From the Brink — Chapter XII.
Isaac took the crystal, the black void at its center seeming to distort the atmosphere around his hand. Intently he stared at it, knowing that the decision that lay ahead was an important one. Though his mind told him to wait, to learn about his abilities, his heart told him Barlow may not have long. Weighing his options carefully, he finally let out a sigh, as much from relief as from uncertainty. He had made it this far off of instinct, he would go forward trusting the same to take him through safely.
Dresda watched from behind him in anticipation, seeming eager to hear his decision.
Eyes locked with the eternity gazed through the omnimorph’s mask as Isaac spoke.
“I’m leaving now.”
It merely nodded, accepting his answer without judgement or preference. “As is your nature. But know that you must tread carefully until you better understand your abilities. If you overextend yourself…there will be consequences. Not just for you, but for all who depend upon your actions.
“I understand.” Isaac replied, a sense of dread seeping through the ambiguity of what dangers lay ahead. If he could have taken the safe route he would have. “A friend’s fate depends on me now. Please, tell me how to use the crystal.”
Nodding, it simply said, “I will have to show you.”
Approaching him, the Omnimorph wrapped Isaac’s hand in its own then Isaac felt a gentle weight on his shoulder. Surprised, he turned to find Dresda’s soft gaze and supportive touch. It flitted curiously to the crystal for a moment and then back to him. Isaac found himself startled at a closeness he had begun to feel for this enigmatic woman. An intrigue that had bred fondness and he felt a pang of sadness now that he was leaving her. But it could not be helped.
The omnimorph seemed to glow, emanating a subtle light from its dusky silhouette, its hands emanating a heat onto Isaac’s own. Information flowed gently out of it and into Isaac’s mind. He could see a vast network of ruins connecting across miles of earth by energetic networks with Val Echoes at its center, many connections faded or broken by the weight of time. And from within that faded connection, he could feel the place he needed to go, see it like the location on a map. But the link to it was fractured, the structure likely damaged, so he would have to arrive nearby.
From the crystal in his palm, a slow ripple shivered outward, like a three-dimensional tear in the world, a bubble expanding from a single point. The omnimorph was guiding his mind. It was a process so strange it could only be shown. It showed him that his thoughts had substance, affected the world around him. That the crystal could be poured like a liquid into the web of energy and connect two distant places.
His heart pounded and pupils dilated as it consumed more and more of the space around him, as the place he envisioned began to encroach upon the space he now stood. Through the expanding world, he saw rolling hills filled with wild flowers and deep blue rivers carving their way through valleys, the barely visible remnants of an ancient structure beneath the lush greenery.
Isaac looked up to say something to the omnimorph, to ask if it knew this place, but it was gone. Val Echoes had vanished. The place he wished to go had consumed the place he had been and now he stood amidst an unfamiliar landscape.
To his surprise, Dresda still stood behind him, slowly taking her hand from his shoulder, her expression unreadable. Had she meant to come through the portal? Or had she just been too close to him when he transitioned through? Whatever the case, she was stuck here now.
Isaac could feel the effects it had on him, a depletion that suggested the artifact used his own energy to open the rift. Repeating this could leave him too drained to be effective for whatever lay ahead.
Whatever the case, Dresda had adapted quickly. Isaac thought he saw a slight smile play at the corner of her eyes as she said, “You look like you could use the help.”
Warmed by this gesture, Isaac thanked her, grateful to have a familiar face on the journey with him. Now turning his attention back to finding Barlow, the image of the network he had just traversed was still fresh in his mind. He had a sense of where he was going but how far it was, he couldn’t say. A day’s journey perhaps? He hoped no more than this.
As morning faded into afternoon, Dresda seemed more interested in striking up conversation. Whatever curiosity she had abandoned in Val Echoes now found a home here. She picked at Isaac for details on what he’d seen in the tree, each answer he gave seeming to lead to another question. “But what did it look like?” She would ask about the Well Spring within the anomalous tree or “but what did you visualize?” about the Kel’Nath crystal.
She hung off his every word, seeming to absorb his strange descriptions, eyes shifting as if she were seeing the images as he spoke.
Her keen interest sparked his own as he risked inquiry into her past. Though initially hesitant, she began to tell of her journey. She was an Aetherward, someone dedicated to studying the fabric of our world, the nature of our reality. Believing the mysteries of the world could be unlocked through knowledge and experimentation. That tools could be created to manipulate it. For her the Kel’Nath crystal had finally confirmed this hypothesis. “I’ve given up everything in the pursuit of understanding…would gladly give up anything,” she told him. For her, it had not been visions nor intuition that had brought her to Val Echoes, but years of research and countless hours immersed in the ancient tomes of distant libraries.
So enthralled with the conversation was Isaac, that he didn’t notice the black clouds rolling in over the hills behind them. A cacophonous crack came as a rude awakening, snapping them both out of discussion. Isaac turned to see the dark sky, suddenly aware of a rumbling thunder that had grown in the background. His face turned white as he remembered his vision of Barlow slain by something inhuman…amidst a raging storm.
