The ferret-creatures seemed benevolent, at least the old woman seemed to think so. After Terra had gotten over the initial shock of meeting the woman and her little ferret friends, she’d let the old women inspect her ankle.
“It’s not broken,” she said. “But it could do with a heal,” she said.
“Are you a healer?” Nalya asked.
The old woman laughed. “Nay,” she said. “But I do muss about with herbs a fair bit. I have a salve back at my cottage that should do the trick with this one.” She looked down at one of the ferret-creatures, Tylmen as Bayne had called them, and gave a nod. The little creature scurried off into the woods as quick as could be. She then helped Terra rise to her feet. “It’s not far,” she said. “Just through those trees. You’re lucky I heard you coming, but then, I’m sure they can hear you coming in Kura just as well with those contraptions.” She gestured towards Terra’s overturned quad.
“Hold on a second,” Ryan said. “Why are those ferrets wearing clothes?”
“Ferrets?” the old woman asked. She barked out a laugh. “Boy, you act as though you’ve never seen a Tyl before.”
“Isn’t that glaringly obvious, though?” Ryan asked. “I haven’t.”
The old woman stared at him for a moment, appearing as if she were trying to decide if he was making a joke. Eventually, she decided he wasn’t. “You mean to say you’ve never seen one? Not even heard of one?”
“No on both counts,” Ryan said. “If you hadn’t already noticed, we’re not exactly from around these parts.” He gestured to the quads.
“No,” the old woman said after a moment. “No I suppose you’re not.” She turned back towards the trees. “Come, then. Raven will have started preparing the salve.”
“Raven?” Ryan asked, but the old woman ignored him. Instead, he helped prop Terra up and walk her through the bushes. Eventually they came to a narrow pathway that twisted up a hill covered with thick brush and vegetation.
When they finally came out of the pathway, Ryan was surprised to see that the old woman’s cottage was very well maintained. It was a small, cozy-looking three-room cottage made from wood. The grounds surrounding it looked more at place in a city park than in the wild. The grass even looked like it had been cut, and a large tree offered shade just outside the woman’s front door.
“It’s the Tyl,” the old woman explained. “They’re quite talented when it comes to gardens and the growing of things.”
The woman led them inside, and Ryan was surprised to see even more of the Tyl. The little creatures were all over the room, seated in circles on the floor. There must have been at least a dozen of them, along with the other dozen that followed them back from the overturned quad. The interior of the cottage was filled with a variety of knickknacks and obvious hand-made furniture, etched carefully and expertly by masterful hands. From the detail of the etchings, Ryan suspected the Tyl were responsible. He doubted the woman could have bought such furniture very cheaply.
Ryan set Terra down on a chair while the old woman went to work. The two of them watched in fascination as the woman, with the help of the Tyl, went about mixing together some gooey substances she scraped out of a couple of porcelain jars. She would gesture towards tools and things she needed, and the Tyl would scurry about, fetching it for her.
“I don’t get it,” Ryan said. He turned to Nalya, who was helping Terra remove her shoe and sock. “Are there any other races you’re neglecting to tell us about? We’re not going to come across any crazy monsters or aliens or anything like that, are we?”
“Monsters?” Nalya asked. She allowed herself to be distracted for a moment. “No,” she said. “It’s been a long time since anyone’s seen a real monster.”
“Define long time,” Ryan said.
“Before the fall of Eventide,” Bayne said. “There was tell of dark creatures that fed upon the lost tribes.” He shook his head. “But they’re only legends. No, beyond us, the Featherclaw and the Tyl, we’ve only to worry about the El’Dar, the Bynar and the Reav.”
Ryan blinked. “Well, that explains everything,” he said. “And what exactly are they?”
“I wouldn’t worry about it, boy,” the old woman said. “There are no Reav anywhere near here, the El’Dar usually keep to their mountain homes, and Bynar usually don’t venture too close to places men are known to be.”
Ryan wasn’t sure that made him feel any better, but he accepted it. “Okay, so what’s your deal, then? You live out in the middle of nowhere taking care of ferr– Tylmen?”
“That’s about the way of it,” the old woman said. She looked to Ryan and regarded him for a moment. “You have a lot of questions, don’t you? You remind me of a child, always asking and never knowing.”
