“We fled to an outpost called Grifter’s Ridge,” Nyanti says as she leads us deeper into the woods. “The magic there is weak and faint compared to what we had in the City.”
The Witch mutters, “By flower and fae, grant us a way.” Then she inhales quickly and exhales slowly, breathing out a glowing weave of fanciful runes. They twine around each other, then fade into a drift of eye-catching sparkles.
The thick shrubbery parts in front of us, revealing a wide dirt road overshadowed by trees. As we step onto it, the vegetation closes in a dozen yards behind us, hiding any trace of our physical presence.
“Impressive,” Lucky says. “You are no hedge witch, that much is obvious.”
Nyanti clicks her tongue and hisses, as if to say Child, please. “I have completed every trial in Elsinore’s Fables.”
“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 as good as a UFC newcomer. Nothing name brand, 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 curved end. “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 one.”
My brow crinkles in puzzlement. “Second lesson? What do you mea—”
“Don’t blame yourself for your selfish instincts. Or if you must, make it short. You will falter and stumble if you insist on perceiving yourself as unworthy and low.”
I try to reply, but nothing comes to mind. He called me out before I was aware of it—I was already condemning myself as a miserly piece of crap. Damn.
When I first got here, things seemed simpler than life on Earth. But the joke’s on me—right now, I’m as confused as I was when I lived in San Francisco.
That’s life, I guess. Irony abounds.
Grifter’s Ridge feels uncomfortably familiar—like the part in a movie where the main character has to come face to face with a stunning profusion of poverty and lack. Without intending it, I’m placed in the role of the stunned protagonist as they walk through a camp of displaced people. Creatures and humans regard me with despair, anger, or blank acceptance.
According to Nyanti, the Whisper Folk attacked five weeks prior. The Arcane Defense Corps—a volunteer force of Jelian Wizards—was quickly overwhelmed. They were meant to deter and discourage, not repel a serious assault.
The Witch guides us into a large tent. We take seats on a circle of stumps, rough with cracks and splintery wood.
“Apologies.” She fits a leaf-rolled cigarette to her inky-black lips. “We once sat on vine-woven thrones. These stumps are a poor substitute.”
“We are grateful nonetheless,” Gyrax says. “ ’Tis a meager soul who cannot appreciate the 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 had weed a couple of times—I’m not really sure about smoking an Evermoor joint.
Gyrax nudges me. “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. She leans over and hands me a leaf-a-rette.
The others hold their smokes up and snap their fingers, sparking hot blue fire from their enchanted hands. Pretty soon, tent is filled by a peaceful, earthy smell—the welcome 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 with a curl of his paw.
I angle toward him, smoke in my mouth. After a fire-spark snap, my leafarette catches and smolders.
I take a deep drag, flooding my lungs with feathery warmth. A pleasant buzz runs through my body, relaxing my mind but leaving my clarity completely untouched. It’s like that pivotal moment when you let go of 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. To be perfectly honest, I find them kinda creepy. I can’t help but think she’s gonna try and mind-control me.
“What is…” Her brow wrinkles. “This is incredible.”
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 snap, Thanks guys. Apparently, the only one who cares about me is my former dog.
“I suppose I could, but…” Her eyes tinge over with doubt and skepticism. “His meridians and loci are almost petrified.”
“What about your sister Witches?” Gyrax asks. “Could they aid you in—”
She shakes her head. “Most are injured. And those who aren’t are helping the weak. But even so, even if they were at the peak of their strength, 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. You would risk his unravelment, Wolven! His mind is untrained!”
“But his spirit is sure. And strong.”
“He could die!” 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, his only distinguishing feature 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 accept living like—” She takes a breath. “I am a lifelong Witch; the prospect of unquickened senses fills me with dread. Furthermore, 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 de—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 couple people do it as a hobby, but…”
“Are the inhabitants of your world as obstructed as you?” Erany asks incredulously.
I try to think of something smooth to say (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 take place over the course of decades—but barring a drastic turn of events, it would eventually become a physical reality. Am I correct?”
I answer with a nod; a little chagrined, a little irritated—her ruthless analysis of first world life feels a little 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 activates a mild tingle on my brow and my cheeks. I open my eyes and watch 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 glowing lattice of arcane 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 that nags insistently at the edges of your mind. The air around me shakes and blurs. A low-toned hum builds in the tent.
Then Nyanti doubles over, gasping and panting. Gyrax rushes to her side but she holds out a hand, keeping him back. 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. “There is no way I can open his loci. Not without the hexflow.”
The change in the Witch is stunning, to say the least—her skin is wrinkled and saggy, her eyes tired and rheumy. Her-night-black hair has turned mostly gray. She just aged twenty years in the span of a second.
And then much to my amazement, she starts to grow younger. Black creeps back into her withered hair, life crawls back into her dessicated skin.
“I injected some magic into his aura, but it wasn’t easy, as you may have deduced from my bearing and countenance.”
“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 consideration.”
I try and 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—I think I pushed too hard.
I shake my head, frustrated. “It’s gone.”
“Look at his arcane pulse,” Nyanti says.
Erany’s mouth drops open. “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 damn interesting?”
Nyanti keeps staring. “It’s just that…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 too, if everyone was looking at you like a sideshow freak?)
Gyrax says, “Auras are filled with runic information, which makes perfect 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 like when you close your eyes and glimpse vague shapes or blotchy sunspots. “What the…man, that is 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 draw 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 Traveler,” Erany murmurs.
Nyanti regards me with a healthy measure of doubt. “Perhaps…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 walk into 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 arise on her face. Then she lets out a sigh of resignation. “I suppose…I suppose you’re right. Yes, I will guide your efforts.” She clears her throat, meeting our gazes with her black-rimmed eyes. “We strike out tomorrow, unless you object.”
“We don’t,” Gyrax replies.
I find myself grinning—a high-level mage just joined our party.