Episode Eight: Proof of Existence
"In fact, I'm…"
"I thought killing you would…"
"It's no wonder…"
A thread of memories unraveled directly from Merletoph's head and vanished from existence.
"...given him the chance to live!"
"What are we going to do?"
He felt the hands on his head, pressing. Nothing else.
"...your ancestors in the…"
As each memory rewound, a black mist edged the corners of his vision. It crept closer.
"...up, Dimentio. We must…"
Merletoph coughed awake, immediately aware of someone on top of him. He opened his eyes to find a member of the Tribe of Darkness leaning over him, lips drawn in a snarl. When he reached for Merletoph's face, Merletoph threw up an elbow, twisting so as to throw the man off of him. With a grunt, the tribesman rolled to the side and landed on his back in the grass.
"What?!" he heard the man growl. "Where are you? Protect me!" He sat up and glared at Merletoph. "You! What did you do to me?" A murderous fury burned in his blue eyes.
Merletoph thrust his hand toward him.
The man screamed as a pillar of fire engulfed him. Merletoph closed his eyes against the intense heat that burned just centimeters from his face. He ducked away, curling up with his back to the flame, listening to the screams trail away like rising smoke.
Once the last of the flames had ascended, Merletoph rose up on one knee and paused there for a moment, taking inventory of the various aches and bruises on his body. His right shoulder protested the slightest movement, and there was a spot on his back that pulsed with an angry soreness. Additionally, his head throbbed with a dizzying migraine.
He observed the tall, black walls of the castle, his gaze traveling over the ornate entrance down to the scrubs of grass poking out of the rocky soil. He hadn't teleported himself here.
Scrunching his eyes closed, he tried to remember what he'd been doing last. However, a thick haze prevented him from reaching back, as if someone had draped a shroud over his memories.
With a shaking hand on the castle wall, Merletoph steadied his breathing and reviewed what he knew.
His name. Merletoph. That was a good start. He knew he was at a castle that belonged to the Tribe of Darkness. His home—
Ah. He remembered his home. Relief revived a bit of his strength. He could go home. With one last glance at the charred mage on the ground, he teleported back to his house.
The sight of Merletoph's living room troubled him. It seemed somehow different than he'd seen it last. Several items were missing, and upon further inspection, the two bedrooms had been completely rifled. He massaged his forehead, trying to remember the second room's occupant. The small bed and the scattered toys suggested a child.
I have a daughter. Of course! How could he have forgotten her? Pressing his eyes closed, he struggled to remember more about her. A name, her appearance… anything. His daughter lived in this room. A frown tugged at Merletoph's lips. So where was she now?
He investigated the rest of the house, picking up fragments of memories as he went. A book on a shelf above a couch reminded him of The Ancients. He recalled his childhood with the Tribe and learning magic with his brother. A hand-carved clock unearthed an image of his wife, Celia. Memories of her death misted his eyes with tears.
His wandering brought him to the kitchen, where, among the ceramics that awoke his love for cooking, he found a note written on a piece of parchment.
If you happen to return to this place while I am gone, know that I am searching for you. With the help of a few friends, I will be entering The Gateway. If I have not found you in five years, I will return home. I pray I find you before this note does, but if you make it back before I do, know that I will return.
May the stars cross our paths,
Your father, Merletoph
"Sha'i. Sha'i. My daughter." He tried out the name, pleased to find another memory slot into place as he said it. Merletoph dropped the note back onto the table. He exhaled slowly, allowing this new information to assemble into meaningful knowledge. The Gateway. He remembered learning about such a place. If Sha'i had gotten lost in The Gateway, he needed to be looking for her. That must have been where he was going, before…
Before. Before what? He'd awoken outside of the Tribe of Darkness' castle, under attack by one of the tribesmen. No matter how hard he tried to remember, he couldn't make a connection. How had he gotten there? Why had he been attacked? He checked the note again. He'd written a date at the bottom of the parchment, but Merletoph realized he had no way of knowing the current date. Perhaps his search had led him back to this world prematurely, or perhaps the five years had already passed.
