The Sage — Chapter XIII.
The warm smell of porridge and pressed berries filled the air as the medicine woman prepared breakfast. Isaac looked around the small hut, Barlow snoring on the table after briefly rousing from his slumber, the medicine woman cutting fresh fruit on the countertop. Though he still felt awry after his reckless use of the runes, sleep or time seemed to have helped a touch. Still at a distance from himself, he seemed to have taken a step closer. Far from normal, but beneath the haze of indifference, he could sense himself, the familiar stirring of emotion, the obscured care and curiosity for this world. But just barely. And as yet to be seen, possibly fleeting.
Standing up slowly, Isaac winced as soreness set in from the previous night.
The sound caught the attention of the healer. She beckoned to him, meeting him halfway with the breakfast she had prepared. Although Barlow’s massive form occupied the only table, Isaac was more than happy to take a spot on the floor and rest his legs.
The woman slowly lowered herself beside him to make a belated introduction, knees creaking as she did. Finally he could put a name to the woman who saved his friend. Elenda. A name that sounded young and juxtaposed against the deep lines of her face. But also sounded kind and this she most certainly was. Before he could say much, she began inquiring about his condition, clearly still concerned about the “sickness of the soul” that afflicted him. Although she was happy to hear there had been some improvement, she was also doubtful much more would occur without intervention. If the sage was not sought out soon, he may be stuck in whatever strange limbo his mind now occupied.
Had he felt himself, the thought would have horrified him…but the hollow pit inside and the subtle chill he felt beneath it was enough to spur him to action. Had the circumstances been different he would have stayed with his friend, would have helped care for him.
Had the circumstances been different…those few words could sum up his entire life. But like so many times before, the world would not allow him to dwell in sentiment, and for the first time, it wasn’t difficult. The near absence of pain was agony.
The journey would not be long, a day at most, but Elenda warned that he must arrive before nightfall. That the land had become unsafe, eclipsed by those with dark intentions. Her eyes wandered to Barlow, his wounds speaking of dangers she dare not mention.
Her directions were simple: Follow the eastward path from the city several hours to the village of Ule, it would be the first one he came to. Continue onward over the hills just beyond it until you see a strange tree. Beneath it is where you will find the sage. When pressed about how he would recognize the tree she would only say: “It is unmistakable.” And as he set briskly out to find the sage, he wondered what exactly unmistakable looked like.
The landscape was filled with features that reminded him of home. The way the wildflowers speckled the rolling hills, how fields faded to forest at the farthest edge of his vision. Features that should have evoked emotion and memories, but through a chasm of emptiness, these images drew forth only the slightest wince of nostalgia. Enough only to serve as a cruel reminder of the fullness he may lose forever.
As his shadow stretched out over the landscape, growing long with the day, he could see small pillars of smoke billowing from beyond the next hill. Cresting its top, he found himself a stone’s throw from the village of Ule. Inquisitive gazes were cast his way, as he passed through. They carried with them the air of hostility and suspicion, something all too familiar to him. Mothers ushered their children inside. Men stopped work to stare at the stranger, brandishing threateningly whatever tools were on hand. This too reminded him of home, but with these memories, there was no nostalgia to torment him. In fact…he once again felt nothing. A realization that brought his pace to a near jog as he left the unwelcoming little village behind. He needed to find the sage.
He wasn’t long out of the village before the sun began to sink below the horizon and he was able to feel. The coming darkness would have filled him with a sense of dread in the wake of the previous night, instead only nagging questions echoed through his mind, making him wish he had pressed Elenda for greater detail. How much further did he have to travel? How would he find the tree in the darkness? Doubt was creeping in.
As the last slivers of sunlight winked out of existence, familiar constellations filled the skies above him. Mythological figures and beasts of ancient tales took their place in the cosmic carousel. His senses heightened, trying to cut through the darkness, his ears pressing through the cacophony of crickets, eyes scanning the horizon for movements out of place.
In the distance, his gaze settled upon something strange. Mingling with the stars that hung low in the sky was a light that cut through the night, its deep purples and indigos flowing outward, like a gentle beacon. Unmoving against the backdrop it grew as he travelled, eventually towering over the landscape. And as his mind tried to decipher what he was seeing, his thoughts skipped a beat as he realized what colossal structure lit the night.
