For a time, there was nary a sound but for an odd vibration in the air, which was a sound and yet not a sound, emanating from the door, or perhaps from the grasping, ever-moving hands.
The tall man’s hair and robe stirred in a wind which the boy could not feel, as he stood there, a vast shadow of a man outlined by the fey light behind. He did not speak, but waited, and something about his silence made the boy think of a bow and arrow, the string pulled back, taut and ready to fire.
Inkblot was the first one to break the silence, as he gave off a slightly distorted cawing sound, beating his wings to take off from the boy’s shoulder and circle the cavern, evading the razor-sharp spikes with mechanical precision.
Surprisingly, his power did not start feeding him ideas for refining the machine, nor even for its programming, nor ideas for how to tie him into greater systems. If anything, his power was focused oddly inwards, and he frankly didn’t even know how he knew that. It just felt… off.
It didn’t help him deal with the dilemma he was faced with, anyhow.
Should I stay, or should I go? he thought to himself. He couldn’t even pretend to himself that he wasn’t tempted to stay. The chance to have his memories back…
There was the question, of course, whether he could trust Emyr any more than whatever force had been messing with him for… for the last two, three years? Had it been three years already?
He could remember meeting Timothy in middle school, three years ago. Presumably, that had actually happened, lest Timothy and Aimihime were also being manipulated. He was quite certain they weren’t, but then again, where did he, of all people, get off being certain about anything?
Had he ever had a life of his own, to begin with?
Emyr’s always been straight with me… as far as I know. But what reason would he have to lie? He’s holding all the cards, yet he’s been telling me things which run counter to what I presume are his interests – mainly, to escape this self-made prison of his.
But was that his goal, really? He seemed remarkably unconcerned by his being trapped here, doubly so for someone of his legendary ego and temper. Then again, the man he’d met twice now was not much like the figure from the history books. Unsurprising, perhaps, after now four decades of being stuck here. Perhaps the history books had been inaccurate to begin with, or perhaps he’d mellowed out.
More likely that the truth was somewhere in the middle.
Another truth was that he was waffling.
Did he want to risk staying here, under Emyr’s questionably sane, questionably moral wing? Did he want to risk going back, into what was certain to be a chaotic situation even when discounting the fact that he’d be at the mercy of whatever entity had its fingers – literally, it seemed – in his mind.
Never mind the temptation of the knowledge they were offering. It was perhaps the one thing anyone could have offered the boy, as barter, that he’d actually care about – the chance to learn more, of the world, of powers. To focus entirely on his research, on innovation, unburdened by people, resources, other distractions. That selfish part of his that just wanted to be a gadgeteer and nothing else was all but giddy at the prospect, even if it meant cutting ties with his friends – or as good as.
The prospect of getting away from the chaos and the strife, that alone was tempting enough. There was a part of him that was weary, so damn weary. He’d died, already, had he not gone through enough strife? And just after losing…
Who had he lost again?
Panic gripped the boy, as a pain like a white-hot knife being driven into his brain shot through him, his already messy train of thought coming undone entirely.
Before he knew it, he’d collapsed, and found himself on all fours before the tall man’s feet, gasping for air as he regained some amount of composure.
“I… I can’t remember her…” the boy thought, his eyes so wide they seemed ready to fall out, twitching every which way, yet only saw dark, greyish rock below. “I think I loved her… and she died… but I don’t remember… it’s all sliding away.”
Tears fell to the rock beneath the boy, as memories of a white room with machines inside – a hospital room? – passed before his mind’s eye. Sitting on a chair by the bed, or working on one of the machines, yet always talking to a whited-out, fuzzy void atop the bed.
Who had that person been? A girlfriend? Just a friend? Was it even a girl? A boy?
They had died and he couldn’t remember the first thing about them – only that he’d loved them, yet not even how he had loved them.
“How can I possibly choose?” he asked through the tears. “I don’t even remember someone I loved. I don’t remember their voice, their face, their sex, I don’t even remember how exactly I felt about them. I barely remember my friends, my s-sister… I have a sister, but I’m not even sure whether it’s a younger or older sister… or do I have both? I seem to remember more than one girl, and a boy, too, but… I don’t even remember my own name!” His voice was nearly a wail by the end, as he slowly curled his hands into fists, nails dragging painfully over the rough, hard rock floor.
