On day three of our trek, Nyanti guides us out of the woods and onto a road. We could have used it right from the start, but the Sytíshí have set up roving patrols, so avoiding the road was a matter of prudence.
It’s a short walk from there to a side-gate. Unease nags me as we make our crossing. Technically, I know it’s safer to do this during the day, but I can’t help but feel (since we’re sneaking in) we should be doing this at night.
Thing is, if we wait until night, the Iguar will draw strength from the Demon Blood Moon and transform into a super-strong, spellcasting version of their diminutive selves. Before that happens, we’re gonna kill the Sytíshí, signal to Jelia that we’ve beaten the minibosses (I figure nothing short of Lydera qualifies as a final boss) and that we need some help. Because if (when) we defeat the Whisper Folk, Jelia will erupt with angry Iguar.
If this were a video game, we’d be doing things backwards. Instead of destroying an army of goons and capping things off with a climactic fight, we’re going to kill the Sytíshí and (hopefully) escape in the ensuing chaos.
Complicating matters is the fact that a Jelian rescue isn’t guaranteed. Nyanti argued for some extra guides and a standby rescue team, but her fellow Witches wouldn’t commit to helping us out. So it could end up being Jon and his Adventurers against an evil horde of face-eating humanoids. It’s a good thing I watched OG Star Wars with religious fervor, because according to Han, I should never calculate the odds, and I might be able to bluff my way into and out of an enemy fortress.
(I pray to God that life is like Star Wars.)
Gyrax swings from handhold to handhold, scuttling up the wall and into a watch tower. A second later he throws a grizzled rope down from the parapet. Ren grabs it, braces his feet, and starts ascending in a slow, steady walk. Lucky, Elier, and Erany follow behind. Nyanti doesn’t bother; she levitates up and over in an easy float.
I’m last. And just to be clear, I have zero experience in medieval rope-climbing. San Francisco State, you have failed me as a school—why didn’t you put rope-climbing in your stupid curriculum?
I clutch the line, pinching it between my thighs so I don’t slide down like a hopeless noob. Unlike me, the others didn’t use their legs to grip the rope; they walked themselves up hand over hand. Yeah—I feel like a real champion. And by champion, I mean idiot.
Ren leans out from the tower, staring angrily at me. “What are you doing?” he hisses. “Hurry. Up!” And then jerks his hand in a furious wave.
I grit my teeth and clench my jaw. Not all of us were raised in a D&D version of Outward Bound. Ren knows this, but it doesn’t stop him from being a dick. I’m gonna find out what the Evermoor version of a noogie or swirly is, then spring it on him when he least expects it.
This I swear upon my life.
Ren hooks my arm and hauls me in, shaking his head in abject disgust. “As slow as you climb, all of Evermoor will age and die before we kill those damn Sytíshí.”
What a dick. (I said it before but it bears repeating.) Instead of punching him in his stupid face, I respond with a tight-lipped, “Yep. Good talk.”
He de-anchors the rope, tosses it to Gyrax, and begins climbing down the inner-wall ladder. I reach the ground as Gyrax coils the last bit of line around his shoulder and elbow.
“This way.” Nyanti gestures and starts walking.
We spread out and follow behind. Weapons drawn, spaced in a column, looking from side to side and occasionally turning in a full circle. I’m in the middle, behind Erany and in front of Ren.
Jelia—a patchwork assembly of buildings, townhomes, and the occasional hut with a thatched roof—is completely empty. The vibe is different than Naversé Township. Way different. Initially, Naversé appeared to be deserted, but I could still sense people shuttered in their homes, waiting to see if we posed a threat. This is more like utter disregard—complete desolation and total abandonment.
Gradually, the streets fill with knee-high fog. It starts off as a wisp here, a curl there, but a couple blocks in, it grows into thick, ropy banks. (My mind hearkens back to Empire Strikes Back, where Han and Leia fly into the belly of the giant Exogorth and don’t realize it until it tries to eat them.)
This isn’t just emptiness, it’s absence. An ache so deep that I want to just give up and sit on the cobbles. The others feel it too. Every so often, one of them shakes their head and mutters quietly under their breath. Something’s wrong. Something’s off.
