Chapter 2 — Carl
“Portman, what is this?”
“You two got the call, you two take the case. You know the rotation. It’s that simple. Do you have a problem with that?”
“Look, I get it. It’s a teenage runaway. Pain in the ass, but someone’s gotta take care of it.”
“...Sir, if I understand correctly, the father is a personal friend?”
“I’m busy. Get to work.”
I tapped on the screen, ending the call with Matt’s last words still echoing in my ears. He was a dick sometimes, but he was usually pretty smart, and he was in charge. I wasn’t about to get answers at this hour. I definitely wasn’t sleeping anytime soon, though. Especially with the migraine that had plopped its ass down on my head.
I set the phone down and plugged it in to charge, leaning back in my chair and closing my eyes while the headache washed through my skull. The glow of the screens in front of me shone through my eyelids, irritating as hell. I lifted a foot and turned them off with my toe, one by one. Blessed darkness returned to the room, the only sound being the white noise of the case fans from my desktop. Any other day, they’d annoy me just as much, far louder than they needed to be—but today, I wanted something to blot out all the background noise.
I was back, and I hated every damn second of it. This world sucked.
Even the smell was wrong. It all smelled too clean, too fake. I already missed the deep forests and huge mountains, the castles and villages, the market square and the festivals. Yeah, it might’ve smelled like shit for a while, but eventually, it was actually kind of charming. It had way more character than my dusty room. And the people.
God, the people. At best, they were actually interesting, with stories to tell and lives that actually mattered. At worst… I had plenty of ways to deal with them.
Tomorrow was really going to suck. I’d never liked school much in the first place. It always seemed like a huge waste of time. I knew everything I needed to know already, but I had to sit through lectures and lessons, while teachers droned on and on. I had to wade through mounds of bullshit for the few nuggets of actual, useful information. The internet taught me more than they ever could.
There was a redeeming note in the despair settling into my mind. I had the internet again. Once you’ve lived without electricity for years, you really come to appreciate just what a beautiful and awe-inspiring invention it really is. With a few taps on a plastic keyboard, I could communicate with virtually anyone, anywhere in the world, instantly.
Having just returned from a world where the fastest method of communication (barring risky and draining magical talent) was by horseback, the idea was mindblowing. Coordinating groups of soldiers hundreds of miles apart into an effective fighting force was difficult enough on its own, and horses tire out faster than you might expect. The lands I’d helped conquer could attest to that.
As I sat, remembering my old campaigns, a knock came at my bedroom door.
Oh, shit. It was my dad.
“Carl, what the hell are you doing up this late?”
Could I just pretend I was actually asleep? The lights were all off. I doubted he’d actually come in. It seemed like the best option.
“I heard you talking. You know you’re not allowed to be up this late.”
Just ignore him. Just keep ignoring him.
“We’ll be speaking about this tomorrow, young man.” I heard him walk away, heavy footfalls receding into the night.
Young man? Did he realize who he was talking to? I could—
No, wait. I couldn’t. I didn’t have that anymore.
Without warning, tears were already forming in my eyes. I was crying, silently. I’d been feeling it ever since I woke up. It had built up, slowly but surely, like the tide rolling in and the waves rising up the shore higher and higher. Everything I’d worked for, all the training I’d sweat and bled through… it was gone. I’d gone overnight from one of the most feared men in multiple kingdoms to… this.
I lifted an arm up and opened my eye, examining it. It was so skinny and frail. Sure, I could still lift a fair amount. I wasn’t exactly weak, but comparatively…
Something to work on, I decided. I brushed the tears out of my eyes. I leaned forward and turned the screens back on. It was time to get to work. I needed information. I needed to know exactly what had just happened.
I began jotting down notes. We’d apparently disappeared in one place and returned in another, with only a few hours passing in between. Seven years went by in that short time. We’d grown older, we’d changed physically and mentally, but the physical changes were totally gone. This could all be easily explained away by magic, for better or worse. Magic was real in Cyraveil, and had somehow leaked over and ensnared us in its web for seven long years. The seven best years of my life.
I headed to the search engines, but as I expected, my search was fruitless. Every variation on “Cyraveil” I could think of only brought me the results I expected: articles on the park and the forest inside. I skimmed them briefly, but nothing jumped out as a clue. I started assembling a folder of bookmarks anyway, just in case they were relevant in the future. I branched my searches out, adding in small details of the world on the other side, and received empty results, or vague connections to fantasy novels and games I already knew held nothing useful.
In a way though, I was glad. Despite years of neglect, I still knew my way around the internet. I might not be finding anything, but at least I knew how to not find anything. I delved deep into old forums and ancient message boards, hunting down posts from years past. It almost felt like working with Reynir again, uncovering old scrolls deep in the castle vaults. I was getting more desperate now, and with it came a dose of paranoia.
