It isn’t easy traveling with a gorgeous, intelligent, warrior-princess.
Especially since she loves to tease me about my willingness to strip right in front of her. Whenever she does it I flush bright red (which only makes her tease harder), but after a couple of days, I start getting used to it—my heart stops kicking into level twenty overdrive. (Thank God for small favors.)
Lucky and Elier take her presence in stride. On Evermoor, it isn’t uncommon for adventurous souls to travel together. Makes sense—why rot at home, when you could hit the road and seek riches and glory?
Predictably, Lucky tries sleazing into her royal graces, but every time he compliments her on (fill in the blank), she shuts him down with a dismissive scoff. She’s not being bitchy or trying to hurt him; she sees through his bullshit and doesn’t have a problem letting him know it.
As the miles (or faires, I should say) roll by, the conversation turns to her childhood. Erany was born to a Fair Folk queen (Fair Folk means Elf. Elf is a word in Evermoor parlance, but it’s used as an informal label bordering on slang) and a human artisan, shortly before the Crimson Wars. When the Wars kicked off, Lyderea and her Knights invaded her homeland—Delán—and burned it to the ground. The survivors scattered far and wide. Some were adopted by neighboring Fair Folk, others became nomadic wanderers. Erany escaped with the aid of her nanny, but her parents weren’t as lucky. Now she wants to even the score.
“I seek the Rosecraft Blade.” As we walk, she draws her rapier and carves a fanciful pattern into the air. Elier asks what that is, to which she answers, “A sentient sword, born from a dewdrop and forged by lightning.”
The Duelist gives her a skeptical look. “Lyderea lusts after weapons of power; I’m surprised she hasn’t claimed it for herself. How do you know she hasn’t yet—”
Erany brandishes her left wrist, displaying a gold-weave bracelet with a red-lit gem mounted in its center. “This is Ryke’tari-forged—its clairvoyant locus is tied to the weapon. If she touched the Blade with her low-shadow hands, I would be the first to know.”
“Who gave that to you?”
“A sage named Yondi. I did him a favor, which is another story for another day.” She swings her sword in a slash-slash-thrust. “I suspect Lyderea doesn’t know or isn’t interested in retrieving the Blade. Perhaps it is simply too much trouble, for it rests on the peak of Yom Dagur. Atop the summit is an enchanted circle, guarded by a golem and a dryad coterie.
“Doesn’t seem worth the effort or the toil,” Lucky mutters. “Easier rewards lie within reach.”
“The eye of a thief is often blind, when it comes to what is truly valuable.”
Lucky responds with an easy grin. “My attention is set on riches and wealth—a freedom agreed on by all with a brain.”
“Not freedom,” Gyrax interjects. “Bondage. The shackles may gleam and draw your eye, but they trammel your heart all the same.”
“I have no heart.” Lucky shrugs. “I left it behind in my family’s manor.”
“I wouldn’t be so sure,” Gyrax says.
“To each their own.” Another shrug.
“Eventually, you will see that it isn’t so, Lucky. One affects all.”
The thief laughs. “Well until that day, I choose to glory in greed and avarice.”
A sorrow-tinged smile comes and goes, but Gyrax doesn’t reply.
“How long until we reach Jelia?” I ask.
“Another week,” Ren says, “provided we don’t run into any—”
A faint jangle reaches our ears: the jostle of armor, saddles, and sheaths. I look over my shoulder and spot a quartet of Knights riding toward us.
“Easy,” Gyrax cautions. “Let them pass.”
The others assent, but Ren draws a dagger. “They serve Lyderea. We should—”
“Under their armor, they are simply men and nothing more. Now sheathe your weapon and let them pass.”
Ren looks torn. Then he slides his dagger into its sheath.
“Fine,” he mutters.
“Was that so hard?” Lucky teases.
The Knights ride up and halt before us. “Wind at your back and sun on your brow,” their leader says.
“The same to you, Kai Justicer.” Gyrax dips his chin, touches his forehead with his index and middle finger, then brings his hand out in the loose salute I’ve seen before—the Evermoor equivalent of a casual wave. “How fare you and your dutiful colleagues?”
The Knight shifts atop his saddle. “We fare well, Master Wolven, but even so, I look forward to dusk, when I can doff my armor and quaff some ale. Where are you headed?”
“The Witchcraft City.”
“For trade or pleasure?”
“A bit of both, perhaps, but definitely trade. Restoration as well, if we happen to find a reputable healer.”
“Ah.” The Knight nods. “Say no more. My body creaks from age and scars—each morning is a test of will.”
“I share your sorrow, Kai Justicer. Long has it been since I have drawn the eye of a comely maiden. And judging by your weathered visage, I’d wager you know exactly what I speak of.”
The Knight roars with laughter. “All too well, Master Wolven, all too well.” The rest of the Knights grin and chuckle. “May light find you in dark places.”
“And may it ease your eyes and guide your feet,” Gyrax replies.
The Knights touch their foreheads and bring their hands out, just like Gyrax did a moment prior. We stand in place, watching as they disappear around a bend.
“That wasn’t so bad, was it?” Gyrax favors us with a brief glance. “At the end of the day, they want to shed their armor and enjoy some peace. Similar to what anyone wants, I imagine.” He looks pointedly at Ren, who maintains his silence.
Eventually, the wanderer mutters, “Maybe.”
When we left Naversé, the forest around us was open and spacious. Now, it feels claustrophobic—as if thousands of eyes are secretly studying us. As we trek further into the woods, the environment starts turning marshy and swamp-like.
You’d think with bugs, lizards, and creepy-crawly under-dwellers, we’d have to wear netting or sleep in hammocks. But that isn’t the case thanks to Ren, who casts a minor enchantment and blesses our party with arcane repellent. (Guy would make a fortune back on Earth—how dope would it be to hike through a jungle and not have to worry about bites or stings?)
