Shadows of the Past — Chapter VII.
Early spring turned to summer as Isaac traversed the country side without much to show for his endeavours. His explorations had yielded little as many of the ruins were degraded nearly beyond recognition, barely distinguishable from the land they were embedded in. His time in towns was often brief and unproductive as the unusual nature of his questions drew unwanted attention. Over time his frustration grew, something not helped by a recurring dream that seemed to follow him like an elusive phantom. Each night he slept he found himself standing before a towering stone head, washed in the white light of a full moon half buried in a hillside. In the stillness of the night a gentle breeze whispered across the valley leaving with him a single thought. Then he would wake and the thought would fall through his grasp into a place just beyond reach. Something important…a person…a place… he could never remember.
One day, however, while sitting amongst the town folk at a local tavern he overheard something from his seat at the bar. The table behind him erupted into raucous laughter at the expense of another patron.
“I’m telling you it was alive.” Sighed a bearded and exacerbated man, the others now quieting down to a repressed snickering.
“Right,” another one replied, “a piece of rock came to life.”
“Just ask the others! They were there too.” The first man responded.
“Listen” said another “The only thing that came to life was your liquored imaginations. You lot were drunker than I’ve seen anyone on festival night. It doesn’t matter what they say, it’s a wonder any of you were standing.”
“I saw what I saw.” He said firmly as groans and chuckles erupted from the table.
Slowly Isaac turned in his seat to face them and with the social grace of a camel asked, “What did you see?”
“Oh fuck me.” one of them laughed putting his face in his hands, “Don’t get him started again.”
The bearded story teller shot him a look of defiant indignation and replied,
“A month ago on the night of our mid-summer festival me and the boys wandered down to the stone head in the valley.” Isaac listened intently; jaw clenched.
“We were messing about climbing around on it, throwin’ stones at the thing when suddenly we all felt something…all at once we stopped and looked at each other. I couldn’t tell you what made us stop, just a sense. None of us knew what was happening but we knew something was about to. Its stone eyes slowly opened and out poured this weird light. I swear it looked right at us.”
The rest of the men were just barely containing their humorous disbelief until Isaac asked, “Can you tell me where this is?”
Once again, the table erupted.
“Don’t encourage him!” One man laughed.
“We were just getting him off this.” Another replied.
“Absolutely!” Exclaimed the man telling the story.
After detailed instructions on how to find the ancient stone head Isaac set off into the hillside just as the sun was falling below the horizon. Though it would have been safer by daylight he couldn’t wait, for months now these dreams had gnawed at the back of his mind. Finally, he might get some answers. Hiking for almost an hour he followed the directions given to him. Past a lone willow tree, heading south at an old stone foundation. Soon enough he came to a small creek winding through a valley- he was close. But as he approached it a chill ran up his spine giving him pause, the air suddenly feeling too still. Something unseen seemed to dart and slither beneath the water and he suddenly found himself gripped by fear. The small brook now felt miles deep, ready to swallow him the moment he touched it. Every muscle in his body tensed as he began to make his way across the small stones protruding from it. But a few steps in he found himself unable to move. The current sped up, moving faster and faster until it seemed as though it weren’t moving at all. He peered deeply into the thick black water feeling the runes on his arm vibrating. What he saw was stars, more than that he could see beyond them. Larger spiraling structures containing an infinite number of them and beyond that the edge of some fathomless space. But in the blackness he sensed a light… a light that shone with an abyssal opaqueness he didn’t know was possible, a blackness that swallowed even the shadows — and it could see him. The runes on his arm flew to life and a single thought hammered into his skull: Move. Snapping out of it he leapt over the next few rocks and landed on the grassy bank. Behind him he sensed that something had crawled from the creek he could hear it, feel it, the hairs on the back of his neck stood on end. Whirling around ready to fight he peered back at the water, heart pounding out of his chest and — nothing. His mind buzzed with noise and activity but the night was quiet and still. Chirping crickets filled the air and the stream quietly bubbled along. Disoriented, Isaac put his hand to his head uncertain what he had just witness. A vision? Some kind of hallucination? Reassuring himself that nothing was out of the ordinary he stood watching the water for what felt like forever, unwilling to turn his back on it. Finally he gave in, whatever had happened was gone, he could stay here all night. But as he turned away, he couldn’t help but feel as though something old and dark had peered through him and the feeling that it was still watching…waiting.
