I couldn’t see.
And I needed to. I needed every advantage that I could get, every advantage to escape from the fog that I could… feel behind me. I needed to be able to see to escape the fog, but… ironically, most of the very little light I had came from that fog, a soft glow that seemed to nip at my heels, only once in a while blocked by the trees and the brush that I struggled to navigate through. I remembered the way to the crypt, sure — it wasn’t too far from the clearing where Karla and I usually trained — but that didn’t matter when I couldn’t even see where I was going.
Navigating through the forest with no light was not easy.
My foot caught in a tree root, sending me tumbling forward onto the ground. The jolt of pain that ran through my body shook away any tiredness left over from my awful sleep.
I needed to be able to see. I needed my transformation.
The fog had… forcibly changed me back. Even though I was holding the flask of liquid, the liquid that I was fairly sure caused my transformations, I still hadn’t changed back into my normal form. Breathing still felt like a struggle, and my arms and legs trembled as I tried to lift myself upright.
Some kind of small animal skittered across in front of me, almost sending me falling back down in shock. I needed that form, badly. I needed the agility that having a tail gave me, I needed the sensitivity my eyes had, making it easier to see in the dark, and I needed my hearing to be stronger, so I could tell what was going on around me.
It was only after the fog had taken them from me that I realised just how much I desperately wanted to be in that form.
In the recent times where my transformation had reverted, such as during the tournament, it had felt like something was… missing. Like a fundamental part of me just wasn’t there anymore. And… transforming back into my usual form had eased that feeling.
It just felt like… that was how I was meant to be.
Usually I was able to just hold the flask in my hands, and that would be enough to get my form back. But now… even hugging the flask close to my chest didn’t trigger a transformation. Whatever I needed to transform… the fog had taken it from me, and I felt… empty.
But it wasn’t just that emptiness. My whole body felt wrong, somehow. More than it ever had before. And at that moment, I needed it to be right again more than ever. But if holding the flask didn’t do anything, then… what could I even do?
It was the liquid dripping onto my neck that first caused the transformation, wasn’t it? And previously, just proximity to the flask was enough to keep the transformations going. But with the fog around, that didn’t work anymore.
Pulling the flask out of my belt, I unscrewed the lid. If holding the flask wasn’t good enough, then the only other thing I could think of was… repeating what had caused my initial transformation. With a shaky hand, I gently turned the flask onto its side, pouring out some of the liquid onto the back of my wrist.
Instantly, a dull but somewhat pleasant heat ran along my arm, slowly spreading further and further throughout my body. A strange tingling followed shortly after, enveloping my body for a brief moment, before… my vision flashed, and my ears were filled with sounds once more.
I was finally back to my usual form… No, I was back to the way I was meant to be.
And I could see again, too. Though it was still very dark, the light of the moon peeking through the trees was plenty enough for me to navigate through the forest. Looking around, I found myself a short distance away from the clearing where I usually trained. Behind me, the fog slowly loomed, enveloping the trees as it made its slow march through the forest towards me.
I couldn’t stay here any longer. I had to get to the crypt.
There was no way I would be able to run from the fog forever. That meant that my only option — the only way I could truly avoid the fog — was to head for the researcher’s room, and… to hope that the rising wall still worked as a barrier, as it had in my dream.
Closing the flask and slipping it into my belt, I stumbled forward, breaking out into a run as I made for the crypt.
* * * * *
The tunnel entrance that led to the underground laboratory looked exactly as Alvin and I had left it. Hidden just behind a low bush, it was nearly invisible to any passersby. I ducked down through the small entryway, nervously stepping into the tunnel.
I didn’t have a lantern.
It wasn’t long until I passed the furthest point that the little light from outside could reach into the cave. Now, the only light I had to help me navigate was the very slight glow from the liquid inside the flask, projecting tiny dots of white that looked like stars onto the surrounding walls.
Luckily, the tunnel itself was fairly straightforward, only being a single passageway that led to the crypt. Even with little to no light, I wouldn’t have trouble navigating. That being the case, my mind began to wander, and as I nervously trod down through the tunnel, deeper into the earth, I thought back to the first time that Alvin and I explored the crypt.
If it wasn’t for that trip, my life would’ve stayed on the same course it always had. Even now, I would probably still be hiding in my room… Hiding amongst my books, trying to escape through the words on the pages. Through all of that time, I would have continued to feel like… something was off with my life, somehow.
But instead, we had found the crypt, and as a result, I knew exactly what had been so… off.
