Val Echoes — Chapter IX.
Not long ago the image of his mother would have shaken him, a thousand unknowns sending his mind reeling. Every bit of her evoking memories long buried. The way her gaze seemed to look through him, seeing the vulnerability he concealed. Each line on her face reminding him of the storied life she lived and the tales she shared with him.
For a fleeting moment he once again felt like a boy. But his experience at the stone head seemed to have changed him. As if a great wound had closed, the broken fragments of his past finally mending. The harrowing discord of his youth was ending and it was time to close that chapter. And although it was impossible to ignore the deep emotions he felt, he knew holding onto grief would poison his soul.
So, as the mirage wove nostalgia into existence with its words, he understood it was merely a reflection of his own mind. Looking through its gentle platitudes, his gaze softened at the memory of parental love lost too soon. Knowing that the past was beyond reach he simply said, “I’ll miss you.” Words he had never had the chance to say. With each word, he felt as though he were releasing a great weight. The heaviness he had become so accustomed to giving way to a deep sense of relief.
The image stopped its simple utterances and for a moment it seemed like a light glimmered behind its eyes. It looked at him and his mother spoke her final words to him: “I’ll miss you too.”
As those words left his lips, she smiled softly back at him, her form slowly dissipated to sand as she faded into the breeze. But it was no longer grief he felt, it was a lightness, an ease. The desert had offered him an unexpected gift; a chance to say goodbye, a chance for closure. A chance to feel loved once more. Whether it was real or not didn’t matter to him, because held within the mirage was something far more valuable: truth.
For the first time in years, he felt a sense of — not joy, perhaps — but gratitude. He had emerged from a darkness that had feigned infinity, a despair he had believed was to be the backdrop of his existence forever. He could breathe again though he hadn’t even realized he had been drowning.
Isaac stared into the vast landscape letting his emotions settle. Then, gathering himself up, he set off on his journey once again, his heart lighter and his soul a little fuller. He imagined the desert now as an expansive mirror and himself standing atop its surface with the starry dreamscape reflected beneath him. The tunnel he’d been trapped in as a child had constricted and closed in on him, seeming to respond to his emotions. Was this place similar, but manifesting wayward memories and thoughts instead? He’d entered this place with nothing but a vision and a whisper for a compass, and with each relentless day, his mind had become restless with uncertainty and self-doubt. Perhaps the desert was reflecting this, reflecting his fears back at him.
If this was a reflection of his inner world, maybe he needed clarity. He had seen the place he sought — or at least he believed he had — reflected in the coin from his dream. If he visualized what he had seen, would it emerge? He didn’t really know, but at this point it was worth trying. The rational part of his mind insisted on the absurdity of it, but the strange things he had witnessed convinced him that some places were beyond rational understanding.
Calling to mind the image he had seen and the name Val Echoes, he let his thoughts pour through, trying to make a connection with the place he sought. So that the desert could show him the way. At first nothing came to him. His mind seemed as empty and uncertain as his surroundings. Slowly though, images began to trickle in. His mind grasped at them, but was unable to hold what he was seeing for long. He stood struggling with himself for some time, when finally the images snapped into sharp relief. Transposed memories that flashed through him from so many years ago when that being in the mask had made contact with him.
He saw a bustling metropolis of a city made of stone. People of a culture and origin he did not recognize who wandered a grand city square and amongst them were many beings like the figure he had encountered. Not knowing if it was fact or figment, he decided to trust his instinct. Holding the destination in mind, he set off, casting doubt to the wind.
The desert obliged.
Isaac stopped as the air around him shivered with electricity. A sense of being watched carved out territory at the margins of his consciousness. Two glowing orbs appeared beyond a hill…eyes. They followed him intently as he trudged through the shifting desert sands beneath the star-strewn sky.
Growing closer, he could make out the silhouette of a small animal, its fur like a cool swath of midnight — a fox. Its face was strange, barely visible in this light, and it appeared to be made of crystal or porcelain with two small antlers protruding from its head. Though strange he wondered if the desert was speaking to him. Answering him. Sending him a guide.
Through the endless night he chased it. Each time he lost track of the fox, its green orbs would reappear, urging him forward. Something about its eyes betrayed an intelligence far greater than its form would suggest.
Doggedly Isaac pursued, ignoring thirst and hunger, hoping the fox would lead Isaac out of this place. As he followed the creature onto a stretch of flat land, it did something peculiar. Isaac watched as it stopped, cocked its head, and without warning sprung into the air and plunged head first into the ground, disappearing beneath the sand.
