The transition is easier this time. With the release of the pressure comes a heavy, tangible clunk as my feet hit a real surface. I open my eyes to a curious sight. Rather than being returned to the bank of Joseph’s River, we’ve appeared in a large room of some kind. The ceiling, not quite a foot above my head, is made of wide, arrow-straight boards, and the room itself is wide and empty. The ground is made of finely-crafted wood as well, though about twenty feet out directly in front of us, the floor disappears into a heavy, silent fog. The only source of light is the mist itself, glowing dimly yellow.
I draw a deep breath, relishing air that has a taste again despite the faint stench of rot marring the the sweetness of old timber. I turn towards Filbert, then to Nim, both of them shaking out their limbs and looking about. I free a torch from where it hangs on my pack, lighting it with an alchemical tindertwig. The extra light reveals little about our surroundings, except that now I can see a long, curved wall circling behind us before eventually disappearing into the gloom on either side. There’s only one way to go.
Filbert apparently agrees with me; he pulls out a torch of his own and dips his sash over his eyes for a moment before lighting it. “Nim, your artifact is out in this mist someplace--I can’t tell where exactly.”
Nim is quick to respond, as always. “Well, then let’s go look for it!” Rather than a torch, he pulls out the Nocturne, and strikes up one of his favorites--a light Elven marching tune called Faerie Fight. Without another word, he starts out for the glowing mist, and Filbert and I rush to catch up. I draw Honor Bound from its sheath, the Aegis from my back, and the three of us walk side-by-side into the thick fog.
The reek of decay worsens immediately. The only sound is Nim’s playing, to the beat of our clear footfalls on the wooden floor, until my boot suddenly lands on something else. I freeze, holding out an arm to halt Nim’s progress beside me. I glance down to see a muddy line where the hard wood beneath our feet gives way abruptly to tall reeds and damp earth. Testing the ground for firmness for and finding purchase without difficulty, I lower my arm and step forward again, proceeding slowly now.
“Watch your step. We might run out of solid ground at any time.” I glimpse Nim rolling his eyes, but nonetheless he joins Filbert and I in testing the ground ahead before taking each step.
With his free hand, Filbert pulls the sash over his eyes again and immediately sighs. I turn to him, and he shakes his head and explains. “The fog itself is giving off Nim’s aura. It’s just as strong behind us as ahead.” He removes the blindfold, stopping for a moment to tighten the knot at the back of his head before resuming the careful process of walking across the bog.
I frown and return my eyes to the ground in front of me. “Who knows; maybe it’ll clear up soon.”
There’s a momentary pause as everyone fails to believe that little fantasy, until Nim interrupts his playing and points suddenly left. “Look! Someone else is in here with us!”
Sure enough, a torchlight, barely visible through the heavy, glowing fog, dips and sways in the distance. “Hello there!” Nim calls out, his naturally-loud voice cutting through the thick air. Filbert I and both cringe, and I hiss “Nim!” He just smiles his most infuriating grin and yells again, “Who are you?”
I don’t know whether to be relieved when no one responds to his shouts. The light just continues its erratic movement, fading slowly into the background glow as it moves away from us. “Follow it,” I say after a moment, “But be careful.”
“Sure, dad,” Nim quips instantly. I glimpse Filbert shoot him a glare behind my back, and Nim goes back to his playing, mouth conspicuously shut, as I stomp forward, toward the glimmering light. Absently, I touch the flask my father gave me the last time I saw him. Last we heard, disgraced by my treasonous actions and desertion, my father had been stripped of his rank and pension, and “graciously” given the chance to re-enlist for a tour in the southern jungles. For all I know, he’s down there now, crawling through the mud and drinking that horse-piss liquor with men decades his junior. Fighting man-sized snakes and creatures warped by magic in the heart of the jungle. For all I know, he’s not coming back.
I don’t even notice that I’ve almost caught up to the orange glow until there’s a loud splash as I miss solid ground and lurch into knee-deep, fetid water. “Claaus!” I hear Filbert call behind me, followed by his hurried footsteps. “I’m fine!” I yell back quickly, “step carefully! The ground is--”
I’m cut off by an extremely bizarre, extremely painful sensation, like every muscle on my right side fell asleep at once. My fingers feel hot, full of splinters, wrapped tightly around Honor Bound’s hilt. I’ve felt this pain once before--when I was hit by an Antonian mage’s Lightning spell. I try to warn the others, but only manage to blurt out a strained “Gah!”
It’s enough to get them to stop, at least long enough for the sensation to fade out to an unpleasant twinge, and I blink hard and look around for the source of the lightning.
“What is it?” one of them calls out, not too far away by the sound.
“Lightning!” I shout back, grabbing a fistful of reeds to pull myself up out of the muck. “Don’t know where it came from!”