And now, it felt like more had happened in the past seven days than… the entire rest of my life, honestly. I had learned so much about myself, thanks to my transformation. What’s more, I had even learned to fight. If it wasn’t for Karla, I would’ve spent a majority of that time hiding… though probably with Colette, rather than in my room. No, without Karla, I wouldn’t have had anywhere to go. I wouldn’t have had anything to do, nowhere to spend my time.
And… it was nice having a friend.
I was going to miss Karla.
But she was gone now, there was no changing that. And as for Alvin… I wasn’t ready to even think about how much I would miss my brother. After so many years together…
I shook my head to clear my thoughts. I didn’t have time for this.
The jagged rocks of the tunnel walls soon gave way to the smooth stone I had remembered. It was just beyond here that we found the crypt, and… the monster.
In my panic to leave, I hadn’t been thinking. What if the monster was still here? What if I ran into it while I was heading for the researcher’s room? What if… I had to fight it?
I had no weapons. Aside from the wooden daggers that were still hanging from my belt, anyway — by this point it had become a habit for me to take them everywhere. But what could wooden weapons do against a monster?
The only reason I’d managed to fend it off the first time was thanks to… magic. Without even knowing how, I’d thrown a ball of fire at the monster, one that was powerful enough to knock it over.
Not that it did any damage, though. It only bought Alvin and I enough time to escape.
Could I do that again?
I’d never tried before. From what I could tell, thinking back to the fight against the monster, the only reason I’d managed to make that fireball was thanks to Alvin being injured. I was scared that he would die, and… that fear fuelled my magic.
I’d never tried to replicate it before.
The back of my neck suddenly prickled, and I shivered. I took a glance behind me, but… there was nothing. However, I knew that the fog was on my tail. I couldn’t loiter around here any longer. I was afraid of the monster, but… there was nowhere else to go.
Taking a deep, laboured breath, I trudged forwards.
Soon after, I found the door to the crypt. It was still in the same place it had fallen after Alvin had leaned against it, but now… it looked to be in much worse shape. The entire sheet of metal was warped, with a huge dent in the middle, the rest battered and bent. A slight shine seemed to coat parts of it, a shine… reminiscent of the liquid in the flask at my belt.
The door wasn’t the only thing battered, either — the entire door frame looked as though it could crumble at the slightest touch. Had the monster been trying to escape? Probably when it had been chasing after us…
The inside of the crypt seemed to be in just as bad a state, too. The shelves and boxes that we’d navigated around in our first visit were now nothing more than tattered remnants, twisted metal, and piles of wooden shards and splinters littering the floor.
And the walls of this first storage room glowed with the familiar shine of the monster liquid, too, just like the door. Clearly the monster had gone through here, but the question was… had it escaped? Had it escaped, or was it still in here?
If… I was lucky, if I could get into the hiding spot that the researcher had used, there was a chance I could lock the monster outside. That way, it would get caught in the fog, and be… driven off, as my father had said — however fog could do something like that.
I ventured forward, following what I remembered of the dream as I tried to find my way to the researcher’s hiding spot.
Though the first few rooms seemed heavily damaged, the carnage seemed to lessen the further into the laboratory I travelled. Some of the walls still glittered in the same way, only much more faded than the other areas. And a few of the later rooms seemed almost completely intact, save for the layer of dust that coated everything.
Darting through the doors to the crypt, I eventually found the room that I had seen in my dream, the room that contained the moving wall. At a glance, it seemed to be completely undamaged, though the cupboards mounted on the sides of the long room had started to rust.
Luckily, the lever still looked to be intact. I ran over to the other side of the room and pulled it down.
But this time, no loud hissing sound reverberated from the nearby walls. The barrier didn’t move at all. What was I missing?
I thought back to my dream. When the researcher had raised the wall, he had mentioned something about a boiler. Was this the same steam boiler that I had seen in a previous dream? If it was a steam boiler, one like the kinds that I’d seen in books, then was it… powering the crypt? The crypt had been lit up in my dreams, after all, and I hadn’t seen any lanterns in my dreams, so… Did it have… electric lights? I had always found the concept of those interesting, but the village didn’t have any, so I had never seen them before. But if they were here, it had to be the boiler that was powering them, right?
And if the electric lights would be powered by them, would the rising wall be powered too?
With how old this place seemed, it made sense that the boiler wouldn’t be running anymore, though… I’d have to relight it, then.
