Naversé is quaint—filled with cobbled roads, cozy houses, and shops that look like their name starts with“Ye Olde.” Under normal circumstances, I would think they were charming.
Not today, though. The streets are empty, completely deserted. Every so often, I glimpse someone peeking through a shuttered window.
“A trap?” Elier scans the town with uneasy eyes.
“No,” Ren says, “they’re hiding.”
I glance over my shoulder at the smog-coated sky. If I saw wyverns going buck-nuts pyro, I’d probably be in hiding too.
“This is not to my liking,” Lucky grumbles. “How can I earn when no one’s about?”
Elier cups his hands around his mouth. “We are naught but travelers!”
“Enough of this,” Ren says. “I need to find Terrelly.”
As he starts forward, a portly man steps out from a door, hands raised. He looks like a hobbit, only regular height.
“Wind at your back and sun on your brow. My name is Biles Lom—I serve as unofficial mayor of Naversé Township.”
I mutter, “ ‘Unofficial?’ ”
Gyrax leans over and whispers, “Ordained Knights are the only folk who may serve in an official capacity.”
“Gotcha,” I whisper back.
“Ren of the Barrens.” Ren touches his forehead with his right index and middle finger, palm facing inward, then moves his hand a few inches outward in a perfunctory salute. “The wyverns have left, Kai Lom. Why is everyone still in hiding?”
“We didn’t know if they were coming back.” Biles gives us a wary look. “Still don’t.”
“Do we look like Knights?” Lucky spreads his arms in a come-on-now gesture. “We lack the armor and malice.”
“Did you run afoul of the local Justicers?” Gyrax asks.
“In a manner of speaking.” Biles lowers his hands. “We always paid extra to their cursed tithe-men. This last cycle, however, we had nothing to spare. Our commerce has slowed—bandits and storms have taken their toll.”
“Did you pay what you owe?”
“We did.” An angry tic materializes high on his cheek. “But it wasn’t enough. The Justicers threatened us. Said they’d plague us with Darksickle sorcerers.”
“ ‘Darksickle?’ ” I whisper to Gyrax.
“Wizards who specialize in arcane torture,” he whispers back. “They punish folk who don’t meet quota.”
Ah, okay—he’s talking about Pain Wizards: the half-men, half-smoke tormentors from my Earth-side visions.
“You are fortunate, Kai Lom,” Ren says. “They burned the prairie and left you be. I’d count them as fools if they went any further. Why saddle you with additional strife, when you reliably contribute more than you owe?”
Lom considers this, then grudgingly nods. “Your reasoning is sound, Ren of the Barrens. Forgive our caution—we are wholly unaccustomed to Rainfire Knights.”
“There is nothing to forgive,” Ren replies. “You acted sensibly.”
Lom turns and cups his mouth with a hand. “It is safe to come out!”
People slowly emerge from their shuttered homes. If they weren’t so scared, I would find them amusing—like cartoon creatures taking teeny tiny steps out from their hidey-holes. But this isn’t a cartoon; their faces are raw with pain and fear.
Ren clears his throat. “Master Lom, I seek a man named Terrelly Jindow. The last I heard, he had taken residence in the Soothing Hand.”
“I know of no such man. But you are free to look and see for yourself.”
“My thanks, Master Lom. May light find you in dark places.”
“Aye, wanderer. May it ease your eyes and guide your feet.”
A few blocks later we arrive at an expansive house, about as big as a large McMansion. Unlike the townhomes lining the street, the Soothing Hand stands by itself, bordered by a yard and a neat garden. I recognize some of it—sage, lilac, ivy—but most is native to the world of Evermoor. A few of the plants give off feathery light. Some emit a whimsical hum.
(Cool. Never thought a plant could carry a tune.)
The door is marked by a hand-carved sign with an engraving of an alder tree. Ren lifts the clapper and knocks twice.
“Your name!” a woman calls.
“Ren of the Barrens.”
“I would see a friend. Terrelly Jindow.”
