Through the shifting atmosphere rays of sun shone into Val Echoes, casting beams of swirling dust across the ancient walls. Isaac watched the flecks of light dance and shift, reminding him of the transient nature of the Endless Sands.
The morning had arrived on his second day and he still lay pondering the first, so much had happened. For years he had been walking upon the cusp of another world, one woven of impossibilities and oddities, hints of it emerging through dreams and visions. It was a world he had been eager to know better; now he was submerged in it. Beneath the world of the mundane in this place, where everything seemed new and intriguing. He wanted to know it better, to understand it and its purpose.
Stepping out into the early morning light, the city took on deep warm hues of orange and yellow, as if the sun itself had lent its brilliance to the stone. Many of the symbols on the walls now reflected the light, revealing a layer previously unseen. Wiping the dust from them, he found — concealed by grime — the inlaid remains of crystals, much of them chipped or eroded from time. Running his hand along them, he felt subtle electricity under his palm. He quickly removed it, recognizing the visual and sensory similarity to the stone head. Would he be pulled into another memory? He prodded the wall with a tentative curiosity. No, the feeling was different. What, then, was he sensing?
Exploring the many buildings, the subtle vibration seemed ubiquitous. Wherever he went he was able to connect with the structure. But the buildings themselves held no clues as to what it might be, each varying in apparent purpose. Some appeared to be housing, like the one he had slept in. In other workshops, the degraded remains of ancient tools and furnaces the only evidence left. Every building he went through contained a story, the faded writing of lives long passed etched into their remains. He wondered at the people who had lived here, what could be learned from what was left behind? Each structure held secrets he may never unlock a Temple containing a single circular door, massive and unmoveable, its only possible trajectory leading deep into the earth. A crumbling well that seemed to hold no water, but through the blackness, he could hear the echo of… footsteps? He wasn’t sure, maybe just the dripping of water on stone.
What lay beneath this place? Beneath the dust? Beneath the mundane?
At mid-day, Isaac had finally grown tired and considered pausing his exploration to rest. But he hesitated, reticent to stop, feeling as though each time he made contact with the decaying symbols he was growing closer to something. Some connections becoming more complete. A strange intangible sense like the direction he felt in the desert. So, he decided to continue a little while longer. Stopping outside one of the desiccated temples he followed his intuition, pressing his hand against the vertical lines of runes that adorned the entrance. He felt the smooth stone under his hand, the electricity beneath that, and then tried to go further. What was he trying to connect to? Or perhaps what was trying to connect to him? He sought it out like something forgotten on the edge of remembrance… and something responded. A warmth, the sensation of another’s palm pressing against his from the other side of stone, then moving through his, making contact. Energy shot through him like a shock, his hand recoiled, his eyes open staring at the empty walls. What happened? The experience was less than profound, like a small static charge. But something had changed. Staring at his hand he wondered what it could be. Slowly, he reached out again, eager to find out what he had experienced. But a noise interrupted him. At first, he thought it was his imagination, the emptiness of this place playing tricks with his mind. He withdrew his hand, listening. It came again. A voice? Slowly he backed up. Definitely a voice, faint and cracking. Was it far or just weak?
Moving quickly, Isaac jogged back to the entrance to find his answer standing in front of him. A young woman had staggered through the gate. Garbed in layers of white cloth, she was dressed to shield herself from the sun.
She spotted him immediately, her piercing green eyes staring through hair that hung like red steel, a gaze that was almost surgical. It caught him off guard, and nearly stopped him. Stable, certain, almost violent.
Isaac froze for a moment, guarded, uncertain whether she was a threat. But her eyes quickly softened, her depleted state unable to maintain it as she collapsed to one knee. Managing to eke out one word: “Water?”
Isaac shook himself out of it and rushed to her side. Thoughts punishing him for hesitating, for mistaking her caution for danger.
She accepted the resource eagerly, but her body language was reticent. After the third skinful of water, she relaxed slightly, still wary but clearly more trusting after his help. Seeing how depleted she was he couldn’t help but wonder if her journey had been different than his, more arduous.
Leaning back a little, she stared at the shifting temporal display above them and exchanged names with Isaac. Hers was thick and guttural sounding: Dresda. The sound hitting the back of his teeth like a mallet. It didn’t suit her. Really nothing about her did, she was a patchwork of incoherence. An enigma of eclectic whispers. Subtle.
After some time she finally asked, “is there any food here?” Her voice was recovering after the water, softer now and as steady as her gaze had been. There was a certainty about her, something unyielding and solid beneath her fair skin. Her features were like softly flowing water over river rock.