A dash of black caught Merletoph's eye: a near-empty inkwell. A downy quill rested beside it. Merletoph plucked the quill from the table and touched the darkened tip to his finger. It left behind a tiny black dot.
The quill had been used recently, no more than a few hours ago. Merletoph tried again to remember what had happened, how to get to The Gateway, or who these 'friends' were that he was supposed to be traveling with. Nothing.
He began a second search through the house, desperate for a clue. In Shai's room, he found a large box under the bed labeled Mimi's rock collection. Intrigued, Merletoph opened it and studied the rocks inside. One rock, a bright red gemstone, stood out amongst the browns and greys of the others. Merletoph held it up to the light from the window and studied it.
Sunlight filtered crimson through the stone, casting a scattering of red waves around the room. Mimi. He'd created her. She lived in this room, not Sha'i. Hazy memories of Sha'i and Mimi intertwined. He set the stone down and massaged his temples, giving the memories time to sort themselves out.
Sha'i lived here before Mimi. Mimi must have been here recently. Perhaps she had gone in search of The Gateway with him.
The problem was, Merletoph hadn't the slightest clue where to look for The Gateway, or who to ask about it.
A stray twinkle of light from the red stone caught his eye. He picked it up, studied it, traced along the edges with his finger. The faintest memory fluttered through his mind: an image of a young girl laying on her stomach on the floor, diligently sorting rocks into neat piles. Sha'i, or Mimi?
The stone rolled from his fingers as he pressed his eyes closed and sighed.
Dimentio studied every inch of the rock walls in the room containing the Dimensional Gateway. Once he stepped through the doors, he ignored the strangeness of The Gateway and studied the design on the door after it closed behind Kathleen.
Their door was blue. It reminded him of the sky in the morning: pale and airy. In black, a design like molten metal shimmered on the door's surface. It contained spirals and wisps, and a little conglomeration in the middle looked like a crashing wave of water. Another design at the top looked decidedly like a small fish.
A halo of green light surrounded the door. At the very bottom of the left side, three little pale streaks lined up along the edge. The third streak, the one furthest from the ethereal floor, pulsed occasionally.
Dimentio paused to look at some of the other doors. Many of them had pale streaks surrounding the entire frame. Others had only a few, like his door. He watched a door with only one streak fade, and then disappear completely. A new door with a full ring of streaks replaced it.
He turned back to his own door. Already, the third streak pulsed slower, contemplating its departure.
"We have to pick a door," he heard Timpani say. A hand on his arm nudged him away from the flashing streaks.
"Here." Kathleen shuffled him through another doorway. He didn't even get a chance to look at the design on the door.
It spat them out in the middle of a grassy field. Nothing anchored the door, rather it floated about a meter off the ground as though it were in a dimension of its own. Dimentio stumbled and landed in the tall, frosty grass.
Not a single landmark dotted the horizon. A tiny yellow sun rose steadily in the sky, not quite bright enough to provide any warmth. A chilly breeze penetrated Dimentio's clothing.
"Where do we go from here?" Timpani's breath fogged in the air where she knelt over Blumiere, who had fallen out of her arms during the tumble. "There's...there's nothing."
"Well, we 'ave teh wait 'til Blumiere wakes up, anyhow. Let's give 'im some time."
Dimentio watched as they laid Blumiere down in the grass. Even Mimi and Ronan did their best to look like they were attending to him. Dimentio stood by the door, tracing the details in the brown metal with his eyes.
His mental clock alerted him to the change in the hour. Four o'clock. They expected him to cloak Blumiere's signature in two hours and fifty-five minutes.
Dread weighed down his limbs as he watched the rest of the group. He'd have to tell them eventually, and with Merletoph gone, he found his courage failing him. He sat on the ground and pulled his knees to his chest. How could he tell them? His one job, his purpose for traveling with them, and he was going to fail. What if Basile and his father found them?
Dimentio looked up at Mimi. She stood in front of him, her arms crossed.
"You can feel Papa's soul, right? Where is he?"
Merletoph's soul signature had vanished as soon as Dimentio entered The Gateway. Here, on this barren world, Dimentio doubted he'd be able to feel anyone's signature, even once his magic returned. "I don't know," he told Mimi.