A head-level slit slides to the left, revealing a pair of bright green pupils. They scan Ren, then give the rest of us a thorough once-over.
The slit closes. We hear the owner of the voice walking away.
“Quite hospitable for a place of hospice,” Lucky quips.
“Curb your judgment,” Ren says. “Naversé is known for its flavored smoke, not for a heavy Justicer presence.”
“A charred prairie and some flying lizards?” Elier scoffs. “Soft warning, compared to what you would receive in Alarean cities.”
The latch unclicks, revealing a tall, pretty lady. “Wind at your back and sun on your brow. My name is Perisa; I serve as assistant safewoman of the Soothing Hand. While you are here, keep your voice to a low whisper.”
We acknowledge her request with a scatter of “ayes,” then follow her through some rooms, a kitchen, and a series of hallways. After a couple of turns, we arrive at a door.
Perisa gestures at it. “Once you are finished, exit the same way you came.” She turns and leaves.
Ren looks pointedly at Lucky and Elier. “See yourself out.”
“His Sourness has spoken.” Lucky glances at Elier and jerks his chin. “Let us away before he throws a conniption.”
Ren stands there, making it a point to watch them depart, then reaches out and turns the knob. The door clicks open. We filter inside.
The room is spare but comfy. Lying on a bed in the corner is a powerfully built, older Hispanic man, sleeping beneath a quilted blanket. His hair and beard are completely white.
“Terrelly?” Ren asks softly. He takes a tentative step toward the bed.
The man’s eyes crack open. Confusion plays across his face. It slowly gives way to recognition.
“Rennarean Arteris,” he whispers. His hand slips out from under the covers.
“Aye.” Ren kneels and takes his hand. “I still draw breath, thanks to you.”
The warrior explodes with violent coughs. Ren leans in, ready to catch him if he falls. But Terrelly mutters, “Cry off, cry off,” and brushes him away. He sits up in stilted lurches, chest working like a tired bellows. After taking a moment to regain his composure, he scans our party with rheumy eyes.
“A Wolven,” he whispers. “Your color and ridge…you are Fenric royalty.”
“Gyrax Aclasian.” Gyrax lowers to a knee and bows his head. “At your service, Kai Jindow.”
Terrelly laughs—a hoarse, scraping bark. “Stand tall, Wolven. There is no need for bows and titles. Not in my presence.”
Gyrax rises. “I disagree. To this day, my folk tell tales of Terrelly Jindow, Explorer Captain of the Wayfarer Advance. Without the aid of your wanderer army, the world would have drowned in sorrow and woe.”
“And where are those wanderers now?” Terrelly’s voice is bitter and jaded. “The last two Wayfarers stand before you.”
“You are not alone, Kai Jindow. I have been training my Wolven to—”
Terrelly waves a dismissive hand. “Lyderea has crushed countless rebellions.”
“Hope lives on,” Gyrax insists. “Fair Folk are emerging from enchanted hides. Wildlyre are forging bonds and pacts. Even some Duelists have taken up arms.”
Terrelly shakes his head. “After sixty years of pain and strife, I have learned a bitter truth—people will gather to grumble and squawk, but nothing will inspire them to actually change. I was at Sidehelm, Wolven, when the lords of Erendor turned their backs. After all their talk of honor and duty, they struck a pact with Arganti Knifelock. My only victory that day was in protecting Rennarean and Eralindíany.”
“The world can change, Terrelly.” Ren searches his face. “You made me say that before I slept. Have you forgotten the times we shared together?”
“I wish I had, boy. For what I taught you to say was a thoughtless lie.”
Gyrax clasps my shoulder. “All is not lost. Not according to the Vagabond King.”
Terrelly scoffs. “Alijyar fled when we needed him most. He is a Primal Mage—his interest in our cause was a passing fancy.”
“Before you stands the Prophesied Traveler.”
Terrelly stiffens in surprise. “Aye?” He looks me up and down, then scoffs again. “You expect me to rally behind this boy? It is all too obvious he cannot fight or cast.”
