“We fled to an outpost called Grifter’s Ridge,” Nyanti explains as she leads us deeper into the woods. “The ambient magic is weak and faint compared to the City’s.” She mutters, “By flower and fae, grant us a way,” then slowly exhales a glowing weave of runes; they twine and curl before fading 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 forge ahead, the vegetation closes in a dozen yards behind us, hiding any trace of our physical passage.
“Impressive,” Lucky says. “You are no hedge witch, that much is certain.”
Nyanti clicks 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 a hedge witch is the equivalent of a small-town wrestler, Nyanti is as good as a UFC newcomer. Nothing name brand, but nothing to laugh at.”
“What about the 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, 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 one.”
My brow crinkles in puzzlement. “What do you mean? I’m not sure I foll—”
“Don’t blame yourself for being selfish. Or if you do, make it short. You will never evolve if you insist on perceiving yourself as unworthy and low.”
I try to reply, but nothing comes to mind. He beat me to the draw—I was already condemning myself as a miserly piece of crap. When I first arrived, things seemed simpler than life on Earth. But the joke’s on me—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 scene in a movie where the main character comes face to face with poverty and lack. I’m stuck in the role of stunned protagonist as he walks through a camp of displaced people. Creatures and humans regard me with despair, anger, or blank acceptance.
Between greetings and check-ins, Nyanti informs us that the Whisper Folk attacked five weeks prior. The Arcane Defense Corps (a volunteer force of Elerican Wizards) was quickly overrun. The Corps was built to deter and discourage, not repel a serious assault.
She finishes bringing us up to speed as she guides us into an out-of-the-way tent. We take a seat on a circle of stumps, rough with cracks and splintery wood.
“Apologies.” She fits a leaf-rolled smoke to her inky-black lips. “We once sat on vine-woven thrones. These weathered stumps are a poor substitute.”
“We are grateful, milady,” Gyrax assures. “ ’Tis a meager soul who cannot appreciate the simpler pleasures.”
Nyanti chuckles. “A pretty sentiment, 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 with a scatter of “Ayes,” but I wave her off. Weed has left me with mixed impressions. The prospect of smoking a magical super-joint doesn’t really—
Gyrax nudges me. “Try it. It’s good for your aura.”
I laugh nervously and stifle my reservations. “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 smoke.
The others snap their fingers under their loken, sparking hot blue fire from their enchanted hands. Pretty soon, the tent is filled with a peaceful 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. He does a fire-spark snap, and my leaf-a-rette catches and smolders. My first drag is deep and full, flooding my lungs with feathery warmth. Pleasant buzzing spills through me, relaxing my muscles but leaving my clarity completely intact.
Wow. I mean wow.
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. You don’t notice the baggage until it’s gone, but it weighs you down all the same.
“I’ve never had better.” Lucky studies his loken with wondering eyes. “The arcanix designs are nothing short of stunning.” Erany and Ren voice their agreement.
Designs? Huh? 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 lift of his hand. “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.” Soft-glowing runes appear around her eyes. “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 stifle 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 with doubt and skepticism. “His meridians and loci are nearly petrified.”
“What about your sister Witches?” Gyrax asks. “Could they aid you in—”
She shakes her head. “Most are injured. And those who are hale are nursing the weak. But even if they were at the peak of their strength, it still wouldn’t matter—he is too far gone.”
“If Jon were to bathe in the hexflow spring, could he—”
Her eyes widen in shock and outrage. “How could you—you would risk his unravelment! His mind is untrained!”
“But his spirit is sure. And strong.”
“He could die, Wolven!” she snaps. “The hexflow spring is no ordinary magic!”
“And this is no ordinary boy.”
“So you say. And yet 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.”
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. “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 get to work outside, but they’re underpaid or extremely lucky.”
Elier taps ash from the end of his smoke. “What about swordplay?”
I shrug. “A couple people might do it as a hobby, but…”
“Are the inhabitants of your world as obstructed as you?” Erany asks incredulously.
I try and think of something witty (she still flusters me), but nothing comes to mind. “I mean…there’s a few individuals with special powers, but they’re usually seen as crazy or demonic. Sometimes both.”
“His orphic rigidity matches up with his claims,” Nyanti states. “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 it would eventually become a physical reality. Is my assumption 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 laugh-track sitcom, you would 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 guys are acting like—”
“Hush.” Nyanti holds up a hand, cutting me off. She takes a drag off her loken, then leans forward and blows smoke in my face.
I close my eyes, expecting it to sting or itch, but it actually feels pleasant—it activates a mild tingle on my brow and my cheeks.
I open my eyes, watching her wave the leaf-a-rette in deliberate arcs, 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 enveloped in arcane gas, she starts chanting under her breath. Tiny runes appear in the smoke, colored in different shades of blue-green-indigo. A second later, they curl inward and wrap around me.
Her voice picks up, causing the runes to brighten. I feel something twitching inside my brain—like a just-forgotten name, nagging incessantly at the edges of my mind. The air around me shakes and blurs. Something’s gonna happen. Not sure if it’s good or—
Nyanti doubles over, gasping and panting. Gyrax rushes to her side but she extends an arm, keeping him back. The others rise from their seats, in varying degrees of surprise and shock.
“I can’t…I can’t…” She brushes hair away from her forehead. “There is no way to open his loci. Not without the hexflow.”
The change in the Witch is jaw-drop stunning. Her skin is wrinkled and saggy, her eyes tired and rheumy. She aged several decades in less than a second.
Then, much to my amazement, she starts to grow younger. Black creeps back into her withered hair, life crawls back into her desiccated skin.
“I injected magic into his aura, but it wasn’t easy, as you may have deduced from my bearing and countenance.” She straightens up and draws a shaky breath.
“Can you Shift your perception?” Ren asks me. “Mentally, it feels like relaxing your gaze. Focus on me but not in any specific sense—let thought arise without judgment or scrutiny.”
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 squinch and squint, trying to will the imagery into sharper resolution. Almost immediately, a mild headache forms on the right side of my brain. The squiggles and orbs grow increasingly fainter—I think I pushed too hard and closed off my senses.
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 nasty-ass aura. Now will someone tell me why it’s so damn interesting?”
Nyanti keeps staring. “It’s just that… auras are indicative of causal structure and astral lineage.”
“Pretend I have no idea what you’re talking about. 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 elaborates. “Auras are filled with runic information—the inhabitants of Evermoor use 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 elaborates. “Yours 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 legs and torso. Nothing solid or fully colored—it’s like when you close your eyes and glimpse vague shapes or blotchy sunspots. “What the…man, this 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. The weighty 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 measure of doubt. “Magic is fickle. Give it time before you jump to conclusions.”
“Well? What next?” I look at the others.
Gyrax turn to Nyanti. “Will you accompany us? Without a guide, we would be entering Elerica deaf and blind.” She opens her mouth to protest, but he cuts her off with, “Consider the alternative: if you choose to stay, you limit the good you can do for your people. But if you travel with us…”
Conflicting emotions arise on her face. Eventually, she sighs in defeat. “I suppose…I suppose you’re right. A slow death versus…yes, I will guide your efforts.” She clears her throat, meeting our gaze with her black-rimmed eyes.
“We strike out tomorrow.”
I find myself grinning—a high-level mage just joined our party.