“We fled to an outpost—Grifter’s Ridge,” Nyanti explains as we walk through the woods. “The surrounding magic is weak and faint, a poor shadow of what we enjoyed at the City.” She mutters, “By flower and fae, grant us a way.” She draws a quick breath and exhales slowly, breathing out a glowing weave of fanciful runes.
The thick shrubbery parts in front of us and reveals a wide dirt road, overshadowed by looming trees. As we step onto it, the vegetation starts closing in a dozen yards behind us, hiding any traces of our physical presence.
“Impressive,” Lucky says. “You are no hedge witch, that much is obvious.”
Nyanti clicks her tongue, as if to say Child, please. “I have completed every trial in Elsinore’s Fables, and I have made forays into Primal Augments.”
“I take it that’s good?” I whisper to Gyrax.
He answers with a nod. “If hedge witches are the equivalent of small-town wrestling, Nyanti is a UFC newcomer. She isn’t name brand or top tier, but nothing to laugh at either.”
“What about these Sytíshí Whisper Folk?”
“A couple notches higher. Fight-game veterans who know the ropes.”
“So why are we endangering ourselves by helping her out?” I ask. “If these Whisper guys are that deadly, then shouldn’t we—”
“Jon.” He stops in his tracks and lays a paw on my shoulder. As the others march on, Nyanti’s bubble of parted vegetation elongates and stretches, keeping me and Gyrax within its curvature. “It isn’t ‘why are we helping her?’ It’s ‘why shouldn’t we help?’ The first is unnatural, the second isn’t.”
My cheeks burn with shame and embarrassment. “I’m sorry,” I stammer. “I didn’t mean to—”
“Yes you did.” His eyes are merciless and kind at the same time. “That’s the first lesson, ’ware the second.”
My brow crinkles in puzzlement. “What are you—”
“Don’t beat yourself up over your selfish instincts.”
I try to reply, but nothing comes to mind. He called me out before I was even aware of it—I was already condemning myself as a miserly piece of crap.
When I first got here, life seemed a hell of a lot simpler than anything on Earth. But right now, I’m as confused as I was when I lived in San Francisco.
Grifter’s Ridge looks pretty familiar—I feel like a stunned movie-hero, walking through a camp of displaced people. Creatures and humans regard me with despair, anger, or blank acceptance.
A patchwork of tents stretches before us, erected haphazardly and cluttered with gear. According to Nyanti, the Whisper Folk attacked five weeks prior. They boosted their force with demonic hounds, overrunning the city with hordes of Iguars. The Arcane Defense Corps—a volunteer force of Jelian Wizards—was quickly overwhelmed. They were meant to deter, not repel a serious assault.
Nyanti guides us into a larger tent. We take seats on a circle of oaken stumps, rough with cracks and splintery wood.
“Apologies.” She fits a leaf-rolled cigarette to her pitch-black lips. “We once sat on vine-woven thrones. These stumps are a poor substitute.”
“I am grateful nonetheless,” Gyrax says. “It’s a meager soul who cannot appreciate simpler pleasures.”
Nyanti chuckles. “Fair speech, Wolven. Would you care for a loken?” She reaches in her carry and produces a cigarette. “Any of you?” Her gaze swings around to everyone present.
The others accept in a scatter of “Ayes,” but I hold back. I’ve only tried weed a couple of times—I’m not really sure about smoking an Evermoor joint.
Gyrax nudges me with the point of his elbow. “Try it. It’s good for your aura.”
I laugh nervously. “Why not? All the cool kids are doing it.” I give Nyanti an I’ll-take-one gesture and she hands me a leaf-a-rette (I know they’re called loken, but leaf-a-rette sounds way more accurate. Blame the writer in me).
The others holds their smoke up and snap their fingers, sparking hot blue fire from their enchanted hands. Pretty soon, a peaceful smell fills the tent—the welcoming ambience of homecooked food, paired with the chill energy of a Zen rock garden.
“Uh…” I look around, unsure of how to ask for a lighter.
“Jon.” Gyrax beckons for me to lean over.
I angle toward him, smoke in my mouth. After a fire-spark snap, my leafarette catches and smolders. I take a drag, flooding my lungs with feathery warmth. A pleasant buzz runs through my body, leaving my mental clarity completely untouched. It’s like that pivotal moment when you let go of your depression by complete accident—when the unconscious tension drops away, and you can finally breathe easy and light.