“Jon was born on another world.”
A flicker of doubt flashes through his eyes. “So say you?”
“So says Alijyar.”
I clear my throat. “Um…pleased to meet you, sir. Kai, I mean.”
He pins me down with a pain-riven gaze. “I have met heroes a-plenty, boy, and most of them died under a headman’s axe. The ones that escaped grew dismal and weary—they lost their souls to smoke and drink.”
“I’m not a hero,” I protest. “I’m just a man. Like you, like Ren, like…” I glance at Gyrax and mentally kick myself. “Like…yeah.”
Terrelly responds with a bitter laugh. “Lyderea sacrificed her humanity to gain her power. If you wish to defeat her, you will probably have to do the same. Who’s to say you won’t become her, or Shaddock forbid, something even worse?”
I fumble for an answer. Finally, I say, “Well, I’ve always got my dog. He’s a positive thinker. Gotta count for something.” A nervous chuckle escapes from my mouth.
Total silence. (Great—I’m the Evermoor version of Michael Scott.)
Terrelly locks eyes with Ren. “The Avalon Clapfire. Do you still have it?”
Ren nods. “You told me to guard it with my life. You never said why.”
“According to Alijyar, the Prophesied Traveler will bond with Ailura.”
“Very well.” Ren reaches behind him, un-rigs a large, triangular pouch from his lower back, and holds it out to me. “Here.”
“What uh…what is it?” I take it with both hands. (Whoof—heavy.)
“Open it,” Terrelly says.
I unfasten the worn leather cover, held in place by a tarnished button, then reach inside and curl my fingers around a smooth wooden grip. I pull it out and find myself staring at the bottom half of a giant revolver.
The chamber and barrel are both missing, but the grip, hammer, and trigger are all still there. It’s way bigger than a regular gun—like the cowboy equivalent of a claymore sword. Beautiful scrollwork adorns the wood, aglow with light that leaks through my fingers. It’s warm and even—a rhythmic pulse that steadies my hand.
Terrelly sighs. “He isn’t the Traveler. If he was, the arcane surge would be undeniable.”
“Reserve your judgment,” Gyrax cautions. “This is only half a weapon.”
“His senses aren’t quickened,” Ren adds. “Perhaps that is a factor.”
“What?” Terrelly’s brow wrinkles in confusion. “How can you possibly navigate life?” He shakes his head in puzzlement. “Unquickened senses…that cements my belief you are not the Traveler. Someone as disconnected as you could never reach the Unbound Realm.” He looks Gyrax in the eye. “And a boy who hails from another world, though curious and rare, does not justify the fire of war.”
“ ’Tis not a fire, Kai Jindow. It is a building flood, ready to sweep through Evermoor and cleanse it of hate.”
Terrelly glares at him. “My body is shattered, Wolven. My mind feels like broken yolk, thanks to Lyderea’s Darksickle wretches. If you would avoid a similar fate, then cry off this senseless madness. There is no hope against the White Veiled Queen.”
Gyrax’s demeanor turns icy and harsh. “If you truly believe that, there is only one Wayfarer within this room. And it is not you, Kai Jindow.”
Anger blazes in Terrelly’s gaze. “Take your leave of me, you low-shadow harrier! I would cross into the Clear with a measure of peace!”
“You’ll find none in here,” Gyrax says coldly. He turns and strides out the door.
Ren’s mouth opens and closes. He’s at a loss for words, completely dumbstruck.
Terrelly regards him with blatant disgust. “Lyderea has won, boy, plain and simple. Eke out a life while you still can. And for Shaddock’s sake, don’t have children—they do not deserve this blighted world!”
“Go!” he snarls. “I have nothing to say to you!”
Ren walks out with a wooden expression. I follow behind and close the door. Before it shuts, I catch a parting glimpse of Terrelly Jindow. His lip is quivering—tears are trickling down both his cheeks.
Based on what he said, I can’t say I wouldn’t feel the same.