Nyanti feeds us gruel and chicken, then directs us into a large, spacious tent. We spread out across the floor and try to 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 hanging across his chest. “While we dawdle, Lyderea tightens her grip on Evermoor. Not a concern for one 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 should arrive in three days’ time, 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 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 rough 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 was 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.” I fumble with my pants, struggling to pull them on over my undies. “Just a second, I’ll be—”
“Hurry,” Ren calls as he exits the tent.
I get my stuff together and rush out the door.
As we walk through the encampment, I’m struck by the refugees’ ethnic diversity. I was raised in San Francisco, a city 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 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.
This bears investigating.
“Gyrax. I’ve noticed 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 from television fantasy—is that what you mean?”
“Yeah. I never saw diversity in swords and sorcery. Here, though, it’s an entirely different story.”
“Good choice of words,” he says. “Because you’re right; the story—key-word story—is 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. Not just your 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.
“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, then. 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. The message is that I should let things unfold in a spirit of readiness, acceptance, and faith.”
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 Earth has chosen a specific circumstance, that doesn’t mean it’ll be like that forever. The future isn’t predetermined, Jon. 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, but chose us to be riders and surfers of a fast-moving river. Yes, the currents 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 fail to 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.” (Yup—I take pride in name-dropping existential stoner concepts.)
“Call it what you want, but whenever you reference the underlying basis for reality and consciousness, it inevitably leads you back to the True.” Gyrax shrugs. “That’s just how it is. Everything springs from it.”
After a few minutes of quiet contemplation, I look ahead 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, and then 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.)
As the hours pass and the trail narrows, the vegetation becomes increasingly dense. Black-leaf trees loom closer, reaching over and across with vines and limbs. Eyes examine us from the shadowy expanse, ringing us in with cat-slit pupils. It’s like we’re moving through a swarm of bugs and 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. “These 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? 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 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 perception and undo your clarity. They are designed to—”
Before she can finish, the leaves in front of us burst apart.
A rippling 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 on the ground.
I catch a quick glimpse of 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 stripes and whorls atop a backdrop of black, velvety skin. Its eyes are glowing lurid red, its fangs flashing with dark purple light.
It’s also pissed—it snarls and flails 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 that thing had gotten me, it would have torn me apart in less than a second.
Luckily, we’re traveling with a high-level Witch. 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 the cat in my peripheral vision. “You okay?” I can’t really tell if he’s actually injured—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. It gets to its feet, hacks once, twice, then spits out a couple of slime-coated furballs. 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.
“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 Nyanti.”
(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, then flicks them a few inches outward, palm facing in toward her face. “ ’Tis an honor to meet you, Felinx. 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, they will amplify 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, then take your leave of this cursed forest.”
“We are duty-bound,” Ren states. “Not just to Jelia, but to Evermoor at large.”
Yire scoffs. “The world has changed, human—your convictions are meaningless.”
Ren snaps, “Do you mean to say that—”
Erany interrupts, shooting a warning glance at Ren. “Lyderea need not rule these lands. Peace and freedom are still possible.”
“I have heard that before, half-Elf, but no good came of grand words and lavish gestures. Have you not heard of Sidehelm Pass?”
“We have all heard of it,” Gyrax says, “but that is no excuse to forgo hope. If we take back 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—leave us at the mercy of the White Veiled Queen.”
Ren starts to say something, 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, “I hope so too.” 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 on,” 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.