“This is the best I’ve had.” Lucky studies his leafarette with wondering eyes. “Arcanix designs have never appeared clearer.” Erany and Ren voice their agreement.
I whisper to Gyrax, “Why can’t I see anything? I mean, it feels good but…”
“Your unquickened sight.” He catches Nyanti’s attention with a slight wave. “Can you open Jon’s aura?”
“Of course.” By her matter-of-fact response, I get the impression that opening someone’s aura is hella easy. “Hold still.” She takes a drag off her loken and walks toward me.
Soft-glowing runes appear around her eyes, which to be perfectly honest, I find kinda creepy. I know it’s silly and totally irrational, but I can’t help but think she’s going to control my mind.
“What is…” Her brow wrinkles. “This is unprecedented.”
Cool. Maybe I’m the Evermoor version of Luke Skywa—
“Your auric energy is completely obstructed.”
My Jedi fantasies screech to a halt. “What?”
“Could you at least try?” Gyrax asks.
The others look mildly interested but mostly puzzled. I bite back the urge to sarcastically say, Thanks guys. Apparently, the only one who cares about me is my former dog.
“I suppose I could, but…” Her eyes tinge with doubt and skepticism. “His meridians and loci are mostly petrified.”
That doesn’t sound good.
“What about your sister Witches?” Gyrax asks. “Could they aid you in—”
She shakes her head. “Most are injured. Those who are not are helping the weak. But even so, even if they were at the peak of their powers, it wouldn’t make a difference—he is too far gone.”
“What if he bathed in the hexflow spring?”
Her eyes widen in outrage. “How could you—no. He would be risking unravelment. His mind is untrained.”
“But his spirit is sure. And strong.”
“He could die, Wolven!” she snaps. “This is no ordinary magic you speak of!”
“And this is no ordinary boy.”
“So you say. But as far as I can see, the only thing extraordinary about him is that his senses are clogged beyond repair. How do you even function?” She gives me a look full of pity and disgust.
I respond with a shrug. “I’m a hopeless derp. Woe is me.”
I’m pretty sure she doesn’t know what derp means, but she gets the sarcasm. “I didn’t mean to judge. It is just that…” She struggles to find the words.
“I know.” I sigh. “I imagine it’s like being deaf or blind.”
“Worse!” she blurts. “I couldn’t imagine—” She takes a breath. “I am a lifelong Witch—the prospect of unquickened senses fills me with dread. If your aura remains closed, your life will become mechanical and gray.”
I grin sheepishly. “Makes sense. On my world, a lot of folks are chained to a desk—ah, I mean, they sit in one spot for most of the day. Some of them get to work outside, but they’re either underpaid or extremely lucky.”
Elier gives me a puzzled look. “What about swordplay?”
I shrug. “A minority do it as a fun hobby, but…”
“Are the inhabitants of your world as obstructed as you?” Erany asks incredulously.
I try to think of something smooth (she still flusters me), but nothing comes to mind. “I mean…there’s a few people with special powers, but they’re usually seen as crazy or demonic. Sometimes both.”
“His auric rigidity matches up with his claims,” Nyanti says. “Lock someone’s aura in monotone stasis, and their stagnation will attract a matching circumstance. It may not happen all at once—it would slowly take place over the course of decades—but barring a drastic turn of events, it will manifest as a physical reality. Am I correct?”
I answer with a nod; a little chagrined, a little irritated—her ruthless analysis of first world office life feels a little too on the nose. “Pretty much, yeah.”
Everyone stares at me. If this were a ’90s sitcom, you’d hear chirping crickets.
After a few seconds, I exclaim, “Come on, guys—it’s not that bad!”
“It sounds terrible,” Lucky says grimly, “on every level.” His ebullient cheer has up and vanished.
“Your poor loci…” Erany shakes her head, at a loss for words. “I’m sorry, Jon. I didn’t know.”
“It’s not like I’m dead!” I protest. “You all are acting like—”
“Hush.” Nyanti holds up a hand, cutting me off. She takes a drag on her loken, then leans forward and blows smoke in my face.
I close my eyes, expecting it to sting or itch, but it’s actually pleasant—it caresses my brow and cheeks with a pleasant tingle. After a second I open my eyes, watching her wave the leaf-a-rette like a ceremonial wand, etching smoky spirals into the air. Instead of dispersing, they hang and pulse with muted light, forming luminous curves and fantastic ovals.