Mimi huffed and sat on the ground next to him. "What if we never see him again? That...that won't happen, right?"
Dimentio didn't know what to say. He didn't know why Mimi wanted to talk to him, or why she thought he knew the answers to her questions. His mind wandered to their first encounter when Mimi had yelled at him for wearing her dress. She'd said his hair would look nice if he brushed it. She thought it was cool that he could fly.
"I don't know," he repeated. When her lip trembled, Dimentio added, "I like your dress."
He shrugged. "Something nice," he mumbled. "You said before that I still had to tell you two more nice things. So, I like your dress. And...your hair is curly. I like it."
With a dumbfounded look on her face, Mimi only stared at him.
Dimentio picked at a stitch in his poncho. "That's nice, right?"
A giggle sputtered out of her and she leaned to the side, nudging his shoulder with hers. "You're so weird!"
"Of course I am," Dimentio said with a grin. "I'm as weird as you can get. I shouldn't even exist, aha."
"I thought of something even weirder," Mimi whispered. "Papa is your grandpapa, right? So...that makes me like your mom."
Dimentio shook his head. "No. You're younger than me. And I have an actual mother.
"Fine then. But we're kinda like brother and sister, right?"
Dimentio considered it. "I guess we are."
"I'm gonna tell Papa that when he gets back."
Turning again to the now-loosened string in his poncho, Dimentio chose silence over entertaining Mimi's optimism. He'd felt Merletoph's soul fade to black. He couldn't rule out the possibility that Merletoph could be dead now. He couldn't tell Mimi that he considered it likely.
How am I supposed to find Mother without him?
Before that train of thought could depress him further, he heard Timpani and Kathleen's relieved exclamations.
"Oh, thank goodness," Timpani said. "You're awake. How are you feeling?"
Dimentio stood and wandered over to Blumiere. Mimi followed him.
"What happened?" Blumiere sat up and held a hand to his head. "I feel...wait." He found Dimentio and locked on with a frantic stare. "My signature. Did you take it?"
Dimentio shook his head.
"You've been out for about an hour," Timpani said. "We came through a door in The Gateway, but there's not much here. And...Merletoph never came back."
Blumiere's shoulders slumped. After a moment of heavy silence, he said, "Well, what do we do now?"
"We'll have to find a better world than this," Timpani said. "Somewhere we can live."
"Wait," Dimentio cut in. Timpani looked up at him. The skeptical glint in her eyes sent a chill down his spine. "There's something else," he continued. "I won't be able to take Blumiere's signature away at the time we originally agreed upon. I still won't have my magic. We'll have to leave Blumiere's signature up for five minutes before my magic comes back. Then I can cloak it."
"But won't tha' leave us with a glowin' target on our 'eads for five minutes?" Kathleen asked.
Dimentio nodded. "We can hope the signal won't reach my father within those five minutes."
"Well, let's stay here until we can get his signature cloaked," Timpani said. "Then, we can run to another world, so if someone comes to find us, they'll come here, and we'll already be gone."
Dimentio didn't tell them about his skepticism regarding his magic. He didn't feel it necessary to share his anxiety with the whole group. Instead, he waited by the Dimensional Gateway while the others shared food and hopes about the new world.
When it came time for Blumiere's signature to uncloak, the group gathered around the floating pair of doors. Timpani held the door open, Dimentio preemptively grabbed Blumiere's wrists, and Kathleen stood with her sword drawn, prepared to slash at anyone who arrived to attack them. Ronan and Mimi hovered in the doorway, ready to jump into The Gateway at the first sign of trouble.
6:55 came and passed. Blumiere's signature flared back into existence, though Dimentio couldn't yet feel it. "Five minutes," he said.
Time crawled. With every second that passed, anxiety burned more fervently in Dimentio's stomach.
Stars, he prayed, I know Merletoph believes you have the power to watch and guide us. I haven't been good all my life, but the rest of these people deserve to be safe.
At last, Dimentio's internal clock reached 7:00. Part of his body screamed to teleport to the roof of the castle to have his signature cloaked, but he focused on the sensation of magic tingling back into his body. Like a warm river, it flowed back into his blood, pulsing at his fingertips and roaring in his ears. He tried to feel something new among the familiar magic.
