Veil Of Clouds
He had been walking for hours, time enough to witness the shadows change from long and blue to negligible as the sun settled overhead. The snow crunched under the weight of each step taken, weaving a sonic tapestry as he wended through the trees. Every now and then he would cause a palpitation in the rhythm of his gait, disturbing the rataplanning of his steady pace with a sharp snap of some branch under foot. Silence was all encompassing in this forest, a fact that underscored the seclusion. He began to concentrate on every stride made, he wanted to be enveloped by the sounds produced if only to assure himself that he still mattered, that he was still a tangible element in this world. By then he had no idea just where he was. Such a thought caused the man to snap out of his reverie and focus on the surroundings in a more traditional sense.
Ahead he saw a fallen tree and decided it would make a decent chair on which to rest. The moment he sat down his feet almost audibly groaned and the man became keenly aware of how much stress he had put his body through. Bending over slowly, he gathered up a handful of snow and rubbed it over his face. He built a small fire and melted as much snow as would fit in the small pan he carried. The man repeated the process till all thirst was quenched. While he sat there not one sound other than the rustling of his clothing and the popping of the flames passed his ears. He concentrated his entire attention on the area and heard nothing. It was perfectly calm in this forest, no wind blew here and if it did there were no leaves left on the trees to blow through. It crossed his mind that perhaps he was going deaf but quickly discarded such a notion by scratching his head, a move that produced a subtle rubbing noise that he could hear as though it were amplified. Feeling rested, the man rose and surveyed the place; saw the trees march off endlessly in all directions, saw the pristine snow glitter like white fire. On closer examination he studied his tracks as they faded into the distance, singular and steady. If anyone were following him it would be easy to do since there was nothing else to disturb the snow. In fact, there was no sign of life here at all, as though neither flesh nor sound belonged in this region.
He began looking about, desperately seeking any track of any animal in the snow. The cause went unfulfilled. Surely something must live here, he thought to himself. It seemed this was the center of the beginning of the world where the unformed ideas of some forgotten god resided in the periphery of a half formed dream. Seating himself on a tree he gazed skyward, hoping to glimpse a bird or at least reassure his mind that the sky still resided above. How he wished he hadn’t been so foolish. What was a clear blue sky not minutes before was now somehow altered. It began clouding up, but in no way ever witnessed. Like ice forming on glass, the clouds began to crystallize in the sky from nothing. A storm was not rolling in, the sky was weaving a veil. Small gray dots formed in the blue and began spreading tendrils, radiating outward and knitting together with other vaporous filaments. It was as though someone had a lever and was slowly pulling it down, changing the scene from one state to another. The safe blue sky gradually became a web of gray clouds spreading out like cracks in the universe until the metamorphosis was complete. Above, like a ceiling mural, was a flat, cold gray sky that formed from nothing. Yet there was no wind, nothing that could have blown this in. The clouds simply became. Upon completion the man noticed a slight change in the light, things took on a greenish hue. It wasn’t something drastic, but it was just perceptible enough to be disquieting. It seemed as though these strange clouds refracted the light and somehow altered the spectrum, kicking it slightly out of alignment. He decided it was time to leave this place and began walking again.
After a few minutes he thought he heard something, far away but real. He increased his pace but lost hold of it and came to question if he had really heard anything. Before long the sound returned, this time he was certain. Stopping, the man actively listened for it. A tone emanated within the forest but from what direction couldn’t be perceived. Slowly it got louder, like the distant drone of a thousand trumpets playing the same low note from the bottom of a lake. He didn’t move, almost daring the sound to find him. It proceeded to increase in volume yet it’s location remained mysterious. It resonated from every conceivable direction; it pulsated slightly, as though it were breathing. Gradually within the drone, strange chimes could be made out. These bells were struck about every thirty seconds but remained twisted within the hum making them difficult to discern. There was no doubt they were there, however, since the whole sound gradually shifted and the bells came to the forefront and the drone softened. It cycled like this with slow regularity every few minutes, bells fading gently as the drone expanded and back again. The sound never reached a volume that was uncomfortable, as though each tree sang quietly in sadness giving the whole forest its song while each rock rang in accompaniment.
Something cold touched the man’s cheek and he noticed it had begun to snow. Light flakes drifted down from the veil of clouds, like tears. The tone started to shift almost inappreciably. It was the most beautiful thing he’d ever heard. His body was surrounded in a soft mist of sonorous melancholy, a gradual swelling of sound that was deep and droning and drifted across the air like the clouds had formed across the sky. It filled every open space, became almost palpable in it’s ubiquitousness. He decided to walk, not knowing which way to go and not caring since it seemed any way chosen would lead to the origin of the tone.