It was the tree. Unmistakeable. Its iridescent leaves shimmering like violet moonlight.
Isaac longed to feel the awe it should have inspired, the wonder he should have felt. But there was nothing just a need to be free of this emptiness that compelled him.
He was close now, close enough to see the immense trunk rising from the crook of a deep valley, concealing the base of the tree from sight. So focussed on his goal was Isaac, he barely noticed a figure flit into the peripheries of his vision. His eyes snapped to catch it, but found the hillside empty.
Isaac stared for a moment, not daring to slow down. But before he could look away, something in front of him moved. His feet planted as he stopped for the first time that day. He stared into the night, heart beginning to pound a rhythm of listless fervour as his body reacted. Something wasn’t right. Terror was absent…but something deeper resided. A sense, something familiar that he struggled to place. The sense prey has when it feels the gaze of a predator. Something that makes you freeze before you understand why. The same feeling he’d had by the river so many weeks ago, as though a thousand hollow eyes gazed through him., their vision crawling beneath his skin.
And then all at once the darkness erupted. Strange figures seemed to slither through the spaces in Isaac’s awareness, clad in shadow , moving wherever he wasn’t looking. This time Isaac didn’t need coaxing from the runes on his arm. Tearing off into the night, he ran for the tree, hoping that the light may ward off whatever this was. Feet hammering the soil, he felt an icy pull against his flesh as if the darkness were drawing him in.
As the shadows seemed to wrap around him from all sides, he could hear something. A sound like scraping steel and splintering wood. No. Something animate. Whispers in a language he had never heard. Spoken in voices no human could make. Isaac pushed forward, driving up the final hill, eyes fixed on the light that radiated over it.
The words filled his head now, he felt on the cusp of understanding them. And without the sense of fear — without emotion — he felt drawn to them, wanted to understand them.
Isaac tore over the hill, the warm radiance of the tree flowing over him. The whispering stopped, the draw he felt ceased. The pressure lifted as he emerged from darkness, a cold sweat glistening on his brow.
Trying to catch his breath, Isaac slowly made his way into the valley, casting glances back, not entirely convinced he was safe. At the base of the massive tree, he could see a campfire burning in vivid tones of purple and green, the small source seeming to cast light across the entire valley. Around it were geometrically-arranged stone slabs, roughly carved with strange scenes and images.
Taking a seat on one of the stones, Isaac stared at the tree, its obsidian bark reflecting the eerie light from the fire. Isaac wondered if it was of the same species as the one he’d seen in Val Echoes, though much smaller, and if perhaps touching it would yield the same experience. His hand drew back instinctually as he became lost in thought — some unfelt part of him not wishing to re-live the jarring experience — when a voice pulled him from his memories.
Sitting across from him now on another of the slabs was an old man, his aged features carved like weathered granite. His skinny form lost in his massive robes and his body was awash in the purples and greens of the campfire…or were the colours emanating from him?
Isaac squinted, noticing something unusual. He could see through the man, like some gentle apparition. A sage that lives between two worlds. The stories from his childhood came rushing back.
The old man watched him closely, his brow furrowed in concentration. And in the time it took Isaac to blink, the man was next to him. Had Isaac been able to feel, he would have been startled, instead he simply stared at the sage and stated his purpose.
“I need your help.”
The sage smiled softly, not breaking focus as he responded. “I see that,” his voice like a gentle breeze through a forest canopy. “You’re out of sync.”
Isaac rolled the words over in his mind, surprised at how accurately they described what he felt. Out of sync. Whatever rhythm his mind should intuitively follow now seeming to elude him.
“Be still.” The sage instructed, slowly reaching out his weathered hand and resting his palm upon Isaac’s chest. The old man closed his eyes, the colours that shone through his hand seemed to grow brighter with his focus.
Isaac watched as the sage’s pellucid hand slowly sunk through his chest, the sage’s warm palm pressing against Isaac’s heart. A subtle vibration began to emanate from it and Isaac gradually began to feel his sense of connection returning, like a barrier of ice between him and the world was melting. Tears streamed down his face as his body understood before he did what was happening. A torrential wave emotion came flooding back a moment later.
