The tunnel sloped downward gently, eventually evening out as it met an immense circular chamber so large, that most of it was out of sight behind shadows and the press of souls. The floor showed the rings that made up the interior of the World Tree. Rings without number. Around the edge of the chamber, a set of darkened tunnels branched off in a downward direction, like roots branching from a central stem. The mouths of these tunnels were not just shadowed, but lacked light in a way that reminded the Human of the path from the Rock King’s domain. The Dark seemed to rest there. The walls of the chamber were lined with thousands of staircases, spiraling up into the branches above. The roof of the chamber, which was so far away as to be blurred by distance, glowed with shimmering light. What looked like the branches of the Tree spread out of sight.
The floor of the chamber was filled with souls milling around. It was not a bare floor, however. Pale echos of light could be seen here and there among the press. The Human approached one nearby and saw that it was a window in midair. It showed a series of images, each of a human back in the Present going about their daily life. In front of the window sat a soul. This soul did not have the restless quality possessed by many of the others. This one was a bit more solid-seeming, and the Human had an impression of great age and wisdom. From time to time, the soul would touch the window with a sense of great love and kindness. The humans shown in the window all resembled one another, and, the Human now saw, the soul as well. Each window around the great chamber seemed to be showing an ancestral soul the lives of their descendants, allowing them to watch over and guide those left behind. These places acted like stones in a river, their stillness causing eddies in the current of souls flowing around them.
Above the heads of the souls hovered a variety of beings. They were of many shapes and species, some combining animal and human characteristics. Souls gathered below them, and the beings would reach down and chose souls from their crowd to guide either towards the staircases, or towards the tunnel. Some even were directed to other areas within the chamber. Some beings made their choices with careful and calm deliberation, using great tomes or scales to weigh the deeds of the soul and decide their fate. Other seemed to know by instinct where a soul should be, and would fling some into a nearby tunnel, while lifting others onto a staircase. Some stood by the base of a staircase guiding the way of those who sought them, but even with these, some souls turned away and joined the crowd rather than ascend.
These souls joined the many who neither oversaw their families nor sought judgment. This group seemed without purpose. They were formless and listless, similar to those along the shore who lacked even the drive to make it this far. The wanderers tended to drift towards the edge of the chamber. The Human was horrified to see that if they came near the mouth of a tunnel, tendrils of Darkness would reach out and tug at them. Many, without any obvious objection, allowed themselves to be pulled into the Dark. It seemed that those who lost hope were prone to falling into Oblivion.
As the Human walked further into the chamber, more details became evident. There were other chambers that branched off from this one. Some took the form of great halls where souls sat calmly, apparently in contemplation. Others were filled with souls being tormented, but these places did not have the hopeless Darkness of the tunnels. These souls seemed to have hope that their suffering would end and serve a purpose. Still others opened onto great fields where souls wandered aimlessly.
The Human was happy to see that a good number of souls sought the staircases without being directed there. They seemed to move with purpose as they entered the chamber, or as they exited one of the side chambers, and headed for the nearest staircase. These seemed more formed than those that wandered the chamber, and a palpable joy emanated from them.
The chamber was dim, only lit by the light from the branches. In an attempt to see better, the Human raised the crystal overhead. The surrounding souls flinched back, as if in pain. They seemed to wither before it, and some seemed to seek a nearby tunnel to escape the blinding light. Hurriedly, the Human placed the crystal back into the shell container, arranging the mirror behind it to reflect more of the light through the front shell. This dimmed the light enough that the souls returned to normal.
For what seemed like hours, the Human wandered the chamber, hoping to find souls that looked familiar. Had the Human’s love and children already left this place? Had they been pulled down into Oblivion? No. They were full of joy in life. Surely that would help them resist the pull?
The Human neared the center of the chamber, where the rings became smaller and smaller, the heartwood of the Tree. Here, the Human found a small opening in the floor, the same size as the end of the walking stick. The Human planted the end of the staff into the opening and it stuck fast, fusing with the wood around it. The Human then, in a moment of inspiration, affixed the shell container to the top of the staff using the straps. It now stood as a lantern, acting as a beacon to light the center of the chamber. The floating beings turned to note this, but did not alter their behavior. The souls continued to flow around the room, moving around the Human as they did around the ancestral souls and the crowds seeking judgment.
Except. There. A small disruption in the flow. A small patch of discontinuity in the blur of passing souls. It drew closer, and then, after so long, the Human saw them. Three souls, one larger, and two smaller, standing at the edge of the space around the staff. They did not approach closer, and seemed somehow hesitant. The Human reached out a hand, slowly, not wanting to startle them. The larger soul turned away from the light to face the Human. Its form shivered and slowly took a slightly more distinct form, like those of the ancestors. It reached out an arm towards the Human. It had not lost all memory! The soul was still the Human’s lost love in some way. The two smaller souls drew closer to the larger one, and, touching it, began to solidify slightly as well. The children had some surviving self as well!
Moving carefully, never turning away from the trio of souls, the Human took the container down from the staff and stepped slightly away. The three souls followed. The Human reached out to touch the staff, which had already begun to sprout new leaves, thinking a prayer of thanks to the Tree for its help.
The Human slowly walked towards the wall, holding the light aloft, and avoiding large concentrations of souls, so as not to lose sight of the three following. The nearest staircase was near the entrance of a tunnel, and, as they drew close, tentacles of Darkness reached for the Human’s family. The Human stepped between the souls and the opening of the tunnel, holding the light to one side to lead them to safety. So focused on their movement, the Human did not notice a larger tentacle reaching from the opening until it was too late.
“Mine,” hissed the Darkness, as the tentacle tightened on the Human’s leg. “You are always and forever mine. Forsaken by those that bore you, outcast from your home, bereft without your family, you have no hope, no purpose, no reason to continue. Let go and drift with me, let go of the pain and close your eyes. Oblivion is without pain. In time, even your sanity will go.”
The Human felt heavy. Cold began to spread out from the tentacle’s grasp. It had been such a long journey with no true rest. Even if they reached the branches above, would the Human’s family be themselves? Was a spark of recognition enough? Why climb so high only to be disappointed. Why not let it go and fall into Oblivion.
A bright light pierced the Human’s closed eyelids, snapping them open. The Human had dropped the shell container, and the crystal had rolled free. Somehow, in spite of obvious pain, the Human’s love had grasped the crystal and lifted it to the Human’s face. The soul shivered with effort, and the hand holding the crystal wavered as if lifting a great weight. The souls of the children stood on either side and reached for the Human’s hands. The Human could feel a faint pressure from them, despite their diaphanous forms.
Awake once more, the Human took the crystal back and turned, thrusting it out at the Darkness. It blazed brighter than ever before.
“Begone, creature of hopelessness and fear! You cannot hold me if I chose not to be held. I have found my family, and neither you nor any other being will take me from them!” cried the Human.
The Darkness shrank back with a thin squeal of pain. The tentacles could still be seen writhing within the tunnel, but they could not enter the light. The Human set the crystal down at the entrance to the tunnel and backed away. Reaching out, the Human took the hand of the nearest child. The child took the hand of the larger soul, who took the hand of the other child. As one, the family moved to the staircase and began to climb.