The snow fell at a slow, uniform pace and if examined carefully seemed almost suspended in the air, floating in the hum. After walking for an hour or more and being no nearer to the sound’s nucleus, the man came upon a small ledge. The ground fell away, straight down, about six feet. As far as the eye could see this ridge ran along the forest bed. Carefully he descended the rocks and reached the lower plateau. This was the first anomaly he had spied for hours, the first change in what had been a perpetual landscape. The ledge was formed out of a strange dark gray rock, similar to coral, and ostensibly had grown out of the earth. The structure seemed to be a retaining wall, perhaps somehow this lower section had collapsed and, needing reinforcement, the forest had produced it. Things in this new level were even more affected by the strange light emanating from the clouds. The color hadn’t changed or deepened, everything still appeared somewhat green. What was new was the phosphorescent light permeating the entire area. The snow seemed to glow this strange color, the trees appeared to burn almost imperceptibly as if they were wavering in and out of focus, an act that steamed off energy in the form of green light. The man reached out and cautiously felt the nearest tree. It was cold and dry, like any tree he’d ever felt before. Everything, including himself, was basked in a gauze of verdant light, almost the color of the veins on warm hands. Everything, excluding the man, also seemed to be radiating this light from within.
To test his sanity the man climbed the six foot wall and retook the higher ground. Gone was the phosphorescence, even within the depression. He looked down at his footprints where he had recently stood, looked at the tree recently touched that glowed so strangely and saw nothing wrong but for the odd light from the sky. Again the man climbed down the wall and was returned to a realm of hazy green where the trees gleamed from within and the snow smoldered softly like hot emerald desert sand. Having no idea of what to do next he decided to walk along the wall and see where it led. Before beginning the journey he broke off a large branch from a tree and thrust it horizontally into the stone ledge. He walked off leaving the marker behind, not sure why he put it there.
By then it was dusk and the light was getting weak. The man welcomed this change because it lessened the greenish glow. The wall remained consistent and he found himself tiring of this day. Time was lost and he did not know how long his walk was along the ledge but it was suspected to have been at least two hours. During this exploration the sound remained constant, never wavering in its volume. The stone wall offered little in the way of diversity either, it was neither regular enough to suggest intelligence was behind it’s construction yet it was regular enough to seem beyond the chaotic chance of nature. Not once did it dip below six feet or rise above seven, not once was there any structural damage or breaks. It seemed to have been made by design from the earth itself, a sort of conscious construction of the terrain. The man found a decent patch of flat ground and made camp there. It was still snowing but at such a sluggish pace as to make virtually no impact. He started a fire and made a meal using what the forest had to offer and some of his own packed goods. With plenty of snow to melt and drink, he ate a substantial meal and quickly fell off into slumber, comfortably wrapped in all his heavy clothing on the soft forest floor.
The dream seemed more tactile than reality had been. In sleep he found himself within the forest, standing in a small valley. Ground rose on all sides like a natural amphitheater. Here the trees grew close together, branches interlaced in a mosaic of wood. He was next to some strange altar, a four sided, rectangular stone pillar about five feet high and two feet square. The top was larger than the core, looking like a curious roof sitting atop it. Small geometric shapes jutted out from each side of the cover, two cubes on both the left and right sides and four triangular protrusions each on the front and back. This shape was repeated about half way down, as if a first roof had been pushed down the base, like a ring over a finger, to form a square band around the pillar’s midsection. The whole thing was carved from one piece of stone, though. In the dark he couldn’t make out what kind of rock formed the altar, all that could be discerned was how smooth and angular it appeared. This thing had to be brand new or impervious to weather since it showed no signs of age. Even in this oneirodynia he heard the drone; it got louder, took on a deeper resonance. The air began to moan, making the sound of a thousand dogs howling from the clouds, distant and invariable. The bells began to ring out steadily, hollow chimes that came drifting upwards from the earth. Vibrations shook his body as each massive note swelled up and out into the cold black air. The sound had changed from a euphonious threnody and become oppressive and fevered. The man felt sick while the sound consumed him, wrapped around him like heavy vapor, clogged his throat and burned his eyes. Suddenly six flames appeared in a circle about the top of the altar. One would have expected to see candles, but the fire floated in the air as each ball flickered with each knell. The flames did not rotate around the pedestal, they hung suspended in the air so thick with sound. Each separate flame burned gently and steadily, yet there was no fuel for the fire to feed from. Deep amongst the trees, protected by the greedy blue night, there was movement; silhouettes in the distance, people within this depression. He hadn’t noticed them before and they made no sound, remained motionless as though his attention had frozen them. He slowly spun around, carefully peering into the darkness. On all sides were these beings, he could not see them clearly enough to make out any features. The man felt dread now, anxiousness in knowing he was surrounded and in plain view. The moment he sensed in his sleeping mind that he was truly afraid, the flames disappeared in unison and the sound ceased to be. The total blackness bolted his body upright into wakefulness. He sat on the forest bed and heard nothing. The silence had been loud enough to wake him, like an inverted explosion. There was no humming, no bells, not even any wind. With much difficulty he returned to sleep in this newly silenced domain and found he missed the song.