“It’s not like there’s an Encyclopedia Pactlandia I can refer to,” Ryan quipped. “Who are you, anyway?”
“You don’t have to be rude, Ryan,” Terra said. “She’s offering her help.”
“No, no,” the old woman said. “It’s quite fine. I rarely have company so I often forget my manners. My name is Orynn,” she said. “This is Raven, and her son, Quick.” The Tyl she had sent off earlier gave a salute, and a younger looking Tyl waved in greeting.
“I’m Terra,” Terra explained. She also gave the names of the others.
“Well, then, pleased to meet you,” Orynn said. She lathered some of the salve on a well-knit length of cloth. “But the question begs to be asked. You three aren’t from around here, so where are you from?”
Terra related the tale of where they came from, and how they had gotten there. As Orynn applied the bandage, the pain and swelling in her ankle seemed to vanish, and Terra had almost completely forgotten that she had hurt herself by the time she explained where they were going, and for what purpose. She did, however, leave out a number of finer details, such as her dream and the strange vision she had earlier.
Orynn plopped down on a chair opposite Terra and sat in silence for a moment, chewing on what she had been told. “Another world, eh?” she said. “Sounds the stuff of fiction, but by the way you dress, and the noise that machine of yours made, I see no reason to disbelieve. Your town… Dunsmith, was it?”
She received a nod in return.
“It lies south of here?”
Nalya nodded. “No more than a day or two. It lies East of Stone’s Mouth.”
“Stone’s Mouth,” Orynn said. “Yes, I know the place. A good friend lives there, and I trade with them whenever my supplies run low.”
“Wait,” Ryan said. “What about the Featherclaw?” he asked. “Aren’t we still in their territory?”
Orynn laughed. “Of course,” she said. “I wouldn’t live here unless it was. The Quicktooth and I have an understanding. I perform services for them, and they give me a wide berth and keep large predators away.”
“Great,” Ryan said. “Quid pro quo with dinosaurs.”
Orynn blinked. “You’re speaking in strange tongues.”
Ryan waved his hand. “Never mind,” he said.
Orynn spent a moment observing Ryan, then stood up. “So, you lot are going to Halen to speak with Hillbreaker, then?”
Nalya nodded. “That is our hope.”
“You, child,” Orynn said. “You wear the symbols of Halen upon you, but your voice betrays your heritage. You are Raszan. Highborn, if I had to guess.”
“I am,” Nalya said. She looked to the ground. “It is… difficult–”
“Say no more,” she said. She stood up and walked over to a bookshelf, then pulled a book from it. “I’m Raszan myself. I spent much of my life in Siijyn before coming here to be a Freewoman.”
“You chose such a thing?” Bayne seemed offended.
“I did,” Orynn said. “And what of it? You’re Raszan as well. You’ve seen what the twisting of the Pact has done to us.” She plopped the book down on a table and started to flip through pages. “Especially after Vector’s fall.”
“What’s that?” Ryan asked, pointing to the book.
“The Last Word of Wendael Maer,” she said.
“The Last Word?” Nalya asked. She shot to her feet and ran over to the book. “How did you come across this?”
“I have my ways,” Orynn replied. “Let us just say I came across it during my travels.” She smirked.
“Wait, that’s that guy, right? That Green Seer dude?” Ryan asked.
Orynn nodded. “Indeed,” she said. “There’s something… ah! Here.” She pointed to a passage on the page.
“When the southern King has fallen, then the world shall know the Pact has been forsaken… Come, children of the halo,” Nalya read aloud. She blinked. “The southern King. It’s speaking of Eruk Vector.”
Orynn nodded. “The Last King of Vector,” she said.
“Wait, I thought… Wassisname. Tammil Cuerian was the King of Vector,” Ryan said.
“The Emperor,” Nalya corrected. “He ascended after the death of Eruk Vector, who had no heirs. Vector and Halen were once good friends, but since Cuerian…” She shook her head. “But, the children of the halo. I believe–”
“That’s us,” Terra said. “That’s completely us. That dream I had, back on the first night. The voice called me a child of the halo, and even Silvereye referred to us as halo-childs.”