It wasn’t long before the duo was engulfed in the screaming wind. A torrential downpour destroying visibility. The thunder now deafening as the lightning strikes grew dangerously close. But Isaac was unrelenting. Hours passed as they trudged through the whipping gales. Lost in his painful anticipation, he slogged through the mud, singleminded in his goal. His feet clinging to the wet ground with each step. And then something stopped him completely. His foot collided with something solid, nearly sending him face first into the mud. Peering down through the rain he saw the object that had tripped him and his heart nearly stopped. Protruding from the ground was the jagged end of a broken axe handle.
Time seemed to slow as he processed what he saw. A massive hand still clutching the wolf-carved half of the axe, Barlow’s enormous silhouette, legs collapsed beneath it, head hanging heavy over his slumped and broken body.
Isaac dropped his pack kneeling by Barlow’s side, unthinking, unfeeling, just acting. Taking hold of his friend, his enormous body had kept itself upright by some engrained force of will. Isaac was speaking but he couldn’t hear his own voice, the storm drowning it out. Blood streamed from everywhere. Deep gashes on Barlow’s arms and legs, his torso punctured and torn. The hand Isaac lay upon Barlow’s chest sunk without resistance inwards, like pressing into the damp surface of a rotted log, every rib beneath the wound shattered, the lung beneath it collapsed, the tissue around it discoloured and strange. And yet Barlow breathed. Shallow, barely visible breaths. Breaths that would likely not continue for long.
Isaac needed to get Barlow back to the omnimorph, back to Val Echoes. Desperately, he turned to retrieve the Kel’Nath crystal from his pack, but was met with a strange sight. Dresda stood twenty paces back, the strange crystal in her hand, a cold and calculated gaze locked with his.
“Bring it here!” he yelled through the storm.
But she didn’t move. Just stood, staring and unreadable. But through the stonewall stare a softness welled for but a brief moment, like a memory of what once was, remorseful and fleeting. Then she spoke, wordlessly, through the clattering gusts: “I’m sorry.”
From her palm, a void to a foreign landscape opened, somewhere strange and unrecognizable and in a moment, she was gone.
Why? His mind repeated the question without an answer, endlessly, like a silent scream. It was unfathomable. He barely believed it, his eyes still searching for her in the rain.
If he felt that his despair could not have deepened, how wrong he was, for to steal the last glimmer of hope from this darkness was to cast him adrift into an endless sea. As the wind and rain hammered him and the bloodied Barlow, a wretched pull threatened to drag Isaac into the darkest recesses of himself and for the first time, he didn’t know if he wished to fight it.
He was losing himself to his mind, not wishing to struggle any longer against the suffering that seemed to follow him, but slowly a stable sensation brought him back. With one hand still on Barlow, he could feel the thrumming of his heart, the strength that it carried despite his wounds.
Isaac thought back to their first meeting, when Barlow had stood between him and certain death, had risked his own life for a boy he knew nothing of. That in any given moment, Barlow was willing to risk everything for what he cared for. From the memory that had once bled pain, Isaac now drew strength. If Barlow’s heart still beat, Isaac would find a way. If the light of hope had been stolen, he would make his own. And as if on cue, he spotted a faint sliver of light shining through the storm. A village. If he could move Barlow, perhaps he stood a chance.
From the depths of his being, Isaac reached down, mind spreading roots to find the source of power, the source of everything. The core he had found within Val Echoes. As he reached out to it, it reached back, its own roots lacing through his soul. Upon his arm, the symbols drew breath, pulsing with a new-found power that coursed through his blood. The void beneath creation staring through him. He watched as the world around him changed. Overlaid upon it like a gossamer veil, he saw the energies that composed this plain of existence, barely visible. Each thread seeming to vibrate as he brought his attention to it, the world reacting imperceptibly to his consciousness.
His heart still pounding in his chest, as he felt himself drowning in uncertainty. This wasn’t like before, it wasn’t instinctual. Overloaded with information, he tried brute force, hoping his will and emotions might once again grant him power. With all his might, he heaved against the massive weight of Barlow, trying to move him, howling with exertion into the violent storm. But the giant would not be moved and Isaac collapsed under his huge form.
Frantic now, Isaac tried again and though Barlow would not be lifted, Isaac noticed something else. Through the silken fibres of existence, he saw that perhaps reality was not what it appeared. As he tried to lift the giant, it was the Earth itself that resisted, thin fibres of energy tethering Barlow to it like taught cords. Perhaps…he could sever them?
With both hands Isaac tore at them in a frenzy, each thread slowly trying to find its way home. And with every handful ripped away, Barlow grew lighter. It was a losing battle, a self-repairing system, but soon Isaac realized that with great focus, he could hold the process at bay. The strain on his mind was great but it made the task possible. Heaving a much lighter Barlow onto his shoulders, he began to carry him toward the light as his mind and body were pushed to their limits.
