Isaac froze, the sound of the man’s voice splitting the cool night air. Muscles tightening, he turned around slowly. No more than 30 feet behind him stood the group of five men from the tavern. He had been followed. By the dim light of the moon, he could vaguely make out their features, the visage of fear carved into each one. If he’d learned one thing from his past it was that terror consumes the sense of good men like a parasite. The group of jovial tavern goers now almost unrecognizable as they bristled and postured.
“I told you I’d seen it.” Muttered the bearded one.
“Quiet Fin,” Replied the barrel-chested man at the front, his eyes not leaving Isaac. “Are you deaf?” He repeated. “I said: what the fuck are you?”
“I’m just passing through.” Isaac said, fighting for the right words, knowing what the wrong ones might mean. “I don’t — ”
“Not what I asked.” The man interrupted, taking a few steps closer. Behind him one of the men casually reached down to pick up a large stone.
“I will not ask again.”
Isaac could feel the atmosphere beginning to boil, tension building in the air as they approached the flashpoint. Eyes darting from side to side he searched for a way out. The men had spread out, surrounding him and blocking a clean escape. Behind him stood the ancient sculpture and the natural stone formation it was embedded in. He could make it over the wall, but not fast enough to get away. Isaac was trapped. As that single thought passed through his mind a massive stone soared past his head cracking into pieces off the structure behind him, sending chips of rock scattering painfully across his face. Had it landed where intended he’d have been knocked out cold…or worse. But the man who’d thrown it merely laughed at the shock and fury in Isaac’s expression. Any recognition of humanity washed away by the divide of difference the fool now perceived. Only hate remained. Now the group, emboldened by the attack, began to close the distance between them. Mind racing, Isaac quickly realized if he didn’t make his own exit he wouldn’t be leaving. In a single motion he shot backwards picking up one of the broken chunks of rock. The five men charged at him, hoping to overwhelm the young man before he could act. Isaac fired the rock low and caught the first man square in the kneecap. Crying out in pain the would-be attacker tumbled onto the grass, as the others pressed forward. The bearded story teller was the first to reach him and threw his body weight behind his fist, aiming for Isaac’s head. But Isaac, after years with Barlow, was fast and well trained. He wove under the man’s arm, leaving the drunken aggressor’s momentum to finish the job. His fist landed flush with the stone, making a sound like the snapping of damp twigs, as he let out an agonizing scream. Before Isaac could collect himself, he was struck behind the ear with a blow that felt like it was delivered by a sledge hammer, knocking him over. He rolled to recover, standing in time to see the thick and grasping hand of the barrel-chested man, his face twisted into primal rage. Though the man towered over Isaac, Barlow had taught him how to use weight and leverage to his advantage. Taking hold of the muscular limb Isaac spun his body into the man’s with the swiftness of muscle memory and sent the great form over his shoulder, propelling him hard into the ground. His attacker let out a great wheeze as the wind was knocked from him. Isaac stepped out of arms reach leaving his adversary to struggle for air. The two men left standing now hesitated, keeping their distance. Although one clutched a dagger tightly, he now seemed less than confident he could use it. They stared at each other with uncertainty. Isaac could see the man he had just grounded beginning to recover. He’d gotten lucky, there was no reason this couldn’t have gone the other way. This might be the only opening he’d get. Seizing the moment Isaac spun on his heels and took off towards the lowest point on the granite outcropping, vaulting over it. He could hear the shouts of the group behind him jeering and taunting, but he was already gone.
Beyond the stone head was a mountainous region filled with exposed shield rock and increasingly sparse vegetation. Isaac traveled briskly over the rough terrain without sleep, not trusting until late the next evening that he was safely out of reach. As daylight waned and the sun hung heavy in the sky, Isaac lit a small fire and set up camp beneath the overhang of a massive boulder. He contemplated all that had happened in recent days but strangely, in spite of everything, he found his mind drifting back to a single name — Val Echoes. He felt as though the sounds had rolled through the valley on the wind from some far-off place, finding a home in a memory not his own. He felt drawn to it, pulled towards somewhere that may not even exist. But for now, exhaustion beckoned and his eyes descended with the setting sun. Sleep came for him and with it the strange dreams that were now so familiar.
In his slumber Isaac sat across the table from a cloaked figure. From beneath its dark robes a single gnarled hand lay open with its palm towards the ceiling. The hand was ancient, with thick twisted knuckles and coarse weathered skin. In it sat a silver coin. Slowly, Isaac reached for it, but the figure withdrew. In its hardened grasped it moved the coin to its thumb and forefinger, tossing it into the air in a single motion. As it spun it caught the light and Isaac watched as it hung twisting in the air, one side polished the other black with tarnish. Slowly the two sides merged into a single image. Isaac struggled to focus on it and with a sudden snap it was pulled unnaturally to the creature before him. He gazed at the closed fist of the being, his heart pounding as he waited to see which side was his. The hand slowly peeled open and as it did Isaac woke.
Heart pounding, he sat bolt upright, his clothes damp with sweat. Something about the dream frightened him, something he couldn’t put his finger on. No…not in the dream… whatever it was that came after. The stars still speckled the sky and it would be several hours before the sun came up, but the darkness now shivered with an eerie uncertainty. He would find no rest here, best to keep moving.