The sage withdrew his hand as the impact of the past days hit Isaac all at once. The horror of finding his friend close to death, the rage of Dresda’s betrayal, the joy of Barlow’s recovery, the relief of being healed, and every subtle, unfelt moment in between. Isaac shook, covering his face as tears flowed freely, suddenly realizing he wasn’t sure if he was sobbing or laughing. The catharsis of the entire emotional spectrum finding release through his tears.
The sage sat without a word, letting Isaac’s emotions settle. Time seeming to melt away into the immeasurable present.
Finally, after letting some time pass, the sage spoke once again. “It’s good to see you again. It would appear you’ve had quite the journey.”
Taken aback by the comment, Isaac straightened up try to understand what he meant, but all he could manage was, “again?”
The sage chuckled, “Ah, of course you wouldn’t remember. You were just a newborn when your mother brought you to me.”
“I…” Isaac was still processing the revelation as he spoke. “I’ve been here before?”
“Yes, you were quite ill when your mother brought you to me. It seemed you may not make it through the night. She came asking me to heal you, asking that your soul may shine through whatever darkness was ailing you. It would seem the fates have made use of this gift.”
Isaac’s mind tumbled as core beliefs were overturned. Had he not been born in the village beyond the redwoods? How many of his parent’s adventures had he been alive for? Pieces began to fall into place. His unrest and need to explore now seemed rooted not merely in fiction, but having witnessed countless things travelling at the earliest of ages. He and his parents were treated as they were because he was an outsider. This single truth kept from him in the hope he may feel at home in the village. He was stunned.
He thought of the light of consciousness the omnimorph had spoken of, the reason he had been chosen. And it all came back to this. The love of his mother and the kind wisdom of a sage.
Exhausted from his first emotional outpour, Isaac laughed at the strangeness and intensity of the moment. At the improbable odds of his life having come full circle back to its source. And as he sat in the surprising moment of completion, his mind and emotions stilled. Not disappearing, but parting, abating for an instance as to not obscure the moment.
As his thoughts gradually returned, Isaac found a clarity he had not had since Val Echoes. The weight of what the omnimorphs had tasked him with settling in the space that remained. If he was to fulfill the purpose bestowed upon him, he needed to understand how the sage had healed him. Needed to learn to do it himself if he was to use his abilities again. So as best he could, he explained his circumstances to the ghostly figure. He told him about his abilities, about the wellspring, what had happened with Barlow. Recounting anything that might be relevant. He wished to understand what the sage meant by out of sync and how to resynchronize.
The sage listened attentively, waiting for Isaac to finish before beginning his lesson. “The world around us is a vibrating tapestry of energetic fibres. A tapestry that humanity was not designed to access. When you touched the wellspring…this is what you saw. Everything. It connects you to everything.”
Isaac contemplated what he had seen, the subtle overlay of connections upon the world. The sense he’d had when interacting with the vibrating fibres that pulled Barlow toward the Earth.
“Human beings, like all sentient creature are predominantly composed of seven energies symbolized as: Grace, Discipline, Spirit, Joy, Humility, Purity, and Wisdom.”
Caught up in the turbulence of the moment, it was only now that he reflected on this. It was when he had made contact with these that he’d felt the change. Barely noticeable beneath the chaos, but definitely there.
The sage continued. “In order to interact with frequencies beyond your form’s design, your own energies must resonate with them. The more you interact, the further you stray from your humanity.”
Isaac listened, another question emerging. “How do I recover?”
The sage’s eyes narrowed slightly, a smile playing at their edges, seeming to find humour in the situation. “You may be surprised that I find myself in a similar circumstance. Centuries ago, as my body grew old and weak, I was given a gift of unity with the land I cared for. A gift from the omnimorphs. Upon death, a being’s energy returns to the earth, they lose connection with the seven energies and pass onto unity with greater forces. An omnimorph allowed me to sit between worlds so that I may maintain my stewardship of this place. But to do so I must maintain my connection with the seven energies so that I do not pass on completely. I will teach you.”
He directed Isaac to stare into the fire, the soft sound of his voice guiding him to use the flames as an anchor for his mind. To bring about a single point of awareness.
“Each rune upon your arm represents one of the seven forces, each one embedded in the deeper fabrics of this reality.” The sage said, as Isaac examined his arm. Running his hand over the symbols.
“Every time you venture into the depths beneath our reality,” he continued, “you lose touch with your natural state. So, you must realign.”
Isaac shifted uneasily recalling the experience.
