, and brings only wickedness.”
“You’re sure?”
“Aren’t you the ones hunting him?”
“Yeah, I guess, but we don’t really know anything about the guy.”
“Even your loremaster?”
“What are you talking about?”
“Neil seems to know a lot about the secrets of the world. He knew about my kind. How do you know he’s not telling you everything?”
“Neil wouldn’t do that. He’s been guiding us pretty well so far. He just doesn’t know details like you do.”
“A loremaster knows history and secrets. It is they who search for meaning in creation.”
I considered what he said. Sure, Neil made this place. But what would Az say if I told him that? How would I explain to him, 'We kind of made this place, but don’t really know it’?
“I’ll ask him about it later. But for the record, I think he knows as much as we do. Because why would he know more? That would make things too easy.” I didn’t mean to sound bitter, but it slipped out. 
I changed the subject. “So what did Neil mean last night that you maybe owe us?’” 
“We live by a code, a code that asks us to repay our debts. A life debt is pretty significant. I’m lucky you only wanted conversation and a guide.”
“What do most people ask for?”
He gave me a sly grin. “Exploits. But look.” He pointed ahead.
The vast desert lay in front of us. Off in the distance we could see the shadow that was Rebel’s Rest. It was smaller than Brighton. The houses were each made of a different material, including straw, baked bricks, stone, and wood.
The people of Rebel’s Rest paid us no heed either as we walked into town. There were humans of various ethnicities, and other races besides humans too. But they weren’t elves and orcs. I stared fascinated at the diverse crowd around us. I went to a renaissance fair when I was really young. This was nothing like it. 
There were gorillas with six arms chatting conversationally with short cycloptic stone people. Tiny lights swarmed right by us. One of them stopped and hummed up close right in front of my nose. Up close I could see it was a tiny person with buzzing wings. They glowed like fireflies, but the light came from within their body. It darted away to join the rest of the swarm as they flew down the street. Others were living wood, grown and shaped to resemble life, and moved gracefully amongst the crowd in groups like walking forests. 
Needless to say, nobody seemed to care that a crew of strangers showed up, even if one of them had horns. 
The town seemed to thrive, in a desperate way if that was even possible. It wasn’t exactly a city, but it was certainly overpopulated. It reminded me of a town in a western, except more steeped in fantasy. In the distance we could hear wailing rising above the incandescent chatter. I heard enough wailing in my life to know we should probably leave it alone. 
Neil had shared the history of this town with us. Long ago, there was a rebellion against the king of these lands that fell under his fealty. Rather than try to overthrow the throne, several rebels decided to secede and go south of the desert where the king couldn’t reach them. They were successful in their endeavor. Rebel’s Rest was exactly what it sounded like; a haven for those fleeing the country.
Over time it blossomed into a small town. It became a trading post, and a halfway point. Az mentioned how some of his people passed through on rare occasions. It was known to be a safe place.
I wondered how Neil came up with this stuff. He always knew a lot about history and other cultures. Maybe he borrowed from them. Or maybe he was an over imaginative child. I had no way of knowing for sure.
We decided it was best to stop for the night at the local inn called The Baron’s Last Bastion. Between all of us we should have enough money to pay for room and board. The inn was more like a hostel. We got our own room with six bunk beds. There was a bath off to the side. The ladies got the first dibs while the others and I went down for a drink at the bar.
This place was an adventurer’s hub, filled with all kinds of people and races. The possibilities here were endless. But for now, I thought it best to keep to ourselves. For now at least. 
“So Neil,” Lucas said once we were settled with our drinks, “What exactly are we looking for?”
“We’re looking for a temple of the god of darkness, Otomipent.” Neil said. 
“And why are we looking for a dark god again?” questioned Az.
Neil chose his words carefully. “I have a quest to fulfill. If I do that, we might get some insight on how to beat the Dark Lord.”
“And by insight, you mean weapon.” I added.
“Yeah. A weapon would be nice.”
“Why not just buy one, or make your own?” asked Az. “Or is that hammer just for show?”
Neil cringed. “I’m afraid I don’t know how to use it.”
“So find someone who does! There are blacksmiths everywhere. Surely you can get an apprenticeship while we search for your dark god.”
“Wait what?” I asked. “How long is it going to take to find this guy? Can’t someone just give us directions?”
“Nope,” said Neil. “The cult of the Watcher is very secretive. That’s all I wro- I mean know.”
Lucas spoke up. “This is part of adventuring. Some quests take longer than expected. We’re going to have to keep our ears to the ground. In the meantime, we find odd jobs to pay for room and board.”
Az raised his glass. “To adventuring!”
“Hear hear!”


Submitted: May 01, 2022

© Copyright 2022 Jon Nathaniel. All rights reserved.

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llywrch

None of the characters seem very curious about how they ended up in this world. I mention this because I can't help but wonder if Az had a part in that, somehow. Even if he didn't have a part -- & I don't know if you have an explanation for this -- Az would serve as a red herring. Just a thought while I'm reading this.

Wed, May 4th, 2022 6:56am

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