Nalya tapped on the page. “Wendael Maer’s last prophecy,” she said. “I never thought I’d see it.”
“Not his last,” Orynn said. “Not by far, but definitely his most secret prophecy. He never showed this to the Council he helped form. He knew what would become of it if he did.” She slammed the book shut suddenly, then handed it to Nalya. “Maer had much to say about the children of the halo and the way of things today, nearly a thousand years after the fact. A wise man, he was.”
Nalya took the book. “You’re… giving it to me?” she asked.
“I am,” Orynn said. “I’ve no more need of it. I think perhaps it was meant to be this way, do you think? You’ll have greater need of it than I do.”
Nalya was speechless. The book, if held to be authentic, was only rumored to exist. How it had come to be in the hands of an old herb woman deep within the Disputed Lands was far beyond her.
“Thank you,” Nalya said, holding the book to her chest.
“Don’t thank me yet,” she said. “I’ve not yet named my price.”
“Your… price?” Ryan asked. “Wait, you’re selling it to us?”
“Don’t be so absurd, boy,” Orynn said. “You can refuse and still keep the blasted book if it’s such a trouble for you. No, I only have a request.”
“Quick!” Orynn exclaimed. The young Tyl quickly made himself known, leaping from a counter-top to appear before her in moments. He wore a small green jerkin, made obviously to fit a creature his size. At his side he carried a knife with a three-inch blade, small enough for him to handle, yet big enough to cause damage if need be.
“Quick is the descendant of Tall,” Orynn explained. “Chief of the Tyl nation that once helped join the five tribes after the fall of Eventide.”
Nalya suddenly seemed very impressed. Even Bayne opened his eyes in shock.
“In the book it says that the children of the halo will help the Tyl nation rise to what it once was,” she said. “I would like Quick to accompany you to Halen. He’s very useful in a pinch.”
“What?” Ryan asked. “Are you serious? He’s like a foot tall. What good is he–” Ryan trailed off as he felt a distracting tug on his pant leg. By the time he looked down, he felt a strange pressure on his back, and it was ascending toward his face. By the time he realized that Quick had been climbing up Ryan’s body, the little three-inch blade was being held to his throat. Ryan swallowed in shock.
“Christ,” Cale said. He almost laughed. “The little guy’s got you by the jugular.”
“As I said,” Orynn said. “He’s good in a pinch.”
“All right,” Ryan said. “All right, I get the point.” Quick pulled the knife away, then gave Ryan a wink and leaped down to the floor. Ryan rubbed his throat unconsciously.
Nalya examined the book for a few moments longer, examining its pages. She looked up. “I can hardly believe the book is still in one piece.”
“Enchanted, it is,” nodded. “Came that way, through no doing of my own. Artisan’s craft, I expect. I once dropped it into a stew, thought I’d ruined the thing. It came out clear and dry, with nary a mark on it.”
“Then it seems as though we’ve got a new addition to our party.” Nalya walked over to the Tyl as it stood on the floor near Ryan. “Hello, Quick,” she said, offering her hand to the little creature.
Quick put his little paw in Nalya’s hand, and squeaked out a hello.
“Is Quick really your name?” Terra asked.
Quick cocked his head to one side, and made a so-so gesture with his paw.
“You wouldn’t be able to pronounce his real name,” Orynn said. “But it’s the closest equivalent we can speak.”
“But he can understand us?”
Orynn nodded. “Quick is named because he’s the most quick. He’s agile, quick-witted, and brave. Ever since he was a kit, he’s been taking on tasks bigger than himself. He even once saved my life, almost a year ago. I was gathering mosses in the woods and hadn’t noticed a bearcat coming upon me. Quick managed to blind the thing, permanently. I found the thing dead not an hours walk from where he came upon me.”
“Are you serious?” Ryan asked.
“You ask that question a lot. Do people like to jest a lot in your Dunsmith?”
Ryan shrugged. “I guess so,” he said. He was about to speak again when Orynn suddenly stood up.
“You’d better get your lot on the go,” she said. “Time is wasting, and your ankle should be good enough to walk on now.”
Terra tried out her ankle experimentally. To her surprise, the pain was gone entirely. “It’s like magick,” she said.
