Bluten and Casey asked if I wouldn't mind posting the opening chapter of my urban fantasy novel here, so here it is.
The Riftwalker Chronicles
The room smelled of pepperoni pizza and stale beer. A well-worn, stained, and rumpled sofa creaked under the weight of six mostly grown men as they jostled each other. Steady clicking and tapping of video game controller keys competed with hurled insults and the blaring stereo surround sound from the television set. Gunshots loud enough to seem almost real vibrated the walls of the tiny apartment as the screen flared with varied images of the many game combatants. One screen in particular showed a stealthy soldier sneaking up behind others on his screen and neatly dispatching them with a knife.
“God, man, Troy you’re such a douche!” One of the young men complained, tossing his controller on the floor.
“Wah-wah, cry me a river,” Troy said with a smirk, “Just because you suck at video games, Brad, doesn’t mean the rest of us have to.”
“Man, Will, you’re better at this crap than me. Come kick Troy’s ass so we don’t have to listen to him gloat all night.”
A dark-haired young man looked up from a mouthful of pizza down at the end of the coffee table. He stuffed the quarter slice that remained in his hand into his mouth before gesturing for Brad to toss him the controller, with which his friend eagerly complied. Will rose from his place and kicked Brad in the calf.
“Outta the way. Spectators don’t get prime seats!”
The guys burst out laughing, each of them ribbing the other as Will settled in. Brad offered him a beer as he settled in, but Will wrinkled his nose. “You know I don’t drink that crap. Go make yourself useful and get me a Cherry Coke from the fridge.”
As Brad got up to fulfill Will’s request, the guys resumed their game. Will, as it turned out, was more than Troy's equal and the other players dropped out one-by-one until only a mano a mano death match was in play. The guys crowded around Will cheering him on, though Troy's best friend, Scott, remained staunchly supportive.
"Stomp that rock-climbing pansy, Troy!" Scott crowed after a particularly vicious defeat.
However, the joy of triumph was short lived as Will executed a long-range headshot in retaliation. Collective cheers went up from Will's end of the couch. Troy finally had to concede to a draw, proclaiming that he was both thirsty and hungry and tired of Will's sniping him from roof tops like a chicken. Beer, soda, and pizza passed between the friends and they made congratulatory toasts.
Once they all settled in with food and drink, Brad looked at Troy. "So, what's this I hear about you and Amanda Riker?"
Troy leaned back into the couch, extending his left arm across the back as he chomped a piece of pizza. "Man, that's nothing, just some little honey from the cheerleading squad that wants some Troytisfaction."
Several of the guys rolled their eyes, some of them laughing and giving high-fives to Troy. Will downed a Cherry Coke and shook his head. "It's no wonder you don't have a girlfriend with that kind of attitude."
"What the--" Troy frowned. "I have plenty of girlfriends; more than you'll ever have you keyboard monkey!"
Will scoffed. "You have a bunch of cheap one-night stands, Troy. Those don't count as real relationships."
"Oh, like you'd know? Mister 'I'm still a virgin'?” Troy nudged Scott and they both cackled in unison. It was a long-standing joke among the guys that Will was the only guy in their group that hadn't gotten laid yet. Even Brad, who was geek incarnate, had gotten some pity action from some girl in the Science Club.
"I may not have a girlfriend or even gotten past second base with one, but it doesn't take intimate knowledge of the female anatomy to know a jackass when I see one. You're such a jerk, Troy."
"Pfft, girls dig it, man. You should be more of a jerk; maybe you'd actually get some play that way."
Will snorted derisively, rose, and threw his trash in a bag in the kitchen. He stalked to the door, picking up his jacket from the back of a chair as he went. As he shrugged it on, some of the guys protested, one of them going so far as to punch Troy in the shoulder with an angry mutter.
"Relax guys," Will said, doing his best to smile and comfort his friends. "It's getting late, the beer's been flowing a little too freely, and I gotta be at work tomorrow. So I'm just gonna head home. Keep it cool, huh?” He gave them a thumbs up.
