Under normal circumstances, Naversé would strike me as quaint and charming. Cobbled roads, cozy homes, and shops that look like their names start with “Ye Olde.”
Not today, though. Something’s off—the streets are empty, completely deserted. Every so often, I see someone peek through a shuttered window.
“A trap?” Elier ventures, scanning the town with uneasy eyes.
“No,” Ren says from beneath his hood, “they’re hiding.”
I glance over my shoulder. The sky is coated in greasy smog. If I saw a bunch of wyverns go buck-nuts pyro, I’d probably be hiding too.
“This is not to my liking,” Lucky grumbles. “How am I supposed to earn a living when people are afraid to walk outside?”
Elier cups his hands around his mouth. “We are naught but travelers!”
“Enough of this,” Ren says. “I need to find Terrelly.”
Just as he’s about to start forward, a portly, flustered man steps out from a door with both hands raised.
“Wind at your back and sun on your brow.” He looks like a hobbit, only regular height. “My name is Biles Lom. I serve as unofficial mayor of Naversé Township.”
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 touches his forehead with his right index and middle finger, then moves his hand a few inches forward in a perfunctory salute. “The wyverns are gone. 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, Kai Lom?” 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.” Lom lowers his hands. “We’ve always paid extra to their cursed tithe-men. This last cycle, however, we had no coin to spare. Our commerce has slowed—bandits and storms have taken their toll.”
“But you paid what you owed, aye?”
“We did.” An angry tic materializes under his eye. “It wasn’t enough. The Justicers threatened us—said they would kill the adults and enslave the children. Maybe send a cadre of Darksickle sorcerers.”
“ ‘Darksickle?’ ” I whisper to Gyrax.
“Wizards who specialize in arcane torture,” he whispers back. “Inflicted on folk who don’t meet quota.”
Ah—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 pain and strife, when you reliably contribute more than you owe?”
Lom considers this, then slowly nods. “You reason soundly, Ren of the Barrens.” He turns and cups his mouth with a hand. “They’re not with Lyderea! It’s safe to come out!”
People emerge from their shuttered homes. If they weren’t so scared, I would think them comical. 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 says, “Master Lom, I seek a man named Terrelly Jindow. When last I 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 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 streets, the Soothing Hand stands by itself, bordered by an expansive yard and a well-kept garden. I recognize some of the cheery herbs, but most are native to Evermoor. Some give off pulses of dreamy light, or emit a slight, whimsical hum.
Cool. Never thought a plant could carry a tune.
The door is marked by a hand-carved sign depicting an alder tree and the words SOOTHING HAND engraved below it. Ren lifts the clapper and knocks twice.
“Announce yourself,” 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.
“They’re not accustomed to Rainfire Knights,” 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 might get in Alarean cities.”
The latch unclicks, revealing a tall, pretty lady. “Welcome, travelers. Wind at your back and sun on your brow. My name is Perisa. I serve as assistant safewoman for the Soothing hand. While you are here, please keep your voice at a whisper.”
We follow her through some homey rooms, past a kitchen, then a series of hallways. After a couple of turns, we arrive at a door.
“Once you are finished, exit the way you came.” Perisa turns and walks away.
Ren looks pointedly at Lucky and Elier. “See yourself out.”
“His Sourness has spoken.” Lucky glances at Elier and jerks his head. “Let us away before he throws a fit.”
Ren watches as both of them leave, then reaches out and turns the knob. The latch clicks back and we step inside.
The room is spare but comfy. 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. He tentatively steps toward the bed.
The man’s eyes crack open. Recognition creeps into his gaze. “Rennarean Arteris,” he whispers. His hand slips out from beneath the covers.
“It’s me.” Ren kneels by the bed and takes his hand. “Your actions at Sidelhelm were not in vain.”
“Good…good….” He draws a halting breath, then explodes into a series of violent coughs. Ren leans in and curls his arms, ready to catch him if he falls off the bed.
Terrelly mutters, “Cry off, cry off,” and brushes Ren away. He sits up in stilted lurches, his chest working like a tired bellows. After catching his breath, he scans the three of us 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.”
Gyrax rises. “I disagree. In olden times, you commanded 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 their enchanted hides. Wildlyre are forging bonds and pacts. Even some Duelists have taken up arms.”
Terrelly shakes his head. “After fifty years of pain and strife, I have learned a bitter truth—people will gather to grumble and squawk, but nothing will inspire them to actual 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, remember? 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 looks me up and down, then scoffs again. “You play a cruel jest, Wolven. You expect me to rally behind a helpless boy? It is 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 fixes me with his pain-reft gaze. “My faith has been torn, time and again, by dashed hopes and cutthroat traitors. I have met heroes a-plenty, and most of them died under a headman’s axe. The ones that fled…they lost themselves in drink and dwindled into shadows.”
“I’m not a hero,” I protest. “I’m just a man. Just like you, just like Ren. Just like…” I glance at Gyrax and mentally kick myself. “Just like…yeah.”
Terrelly gives a bitter laugh. “Lyderea sacrificed her humanity to gain her position. If you wish to defeat her, you’ll have to do the same. And if you do, who’s to say you won’t become exactly 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.” I follow it up with a nervous chuckle.
Great—I’m the Evermoor version of Michael Scott.
Terrelly looks at Ren. “The Avalon Clapfire. Do you still carry it?”
Ren nods. “You told me to guard it with my life. You never said why.”
“It is written that the Prophesied Traveler will bond with Ailura.”
“Very well.” Ren reaches behind him and un-rigs a large, triangular pouch from his lower back. He holds it out to me. “Here.”
“What is it?” I take it with both hands. (Whoof—it’s heavy)
“Open it,” Terrelly says.
I unfasten the worn leather cover, snapped in place by a tarnished button. When I reach inside, my fingers encounter a smooth wooden grip.
I pull it out. In my hand is 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. Its 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 weapon is incomplete.”
“His senses aren’t quickened,” Ren adds. “Perhaps that has something to do with it.”
“What?” Terrelly’s brow wrinkles in confusion. “How could you possibly navigate life?” He shakes his head again. “Unquickened senses…so you have no knowledge of magic or spellcraft. You can’t be 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,” Gyrax says. “It is a building flood, ready to sweep through Evermoor and cleanse it of hate.”
Terrelly sighs. “My body is shattered, Wolven. My mind feels like a broken yolk, thanks to the Darksickle magic that crippled 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 room. And it is not you, Kai Jindow.”
Anger flashes through Terrelly’s eyes. “Take your leave, 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 give him a disgusted look. “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 swings completely shut, I catch one last 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.