Still unsettled he rounded the top of the hill, mind wandering, almost forgetting why he was out here. Caught off guard he came to a full stop in front of a huge set of stone eyes staring at him. This was it, the ruins of an ancient statue half buried in a hillside. It was strange and far more massive than the man had described. The head seemed humanoid…but not quite human and its surface was ordained with elaborate geometry seeming to contain the inlaid remnants of some semi-precious stone. Isaac began to examine the massive structure for anything out of the ordinary, knowing there must be more to it than appearance would suggest. As his hand touched its surface he felt almost magnetic, like it had connected with him. Something inside of it felt electric…alive even. As if on queue the wind picked up and a heavy cloud blotted out the light of the full moon. The wind whispered to him so closely he could almost feel its lips on his ear as if it were another person’s voice; he repeated the words he heard: Val Echoes. and something whispered back: remember. The runes upon his arm flew to life and the stone beneath his hand trembled. Small tendrils of light wove outwards from the point of contact spreading across the stone head like roots. Unseen symbols revealing themselves as they went, hovering just off the surface of the ruin like some ethereal hologram. As its stone eyes opened a strange light shone from them washing over Isaac and carrying him into the past.
Cast into the recesses of his own mind Isaac tumbled through the emptiness of consciousness, falling backwards through the years. Around him images from his past spun like fleeting dreams, people and places he once knew emerged and quickly faded from view. But from the peripheries of his vision he could see a shadow lurking, waiting to be acknowledged. It was something he’d avoided for years, a memory that felt like an open wound. It called to him but he avoided its gaze for fear of what he may find. But now in the absence of distraction he began to understand if he did not make peace with his past, it may very well consume him. Calling forth all the courage forged in his years with Barlow he turned and locked eyes with the figure from his memory and fell deeper into his subconscious.
Falling, falling. Light surrounded him as a world took shape. Looking around he found himself back in his childhood village. The thick gloss of a youth’s naivety obscuring the worst of human nature. The village’s unity prayer had concluded and he left to play with his friend Yari in the woods. He knew he wasn’t really there but the real world now seemed like a dream… it seemed to matter less; It had been so long since he last saw his friend. Like every Sunday, Yari counted and waited for Isaac to find a hiding spot. Dashing through the redwood forest he passed his usual spots, this time would be different. This time, he went farther than he had before, breaching the boundary set forth by the village elders and finding his way into a series of towering stone structures. Among them was a Banyan tree, something strange and out of place amid the redwoods. Tangled in its roots he saw a narrow tunnel of stone that bore deep into the earth. Curiously he approached it, peering inside. A distant part of him shouting to turn back, but alas… this was just a memory. Crouching down he squeezed through the tight space. Looking into the lightless depths he began his journey. How long he travelled, whether hours or days became impossible to tell. The passage seemed to wear on for an eternity and time slowly lost meaning. There were moments the walls seemed to disappear entirely…at other times seeming to press in on him. But he would never forget the moment he believed he would die. Exhausted he continued crawling forward as it narrowed. Expecting it to expand once again he pushed through, the walls squeezing him on all sides. But it only got smaller. He tried to back out but his feet hit stone — it had sealed behind him. His heart raced and panic consumed him. Thrashing and kicking he tried to get through. Despondent cries left his throat, but not a soul could hear. The walls were moving, shifting and bearing down on him with immense force, ready to digest him like some primaeval beast. He was seeing stars, fear gripped his mind as every thought was infused with terror. No way out, no way out, no way out…finally he succumbed. The fear drained from him, as he drifted into the inevitable and accepted his fate. The walls responded, seemingly linked to his mental state. Their weight lifted, their shape returning to normal. They continued to shift outwards until he found himself face down in a vast cavern.
Drenched in sweat Isaac crawled out into the open space, finding little relief in the sights before him. At the center of the cavern sat a pond so still it looked to be made of glass. Upon its mirrored surface was a circular stone platform with a strange being hidden by robe and mask. It stared at him and a deep unease filled Isaac, as if the being held the boundaries of his small existence in its palms. Wide eyed with the terror, the blood drained from his face. Wordlessly it beckoned to him, formless whispers caressing the inside of his skull asking for him to come closer. He obeyed. Approaching the pond he saw the reflection of another world. A world of towering architecture and strange life, an impossible world that appeared as if it were molded from the mind of some fathomless being. The whispering continued and before Isaac realized what he was doing he had stepped out onto the water. It responded with a single ripple that travelled outwards and disappeared at the pond’s edge. Slowly he moved towards the creature, both in terror and awe. Joining the being at the center of the pond he saw it more clearly now; its form was made of black mist that shifted and changed with eyes that glowed like candle light. It spoke to him again, concepts he didn’t understand. Foretelling of impossible hardships and far off lands, what he learned felt like an image out of focus. What was clear, however, was that he is part of something far greater than himself…and he has a role to play. The being reached towards him and without a thought he did the same, meeting its strange and ghostly hand with his own. Every nerve ending came to life, the sense of vitality reverberating down to his bones. He felt as the cold dark matter slithered up and into his arm spreading through his nervous system, flooding each cell of his body. His thoughts slowed and he felt himself drift into a trance like state. A feeling of movement consumed his forearm as if his flesh had turned to liquid. His mind was flooded with thoughts, thoughts not his own from eons long past. The cavern spun as information poured through him and then without warning it stopped. Collapsing to the ground he breathed heavily, disoriented by the overwhelming experience. Slowly, the world came back into focus and he gathered himself. The being was gone but it had left an indelible mark upon him. Emblazoned into the flesh of his forearm were strange runes that moved as if they had always been part of him.
