Nyanti feeds us gruel and chicken, then we spread out on the floor so we can grab some sleep.
The next morning, I’m woken by a rind of sunlight lining the door-flap.
“Hurry.” Ren is already up and dressed. “Time runs thin.”
Lucky sits up in bed, grumbling, “ ‘Time runs thin.’ ‘Time runs thin.’ For the love of Ganshy, grace my ears with fairer words.”
Ren pat-checks the daggers strapped to his chest. “While we dawdle in camp, Lyderea tightens her grip on Evermoor. Not a concern for a thief such as you, seeing as you snatch the food from paupers’ mouths, but—”
“Yes, Ren—I run around in the dead of night, denying babes their milk and bread.” Lucky rolls his eyes. “Cry off, will you?”
Nyanti pokes her head into the tent. “If we leave now, we will arrive in three days’ time. Roughly around noon, if my calculations are correct. The higher the sun is, the safer we are from Sytíshí magic.”
“Taking advantage of your enemy’s weakness—that I understand.” Elier finishes stowing his gear.
“Speak for yourself,” Erany mumbles, rubbing her eyes with curled fingers. “I would give a kingdom and a half for a cup of kepi. Some eggs and mutton as well.”
“Typical,” Ren scoffs. “Our lodging is a little too crude for her majesty’s liking.”
Erany’s face twists with anger. “Watch your—”
“Enough.” Nyanti’s voice is brisk and stern.
Erany directs a Jessica Jones-worthy Look of Fury at Ren, who does his best to pretend he doesn’t see it. (Part of me is pleased. Initially, I wasn’t sure if they were a couple, but that doesn’t appear to be the—)
“Are you ready, Jon?” Gyrax is standing by the door-flap, ready to go.
“Um, yeah.” I fumble with my pants, struggling to pull them over my undies while still lying down in my bedroll. “Just a second, I’ll be—”
“Hurry,” Ren calls as he exits the tent.
I get dressed, grab my stuff, and rush out the door.
As we walk through the encampment, I’m struck by the refugees’ ethnic diversity. I was born and raised in San Francisco—a city that emphasizes social justice and racial inclusion—so I’m well aware that Lord of the Rings, Game of Thrones, and Dungeons and Dragons are devoid of minorities. (Well, D&D has expansions like Al Qadim, Kara Tur, and Maztica, but they were solely for super-nerds like yours truly). Typically, anything fantasy hails from Western Europe, so it feels a little weird (in a good way) to see that Evermoor transcends traditional mores.
This bears investigating.
“Gyrax. I’ve noticed the humans are…uh…” I trail off, struggling to find the right terminology. “They’re not that different from what I saw on Earth. Racially speaking, that is.”
Gyrax gives me an amused glance. “It’s not just humans—the Elves also come in different colors, though all are slender and pleasing to the eye. Evermoor is different from television fantasy—is that what you mean?”
“Yeah. I never saw diversity in swords and sorcery. Here, though, it’s a different story.”
“Good choice of words,” he says. “Because you’re right; the story is entirely different. The short answer is that much of what you see is a collective hallucination.”
“Say what?” I cock my head.
“Your environment responds to your deepest desires. That is the fundamental principle behind magic and creation.”
“So why haven’t I won the lottery?” I counter.
“If that is what you wanted in the depths of your soul, it would have happened long ago. But the fact that it hasn’t…have you heard the saying ‘Be dust upon your breath?’ ”
“Yep. One of the first things that Ren said to me.”
“Explain it to me. In your own words.”
I study the sunlit sky, filtered through a lattice of purple-green canopy. “It means that a greater part of me—the part that breathes—chose my circumstances. And a smaller part of me—the dust—chose to experience them. Basically, it means I should let things unfold in a spirit of acceptance and readiness.”
Gyrax nods. “Exactly. Life is an art: feeling out when it’s appropriate to plan and analyze, and when to let things take their course.”
“What does this have to do with fantasy-world diversity?”
“Earth was created by the part that breathes. The same is true of Evermoor—we are simply reflections of a greater decision.”
“Okay.” I nod slowly. “So diversity isn’t about history or tradition—it’s a realization of our collective psyche. Or Evermoor’s, in this case.”
“Correct. And just because Earth chose a specific circumstance, that doesn’t mean it will stay that way forever. The future isn’t predetermined. If it was, we would all be chained to an uncaring wheel, trapped by its momentum as it breaks us down into irrelevance and futility. Our greater aspects did not make us into clockwork mechanisms—we are riders and surfers of a fast-moving river. The currents will guide and influence our path, but we can row and steer in any direction. And if we so choose, we can see that it’s actually an ocean and not a river. But at that point, words can’t describe what I’m actually referring to. Even ‘transcendence’ is just a concept, merely touching on what it implies.”
“I think I know what you’re talking about,” I venture. “I mean…I feel like I do, if that makes any sense.”
“Perfect sense,” Gyrax replies. “Conscious thought has its limits. It has to be merged with immersive feeling if you ever hope to grasp the True.”
“The True, huh? Cool name.”
“It shall suffice,” Gyrax says. Then he mutters, “for now.”
I chuckle softly. “We veered way off topic. Into like, Eastern mysticism and holographic game theory.”
“Call it what you want, but whenever you reference the underlying basis for reality and consciousness, it inevitably leads back to the True.” Gyrax shrugs. “That’s just how it is. Everything springs from it.”