The tall man finally moved, lowering himself to one knee, before he grabbed the boy by a shoulder, giving it a tender, if somewhat awkward squeeze.
The boy looked up at him, his face looking its age far more so than usual, streaked with tears and sporting an unusually uncertain gaze, a far cry from his usual demeanor.
“How can I choose what is right for me to do, when I don’t know me?”
The tall man growled softly under his breath.
“How can I even consider staying, when my friends might need me? How can I go, when I don’t even remember their names – I’d just thought of one of them, not a minute ago, and now… nothing! I still remember some things, but how can I rely on that? How do I know that, by the time I reach the other side, I’ll remember them at all? Or that I won’t remember them as en-”
The boy’s tirade was cut off when the tall man put his left hand over his mouth – not merely a few fingers, but the whole hand, palm over the boy’s mouth. His hand was large enough as to easily cover it all, and his grip so firm, he doubted he could have pried it off if he could even muster the will to do so.
“Let me tell you a story, oh lost one,” the tall man said, his voice seeming like a physical thing that wrapped around the boy. “Once upon a time, in a land far, far away, I broke. In breaking, I, the one, became two, which were one. Two thus reached for All, and I was granted a grace beyond mortal ken.”
As the man spoke, his eyes seemed to draw the boy in, reflecting his words, showing him the tale in images. He saw a younger man, in bearing if not in appearance, with much shorter hair and in plain clothes, on his knees. He held his head in his hands and screamed, with tears running down his cheeks.
The words the tall man spoke reverberated inside the boy, strange though they seemed to him now, there was a part of him which seemed to recognize them, like they were something true, that he used to know, and which had not been entirely taken from him.
“Mine grace was one above the limits of most – a tale so great it warped sooth, imposing itself upon reality in my presence. T’was a tale so great reality could hardly bear it, causing me to slip away more than once-”
A tale warping reality… that sounds like a…
The pools of darkness that were the tall man’s eyes started to glimmer, as if reflecting the starry sky the boy had scene before, the pupils seeming to widen, portals into an infinity of stars. He pulled his hand away from the boy’s face, placing it upon his shoulder instead – the boy remained quiet, nevertheless.
“- yet such was a blessing as much as it was a curse, as I travelled from one world to another, exploring both the Cosmos and myself, my mind and my own power. I moved from world to world, as one would travel from land to land, a barefoot traveler unmoored from their home by both chance and circumstance. In so doing, I learned many a sooth, though I admit that at the time, and in part even still, I did not truly grasp all that had been revealed to me.”
“F-five years…” the boy whispered, spellbound. “You disappeared for five years, after you gained your powers.”
A smile spread on the tall man’s face. “It still feels like so much more than but five measly years. I was gone, exploring. Exploring the worlds, but also exploring myself, guided by my power, as much as it had unmoored me. Though I was not as mighty as I am now, then, not nearly.”
“You were… weaker?”
“Limited, perhaps. I was far more limited, ignorant of the true nature of my power. Less than even an actor in a play, I was but a character, ignorant of the truth of their existence, following a script I did not know exist-”
“You- you are a contriver!?” the boy’s voice almost cracked into a squeak, as the pieces clicked into place.
The tall man’s eyelid twitched, though his grin remained on his face. “I dislike being interrupted, boy, save by one,” he said, and though there was no anger in his voice, it was clearly a rebuke.
“B-beg your pardon?” the boy replied, feeling unbalanced in a different way now.
“Granted,” the tall man replied with a nod of his head. “Moving on, yes, by your terminology, as lacking as it may be, I would have been termed a contriver. My connection to the Source imposed a different… paradigm upon reality in my presence. A mighty power, but a limiting one, too. At first, I lost myself fully to this new paradigm, to this story being woven around me by Forces far beyond mere mortal comprehension.”