The words sank through him like mud, slowly, like something he had forgotten. When was the last time he had eaten? At the tavern days before he reached the desert. But how long he had wandered the Endless Sands…he didn’t know. Was it a week since he’d had food? More? It was normal to stop being hungry after a few days of not eating but this…? This seemed extreme given the physical exertion of his long journey here. His hand touched the runes through his shirt sleeve, a now familiar movement, and he wondered if it may be something else helping to sustain him. He noticed her keen eyes picked up on his subtle gesture and removed his hand. Eyes that seemed to catch everything.
Together they ambled to the garden, the only place he thought might have food. Squeezing their way into lush green space, Isaac turned to see a look of awe break through the exhaustion on the woman’s face. She followed the lights and movement of the ecosystem before them, brushing past him to kneel down and examine the unique plants. They reacted to her touch seeming to shiver or vibrate, the motion traveling out like a wave from the point of contact. Hidden flowers unfurled their luminous petals, each leaf turning towards her as if inspecting the new arrival. The corners of her lips rose at this, seeming to find a curious joy in the display. Isaac was happy to see she was able to relax a bit more, still recovering from the residual embarrassment of perceiving her as a threat.
“Are any of these edible?” She wondered out loud, asking nobody in particular.
“All of them.” Thrummed a soft voice, catching them both off guard. The masked omnimorph emerging from somewhere unseen. “From root to leaf, everything here can be consumed by humans. Gardens like this once filled the city…soon enough it will once again. Human touch has woken them from dormancy, your touch.” He gestured to Dresda.
Dresda stood up, steadier in her movements now. A blazing turquoise gaze locked on the uncertain being ahead of her, and in those eyes, Isaac could once again see a viciousness rise to the surface. But he had been mistaken, it was not violence nor aggression but a fixation. A need. But for what? Safety? Did she fear the omnimorph? Isaac’s stomach knotted in the same way it had when he first saw her, instinctually. But this time he knew better, fear could make people defensive, and draw out the rawest parts of someone.
“It’s okay.” Isaac said calmly, “It’s not a threat.”
If Dresda heard him she gave no indication. She stared at the being for what became an uncomfortable period of time, her stony leer revealing nothing. And then as if it had never been there, it plunged back from wherever it had emerged and her expression was once again relaxed. She knelt back to examine the plants again, finally addressing the omnimorph.
“So the plants can distinguish human touch from other stimulus?” She said as if the figure to whom she spoke were completely unremarkable.
“They can.” It replied, seeming unbothered by her initial reaction. “It was your people who cultivated them this way through generations. Now that they have awoken they will begin the process of reclamation, filling the many passages and garden rooms spread across the city.”
She leaned in, intrigued. Just a wisp of the need he had seen earlier returning to her.
Isaac had gone this long without food, and though growing hungry at the sight of it, he felt fine to go another couple hours, he’d eat later. The omnimorph had told him others would be arriving and they might be in the same condition as Dresda, possibly worse. So, tearing off a few leaves, he left her to ask what questions she may have in private and headed to the entrance.
Walking to the gates there was a new sound — running water. He listened closely as he moved, trying to find its source. It appeared that Dresda’s touch had awakened more than just the plant life, the sound emanated from the water and underground through chambers unseen. Clean, clear, pure water now flowed into basins near the entrance, and likely many more throughout this place. From where was difficult to say, perhaps from some underground stream or forgotten reservoir. Other noises could be heard over the rush of liquid as Val Echoes breathed new life. The soft grinding and shifting of stone could be heard gently reverberating off the walls and barely distinguishable movement could be seen all around, as though the entire city was rebuilding itself from some memory carved into its foundation. Around them, stones could be seen pulling themselves back into place, tilted statues realigning themselves, vines reached for one another across the divide of fallen bridges, and even the symbols on the walls seemed clearer. It felt alive. Isaac watched in fascination; curious what strange mechanism was responsible for the reformation. The air now carried the faint smell of spring, making him wonder if perhaps it was the plants themselves reconstructing Val Echoes.
At the gate, Isaac was pulled from his thoughts by the sound of someone shuffling through the gates. Another person, this time a young man probably no older than him. Isaac encouraged him to rest in the shade near the water basins, directing him to the garden when he felt well enough to eat. The rest of the day passed this way as more people wandered in most of them torn between replenishing themselves in the newly filled water basins and watching the strange display overhead. But as the sun began to set the final few to arrive looked extremely depleted, barely making it through the entrance, and a question began to gnaw at the back of Isaac’s mind. Was there anyone left outside? Anyone who hadn’t made it? Had collapsed? If so, he had to help.
Stepping out through the veil of converging timelines no more than 200 meters from Val Echoes, a man lay collapsed next his mount. The strange creature bearing no resemblance to any Isaac had seen was a four-legged animal with black and white stripes adorning its body, its strange face ending in long tentacles that now prodded its owner. The man himself was face down in the sand; the side facing the sun a deep red.