His friends gave a resounding "Huzzah!" at his departure and on that note, Will exited out into the cool autumn night.
He stood on the porch a moment, looking up into the late night sky, his eyes automatically tracing the lines of his favorite constellations. He found Orion easily enough, next came Draco and the Dippers, finding them brought him some small manner of calm. He liked Troy well enough, the guy was great at games, and easy-going for a jock, but when it came to girls, the guy just turned into a completely lecherous bastard. It got on Will's nerves faster than anything.
He hopped down the porch steps and made his way along the sidewalk.
It's guys like Troy that give the rest of us a bad name. It's hard enough to talk to girls without guys like him scarring them for life and turning them into man-hating banshees in heels. He thought to himself as he fished his mp3 player out of his pocket. He pushed his earbuds in and began his walk home to the resounding thrum of some Godsmack.
Maybe he's right though. Maybe I should just start being more of a jerk. I mean, look at him, he's an ass to every girl he meets and he's got them fawning all over him. I'm nice to girls and treat them like an equal and they don't even look me in the face anymore when I see them in the hall.
He kicked a rock down along the sidewalk in front of him, as if the rock was all his troubles and he could punt them into his next lifetime. Part of him longed to just take his gear, go hike to the nearest cliff side, and do some freestyle climbing down some jagged crag. Rock-climbing always helped him clear his head; the focus it required helped him push everything to the back of his mind.
He didn't have to worry about girls or classwork when he climbed. All that mattered was the next hand or foothold. Every bit of focus he split between his body and the wall. A badly timed muscle cramp or a loose bit of rock crumbling beneath his grip drew the fine line between survival and a long fall with a painful stop. He could lose himself utterly in the climb. Yet, in the losing, the innate sense of his own mortality made him feel more alive.
Sure, he was good with computers and good at video games. He was even successful at school. His parents were proud and an active part of his life. It wasn't like he had a bad life at all. He just lacked a girlfriend. It wasn't for lack of trying either. He'd gone on a date with several girls, but it just never panned out.
As he catalogued the many dates he'd been on, he'd noticed that trend. They were all just a single date--one. Girls never called back, never returned his calls when he left messages, so he eventually stopped trying. Girls really didn’t seem to see anything in him. Maybe it just wasn’t meant to be…
"What the--" He shook himself mentally. "Why am I even thinking about this? Stupid Troy." He kicked the rock vengefully again. He needed to stop comparing himself to people like Troy McCray; guys like Troy and guys like him were like different brands of potato chips. Different flavors, different textures to offer. Certainly, someone’s taste would run to good ol’ William Dane one of these days.
“Oh my God, stop thinking about this!” He ordered himself, running a hand through his hair. “I swear this is why Troy bugs me all the time. He knows he gets under my skin like this. This is so stupid!”
Will cranked up the volume on his mp3 player and kicked the rock away from him, across the street. He watched as it jostled and bounced diagonally across the intersection, coming to a rolling stop by the foot of a streetlamp.
His head snapped up just in time to see the shiny bulldog logo of a Mack truck bearing down on him. Only one thing popped into his head: Oh, shit.
Death wasn’t exactly what Will expected. He certainly didn’t anticipate landing in something that looked like the Milky Way, only in a thousand different colors. He stood there, looking around at himself, even daring to reach out and try to touch the floating motes of light as it drifted past him. It felt warm and soft against his hand, almost like an electrified dandelion. He laughed to himself as it swirled around his hand and then skittered away to rejoin its fellows.
“If this is death, it’s not that bad. Although, where’s ‘The Light’ that everybody always talks about? These guys certainly can’t be it.” He prodded another passing mote and watched it repeat the spiraling dance like its fellow.