As if to provide the explanation for me, half a dozen more torchlights appear in front of me. Yet more drift into view behind Nim and Filbert. They dip low to the ground, too low for anyone to be carrying them, and too sudden. Dancing faerie globes of light lead trav’lers from their path at night...
The children’s rhyme leaps to mind unbidden, a morbid tale of evil spirits that haunt blighted marshes... “Will-o-wisps!” I shout as I finally gain solid footing and ready my shield. “They’re will-o-wisps!”
A beat, then a reaction I was entirely unprepared for: Nim stops playing and doubles over, hands on his knees, roaring with laughter. “Will-o-wisps!” he cries, “of course it’s will-o-wisps!” Filbert’s concerned face subsides for a moment in favor of a slight smirk, and Nim looks up at me expectantly. Honestly, I see nothing funny about the situation.
“Don’t just stand around gawping! Kill them!”
Once Nim gets serious about it, the fight is reasonably quick, though exhausting. I quickly discover that neither shield nor armor seem to offer any protection from the will-o-wisps’ shocking sting, but after one of the wretched spirits lands a touch on Nim and leaves him gasping for breath, I focus on keeping them off him while he slings knives through their spongy, circular bodies. Filbert crushes them in his bare hands; saying they don’t shock him as much because of one of his magical tattoos, but every time one dives at Nim, I knock it out of the way or interpose myself between them, lightning soaring under my skin. As much as Charlize’s arcane firepower would be a blessing here, I’m glad she’s not with us--I truly don’t know if I could protect them both. I’ve drunk all but one of my strongest healing potions just to remain standing by the time the last one falls.
When it does, the three of us are left standing on our small hillock, panting and still looking around warily for more foes. Then, a familiar pressure seizes us, crushing down on skull and heart and lungs for what seems like an eternity, before releasing us as suddenly as before, and when I open my eyes, it’s to the glare of bright, natural afternoon sun on the east bank of Joseph’s River.
Charlize and Namia jump back at our sudden appearance. It takes all of us a moment to realize what’s happened and lower our weapons. After a glance around to ensure that we’re no longer in danger, I drop my sword and shield carelessly and sink to my knees in the soft grass. I remove my helmet, tossing it to the ground in front of me. The world feels too quiet, but after a fight it always does.
I pull off my gauntlets. My hands look how all my skin feels--burned, bloodied and raw, covered in weeping blisters. I massage them in slow, small circles, then move on to my face and temples, wincing silently at each touch. Eventually Namia appears in front of me, looking more concerned than usual. I can barely hear her when she speaks; it sounds like I’m underwater. “Claaus? Nim says you took quite a beating, and from the looks of you, he didn’t even have to exaggerate anything.” She reaches toward me with a damp cloth in hand--I take it from her and begin patting gingerly at my face, noticing how bloody my ears apparently are.
I cough to break the silence. “What about Nim’s artifact? Did he find it?”
Namia cringes and looks up over my shoulder; I turn around as much as my stiffening neck will allow. Nim hovers nearby, shifting his weight from foot to foot with an uncharacteristic look of concern of his face. I can’t see Charlize, but Filbert meets my eyes for a moment, then turns and slips his blindfold on, looking all about.
Filbert says something to Nim, too quiet for me to hear, but Nim pulls his small satchel from his back, unfastens the clasps and pulls it open. Glancing inside, he quickly pulls something out--a dark shape that’s harder to focus my eyes on than everything else is. Only when he begins doing tricks with it, flipping it through the air like a shadow, do I figure out that what I’m trying to look at is the dagger of the Nocturne: the Will-O-Wisp.
“Will-o-wisps...” I mutter. “Heh.” My voice feels syrupy in my ears. I turn back to Namia and start to chuckle, but end up coughing instead. Namia puts a cool hand to the side of my face; I can’t help but notice that it still comes away covered in blood. “Stay here a moment, Claaus,” she says, still so softly. She stands, goes to retrieve her bag of supplies. I don’t move, content to sit in silence, slowly wiping the blood from my ears and neck. When she returns, she’s holding her bag in one hand and a short ashwood staff in the other.
Druidic healing feels very different than the clerical variety. When I drink a healing potion, it feels like the prickling wounds simply close up and disappear. When a druid uses healing magic, it feels more like growing entirely new skin and muscle in a matter of seconds. It is a disturbing sensation, but not altogether unpleasant, like a release of water from inside my ear.
In less than a minute, I feel completely refreshed; every bit of my skin soft and new and a little pink. I smile gratefully at Namia and stand up, retrieving my gear from the grass. We walk to the edge of the riverbank to join the others, and they look up from their conversation and smile back--even Charlize is showing her relief. I sit down next to her, facing the sun over the plains, and begin slowly cleaning off each piece of equipment in turn. As Nim begins telling the women what happened, Filbert hands me a small river pebble, nodding up at him. “For when he starts lying,” he explains, smirking and revealing a handful more in his palm.