The Unbound Realm: Vol.1, Chapter 17

After our third day of trekking through the forest, Nyanti guides us onto a street.  We could have used it from the start, but the Sytíshí have set up roving patrols.  Avoiding the road is a matter of prudence.

It’s a short walk from the woods to a side-gate.  Uneasiness nags me as we make our crossing.  Technically, I know its safer to do this during the day, but I can’t help but feel that since we’re sneaking our way in, we should do it at night.

But if we wait until nightfall, thousands of Iguars will draw strength from the moon, transforming into a super-strong, spellcasting version of their dimunitive selves.  Before that happens, we have to drive out or kill the Sytíshí, then signal to Jelia we’ve beaten the minibosses (that’s how I think of them—I figure nothing short of Lydera qualifies as a final boss) and we need some help.  Why, you ask?  Because if (when) we beat the Sytíshí, chances are the city will erupt with angry Iguars.

If this were a video game, we’d be doing things backwards—instead of mowing through goons and capping things off with a climactic fight, we’re going to kill the Whisper Folk and hopefully escape in the ensuing chaos.

A Jelian rescue isn’t guaranteed.  Nyanti tried to convince and cajole, but the Jelians are tired and beaten, and wouldn’t commit to helping us out.  It could just be Jon and his Adventurers against an evil horde that wants to eat our faces and poop in our skulls.  It’s a good thing I watched OG Star Wars with religious fervoraccording 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 like a monkey from handhold to handhold, then scuttles into the gate tower and disappears from view.  A second later he throws a grizzled rope out of the tower.  Ren grabs it, braces his feet against the wall, 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.  Damn it, SFSU—why don’t you have rope-climbing in your stupid curriculum?

I clutch the rope, 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 line; they pulled themselves up hand over hand.  (Definitely wish I had practiced pullups.)

Ren stands on the guard tower, staring down with impatience and anger.

“Jon, what are you doing?” he hisses.  “Hurry up!”  He jerks his hand in a short, furious wave.

I grit my teeth and clench my jaw.  Not all of us were raised in D&D versions 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 give it to Ren when he least expects it.  This I swear upon my life.)

When I reach the top, Ren hauls me in, shaking his head in abject disgust.  “As slow as you climb, all of Evermoor will age and die before the prophecy has a chance at coming true.”

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 guard tower ladder.  I reach the ground as Gyrax coils the last bit of the line around his shoulder and elbow.  He ties it off and stows it in his carry.

“This way.”  Nyanti gestures and starts walking.

We spread into a line and follow behind, like a squad of soldiers on patrol.  Weapons out, 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 cobbled buildings, brick townhomes, and the occasional hut with a thatched roof—is completely empty.  It feels way different than Naversé Township:  even though Naversé initially appeared deserted, I felt unseen eyes watching us closely.  This is more like utter disregard—complete desolation and total abandonment.

The streets fill up with knee-high fog.  My mind hearkens back to Empire Strikes Back, where Han and Leia fly into the belly of the giant Exogorth and they don’t realize it until it tries to eat them.

It’s not just emptiness, it’s absence.  This isn’t some peaceful, Zen-like silence, it’s an ache so deep that I want to just give up and sit on the ground.

The others feel it too.  Every so often, one of them will shake their head and mutter under their breath.  Pretty sure it’s the Evermoor equivalent of “keep it together,” or something along those lines.  It only gets stronger as we cover more distance.

“Gyrax…”  I force myself to take another 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…”

A faint jolt of alarm spikes through me.  It would probably be out-and-out panic if we weren’t muddling through this…

This…

Elier and Lucky stop and sit, Nyanti halts and stares at the ground, Ren and Erany plop onto their butts.  Gyrax collapses face-first onto the road, drool trickling from the corner of his mouth.  Elier and Lucky try to crawl forward, but slump down onto their bellies.  I take a few more steps before I sag to my knees beside Nyanti.

There’s too much to do, and it’s all for nothing.  Why try at all, 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 my name 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 degree at a time, settling on the mountainous horizon.  She takes a measured breath, then sluggishly turns her head and looks directly at me.

“What?” I breathe.  Deadened fatigue radiates through me.

“We…have to…try.”  A tear rolls from her left eye.  Despite her exhausted voice and sagging face, something inside her is still fighting—refusing to lie down and die in the dirt.

She suddenly stiffens and clutches her chest, eyes squinching in agonizing pain.  I fight the dullness in my mind, forcing myself to look at everyone else.  Every one of them is catatonic, staring blankly at nothing.

“Jon,” Nyanti gasps.  Her face tightens with anguish.  “You have to…you 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 do I do?”

Before she can answer, the fog around us swirls to life, forming into three male Elves.  They look markedly different than Lord of the Rings Elves—their skin is shockingly pale, their faces thin and narrow.  Their eyes are aglow with sickly red light, accenting the purple and black clothing that runs across their frames.

The middle one says, “What do we have here?”  His voice is feather-soft, barely louder than a soft murmur.

“Whisper…Folk…”  I can barely get it out.  My mouth feels thick and cottony.

“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, like it’s partly comprised of pale white smoke.

“Rekhavy, this is the only entertainment we’ve had in months.  And you’d throw it away because you’re feeling grumpy?”

“How shall we do it?  Sarisyrin turns to the one on his right.  “Khyrell?”

Khyrell assesses us with an emotionless stare.  “We’ve already flooded them with despair and hopelessness.  Let’s finish the job—put them into a necrotic fuge.”

“Very well.”  Sarisyrin smiles and his eyes glow red.  “Sorry you have to die like this, but…”  A nonchalant shrug.

“Jon,” Nyanti whispers.  “You have to stop him.”

“How?” I murmur.  “Hard to think…”

“You have to…you have to…”  Her pupils unfocus.  She continues muttering the same words over and over.

“Ah.”  Sarisyrin gives a knowing smile.  “I like it when they fight—they taste so much better.”

Buzzing whispers fill the air, eclipsing my thoughts with disintegrating sound.  I can’t make out any of the words, but each one erodes my conviction, draining my will to continue on.  The air around us warps and twists, bending the high-noon sun into a greasy smear.

“That’s it…”  Sarisyrin urges.  “Let’s take a look inside that soft-boiled mind…Jon, is it?  A plain name, and with good reason—you are plain and unremarkable.  Scratching out stories in between classes, hoping you’ll write something eventually worth reading…why even try?  Nothing inspiring comes from the uninspired.”

He’s right.  I stumbled into Evermoor purely by accident.  I should have stayed in San Francisco, collecting meaningless paychecks for the rest of my meaningless existence.

Sarisyrin’s hair flutters and twists, a bleach-white fan around his blood-red eyes.  “This is mercy, Jon, pure and simple.  You wouldn’t want to live without purpose, would you?  A rat on a wheel, every so often catching a glimpse of a better life.  This is so much easier.”

He’s right—there’s no reason to continue on.  Rat on a wheel, that’s all I am.  That’s all I ever was.

I sit down on the ground.  Cross my legs and fold my hands in my lap.  My head slumps down onto my chest.  He’s still talking, but I’m not listening.

My eyes droop closed.  I give in to the relief of unfeeling oblivion.