Ren collects himself in typical Ren fashion: by staring furiously at nothing. After nearly a minute of Silent Rage, I ask Gyrax, “What’s the Wayfarer Advance?”
“Wandering folk who ranged long and far. Wayfarers were known for their magic and swordplay, but even more for their bravery and wit.”
“Like Jedi Knights.”
Gyrax nods. “But less uptight. Their collective mission was to uncover wisdom and spread it throughout Evermoor. That changed during the Crimson Wars, when they fought against the Queen as saboteur-scouts.”
“And it changed again at the battle of Sidehelm?”
Another nod. “They were all but eliminated.”
“What happened? Terelly mentioned it, but…”
“The Unity marshalled at Sidehelm Pass, where they planned to—”
Gyrax sighs. “The Juric Unity: a widespread alliance that opposed the Queen. After long months of treaty and barter, the Kings of Erendor—rulers of a far-spanning continent, unparalleled in their military strength—aligned with the Unity. Their armies comprised three-quarters of the attacking force.”
“But they didn’t come through.”
“Aye. In their eyes, a Unity victory would come at a cost: the need to work with countless factions. Rather than bow to consensus and compromise, the kings secretly sided with the White Veiled Queen.”
“Wow. So they pretended to join the Unity, then fought against them? Super cold-blooded.”
Gyrax shakes his head. “They didn’t fight at all. When the first wave struck, Erendor’s armies sat back and watched. Afterwards, in a twist of irony, Lyderea betrayed the betrayers—she laid a curse upon the kings, sealing their souls into Sidehelm Fortress. To this day, they drift through the castle as restless haunts. Occasionally, they venture outside and harry travelers. They are known to all as the Watchers of Erendor.”
“The Pass can twist a person’s mind,” Ren mutters. “And Terrelly crossed it many a-time. I wonder if that’s what broke his faith. He never fought the Watchers, but…”
“It is certainly possible.” Gyrax begins walking down the hall. “But I believe it was simply a matter of accumulated strife. His hardships gathered and peaked, until he could no longer bear their grievous weight. Sidehelm was simply the last straw.”
“He can still find his way,” Ren states firmly. “I won’t give up until he does.”
Gyrax smiles. “And that is why you are a true Wayfarer. The last for now, but time may prove otherwise.”
“How did you know?” I ask. “When you first met Ren, you almost said it out loud, but he made you keep quiet.”
“I saw a Talic decagram in his cardiac aura, known among Wayfarers as the Lydiliant Glimmer. It can only be given by a Wayfaring Master.”
Ren cocks his head, curious. “The Glimmer is a bit of an exotic obscurity, even within the Wayfarer Advance. How did you recognize it?”
“My clan once cared for an injured Wayfarer: Qynarius Burl. While he recovered, he taught me much of your culture and history.”
“Burl was the one who gave me the Glimmer. He was one of many who fell at Sidehelm.” Ren sighs in resignation. “Terrelly and I are the last of the Advance. And if he crosses over into the Clear, I alone will carry the mantle.”
“Have faith,” Gyax says. “Terrelly was once a formidable warrior. A spark lives on within his heart.”
“I wish I could fan it back to life,” Ren says morosely. “But seeing him now, I can’t help but wonder if—”
“Leave it, Ren. Things will turn out for the best.”
“I hope you are right.”
They lapse into silence. Which prompts me to ask, “What’s the deal with the magic revolver?”
“Her name is Ailura Qartesi.” Gyrax says. “A storied weapon, capable of vanquishing high-demon energies.”
High-demon energies. Wow.
As we exit the hospice, Elier and Lucky—both leaning against the wall—straighten up and uncross their arms.
“My business is done.” Ren looks at Gyrax. “Yours?”
“I am content. Let us strike out for Elerica Nye.”
“The Witchcraft City?” Elier asks. “Why?”
“To quicken Jon’s sight.”
“A hedge witch could do that. Why go to—”
“He is a special case. It must be done by a skilled sorcerer.”
“Why does he have unquickened sight?” Lucky asks. “I have yet to meet a human or creature that hasn’t been quickened just after birth.”
“An arcane injury,” Gyrax explains, saving me the trouble of having to lie. “He was attacked by a Demakor.”
Elier look stricken. “My condolences,” he murmurs. “I didn’t know.”
