As the boat headed out into the open water, it became clear to the Human that this was not a lake or sea, but rather a huge, circular river. Smaller rivers flowed into it, radiating out like spokes from the hub of a wheel. The current of the river, which the Leviathan had called Lethe, moved swiftly around the island in the center, and the boatman had to steer carefully to avoid being swept away. The boat flew across the still water with unnatural speed, and the island across the water grew noticeably. Beneath the surface of the water, which was still mirror-smooth, despite the current, the Human could occasionally see glimpses of the Leviathan’s scales when it rose close to the surface.
By this point, there was almost no light left in the sky. The island was only visible because it blocked the thin gray sliver that defined the horizon. In the center of the island, the Human could just make out a shape that seemed to be the only object taller than a stone. It seemed to give off some slight green light, but it was too far to make out details.
As the boat drew closer, however, it became clear that this object was, in fact, a tree. A tree the size of a mountain. Its size had been obscured by distance, but it now dominated the horizon. The island was mostly made of roots, with just enough earth to fill the spaces between. These roots were wider across than the path the Human had been following. Wider than the river through the forest. The rose from the earth in graceful arcs, plunging back down into the earth and twisting around one another to form an immense gnarled surface. Moss covered them in many places, creating the illusion of a lush meadow dotted with wooden boulders.
The boat came to rest in a gap between the roots, wedging the keel securely into its berth. The boatman gestured that the Human should disembark. As the Human stepped carefully onto the roots, the true scale of the tree became viscerally evident.
The island formed by the tree’s roots was large enough that only the slightest curve could be seen along its edge. The trunk in the center was the size of several large villages laid out end to end. It seemed more like a wall than a cylinder. The bark was a range of browns and grays. No shade seemed out of place for the bark of a tree, but it was odd to see them all together. The branches of the tree stretched out as far as did the roots, creating a mirror of the the island in size and shape. It was so far above, however, that the details of the branches and leaves were lost. The leaves gave off a green glimmer, which was what the Human had seen from the boat. The canopy was so far above, it seemed more a part of the sky than of something anchored to the earth.
Careful to avoid falling down between the roots, the Human set off for the trunk of the great tree. A vibration ran through the roots, and a constant low creaking noise filled the air. It felt like several days walk before the Human neared the trunk. Time was so strange here, though, that it was impossible to tell. As the Human traveled, the going became easier. The roots became wider and less gnarled, creating broad avenues on which the Human made good time. The branches of so large a tree should have cast a shadow, despite the green glimmer from the leaves. However, it seemed the sky was brightening as the Human walked. Reversing the trend towards sunset, the sky now lightened. At first the gray of the horizon spread upward slowly. This was not confined to one region of the sky, however, and the Human could see a ring of light as it appeared to be pre-dawn along the entire horizon. Then, color began to seep back into the sky. Reds and oranges crept up from the horizon and the world became visible again. The Human put the crystal back into the shell container. The glow of the crystal and phoenix feather through the side of the container was more than enough to light the way.
The roots began to slope upward, like foothills. The going became more difficult, and the Human was glad for the walking stick the Fae queen had granted so long ago. By now, the sky was alive with color, as it appeared the sun would rise in every direction at once. The Human was relieved to see light again, but travel was becoming more difficult. The roots sloped steeply up to the trunk, and there appeared no way to scale them further. Turning to one side, the Human decided to circumnavigate the tree, looking for some sign of where the souls who passed on had gone.
It was like walking along a mountain range, but one where the mountains reached up to and became the sky. There had been no sign of souls since the Human arrived on the island, and the Human began to worry that perhaps it was too late.
Abruptly, the Human could go no further. An immense gap in the roots created a canyon that ran into the base of the trunk. Here, the Human found the souls. They streamed in from all directions, the slight distortions they left in the air combining into a shimmering river that flowed between the roots towards the hole in the trunk. On either side of the tunnel, two creatures stood, overlooking the flood of souls, one on either side. They appeared more solid than most things in this world, but their shapes were continually changing. Now a hart, now an eagle, now other avian forms, now a huge fish, now a dragon, now a phoenix, the guardians were always themselves, but never any one shape for long. They watched the souls and the shore with unceasing vigilance. Carefully, wary of provoking such a creature, the Human approached the guardian on the near side of the tunnel.
“Greetings,” the Human called out. The guardian’s head was the height of a large tree in any normal forest, and the Human was unsure if it could hear a single voice from so far below. Slowly, the great head turned and the guardian blinked to focus on the tiny Human at its feet.
“Greetings,” it responded, cocking its head to one side. “What are you doing here? You are not like the others.” Its voice was surprisingly gentle for its size.
“I am seeking my family. They were taken from me, and I wish to be reunited with them. And to seek the city of the Future with them.”
“I know nothing of any city, but all souls that attain the Island of the World Tree come here or one of the other three entrances. They enter the Tree and what becomes of them is not my concern. My duty is to guard the tree. The souls do what they will according to their nature.”
“Other entrances?” the Human asked.
“One for each direction. They all lead to the heart of the Tree,” the guardian replied while turning back to scan the horizon. It appeared to be losing interest not that it had seen that the Human was not a threat.
“May I enter the heart of the Tree?” asked the Human. “Perhaps I can find my family there.”
“I’m afraid not,” responded the guardian. “Mortals are only allowed past as souls.”
“But…,” the Human took a step closer to the edge of the canyon, intending to plead further with the guardian. At this approach, the guardian’s head swung down sharply, blocking the Human from coming closer. Its fangs/beak/horns flashed in the dawn light.
“You may not pass,” growled the guardian. “Your kind has no right.”
“I meant no offense,” said the Human hurriedly, backing away and raising both hands in surrender. The guardian froze in place, staring at the walking stick. Slowly, it lowered its body and bowed its head.
“It is I who should apologize,” it said softly. “I did not see what you carried. The Staff has been lost for so long, I despaired of ever seeing its return.”
“The Staff?” The Human looked at the plain length of wood with some confusion. “It was given to me by the Fae queen.”
“I should have known her kind would have coveted such a thing,” said the guardian. “Despite not knowing its true nature, they would have sensed its age and hoarded it away. They must have seen something special in you to part with it.”
“I met a great tree in the forest who said it was part of Yggdrasil,” the Human began. “Is this…” the Human gestured towards the great Tree.
“That is one name for the World Tree. Others call it the Tree of Life. It has many names. Your people have been tied to the Tree since before you had speech. You all seem to recognize the Tree as sacred. The Tree is known as a creator, the source of eternal life, the bridge between worlds, the source of knowledge and life. And you hold a piece of it in your hand. With that piece, you may pass. I only ask that you leave the Staff with the Tree before you go. It belongs here.”
“Agreed. Thank you.” The Human bowed low.
“May you find what you seek,” replied the guardian, straightening to keep watch once more.
The Human turned and sought a way down into the flood of souls. It took careful climbing, but the Human was soon standing along the edge of the ‘river’. The souls made no sound, and were just as insubstantial as the lost souls on the shore of Lethe. These moved with a purpose, though. The glimpses of form the Human could see were of bodies in determined motion.
Removing the glowing crystal from the shell container and raising it overhead, the Human joined the press of souls and entered the tunnel into the trunk of the great Tree.