After three days of trekking through the woods, Nyanti guides us onto the road. We could have used it 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 guard-wall. I’m nettled by unease as we make our crossing—it’s safer to do this during the day, but I can’t help but feel (since we’re sneaking in) we should enter at night.
The thing is, if we wait until nightfall, the Iguar will draw strength from the Demon Blood Moon and transform into augmented versions of their diminutive selves. Before that can happen, we’re gonna kill the Sytíshí, signal to Elerica that we’ve vanquished the minibosses (I figure nothing short of Lyderea qualifies as a final boss) and that we need some help. Because if (when) we beat the Whisper Folk, the city 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 defeat the Sytíshí and (hopefully) escape with our lives in the ensuing chaos.
Complicating matters is the fact that Elerican aid isn’t a guarantee. Nyanti asked 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 monsters.
Good thing I watched OG Star Wars with religious fervor—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. (Way to go, SFSU—why didn’t you put that in your stupid curriculum?)
So I clutch the line, pinching it between my thighs to make sure I don’t slide down like a hopeless noob. Unlike me, the others didn’t grip the rope with their weak, teenage legs.
Yeah—I feel like a real champion. And by champion, I mean idiot.
Ren leans out from the tower and stares angrily at me. “What are you doing?” he hisses. “Hurry. Up!” He 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 vow to 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 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 touch the ground as Gyrax finishes coiling the line.
“This way.” Nyanti gestures and starts walking.
We form a column and follow her lead. Weapons drawn, looking from side to side, and occasionally turning in a full circle. I’m in the middle—behind Erany and in front of Ren.
Elerica—a patchwork assemblage of buildings, townhomes, and the occasional hut with a thatched roof—is completely empty. The vibe is markedly different from Naversé Township. Even though Naversé initially looked deserted, I could still sense people in their shuttered homes. This is more like complete desolation and total abandonment.
The streets gradually fill with knee-high fog. It starts off as the occasional wisp here and 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 a giant Exogorth and don’t realize it until it’s almost too late.
This isn’t just emptiness, it’s absence. An ache so deep that I want to 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 races through me. It would be out-and-out panic if I weren’t muddling through this…
Nyanti halts and stares at the ground. Ren and Erany plop on their butts. Gyrax collapses face-first onto the road, drool trickling from his parted lips. Elier and Lucky try to crawl 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.
Why try, 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, 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 instinctively reach for anger or fear. Something to dispel this God-damned haze. There’s nothing, though. I’m a hollowed-out shell.
“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 thin and narrow. Their eyes glow with sickly red light, accenting the purple-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,” 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 our only entertainment since we took the city. Let us savor their fear and dread.”
“How shall we do it? Sarisyrin looks at the one on the right. “Khyrell?”
Khyrell regards us with an emotionless stare. “Unravel their minds in a necrotic fuge. They’re 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 three words over and over.
Buzzing whispers fill the air, eclipsing my thoughts with disintegrating sound. I can’t make out what they’re saying, 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 peek inside that soft-boiled mind…Jon, is it?”
Christ—he’s rooting through my brain. Rifling through my thoughts and desires, peeling them apart into half-formed urges…
“A plain name, and with good reason. You scratch out meaningless stories day after day, hoping you’ll write one that deserves to be read. Save your effort—nothing inspiring comes from the uninspired.”
My head sags. 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 life.
Sarisyrin’s hair flutters and twists, a bleach-white fan around his blood-red eyes. “This is mercy, Jon, pure and simple. You were designed to live as a rat on a wheel, occasionally glimpsing a better existence—a better existence you could 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, then 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.