“No worries,” I mumble. “I never really—”
Gyrax holds up a hand, cutting me off. “We head for Elerica. Unless anyone objects.” He sweeps the party with his gaze.
The others exchange a noncommittal glance, then respond with a series of nods and shrugs.
“Good,” Gyrax affirms. “Elerica it is.”
Verdant forest lines the path, filtering the sun through a leafy canopy. The chirp of birds carries and echoes, adding an idyllic touch to our sylvan journey. On our ninth day, we hear commotion up ahead. It sounds like a quarrel—multiple guys arguing with a lady.
“I would rather not meddle in others’ affairs,” Ren grumbles. “Meddling and murder go hand in hand.”
“A dispute is simply a hidden opportunity,” Lucky counters.
“I am of the same mind as Lucky.” Elier grins. “I welcome the meddling, along with the murder.”
The woman’s voice gets loud and angry, then culminates abruptly in a ferocious shout.
Gyrax breaks into a four-legged gallop. The rest of us follow but he’s way too fast; he slips out of sight in a couple of seconds.
After a breakneck sprint, I stop at the edge of a forest glade, watching a green-clad lady slash a man’s back, cutting the ties on his buckskin trousers. She kicks his butt and he stumbles forward, holding the lip of his drooping pants. A dozen yards ahead, I glimpse four more men fleeing down the trail.
She turns around and my mouth drops open.
Standing before me is the most beautiful girl I’ve ever laid eyes on.
“If you’re going to rob me, make it quick.” She affects a yawn, letting her rapier droop by her side. Its single-gem guard is super elegant—silver-gold twists that form a shield around her hand.
Ren steps forward, reaching out with a tentative hand. “Erany?”
“Who are you? How do you know me?” She looks him up and down with doubt and suspicion.
She looks uncannily like a young Taylor Swift, before Kanye and Jake and the sexual harassment. Her eyes are clear and sharp, undimmed by grief or despair. (Have I mentioned that I have a giant crush on Taylor Swift? Well now you know.)
But even though she looks strikingly similar, she’s not a twin. Her ears are pointy, for one, and she’s dressed like a female Link from Legend of Zelda. Green tunic, brown belt, brown leggings, but no cap. A thin carry hangs from her right shoulder, jutting off her left hip.
“Sidehelm Pass.” Ren pulls his hood away from his face. “Terrelly Jindow saved our lives.”
Her eyes widen. “Rennarean?” (Obviously, they share some history. Not gonna lie—I feel a little jealous.) “I came to see Terrelly. Is he—”
“Low in spirit, low in body,” Ren says.
“I owe him my life. I must see him.”
He shakes his head. “No good will come of your visit.”
Her lips tighten. “You have no say in what I do.”
Ren scoffs. “You’re as pigheaded as ever. I tell you, Erany, there is no use in—”
She points her sword at his throat. “Fetter your tongue, before I bloody your—”
“—trying to rouse a broken man!” He throws his hands up and groans loudly. “Why won’t you ever listen to—”
“—sour, low-shadowed face.” (Out of the corner of my eye, I see Lucky smiling with unabashed glee; he’s found a fellow Ren-hater and man, he is loving it). Erany’s voice rises to a shout. “I have bled and suffered as much as you, but I have yet to give in to anger and bitterness! Now still your tongue and loose your blade!”
“Fine!” Ren draws his sword with a furious swipe. “Just because you’re a Fair Folk princess doesn’t mean I’ll bow and scrape!”
Her eyes flash with shock and hate. “I have never,” her tone lowers into a dangerous growl, “ever asked any soul to bow before me. You have crossed the line, Rennarean, and I for one am cursedly glad that I shall be the one to put you in your—”
Gyrax steps between them, arms out. “Lower your weapons. Ren spoke out of turn, but there is no need to—”
“Out of the way, Wolven.” She levels her blade at him. “Or your head will roll across this trail.”
Gyrax dips into a formal bow—right arm bent across his waist, left arm curled around his back. “Princess Eralindíany Ailahdi, of the Deláni Fair Folk. I am Gyrax Aclasian, Warrior Rex to the Wolven clans. Up until now, I have only seen you in my Fenric Ambassador’s royal holographica.”
“Warrior Rex to the—” She lowers her sword. “You speak for the Wolven?”
“Only when they cannot speak for themselves. I am more of an advocate than a true politician.”