“Herbalism is a form of magick,” Nalya said. “It’s one of the old lores, like alchemy. The two often go hand-in-hand. But you’re right. We can’t afford to waste time. I thank you very much, Orynn.”
“Pah,” she said. “It’s fine. No thanks needed.”
“Still, you’ve been a great help, and I will remember it.”
“I’d almost prefer you forgot,” Orynn replied. “But I accept your thanks. Now get going, before you’re late for Hillbreaker!”
Before long, they were ready to be on their way. It had been decided that Quick, due to his agility and sheer ability to hold on for dear life, would ride helmet-less with Terra, on her quad. He was given a few moments to say goodbye to his friends and family, and Terra watched in fascination (and took quite a few pictures) as the little creatures would hug, kiss and pat Quick on the back. They squeaked excitedly when he climbed up on Terra’s back and gave a final wave.
“We ready?” Ryan inquired. He and Cale had gone to fetch Terra’s quad for her from the roadside where they had left it. It had remained untouched, just as Orynn had said. After all, they were deep in Featherclaw territory.
By the time all of the quads were ready, refueled and on their way, the sun was already beginning to fall. They had a good hour or two of daylight left, but Nalya was determined to get through Featherclaw Territory by the end of the day. They rode in double-time, moving at speeds they would normally only reserve for straight roads. When they finally stopped for the night, Nalya announced that they had left Featherclaw territory, and within the next day, they would be at the Halen border. She then retired, and, borrowing one of Cale’s spare flashlights, went to work at reading the book she had gotten from Orynn.
Cale, in turn, retired to read more of the book he had gotten into, The Tales of Rasshauer Flenn, and Bayne started snoring loudly next to the campfire.
“How do you think they’re doing?” Ryan asked. “Back home, I mean? Earth.”
Terra shrugged. “I expect they’re wondering where we went. Let them wonder, I think I like this place way more anyway.”
Ryan raised an eyebrow. “You’re serious, aren’t you?”
Terra nodded as she took a bite of her chocolate bar. “Totally. I mean; where else am I going to get this much excitement? A week ago I was a collator at the press. Now I’m an honest-to-God Seer. Lily was the manager of a coffee shop, and now she’s a magi. Hell, even you’ve got that crazy sword that was in my vision. If you ask me, that blows drywalling out of the water.”
Ryan nodded, then pulled the sword out from the pile of his things. He had spent a little bit of time examining it. The hilt was carved from some kind of solid metal, then wrapped in leather cord. There were a couple of jewels attached to the hilt, and then it almost seemed to meld into the shiny black obsidian. He was amazed that, for a thousand year old sword, there were no cracks or chips in the finish.
Nalya had mentioned that the sword was likely enchanted, incapable of being destroyed until the enchantment wore off. She had avoided the question when Ryan inquired how long that would take– after all, it had already been a thousand years.
Quick was busy scurrying around the campsite, gathering together his own dinner based on what he could figure out how to eat. Terra had given him a granola bar, still in the package, and he couldn’t figure out how to open it. He threw the thing down in frustration and started to look for fruit, greens and possibly an insect or two from their stock of food. They hadn’t exactly packed with a Tyl in mind.
But Terra opened the package for him, and he munched happily sitting by the fire until he had finished his meal. Soon after eating, Ryan began to doze off, and retired to his tent– the weariness of the day and lack of sleep claiming him.
Terra and Quick sat alone in the glow of the fire. Terra was replaying her vision over and over in her head. The reality of it all was astounding. If she hadn’t known better, she would have sworn she was actually there. Seeing what was left of the people, seeing what would befall the town she had grown up in.
And then the three items. Ryan’s sword, the jewel and the staff. She knew she had to find the three items, she knew it more than anything else.
This world was still alien to her. By the evening, she had learned of a great many things about the Pactlands she hadn’t expected. The existence of Tyl, for one. That being a Seer was a viable career option for another. She chuckled as she imagined writing up a resume with her newfound abilities.
Typing speed clocked at eighty words per minute, good communication skills, and able to see possible futures.
Who wouldn’t hire her?
Terra stayed up for a little longer until she noticed Quick was starting to nod off. She nudged him awake and then the two went into her tent and slept soundly until morning.