He walked, or at least he hoped that he walked. He wasn’t entirely sure. He moved his feet, but nothing in the landscape seemed to change at all. He felt the sensation of moving, though; his senses told him that while he was putting one foot in front of the other, they were landing on the ground and pulling him forward. Perhaps it was that he was moving, but those dancing motes were shifting around him, making it seem like he was standing still. It was hard to tell which.
He kept walking, looking this way and that, as if he could somehow get his bearings by something. The motes were in constant movement, so they were no help. The swirling colors of the sky and ground were uniform, so there was no one feature he could focus on to orient himself. He finally gave it up as a lost cause and just kept walking. He figured he’d eventually come across something that would tell him what was going on or where he was.
Up ahead, he caught sight of a feature in the landscape – for lack of anything better to call it – it looked like a huge rip in the featureless land ahead. Motes drifted sluggishly out of this rip, almost like blood dripping out of a wound. He approached, cautious as he extended a hand toward one of the slow-moving motes. He felt a flash of pain and instead of dancing away like the others; it winked out in a little puff of ash. For some strange reason, he felt guilty and a bit sad. He looked past the falling ashes of the mote and reached out a hand toward the rip.
“I would not do that, if I were you.” The accent was distinctly Spanish, like Old World Spain. Not Mexico, not Tejano, distinct and redolent of a time long since passed.
Will turned and saw a man standing behind him. He was an older man with a weathered tan, careworn face, but amazingly sharp eyes of a bright green. There was cragginess to his features that reminded Will of the many faces of cliff sides he’d scaled in his time, immovable and timeless. He immediately thought of Anthony Hopkins, except there was a lean, rangy quality to this guy.
“Am I dead?” Will asked. It was an obvious question, but he wanted to be sure.
The man laughed. “What would you do, if you were? There is no coming back from the dead, as I’m sure you know. Would you like to spend the rest of your life as an undead? They live a very unpleasant lifestyle or so I’ve heard.”
“Uh, no…I don’t think I’d like that, thanks.” Will said. “But if I’m not dead, then where am I?”
“This—“ The man said, gesturing at the landscape around them. “—is the Fade Rift.”
“Hm, okay. So… what does that mean?”
“I forget how disconcerting this part of the Acknowledgement is. Here, I shall try to explain for you. First, come away from the Wound; we do not understand its effects yet and I would not want you to be infected or otherwise altered by its power.”
“Wha—wound?” Will said, withdrawing his hand from the rip in the air and stepping back from it. The stranger might as well say it was a snake. It produced the same effect.
As he stepped back, the stranger reached out and took his right bicep in a firm, guiding grip. Will was steered away from the Wound until he could no longer see it, though it seemed to take less time to move away than it had taken Will to get there. He looked at the stranger, confused.
“Who are you? What’s going on here?”
“To answer the first question, I am Alejandro De Vega, Riftwalker of the Americas and now, apparently, your Master.”
“Wait—what? Master? Uh, I’m—I don’t think…” Will looked around helplessly, there was nowhere to run, and he would have little chance of escaping the man on his own. Still, he wouldn’t go down without a fight. He felt his left hand balling into a fist, prepared to defend himself against this old man, if it came to that.
Alejandro took in all of this with those bright eyes and nodded. “You came prepared to fight, that is good. I have a feeling that in the years ahead of you, that will become a necessary piece of character that will be the foundation of your survival.”
Will shook his head. “What do you mean ‘came prepared to fight’? I didn’t come anywhere, much less to fight. I don’t even know where here is!” He realized that his voice was cracking on every statement, as much from fear as it was confusion and anger at this stranger just shuttling him along like a mother hen.
Alejandro sighed. “I see I will have to begin at the beginning. Let us take you away from here, though, it seems to unnerve you for now.”
One moment Will was standing in the Fade Rift, the next he was standing on the street corner of the street he’d been crossing when the truck had come at him. He didn’t remember being hit. All he remembered was raising his arms to buffer the oncoming blow from the truck. When he lowered his arms, he was in the Fade Rift. That was it; no impact from the truck, no flare of light, no pain, no feeling, no anything, really. Just in the middle of the street one minute, and in the Rift the next. Apparently, it worked both ways, now that he found himself back.
