It isn’t easy traveling with a gorgeous, intelligent, warrior-princess. She enjoys teasing me, specifically about my willingness to strip off my clothes. Whenever she does it I flush red, but at least my heart stops kicking into overdrive.
Lucky and Elier take her presence in stride. In Evermoor, it isn’t uncommon for adventurous souls to travel together. Not surprising, considering Lyderea rules with a heavy hand. Who would want to rot at home, when they could hit the road and seek adventure?
Over the next two weeks, the forest deepens into the indigo spectrum. Some of the bushes glow vibrant blue while the trees boast heads of rich purple leaves. There’s nothing like it back on Earth. I never get tired of looking around.
Lucky tries sleazing into Erany’s graces, but every time he compliments her on (fill in the blank), she shuts him down with a dismissive scoff. I know a lot of girls who would have overexaggerated out of insecurity—thrown in an eyeroll or disdainful sneer—but Erany exudes confidence and know-how. She’s not trying to hurt him; she sees through his bullshit and she’s letting him know it.
Eventually, the conversation turns to Erany’s 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.
During the Wars, Lyderea and her Knights burnt Delaeni down to the ground. The inhabitants scattered far and wide, forced to live in hiding or refuge. Some were adopted by other Fair Folk, others became nomadic wanderers. Terrelly helped Erany escape, but he wasn’t able to save her parents. She wants to even the score and set things right.
“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 weapons of power. I’m surprised she hasn’t taken it for herself.”
“She either 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 the blade is too much of a nuisance—it lies on the peaks 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 says. “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 geared toward coin and jewels: a freedom agreed on by most if not all.”
“Not freedom,” Gyrax says. “Bondage. The shackles may gleam with an attractive shine, but they trap your heart just the same.”
“I have no heart.” Lucky shrugs. “I left it behind in my family’s manor.”
“I wouldn’t be so sure, Lucknar.”
“To each their own.” Another shrug.
“Eventually, you will see that it isn’t so. One affects all.”
Lucky laughs. “Well until that day, I shall glory in my greed and ignorance.”
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—armor jostling against saddles and sheaths. I look over my shoulder and spot the four figures in the distance: a quartet of Knights riding horses, steadily approaching us from the rear.
“Easy,” Gyrax cautions. “Let them pass.”
The others voice their assent, but Ren draws a dagger. “They’re Knights, Gyrax. We should—”
“Under their armor and titles, they’re simply men. 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,” the leader says.
“The same to you, Kai Justicer,” Gyrax replies. “How fare you?”
The Knight shifts atop his saddle. “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, mayhap, but definitely trade. Restoration, perhaps, 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 new ordeal.”
“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 features, 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.”
“May it ease your eyes and guide your feet,” Gyrax replies.
The Knights touch their hearts in a loose salute, then continue riding down the trail. We stand in place, watching as they disappear around a turn.
“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 meaningfully at Ren, who remains silent.
Eventually, the wanderer mutters, “Maybe.”
Birds give way to croaking lizards. The forest around us grows thick and swampy. When we left Naversé, the woods felt open and spacious. Here they 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 Ren casts a minor enchantment, blessing our party with arcane repellent. He could 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 butter, but I have no desire to test his claim.
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 chilling 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 test his claim.
There’s other stuff as well. Shimmery dots with human faces (naya), vines that moan and grumble (pengrips) and snakelike rodents with dozens of feet (burbies). All of them, Gyrax assures me, are fairly harmless. There are big predators lurking around (syoptrix cats) but the only time they’re dangerous is after a fire or during a drought.
Erany chimes in, telling us she befriended a pack of them late last year, when she had to hide in the woods because she’d mouthed off to a cranky Justicer. She says the cats have a complex social structure. They’re super respectful and etiquette-oriented, a lot more than most humans.
“Will they eat me?” I ask.
“Yes,” Elier says, “but not out of spite. There’s a delicate balance in every clime—once you learn how to sense and navigate it, you can turn defeat and setbacks into opportunity and victory. Syoptrix cats will 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. As far as I’m concerned, the wilds might as well be one big desert—nothing to steal or drink.”
Suddenly, a voice demands: “Who are you and what do you want?”
It comes from all around us, bouncing through the forest in a low-toned echo. We instinctively form a six-person ring, flashing our weapons 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 it, 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 swords echoes all around us. It sounds like a million warriors unsheathing their weapons.
Gyrax slings his axe and adjusts it so it lays on his back. “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 in a nervous tone. “I like my flesh right where it is—I’d consider it a favor if you leave it thus.”
The mist condenses into a violet-black whorl and forms into a human outline. Definition and color flood its center. Arms, legs, a face…
I find myself staring at a striking woman. There’s 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.”
“I’ll verify that for myself,” Ren says. “Your name?”
“My name is Nyanti, third Wise Woman of the Nightclaw Coven. Four months ago, we were ambushed by an army of Iguars. They killed half the populace and conquered Jelia.”
Elier cocks his head. “Iguars? A lesser version of Khyranic Gargoyles, if I’m not mistaken. Even on the night of a Demon Blood Moon, they wouldn’t last a second against the Witchcraft City.”
“Sytíshi Whisper Folk directed the attack.”
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. “Who are you?”
“The Prophesied Traveler,” Lucky says.
The rest of us gape at him. Ren says, “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 continue the lie or admit the truth. After a couple of seconds, 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 else tries it with me, it’s as plain as day.”
“The Prophesied Traveler?” Nyanti looks at me again, but with twice the skepticism. “Impossible. You are merely a child with ridiculous fashion sense.”
“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.”
She turns to go. Gyrax says, “Wait.”
She stops walking but she doesn’t turn around. “Speak, Wolven. Time runs thin.”
“Perhaps we can help you reclaim the 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. Then she sighs in resignation.
Thus begins my first side quest.