When you’re the world’s greatest warrior, the prophesized destroyer of evil, the greatest and most noble hero in living memory, you get used to a certain sort of reception. Even in nameless taverns in the smallest villages, people sang songs in my honor and bought me drinks. And here in Tarren’s Rift, where all my adventures began, I always got the warmest of welcomes.
Except this time.
I suspected something was wrong when the blacksmith, busy at her forge, didn’t greet me as I passed. The town seemed like always, smelling of hot metal and pig waste and spring flowers, but there was a tension beneath it. When I stepped into the inn with a theatrical flourish and no one even cheered, I knew there was trouble.
“Is she here?” I asked the bartender.
Very wrong. She was never too busy for me.
“I wouldn’t go up there,” he called as I turned away. But he couldn’t stop me and didn’t try. The stairs creaked alongside my leathers as I climbed to the office of Tarren herself.
I’m not the type to eavesdrop. But as I lifted my hand to knock, Tarren’s dry voice came from within, loud enough I couldn’t help overhearing.
“Believe it! It’s you. You are the Skycalled.”
Ice in my chest, a surprisingly sharp bite. What nonsense was this?
A murmur of protest, too low to make out, but I could guess: No, you’re mistaken. I’m nobody, a penniless adventurer…
“But you are! Your nature has been hidden all these years, but you’re the one the prophets—”
I couldn’t take it. I swung the door open without knocking.
Old Tarren’s wrinkled face stilled at the sight of me. The adventurer across from her, a wiry, fox-faced woman with striking red fur, wearing a much-stained cloak over light mail, looked me up and down, evaluating me. She looked unimpressed. “Who in the gods’ unspoken names are you?”
“I am the Skycalled. I’m the keeper of the power of Endreach, the general of the Unseen Army, the destroyer of the wyverns’ ancestral nest. I would list all my accolades, but we’d be here all day.” Puffing out my chest, I turned to Tarren. “And I’d very much like to know what you’re doing.”
“Skycalled?” said the nobody adventurer. “You just told me… But how…?”
“There’s only one Skycalled,” I said. “That’s what the prophecy says. And I heard the call. Three years ago, after Tarren had this same conversation with me.”
We both fixed Tarren with cold stares, and she sighed. “You’d better sit down.”
“You lied to me?” asked the nobody. She sounded hurt. As well she might. It’s hard finding out you’re a hero out of prophecy, that you have so much to live up to. It must be harder still getting that promise yanked away.
“I never lied to any of you.” Tarren poured me a cup of tea from her Plentiful Teapot before sipping at her own. That was one of Tarren’s best-kept secrets: the spell that kept her tea always perfectly steeped and just short of too hot to drink. I’d consumed many cups of tea sitting here while she briefed me on new monsters plaguing the realm.
She folded her hands around her cup. “A prophecy becomes real once it’s fulfilled. The Skycalled prophecy is a promise that a great hero will rise from humble beginnings to save our realm from unimaginable evil—and the real Skycalled will be the hero who fulfills it. Whoever fulfills it. For a while now, I’ve… helped it along, by pointing promising young adventurers along the right path.” She pointed at me, then the other. “Ashe,” she told the nobody, “You’re the most recent, but you’re no less valid than the others.” Under her breath, she added, “More, maybe, because you haven’t strayed yet.”
“But I’m… not special? Not Called?”
“You can be! You’d be surprised what a common adventurer can accomplish if you give them a half-decent sword and tell them they’re destined to save the world. That’s what I did for this numbskull, three years ago—” she jerked a thumb at me— “and it almost worked.”
“Almost? I single-handedly led the defeat of the Rethgardian army at—”
“You’ve spent the past six months killing innocent goblin colonies that weren’t bothering anyone, instead of taking down that slave trader I sent you after.”
I looked down, embarrassed. “I was looking for this special sword I heard about.”
“I know. It’s all right. You’re not the first to get distracted, nor the last. That’s why I’ve had this conversation with a dozen others, and why Ashe is here now. If I tell enough of you you’re heroes out of prophecy, eventually one of you will act like it. If I’m lucky, it’ll happen before the forces of darkness come for us all.”
I set my tea aside. Tarren had chided me sometimes for failing to carry out her assignments, but she’d never seemed disappointed. It stung to realize she’d never expected enough to be disappointed in me. She’d only hoped.
Ashe was studying me, her green eyes thoughtful. “What will you do, then?”
“I suppose I’d better go after that slave trader. Would you…” I hesitated. I’d never traveled with a competitor before. But thinking that way wouldn’t save the world. “Would you join me? Even the Skycalled needs help sometimes.”
Ashe laughed. “That she does.”
I found myself grinning. “We’ll see who helps who.”
— Jo Miles