Stumbling to the edge of the platform he tried to leave but the water no longer held his weight and the light of the mysterious reflection had disappeared. He plunged into it struggling back to the surface. Slowly he made his way back towards the tunnel he entered through, a bright light coming from it now the only thing he could see. Crawling back through he found that the long tunnel had disappeared and he now emerged where he had entered into the harsh light of day, drenched and exhausted. Confused he turned around to inspect the stone entrance only to find it had been consumed beneath the roots of the gnarled tree. Outside, Isaac quickly gathered that only moments had passed. His friend Yari rounded a boulder in the distance at first with a yell of excitement, then again in horror. Drawing a bit closer, Yari did not dare to cross the boundary the elders had set. Isaac dragged himself up, soaked to the bone and walked heavy footed to his friend who was now frantic that he had broken the rules. As his friend yelled to him waving his hands in the air he suddenly stopped. Isaac followed his gaze to the symbols that now marked his arm and back up to meet a look of icy terror. Yari backed away slowly, but before Isaac could begin to reason with him, he took off towards their village.
What happened next was surreal, something Isaac was not eager to relive. Yari ran to the village priest, confessing to him that Isaac had broken the elder’s dictates and left the town line. He begged the priest for help, told him of the markings and pleaded with him to help his friend who had been tainted by something beyond the village border. Calmly the priest reassured the child, convincing a weeping Yari to bring Isaac to him. But demeanor was nothing more than a veiled malice. The village was deeply superstitious, believing that demons could bring ill fortune to them and their kin. Of late this had only gotten worse and the suspicion and harshness with which the church dealt with its people had taken a dark turn. Isaac was dragged before the elders and listened in horror as his sentence was passed. He was to be purified by sunlight and his family was to be held responsible for his endangering the village. Confined to a cage and hoisted 15ft off the ground he was left to die without food or water in the hot sun. It would take days. From his woeful perch he listens to his father screaming as his mother sobs. To this day he does not know what became of them.
The first day in the blistering summer sun was brutal and Isaac, depleted and worn, had nearly lost hope. But late that night his fortune changed. He awoke in the midst of an awkward descent to the ground, falling in uneven and jarring drops. Looking around his eyes gradually adjust to the darkness, finally settling on a small figure struggling with the rope: Yari. His small friend lowered him to the ground, somehow having managed to get hold of the keys, he sprung open the cage.
“I swear I didn’t know.” Yari sobbed; eyes full of remorse. “I didn’t know what they’d do.”
Their reunion was brief and tearful. Isaac held no ill will towards his friend and pleaded with Yari to come with him. Isaac knew he may very well take his place in the cage if they discovered it was Yari who released him. But Yari would not follow, he could not leave his family and with little time to waste the boys said their farewells and Isaac fled into the forest knowing his absence would soon be noticed. As he ran through the trees it wasn’t long before he could hear the distant shouting of men in the village.
The horror of what had happened to him, the betrayal he felt erupted as he was pulled back to the surface of consciousness. Without a thought he roared with anguished rage and indignation as tears streamed down his face. A storm of untamed emotions wrought havoc on his mind. He yelled until he was hoarse and felt until he could feel no more. A cold sweat soaked his clothes as he collapsed into the stone face. Breathing heavily he pushed his hair out of his face, trying to focus on the cool night air. He peered up at the glowing eyes of the statue. It was finished. Whatever was in the past died there. He felt as though finally it could be put to rest. As the light from its eyes began to fade a single drop of golden white liquid fell down its face towards him. He felt as though an exchange was made or perhaps… a transmutation. The strange drop ran over his hand slowly absorbing into his flesh and the runes on his arm shone full with the same light. Though he could not say what had happened he had a strange sense. A sense that the barrier he kept between him and his past had been made tangible, usable. No sooner had he pondered this than a gravelly voice broken through his thoughts.
“What the fuck are you?”
It was the men from the village. He had been followed.