As he crossed the threshold of the door, a storm erupted outside, carrying with it a resigned sigh from the twenty-four-year-old. Youthful years were exhausting too, he thought. Turns out, in a world where technology had consumed all fields, being passionate about art was almost unbearable. Avis considered himself a spontaneous artist, someone whose inspiration flowed at his whim. Rainy nights were perfect for letting his creativity flow. However, in his small apartment, he lacked a studio, so he was forced to work in the cramped living room.
Whisper, his black-furred feline companion, greeted him by rubbing against his legs.
"Did you have a good adventure, little friend?"
The thunderous roar echoed too close, startling Avis. His gaze, still affected by the scare, landed on a blank canvas on the easel. Feeling an instant connection, he moved it to the center of the room and placed a chair in front of it, preparing to bring life to a piece that would emerge from spontaneity.
The melodic singing of the rain and the gentle whistling of the wind became Avis's only companions during his creative process. That natural symphony was frighteningly beautiful, unleashing emotions within his being. He was immersed in his work, in a state of flow where time lost its meaning, and only the connection between his mind, his brush, and the blank canvas existed.
Each stroke was an act of liberation, an explosion of colors and shapes emerging from his imagination. He surrendered completely to his art. Each brushstroke was a silent scream, a battle to capture the very essence of his inspiration.
Time faded away in that creative dimension, and when he finally completed his work, the clock was nearing four in the morning. The storm, once roaring fiercely, had turned into a delicate drizzle whispering outside.
Avis slowly stood up and took a few steps back to admire the painting he had created. As he looked at it, a strange melancholy entered his being. The canvas revealed the portrait of a young man, whose figure seemed to emerge from the layers of paint with an inexplicable vividness. He had a charming smile, a glimmer of light amid the darkness. However, his deep, penetrating eyes revealed overwhelming sadness, an emotional burden weighing on his soul. Dark shadows extended beneath his eyes. They were silent witnesses to the hardships he had experienced throughout his existence. Although they reinforced the depth of his countenance, they also imparted a dimension of suffering and anguish.
But what caught the most attention was the rope around his neck, a somber symbol of constraints. It was as if he was trapped in an invisible prison, subject to a fate enveloping him with an oppressive shadow.
Avis could only arrive at one conclusion:
"Ah... it truly is a lamentable painting."
In resignation, Avis dropped the brush and palette, unable to continue gazing at a portrait that began to unsettle him the more he looked at it. He quickly glanced at the clock, only to discover it struck four o'clock, as if time itself had stopped. His sanity was challenged by the sudden murmur that seemed to arise from the painting itself. The whisper was barely perceptible, but Avis was sure it didn't come from his own mind. Gathering courage, he took a step forward, then another, and continued approaching the canvas.
As he neared, the voices intensified, intertwining into a disconcerting chorus. Avis trembled but was drawn to the unknown lurking behind the pictorial surface.
"Keep going, follow the path. The harbinger of death awaits, the key that breaks destiny, the one your soul yearns for."
Moved by intrigue and without thinking about the possible consequences, he extended his left hand towards the canvas, letting himself be enveloped by its magnetism.
In the blink of an eye, Avis found himself transported to an unknown place, as if suspended in limbo. He couldn't open his eyes to discover his location, but the voices found him and guided him along an invisible path. Slowly, he regained control of his body and, with a mix of fear and excitement, opened his eyes to encounter a completely bewildering sight.
The narrow apartment he had been in moments ago was left in the past, replaced by an environment teeming with living nature. He found himself surrounded by a lush landscape dominated by an imposing tree at its center. The tree's extended branches spanned much of the perimeter, creating a natural roof of leaves and shadows. The sky, tinged with sunset colors, painted a sublime panorama. Avis suspected he had been transported to another reality, a completely different world.
The voices that had accompanied him during the journey detached from his side and headed towards the large tree. This time, Avis could clearly see them and feel their flow of energy.
Avis was amazed, unable to believe that such an unrealistically beautiful world existed within a painting he created.
As he approached the tree trunk, he distinguished a silhouette. The closer he got, the more familiar it seemed. He nearly stumbled under his own weight upon realizing that this man was the same as the one he had portrayed. He wasn't smiling, but his other characteristics were faithful. This mysterious man manipulated the handle of a customized roller, its cover was spongy and constantly changing size. He passed this same roller over the peculiar golden leaves sprouting from the branches.
"You... What are you doing here?"
Not only did him speaking to him disconcert Avis, but also the nature of his question. Why would he suspect that he knew him?
"You know who I am."
This man's expression was disturbed by the turn of events, at least for a brief moment.
"You're asserting it."
"It seems so."