“Each of the symbols emblazoned on your flesh represents one of the seven energies of sentient life and vibrates at that frequency.”
The sage directed Isaac to make contact with the first symbol on his arm, a near circle with five intersecting lines in its middle, two small triangles extending from its base. This was the rune of discipline. Isaac pressed his thumb to it and followed the sage’s voice, trying to feel the unique frequency that emanated from it. But after some time, all he could feel was the rhythmic thrumming of his heartbeat. Frustrated, he withdrew his hand. Somehow, he could perform unbelievable feats under pressure based on raw instinct, but as things quieted, as they required subtlety, he fell short.
The sage’s calming presence brought him back to the task. “You’re listening with the wrong apparatus. Think about the aspect of yourself you used to connect with the wellspring, the part you use to manipulate the frequencies of the world around you.”
Isaac, letting out a deep breath, returned his hand to his wrist. Doing as the sage instructed, he recalled the sense he had used in the past. Nearly imperceptible at first, he thought he sensed something but was not entirely convinced he wasn’t deceiving himself. But, as he waited with diligence, the feeling grew in response to his awareness, seeming to echo through him. It was distinct, its energy feeling like roots of a tree, grounding him, holding everything together. Discipline.
“When you feel it resonate through your entire being you may move on to the next.” The sage instructed. And so as the night passed, they proceeded through the runes on his arm.
The two worked at this tirelessly together, even as the sun rose on the horizon. The sage correcting the indiscretions of a wavering consciousness or attention misdirected.
Finally, as the dew dried in the early morning, Isaac concluded his training, exhausted from all that had occurred.
But the sage had one more lesson to impart. “Each time you go through this process, you will resonate more deeply with both the forces that make you human and the forces that pull you from that humanity. Your awareness will grow… become overwhelming at times. Your relationship to the world around you will change. If you continue down this path there is no return.”
Isaac looked through the sage, at his form, at the way he seemed to occupy more than the space where he stood. Regardless of how he looked, the sage was less a man now than a force of nature…the will of the land. Was this his own fate? Was he to become something merely resembling a person?
The birds sang as the sage and Isaac sat in silence. Isaac, weary from the sleepless and effortful night. And as his mind recovered, it wandered back to his journey here, recalling the whispering apparitions of the night before, their hypnotic sound, his need to follow them. He inquired, hoping the sage may know about them.
Upon hearing their mention, the sage grew perturbed. “They — ” he stopped, choosing his words. “ — are of a different order. Of the tapestry that composes this universe, they have no part. They are like black ink on a mosaic. What you saw were mere projections, influencing from afar…poisoning this land and tempting those upon it.”
“Tempting…” Isaac repeated, thinking about the pull he had felt. “To what end?”
“That I cannot be sure of but I have witnessed the results. Polluted souls…their energies corrupted by a force beyond my understanding. They seem to draw something from their victims, siphoning off the light that emanates from the mind of men. To the North, there is a kingdom that resists the tormenting darkness, they may know more than I.”
Isaac shivered, recounting to the sage the draw he’d felt to them, like the undertow of some black abyss.
Concern flashed across the man’s ancient eyes. “Then when you use your abilities, you will be vulnerable. Sentient beings have a will of their own. Stray too far from those energies, you may be lulled into something unintended…something horrific.”
For Isaac, the only thing that brought to mind was the twisted creature that had wounded his friend.
Their conversation continued as the sun stretched above the great tree, Isaac’s flaring curiosity returning. And though he could have sat and spoken endlessly with the sage, the journey ahead pulled at his will. He was grateful to the man for all he had taught him, for his newfound knowledge that could restore him through the trials ahead. But with his healing emerged a clarity he had not known existed. The task given to him by the omnimorphs was too important to put aside for any longer. Barlow had spoken of a call to arms from the Kingdom of Din in his brief period of wakefulness. A rally cry to those willing to hold a torch against the black tide that washed over this land. That perhaps there was an epicenter to this dark scourge, the ancient structure Barlow spoke of. Isaac had to find out. He would travel to the Kingdom of Din to understand the source of the darkness that had hung over his existence. But as he parted ways with the sage, setting off to the north, he couldn’t help but think of his wounded friend’s rapid recovery and wondered if he may be well enough to travel.
Choices: What should Isaac do?
Voting has ended.