Nothing caught his attention. Maybe his soul signature didn't have a particular feeling attached to it. Maybe he'd never had a soul signature at all. With a grimace, he forced his attention toward the task they needed him for and locked onto Blumiere's heartbeat. The cloaking magic flowed smoothly from his fingertips into his cousin's bloodstream.
Wasting no time in celebration, the group jumped through the door, back into The Gateway.
The next door released the group of travelers in a flower-filled prairie dotted with hills and trees. Pinks and blues darkened the sky, signifying the arrival of nighttime.
"There's no town in sight here, either," Timpani sighed. "But it feels nicer than the other one, already."
Using the supplies Merletoph had packed, they got to work setting up a small tent. It would be cramped for the six of them, but it would work until they found a town where they could purchase more supplies.
By the time darkness enveloped the world, the tent had been finished, and the others had curled up to get some much-needed rest. Dimentio stayed outside.
Timpani stepped out of the tent to stand beside him. "Aren't you coming inside?"
Dimentio shook his head.
"Well, do you have your magic back now? Is everything back to normal?"
As far as he could tell, he had everything back. He might have a soul signature, but even if he did, he had no way to tell, and Blumiere hadn't mentioned anything about it. In the end, it didn't matter whether he'd existed or not. Merletoph was the only person who would need to find him now. Dimentio reminded himself again that Merletoph likely wasn't alive. He felt no different.
Numbly, he nodded his head to answer her question.
"Well, come in soon, okay? You need to rest. Oh, and..." she hesitated for a moment. "Well, I never properly thanked you for healing me. It was amazing that you figured out how to do it on your own. So, thank you."
She only waited a few more seconds for a response. When he gave her none, she returned to the tent.
Dimentio raised his head to the stars.
Merletoph? Are you there?
Far away, on Talanton, were the same stars watching over them? Did the stars watch every world in existence?
Merletoph could have taught him about the stars.
Clenching his teeth, Dimentio came to a decision. He closed his eyes and pictured Talanton's Dimensional Gateway. The pale blue doors. The black metal of the designs. The wave-like design in the middle, with the fish on top. He pictured the room on Talanton at the end of the tunnel, the way the rock had been carved into a small cavern. The dull color of the stone, the earthy scent of the cool air. Then, with every ounce of his concentration, he initiated a teleport.
The white void suffocated him, holding him stiff for almost a full minute while it searched for Talanton. Dimentio wondered if it would spit him back out where he started, but at last, he emerged next to the blue glow of the Dimensional Gateway they'd escaped through.
With a slow exhale, he searched for soul signatures nearby...
And immediately found what he was looking for.
A yellow-gray hue tinged Merletoph's signature, just a touch brighter than the cold black it had been before. It tugged Dimentio lightly in its direction, and he obliged without hesitation.
Teleporting to Merletoph's location brought him to a wooded area not far from Tiede. Merletoph stood nearby with his back turned. He appeared to be studying something, but he turned around shortly after Dimentio appeared. Dimentio could have leaped into his grandfather's arms, but Merletoph had a strange look on his face.
"Oh. Hello," Merletoph said.
Dimentio's heart pounded. His levitation steadily lost altitude until his feet touched the ground. "Merletoph?"
His yellow eyes squinted, studying Dimentio. Slowly, a smile warmed his face. "You know me," he said.
A shiver prickled Dimentio's skin. "Yes," he whispered. "I'm your grandson."
"My grandson." The sentence contained the slightest questioning tilt. It made Dimentio's stomach twist.
Merletoph knelt next to Dimentio, his yellow eyes narrowed in gentle investigation. "What a unique soul you have. I do not believe I've ever felt anything quite like it."
"You can feel it?" A lump in Dimentio's throat made it hard to swallow, and the space behind his eyes and nose stung.
"Yes. It is very bright. Beautiful."
A choked noise tumbled out of Dimentio's mouth as Merletoph spoke, taking him by surprise. He covered his mouth with his hand before anything more could slip out of him, but quickly changed his mind and wiped at his eyes as his vision blurred.