“Mayhaps I was special to begin with. Mayhaps it was sheer chance, or even a will other than mine – whatever it was, I seemed to have a knack for spotting the inconsistencies in my power, or perhaps my power was flawed in its ability to make me adhere to the script – I cannot say, but either way, I found myself… doubting. Something didn’t make sense, as I traversed the multiverse, from one seemingly impossible world to another, and I kept that in mind until… well. It would take too long to recount the full sequence of events that lead to it, but eventually, I had a breakthrough, akin perhaps to a second Origin, or Manifestation? I threw off the shackles of the script, realizing I was not merely a character in a tale, nor even an actor upon a stage, but that I could change, nay set, the very plot!” he announced in grand fashion, a manic gleam in his eyes and a grin splitting his face from ear to ear, making a flourish with his hands.
It took a few moments for the boy to fully process what he was saying – then it clicked with what he’d picked up from studying his friend’s power, and…
“You are a contriver who can change the rules of your power at will… that’s what you do when you say what is to happen, you are… you are telling your power what to do! Literally!”
He dropped into a squat, his woes and the door forgotten for the moment, as he held his head in his hands, thoughts racing. “You said earlier that all thinking beings distort reality around themselves to some degree… metahumans do so more than normal people… do contrivers do so more than other metahumans… no, that is obvious. You… you are incursions!” The boy looked up at the tall man with wide eyes, and found him smiling in a way he did not know how to name. “You are… imposing your own reality over the, the, the… the base reality, like when someone would slip into another world due to the walls thinning, except the other way around, bringing something here from there, and… why, how does that lead to gadgeteer and contriver powers conflicting so?”
“The breakdown happens on your end, not ours. For us, there is no conflict, no breakdown,” the tall man responded. “Artisans like you are open to the flow of inspiration from the astral realm, but that inspiration is interpreted through the information you, your gift, take in regarding your surroundings. When you interact, while in the process of conceiving of or constructing a wonder, with the aberrant reality created through the presence of a magus, you get… let’s call it, faulty information. You end up creating something not meant for the reality you are in, which, at best, means it won’t work at all, and at worst, well… entertaining things can happen.”
“This makes so much sense,” the boy whispered, more to himself than to the tall man. He held onto his pounding head, the new information seeming to be rattling some heavily locked-down doors in the deeper recesses of his ravaged mind. “So then, your power is to literally reshape reality to your liking, but… that would conflict with every other…”
He looked up at the tall man, eyes as wide as can be. The tall man smiled at the sight. “Go on, boy,” he said. “You’re a smart one, I can tell.”
“That’s why you went to Mars… why you created your empire there. There were no other… realities to oppose you, so you were able to reshape the planet to your liking,” he spoke in awe at the scope of it all. “You couldn’t have achieved what you did on Earth, you had to do it on Mars, then invade from there… that’s why you didn’t just speak yourself into being the lord of all the Earth, there were too many other incursions that would interfere with yours, you had to… do it the old-fashioned way, like any contriver, sending out your creations…”
“Not like any magus,” the tall man countered with good cheer, his arms crossed, hands disappearing in wide sleeves. “I dare say it’s no exaggeration nor arrogance to state that I operate on a very, very different level than any others.”
“Well, you went to the meta-level… you are a meta-contriver. Literally,” the boy agreed.
“That I am, that I am! Yes, a good term, if not as fanciful as I prefer them to be.”
“Just how did you ever lose?” the boy voiced the question so many people back on Earth still had no answer to.
All the cheer disappeared from the man’s face and demeanor, only to be replaced, not by anger or indignation, but something grave and grand. “You wish to know the answer? Very well boy – listen to this, and listen to it well. There were two factors which led to my complete and near-total defeat; one which lay with me, and one which lay with my foes.”
The man’s voice grew deeper, heavier, echoing throughout the caves, as he seemed to grow taller still, the roof of the cave disappearing into the darkness of total night, filled with naught but stars. “I was beset by heroes of a kind rarely seen even in this modern heroic age. Men and women of sublime knowledge, skill and conviction. By cunning and by wisdom they deduced the one great flaw of my exalted power, a flaw so deep it could not be eliminated by any means. Yet that was not the end of their excellence, for I knew of this flaw, and thought myself sufficiently fortified against its exploitation. But one means there was to truly make use of it against me, and never would I have thought their conviction so great as to so utterly destroy themselves, to obtain the merest chance of defeating me.”