The following morning he woke to a clear blue sky and silent air. The snow had stopped and everything was as it should be. Somehow he felt remorse. In the solitude he had grown accustomed to the forest’s singing, to the sky’s altered view. The world seemed less beautiful in it’s normalcy but the man figured he would quickly grow accustomed to the old ways again. He proceeded to continue his trek along the wall and follow it till it could be followed no more. For about three hours he trudged along it’s unwavering consistency with no end in sight. Finally there was something familiar ahead and he was surprised to come across the branch he had stuck in the wall the previous day. The depression he was in was a circle, although it was big enough not to seem like one. Normally good with directions, the green light, opaque sky and steady sound of the day before had rendered his senses useless and he had no idea where he was going at the time. The problem remained; he still had no idea where he was. This much the man did know, the wall was a huge circle, and the interior of this circle looked like some deity had cut a massive plug from the earth and replaced it by pushing it in a bit too far. He decided to head straight in and find the center.
Having walked for a short time he came upon another wall, exactly like the previous one. He was far enough in now to see that it too was circular. Climbing down the six feet of rock the man peered along it’s length and saw it curve off in the distance, finally being obstructed by the numerous trees. How many more circles lay within the outermost circle he wondered. Without hesitation, in fact feeling a growing excitement, he proceeded to move towards the center. Once again he came upon a ledge, another drop of six feet, and discovered this wall to be circular again. The circumference was tightening and it was obvious that the stone structure bowed around him. He looked across to where the other side should have been but couldn’t make it out through a thicket. His body began to tingle as he approached the epicenter of whatever this strange halo contained. Traveling towards the center, perhaps two hundred feet from the preceding stone barrier, the ground began to change. It was no longer smooth and plain, instead the earth became bumpy and irregular, what ground should be, but after so many miles of the bland uniformity it had afforded him it felt alien. Very suddenly there came a steep decline. Scanning the declivity he saw that it bottomed out about thirty feet down. There was something in the center of this depression so he began the descent. With so many trees he was able to make the trip easily, using branches to steady himself as he slowly hiked towards the floor. He already knew what he was going to find, but proceeded none the less. For reassurance, he checked the sky and found it to still be clear and sunny with only the slightest wisps of white clouds. Once at the bottom he realized he was standing in the place of the dream. The small valley was terribly circular, much too regular for nature. Some intelligence had gouged the center of this huge circle out and made an arena. Standing in what seemed to be the precise center of this huge hole was the altar. Sunlight allowed him to examine how perfect it was. Carved from a deep grayish stone it stood as a reminder that he did not belong here. The five foot tall object was free of any marks or markings, it was pristine. Somehow the man sensed it was ancient, the anachronism of it’s fitting perfectly within such a strange realm.
From the corner of his eye he noticed a disturbance in the ground. Turning to examine it he was shocked. No more than five feet from where he stood was a deep hole, freshly dug. Close appraisal showed it to be around ten feet deep and four or five feet in diameter. The dirt was carefully scattered around the hole, spread out far and thin to eliminate any piles. It looked like something had climbed out of the pit for there where deep scratches along the sides. The man’s ears picked up a sharp snap from behind and he spun around. Someone was in the forest. His eyes quickly settled on the form.
