Ren collects himself in typical Ren fashion: by dipping his head and staring furiously at nothing. A few nuns pass by and give him a wary look, but they don’t say anything. I think they can sense he needs some time.
After a minute or so of Silent Rage, I turn to Gyrax. “What’s the ‘Wayfarer Advance?’ ”
“A loose network of wandering warriors. During the Bright Age, they ranged across land and sea, exploring the highest peaks and deepest caverns. They were widely renowned for their magic and swordplay, but even more so for their wit and bravery. Their collective mission was to uncover wisdom and knowledge so they could spread it out to all of Evermoor. That changed during the Crimson Wars, when they took up the role of saboteur-scouts.”
“And it changed at Sidehelm?”
Gyrax nods. “In the months leading up to the decisive battle, the Kings of Erendor pledged their loyalty to the Juric Unity: the alliance of folk who stood against the Queen. The Unity was set to attack Sidehelm Pass, a crucial lynchpin in the Queen’s supply chain. The armies of Erendor comprised three-quarters of the attacking force.”
“And they betrayed the Unity.”
Another nod. “In their eyes, shared victory would come at a cost: the need to work with countless factions. Rather than face a diverse consensus, the Kings sided with the White Veiled Queen. The Unity didn’t know until the assault had begun. Instead of joining the first wave, 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 float through the castle as restless haunts. Occasionally, they venture outside and harry travelers. They are known by 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 encountered the Watchers, but…”
“It is certainly possible,” Gyrax says. We walk down the hall toward the exit. “But if I had to guess, I’d say it was a matter of accumulated strife—Terrelly’s 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.”
“There is 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. “Even in the Advance, it is a bit of an obscurity. How did you—”
“When I was a pup, my clan cared for an injured Wayfarer named 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 be. Things will turn out for the best.”
“I hope you are right.”
They lapse into silence. Which gives me the opportunity to ask, “What’s the deal with the magic revolver?”
“It is called Ailura Qartesi.” Gyrax says. “A storied weapon, capable of vanquishing high-demon energies. Do not mention it in front of Elier or Lucky.”
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 here,” Ren says. “What about you?” He looks at Gyrax.
“I am content.” After a moment of consideration, he says, “Let us head for Jelia.”
“The Witchcraft City?” Elier looks puzzled. “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 professional.”
“Why does he have unquickened sight?” Lucky asks. “I’ve yet to meet a human or creature that hasn’t been quickened right after birth.”
“An arcane injury,” Gyrax explains, saving me the trouble of having to lie. “He was attacked by a Demakor a few months back.”
Elier look stricken. “My condolences,” he murmurs. “I didn’t know.”
“No big deal,” I say lamely. “I never really—”
Gyrax holds up a hand, cutting me off. “We head for Jelia…unless anyone objects.” He sweeps our party with his gaze. The others exchange a noncommittal glance.
“Good,” Gyrax affirms. “Jelia it is.”
We cross through Naversé and resume our trek. Verdant forest grows on either side of us, filtering sunlight through the leafy canopy. Birds chirp softly in the background, adding an idyllic touch to our sylvan journey.
After a week of travelling, we hear commotion ahead. It sounds like a quarrel—multiple guys arguing with a lady.
“I’d 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 abruptly gets louder, then quickly culminates in a ferocious scream.
Gyrax acts first—he gallops forward on all fours. The rest of us follow but he’s way too fast; he leaves us behind in less than a second. After a short sprint, we stop at the edge of a forest glade, watching a green-clad woman slash a man’s back and cut the ties on his buckskin trousers. She kicks him in the butt and he stumbles off, holding onto his drooping pants. A dozen yards ahead, four other men are fleeing down the road, beaten and humiliated by the female warrior.
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, then make it quick.” She straightens up and 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 takes a tentative step forward. “Erany? Is that you?”
“How do you know me?” She assesses Ren with doubt and suspicion.