He stopped, drawing in a deep breath after having spoken without. When he exhaled again, it was as if the space around them expanded, pushing the cave walls further apart, the crystal spikes lengthening of their own accord to keep the intruder from beyond the door contained.
“That was one. The other, the other was one more personal, and far, far more damning, for it assured my eventual downfall,” he continued, then, his face cloaked in shadows, grey eyes glimmering like stars. “For you see, I was yet incomplete then. I had broken many a seal, I had reached beyond the limits set upon me by the Source, and in so transgressing, I had learned to speak the words of power; so I thought myself mighty, and I was – but to speak magic words is not enough.” He raised his right hand’s finger, holding it before his lips. “In ancient myth there is the figure of Marduk, god of glorious Babylon,” he launched into a seeming non-sequitur. “Of him, little has survived the ravages of time, but these were his two most essential attributes, considered so important they were preserved in the memory of mankind: that the god-king of Babel had eyes all around his head, and spoke magic words. Such is the pattern, the ideal, for every man – to have eyes around their head, and to speak words of power. Do you understand, boy?”
“To… pay attention to your surroundings, to be attentive and to…” the boy tried to interprete the images the tall man was painting with his words. “To know what to do to make things happen?”
“Yes! Exactly! To be mighty, but to be wise, too! I failed at that – I was not wise, I fear,” the tall man admitted with a sigh, turning his head aside to dramatically touch his forehead with his fingers. “I failed to consider the depth of my foes’ conviction, the sheer lengths they would go to, to defeat me. Not just of the ‘Regicides’, but… others, as well. And ultimately, I failed to consider that, mayhaps, I had gone about achieving my goals in the wrong way to begin with.” He turned his head to look down at the boy once more, his expression gone sad, as he seemed to shrink back to more human dimensions. “I failed to become Marduk, and paid for that failure by being consigned to this purgatory of mine own making.”
The boy sat back on the ground, feeling dizzy trying to keep up with the tall man. “That’s, interesting, but what does that have to do with… me?”
Moving far faster than he had yet, the tall man was suddenly squatting down and stooped over as well, his hands on his own knees, as he looked the boy in the eyes from up close, seeming to skip the transition from standing to squatting. He was so low now that his ridiculously long hair was on the ground between them, wild and messy as can be.
“I am telling you many things, my boy, and it is up to you to separate wheat from chaff,” the tall man replied. “But what is most important now is this: I was never satisfied with what I had, what I was. I sought ever greater heights, to improve myself, my standing within the world, yes, the world itself,” he continued in a grave voice. “Such is the call of man, to which you, too, are subject. If you wish to follow that call, if you wish to grow beyond the boy and become the man, then ask yourself not what is safe, or what will make you happy – ask yourself, what will make you better?”
He fell quiet, then, yet kept looking the boy in the eyes, as he let his words sink in.
The boy felt himself in tumult, as he sat there, clasping his hands together between his crossed legs. Thinking on what the tall man said, he felt something within him respond to his words, as if there was something within them that rang just plain true. Though at the same time, he also felt, though he could not articulate it, that there was something missing, that the tall man might not be entirely right – but was he right enough to make a choice based on his advice?
As if the tall man could tell that he was still gripped by indecision, he spoke again: “Do you need to move ahead, regardless of your apprehensions? Throw yourself into the crucible, face your fears and foes and seek to vanquish them now? Or do you need to retreat for now? To stop, to take stock and reasses? To take the time to heal and prepare, to simply pull back and rest?”
The boy considered those words, and found himself chuckling as his addled brain made an unexpected connection.
“A smile!” the tall man exclaimed, grinning again. “Please boy, do tell me what managed to suddenly break through this cloak of misery you’ve been enveloped in?”
The chuckle petered out, while the boy sat, his legs pulled up to let his arms rest on his knees. “What you just said, my options, it reminded me of something I read – a theory, or perhaps a pattern, in how people manifest as gadgeteers or contrivers,” he started to explain, feeling somehow a great deal lighter, having something he could say. “Both seem to mainly manifest from long-term issues. Facing similar or the same problem, over and over again, and then reaching the point of either a breakdown, or more rarely, a breakthrough. The saying goes, those who face that moment and push onwards, they become gadgeteers, while those who can’t and retreat, become contrivers,” he continued, feeling oddly emboldened to apparently hold the tall man’s attention.