Isaac slowed his pace, squinting through the darkness. Looking for the fox to re-emerge, or for a sign of its green eyes, and wondering if perhaps his own had deceived him. But as he approached the place where the fox had disappeared, he noticed a small divot where it had vanished. Uncertain what to do, Isaac looked across the barren landscape, wondering if he had erred in following the creature.
So, he waited, certain the fox would emerge, perhaps from some unseen burrow. When nothing surfaced, he scanned the horizon wondering if his eyes had deceived him, half expecting to see the creature leering at him from some distant place. He considered continuing on, leaving this pursuit behind, but he had a vague sense that would be a mistake. The fox had emerged from his need for guidance, he was sure of it. Summoned from the desert itself.
In the end it was the hollow sound of the wind across the vast emptiness that made him realize there was only one option. Believing he may be walking forever if he left this spot, he began to dig.
At first there was nothing, no sign of the midnight fox that had burrowed so quickly. And for a brief moment he doubted himself once again. Then, as he raked back handfuls of sand, small flecks of light began to shine through the earth.
A bewildered curiosity overtook him. What could possibly be glowing beneath the sand? Some strange underground dwelling? Was the desert a literal mirror reflecting the stars? Isaac shook his head at the absurdity of the idea, but he’d experienced so many strange things by now that the line between the normal and the absurd had begun to blur. Possibilities raced through his mind as his fingers clawed back the dry earth, he could nearly see its source.
Eyes glinting with anticipation, he tore back the last handful of earth, but what he saw seemed impossible. Through the narrow crevasse he had made, he could see…the sky. Not the blackened dome he’d grown accustomed to, but the deep cloudless blue of high noon, as he if the ground he found himself upon were paper thin.
Shielding his unacclimated vision, he squinted at the sky beneath him, then scurried around the hole, careful not to fall through, uncertain whether it led out to some high cliff face. Slowly, with an eagerness that only the supernatural can evoke, he reached his hand through and an invisible force pushed back on it. With surprise he withdrew his hand, inspecting it, before he realized what he had felt: gravity. His mind spun as it processed the idea of being both up-side down and right-side up, and he laughed at the strangeness of it. Never in a thousand years would he have thought to dig his way out of this desert.
With a cautious anticipation, he pushed himself through the hole, his body spontaneously inhaling a large breath of air, as if he were diving into a lake. As he immerged, he found himself chest-deep in sand and, pressed upon by the gravity of two worlds, he dragged himself out of the hole. Although displeased to find himself still amongst rolling sand dunes, his sanity was grateful to see the sun.
Adjusting to the sudden change, he peered up at an enormous structure towering before him in the bright desert day. A great megalithic construct made of stones. The massive blocks that comprised it were a seemingly impossible building material. Each one far too massive to be moved by humans. No pully, nor rope, or any other creation of man could have withstood the force needed to lift let alone budge these colossal objects. It was the city from his dream. Its name whispered by the wind at the stone head. Val Echoes.
Awestruck, he stared up at the towering city. Looming statues of armoured guardians framed its entrance, one had long since collapsed into the other to form an angular archway. Its outer walls seemed to stretch on forever, carved with strange symbols…some of which looked familiar. He held up his bare arm, comparing, noticing they matched many of the symbols he saw upon the wall. His heart pounded, thoughts racing. This is where he was supposed to be.
Through the entrance, he could see an expansive city that stood desolate and silent. Confined therein, was an eerie beauty, Isaac thought, a mystery hidden from prying eyes like a treasure. He wondered what secrets it might hold. Cautiously, he walked beneath the fallen archway, concerned about their stability. As he did, the atmosphere changed again, as though a dark cloud had fallen over the sun. Turning around to investigate, he stumbled, shocked to find that the rolling dunes no longer existed while standing inside the ruins. Instead a vast forest now stretched along the horizon and into the sky. As he followed the trees up, the scene rippled and changed and he found himself staring across a vast sea, an enormous whale soaring over his head. Isaac, increasingly aware of his fatigue and dehydration, merely stood in awe, watching as the environment shimmered and changed.
Thousands of years seemed to pass in mere moments as the city skipped like a stone through different settings in time. Fascinated, Isaac pondered the display unfolding all around him. It seemed as if every moment that had occurred throughout the region’s history converged here, as if this place created a strange temporal nexus.