As Isaac pulled him by the cloak into a seated position. He muttered something inaudible, weak, and delirious. No more than thirty-five, the man had a bluish birthmark above his eye and a short fraying beard that looked like it had been well-kempt until recently. He struck Isaac as a meticulous man, one of care and an inclination towards detail. But he would learn more later, this stranger needed water and shade.
After dragging the unconscious man into Val Echoes and finding a spot to lay him. Sitting with him, Isaac carefully gave him water, which the semiconscious man accepted eagerly, slowly taking over the task as his condition improved.
Grasping the water skin tightly, he now took it in gulps. Finally sitting up a bit more and propping himself against the cool stone wall. “Almost made it.” His voice cracked, wheezing out a dusty laugh.
“Close enough,” Isaac responded lightly, surprised by but also matching the lightheartedness of the man. But despite his forced cheer, the man clearly needed to recover, so Isaac took his leave to allow the man some rest.
In the evening the large group gathered around a fire they’d made in the courtyard, the flames licking at the edges of an elaborate stone firepit carried on the backs of three sculpted figures. The mild tension of unfamiliarity hanging in the air. Looking around at the many faces Isaac saw an opportunity to better understand one another, and perhaps even this place they found themselves in. So, he began to enquire about their journeys here. The group with an increasing level of comfort began sharing their tales, the tension between them slowly easing. Isaac listened eagerly excited to learn more and add to his vast repertoire of stories, telling him with a captivating enthusiasm. But amidst the many tales, he noticed one remained untold: Dresda’s.
As the evening wound down the exhausted travelers trickled off one by one until only Isaac was left by the fire. And as he sat alone, the man he had saved joined him, introducing himself as Kiem.
“Can’t sleep?” He asked.
“I don’t really feel like it. Isaac replied. “Honestly, I could watch the sky here all night”
“I know what you mean.” Kiem agreed, staring up. “Doesn’t feel real. I’m not entirely convinced I made it out of that desert…thanks again.”
“Of course, I’m sure you’d have done the same.” Isaac wasn’t sure how to react and shifted a bit in his seat. For as long as this journey had been, he had been saved on countless occasions by others. But this had been the first time he was in the position to save someone else and he hadn’t hesitated. He felt the subtle warmth of pride and thanked Barlow for getting him here and raising him well.
They chatted casually for some time, and Kiem recounted his story to Isaac. He told Isaac of his life as a blacksmith, of the stranger who entered his shop and catalysed the journey that led him here. Of the unique methodology he’d employed to forge strange materials and of the ore he had sought in the desert that brought him here. Isaac listened with intrigue at a story that, like his, seemed to blur the lines between the real and impossible.
Then as if to prove his own account, Kiem drew a strange dagger from beneath his cloak. Flipping the knife in his hand, he handed its handle first to Isaac. It was like nothing Isaac had ever seen. The handle was tightly wrapped with leaves with the texture and durability of tough leather. The blade was a dark wood with twisting patterns, like it was carved from a knot in a tree. But it was sharp and hard, like steal. Through it, thin veins of white light glowed and emanated heat. Isaac couldn’t stop staring at it. Was this common where Kiem was from? What processes had been used here?
Kiem smiled, seeming to anticipate the question. “Wood, leaves, and sunlight.”
Every time Isaac believed this world had given up its strangest mysteries something new leapt out in an endless procession. “Sunlight?” He repeated not entirely sure if he was asking or merely repeating in disbelief.
Kiem nodded. “There’s an ore I gathered from the desert that can trap it.”
Isaac moved to hand the blade back, but Kiem held his hand out, insisting he keep it.
Saying, “I wouldn’t be here if it weren’t for you, it’s the least I can do,” before taking his leave for the night.
Isaac, now alone by the fire, stood up to head to his sleeping quarters, but stopped short as the morning’s events caught up with him. He had made contact with something in the wall. So subtle had the sensation been that in the chaos of the day he’d forgotten. As Possibilities flooded his mind, he knew he couldn’t leave it for tomorrow. He had to know. Looking around to make sure he was alone he made his way to a set of runes on the wall. Slowly he reached his hand out, heart pounding. Uncertain what he would find, what he would feel. And as his fingertips made contact with the cool stone wall, his mind rapidly expanded. Suddenly he felt like a drop in the ocean. With a tide that rose and fell rhythmically…no, not a tide…something breathing. Not an ocean… something living. He could feel it looming beyond the buildings in the darkness, stretching out for miles beneath his feet. An organism impossibly large.
Pulling his hand away his world once again collapsed into just the courtyard. His breathing was heavy, shaken. He looked at the ground beneath his feet. What was breathing? What had he seen? He had to know.
Choices: What does Isaac do?
Voting has ended.