Relighting the boiler… In a different dream, I’d seen the researcher use some kind of magic to relight the boiler. He’d painted a symbol on a piece of paper, and I knew that it hadn’t been that complex, but… try as I might, I couldn’t remember the specifics. I’d have to try to recall it for when I’d found the boiler.
As I made my way through the crypt, following the pipes that ran high up along the wall, I continued to wrack my brain, trying to remember what details I could about the symbol. It seemed similar to the drawings I had seen in the researcher’s journal, the journal that I had taken from the crypt.
If only I had taken that journal with me.
After a little bit more walking, I followed the pipes to their end point, the entrance to the boiler room that I’d seen in my dream. Except, in the dream, the heavy door to the room had still been on its hinges, rather than knocked off, bent, and leaning against the wall. Tentatively pushing the door open, and wincing as the metal made a painful screech while it slid against the floor, I stepped inside.
And then I walked straight into a cloud of dust, before breaking into a coughing fit. This room was incredibly dirty — even just pushing the door open had kicked up that cloud of dust. I supposed that was because this room would have a fire lit within it… I knew from experience that smoke and ash tended to be pretty pervasive, coating things in a layer of dust and soot. And that, on top of the room being untouched for a long time — I coughed again — meant that it was just especially dirty in here.
Anyway, now that I was here, I had a boiler to light. What did I need in order to relight it? I’d need some of the liquid to draw the symbol, and for that I’d have to use the liquid in my flask. Assuming that I could remember the symbol, anyway.
It had… I thought it had a spiral. The majority of it was a spiral, just like some of the drawings in the journal, and… a few angled lines were drawn at the top of the page. I couldn’t remember in what way the lines were drawn, however. Maybe I’d need to experiment… hopefully that wouldn’t be too dangerous.
Assuming I was able to remember the symbol, I still needed fuel for the fire. Now where could I find that?
Just like in my dream, a worn-out cabinet sat mounted low on the wall, a bit to the side of the boiler. Atop the cabinet were a few stray sheets of yellowing paper, along with a paintbrush. All of them were covered in a layer of dust. Well, now I had paper and a paintbrush, so all I still needed was the fuel. Would there be any within the cabinet?
The cabinet’s door seemed even worse-for-wear than the cabinet itself, and as I gingerly pulled at it, it crumbled into wood splinters in my hand. If the cabinet was that old, would the fuel inside still be usable?
If there was any fuel left, that is.
Luckily, on one of the lower shelves I found a small stock of dried wood. It seemed to have kept fairly well, or… just well enough to be set on fire. Pulling out a few sticks, I brought them over to the compartment at the bottom of the boiler.
Once the wood was inside and ready to burn, I made my way back over to the cabinet. I pulled the flask out from my belt, unscrewing the lid and then setting it down next to the papers. Then I picked up one of the thin paintbrushes and dipped it into the liquid.
The process was… Starting at the centre of the page, I painted a slow spiral, taking up most of the space on the paper. After this it was… some kind of drawing above that spiral. I knew it had a few straight lines, but I couldn’t remember what kind of picture they made.
I’d have to try something, though, otherwise I wouldn’t have the boiler relit by the time the fog arrived.
I hastily painted a few lines at the top of the page, forming one of the geometric shapes that I remembered from the journal. I was almost sure this wasn’t the right symbol, but… I’d at least find out if I could still light the page using the same process that the researcher had used.
The final step as I remembered it was to connect the end of the spiral to the start. With a slow, gentle brush stroke, I painted a line that crossed through all the rings of the spiral, closing the loop.
Just like I had seen in my dream, the centre of the spiral began to glow, the light spreading throughout the lines that I had painted. As it reached the shape at the top of the page, the paper began to lift, pulling itself up as a very dusty breeze kicked up in the room and I broke into another coughing fit.
The page slipped out of my hands, flying to the side of the room and hitting the wall with a surprisingly audible smack, sticking there for a long moment before it finally slid down to the floor.
As the dust began to settle again, and my coughing fit subsided, I stared at the now crumpled paper sitting in the corner. That was clearly… magic, wasn’t it? Just like the fire. So the liquid in the flask on my belt was the same liquid that the researcher had used to light the fire. And the symbol had even glowed in the same way as the researcher’s had in my dream. The symbol with… two triangles drawn at the top.
I was fairly sure that was the symbol I needed, so I quickly set about painting the same spiral on another of the yellowing sheets of paper. The symbol was one of the drawings in the researcher’s journal, it just wasn’t the one I had guessed first.