“Gyrax.” I force myself to take a step. And another. And another. Eventually, I drag myself a few yards up so I’m walking beside him.
“I know, Jon—I know.” His face is tired and heavy. “Keep going,” he murmurs. “We have to keep going…”
Alarm rattles my muddled brain. It would probably be out-and-out panic if I weren’t muddling through this…
Nyanti halts and stares at the ground. Ren and Erany plop onto their butts. Gyrax collapses face-first onto the road, drool trickling from his parted lips. Elier and Lucky try crawling forward, then slump weakly onto their bellies. I take a few more steps, but I can’t resist—I sag to my knees beside Nyanti.
There’s too much to do, and it’s all for nothing. Why fight, when everything ends in death and sadness? There’s nowhere to go, nothing to hope for. Just a hollow scrabble for temporary pleasure, which is snatched away soon enough…
“Jon,” Nyanti whispers under her breath. For a second, I’m not sure if she actually spoke—she said it that softly.
“Jon.” Her eyes tick up a bit at a time, looking past the skyline and honing in on the mountainous horizon.
“What?” I breathe. Deadened fatigue radiates through me.
“We…have to…try.” A single tear rolls down her cheek.
She suddenly stiffens and clutches her chest, squinching her eyes in agonized pain. “Jon.” Her face tightens with anguish. “You have to…have to…”
“What?” I try to rouse my apathy into anger or fear. Something that’ll snap me out of this God-damned haze. “What should I do?” What can I do?
Before she can answer, the fog around us swirls to life, forming into a trio of albino Elves. Their skin is shockingly pale, their faces are thin and narrow. Their eyes glow with sickly red light, accenting the purple and black clothing that runs along their slender frames.
The middle one says, “What have we here?” His voice is feather-soft, barely louder than a soft murmur.
“Whisper…Folk…” I can barely get it out—my mouth is filled with invisible cotton.
“Adventurers, I think. Looking for a bit of treasure or excitement,” the one on the left says. “Kill them quickly, Sarisyrin.” His face shifts and blurs, as if it’s partly comprised of pale white smoke.
“Soft, Rekhavy—this is the only entertainment we’ve had in months. You’d throw it away because you’re feeling grumpy?”
“How shall we do it? Sarisyrin looks at the one on the right. “Khyrell?”
Khyrell gives us an emotionless stare. “Put them into a necrotic fuge. They’re already halfway there—might as well finish it.”
“Very well.” Sarisyrin smiles and his eyes glow red. “Sorry you have to die, but…” A nonchalant shrug.
“Jon,” Nyanti whispers. “You have to stop them.”
“How?” I murmur.
“You have to…you have to…” Her pupils unfocus. She continues muttering the same phrase over and over.
Buzzing whispers fill the air, eclipsing my thoughts with disintegrating sound. I can’t make out the words, but each syllable erodes my conviction. The light around us warps and twists, bending the sun into a greasy smear.
“That’s it…” Sarisyrin urges. “Let’s look inside that soft-boiled mind…Jon, is it?”
Christ—he’s rooting through my brain. Rifling through my thoughts and desires, unwinding them into half-formed urges and flickering impulses…
“A plain name, and with good reason—scratching out stories day after day of mind-numbing classes, hoping you’ll write something eventually worth reading. Why even try? Nothing inspiring comes from the uninspired.”
My head sags in defeat. He’s right, dammit. I stumbled into Evermoor purely by accident. I should have stayed in San Francisco, collecting meaningless paychecks for the rest of my meaningless life.
Sarisyrin’s hair flutters and twists, a bleach-white fan around his blood-red eyes. “This is mercy, Jon, pure and simple. You’re a rat on a wheel. Every so often, you glimpse a hint of a better existence—a better existence you will never attain. Don’t resist. This is so much easier.”
Rat on a wheel, that’s all I am.
That’s all I ever was.
I sit back on the ground. Cross my legs and fold my hands in my lap. My head slumps down onto my chest.
As my eyes droop closed, I give in to the relief of unfeeling oblivion.