Sometimes, when the freeway is open and empty and the night is dark and late, I imagine skipping my exit. It would be so easy; to go home would require a choice, a turn. All I would need to do is nothing at all. Sometimes I glance down at my dashboard and the lights that indicate the state of my gas tank, and I calculate how far I could get before I’d have to refill. There are beaches I could reach, the ones I’ve driven past a dozen times but never visited, the ones that I’ve seen from the window of a car on a stormy day when the waves crashed tall against ragged pillars of rock. Sometimes I tell myself that this is the night I’ll do it, and my hand slides towards the turn signal to leave the right-hand lane even as the sign for my exit passes green and white above my head, reminding me I only have a mile and a little more to make my decision.
It was a wisp night. A fey night. Sada felt it as the sun sank and a new moon left the sky to stars and mist. She could hear it in the muted birdcalls and the way the lake below the cabin lapped against the shore. She knew it by the chill that clung to the edge of the warm summer wind and the fear that coiled tighter in her chest with every minute that passed and did not bring her sister home.
She left the cabin door open until the sun was gone, letting the last orange sunbeams spill onto the packed earth floor in patches. A fire burned low in the hearth, wavering a little and growing red. Sada pulled her shawl a little closer to her shoulders and fed another small log to the flames, then began to prepare a small stew for supper.
The whispering began as the final russet smudge faded on the horizon. It was a soft sound, dark and sing-song. It was too loud to be a breeze and more silent than a voice, and it built images in the corners of Sada’s mind that shattered when she looked too close. It hissed. It hummed. It chanted.
Sada was halfway through chopping a potato into pieces when she heard it. She dropped the vegetable and the knife and clenched her teeth in an attempt to master the dread that roared through her body. She took two measured steps to the window and cracked open the shutters just enough to peer into the gathered host of shadows.
They were there. Two burned at the edge of the path that led down from her door. Three more winked and glowed between the trees or on the lakeshore. More kept themselves half hidden in the fog. One wavered only yards away. They were tiny balls of light, white or pale blue, hovering two or three feet above the ground. The whispering came from them.
Sada hissed through her teeth and pulled the shutter back and latched it shut. Her heart thrummed and pulsed in her throat. She reminded herself that she had known they would come. She forced her breaths to slow.
It would be alright. Eska knew not to follow them. She would not follow them. They deceived but never lied. She could defeat their tricks.
She’s still out here, said the whispers. She’s with us, out here.
Sada ground her teeth. It would be alright, she told herself again. Eska would not follow them.
The path from Trasliy is a long one. There’s a thousand places we can confuse her, turn her.
Sada went back to the table and took the knife and the half cut potato again. In a few strokes, she finished the job and dropped the pieces into the pot that hung above the fire.
She has to come back through the darkwood. How well does she know the way? There are forks she should not follow.
A handful of grain, pinches of herbs and spices. It all went into the pot.
She has to come back through the marshes. What if she misses the road, even by a little? The bog comes so close in places.
A little milk to finish it. It only had to cook. It would be ready when Eska made it back.
An awful giggle pealed through the night, coming from everywhere and nowhere. Sada’s skin crawled and horror pricked her fingers. She waited for the mocking, impertinent whispers to come again. She did not breathe.
She forgot about the cliffside! It’s such a long way down to tumble!
“No!” The word burst through her teeth. A flickering showed between the shutter slats. Sada cursed herself for the betrayal of her panic.
Her leg is in such pain! She should have been more careful!
The vicious laughter came again, louder than before. White cold terror seared her chest. The wisps deceived but never lied.
Sada left the stew and snatched her cloak. She took her staff. She grabbed her lantern from the corner and lit it at the fire. She strapped her dagger to her ankle. She opened the door and slipped out to the night.
The wisps were all around, more than there had been before. They ringed the cottage, wavering, giggling, floating back and forth. Their lights left impressions on Sada’s eyes, but they offered no illumination to the ground below.
“Where is my sister?” Sada lifted her voice above the whispers and the tittering. She shouted her demand. “Tell me where she is!”
The ones who follow the wisps are lost.
Another giggle followed. Sada’s stomach knotted; bile slithered up her throat. She swallowed it back.
“Tell me where I can find her!”
We don’t undo what we have done.
“Take me to her!”
Sada let her words hang in the air, in the mist. She let their meaning echo loud.
You would follow us?
A gleeful mischief clung to the question.
“I would follow you,” said Sada. The words tasted wrong in her mouth. “If you take me to her.”
All the whispering stopped, just for an instant, and the void it left in the night was more terrible than the noise.