The stranger emerged slowly, as though the man might be dangerous. Branches gave way easily and his massive form revealed itself. Standing upright, no longer entangled amongst the thick outer growth of trunks and limbs, he stopped and glared. The man’s brain surveyed the situation. Nearby stood a creature; a manlike titan looming nine feet tall and devoid of any hair. If he had skin it was transparent; each vein could be seen, every muscle. Parts of him were deep red, others pinkish. He appeared to have been flayed but this couldn’t be true. At any moment his organs should have fallen prey to gravity and simply dropped to the ground. They didn’t. Barrel chested and sinewy, he looked capable of rending the trees from the ground and tossing them through the clouds. The monster walked closer, cautiously, and stopped. The man forced himself to remain calm and returned the stranger’s gaze, confidently examining him. This beast had a fairly pleasing head, at least in terms of structure and esthetic shape. A hawkish nose was balanced by deep, fuming eyes of coal. The pupils where so black one could almost take them to be voids. A high forehead and strong chin seemed to suggest intelligence, although of what sort couldn’t be told. In fact, outside of being freakishly large and seemingly devoid of skin, this being was human in every way. Perhaps the remarkable events of the previous day had prepared the man to accept this. Being confined in an earthen amphitheater with a giant should have caused his adrenaline to explode and propel him away as quickly as possible. Instead, the man stood his ground.
The titan walked nearer and a big toothy grin split across his face. Perched within were large opaline teeth; they looked absolutely new and untried. The man’s proximity afforded him an answer to the riddle of the skin. The monster did indeed have flesh, it was clear and thick. At certain angles it could be seen to wrap around his body, like a dull layer of glass. The pellucid hide housed massive, steely muscles stitched together in a vascular ornateness. Such a creature he had never heard of, much less met. Then, it asked a question.
“Where is the rest of me?” a voice of incredible depth and resonance queried. “I am incomplete. I must be finished.”
The man stepped back, slowly, said nothing.
“I have been restored, are you a Restorer?”
“I am Pogue,” was the man’s only reply, so filled with increasing dread was he.
The titan squeezed his brow together, tilted and lowered his head and peered powerfully into Pogue. “You should not be here,” the restored forcefully whispered.
Pogue, for the first time in his life, was unable to think. He remained motionless. The beast grew impatient and turned away, walked to the altar. He struck it with his massive hand, creating a deafening bell-like reverberation. It was enough to snap Pogue from his trance and he backed up, step by step, till he found his progress halted by a tree. He turned around and quietly slipped into the forest. All the while the giant hammered the altar, filled the cold air with waves of sound. He stopped his song at the same time Pogue ducked behind a large tree, just out of view. The creature looked directly at the tree and called out in a hideously low tone, “I can still see you!” Pogue moved only his heart as it raced out of control.
Again the monster pounded his rhythm, but now included a song. At first it was a low hum, like distant thunder, but soon it rose in pitch to a fiendish baritone. Pogue hid and listened to the music, listened in fear to the restored creature’s canticle. As he listened, he gradually became aware of a new sound. It was higher in pitch, it seemed to circle above. Pogue peered around the tree and saw a strange cloud that rotated overhead. It flew above the tree tops in a vortex, soared in ever decreasing circles till it stopped directly over the altar, hovered forty feet above. The titan stopped his song and lifted his head skyward. “It is time,” he stated.
The vapor from above split into hundreds of tiny streams and cascaded downwards into the beast. He remained absolutely still as the soft mist permeated his invisible skin. Pogue expected that skin to be turned opaque, to be finished. It did not, it remained transparent. Instead, the mysterious cloud seemed to consume the beast’s interior structure, rendered his musculature, his vital organs, his skeleton, all transparent. The titan simply vanished. Pogue blinked his eyes firmly and refocused on the location of the transformation. Very faintly he made out vague reflections and refractions of light. The beast was still there, his entire body now like his skin, glassy and diaphanous. Once again he directed his attention at the man hiding in the forest. Pogue stiffened his body, clutched the branches of the tree till his knuckles turned white. From the altar he watched as footprints in the snow formed from the invisible giant, footprints that crunched with sinister purpose as they resolutely struck the white powder in a direct path to himself. Branches snapped and splinters flew as Pogue helplessly witnessed the invisible monster effortlessly plow a direct path through the trees to arrive only inches away. He could see the icy breath emanating from the monster’s mouth, could see the trees behind him bent and dispersed as the light traveled through his glassy body. He closed his eyes and waited for his death. Instead, he received words, inhumanly low in timbre and carefully delivered.
“I can still see you, incomplete as you are. Perhaps some day your kind can be Restored. We see you but are hidden from view. We are always among you. We have always been among you.”
Pogue remained quiet and listened to the crunching of snow, the breaking of branches, watched the trail of footsteps from the newly Restored climb the embankment to disappear from view.