Matt was right about our need to be careful. If people didn’t believe us, we’d get locked away in an asylum for sure. I shuddered at the thought. The idea of being trapped in a colorless, faded building, clean and sterile, with no freedom and the world believing you to be a jibbering mess? I’d sooner kill myself.
But there was the other extreme. What if they did believe us? We could be hunted down by anyone. There were plenty of governments that might leap at the chance to exploit a whole new world full of valuable resources. And magic? What world power wouldn’t want magic on their side?
No, I had to cover my tracks. I kicked on every security measure I had available at the moment, routing my connections through multiple private networks and ensuring end-to-end encryption on everything. No one would know where my posts were coming from.
I started leaving replies to those abandoned posts on old fantasy message boards, those people who claimed to have truly travelled to other worlds. Few had any replies, most users assuming they were crazy or just trolling. I didn’t discount them just for having the wrong name of the world, or a few incorrect details. They might have been hiding themselves too, just as I was, or they could have gotten their information from ill-informed peasants and savages. On the truly ancient boards, those dating back past the turn of the millennium, I also sent emails when possible.
Having set everything in motion that I could, I turned the screens off once more, and slid back into bed. My mind was still whirring as furiously as the fans in my machine. Even though only a few minutes had passed, I became irrationally irritated that my phone wasn’t immediately buzzing with results, emails flooding in from fellow travellers grateful and eager to connect with me. Sure I could logically remind myself that it was past two in the morning here, and five in the morning on the east coast where most of those boards were situated. Few of those respondents, if they even maintained their accounts anymore, were likely awake and trawling the boards at this hour.
I couldn’t help it. I needed to find more like me.
I tossed and turned for what felt like hours, as my phone remained stubbornly silent. Then, with a buzz and a jolt, I heard my phone slip off the desk and fall to the floor.
I leapt out of bed and grabbed it eagerly.
It was 7AM, and my alarm was going off.
I didn’t spend any time getting ready for school. I only had a little time, and I had plenty of other things I wanted to get done before I left.
Right away, I got back online, checking every post I’d made. No replies or updates yet, but that wasn’t surprising. I really just wanted the reassurance that I’d actually put the word out, that I hadn’t just dreamed it all. The internet didn’t lie.
Well, it did—frequently, and with gleeful malevolence—but it couldn’t just erase my postings from existence. Nothing could ever truly be deleted, after all.
My mind now a little more at ease, I pulled out my phone and tried to compose myself for the one message I couldn’t send the night before. I scrolled through my contacts until I found Blake, far down the list thanks to his last name. Svartholm was such an awesome last name. I was jealous. Way better than Stokelson.
Hell, even Jen and Matt had better last names than me. Matthew Westin was plain, but with the right person behind it, you could be intimidating as shit. Having watched Matt at work, believe me, he was that right person. I was pretty good in my prime, but even if I were still at my best, I think I could take him to a draw. Not so much now, obviously.
Despite being Matt’s little sister, Jen had a different last name. Silverdale, same as her mother’s. Jennifer Silverdale. Even her name was beautiful. I didn’t know the story behind the discrepancy, but to be fair, I barely knew Jen existed before that night, and I didn’t meet the real Jen until about six years later.
I definitely regretted not getting to know her sooner. Hindsight’s a bitch.
Blake’s name matched his accent, born and bred in Sweden. He was my best friend, all the way back to the day they’d moved to the Silicon Forest when he was ten. We met through an event at a tiny video game shop, when we’d both shown up for the new expansion on the same day. I’d spent years searching for him when we got split up, and now it felt like I was right back to those days again.
His father went to work pretty early in the morning, and his mother was a graveyard shift nurse. Neither would be home in the early hours before school. I pressed call, and my phone started to connect through the wires to reach their home phone.
I imagined it ringing, echoing through their house. I could picture it perfectly—every step in the staircase, every twist and turn of the hallway upstairs. The carpet was dark green, the couches were pale blue. Blake’s cat was likely lounging on the landing halfway up the stairs, soaking in the sunlight. Sometimes I felt like I knew their house better than my own.
Blake never made it to the phone. As the ringer gave up in futility, I heard Adela’s voice through their answering machine.
“Thank you for calling the Svartholm residence. We aren’t in at the moment, so please leave a message and we’ll get back to you soon. Thanks!”
I reminded myself over and over that it meant nothing. Blake could have left already. I should have left for school by now myself. I was going to be late if I didn’t pick up the pace.
I had to leave a message though. I’d be dealing with more follow-up if I just left a blank message and my number in their caller-id log. Better to just deflect it now.
“Hi, it’s Carl. I just needed to ask Blake something, but I guess he already left for school. Don’t mind me.”
I stood and went to pick up my bag. As my hand grasped the strap and tugged, I felt a sharp pain in my arm. I recoiled, staring at it blankly. My face grew hot, as I realized what was happening. It was embarrassing, even if no one had witnessed my mistake.
