Nyanti feeds us gruel and chicken, then directs us into a large, spacious tent. We spread out along the lining and try to grab some sleep. The next morning, I’m woken by a rind of sunlight around the door-flap.
“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 fairer words.”
“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, 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 cup of kepi. Some eggs and mutton as well.”
“Typical,” Ren scoffs. “Our lodging is a little 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 had worried about whether they might be a couple, but thankfully, that doesn’t appear to be the—)
“Are you ready, Jon?” Gyrax is standing by the door-flap.
“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 walks out of 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. Being San Franciscan, I was raised in 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 than 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 is different. The short answer is: much of what you see is a collective hallucination.”
“Say what?” I cock my head.
“Your environment eventually responds to your deepest desires. Not just your personal world, but the world you share with others as well. That 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 dropped it on me when I first got here.”
“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 these circumstances. 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 Earth has chosen a specific route, it doesn’t mean that has to always be the case. The future isn’t predetermined, Jon. If it was, we would all be chained to an uncaring wheel, trapped by its momentous weight as it breaks us down into irrelevance and futility. Our greater aspects did not make us into clockwork mechanisms, but 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 we wish to go. 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 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 back to the True.” Gyrax shrugs. “That’s just how it is. Everything springs from it.”
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 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 path 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, 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. “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 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 your clarity. They are designed to—”
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 crack 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 a lot 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, but Gyrax leans in, 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.
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, 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 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.
“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. These are my allies.” Nyanti gestures at us. “
“I am Yire Anon, Hunter Prince 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. I’ve seen it before—it’s a formal salute, or something equivalent. “ ’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, they’ll amplify their reach by a thousand 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 risk death later. If you have any sense in that fragile head of yours, you’ll 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—your convictions are meaningless.”
Ren snaps, “Do you mean to say that—”
Erany interrupts, 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. I saw the armies of Erendor turn their backs and leave us at the mercy of the White Veiled Queen.”
“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. Then he 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 through the forest. I could be imagining things, but the woods seems to get darker the further we walk.
After a couple of hours, I come to a conclusion:
Nope—definitely not imagining it.