Over the next few days, I see gaggles of lizards (Gyrax tells me they’re called peryx) about two feet long, roughly the size of a medium-small dog, with super-stretchy necks that can snap forward twice their body length and snatch prey up with a twitchy bite. Lucky says they taste good with red-rub, but I’m not interested in finding out.
Other animals include dog-sized beetles—their thoraxes curve into a distinct bell-shape—that trundle slowly along, swiveling their antlered heads from side to side. Elier says they’re called hapers (pronounced like “vapor”). If they feel threatened, they’ll scream and run, and sometimes release a foul-smelling mist that’ll make you stink for at least a month. Lucky informs me they taste disgusting, no matter how you cook them or what you season them with. Once again, I have no desire to see if he’s right.
There’s other stuff as well. Shimmery dots with human faces (naya), vines that mutter, grumble, and cough (pengrips) and snakelike rodents with dozens of feet (burbies). All of them, Gyrax assures me, are fairly harmless. There are big predators lurking out of sight (syoptrix cats) but they usually keep to themselves, according to the others.
Erany chimes in, telling us she befriended a pack of syoptrix late last year (because she had to hide in the woods after mouthing off to a cranky Justicer). According to her, the cats have a complex social structure—apparently, they’re super respectful and etiquette-oriented.
I respond with, “But will they eat me, is the question.”
“Yes,” Elier says, “but not out of spite. Syoptrix cats will leave you alone, provided you show them respect and deference.”
Lucky says, “I do not doubt the truth of your words, but I much prefer the civilized world. The wilds are like one big desert—nothing to steal, nothing to drink.”
Suddenly, a woman demands: “Who are you and what do you want?”
The voice comes from all around us, bouncing through the woods in a low-toned echo. We instinctively form a six-person ring, snapping our weapons up into guard.
“Who goes there?” Ren shouts. “Show yourself!”
Dark blue mist swirls and churns, enclosing us in its vaporous eye. When I stare directly at its swirling surface, it seems to bubble in and out, skewing my perception of direction and depth.
“Who are you and what do you want?” This time, a female face bulges from the fog, appearing and vanishing in split-second flickers. “Answer quickly, lest I strip the flesh from your cursed bones!”
The rasp of metal echoes around us—as if a million warriors just drew steel.
Gyrax slings his axe and raises his paws. “We are travelers and traders, on our way to the Witchcraft City. Barter and rest are all we desire.”
“Aye,” Lucky adds nervously. “Travelers and traders, milady—travelers and traders. And just so you know, I like my flesh right where it is. I’d consider it a favor if you let it be.”
The mist condenses into a violet-black whorl which forms into a human outline. Definition and color flood its center. Arms, legs, a face…I find myself staring at a striking woman with a light-purple tinge to her enchanted skin. Her filmy black clothing shifts and shimmers, draping her body in smoke and fabric. If she wasn’t so scary, I’d find her attractive.
“Jelia is gone.” She stares us down with her black-rimmed eyes. “Death and ruin lie ahead.”
Ren asks, “Your name?”
“Nyanti Eldara, third Wise Woman of the Nightclaw Coven. Yours?”
“Ren of the Barrens. Naught but a wanderer.”
For a moment she looks skeptical, but she doesn’t press him on it. “The city was besieged by an army of Iguar. They killed half the populace and drove out the rest.”
Elier cocks his head, puzzled. “Iguar? Correct me if I’m wrong, but they are a flightless version of Khyranic Goblins. Even in the light of a Demon Blood Moon, they wouldn’t last long against the Witchcraft City.”
“Under normal circumstances, that would be true. But these were led by Sytíshí Whisper Folk. Three of them.”
My five companions exchange an uneasy glance.
I raise my hand, fingers curled. “Um, what’s a Sicari Whisper Folk?”
Nyanti regards me with a suspicious eye. “And you are?”
“The Prophesied Traveler,” Lucky says.
The rest of us gape at him.
Eventually, Ren finds his tongue. “No one told you. How did you—”
Lucky shrugs. “I am not without brains, Ren. Or should I say Rennarean Arteris, last of the Wayfarers.”
Ren’s mouth opens and closes. “I…I…” Calculation flits through his eyes—he’s trying to decide if he should defend the lie or admit the truth.
After a second, the truth wins out.
“You have me at crossdraw,” Ren says stiffly. “I plead your grace, Kai Lucknar.”
“Oh cry off, Ren,” Lucky says exasperatedly. “I deceive for a living. When someone tries it on me, it’s as plain as day.”
“The Prophesied Traveler?” Nyanti looks at me again, only with twice the suspicion. “Impossible. You are merely a child with an odd sense of fashion.”
“My sentiments exactly.” Erany grins. (Why is it that I’m always wearing Earth clothes when I meet a hot chick from Evermoor? This is the second time now.)
Nyanti’s eyes flick across us. “A trio of royals, a Wayfarer, a Duelist, and a moonstruck boy who thinks he’s a hero.” She shakes her head. “Whatever you seek, I hope you find it. May light find you in dark places.”
As she turns to leave, Gyrax stops her with, “Wait.”
She halts in place but doesn’t turn around. “Speak, Wolven. Time runs thin.”
“Perhaps we can help you reclaim the city.”
Nyanti lets out a bitter laugh. “Against three Sytíshí? You have a high opinion of yourself.”
“What do you have to lose?”
Nyanti shrugs. “If you wish to commit suicide, it is no concern of mine.”
“Then before we do, I would ask a favor of you.”
“Speak it.” She cants her head, catching him in the periphery of her vision.
“Quicken Jon’s sight.” He nods at me.
Nyanti is silent for a long moment.
Then: “Easy enough. Come with me.”