Though that was spoiled when his expression turned a little sour. “Hrm, that does fit,” the tall man agreed. “And yes, I see the connection. To push onwards, or to – how did you say it – retreat. Supposedly, given the shape of your gift, you once chose to press onwards…. and yet…” He clasped his hands together, as if in prayer, and his expression changed to one of controlled neutrality, still and somber as if graven from stone. “Is that what you will do now, boy? Are you going to face your challenge head-on, hazarding your life, your mind, perhaps your very soul, against threats unknown?”
The boy lowered his head, thinking of what he could remember. Impressions, mostly a fragmentary tapestry of feelings and disjointed images. It wasn’t much, not much at all. Far less than any human should have, when making any choices at all, much less ones this impactful.
He thought of the faint impressions he still had, of his friends. Timothy and… Ami? Aimihime. He’d… he’d neglected them, badly. There was regret tied to them. Not the bitter, black regret he felt thinking of that lost person he thought he might have loved. Not the shameful regret connected to the olive-skinned girl, or sympathetic regret for the red-haired girl. Not the strange regret thinking of the black-haired girl with the blue eyes evoked. But a regret nonetheless.
There was fear, too. Fear for them, little though he remembered them. They were in danger, he knew that in his very bones.
Fear and regret did not seem like good enough reasons to go back. To hazard himself, as the tall man put it.
Deeper than regret, as deep as the fear, was love. He loved… his friends. And… others. Siblings, he thought. Or a sibling? And another, a flash of red hair and green eyes…
There was love there, pushing him to go back. To seek out those he loved, not simply because he was worried for their safety and health, but also to seek the comfort of their presence.
Above all, though…
“I… I think I need to go back,” the boy said, finally, his voice as unstet as his conviction. “That is, the right thing to do, I believe.”
“Why is it the right thing to do?” the tall man asked, without doubt nor support in his voice or bearing.
The boy frowned, trying to put it into words, insofar as he had the words for it. “Because… you don’t solve your problems by running from them. I think… I think I wanted to be a hero. There are people who still need me, so… I need to go forward and face whatever is beyond that door.”
“A noble sentiment,” he replied, still holding his hands together palm to palm. “I would contest that that is always the best, or even a reasonable way to deal with one’s issues.”
“What is the alternative? Nothing is resolved by ignoring it,” the boy replied, trying not to sound disdainful, as he was talking to someone whom, by implication, had turned away from the world at least once. He was not certain that he succeeded.
The tall man did not seem to mind – or have, in fact, any kind of visible reaction whatsoever. “It is not always wrong, to take a step back,” he said, his voice soft, even as he towered above the boy, raising his eyes to the cave ceiling above. “To escape imprisonment is not shameful. To rest after one’s labors are done is not being slothful. Consideration is not indecision, nor subject to its indignity.” He reached down for the boy, long-fingered hands cupping his cheeks, framing his face as he pulled him up onto his feet “When you are tired, it is only good that you rest. When you’re hurt, it is only good that you seek succor. There is no shame in conceding defeat when you are beaten, either. Nor is there even defeat in taking a step back when one needs to. There is grace in it.” He tilted his head to the side, looking the boy in the eyes again, if only briefly, as the boy lowered his eyes. “There is no grace in killing yourself because you know not to quit,” the tall man insisted Not in grinding yourself down to shreds by throwing yourself at a challenge you are not yet ready to resolve. It is only… ”
He cut off, taking his hands away from the boy’s face as a smile spread on his face.
“It is funny… that actually… helped, Sir,” the boy said, no longer looking up at the tall man, as they were nearly of a height. “Not how you meant it perhaps, but… I just realized something important about myself. Something I can be sure of.”
The tall man slid his hands into his sleeves, looking at the boy with wary curiosity. “Which would be…?”
“That is who I am, Sir. Throwing myself at a problem, over and over… it might not always work. But I am no good at stopping. Never have been.”
“Perhaps you need to change.”