Once the spiral had been drawn, I painted out the symbol that I remembered, forming two long triangles that used the spiral as a base. This was it. This was the symbol I had seen in my dream. It seemed so familiar now, as I brought the nearly completed drawing over to the boiler.
It had lit up almost instantly when the researcher finished the spiral, so I didn’t want to take any chances at burning myself. Placing the page up against the wall of the boiler, I painted the final line connecting the start and the end of the spiral.
The page instantly began to shine, and I hurriedly stuffed it inside the compartment below the boiler. Within moments, it burst into flame, sending a bright orange glow through the window of the firebox, and illuminating the room.
The steam boiler was lit now… and from the sounds that I heard when the wall rose in my dream, it was powered by this very boiler system. I walked back to the cabinet, picking up the flask of liquid and putting it back in my belt.
A few stray bubbling sounds from the boiler confirmed that it was working, and the sound of hissing air followed shortly after, reverberating from the walls. Light slowly began to fill the room, as a few panels in the ceiling shone with a dull white glow. Covering my eyes to shield them from the sudden change in light level, I backed up, only to hear a soft rattling noise as my shoes bumped into something.
What was that? Broken glass? I turned around, expecting to see a small pile of loose shards… maybe shattered remnants of glass tubes, like the kind I’d seen in the cupboards in my dream.
Instead, what greeted me was a set of empty, soulless eyes — I had come face to face with a pristine, white skeleton.
Instantly, my blood ran cold, and as I stumbled backwards, my vision went white for a moment.
When I could see again, I felt confused and lost. Everything was different… It was so bright, and it barely even looked like the same room — the layer of dust over everything had entirely vanished. I frantically looked around, trying to understand where I was, only becoming more frantic as I heard a set of thundering bangs from the door, which was somehow now back on its hinges…
“…Damn,” a deep voice said, from just beside me.
Startled, I jumped away, horrified to look back towards the skeleton I’d seen, half-expecting the voice to come from it. But the skeleton wasn’t there. Instead I found the researcher sitting with his back to the wall, clutching his chest.
“I figured this would happen eventually, but… I just wish I had more time.”
What… what happened? If this was the researcher… if he was alive… was this a dream? But… I hadn’t gone to sleep!
“Even just… a little bit more…” he gasped out through laboured breaths. “I was… almost there. Without all the side effects… maybe people wouldn’t be so… afraid…”
He reached into his pocket, pulling out a sealed glass tube filled with black liquid.
“So… so many Dissonants… all trapped in a lie they never wanted to live.” The researcher coughed, a few flecks of blood being sprayed onto his hand as he tried to cover his mouth. “That… damn fog. Now the world might never regain its… Truth.”
A loud crash echoed out from the side of the room. The researcher turned towards the noise, letting out a deep sigh as a set of heavy, clomping footsteps slowly approached the two of us.
“Well… that’s it for me then, I guess…” the researcher said, a defeated smile on his face as he watched the black beast slowly approach. “I knew you would… take me in the end, my greatest mistake.”
The monster paused just in front of him, its featureless, pitch black face staring down at the wounded researcher. It raised one of its front legs, winding back as if to strike the man down once more.
“I only hope the other Truthseekers can pick up my slack.”
And then the beast swung, the man’s final words echoing in my mind.
My vision flashed once more, and I found myself staring at the ceiling of the boiler room, blindingly-bright lights shining into my eyes.
Did I… pass out? I shot upright, glancing around the room to regain my bearings. The skeleton I had seen before was sitting in the corner of the room, the same place that the researcher had been when the monster struck him down.
Those bones were… his remains, weren’t they? He passed away down here, all alone. And in the years since, his life’s work had been forgotten, worn down by age, or destroyed altogether. As I stared at his skeleton, I clutched the flask of liquid that I had taken from the crypt. This flask, and the journal I had back at Colette’s… those were likely all that remained.
The loud bubbling sound of boiling water brought me back to the present. The steam boiler had gotten up and running now, hadn’t it? I needed to hurry if I was going to get to the hiding spot before the fog arrived.
I leapt to my feet, rushing back through the now lit-up rooms of the crypt. The visions of that dream replayed over and over in my mind as I ran. How long was I unconscious? Would I still be able to get into the hiding spot before the fog arrived? As I reached the room just before the rising wall, I suddenly froze.
In the corner of the room sat a large, black, shiny lump, the top slowly shifting up and down, almost as if it was… breathing.
The monster was still here.
Had it been here when I’d gone through this room in the dark? I had just missed it? That was terrifying… And now I needed to get past it again.