Merletoph's hand rested on Dimentio's shoulder and gave it a gentle squeeze. Still fighting sobs, Dimentio gave in to an impulse and threw his arms around Merletoph's neck. Merletoph held him in a tight embrace.
A low hum reverberated through Merletoph's chest. "I… I am so sorry, my boy. I cannot seem to remember. I am trying ."
The crackle in his grandfather's voice renewed the flood of sorrow Dimentio had been fighting to hold back. " He took your memories, " he seethed, his chest quivering with a mix of anger and sadness.
"It must have been someone from the Tribe of Darkness," Merletoph murmured next to Dimentio's ear. "I remember… It was like waking up. I was on top of the hill, and a man was standing over me."
"My father," Dimentio said. "Aldrik."
"Aldrik…" Merletoph's voice hardened as though he recognized the name.
"You were fighting him," Dimentio continued. "But we had to leave. We had to leave you behind."
"I do not blame you, my boy. I did it to keep you safe."
Merletoph shook his head. "No. But I can say that with certainty. You are my grandson. You are precious to me."
Dimentio frowned. "Even though you don't remember me?"
"Yes. Even so."
A sigh snuck past Dimentio's lips. He wrapped his arms more snuggly around Merletoph's neck.
Merletoph drew a hand up and down Dimentio's back. "But, I will need your help figuring out what to do now. If you help me fill in my memories, perhaps I will start to gain them back on my own. I may remember you yet."
Dimentio pulled back to look at his grandfather's face. He studied the shape of his eyes, his nose, and his mouth. He memorized the lines that aged his forehead and his cheeks. Dimentio considered keeping his grandfather for himself. They could return to the Gateway, just the two of them, and find a new world together.
He thought of the others. Mimi, with her pleading eyes, asking him to bring her father back. Blumiere, who would be the only one with magic to protect the group, needed Dimentio to cloak his signature. Even Timpani. They shared a connection to Merletoph's soul.
"We need to go back to the others," he said. "They're on a different world. But I remember what it looks like. I can teleport us there. And… and then I can help you remember."
"Very well," Merletoph said. "I trust you to take us there safely."
Blumiere jolted awake. He sat up, throwing the small blanket off of himself with a start. Next to him, Timpani stirred and lifted her head.
"Blumiere…? What's wrong?"
"I felt something." He didn't know how to describe it. Reaching out as if searching for soul signatures, Blumiere located the 'something' just outside the tent.
A myriad of colors twisted in his mind's eye. Where the soul of a tribesmate would be swirled with blue and black, this soul had blue, yellow, white, orange, and red mixed together. It reminded Blumiere of a wind-swept field of wildflowers.
"Oh!" Timpani grabbed his arm. "I feel Merletoph. Blumiere, I can feel Merletoph!" She jumped to her feet and nearly stepped on Kathleen as she pushed out of the tent. With a hopeful grin, Blumiere followed after her as fast as his sluggish body could manage.
Soon, the tent emptied as everyone reunited with Merletoph. At the sage's request, the conversation quickly evolved into a dramatic recount of their journey over the past week.
"I actually lost my memories once, too!" Mimi said. "You had to come find me!"
"It was during a festival," Timpani added. "You came at just the right time."
Blumiere laughed nervously as he remembered that terrifying night. "It's a good thing, too. I was nearly killed." So much had happened since then, Blumiere could hardly believe less than a week had passed since the festival. He'd met Timpani less than a week ago.
"Kathleen an' me 'ad teh fight against the Tribe o' Darkness!" Ronan exclaimed as they began the next part of their tale. "We got hit, but you 'ealed us!"
"Dimentio 'elped, too," Kathleen added. "Th' lad's learned a lot from you."
As the retelling continued, Dimentio stayed silent. He stood close to Merletoph, nodding occasionally, but he said nothing. He must be exhausted, Blumiere thought.
"...and then we all left for The Gateway..."
"...Blumiere's an' Dimentio's dads were chasin' us…"
"...they caught you, Papa..."
"I felt your soul signature turn black," Dimentio finally spoke up toward the end of the story. "What happened to you? Do you remember?"