Arriving at the village, he laid Barlow down and was finally able to break his focus, collapsing after the exertion. Letting his powers recede, the ethereal tapestry receded from his vision. Yet, he somehow felt…off.
It wasn’t long before the quaint town came alive. To Isaac’s surprise, the villagers seemed to know Barlow, his name being murmured by a few in the growing crowd, a visible shock and sadness apparent upon those who saw the state of him. With care, the two men were ushered to the home of the village healer, and four strong men were requested to move Barlow.
The healer was a wizened old woman, with kind eyes and soft features. She stood attentively, taking Barlow’s pulse and inspecting his wounds. Isaac sat next to them in a dry set of clothes provided by the townsfolk. He watched her work, unable to shake the sense of his mind still askew after using his abilities. Though in front of him his closest friend struggled for his life, he felt…nothing…a sense of indifference that had not existed before. Was it exhaustion? No…something deeper. It was as though there was no distinction between the two humans before him and the walls around them. The distinction between animate and inanimate blurred, seeming unimportant. Would this disconnect worsen if he continued using his abilities unchecked?
The woman was speaking to him now, but he struggled to care, as if he had been forced to the back of his one mind. He shook his head trying to snap back to reality, managing to focus for a moment on what was being told to him.
A curious look flashed across her face, clearly noticing something was wrong but she said nothing of it. “Your friend — ,” she began, “ — is beyond saving through traditional means. If he is to live, something more drastic will need to be done.”
Isaac watched her speak, registering the words, but feeling nothing.
The healer moved swiftly to the back of the room and lifted the floor boards to retrieve something. On the table, she put a jar, murky and scratched.
As Isaac squinted to make out what was inside, he realized something within it was moving.
“If I treat him with this, he will undoubtedly recover — ,” she paused, “ — but the results may be unpredictable. I must admit — ,” she nodded at the jar, “ — my every attempt to understand this substance has failed.”
Isaac simply nodded, wanting to ask more but finding his words lost in a fog of apathy.
And with that acknowledgement, she tilted the jar to Barlow’s lips and Isaac watched as a coiling black mist moved of its own accord down his throat. Had it been any other circumstance, Isaac may have reacted with revulsion or concern, but tonight he merely stared.
“You may want to step back.”
Isaac barely registered the words before a sickened crack was heard coming from Barlow, like the grinding of bone against itself.
Barlow let out a guttural scream as his unconscious form began to seize and convulse.
Isaac stared at the strange spectacle, his mind searching for the familiar pang of empathy and concern, but finding nothing. Though he knew he had made the right decision, he wondered if the consequence were permanent.
The medicine woman now turned her attention to him.
“Your friend will live. By morning he will have recovered significantly. But you are different.”
Isaac watched her closely as she shuffled over to him, taking his marked arm in both hands, her keen eyes investigating the runes, her chipped and worn nail tapping one of the symbols.
“Your ailment is not physical…it is a sickness of the soul. One that I am unable to treat. To the east there may be someone who can help you.”
“How can I find him?” Isaac replied, fighting to the forefront of his mind. Struggling against the visceral indifference he felt.
She gestured with one hand. “If you travel beyond the hills past the village of Ule you will find a strange tree like no other. He dwells beneath. A sage living between two worlds.
At this Isaac perked up, remembering the story long ago told to him by his mother. Of the sage half in this world that she had met on her travels. The connection, to his relief seemed to draw back a sliver of humanity, resonating with some deeper part of him. But before he could ask more, the old woman hushed him.
“You need rest now — ,” she cooed, “ — questions can wait until tomorrow.”
Conceding, Isaac found a spot on the floor and closed his eyes. And as he began to drift off, a thought stirred from the part of him that struggled for his humanity. He wondered about Dresda. Where she was and why she had taken the thing he needed most when so much was at stake. His mind grappled with it, the suddenness of it all, the betrayal. But the thoughts held no texture, they were uncoloured by emotions and so they slipped through his grasp.
The sound of voices roused Isaac from his slumber as he squinted through the morning light to see Barlow propped up on his elbows, the medicine woman taking his pulse as they spoke.
After she was finished with Barlow, he turned his attention to Isaac, smiling weakly. “Good to see you, boy.” But his eyes showed concern, seeming to sense something was wrong.
Barlow shared with Isaac the strange circumstances that had led him here. The ruler of these lands — King Din — had asked for the aid of any warriors who would lend their sword against a scourge that plagued this land. Men whose minds and bodies had been warped by something dark and unseen, rising together from the remnant of some ancient structure protruding from the land. It was while trying to help the local villagers that Barlow had been struck down.
Through his muddled thoughts, Isaac recalled the minds of the men in his village seeming compelled by something unseen. Of the coming darkness the omnimorph spoke of. Barlow spoke of men so poisoned by corruption that even their form had become twisted and he wondered…was he close to the source?
Choices: What should Isaac do?
Voting has ended.