“How did you do that? Who are you? What’d you mean Riftwalker? Are you crazy? Am I crazy? What the heck is going on here? Is this some kind of joke? I swear to God if Troy put you up to this, so help me, I’m gonna—“
“Be silent and listen instead of asking all the wrong questions.” Alejandro said.
Will bit his lower lip to stop the flow of queries and glared at the old man.
“To make this quick for you, I am Alejandro; I will be teaching you about the Fade Rift and all the powers that come with being a Riftwalker. You will be given the option to accept or deny these powers, although, for my sake, and the sake of the lives you might save, I would hope you do not deny them.”
He held up a hand to cut off any questions Will might ask. “Now, to explain what a Riftwalker is may take some time. Is there somewhere we can go that you would be comfortable? I know you will be averse to taking me to your home. However, I can assure you that I am not here to do you harm, but rather to give you an opportunity unlike any you might encounter in your lifetime. Will you at least listen to what I have to say, William?”
Will looked at the old man in confusion. On the one hand, this guy was definitely ten kinds of weird; on the other, there was a compassionate sincerity in his eyes mingled with exhaustion. Will shrugged and made a vague motion in the direction of his apartment. “C’mon, you can come to my house. I warn you, though; any funny business and I won’t hesitate to kick your ass.”
Alejandro chuckled and smiled in such a way that seemed all too knowing -- Will wouldn’t hurt a fly, much less a man easily thirty years his elder. However, Alejandro nodded and gestured for Will to lead the way.
Will’s apartment wasn’t far, but the whole walk home Alejandro followed behind him like a lost puppy. He took surreptitious glances at the old man, trying to get some kind of bead on who he was. He was dressed in nondescript clothing, though it all seemed rather dated. He wore a black suit that looked like a style from out of the Forties, topped with a London fog coat that came to mid-thigh. While the guy looked out of place in hyper-modern America, he didn’t look so out of place that he would attract undue attention.
He unlocked the door of his apartment, shoving the door open with his hip as he led the way in. “Uh, you’ll have to pardon the mess…” He wasn’t the best housekeeper under the best of circumstances, much less when caught off-guard.
“Do not worry; I remember what it was like to be a young man living alone.” Alejandro said as he stepped across the threshold.
“Who says I live alone?” He frowned, occasionally pausing to pick up dirty t-shirts flung over the back of his couch.
Alejandro smiled. “The lack of housekeeping, for one; no roommate or live-in girlfriend would stand for such disarray. I only see one set of dishes in the dish rack by the sink, for two. Should I continue?”
Will huffed. “I guess.”
“There is no need for you to worry about impressing me, William. I am, of all people, supposed to accept you as I find you. That is the way of it, between we Riftwalkers.”
He looked up from picking up and frowned again, “How do you know my name, anyway? Have we met?”
“No, we have not. However, like any good Master, I have gone out of my way to learn about the pupil I am intending to teach.”
“So, you’ve been stalking me?” He laughed, trying to find some humor in the situation.
“I suppose you could consider it something like that. I have done my research and done it thoroughly. I have gone through many contacts, both legitimate and fantastical. A Riftwalker is not a classification that should be taken lightly; I wanted to be as well-versed on your qualifications to be one as I possibly could before you came into your powers.”
“Powers? Are you saying I’m some kind of Jedi? Do we ‘use the Force’ and all that?”
Alejandro rolled his eyes. “Your strength, your power, is bound to the fate of the Fade Rift. We protect it as much as it protects us.”
Will sat on his couch as he moved his dirty laundry aside. “So what exactly is this Fade Rift and what does it have to do with me?”
Alejandro circled the couch, but moved to the small easy chair diagonal from the corner of the couch Will sat on. “William, you may have a hard time believing what I will tell you, but know that it is true. I have no reason to deceive you.”
