Note: still working on getting caught up on illustrations. They’ll be back soon!
The Human walked for a short while, and there, winding among the great trees, was a small trail. It looked to be the sort left by animals, rather than by the feet of people. The tree boughs closed over top of the trail, blocking out even more light than was visible on the path. It did not have an ominous feeling, though, but rather one of quiet contemplation. The Human left the path and headed into the dim light.
The trail wound around the trees and the entrance from the path was soon out of sight. The Human was surprised when the trail opened up into a clearing suddenly. There was no sign of a Witch, but instead an immense tree stood in the center of the clearing. Its branches created a huge domed, arched roof above the clear area, creating the feel of a sacred space. The hush of the forest was broken her by the creak of the great bows and the murmur of a breeze that could be heard, but not felt. It seemed brighter here, but the sky did not appear to be any brighter. Instead, the leaves above seemed to radiate a warm, green light. It was dim, but with so many thousands of leaves over head, the clearing glowed. The ground was covered in soft, thick moss, and the Human found that each step sunk in a bit as the moss gave way slightly. Assuming that the trail resumed on the other side of the clearing, the Human made to walk around the grand tree, when a voice rumbled out.
“Greetings traveler,” it said. The voice was so deep as to be more felt than heard. It came from above, but resonated through the very ground. The Human stopped and looked around for the source. “Look up, little one,” said the voice warmly. There was a chuckle that vibrated from the earth up to the Human’s knees. Looking up into the canopy, the Human saw what appeared to be a face in the bark of the great tree.
“Hello,” replied the Human, bowing and hoping the bow would conceal the look of surprise. The Human had heard of forest spirits, but they were more like those beings at the river, personifications of their environment. This was something new to the Human. Even more surprising was that the tree rose up a bit on its roots, the ground around it rippling under the moss, and turned towards the Human. With a great rustling sound, the tree drew down two of its limbs and made a courtly bow in return.
“Very pleased to meet you,” said the tree. “Are you looking for the Witch? Few come this way, and they all seem to be seeking the Witch’s aid.”
“I am,” replied the Human. “This is the right way, then?”
“It is. If I may be so rude as to ask, why do you seek the Witch?” the tree asked. The Human recounted the usual tale of death, grief, and struggle, ending with the advice of the Tinker to seek the Witch. The tree looked more and more concerned and sad as the tale progressed. The smaller branches and leaves drooped, and the tree sank down further onto its roots.
“Oh my. You are the one I felt. I am part of all forests and woods and all of them are part of me. The trees near your home shivered with your grief and the echoes of your travels have reached me through my children who have lined your path. There is a gap in what I could perceive, though. That must have been when you traveled through the mountain. To have braved such darkness,” the tree shivered at the thought. “Do you truly believe the Witch can help you, or do you seek out of desperation?”
“I must believe there is some way of returning my family to me. Otherwise, I shall consign myself to Oblivion with them. There is nothing else for me.”
“Ah, do not say such things,” said the tree as a wind sighed through its branches. “Do not see death and forgetfulness as your only options. There is always hope and always a way forward. Your grief may have pulled you here, but this is not a terrible place to leave grief behind. All things fade into the Past, after all, even our pain. Everything with a beginning has an end, even pain as great as yours. Come, child, sit by me and rest. Put down your burden and think carefully about your choice.” A root flexed under the moss, rising up to create a soft seat that was just right for a tired Human. The Human gratefully sat, laying down the turtle-shell container and the walking stick. As the stick came to rest on the ground, the tree shivered.
“Oh. It has been so long. To think that such a thing still exists… Perhaps some things truly are eternal,” murmured the tree. “Where did you get that?”
“The Fae Queen gave it to me shortly after I arrived here,” answered the Human quietly. The Human had not rested since arriving in this realm, and the quiet, rustling air, the comfort of a soft place to rest, the dim glow of the leaves, all of this was easing the weariness of the Human’s body and soul.
“Ah. It came from a very old tree, did it not?” asked the tree. The Human nodded sleepily.
“Was that one of your children?” the Human asked.
“A cousin, would be a better term. The child of my sibling. I am the echo of all the trees that ever grew in your realm. I am very old. There is another, though. Some call it Yggdrasil, or the World Tree. It holds the realms together and keeps them apart. It is the end and the beginning of many things. My sibling, but much, much older. That stick is a piece of it. It holds great power. I wonder how it came to fall?” mused the tree. “So, little one. Do not sleep. You have not the time, or you will lose your chance to find your family. But instead, think on this: what is gained if you throw yourself into Oblivion? All things end, even suffering, but that place is not a way to end your suffering early. Do not seek Oblivion. Rather, seek hope and do not relinquish your hold on yourself. You do not owe your family the death of all that they loved in you. Keep that alive. For them.”
“I fear I cannot bear the pain of losing them,” answered the Human, sitting more upright. “I have nothing without them.” The tree chuckled again, not unkindly.
“Oh, to be so young. Full of life, but blinded by fear. Those who shared your life loved you, Human. You are still what they loved. You have everything without them, just as you had it with them. You are a piece of eternity itself, and the pain you feel is part of that eternity. To seek Oblivion is to deny the very love you seek. Have you known pain in the past?” asked the tree. The Human thought of the time before knowing love and nodded.
“I was lonely and frightened for a long time before I met my love,” the Human answered. “Now that my family is gone, all I feel is that fear and pain, all the stronger this time, because I have known its absence.”
“So your pain was ended by love. Why do you think it will be different this time? Even if you do not return your family to you, love is not gone from the world. You still carry the love you felt for them and they for you. You can still find love in the world. Look around you. This is place of wonder and beauty. True, there is peril. And no small amount of pain, but that is so very much more than what awaits in Oblivion. Remember that. Mourning those who you have lost does them honor. Forgetting yourself does not. It denies their existence. After all, once you are gone, who will still love your family?”
The Human sat silent for a long moment, unable to answer that question. To enter Oblivion would be an end to pain, but to lose love, too? That seemed a great price. Tears streamed down the Human’s face.
“Thank you for your wisdom and kindness,” said the Human, looking up into the tree’s wizened face. “I had forgotten much when I came to this place, and you have helped me to remember. My love would scold me endlessly for my dark thoughts,” the Human laughed quietly. “If I lose myself, I lose all that is left of them. I shall still try to return them to me, but I won’t enter Oblivion if I am unable to bring them back to themselves.”
The tree reached several limbs down and scooped the Human up to eye level. It used a leaf to brush the tears from the Human’s cheeks. After searching the Human’s face for a moment, the tree broke into a wide smile.
“I see that you speak truly. The darkness I saw in you has receded. Be wary of its return. I shall keep my eye on you as you travel. Wherever one of my children stands, I will be there with you. If you need to remember your strength, just rest a bit with me, and I shall remind you.”
The Human gripped the nearest branch and squeezed tight.
“Thank you. I owe you much,” said the Human.
“Do not think of ‘owing’. I have merely reminded you of something you already knew. Kindness towards all things is the basis of happiness. I am merely showing kindness to the piece of myself I see in you and in all things.” The tree returned the Human to the ground at the spot where the trail left the clearing and stood tall once more. “Now, go see the Witch. My old friend the Tinker is correct, the Witch may well hold the secret to helping your family remember themselves. May light guide your way.” The tree bowed low again. The Human returned the gesture and then headed down the path towards the Witch.