This is a new game. We will play it! We will lead, if you can follow.
A feeling of malevolent delight filled the air, and every light vanished. Sada was alone, with only the poor, pale light of her lantern. A second passed. Then two. Then three, four, five. And then, finally, she saw a fickle blue twinkling between a pair of trees a little way away, barely bright enough to be seen against the lantern’s glow.
She followed it. Her feet kept to the path as long as they could, but the wisp was long yards from its edge. It disappeared as she hesitated.
Her stomach dropped and twisted. Her heart leaped up her throat. She plunged off the path and forged through undergrowth and bracken to the place where it had been. When she reached it, there was nothing. And then another wisp flashed and waited farther on, even fainter than the first.
This time, she did not allow herself to hesitate. She followed, leaving the path behind. This light, too, winked away before she reached it, but not too quickly. Another, still fainter than the others took its place, and Sada almost missed it in the lantern light. Before she reached the fourth one, she extinguished her own light and followed all the rest in darkness.
The wisps were easier to see this way. They must have meant it to be so, and Sada would swear that they grew even brighter as they went, until she could have seen them through the lantern light. But she could not relight her lantern, and even if she could, the wisps would not have stayed so bright. That was not their way.
So they went. Sada tripped again and again. Her knees were bloodied. Her palms were ripped and raw. The wisps led her back and forth, never on the path, never over easy ground. They blinked here, they danced there. The route they took twisted all around, back over itself, left and right and sideways, never moving in a simple line. It moved through woods and into wetlands and out of them. It stopped in a stream and beside a bit of boggy ground. It went everywhere it did not have to go.
Exhaustion crept through Sada’s body and lurked in Sada’s heart. She continued even so. She fell and got up. She sank into mud and pulled her feet out again. She numbed herself and followed. The wisps led her one way, then back again the way they had come. They laughed when she realized what they had done.
And then they were gone. There was no warning. They gave no indication. One wisp led her across a patch of soggy earth and into darker forest. The next one never came. Sada stood in a daze, heart beating hard. She had no light, no way, no path to follow.
Her sister was not there.
She swayed and nearly sank down in despair and rage. Perhaps she would have, had her body not rebelled against it, her aching muscles complaining at the thought of bending enough to sit. It was enough to keep her standing. And standing was enough that she could start walking once again.
She had no path, but that was alright. How much more lost could she get than this? She had no direction, but that would come with morning light. She did not have her sister. She had no answer to that problem, so she walked instead, through the darkness, through the forest.
The ground disappeared beneath her, suddenly. One foot touched solid ground. Her other found a void. Sada cried out as she pitched forward, tumbling. She struck the sloping ground on the rough way down. Her shoulder, her hip, her head, her knee. She tasted dirt and blood. The world spun in shadow. She reached the bottom, stunned.
Her pulse beat deep inside her ears. Her chest ached as she breathed. She smelled loam and dirt and mud. Instead of moving, she let herself lie there, sprawled and beaten. She was still there when she heard approaching footsteps. The rush of panic was enough to set her upright. Her hand moved to her ankle and her dagger.
A low, familiar voice called out her name.
The sound seemed impossible. It could not be Eska.
“Sada? Are you here?”
It could not be, but it was. The laughter that burbled up her throat broke out of its own accord, and she called out in incredulous response. “Eska?”
The footsteps came closer, uneven in their rhythm but quickly nonetheless. By the time they reached her, Sada had found her own way to her feet, and when her sister found her she was standing and laughing and full of disbelief. They threw their arms around each other, and held each other tight until it felt right and safe to let go.
“I found you,” said Sada. “I followed the wisps and I found you.”
“You followed the wisps?” Eska’s voice went sharp. “Why would you do such a foolish thing?”
“You were hurt,” said Sada. “They told me. You fell down a cliff.”
Sada felt Eska’s grimace, but her voice was gentle when she spoke again. “I tripped on the road and scraped my shin,” said Eska. “That’s all. I stopped and rested for a moment and then kept going.”
“Then how did you find me?” asked Sada.
“I heard you fall. They brought you to the road– it’s only a little ways away. But you came at it from the cliff, and the fall could have broken you.” Eska hugged her tight again and breathed an easing sigh. “Don’t follow wisps, Sada. Don’t play their games.”
Sada hugged her back just as tight, burying her face in her sister’s hair. “No,” she said. “No, I won’t.” Everything was warm and safe, despite the pain and cold. Her sister was alright. “Let’s go home,” she said.
And Eska squeezed her one more time, and then they went.