Estera reached the valley of all that was, is, and ever will be on the twelfth day. She’d hiked through an endless forest of uncanny aspens, sickly white like old bone and marked with black splotches that, in the waning evening light, looked like the hungry eyes of whispers. She could hear them too, howling in her wake for blood and flesh and all the things they could not be. The priestess would have her answers soon.
On blistered feet she walked past a treeline so clearly marked that she might have stepped from one world into another. Mist hung heavy over barren soil and hid the mountains on the far side of the valley. Something glowed faintly through the haze. If the Stories were more than stories…. She felt an icy finger trace the curve of her spine; “Mine,” a voice said in her ear.
Estera broke into a sprint. She’d run out of silver dust on the tenth night and had no other defense but distance. The glow bobbed with her head, expanding, becoming clearer. By the time she realized it was a lake, momentum had her. She threw herself into a graceless dive and let the water take her. Thank the Authors, blessed silence.
She held her breath until her lungs burned before deciding to risk the surface. Inches from air, something cold wrapped around her ankle and jerked her deeper. Practiced strokes turned into panicked flailing. She tried to look down, but the depths shone like the sun. She opened her mouth to shriek, but water gushed in. Drowning. She was drowning. After spending almost two weeks looking for this forsaken valley and finally finding it, she was—
Not underwater at all?
Estera felt smooth stone under her palms. The air smelled of irises and something pungent and earthy. She chanced a peek, and, heartened by the lack of blinding lights, opened her eyes. A woman watched her.
“Hello, priestess,” said a chorus of voices from one mouth.
No, not a woman. But also not a man. Or perhaps both? Its face seemed to shift when Estera tried to make out its features. A dark-skinned girl with a puffy scar across her cheek. A middle-aged man bronzed by the sun with many laugh lines. A plump and dour matron aged by networks of wrinkles. All had lightless hollows where eyes should be. Estera tensed.
“Astute for your kind. Yet if I were one of your ‘whispers,’ you would already be consumed.”
The priestess took a moment to find the voice she hadn’t used since leaving her church. It wavered more than she prefered. “The Authors’ 118th Story tells of a valley where one can learn anything that was, is, and ever will be.”
The creature smiled. It was the most terrifying thing Estera had seen in the twelve days of her journey. “One of my favourites. I enjoy the ones that give you hope the most.” It made a gesture encompassing the cavern. “You are where you need to be. Ask.”
Estera considered asking how she’d even arrived in this needful place, but those weren’t the answers for which her people had died. “My people used to lead blessed lives, protected by the Authors, before the whispers. Now they come out of the aspen woods to steal us, devour us, unmake us until not even a hair is left. I prayed for one-hundred days and nights to the Authors and I fear…I fear they no longer listen. The whispers have only become more voracious. Are we abandoned? Are we—” She paused for a moment. This isn’t what she wanted to say. “Why are the whispers here? How can we be rid of them?”
“Questions and more questions.” The smile became pitying. “Do you really want to know?”
“Of course,” the priestess cried. “How could I not?”
It licked its lips. “That’s your answer. Your kind, you all shine so bright, so deliciously bright. Minds filled with questions and desires, filled with so much emotion that you blind us. You weren’t always this beautiful. We had to guide you with the Stories, nurture you and teach you to become more and more. Now you’re here, and you are.” The creature’s figured wavered, became translucent like mist. Myriad voices sighed in ecstasy. “We are here because you are ready. And you cannot be rid of us until we’ve tasted your every. Last. Breath.”