I look ahead to see how the others are doing. Ren is deep in Silent Avenger Mode. Erany and Nyanti are chatting about the best way to fight the Sytíshí. Behind them, Elier and Lucky are trudging along in amiable silence. After that it’s Gyrax and me bringing up the rear. (Not gonna lie—I wish I was further up the line so I could talk with Erany. She is so pretty.)
As the hours pass and the trail narrows, the vegetation becomes increasingly dense. Black-leaf trees loom close, reaching over and across us with their vines and their limbs. Eyes peek out from the shadowy expanse, ringing us in with cat-slit pupils.
“Um…guys?” I cast a nervous glance to either side. “Doubt you’ve seen Aliens, but—”
“Be easy, Jon,” Ren grumbles. “So long as we honor their space and rhythm, they’ll leave us be.”
“Honor their space and rhythm? And how do we do that, exactly?”
Erany grins over her shoulder at me. “By keeping your clothes on.”
“Oh come on!” I throw my hands in the air. “It’s not like I actually—”
“Every forest has its own etiquette,” Gyrax says. “And if I remember correctly, the Sylvae around Jelia are not aggressive. Mind your business and they’ll leave us alone.” He looks at Nyanti, who’s at the front of our column. “Is that still the case or am I mistaken?”
“You speak true, Wolven, but keep in mind that Sytíshí magics can twist your perception. They are designed to—”
Before she can finish, the leaves in front of us burst apart. A mass of muscle and fur charges towards me. The others don’t hesitate; they draw their weapons and twitch into guard. Not me, though—I fumble my dagger and drop it to the ground.
I glimpse snarling jaws and gleaming fangs, then Gyrax intercepts my attacker with a flying tackle. They go sailing off into the woods, growling and snapping like rabid wolves. Twigs crack and leaves crumple as they flip-flip-flip across the ground. As the others give chase, I snatch up my dagger and follow behind, heart pounding in my adrenalized chest. A second later we catch up to Gyrax.
He’s sitting on the chest of a giant cat. As big as a lion, but a lot more muscular, coated in green circular whorls and black, velvety skin. Its eyes are glowing lurid red, its fangs flashing with dark purple light. It’s also pissed, snarling and flailing with incredible ferocity, trying like hell to buck Gyrax off.
Gyrax leans in and clutches its paws, grimacing with the effort of pinning it down.
“By the gods…” he grunts. “So…strong…”
This is the only time I’ve seen anything challenge his physical strength. It’s downright terrifying—if Gyrax had been a split-second slower, the cat would have ripped me to bloody shreds.
Nyanti passes her hand over the cat’s face, causing its eyes to go from blazing red to mellow orange. A second later, its body goes limp.
Gyrax rolls off and lies on the ground, chest working in massive heaves. I kneel beside him, keeping our attacker in my peripheral vision. “You okay?” I can’t tell if he’s hurt or just tired—it was all so fast.
“Fine,” Gyrax wheezes. “Just a little…” He stops talking and coughs violently. “Just a little winded…”
The others form a loose ring around the cat, keeping their weapons in a low-medium guard. It gets to its feet, hacks once, twice, then spits out a slime-coated furball. Much to my amazement, it starts to speak.
“Those damn Sytíshí…caught my mind in a low-shadow curse.” Its voice is a cross between a rumble and a purr.
“Greetings, Felinx. I am Nyanti Eldara of the Witchcraft City. These are my allies.” Nyanti gestures at us. “
“I am Yire Anon, Hunter Prince of the Tyrax Pride. Thank you for your aid, Witch.”
(A talking warrior cat. Could life get any cooler?)
Nyanti dips her head, touching her brow with the first two fingers of her right hand and then flicking them outward, palm facing in toward her face. “ ’Tis an honor to meet you, Hunter Prince. We seek to defeat the Sytíshí Whisper Folk.”
Yire shakes his colossal head. “Unless you are a member of Circle Sycajister, you don’t stand a chance.”
“If they harness the spring, they will lengthen their reach by thousands of faires. You and your pride—”
“We know what’s at stake. And it’s not worth the risk.”
“The Sytíshí will find you, sooner or later.”
“Better to live now and die later. If you have any sense in that fragile head of yours, you will take your leave of this cursed forest.”
“We are duty-bound,” Ren states angrily. “Not just to Jelia, but to Evermoor at large.”
Yire scoffs. “The world has changed, human. Your convictions are meaningless.”
“Do you mean to say that—”
Erany shoots a warning glance at Ren. “Lyderea need not rule these lands. Peace and freedom are still possible.”
“I have heard that before, Elfling, but no good came of grand words and lavish gestures. Do none of you know of Sidehelm Pass?”
“We have all heard of it,” Gyrax says, “but that is no excuse to forgo hope. If we reclaim Jelia—”
The Felinx shakes his head. “When I speak of Sidehelm, I speak from personal experience. I was there, you see. I saw the armies of Erendor turn their backs and leave us at the mercy of the White Veiled Queen.”
Ren starts to speak, but Gyrax interrupts. “I hope you change your mind, Yire Anon.” He touches his brow with his middle and forefinger, offering the same salute given by Nyanti.
Yire considers him for a long moment, then says, “May light find you in dark places.” He turns around and swishes away.
(Damn. I was hoping we could add a super-strong, magic talking cat to our D&D party, but I guess it wasn’t meant to be.)
“Come,” Ren says. “No use crying over spilt milk.”
We continue walking into the forest. I could be imagining things, but the woods seem to get darker the further in we go.
After a couple of hours, I come to a conclusion:
Nope—definitely not imagining it.