“Perhaps. But not today.” The boy looked at the door, raising a hand to point at it. “I know not what lies beyond, except this – I am being challenged, and I must face that challenge, or else I will not be me. I am sure of that now,” he explained, smiling beatifically.
The tall man seemed to tense up for a moment, before he relaxed his shoulders again, releasing a sigh with a touch of fondness. “Impossible child,” he said, a light smile on his face, closing his eyes for a few moments.”
“Very well!” he spoke loudly then, eyes opening wide as he looked at the boy. “If you wish to go, I shall not stop you!”
“Thank you, Sir. I shall be going then,” the boy said, turning towards the door, before his nerve could abandon him. “Please give your wife my well-wishes.”
“Hold on a moment, boy!” the tall man said, putting a hand on his shoulder. When the boy looked back at him, he grinned. “We are not quite finished yet. After all, you are going forth into adventure, and this is my court.”
“… I do not follow, Sir.”
“In olden times, when a hero would set out on their journey, they would be garbed and armed for what lay ahead of them! Yet, sadly, I can give you neither arms nor armor. The only things you can take out of this place, are those which you brought with you,” the tall man explained, or at least began to, snapping his fingers.
The boy felt a light burden, and when he looked down, he saw that he was wearing the remnants of his costume and armor again. They had been fused together once more, where they had been shattered, but there were still gaps in the armor, where it had been pierced, as well as in his white cloak.
“However, there is something else I can give you along on your way – something intangible, yet worth so much more than any item!”
The boy looked up at him again with open interest, for more than one reason. “What is that, Sir?”
“The greatest boon I can grant, these days – Knowledge, my boy!” He clapped his hands together, excitedly. “Thus I shall grant you the boons three – three pieces of knowledge, to take along on your journey. The first, I already gave you earlier, as I explained to you the mechanics of this realm. As for the second… come!”
He grabbed his own robe, and pulled it towards the boy – before he could react, he was enveloped in the darkness of the heavy cloth.
The boy found himself standing on a field of grass, beneath the starry sky of the In-Between Realm.
He swayed, disoriented, but the man put an arm around his shoulders, now standing next to him, and but a head taller.
“Look, boy. What do you see up there?” He pointed up into the sky.
Following his finger, the boy looked at the black hole – the source, as the tall man called it – above, only for his eyes to immediately turn away, his gaze to slide off of it, as if his body could not bear for him to look at such complete nothingness directly. Instead his gaze fell upon the many, many stars around it, and the connective ’tissue’ between, whatever it was.
“I can not look at the… the source, not directly, so all I can see are these stars, and the stuff between them.”
“The ‘stuff’ between them are the connections they have with each other,” the man replied, off-handedly. “A tapestry woven of individual lines, nothing more.”
The boy blinked, and what he saw… shifted. Not that what he was seeing changed in itself – rather, with the tall man’s words, the way he was looking at it changed, and he could see them… see the lines, the connections between the stars. They were like beams of light, or perhaps arcs of lightning, or perhaps arteries of light-blood, sometimes solid, unchanging, most often however they were intermittent, pulses of light travelling between the stars at frequencies so fast they seemed nearly solid. Unlike the stars they connected, they were, nearly all, red as blood turned to light, glowing brilliantly, yet still overshadowed by the stars, and thus seeming dull on their own.
“What I want you to focus on is what lies right beneath the Source!” the tall man continued on, as if he hadn’t just completely changed the boy’s view of the sky above.
“Beneath it? Where is beneath? And how can I look at it – my eyes can not even get close to the rim of the… this source,” the boy protested, though it was not frustrated, so much as it was explanatory. At this point, he was simply assuming that the tall man knew more than him, and was about to make a point.
“Don’t look straight at it, boy,” he said, pulling on the boy’s shoulder, and turning him around, his hand going to the back of the boy’s head, pushing it forward and down a bit, so as to put the black hole sun exactly to the back of his head – or it should have, for when the boy tried to look at the man out of the corner of his eyes, the black hole was still there.
“Look to the corner of your eyes. Don’t focus on them, just look – no matter which way you turn in this realm, so long as you are beneath the open sky and have your eyes open, the Source is ever within the edge of your view.”
He explained and the boy knew it to be true – whichever way he turned his eyes, the Source was there, at the edge of them. But not when he closed them.
