The sun beats down on the sweat-drenched back of Emlis Naedan. The tan young man cracks stone with a steel-headed maul. He swings with feverish intensity, pushing his lean physique to its limit. Darkness is coming and his road crew will be left to the night’s monsters if they do not fulfill their day’s labor quota.
Emlis winces as a solid hit vibrates through his shaft and rattles his teeth. It is unfair work, but this alien world is as far from fair as his homeworld is distant.
A dozen and more companions from a half dozen races toil alongside him. They are the road crew serving a two hundred and fifty mile stretch of the Endless Road between two of the great cities of Emlis’s new world.
Mr Meant, their road boss, whistles and claps his gauntleted hands. “Listen up, boys! Strip down, and toss your gear and clothes into the wagon.” He points at a dwarf sitting on a wagon bench. “I will have to leave with Bill to ensure the safety of your little treasures.”
This is not how a leader should behave. Emlis catches his breath and scowls. His father may have been lacking as a parent, but his men always respected him and his willingness to stand with them through the worst times.
Emlis raises his hand. “Why not stay to boost morale?”
The armored man coughs. “Listen, boy. I was born on the Road from a naked mother. She survived a night of labor alone in the dark without anything but her tattoos of status.” He chuckles. “A thing that mattered naught to the horde of beasts that sniffed and licked us throughout the night.”
Emlis clears his throat but a fellow human companion elbows him quiet. He grits his teeth at the man, but holds his tongue. His friend smirks. Rand could be his older brother in looks and in looking out for his smart mouth.
Both of them are aliens here, but Rand’s homeworld was more like this one with a little more magic over technology. Now they share a debt to serve the Endless Road Bureau (ERB) for meals, adventuring gear, and a degree of security.
Mr Meant fingers the ivory hilt of his sword sheathed at his hip. “As always, you are free to walk on, forfeiting your collateral to the ERB. You wear no chains. You have no brands as slaves. You are free to eat the dust of the Road or run bare-assed into the wilds. There are long lines of grunts eager to take your place at Bastet and Heimdallr.”
The sour man has tattoos of service from both cities, a thick black line wrapped around his left ankle and a stylized eye on the back of his neck. The marks anchor his authority as a road boss. They will remain even if a horde of the wild overwhelms them.
Emlis fingers his plain neck. He is torn between the status such marks provide and the obligations that come with them. The whole reason he left home was to be free, but this dream has faded over the past year on Uroborus. This world does not favor loners.
A broad-shouldered dwarf grumbles under his breath. Emlis catches some of the accented words, comparing rocks to the meals ERB provides. There were dwarves on his homeworld. He spent time with them as a boy, and they taught him a related dialect.
He scoots over to the shorter man, hesitating a step before coming within reach of arms that could break him in half. “You’re Gr-Grimlock, right?”
The dwarf pulls off a tunic blazoned with the shield symbol of a city from half a world away. “Call me ‘Bladebreaker,’ boy.” He shakes the suit of chainmail he wears underneath. “Help me get out of this.”
Emlis tenses his jaw and says in dwarvish, “Yes, Breaker of Blades.”
The stout warrior chuckles. “First time I’ve heard that accent. What are the dwarves of your world like?”
Emlis works to undo the various straps holding the heavy armor onto Bladebreaker’s rock-hard frame. “They are miners and craftsmen. Much thinner than you and even shorter.”
“You sure they aren’t gnomes?”
Emlis scratches his head. “Well, we called them dwarves. They called themselves by clan names, according to the service they provided to the noble houses that owned them.”
Bladebreaker’s broad back expands even wider. “What do you mean exactly by ‘owned?’ ”
Emlis gulps. All non-humans on his world were owned by the nobility. His family treated their dwarves well, and he even made some friends with the little people before his father told him to grow up. The words to clarify this tangle in his throat, and he steps away.
Rand waves him over and tosses a bundle of arrows into a work wagon. “I wrapped our gear together. Figured you wouldn’t mind since we basically got the same kit.”
“I tried to make friends with Grimlock… I mean Bladebreaker.” Emlis shakes his head. “I think I screwed it up though. Is it racist if I try too hard?”
His friend snorts and pulls off his shirt, revealing scars from stone, metal, and talon. Emlis strips off his own and frowns at his unblemished skin. Despite daring to step through a portal to another world, he has not yet experienced true adventure.
When the whole road crew is naked and huddling together under the falling sun, Mr Meant climbs onto the final wagon packed with their gear and salutes them. “Good luck, boys. I hope to see most of you tomorrow.”
Emlis raises his hand. “Can we have eggs for breakfast?”
The road boss taps his chin. “Eggs are for crews that finish their quotas.” He slaps his dwarven driver on the shoulder. “Let’s get going, Bill. My knee’s tingling just like that time we almost got overrun by a Northwild horde.”
Horses grunt. Wagon wheels spin, and dust fills the air.
It is hours still before dark. Emlis rubs his bare shoulders and sighs.
The others break off into smaller groups. Rand stands with the single elf of the group, who is drawing something complicated in the dirt with his petite foot.
Bladebreaker is hanging out with the other dwarves, all of them about as muscular and intimidating as him. The last two groups are the scaled dragonkin that make his skin crawl at their alienness, and a huddle of humans lead by a man with bone-chilling magic.
Emlis huffs, forces a smile onto his face, and strides over to the elf and his friend. “Is toe art a teachable skill?”