Well… it seemed to be asleep, at least… Could I… sneak past it? I was already close to the room with the rising wall, so if I could just get in there, I’d be safe. From what I had seen in my dream of the wall, it had seemed quite thick, thick enough to stop a monster’s attacks… I hoped.
Taking a deep breath, I tiptoed along the opposite side of the room, making for the door.
Unfortunately, it was at that point that a loud, rumbling noise began to reverberate from the direction of the researcher’s room, and the lights flickered. The same hissing of the steam boiler accompanied the noise, along with the high pitched, painful sound of metal scraping against metal.
What was that noise? It was going to wake the monster!
Wait… Did the wall start rising already?
…I had left the lever pulled down, when I first tried to raise the wall.
The black lump began to stir, a long, thin neck splashing black droplets on the nearby wall as it stretched out. Viscous fluid dripped down the monster’s legs as it wobbled upright, pointing its head in the direction of the noise.
I had to run, but my legs felt like they were frozen as memories of my first encounter with the monster rushed back into my mind.
And then the lights flickered again, before completely going out.
In the quiet moment that followed, I noticed a soft, pink and white glow beginning to seep from the door that led back out into the cave.
The fog was here.
The lights suddenly flickered back on, and I glanced back towards the monster. Only… the monster wasn’t looking at the researcher’s room anymore. No, the black beast had turned its long neck, and now liquid pooled around its feet as it stood still, facing me, head angled awkwardly.
On one side I had the monster, something I knew I would not be capable of fending off.
On one side I had the fog, something that I could not control, but which could rip away everything that I now knew I needed.
And behind us, the sound of hissing steam and metal scraping continued, reminding me just how limited my time was.
The monster took a heavy step forward, sending a loud thump echoing throughout the room. I had to run, I had to escape from it and the fog! Putting all of my strength into my legs, I turned, running for the door to the researcher’s room.
I heard another heavy thump from behind me. And another, slowly getting closer and closer to me even in my panicked sprint. I ducked through the door as the monster let out a loud, angry-sounding howl.
Inside the room, the wall had already risen up halfway, almost up to my chest. I dashed towards it, the fear of being stuck outside with both the monster and the fog fuelling my charge. My only option was to jump over it, or climb the wall to the other side before it reached the ceiling.
I leapt up, hitting the top of the wall with my abdomen. Reaching over to the other side, I grabbed onto a piece of the wall that jutted out, using it as leverage to lift my legs up over the top. I tumbled down onto the other side, looking back through the wall into the side of the room I’d escaped from.
The monster charged at the wall, liquid pooling away from its body and around its thick legs. The doorframe I had come through glittered slightly in its wake, and the fog that followed shortly behind the monster seemed to cling to those surfaces.
The wall was higher than my own height, now… but not the monster’s. Was it going to close in time? Would it protect me from the monster? For that matter, would it protect me from the fog? I backed up, watching closely as the white glow filled the other room, along with the wail of the monster.
The black beast collided against the wall with a deafening bang, followed shortly thereafter by an even-louder sound of metal scraping against metal, which had me pressing my ears down flat against my head. The glass container in the centre of the barrier shook, the inky liquid sloshing around inside it.
Even though the wall’s rise had slowed down slightly, it was probably already too high for the monster to get over, anymore. On the other hand, did that even matter? The monster was ramming the wall, and I doubted it would stop after that first attack. Would the wall hold under that kind of abuse? I’d seen in one of my previous dreams that this glass — or some kind of clear material, at least — was strong enough to withstand a charge from a monster, but… this monster was so much bigger than the one in that dream.
Would I really be safe here?
The fog was filling the other side of the room, too — faster than the wall was rising. The monster was practically swimming in it, its movements starting to slow. Would the fog fill up the room before the wall reached the top?
And still, the wall rose. It rose higher and higher, the hissing sound growing louder as the container in the centre of the wall filled up with the viscous black liquid. The gap was too small now even for me to fit through, and as it neared the top of the room, I saw a flash of a black limb flailing at the space between the barrier and the ceiling. A low, guttural howl cut through the noises of the steam boiler, and I pushed my ears down flat again in an attempt to block out the noise.
With a loud boom that echoed around the room, the wall reached the ceiling, closing me off from the rest of the crypt.
I’d made it into the researcher’s hiding spot. Watching the wall with nervous eyes, I took a few deep breaths, my tension slowly waning as the sounds of chaos from the monster gradually died out.
The barrier had held. I was safe from the monster, and I was safe from the fog.