Of course I couldn’t lift it. I wasn’t strong anymore. My brain hadn’t registered the loss of my muscles yet, the return to my weaker, younger body. I was trying to pick up a bag stuffed with multiple textbooks, my laptop, school supplies, notebooks. I had to put a lot more effort into it than I was used to.
The heat in my face turned into frustrated rage. I didn’t deserve this. I’d fought and bled for my accomplishments, for the power I’d gained. I’d been thrust back into the pathetic life I’d gotten so far away from. I shouldn’t be here. I don’t belong here anymore.
My father was already gone for work. My mother was in the backyard, weeding her garden. She’d left a lunch for me on the kitchen table. She waved at me through the window. I grabbed the brown paper bag and waved back, before turning to head out the door. I only had fifteen minutes to get to school by now, and it was going to be a long jog.
Out the door, down the driveway, and onto the sidewalk. Suburbia was all around me, in all its bland glory. Garbage trucks, billowing black smoke. News choppers with heavy beating blades passing overhead. Hundreds of cars in the distance, filling the rush hour with their incessant moans. Every bit of noise annoyed me just a bit more. The few pleasant sounds, like the birds chirping and the wind rustling through the leaves that hadn’t fallen yet, were drowned out by a man doing woodwork with a table saw in his garage, with the door wide open. I glared at him as I walked by, but he didn’t look up. Blake, always proud of his own woodwork, would have given the man an earful over how much he was wasting.
I’d been doing my best to avoid thinking about him. I’d voiced my vague hopes to Matt the night before, but I knew I still had to prepare myself mentally for the alternative. I didn’t expect to see him any time soon. He rode the bus from the far side of town every day, and I wouldn’t likely see him until at least second period. Matt should run into him first, in first period. Matt would be able to coordinate him on the plan, and what we’d be doing next.
What was the plan, anyway? I hadn’t gotten that far yet. I’d checked while pulling on my clothes that morning, but I hadn’t gotten a response yet. Tonight I’d be able to do more digging, but the internet seemed to have failed me so far. The library would be my next stop. Something, somewhere would have the answer for what had happened—and more importantly, how we could reverse it.
The walk to school was going more quickly than I expected, or wanted. Every turn and every street was still burned into my brain from the last few years I’d spent going to this stupid place.
As the school came into view, it became a symbol of everything I’d most hated about this world. My eyes scanned across the entire campus, taking in the sight once more. I thought I’d been rid of it forever. It had only been a nightmare, and even then it had faded completely over the years. To be confronted once more by the hell I’d escaped was almost overwhelming. If it wasn’t for Blake, Jen and Matt, waiting inside, I wouldn’t have taken another step.
I stiffened, but the voice wasn’t an unfriendly one. It was Kyle, someone I used to consider a friend. Someone I’d forgotten, and definitely not the first reunion I was expecting today. I turned to greet him, and was handed a large thick book. A Dungeons and Dragons manual.
“Sorry it took so long to get this back,” said Kyle, panting. He’d apparently been sprinting to catch up with me. “Thanks. Having a hard copy was great for our session.”
“Sure.” I took off my backpack and slid it inside. It barely fit, but compared to some of the magic tomes I’d perused over the last seven years, it was practically a featherweight. Of course, with the arm strength I had now, it brought the weight on my shoulder to a threatening load. I’d have to ditch some of them when I got to my locker. I closed it up and kept walking.
Dungeons and Dragons. It seemed so… trite now. No amount of imagination and roleplaying could possibly conjure up how terrifying a dragon was in reality. The searing heat of their breath, or the concussive bursts of wind with every wing flap. Awesome, in the most traditional sense of the word.
As for dungeons, I’d been in a few, and been the owner of a few more. They tended not to have any treasure, just the other notable T-words: torture, terror, and tyranny. Really not fun places to be. I avoided them whenever possible.
“You okay, man?” he asked, falling in line beside me and jolting me out of my memories.
“Nothin’. You’re just usually way more talkative.”
I didn’t respond for a moment. Was I? I’d tried to build up such a completely different image in Cyraveil. I had to struggle to remember who I was. Talking was something I usually let advisors and servants take care of. Matt’s reminder crept back into my mind. We didn’t know if we were safe yet. I had to maintain some level of normality. “How was the session?”
“Load of crap. They got bogged down in arguments over rules during a single fight. Took us hours just to get through it. But having the book on hand helped. It was way easier to flip between actual pages than scroll around on an ebook.”
“Why not just open the ebook in multiple windows?”
“Because the software’s a piece of shit and wouldn’t let me?”
“You can override that, you know.
Kyle stared at me. “Huh?”
Crap. Wrong language. I was used to talking with Jen, and all the shorthand Etoline I’d picked up off of her. “It’s easy. I’ll show you how sometime.”
