It isn’t easy traveling with a gorgeous, intelligent, warrior-princess. She loves to tease me, especially about my willingness to strip in front of her. Whenever she does it I flush red, but after a couple of days, my heart stops kicking into overdrive. (Thank God for small favors.)
Lucky and Elier take her in stride. In Evermoor, it isn’t uncommon for adventurous souls to squad up and travel together. I totally get it—why would you want to rot at home, when you could hit the road and seek adventure?
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. Erany exudes confidence and poise. She’s not trying to hurt him; she sees through his bullshit and she lets him know it.
Eventually, the conversation turns to her childhood. She was born to a Fair Folk queen (Fair Folk means Elf, but that’s more of an informal label) and a human father, shortly before the Crimson Wars. When the Wars kicked off, Lyderea and her Knights invaded Delaeni and burnt it to the ground. The inhabitants scattered far and wide. Some were adopted by other Fair Folk, others became nomadic wanderers. Terrelly helped Erany escape, but he wasn’t able to save her parents. Now she wants to even the score.
“I seek the Rosecraft Blade.” As we walk, she draws her rapier and carves a fancy pattern into the air. “It’s a sentient sword, born from a dewdrop and forged by lightning.”
Elier gives her a skeptical look. “Lyderea has an affinity for powerful weapons. I’m surprised she hasn’t claimed it for herself.”
“She doesn’t know or isn’t interested. If I had to guess, I’d say it’s the latter. She’s far too busy with taxes and tariffs. Or perhaps the prospect of retrieving it is too much trouble; 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 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 eyes are set on coin and jewels. A freedom agreed upon by most if not all.”
“Not freedom,” Gyrax interjects. “Bondage. The shackles may gleam with an attractive shine, but they imprison 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.”
“To each their own.” Another shrug.
“Eventually, you will see that it isn’t so, Lucky. One affects all.”
Lucky laughs. “Well until that day, I choose to glory in my ignorant 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 back over my shoulder and spot a quartet of figures off in the distance: four Knights riding toward us.
“Easy,” Gyrax cautions. “Let them pass.”
The others assent, but Ren draws a dagger. “They’re Knights, Gyrax. We should—”
“Under their armor and title, they’re 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 backs and sun on your brow,” their leader says.
“The same to you, Kai Justicer,” Gyrax replies, touching his forehead in a loose salute. “How fare you and your dutiful colleagues?”
The Knight shifts atop his saddle. “I am well, Master Wolven. I look forward to sundown, 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—every morning is a test of my will.”
“Your sorrow is mine, Kai Justicer. Long has it been since I have drawn the gaze of a comely maiden. And judging by your weathered visage, I’d wager you know 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.”
“May it ease your eyes and guide your feet,” Gyrax replies.
The Knights touch their foreheads in a loose salute, then continue riding down the trail. We stand in place, watching as they disappear around a bend.
“That wasn’t so bad, was it?” Gyrax says. “At the end of the day, they want to take off 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 were open and spacious. Here it feel claustrophobic—as if a thousand eyes are secretly studying us. Occasionally, I’ll see a lizard scurry through the brush.
You’d think with bugs, lizards, and swampy under-dwellers, we’d have to wear netting or sleep in hammocks, but that’s not the case. Ren casts a minor enchantment, blessing our party with arcane repellent. (He’d make a fortune back on Earth—how dope would it be to hike through a jungle without having to worry about bites or stings?)
As the woods thicken, the animals get bigger. I start to see gaggles of lizards (they’re called peryx, according to Gyrax) about two feet long. They’ve got super-stretchy necks that can snap forward twice their body length, snatching rodents off the ground with a twitchy bite. Lucky says they taste good with red-rub, but I’m not interested in seeing if that’s true.
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 tells me they’re called hapers (pronounced like “vapor”). If they feel threatened, they unleash a scream and run away. Sometimes, they release a foul-smelling mist that’ll make you stink for at least a month. Lucky says 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 pretty much harmless. There are big predators lurking out of sight (syoptrix cats) but the only time they’re dangerous is after a forest fire or during a drought.
Erany chimes in, telling us she befriended a pack of them late last year, after she had to hide in the woods because she’d mouthed off to a cranky Justicer. According to her, the cats have a complex social structure. They’re super respectful and etiquette-oriented, a lot more so than most humans.
“Will they eat me?” I ask.
“Yes,” Elier says, “but not out of spite. Syoptrix cats leave you alone, provided you show them respect and deference.”
Lucky says, “I don’t doubt the truth of your words, but I much prefer the civilized world. The wilds might as well be 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 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?” the mist demands. This time, the outline of a face bulges from the fog, appearing and vanishing in half-second flickers. “Answer quickly, or I’ll strip the flesh from your cursed bones.”
The rasp of metal echoes all around us—like a million warriors drawing their swords.
Gyrax slings his axe and steps forward. “We are travelers and traders, on our way to the Witchcraft City.” He raises his paws. “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 would leave 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. I’d find her attractive if she wasn’t so scary.
“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. Four months ago, the city was sieged by an army of Iguars. They killed half the populace and drove out the rest.”
Elier cocks his head, puzzled. “Iguars are a lesser version of Khyranic Gargoyles. Even in the light of a Demon Blood Moon, they wouldn’t last a second against the Witchcraft City.”
“They weren’t alone. They were led by a trio of Sytíshí Whisper Folk.”
My five companions exchange an uneasy glance.
I raise my right hand, fingers curled. “Um, what’s a Sicari Whisper Folk?”
Nyanti regards me with a skeptical 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 deciding whether to press 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,” 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 skepticism. “Impossible. You are merely a child with an odd sense of fashion.”
“My sentiments exactly.” Erany grins.
Nyanti’s eyes flick across us. “A trio of royals, the last Wayfarer, a High Taire 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 walks away, Gyrax says, “Wait.”
She stops walking but doesn’t turn around. “Speak, Wolven. Time runs thin.”
“Perhaps we can help you reclaim your city.”
Nyanti lets out a bitter, cynical 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.”
“Quicken Jon’s sight.” He nods at me.
Nyanti is silent for a long moment.
Thus begins my first side quest.