She resembles 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 version of Link from Legend of Zelda. I doubt that Taylor would wear anything like this, unless she decided to take up LARPing. Green tunic, brown belt, brown leggings, but unlike Link, no cap. A thin, lightweight backpack hangs from her shoulders.
“Sidehelm Pass,” Ren says. “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 have to see him. I owe him my li—”
He shakes his head. “No good can come of your visit.”
Her lips tighten. “You have no say in what I do.”
Ren scoffs and rolls his eyes. “You’re as pigheaded as ever. I tell you, Erany, there is no use in—”
She points her sword at his hooded face. “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: she’s a fellow Ren-hater and he strongly approves) 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 snarls. He draws his sword with a furious swipe. “Just because you’re a Fair Folk princess doesn’t mean I’ll bow and scrape at your slippered feet!”
Her eyes flash with shock and hate. “I have never,” her voice lowers to 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 have the chance to put you in your—”
Gyrax steps between them, arms out. “There is no need to fight. Ren spoke out of turn, but—”
“Out of the way, Wolven.” She levels the blade at him. “Or your head will roll across this trail.”
Gyrax dips into a formal bow: right hand crossing his waist, left hand around his back. “Princess Eraliandiny of the Delaeni Fair Folk—I am Gyrax Aclasian, Warrior Rex to the Wolven clans.”
“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 politician.”
She eyes Elier and Lucky. “You travel with a pickpocket and a duelist. Most curious.”
“Thief!” Lucky protests.
She jerks her chin at me. “Your name. Speak it.”
“Um…er…” I stammer for a bit, 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 in confusion. “ ‘Cosm adjacent to—’ ” Her eyes widen. “So you’re The—but…but…” Her surprise fades, replaced by doubt. “You look unformidable, to say the least. Can you fight or cast?”
I almost tell her I’m good with a dagger, but I’d probably sound like a cocky douche-bro.
“What’s wrong?” she asks irritably. “Are you even listening to me?”
“I…I…” I realize I’ve been gaping at her. I close my mouth, gulping without intending to. “I—yes. I’m listening.”
“What manner of footwear is that?” She looks me up and down. “And for that matter, what are you wearing?”
I feel myself blushing. “Oh, um…they’re called sneakers. These are jeans.” I gesture at my legs, then 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 say, “I can change right now if—”
Erany raises her free hand 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 Jelia,” Gyrax says. “Perhaps you would care to share our travels.”
“The Witchcraft City…” Erany slides her rapier into its sheath. “I wasn’t planning on it…but you say that Terrelly is in need of healing?”
“At every level. His physical ailment is fairly severe, but it is nothing compared to his auric disorder.”
She curls a lock behind her ear, causing my heart to beat a little faster. “Can he be saved? If there’s any hope at all…”
Ren says, “Leave him be, Erany. He has withered into a bitter old—”
“Accompany us,” Gyrax says. “Jelia might yet hold a cure.”
Erany is quiet for a long while. The chirping birds fill the silence.
Finally, she says, “Very well. Jelia is filled with accomplished healers. 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 purchase a potion or salve…”
“I did so without his knowing,” Gyrax replies. “It is why I speak with such surety; he might last a few more years, but it won’t be pleasant. His mantic loci are completely ruptured.”
Ren looks astonished. “Why didn’t you tell me? We’ve been on the road for over a week!”
“I was planning on waiting until you were 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. You have embraced your darkness for far too long. If you continue on in such a state, your perception will be 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.
“He’s right, Ren,” Erany says. “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 end up beneath its merciless currents.”
Ren takes a deep, calming breath. He looks down at his feet, no longer a livid teenager, but a humbled young man. “You say true, Erany. I plead thy grace in all matters, both past and present.”
“No need, Ren. I plead yours.”
“All is forgiven.” He raises his head and meets her gaze. “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’m getting used to hearing:
“Our crossing seems fated.”
With the addition of Erany, we become a party of six.