The tall man let go of his head, allowing him to stand up straight again. “Now look beneath the Source, by the corner of your eyes. Don’t think about it, just do it. Let instinct guide you!”
The boy did as he was told – and blinked, his eyes widening, as he caught sight of something that made no sense to be there!
“What, what is that!?” he all but shouted, his hands twitching, fingers curling into claws, as if ready to grab onto something, anything.
“That, my boy, is the second boon I grant you. Knowledge of that place where you must go, some day,” the tall man replied, gravely, as if that explained anything.
The boy marveled at the sight before him – there, ‘beneath’ the Source, looking at it without looking at it, he saw something… it was a place, and not a place. A building, or a series of buildings, or impressions, all overlapping. A ring of standing stones atop a hill. A temple atop a broken wall that was yet whole. A church atop a mountain. A hill shaped like a snake, overgrown with grass. A pyramid of glass, amidst a wide desert. A submerged row of stones. A buried theatre of menhirs.
All of those, and more, and less, were all there, all at once, all conveying the same sense of something distant, holy.
“That, is Golgotha Actual,” the tall man spoke again.
The boy almost laughed as he heard the name. “Golgotha? That seems a bit…” He cut himself off, not sure what to describe it as.
The tall man shrugged to that. “It was named by a devout Christian and a not-so-devout Jew, I wouldn’t be so surprised that they chose religious terms for something like that.”
“Did they name it because it appears to be holy, or does it appear to be holy because they named it so?” the boy asked back immediately.
The tall man blinked, then turned his head to the boy, grinning, though the boy was too focused on the distant sight to notice. “You are a sharp one. It took me years before I even asked that question.”
“I would not be thinking this far ahead if you had not taken me this far to begin with, Sir,” the boy replied humbly. “So what is the answer?”
“That, I do not know!” the tall man shot back, cheerfully. “I have not been able to go there, nor divine anything more about its nature, other than that it is a constant in this realm, and this pervasive sense ever since I first saw it that, some day, I must go there. That that is a goal worth striving for.”
The boy nodded, somehow not feeling disappointed – rather, somehow, not knowing the particulars made him feel more excited about chasing that place himself!
“I understand, Sir,” he said, while focusing as much as he could on the distant place. If he focused too much on his peripheral vision, his gaze just slid off of it again, but if he focused too little, it became too blurry to see… it was a balancing act, a difficult one, yet when he hit that sweet spot…
“Are those… snakes?” he asked, in wonder, as he saw something move amidst ‘Golgotha Actual’. Two… snakes? They were too big to be called mere snakes. One was white, as if made of light, the other so black it made shadows seem grey, they were wound around each other like a double helix, their titanic forms draped across several different of the ‘images’ he saw in that place, as if they existed in multiple, overlapping locations at once… and they were, truly, titanic beyond measure, so vast they reminded him of something he’d seen not so long ago, at the bottom of the sea…
“Do not focus on them for too long, my boy, lest you draw undue attention,” the tall man said, cautiously. “They do not like being observed too closely, those two, and we dare not rouse their ire, even here, at this place of my power.”
The boy averted his focus, immediately.
He doesn’t sound afraid, but… to even be wary of something, that is odd for him.
“I think you have seen enough here. Let this knowledge be my second boon to you, my boy,” the tall man spoke then, as he raised his robe again, and swallowed the boy into it once more.
They were in the cave again, before the door, and the many groping hands.
“It is almost time for you to leave, my boy,” the tall man spoke, letting go of the boy. “Though I believe the woman would like to wish you well in person,” he added, looking over his shoulder.
When the boy followed his sight, he saw Angelica standing just a few steps behind them, holding the elbow of her right arm with her left hand, looking at him with a soft, almost sad smile.
“Miss, uh, Mrs Blackhill,” the boy mumbled awkwardly, causing her smile to become warmer, and less sad.
“Leaving so soon, are you? No, don’t even apologize,” she spoke, then cut him off as he opened his mouth to do just that. “Of course you have to go. What else would you do, stay here with us ancient fiddly-duddies?”
She stepped closer, until she was within arms reach of the boy, radiating a warmth that felt alien to the boy, yet all too pleasant.