She regards Elier and Lucky with a dubious eye. “You share travels with a Duelist and pickpocket.”
“Thief!” Lucky protests.
She responds with a flap of the hand—whatever—and jerks her chin at me. “Your name. Speak it.”
“Um…er…” I stutter and stammer, trying to think of something smooth and confident, but she’s so damn beauti—
Gyrax, thankfully, comes to the rescue. “His name is Jon. He hails from a cosm adjacent to ours.”
She cocks her head. “ ‘Cosm adjacent to—’ ” Her eyes widen. “Are you—but…but…” Her surprise fades, replaced by doubt. “You seem unformidable, to say the least. Can you fight or cast?”
I almost tell her I’m good with a dagger, but I’m afraid I’ll come off like a cocky douche-bro. “Um…I…
“What’s wrong?” she asks irritably. “Are you even listening to me?”
“I…I…” I close my mouth and gulp without intending to. “I—yes. I’m listening.”
“What are those?” She studies my sneakers. “And for that matter, what are you wearing?” (Dammit—I had to meet the crush of my life on a day where I’m wearing my weird-ass Earth clothes! Stupid, stupid, stupid!)
“Oh, um…they’re called sneakers. These are jeans.” I gesture at my legs, then at my chest. “This is a t-shirt.” (I can’t remember when I felt this self-conscious. She’s the first person on Evermoor who’s criticized my fashion sense.)
She shakes her head in disgust and bafflement. “To each their own, I suppose. But I advise you to find a good pair of boots and a well-crafted jerkin. You look ridiculous, to say the least.”
“Sorry.” Before my brain can filter my mouth, I blurt, “I can change now if—”
Erany pats the air, as if to say, Calm down, creeper. “I would rather not see what dangles and hangs.”
My cheeks go from slightly flushed to flaming red. “No! That’s not what I mea—”
“We are headed for Elerica,” Gyrax says. “Would you care to share travels?”
“The Witchcraft City…” Erany slides her rapier into its sheath. “I wasn’t planning on it, but you say that Terrelly needs healing?”
“At every level. His physical ailment is fairly severe, but it is nothing compared to his auric malady.”
She curls a lock behind her ear, causing my heart to beat a little faster. “Can he still be saved?”
“That remains to be seen.”
Erany stares at the ground. Chirping birds fill the silence.
Finally, she says, “Very well. The City is filled with skilled physickers. Perhaps they can offer a magical remedy.”
Lucky exclaims, “Excellent! The more royalty, the better!” Elier looks indifferent.
“Did anyone take his auric prints?” Erany asks. “If we are to commission a potion or salve…”
“Aye, it is a specialty I learned in my foundling years. I took his prints without his knowing,” Gyrax says. “It is why I speak with such surety—he might last a few more years, but it will not be pleasant. His mantic loci are completely ruptured.”
Ren looks aghast. “Why didn’t you tell me? We’ve been on the road for over a week!”
“I was waiting until you were sufficiently calm.”
Ren clenches his jaw. “You have no right to—”
“Keep your hate at a low simmer? On the contrary, I believe it sensible and prudent. If you continue on in such a state, your perception will become completely undone.”
Ren’s hood slips forward, deepening the shadow around his eyes. “You are not my teacher, Wolven. Nor my keeper.”
“You growl and snap like a rabid mutt.” Gyrax’s voice turns hard and stern. “The Reft has long since come and gone, but you act as if it rages through you.”
“You…you…” Ren’s lips bare into a snarl.
Erany chimes in with, “He’s right, Ren. You quest for peace yet deny it for yourself, much like Terrelly in his later years.”
“Untrue, Erany, for I still stand for what is right. Terrelly—”
“Once said the same,” she counters. “Change is coming whether you like it or not. Refuse to ride its fated waves, and you will drown beneath its merciless currents.”
Ren looks down, no longer a livid teenager, but a humble young man. “You speak true, Princess. I plead thy grace in all matters, past and present.”
“No need, Ren. I plead yours.”
“All is forgiven.” He raises his head and meets her gaze. “Share travels with us. Your blade and mind would be most welcome.”
“Since you asked so nicely, I bow to your wish.” Erany throws him a dazzling smile and echoes a saying I’ve heard before:
“Our crossing seems fated.”
With the addition of Erany, we become a party of six.