Will eyed the old man, but nodded for him to continue.
“The Fade Rift is a band of magical energy between our world and the Patria Immortal.”
“Immortal? You mean gods, titans, and stuff?”
“No, no… Those beings exist on an entirely different level than we do and even those of Patria. However, compared to us, they are long-lived, bordering on Immortal. You are familiar creatures like faeries, elves and the like?”
“Well, yeah. Faeries are like Tinkerbelle and elves are like Legolas, right?”
Alejandro rubbed his palm against his face. “Not…exactly. Faeries are the most powerful magical beings in Patria; however,
they keep a delicate balance because of that power. Elves are darkness personified—“
“Now I know you’re pulling my leg. Elves are good, everyone knows that.”
“Oh?” Alejandro replied, crossing his arms over his chest. “How many elves do you know?”
Will’s bravado faltered. “Uh, none.”
“Creatures so beautiful, such visual perfection, by very nature of balance must be hiding something horrible within; in the case of Patria Elves, something truly horrible.”
He rose from his place, pacing the clear area of the floor between the seats. “Okay, let me get this straight. I’m some kind of magic Jedi who has to protect the world from evil elves?”
Alejandro frowned, “Do not speak such nonsense. A Riftwalker’s duty is not so mundane.”
Will half-turned, looking at the old man in consternation, before he heaved a sigh, "I don't get any of this!"
"Nor did any of us at the time of our Acknowledgement," Alejandro supplied. "You will come to understand in time, if you are patient and only if you accept what you are offered."
He turned, "Why don't you just tell me about this from the beginning? None of this makes any sense at all. Who are you? Why are you here? What are these Riftwalkers?"
"You have many questions. I did too when my time came -- however, as you say, to begin at the beginning."
Alejandro extended his right fist over the open space between the couch and the easy chair and it began to glow with a soft, blue light. He slowly extended his fingers until they splayed open as far as they could go. A second, golden light began to glow in the center of his palm. It grew slowly until it was the size of a pilates exercise ball, hovering just a few inches from the floor.
Almost like watching a puzzle magically piece itself together, the motes of light began to separate into formations until on Alejandro's left side was a perfect little golden globe of Earth and on the other side was a strange sort of floating castle. Between them was that same Milky Way kind of streak, except it wove around both globe and castle to make a figure eight or infinity symbol that enclosed them both; one in each loop.
The old man lowered his hand and the shapes stayed in place. He pointed to the Earth globe. "This is the Mortal Plane as you know it. It encompasses your world and many others, but for the sake of directness we are only concerned with here, your Earth, for now.” Alejandro gestured to the floating castle, little motes following his hand like loyal goldfish. "This is the Patria Immortal, land of all manner of fae creatures, most commonly known to man are faeries, brownies, and elves; though there are others who dwell there."
He paused and Will watched him fan his fingers out again and follow the figure eight shape of the belt line around both objects. "This is the Fade Rift. It is a sort of magical fault line that keeps both of these worlds in close proximity, for they are symbiotic to one another. Neither can exist, you see, without the other to support it."
"From Patria Immortal, this Plane receives all of its magic; this comes to us in the form of creative inspiration, hope, and healing. In trade, the Patria receives mortal compassion for its brethren, and the mortal thirst to enjoy life.” Alejandro's eyes traced the glowing infinity symbol in the air between them; there was a kind of sorrow in them, yet a depthless pride. "You see, without the Patria, humanity would fall into despair, all creative endeavors would cease, and our bodies would not heal, but without us Patria would be a cold, heartless place -- like endless winter. Their magic would eventually die, for it is primarily borne from the Faeries and they depend on humanity for their survival."
