Nyanti feeds us gruel and chicken, then directs us into a large tent that could fit thirty or so people. We each claim a spot and try to grab some sleep. The next morning, I’m woken by sunlight limning the door-flap. I rub my eyes and yawn tiredly.
“Hurry.” Ren is already up and dressed. “Time runs thin.”
Lucky sits up in bed and grumbles, “ ‘Time runs thin.’ ‘Time runs thin.’ For the love of Ganshy, grace my ears with something else.”
“While we dawdle, Lyderea tightens her grip on Evermoor. Not a concern for one such as you, since 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, would you?”
Nyanti pokes her head into our tent. “We should arrive in three days’ time, roughly around noon. The higher the sun is, the safer we are from Sytíshí magic..”
“Taking advantage of your enemy’s weakness—that I understand.” Elier begins stowing his gear.
“Speak for yourself,” Erany mumbles, rubbing her eyes with curled fingers. “I would give a kingdom and a half for a hot cup of kepi. Some eggs and mutton as well.”
“Typical,” Ren scoffs. “Our lodging is a little too rough for her majesty’s liking.”
Erany’s face twists with anger. “Watch your—”
“Enough.” Nyanti’s voice is brisk and stern. “Stop wasting time.”
Erany directs a Jessica Jones-worthy Look of Fury at Ren, who responds dismissively with a flap of his hand. (Part of me is pleased. Initially, I had worried about whether they might be 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.” My face flushes red. “Just a second, I’ll be—”
“Hurry,” Ren calls as he walks out of the tent.
I get my stuff together and rush out the door.
As we walk back out through the encampment, I study the population, struck by their strikingly diverse ethnic makeup (which was also the case at Hafferly and Naversé).
Being San Franciscan, I was raised in a system that emphasized 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 had campaign expansions like Al Qadim, Kara Tur, and Maztica, but they were solely for 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 doesn’t hew to traditional mores.
“Gyrax. I’ve noticed that the humans here 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. “A little different than 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. “For it is a different story entirely. The short answer is: much of what you see is a collective hallucination.”
“Say what?” I cock my head.
“Your environment responds according to thought. Not just your personal world, but the world you share with others as well. This is the fundamental principle behind magic and creation.”
“So why haven’t I won the lottery?” I counter. “Since everything around me responds to desire?”
“If that’s 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. Ren said it to me when I first got here.”
“Explain it to me. In your own words.”
I study the sunlit sky, filtered through the purple-green canopy. “It means that a greater part of me chose my circumstances. That’s the part that breathes. And a smaller part of me chose to experience them. That’s the dust. The message is that I should let things unfold in a spirit of 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 a reflection 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 your world has chosen a specific route, it doesn’t mean that has to always be the case. Anyone is able to change the future—it isn’t predetermined. If it was, we would all be chained to an uncaring wheel, trapped by its momentum as it breaks us down. Our greater aspects did not create us to be clockwork mechanisms, but to ride and surf a fast-moving river. Yes, the currents guide and influence us, but we can row and steer toward our desires. And if we so choose, we can see that it’s actually an ocean and not a river. But at that point, words fail to describe what I’m actually referring to. Even ‘transcendence’ is just a concept, merely touching on what it actually implies.”
“I think I know what you’re talking about,” I venture. “I mean…I feel like I do, if that makes sense.”
“Perfect sense,” Gyrax replies. “Conscious thought has its limits. It has to be merged with feeling—immersive feeling, no less—if you ever want to grasp the True.”
“The True, huh? Cool name.”
“It shall suffice,” Gyrax says. Then he murmurs, “For now.”
I chuckle softly. “We veered way off topic. Into like, Eastern mysticism and holographic game theory.” (Yup—I take pride in name-dropping existrential stoner concepts.)
“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.”
“Interesting.” I look around to see how the others are doing. Ren is deep in Grim Silent Avenger Mode. Erany and Nyanti are chatting about the best way to fight the Sytíshí. Behind them are Elier and Lucky, trudging along in amiable silence, then it’s Gyrax and me. (Not gonna lie—I wish I was further up the line so I could talk with Erany.)