“Cool.” Kyle glanced around, looking at the other gaggles of students heading in. The buses were pulling away already, and most of those kids were already inside. “Hey, you seen Blake anywhere?”
My throat tightened up. It took me a few seconds to pull it back together. “You know he rides the bus, right?”
“Yeah. He lives way out over on the other side of Mellbridge. Just off the exit ramp.”
“Oh. Huh. I just assumed he lived near here. I always see him walking this way.”
I shook my head. “He comes over to my place a lot.”
We continued walking in silence for a bit. Kyle kept glancing around in random directions, like he was uncomfortable around me. It bothered me more than a little. We’d been friends for years, hadn’t we?
But I’d changed. I wasn’t me anymore. I’d gotten rid of that pathetic kid a long time ago. I replaced him with someone stronger.
He reminded me of what I really needed to be doing. Who knew where my next clue might come from? No matter how unlikely, I had to pursue every possible avenue that came up.
“Hey Kyle…” I started casually. “You know Cyraveil Park?”
“Yeah? What about it?” He didn’t sound suspicious, but I could tell instantly. I’d interrogated a thousand people. I’d negotiated with the best diplomats and nobles in the country. It was all in his body language. The way his head subtly turned, how his eyes sped up just so. His posture slipped just a little, got defense. He had something to hide, and he was terrible at it.
“You ever go down there at night?” I asked benignly.
Kyle swallowed audibly. He glanced around again. “Yeah, sometimes.”
Bingo. I was circling my opponent now, preparing to strike. Kyle was a pushover. He’d talk in seconds. I lowered my voice just slightly. Imperious. That was the tone, that’s what Reynir called it. “Spill it, Kyle.”
“...You won’t tell anyone, right?”
“‘Course not.” What good would that do?
Embarrassment flared up in his face. “Me and Kersey sneak out there to… umm…”
Disappointment crashed into me like a mace. I’d hoped for something more than that. Now I just had a stuttering lovestruck kid, with nothing useful to tell me.
“Ah.” I clapped him on the shoulder. “Nice. She’s pretty cute. Good for you.”
I’d meant it genuinely, but I guess it came out condescending. Kyle became prickly. “Like you’ve done any better.”
“Oh, you have no idea,” I answered wistfully, remembering the woman in question.
Kyle rolled his eyes. “Three-dimensional females, dude.”
“More 3D than you. Hair like a glowing hearth and more curves than a roller coaster.” Also a killer with a spear, and overwhelmingly racist, but he doesn’t need to know that.
“What was this imaginary beauty’s name?”
He raised an eyebrow. “Fantasizing about viking women?”
I laughed. To be honest, I had no idea how the Cellmans ended up with so many Nordic-style names. It wasn’t like they spoke anything besides English there (or as they referred to it, Linguen). One piece of their history I still wanted to uncover, probably buried in the pile of scrolls waiting under my estate. “Nah, I’m over her.”
“Too odd for you?” Kyle grinned.
I sighed. “That pun got old years ago.”
“Nice to see you’re so loyal to your fantasy woman you stuck by her for years.”
“Hey, when I commit, I commit.” It was true, even if it did come back to bite me in the ass. Aud ended up leaving me, not the other way around. I was just grateful she hadn’t decided to put her spear through my spine before she’d taken off. “But we got off topic. Kersey, eh?”
Kyle’s expression twisted back into embarrassment fast. “Yeah.”
I couldn’t really remember the girl besides just her looks, but that wasn’t any reason I couldn’t be supportive. Kyle could use the boost. “She seems great for you. Congratulations.”
“Thanks, I guess?”
“You guys had sex yet?”
I didn’t think his face could get more red, but he proved me wrong. “...The hell, Carl?”
Kyle shook his head. “Nevermind.” He looked up as the five minute bell rang. “Shit. I needed to get to class early today. See ya.” He sped off and passed through the front doors in a hurry, leaving me alone again.
Oh, right. I was part of the collective of nervous virgins again. I wasn’t supposed to be this confident or self-assured. To Kyle, I must have sounded like a completely different person at the end there.
Still, it went better than I’d expected. Maybe I could pick up right where I left off, without anybody noticing. At least until we figured out how to get back. I reached into the bag slung over my shoulder, thumbing through books and papers. I’d left everything in there the night before, ready for the next day. I was eternally grateful to my past self for the foresight, as I wouldn’t have had a clue what to bring today. Between that and my (admittedly vague) recollections on what classes I was taking seven years ago, I was reasonably confident I could bullshit my way through at least a few days of classes. Just long enough for us to leave, I hoped.
I walked through the front door, and realized that was a ridiculous notion. Where the two wings of the school met, classrooms lined both sides, with only a room number to provide me any information. Every single one of them looked exactly the same to me.
I had absolutely no idea where my first class was.