Under normal circumstances, Naversé would be quaint and charming. Cobbled roads, cozy homes, and shops that look like their names start with “Ye Olde”. Back on Earth, it would be a cozy hamlet. Something’s off, though—the streets are empty. Every now and then, I’ll see a pair of eyes peeking out from a window, or a hand shutter a wooden set of blinds.
“Do you think it’s a trap?” Elier ventures.
“No.” Ren says. “They’re afraid of the wyverns. Look behind you.”
Everyone glances over their shoulder. The sky is covered in greasy smog.
“This is not to my liking,” Lucky grumbles. “How am I supposed to earn any money, when people are afraid to venture outside?”
Elier cups his hands around his mouth. “We are naught but travelers! You can come on out!”
“Enough of this,” Ren says. “I need to find Terrelly.”
But just as we’re about to resume walking, a man steps out from a door to our right. He keeps his hands up, making it clear that he doesn’t want to fight.
“Wind at your backs and sun on your brow.” He’s portly and flustered—he looks like a hobbit, only regular height. “My name is Biles Lom. I serve as the unofficial mayor.” He lowers his hands.
Gyrax leans over to me and whispers, “Only Knights may serve in an official capacity.”
“Got it,” I whisper back.
“I am Ren of the Barrens.” Ren eyes the burning prairie. “The wyverns have left. Why is everyone still in hiding?”
“We didn’t know if they were coming back.” He favors us all with a wary look. “Still don’t.”
“Do we look like Knights, Kai Lom?” Lucky spreads his arms in a come-on-now gesture. “We lack the armor and malice.”
“Have you run afoul of the local Justicers?” Gyrax asks.
“In a roundabout way,” Lom says. “Until recently, we have always paid extra to their cursed tithe-men. This last cycle, however, we didn’t have any coin to spare. Our commerce has slowed—bandits and storms have taken their toll.”
“But you paid what you owed?”
“Aye.” An angry tic materializes under his eye. “It wasn’t enough. The Justicers threatened us with retribution, but weren’t specific as to what it would be. I was afraid they might send a cadre of sorcerers, but Darksickle punishment is reserved for debtors, not for those who fail to pay extra.”
“ ‘Darksickle punishment?’ ” I whisper to Gyrax.
“Arcane torture,” he whispers back. “Inflicted on folk who don’t meet quota.”
He’s talking about Pain Wizards. The half-men, half-smoke tormentors I saw in my visions back on Earth.
“You are in luck, Mayor Lom,” Ren says. “They have burned a prairie and left you be. I’d count them as fools if they went any further. Why harry you with pain and servitude, when you reliably contribute more than you owe?”
Lom considers this, then slowly nods. “You reason soundly, Master Wanderer.” He turns and cups his mouth with a hand. “They’re not with Lyderea! It’s safe to come out!”
For a long moment, nothing happens. Then people begin emerging from their shuttered homes. Under other circumstances, they might look comical; like cartoon creatures taking teeny tiny steps out from their hiding places. But this isn’t a cartoon, this is real life—their faces are raw with pain and fear.
Ren says, “Master Lom, I am looking for a man named Terrelly Jindow. When I last saw him, 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, traveler. The same to you.”
A few blocks later, we arrive at an expansive house, about as large as a big McMansion. Unlike the rows of townhomes that line the streets, the Soothing Hand has an expansive yard and a well-tended garden.
I recognize some of the cheery herbs, but most are obviously native to Evermoor. They give off pulses of colored light, or let off a slight hum. Hmm…never thought plants could sound like a choir group.
Ren strides to the door, under which there’s a hand carved sign: a picture of an alder tree and the words SOOTHING HAND engraved on its surface. He knocks twice.
“Announce yourself,” a woman calls.
“Ren of the Barrens.”
“I would see my friend—Terrelly Jindow.”
A head-level slit slides open, revealing a pair of bright green pupils. They scan Ren, then give the rest of us a thorough once-over.
“A moment.” We hear the owner of the voice walking away.
“Quite hospitable for a place of hospice,” Lucky jokes.
“They’re not accustomed to Rainfire Knights,” Ren says. “Naversé is known for its flavored smoke, not for a heavy Justicer presence.”
“A burning prairie and some flying lizards?” Elier scoffs. “A soft warning, compared to what you might get in Alarean cities.”
The latch unclicks. A tall, pretty lady lets us in. “My name is Perisa. Please whisper while you are here.”
We follow her through some soft-lit rooms and a series of hallways. After a couple of turns, we arrive at a door.
“He resides inside. Once you are finished, exit the way you came.” She turns and walks down the hall.
Ren throws a pointed look at Lucky and Elier. “You know the way out.”
“His Sourness has spoken.” Lucky glances at Elier and jerks his head. “Let us away before he throws a fit.”
Ren stares at the door as they both depart. I think he’s composing himself but I’m not sure. Finally, he reaches out and turns the knob. The latch clicks back and we step inside.
The room is spare but homey. Lying on a bed near the far wall is a powerfully built Hispanic man, sleeping under a quilted blanket. His hair and beard are completely white.
“Terrelly?” Ren asks softly.
Terrelly’s eyes crack open. At first he’s confused, then recognition creeps into his gaze. “Rennarean Arteris,” he whispers. “Is that you?” His hand slips out from beneath the covers and reaches for Ren.
“It’s me.” Ren kneels by the bed and takes Terrelly’s hand. “Your actions at Sidelhelm were not in vain.”
“Good…good…that is good to hear.” He draws a halting breath, then explodes into a series of violent coughs. Ren leans in, ready to catch him and prop him up.
Terrelly finishes coughing, then mutters, “Cry off, cry off.” He brushes Ren away, then sits up in stilted lurches. His body works like a tired bellows, taking in deep, labored breaths.
