It isn’t easy traveling with a gorgeous, intelligent, warrior-princess. Especially since she keeps bringing up my willingness to strip. Whenever she does it I flush bright red (which only makes her tease me harder), but after a couple of days, I start developing a thicker skin—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 squad up and travel together. Makes sense—why rot at home, when you can hit the road and seek riches and glory?
Predictably, Lucky tries sleazing into her 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; she sees through his bullshit and doesn’t have a problem with 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, which is a legitimate 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. 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.
“You speak of a weapon?” Elier asks.
To which she answers, “A sentient sword, born from a dewdrop and forged by lightning.”
The Duelist gives her a skeptical look. “Lyderea covets relics of power; I’m surprised she hasn’t claimed it for herself. How do you know she—”
Erany brandishes her left wrist, displaying a gold-weave bracelet with a red-lit gem mounted in its center. “This jeweled brace is Ryke’tari-forged—its clairvoyant locus is tied to the weapon. If she touches the Blade with her low-shadow hands, I will be the first to know.”
“I see. Where did you get it?”
“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 of the Blade. Or perhaps it is simply too much trouble, as 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 focused on riches and wealth—a freedom agreed on by all with a brain.”
“Not freedom,” Gyrax interjects. “Bondage. The shackles may gleam and draw the eye, but they trammel the heart all the same.”
“I have no heart.” Lucky shrugs. “I left it behind in my family’s manor.”
“I lack your conviction,” Gyrax counters.
“To each their own.” Another shrug.
“Eventually, you will see that 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 that’s the extent of Gyrax’s reply.
“How long until we reach Elerica?” 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 and flips it into a reverse grip. “They bow to 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 declares.
“The same to you, Kai Justicer.” Gyrax dips his chin, touching his forehead with his index and middle finger, then bringing his hand out five or six inches in front of his face. It’s 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 slake my thirst. 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 my 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 and watch as they disappear around a bend.
“That wasn’t so bad, was it?” Gyrax favors us all with a brief glance. “At the end of the day, they want to shed their armor and enjoy a drink. Similar to what anyone wants, I imagine.” His gaze settles on Ren, who maintains his silence.
Eventually, the wanderer mutters, “Maybe.”
When we first left Naversé, the forest around us was open and spacious. Now it feels claustrophobic—like thousands of eyes are secretly studying us. As we trek further into the oppressive woods, the environment turns marshy and humid.
You’d think with bugs, lizards, and assorted creepy-crawlies, we’d have to wear netting or sleep in hammocks. But thanks to Ren that isn’t the case; he casts a minor enchantment that blesses our party with arcane repellent. (He’d 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 says they’re called peryx) about two feet long, roughly the size of a medium-small dog, with super-stretchy necks that snap forward and snatch up prey. Lucky says they taste good with red-rub, but I’m really 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 ever 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 tells me they taste disgusting—doesn’t matter how long 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. Apparently, there are predators lurking in the thicker bush (syoptrix cats) but they keep to themselves.
Erany chimes in, informing us she befriended a pack of syoptrix last year (she had to hide in the woods after mouthing off to a cranky Justicer). According to her, the cats have a rigid hierarchy—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 avoid you, as long as you keep quiet and maintain your calm.”
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 all in its vaporous eye. When I stare into 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 bones!”
The rasp of metal echoes all around us—like 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 would consider it a favor if you let it be.”
The mist condenses into a violet-black whorl. 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 weren’t so scary, I’d find her attractive.
“The City is gone.” She stares us down with her black-rimmed gaze. “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. “Elerica is lost. An army of Iguar drove us out.”
Elier cocks his head, puzzled. “Iguar? They are a flightless version of Khyranic Goblins, if I am not mistaken. Even in the light of a Demon Blood Moon, they wouldn’t last a second against the Witchcraft City.”
“Under normal circumstances, you would be right. But these were led by Sytíshí Whisper Folk. Three of them.”
My companions exchange an uneasy glance.
I raise a hand, fingers curled. “Um, what’s a Sicari Whisper Folk?”
Nyanti regards me with doubt and suspicion. “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 to do it to me, it’s plainer than day on the Sunswept Flats.”
“The Prophesied Traveler?” Nyanti regards 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 in resignation. “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?”
“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.”