That encounter suddenly turned into a battle of words, so natural it felt unreal. The stranger rested the roller against the large trunk.
"It's not like that. It's just that your mere presence here is alarming." After looking at him like an oddity for brief minutes, his gaze shifted to the tree. "We don't usually receive visitors."
"What is this place called?"
The man parted his lips but hesitated. Revealing the place's identity wasn't an idea he felt entirely secure about, and yet, to his surprise, he spoke.
"It has no name; we are simply those who exist thanks to Yggdrasil, the tree that connects everything."
His answers only served to confuse him more, so he made a mental note not to question more than was essential.
From the moment he first noticed that oak, he realized it held a considerable presence, like a historical monument. But who were 'we'? There was no way this man would include an outsider like Avis in his world.
As soon as he posed that question, two unstable silhouettes emerged from the back bark; this was because once you saw them, the next second you didn't; only to reappear in your sight, as fleeting as a twinkling.
"They are water body spirits," the man explained, deciphering the intrigue in Avis's eyes. While this was accurate, there was something heavier than the young man wanted to know. A key question.
"And who are you?"
His steps gave way to a strange attraction to that great foundation. He couldn't discern if this was real or just a product of his imagination. If he used touch, he thought maybe his doubts would dissipate.
"No." The man's voice stopped him just in time, his arm extended. "If I were you, I wouldn't touch it."
His fingertips were just centimeters away from touching the trunk. Even if he didn't achieve his goal, he could perceive a certain golden glow from it.
"Daven." His unknown companion rested the instrument on the ground, pausing his duty to focus on the unexpected visitors. "That's my name."
Contrary to his steps, the chains made a tinkling sound as they moved until they stood, guard up, next to Avis. He couldn't help but feel guilty. If he was the one who tied him to such a fate, did he have the right to ask? The weight of the situation had changed since the moment he witnessed the existence of that reality.
"It's a nice name." Before his mind processed what he was about to do, his lips curved, offering a small smile. "And this tree is incredible."
"It is, but Yggdrasil is also dangerous, so be careful." Daven's tone was firm and determined. With that warning given, he returned his attention to the peculiar cleaning tool.
Then Avis could see more clearly how he acted and the laziness with which he did so, as if habit didn't overcome exhaustion. He saw himself reflected in him; the weight of the routine he carried.
Avis was willing to offer a helping hand when an unexpected gust of wind forced him to turn his head. He turned completely when the small cabin in the distance once again caught his attention.
One of the water spirits moved to the spot, pausing occasionally to ensure the young outsider followed. This spirit appeared voluminous, its manifestation barely discernible as a transparent silhouette; clear as a river. The mischievous laughter it emitted occasionally was sharp but alluring.
Daven was so engrossed with Yggdrasil that he didn't notice Avis's absence, who, with every step, drew closer to the small cabin. This was of a truly simple structure, and despite the somewhat dilapidated state of the construction, the fact that it still stood on its foundation was surprising.
Facing the door, the spirit vanished, as if it had accomplished its mission of guiding him to this place. The knob yielded at the first attempt. Avis peeked his head in before his body, and what he saw filled him with a sense of strangeness. In what appeared to be the living room, there was a pitiful display of furniture and an old trunk of dark wood. There was nothing more. Or so it seemed. The worn wood creaked under his shoe soles as he moved toward the center. He flinched when the door slammed shut behind him, but immediately refocused on the room. The mold in that place was of a resplendent yellow, and what might have been dust particles in the air, gave the impression of golden fairy dust.
Just beyond it was a red door, the color as vibrant as blood. It stood out in the entire place not only for this but because, unlike everything else, it was in perfect condition, as if it had been constantly maintained, but they had forgotten that there was an entire cabin to pay attention to. Avis cautiously headed towards it; a structure like that could collapse with a single wrong move. He extended his left hand with the intention of opening the door. Avis couldn't contain the impulse to turn completely when a rumble cut through the silence.
He turned the knob and surrendered once again to the outside. His vision instinctively focused on the center, where the great tree stood. Its branches shook in the wind, and a golden liquid, like the blood of the gods, dripped from the leaves, spreading down the trunk. The silhouette of a human, insignificant in comparison to Yggdrasil, struggled to keep the tree clean. That man couldn't be anyone else but, naturally; Daven. Avis then hesitated no more, he hurried closer, and as he did, the sound seemed to increase in volume. Only then did he discover that the lament came from the imposing plant.
"Does this happen all the time?" He didn't get an answer, so he insisted more vigorously, "What's wrong with it?"
This time Daven heard him above the thunderous cry and replied, "Usually, yes, but it'll calm down in a moment. Speak to it while I attend to the tears."