Beneath the surreal imagery the stone city stretched out in all directions. Ancient edifices rising up on all sides, their sun-bleached walls chiseled with unusual designs. Bridges that once connected the many tiers and levels long since collapsed, each jagged side reaching for the other like the broken grip of lovers. Never in his life had he seen architecture like this. That human minds had made this seemed almost unthinkable. As Isaac admired the mysterious expanse a swift movement caught his eye. Turning, he saw the shadowy tail of a fox disappear down a passageway. It led between elaborate facades of two long buildings. He regained focus and moved as quickly as he could into the blind alley, wanting to understand why the fox had led him here.
Eyes darting, he searched for the creature. As he approached a dead end, he grew concerned, but drawing near, he saw a narrow passage arching out to the right. Able to stand sideways, he squeezed through the arching corridor, praying it was not like the one from his youth.
He reached the end of the brief passage and stumbled into a courtyard, where he came to an abrupt halt. In front of him the environment was alive. It moved and writhed with strange and exotic greenery. Isaac stared, in awe of the mystical scene, like something from another world. Colourful insects darted about, casting brilliant displays of bioluminescence, which some of the plants seemed to reciprocate with their own unique blue or green glow. Everything seemed to communicate with each other, an ecosystem speaking with light and movement. He soaked it all in, fascinated by the unfamiliarity of it all, each new creature bringing a hundred questions to mind. At its center, from which all this life seemed to emanate, was a being of uncanny familiarity. A human figure of dark mist concealed beneath robes, its face obscured by a mask of earthy tones, adorned by the antlers of a stag.
Different from the first one he had encountered, Isaac was wary of it, uncertain what these masked beings wanted of him. The first one had changed him in a way he struggled to understand, in a way that had permanently altered the course of his life.
In the humid air of the anomalous biome, Isaac eyed the mysterious being. Seemingly unconcerned by his presence, it tended to its garden. Lightly gesturing to a fountain nearby it spoke.
“Please, drink.” It hummed, its voice a chorus of a thousand earthly sounds. Then seeing Isaac’s hesitance, it said, “you are safe here.”
Isaac weighed the option in his mind, the sight and sound of water enticing him to spur to action. He sensed no threat from the being and he hadn’t had water in some time so he conceded, kneeling by the fountain and drinking deeply until he had replenished as much as his body would accept. For a moment afterwards he said nothing, merely stood and watched the figure closely. Studying it. Every detail of it seemed textured by something imperceptible. As though its body were the black surface of an ocean, its true depths obscured. Its mundane behaviour only exaggerated this strange dichotomy.
“What are you?” Isaac queried.
“Ah,” it replied in an even tone. “A question not so easily answered. Throughout our time we have gone by countless names, but the one your species gave to us is omnimorphs. Our history is too long to recount, but our bodies are older than the star that gives life to your world. The forms we take are…impermanent.”
Isaac let the words roll over in his mind. “Omnimorphs…” he repeated, thinking back on the vast distance he had traveled and the many people he had spoken to. In all his time, this was not a name he had heard. “You say we named you… but I have never heard the name spoken. ”
“The name is remembered by only a few now. Our communion with humanity was of another time, when the world looked vastly different. For a brief epoch…humanity was one.”
Gradually, pieces began to fall into place. Isaac thought of the many myths he had encountered and the common symbolism. Entities of shadow bestowing gifts upon humanity. He remembered Kincairn and the knowledge of the gods given to connect the warring tribes. Of the Ananoque and the moon who disguised itself to share the knowledge of the stars. And the story he had been told so many times by his mother, of the nameless sage who cared so greatly for the earth that his soul had been joined to it. Isaac no longer knew where the myth ended and reality began. Could a soul be fused to the world? The boundaries of reality that had been so impossibly stretched on his journey now seemed to shatter entirely. What remained was not uncertainty, but a wonder and fascination he had not experienced since his youth. The world felt new. He was excited now, eager to understand the limits of this new expanse. A thousand more questions tumbled forth but there was a sense that he should choose them wisely. He decided the ruins should be next.
“I’ve spent a great deal of time in the structures scattered across the land. I have yet to find a place they don’t exist…what are they?” And then, realizing he may not get what he was looking for, he amended, “what do they do?”
The omnimorph paused for a moment as if deciding what was relevant and then it spoke.
“They are many things…and serve many functions. Elements of them are connected to the most fundamental forces in this universe, and utilize them for different means. Some connect consciousness, others allow one to gaze into distant star systems, but few of them survived the test of time.”
Isaac wanted to ask about their many functions, what else could they do? But this would branch off into innumerable directions and he was determined to first find the answers he needed.
“Did you build them?” He finally asked.