The breeze was cool and the crisp mountain air dried his damp clothing. But travel was becoming increasingly arduous. Now the incline he ascended grew steep and the only vegetation left was coarse dry shrubs. The rest of the night passed quickly as Isaac focused on the terrain underfoot. Each jagged rock offering a new opportunity for injury in the darkness. But before he knew it the sun rose and by late morning he had arrived at the summit of the small mountain. With the exuberance of youth, he excitedly pushed his way to the top, eager to see the view from the other side. But as he crested the peak his heart sank. Beyond the mountain lay nothing but death. Sand as far as he could see, consuming even the horizon. Isaac stared out at the vast desert, the strange pull from the depths of his mind urging him forward, or perhaps something in the desert called to him… he didn’t know anymore. The more his internal world reflected the external, the harder it became to distinguish the two. His mind churned out thoughts as fast as it could, a thousand reasons to not venture into the desert; each one infinitely more rational than the subtle pull he felt at his core, each one not nearly as real. His decision was made before he even realized it, and while his mind reeled, Isaac had already begun his descent.
The edge of the desert felt tangibly different from anywhere he’d been, it seemed lighter somehow. As though it belonged to a different world, one where the laws of nature held only a tentative grasp. It seemed as though something even more primitive held sway here, like stepping into the mind of some ancient being. Now the dream from the night past made sense. As he entered the pure domain of the elements his fate was not entirely his own. It was a coin toss, left to the will of the desert. Taking a deep breath Isaac pushed this from his mind and stepped into the Endless Sands.
It was a barren and alien landscape. Something totally foreign to his richly forested upbringing. And although it should have felt unwelcoming, he felt inexplicably at ease here. Even as darkness set in, the unfettered star-dome that draped over the dunes filled him with a sense of freedom he had never felt before. Isaac stared up through the clean desert air feeling as though he had fallen into the current of the great cosmic river. It poured across the night sky, overflowing with splashes of constellations that sprayed from its edges in all directions. The great stream that gave life to all things. He wondered at the vision he had had; of the great spiralling structures he saw beyond the stars…then of the presence that watched from behind the starry veil. The murky gaze of some invisible and inhuman being. Shivering, he brought his attention back to the desert, no longer wishing to be so exposed. The temperature felt like it dropped, and he pulled his clothing tightly around him. Continuing on, he began to see the chipped and buried remains of man-made structures protruding from the dunes. And although his fascination tempted him to explore, a sense of unease kept him on track. It wasn’t long, however, before he found one directly in his path. Rounding the top of the next dune he came to the base of an enormous statue, a great warrior pointing outwards with one hand, sword firmly planted in the ground with the other. Although it was partially covered it still towered above the landscape. Staring at the enormous figure Isaac contemplated how risky it would be to climb, hoping to get a better look at where he was going. After hesitating briefly, he set to work. Given the heavy ware on the stone surface handholds were easy to find and the climb was less difficult than he anticipated. With relative ease he scrambled to the top and with a trepidatious confidence stepped out onto the arm of the colossus, hoping to see something in the distance. But the Endless Sands offered nothing save for shifting drifts and scattered ruins against the back drop of the cosmos. Disheartened Isaac stepped back onto the shoulder of the giant, preparing to climb back down, when suddenly a strange thought occurred to him. It was one that froze him where he stood and sharpened his attention: “Where was the moon?”
Isaac carefully scanned the sky, slowly turning 360 degrees, searching for something he didn’t know could be lost. This didn’t make any sense. Only a few days prior the full moon had lit the night above the stone head ruins. Though now waning, it should have been overhead near its zenith this time of night. But it had never risen. Isaac searched the horizon, but the more he looked the more he realized something was deeply wrong. Frantically, he sought the silhouette of the mountains he had travelled from, but in every direction stood only a horizon of stars and sand. In every direction nothing was what it should be. Suddenly he felt his stomach drop. The stars hadn’t moved. After his initial excitement he’d avoided attending to the sky, but he was sure of it. Each constellation was exactly where it had been hours before. Isaac stood in shock, uncertain how any of this was possible. He sat for a moment, leaning back against the giant neck of the statue taking inventory of what he knew. But the answer he kept running into was always the same: nothing. Up until this moment he’d followed this strange intuition. Now, it was all he was left with. The world around him was wrong…broken, he could no longer trust it.
Gradually, he made his way down from the great statue, treating even the sand he stepped on with uncertainty. Breathing deeply, he struggled to calm himself, trying not to think about the impossibilities that surrounded him. He was trapped…but the more turbulent his thoughts became the more tenuous his grasp on the single source of direction he held at his core. Slowly, he centered himself, managing to quiet his mind long enough to grasp the direction he should be heading. It had changed. No longer where the statue pointed, but roughly 45 degrees to its arm. And so, against his better judgement he began to walk.
The sun did not rise. Time did not pass. Isaac moved through perpetual nightfall in a desert that made no noise. How long he walked he did not know. He would sleep for short periods and carry on fighting the exhaustion that now bore through his bones and the desert cold that chewed his skin. It wasn’t long before his water ran dry and depletion dulled his senses. He felt as though he had fallen into a trance, seeming to move forward through an act of sheer will. But as he wandered through the thick mental fog, a sound like sweet water trickled through the haze. It was a voice, one that made his eyes well with tears.
“Isaac, how I’ve missed you.”
Against the endless night stood the haunting figure of his mother. As real as the world around him.