However, Avis sensed some doubt in his response, as he steadfastly continued cleaning the tree's tears with the roller. That didn't reassure him much, as who knows how long he was destined to remain in that place.
Avis desperately tried to find a way to calm it down, when the answer had been served on a silver platter by Daven. The idea of having to speak to a giant tree had never crossed his mind, not even in his wildest dreams, until he couldn't bear it anymore and covered his ears. If that channeled some of the noise, it was now the tree's turn to hear him.
"Hey, little tree! Calm down, you're going to burst our eardrums!"
Daven cast a disapproving look over his shoulder.
What was the way, then? He wondered. He debated between options until an idea illuminated his mind. He closed his eyes. His lips processed it before his mind could give it a second thought, and the verses of that lullaby melody came out in perfect intonation, seeking comfort. The vague and warm memory of a woman's face that spoke so loudly in the sun assaulted him in a rather skeptical state, and melancholy acted on his behalf.
Little bird, little bird, stop your cry,
Spread your wings and seek out liberty high,
I'll be here, waiting just like before,
But if tomorrow make our ways apart,
Know that in the sky of your gaze,
A part of me will always stay.
For a moment, silence enveloped the scene, only to be broken by Avis's voice. The verses were repeated, and though he sang a cappella, the music resonated in Avis's mind.
Even the gusts of wind seemed to hush to give the young man the stage, as if the tantrum of the grand tree had repercussions on the atmosphere within those invisible confines.
Avis tucked his hands into his sleeves. He wasn't too keen on singing; it reminded him of school times. But in this exceptional situation, at least, the peaceful memory of that woman kept his anxiety at bay. As the song ended and he opened his eyes, Daven was staring at him with an expression he couldn't decipher, as if he hadn't been the only one to have a moment of epiphany. Before he could articulate any words, his attention shifted to the Yggdrasil.
The calmness exuded by the plant was replaced by a radiance that expanded, enveloping him completely. Couldn't there be a moment without surprise after surprise? Perhaps, within that world, the peculiar was normal.
Avis shouted the name of the other young man who had vanished before him, but there was no response or sign that indicated he was still there. Wherever he looked, the blinding light made him squint. In the height of his desperation, he managed to discern seven approaching shadows.
Avis remained expectant and alert, perhaps overly so, as someone spoke:
"Do not fear. We do not intend to harm you."
As they stopped a few meters away, he was able to discern their sizes and volumes. These people lacked faces, and he couldn't classify them beyond a type of silhouette.
Another voice, more jovial, was heard.
"Help us, young man. Release our souls."
Souls. Were these the memories of their souls?
"In life, we were sinners, condemned to be trapped in the tree of sins. We waited so long for a savior, and in return, we were granted a witness without the ability to help us; another condemned soul. Now that you've arrived, there's finally a chance."
"The condemned witness... are you talking about Daven?" inquired a confused Avis. It was a lot to process.
The answer never came; instead, the one who appeared to be the youngest explained:
"At the moment, we are nothing more than echoes of what we once were," there was a pause, "Do not be deceived, this place, as magical as it may seem, is the echo master of the sins of destruction."
The shadow extended its arm, and an object flew to rest in Avis's palm. It was a key, shaped like an hourglass.
"Take this key. With it, you will gain access to the trunk that contains the ancient book of souls. But be careful, you have until the flow of sand empties to mend things and return."
"One last thing, to access our memories, there must be a resonance."
"A resonance? How will I do that? What do I need to fix and where do I go? Wait!"
"We trust you'll figure it out at the right moment," they said in unison as they faded away and the light was swallowed by an overwhelming darkness.
As he regained awareness, he realized his limbs were rigid. His only relief was that the panorama before him was again the field of the oak. Daven was looking at him from above but crouched in front of him, and Avis could only think that he didn't remember the moment he hit the ground.
He felt the warmth of a hand on his back, and from the weary gaze of the young man, he deduced a certain concern.
"Do you feel better? It was as if you entered a trance all of a sudden!"
He nodded. He wanted to speak, but his throat was as dry as if he had survived three days in the desert. He glanced down, confirming that the key was still clenched in his fist. Daven also noticed it and quickly questioned:
"What is that?"
He would tell him later. The first thing he did was get to his feet. Daven gave him space after helping him up, and quickly concealed his evident concern due to a stain on the trunk of the monumental oak that demanded his attention.
On his side, he couldn't feign indifference and remain oblivious, especially when guilt told him that he had some responsibility in all this. Avis turned and looked decisively towards the corner where the small cabin waited. There was no place other than that where he would surely find the answers he needed, and the glow emitted by the key was the clear sign that this was the right direction.