Will listened as Alejandro spoke. He tried to imagine the world without all the creative endeavors in it; his mp3 player would be empty, for there would be no music; his TV would be silent for there would be no movies and no shows; his walls would be bare for there would be no art. The more he thought about how much creative inspiration touched human life, the more afraid it made him, afraid of losing such a magnanimous gift. The world would be bleak and cheerless, devoid of many of the things humanity took for granted now. He tried to imagine what life in Patria would be like, suspended in eternal winter. He shuddered at the idea.
"So..." He said quietly, looking through the glowing emblems to Alejandro, "What's a Riftwalker's stake in this?"
"Preservation of life--for both sides," Alejandro said simply.
Will tilted his head to one side, “Both sides? Don’t the Patrians have their own Riftwalkers?”
Alejandro shook his head in return, “No, they cannot be Riftwalkers. Riftwalkers have only ever been humans or creatures on the Mortal side of the Rift.”
“Why? I’d think some Faeries would jump at the chance to get some more power.”
“Riftwalkers do not choose; we are chosen. Either we accept or we do not. If we refuse, then the ability to be a Riftwalker fades from us, for without proper training, without access to the Rift, the power eventually leaves them. Power unused becomes dormant.”
“Can they ever get it back? Or use it after they refuse?”
“No, once a Riftwalker denies his bloodline, the Rift magic forsakes not only him, but all who come after him.”
“So, I guess there aren’t a lot of you guys then?”
“One for each continent, whom you will eventually meet; for now, it is enough for you to know me.”
William stood there for a moment just looking at Alejandro trying to absorb everything that this old man was telling him. These Riftwalkers were a secret society of interdimensional warriors that guarded humanity against certain doom, a quite miserable doom at that. He shuddered again trying to imagine the world without its creative outlets. He didn’t want the world to become devoid of so many of the things that made it wonderful. He had no other option. He couldn’t refuse. He tried imagining everything that influenced his life being gone: his mom singing at festivals, his dad working on the latest gaming software, his favorite novels from his favorite authors. There were hundreds upon thousands of instances that touched his life; a world without them all… was a world not worth living in.
He looked up at Alejandro, his face set in determination. “I’ll do it.”
The old man’s eyes snapped to him, gazing at him through the golden-glowing symbols in the air. Tears filled them, relief mingled with pride again. He nodded once. “You have accepted, as I knew you would. You have a good heart in you William Dane. I would not have expected any less.”
William reached out a hand to the gold symbols and the motes flocked to his hand as they had for Alejandro. “What are these?”
“These are Rifflings,” Alejandro explained. “They are pure, innocent energy born of the Rift. They are attracted to Riftwalkers in particular because they understand what it is we are put on this earth to do. Some say our blood is comprised of microscopic Rifflings, which is why they resonate as well with us as they do. No one truly understands their link with us. Whenever we travel in the Rift, though, they inevitably come.”
“Rifflings, huh?” Will laughed, weaving his hand back and forth through the motes watching them swirl and dance along his skin and through his fingers. One bigger Riffling alighted on his hand; like the others, he felt it was warm and gave the feeling of fuzziness. He smiled, cupping it in his hand.
“What about this one, it’s bigger than the others.”
Alejandro looked at the Riffling in his hand and his brows knitted together. “That is Quixel. He is a very affectionate Riffling. While we have not taught him to speak as we do, he has learned to color himself as a form of communication. Isn’t that right you light-up cotton ball?”
Quixel did a quick circle in Will’s hand then turned a bright shade of red before it launched itself at Alejandro’s face. The old man was as immovable as a mountain as Quixel bashed itself against his cheek repeatedly.
“Doesn’t that hurt?” Will asked.
“No, Rifflings are nothing but air and magic. They manifest as a visual spot of light because of all the magical energy coalescing in one small area, but they do not actually have solid mass.”
Quixel continued to bash itself on Alejandro’s cheek until it finally turned a light blue color and seemed appeased. It then floated back to Will and hovered just over his left shoulder.
“Oh good,” Alejandro said in a tone of ultimate suffering. “He likes you.
Will laughed and regarded the little Riffling. “I think I’m going to like this job.”