Once I’m surrounded by a marvelous lattice of luminescent gas, she starts chanting under her breath. Tiny runes appear in the smoke, glowing different shades of blue-green-indigo. A second later, they curl inward and wrap around me in twisty-looking fog.
She chants louder. The runes brighten. I feel something twitching inside my head, like a just-forgotten name keeps nagging at the edge of your mind. The tapping grows into an insistent knock, and the air around me shakes and blurs.
Then Nyanti doubles over, gasping and panting. Gyrax rushes to her side but she holds out a hand, stopping him in his tracks. The others rise from their seats, in varying degrees of surprise and shock.
“I can’t…I can’t…” She brushes a sweaty lock of hair off her forehead. “Without the hexflow, there is no way I can open his loci.”
The change in Nyanti is utterly stunning. Her skin is wrinkled and saggy, her eyes are tired and rheumy. Her-night-black hair has turned mostly gray—she’s aged twenty years in the span of a second.
Much to my amazement, she starts to grow younger. Black creeps back into her withered hair, life crawls back into her beaten skin.
“I injected magic into his aura, but it wasn’t easy, as you may have deduced from my face and bearing.”
“Can you Shift your perception?” Ren asks. “Mentally, it feels a bit like loosening your gaze. Focus on me but not in any specific sense—let thought arise without considering it.”
I do as he says. Huh—there’s hints of color swirling around him. I wouldn’t have noticed if I wasn’t looking for it.
“I see…something…” I squint my eyes, trying to will the imagery into sharper resolution, but a mild headache forms on the right side of my brain. The squiggles and orbs disappear, leaving me to suspect that I pushed too hard.
I shake my head in frustration and defeat. “It’s gone.”
“Look at his arcane pulse,” Nyanti says.
Erany: “What in the…Deliac’s Gleam…it’s—”
“All right, all right,” I grouse. “You’ve all seen my freakish aura. Now will someone tell me why it’s so interesting?”
Nyanti keeps staring. “It’s just that your…typically, a person’s aura is indicative of their causal structure and astral lineage.”
“Pretend I have no idea what you just said. Because I don’t.” (Yeah I’m grumpy, but wouldn’t you be, if people were studying you like a carnival freakshow?)
Gyrax says, “Auras are filled with runic information, which makes sense—the inhabitants of Evermoor use runes, calligraphy, and artistic writing as a means of communication. Yours, however…”
“It’s almost…” Ren falls silent.
Lucky says, “It looks mechanical, but not without life. It is like…” He shakes his head. “There are no words.”
Gyrax says, “Your aura is filled with stylized data, like the alien scrawl of a science fiction civilization.”
“Whoa…” I look down at my upturned palms and try to Shift my sight again. Bladed outlines appear around my forearms. Nothing solid or fully colored; it’s more like when you close your eyes and you glimpse vague shapes or blotchy sunspots. “What the…man, that’s cool.”
Nyanti’s hair and skin finish reverting to their youthful state. “Your senses are nearly fast asleep—I’m surprised you can see anything at all.”
Suddenly, I feel a warm throb on my lower back. I reach behind me and withdraw Ailura Qartesi. Ren’s half-revolver is glowing and pulsing, spilling different shades of light across my hand.
Nyanti’s eyes widen in astonishment. “Is that—”
Ren nods. “The Avalon Clapfire. And it seems to recognize him.”
“Maybe it’s true—maybe he is the Prophesied Traveler,” Erany muses.
Nyanti looks doubtfully at me. “Perhaps,” she says grudgingly. “But probably not. Magic is fickle—give it time before you jump to conclusions.”
“Well? What next?” I look at the others.
“Will you accompany us?” Gyrax turn to Nyanti. “Without a guide, we would be entering Jelia deaf and blind.” She opens her mouth to protest, but he cuts her off with, “Consider the alternative: if you choose to stay here, you limit the good you can do for your people. But if you travel with us…”
Conflicting emotions run across her face. Then she lets out a sigh of resignation.
“I suppose…I suppose you’re right. Yes, I will guide your efforts. We strike out tomorrow, unless you have an objection.”
I find myself grinning—a high-level mage just joined our party.