Finally, he runs his rheumy eyes across the three of us. “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. “There is no need for bows and titles. Stand tall, Wolven.”
Gyrax rises from his one-kneed crouch. “On the contrary, there is every need. The Wayfarer Advance was the last holdout against the White Veiled Queen, and you were its last champion. Without the aid of your wanderer army, the world would have drowned in darkness and woe.”
“And where are those wanderers now, eh?” Terrelly’s voice is bitter and jaded. “The last two Wayfarers stand before you.”
“Not just two. I have been training my Wolven to—”
Terrelly waves a dismissive hand. “The Queen has crushed countless rebellions.”
“Hope lives on,” Gyrax says. “Fair Folk are emerging from their enchanted hides. Wildlyre are forging bonds and pacts. Even some Duelists have taken up arms.”
Terrelly shakes his head. “I spent my life embroiled in war. And after fifty years of pain and strife, my conclusion is this: people will gather to grumble and squawk, but nothing can make them actually change. I was at Sidehelm, where the lords of Erendor watched us die by blade and fire. After all their talk of honor and duty, they pledged allegiance to Arganti Knifelock. My only victory that day was protecting Rennarean and Eraliandiny.”
“Things can change, Terrelly.” Ren searches his face with desperate eyes. “You made me say that before I slept, even when I had lost all hope. Have you forgotten the times we shared together?”
“I wish I had. For what I said was a thoughtless lie.”
Gyrax clasps my shoulder and urges me forward. “All is not lost. Not according to the Vagabond King.”
Terrelly scoffs. “Alijyar fled when things turned bad. He is a Primal Mage—his interest in our cause was a passing fancy.”
“This is the Prophesied Traveler.”
Terrelly looks me up and down, then scoffs again. “You play a cruel jest, Wolven. Why bring me this hapless boy? It is all too obvious that he cannot fight.”
“Jon was born on another world.”
A flicker of doubt flashes through Terrelly’s eyes. “So say you?”
“So says Alijyar.”
I clear my throat. “Um…pleased to meet you, sir…Kai, I mean. I’m Jon.”
He continues talking as if he hasn’t heard me. “My faith has been torn, time and again, by dashed hopes and cutthroat traitors. I have seen heroes a-plenty, and they all fell before the headman’s axe.”
“I’m no hero,” I protest. “I’m just a man. Just like you, just like Ren. Just like…” I glance at Gyrax and mentally kick myself. “You know what I mean.”
Terrelly gives me an appraising look. “Perhaps you are, Jon. But that isn’t enough to defeat the White Veiled Queen. Lyderea willingly sacrificed her humanity. If you wish to defeat her, you may very well have to do the same. Who’s to say you won’t become exactly like her, or Shaddock forbid, even worse?”
I fumble through my mind, trying to find a witty answer. Finally, I say, “Well, I’ve always got my dog. He’s a positive thinker.” I follow it up with a nervous chuckle.
Silence falls. Great—I’m the Evermoor version of Michael Scott.
Terrelly looks at Ren. “The clapfire mechanism. Do you still have it?”
Ren nods. “You told me to guard it with my life. You never said why.”
“In the Turning of Evermoor, it is written that the Prophesied Traveler will bond with Ailura Qartesi.”
“Very well.” Ren reaches behind him and unrigs a large, triangular pouch from his lower back. He holds it out to me. “Here she is.”
“What is it?” I take it with both hands.
“Open it,” Terrelly says.
I unsnap a button, unfastening its worn leather cover, then reach inside and feel a smooth wooden grip. I pull it out and stare wonderingly at it.
It’s the bottom half of a giant revolver.
The chamber and barrel are nowhere to be seen, but the grip, hammer, and trigger are all there. It’s way bigger than a regular gun—like the cowboy equivalent of a claymore sword. Beautiful scrollwork adorns the wood, glowing with magic light that leaks through my fingers. It feels warm and even—a rhythmic pulse that steadies my hand.
Terrelly sighs. “He is not the one. If he was, the arcane surge would be undeniable.”
“Do not be so quick to cast judgment,” Gyrax cautions. “The weapon is incomplete.”
“His senses aren’t quickened,” Ren adds. “Apparently, that is the norm in his native world.”
“Unquickened senses?” Terrelly’s brow wrinkles in confusion. “How could you possibly navigate life?” He gives me a puzzled look. “Your whole world, you say? I cannot imagine being stripped of perception.” He shakes his head again. “Unquickened senses mean you lack any iota of understanding. A boy who hails from another world, although uncommon, does not justify the fire of war.”
“ ’Tis no fire, Kai Jindow,” Gyrax says. “It is a building flood, ready to sweep through Evermoor and cleanse it of hate.”
“My body is shattered, Master Wolven. My mind still feels like broken yolk, from the Darksickle magic that struck me at Sidehelm. If you would avoid a similar fate, then cry off this senseless madness. There is no hope against Lyderea.”
Gyrax’s voice grows stern and forbidding. “If you truly believe that, there is only one Wayfarer within this house. And it is not you, Kai Jindow.”
Anger flashes through Terrelly’s eyes. “Take your leave of me, 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 of the room.
Ren’s mouth opens and closes. He’s at a loss for words, completely dumbstruck.
Terrelly give him a disgusted look. “Lyderea has won, boy, plain and simple. Eke out a life while you still can. And for Anuki’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, a wooden expression on his face.
I follow behind and close the door. Before it swings completely shut, I catch one last glimpse of Terrelly the Wayfarer. His lip is quivering—tears are trickling down both his cheeks. Despair and anguish radiate off him.
Based on what I just heard, I can’t say I wouldn’t feel the same.