The being seemed almost humoured…if that was something it could experience. “No, we merely taught your kind the knowledge to build them, when they needed it the most.” Then as if anticipating his next question, he continued, “But that was a time when much of man still walked with eyes wide open, when he tended to the earth. But just as beings wake, they can fall into a deep slumber, and when man began to abuse what was given, he became obsessed with his own machinations. Eventually he lost the ability to use them, for such a mind cannot connect with the deepest realities.”
Listening intently, Isaac felt once again like a child hanging off of his parent’s tales…except this was no myth. As the next question surfaced in his mind, it dredged up mixed emotions. Holding up his own arm, he asked, “What was done to me?” The words carrying with them a pang of pain and resentment.
Once again it paused, but Isaac could not tell whether it was deciding what to tell him or was concerned what Isaac’s reaction may be. His heart pounded with anticipation.
The silence after the question seemed endless, then was finally was broken. “As the many ruins are tied to deeper realities — more fundamental energies — so too are you. Unlike the ruins however, it is your own mind that will decide how the energies are used. You contain within you — “ It hesitated again, as if concerned, “ — a nearly infinite array of possibilities. The fabric of reality can be bent to your will.”
Isaac blinked, not believing, or perhaps not fully understanding, what it meant. Every time the runes had activated had been out of his control, entirely unintentional. It felt far less like he was bending reality to his will than the symbols bending him to theirs. But as a child, he had desperately wanted his attackers to understand what he felt, wanted them to stop…and that was what had happened. Standing atop the stony creek, he had needed to break from his paralysis, and again, it had been the runes that had snapped him out of the trance. And as he had been attacked by the drunken villagers, he’d needed energy to outmaneuver them, which he’d drawn from the statue.
He struggled to know what to make of it all. His subconscious seemed to be controlling the power in times of need…but he had yet to readily access to it. Sharing this with the omnimorph it reassured him.
“It is the deepest facets of you that connect to the flow of the world, and fear of death can temporarily bridge the divide, but it is not the only way. You have already begun the process of reconnecting with your deepest roots and here in Val Echoes you will find what you need to complete that connection. That, however, is for a different day.”
Isaac knew what it meant, the lightness he had felt since facing his past. The renewed access he now had to emotions he had buried. He had one last question.
“Why me? …Why now?” He asked quietly.
Through its gentle green gaze, it spoke. “Because you are a light in the darkness. A rare soul whose connection to its roots remains whole…and you are needed. You have sensed the shadow upon this world. It is cast by something unspeakable, beings of unnatural origin whose essence is woven by laws unknown and whose form is like the frozen visage of death. Slowly, they poison this world and if humanity does not wake up, it will be dragged into the depths of its lowest impulses, guided by power and avarice. Its light will be devoured.”
A chill ran through Isaac’s bones as he processed what he had heard. For a moment, his mind wandered to the changes that had begun in his own village so long ago. The strange vision he had while crossing the creek, of being looked through by something incomprehensible. He thought of the dark side of the coin.
“Devoured…” Isaac stopped at this, not yet ready for more detail on this point.
“What is it I need to do?” He finally asked.
“It is not what you need to do. But a path you must walk.” Thus far the omnimorph had been delicately tending to the life around it, but now it stopped. The atmosphere itself seeming to ripple and pulse as it locked eyes with him. Eyes that were not eye…but windows into something beneath the surface of our reality. “You must connect to the eternal flow of the universe and bring that connection to the world through your actions. If a shadow can corrupt, a lantern can purify.”
Isaac struggled to process what he had heard, the magnitude of the answers he was given stemmed the tide of further questions.
The omnimorph seemed to sense this. “It is late now; you will need your rest for the coming days. Others will be arriving soon.”
“Others?” Isaac repeated.
But it said no more. Taking his leave, Isaac found his way to the sleeping quarters. Anything remotely comfortable in the decaying city had been dissolved by time, leaving only the cool stone slabs to sleep on.
In his mind, he went over the answers he had sought for so long, uncertain what to make of them. His past felt different in the light of what he had just learned. Had he been headed here all along? Set against his will on a task he knew nothing of? Perhaps, in a way, that was what it was to be human, his just being a more egregious example. But it was not merely fate in his case, it was something else, something unfamiliar. Something sentient and purposeful. He hoped he could trust them — felt that he could — but only time would tell.
What would the next day hold? From the conversation, two things stood out. First, that more people were to arrive. Second, there was work to be done in understanding how the runes on his arm worked.
But it did not matter, exhaustion swept him away the moment he lay down.
Choices: What does Isaac do?