As the path narrows, the vegetation becomes increasingly dense. Black-leaf trees loom closer, reaching over and across us with vines and limbs. The bushes and flowers are thick and heavy. Eyes stare from the shadowy expanse, ringing us in with exotic pupils. It’s like we’re moving through a swarm of bugs, except instead of going about their insectile business, they’ve all decided to stop and stare.
“Um…guys?” I cast a nervous glance to either side. “Doubt you’ve seen Aliens, but—”
“Be at ease, Jon,” Ren grumbles. “The woods are filled with haunts and predators, but 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?”
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 you alone.” He looks at Nyanti, who’s at the front of our column. “Is that still the case?”
“Aye, but keep in mind that Sytíshí magics can twist perception and undo clarity. They are designed to—”
As if on cue, the leaves in front of us burst apart. A rippling mass of muscle and fur charges directly towards me. The others draw their weapons and twitch into guard; I fumble my dagger and drop it on the ground.
Before the beast can bite my head off, Gyrax intercepts it with a flying tackle. They go sailing off into the woods, growling and snapping like rabid wolves. Twigs snap and leaves crumple as they flip-flip-flip across the ground.
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 way more muscular, coated in a lattice of black and white stripes. Its eyes are glowing lurid red, its fangs flashing with purple-black light.
It snarls and flails, trying its damndest to buck Gyrax off. This is the only time I’ve seen anything challenge his physical strength. It’s downright terrifying; if it had gotten to me, it would have torn me apart in less than a second.
Gyrax leans in, grimacing with the effort of pinning it down. “By the gods…” he grunts. “So…strong…”
Nyanti passes her hand over the cat’s face. Its eyes go from blazing red to mellow orange, then its body goes limp.
Gyrax rolls off and lies on the ground, his chest working in massive heaves.
I kneel beside him. “You okay?” He’s scratched and cut, but I can’t really tell if he’s actually injured. It was all so fast.
“Fine,” he wheezes. “Just a little…” He stops talking and coughs violently. “Just a little winded…”
The others watch the cat with guarded caution, forming a loose ring around it as it gets to its feet. It hacks once, twice, then spits out a couple slime-coated furballs. Much to my amazement, it starts to speak.
“Damn Sytíshí…caught my mind in a low-shadow curse.” Its voice is a cross between a rumble and a purr.
“I am Nyanti Eldara. These are my allies.” Nyanti gestures briefly at us. “
“My name is Yire Anon, hunter-warrior of the Tyrax Pride. Thank you for your aid, Witchling.”
(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. She flicks them a few inches outward, palm facing in toward her face. It’s a formal salute, or something similar anyway. “ ’Tis an honor to meet you, Yire Anon. 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.”
“We have no choice. If they harness the spring, their reach will extend for a thousand faires, from Jelia’s walls to the Breakshore Remnants. 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 risk death 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 says. “Not just to Jelia, but to Evermoor at large.”
Yire scoffs. “The world has changed, human—convictions such as yours are outdated relics.”
“Disappointment is a part of life,” Ren snaps. “Do you mean to say that—”
“It does not have to be,” Erany adds, shooting a warning glance at Ren. “Evermoor can rise from the ashes of war.”
“I have heard that before, half-Elf, but no good came of grand words and lavish gestures. Do you not understand what happened at Sidehelm Pass?”
“We all understand,” Gyrax says, “but that is no excuse to forgo hope. If we take back Jelia—”
The Felinx shakes his head. “I cannot aid you. When I speak of Sidehelm, I speak from personal experience. I was there, you see, along with hundreds of my Felinx brothers. I saw the armies of Erendor turn their backs, allowing the White Veiled Queen to rip us apart.”
“I hope you change your mind, Yire Anon.” Gyrax touches his brow with his middle and forefinger, offering the same salute given by Nyanti.
Yire considers him for a long moment. “I hope so too.” Then he turns around abd 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 on,” Ren says. “No use crying over spilt milk.”
We continue walking through the forest. Could just be my imagination, but it seems to get darker the further we walk. After a couple of hours, I come to a conclusion:
Nope—definitely not my imagination.