Merletoph hummed. "I do not remember much, my boy. I only recall waking up with a man—your father, I assume—standing over me…"
"By the Ancient Blood…" Basile cursed under his breath as he stepped nearer to the blackened form in the castle yard. "Aldrik?"
His brother lay in the center of a circle of burned grass, one of many outside the front door. The overwhelming scent of charred flesh worsened Basile's throbbing headache and incited a curl of nausea.
A howl of despair nipped at the back of his teeth, but he swallowed it down. He'd lost Blumiere. He'd been bested by a human. And now, after being unconscious for far too long, he'd lost Aldrik, too.
Aldrik had the Prognosticus, he reminded himself, and a fresh wave of bitterness flowed over his misery. The Prognosticus had chosen Aldrik, all along, and he'd never told Basile. All the years he'd spent begging the book to teach him, to accept him, to allow him access to its mysteries, and the Prognosticus had never been his.
But the book had failed Aldrik in the end. It had failed to save him.
He knelt next to Aldrik's head and pulled the remains of his circlet from his ashen skull. Basile placed it back upon his own head, his lip curling in disgust. "What did I tell you?" As he stood up, his voice raised to a snarl. "You will never be king. You never deserved to be king!"
In a haze of rage, he spun toward the castle doors and threw them open.
"Father? What's happened?"
He ignored Abany's concerned question, strode down the hallway, and ascended the stairs toward his bedroom.
The voice faded away, drowned out by a ringing in Basile's ears.
The walls of the corridor pressed in on him as he rounded a corner. Blue and red tapestries danced at the edges of his blurry vision. He burst through his bedroom door and marched straight through to the hidden room in the back, the door of which still gaped open.
The Dark Prognosticus rested on the floor behind the pedestal, neatly closed.
"He's dead!" Basile told the book. "Call on me! Give me your power!"
The Dark Prognosticus did not answer.
" I am the king of this Tribe! You will call on me!"
With a furious roar, Basile grabbed for the offensive tome, only for it to slip away from his fingers. An explosion of magic knocked him against the wall, leaving him to watch as the Dark Prognosticus lifted itself from the floor. It hovered to the pedestal and sat gracefully upon it. A moment later, the chains which previously bound it wrapped tightly around the book. The lock in the center clicked shut.
Stunned into numb hopelessness, Basile raised his shaking hands to the circlet around his head. He pressed it into his skull until the needlelike points cut his skin.
He'd lost a brother. He'd lost a son. He'd lost his wife —
"Those blasted humans," he growled. All of his anguish could be traced back to the day they'd killed Anastaise. No, the day they'd killed his father. The day he'd been burdened with the crown.
" I will make them suffer. "
"Aldrik's dead?" A chill crept down Blumiere's spine. "Are you sure?"
"I am certain," Merletoph said. "In truth, I fled the scene as soon as I knew where to go, but the only beings who can withstand the flames are those protected by magic." He put a hand on top of Dimentio's head. "I am so sorry, my boy."
Dimentio shrugged, but Blumiere noticed a slight furrow in his cousin's brow. "He wasn't a good person," Dimentio said.
"We're safe then, right?" Ronan asked. "No one's comin' after us?"
Timpani tucked a strand of hair behind her ear. "Even though Aldrik is dead, we'll need to keep Blumiere hidden so his father can't track us. But we are safe now, as long as we keep Blumiere's signature cloaked."
"My father wouldn't be able to track us any other way," Blumiere agreed. "And even if he does come, we can face him. We've done it before."
A chorus of exclamations and affirmations rose up after Blumiere's words.
"We need to rest," Merletoph's voice cut through the clamor. "We will need to regain our strength before we enter into the Gateway again."
Blumiere smiled. Despite the sage's loss of memory, he still fell into the leadership role the group had been lacking without him. Next to him, Timpani laced her fingers in between his and nudged him with her shoulder. "Let's get some rest," she said, tugging him lightly toward the tent.
His heart fluttered. "I'm so glad you're safe," he whispered.
"We're all safe," Timpani replied. "And what an adventure we've had."
An adventure, Blumiere realized, that has scarcely begun.