“I am sure it would be quite to my liking, madam,” he replied, and he meant it. “But I you are right, I must go. There are… many things, waiting for me, I think.”
Suddenly, he found himself enveloped in a tight hug, the woman balancing on her toes to make up for the disparity in height between them, not that it helped all that much.
“Take care of yourself, alright?” Angelica said, softly. “Don’t be in any hurry to return here, or anywhere near here, any time soon.”
The boy put his arms around her, squeezing her back awkwardly, careful not to hurt her with the hard edges of his armor. “I will try my best, madam.”
She chuckled, and it sounded wet, though he saw no tears when she pulled back and smiled up at him, her hands still on his shoulders.
“Go with God, my boy,” she spoke softly. “Though I hope, sincerely, that it will be a long, long time ere we meet again, if ever, I do also hope that if we do, the next time, you will be able to tell me your name.”
The boy nodded obediently. “I will do so, madam. I promise you that.” He hesitated, feeling unsure of how to respond properly. “Um, thank you. For the food, and the drink, and… for your kindness.”
She let go of his armored shoulders, as a few tears finally escaped her eyes. “Oh Gosh, you don’t have to thank me for that,” she said, chuckling and wiping the droplets away. “Now look at me… it’s been so long since I spoke to anyone other than my clod of a husband, I’m in tears now!”
The boy rubbed the back of his head, looking down. “Sorry. I mean… um. I guess I get it? I don’t know what to say…” He looked at the tall man for help, but he just watched with an expression of fond bemusement.
Angelica clasped her hands together. “Go with God, my dear boy,” she said again. “Worry not for us, though do spare us the odd thought or so. But above all, take care of yourself, and find your path to happiness.”
The boy nodded, mutely. He’d barely spent any time with her, and yet… so odd, that she made him feel like he wanted to stay already, all on her own.
“Goodbye, Mrs Blackhill,” he said, before turning towards the door again.
The tall man stepped up behind him, putting his hands on the boy’s shoulders. “One more boon remains,” he whispered into the boy’s ear.
“You have already given me so much, Mister Blackhill,” the boy replied and he meant it.
“All good things come in threes,” the man said to that, then chuckled. “So listen to this, and listen close. Know these words, know them down to your bones,” he spoke, and his voice took on a quality that made the boy shiver from head to toe, as he stood there, the groping hands of light just inches away from reaching him, contained within the circle of spikes.
“Know these words to your bones, through time, space, life and death. Know them for their truth,” the tall man spoke with reverberating voice, seeming to shake the whole cave around them, his breath hot on the boy’s ear. “Know these words, as you seek to grow eyes around your head. Know them, as you seek the magic words to speak!”
His hands squeezed down on the boy’s shoulders, hard enough he felt it even through the armor, as the whole world seemed to hold its breath along with him, waiting to hear the words.
“One is None, Two is All.”
“Eh?” The boy blinked, as the words vibrated through him, seeming to make his very bones rattle.
But when he turned his head to look at the man, to ask for explanation, the tall man gave him a light, yet firm shove, and the boy stumbled past the containment of the hands.
Immediately, the many, many hands grabbed hold of him, all over. His arms, his legs, his shoulders, his sides, his head. His ears, his nose, his cheeks, everything, wherever they could grab, they held onto, as they pulled him towards the gate.
He didn’t fight them, at least not to resist their pull, even as they grabbed onto him harder, their fingers sinking through his armor and clothes and into his flesh, but he did manage to turn his head enough – even if it felt like they were going to tear his cheek open, two fingers slipping into the space between cheek and teeth – to look back at the tall man and his woman, whom stood there, his arm around her, holding her to his side, while she gave him a small wave.
The hands pulled him towards the door, and he was being pulled, but he was also falling. He was looking back at the two of them, but he was also looking up, the two perspectives overlapping as he tumbled through the gateway, moving faster and faster, faster than light, than thought, than anything he had ever conceived of.
Yet still he could see them, and hear them clearly. He saw Inkblot, flying past them, chasing him across eternity.
The tall man gestured grandly towards the boy, as if casting him out with a wave of his hand. “Go forth now, my boy! Go forth, and become Marduk!