The Faded Kingdom – Chapter 17

The staircase wound around the inside of the Tree, climbing ever higher. It sloped gently, at an angle seemingly designed for steady, comfortable progress. As the family climbed, they passed other souls and were passed in turn. None of the souls appeared to be rushing, but each soul or group of souls moved at a pace that suited them.  Now that the Human’s family had been reunited, there was no reason to worry about reaching a destination in a hurry. No pressure to avoid falling behind. Instead, the group traveled easily. The children were able, in this form, to travel as quickly as the adults, and nobody tired. Time slipped past.

As the family climbed higher, the light from above grew brighter. The glimmering green of the Tree’s great leaves became a steady green glow that illuminated the inside of the Tree. After what could have been hours, or days, or even years, the family reached the lowest branches of the tree. Like the roots below, these were hollow. Ledges ran around the circumference of the trunk, allowing those on the staircases to reach the branches if they wished. For some branches, the hollows ran out of sight, with the destination obscured by a soft green light. Some others, however opened onto platforms made of overlapping enormous leaves. These areas took on a multitude of forms. Some were great feasting halls where souls rejoiced in the presence of their fellows while radiant beings oversaw the festivities. Others were beautiful gardens, where souls could rest eternally in dappled shade near pools of brilliant blue water. One stood out from the others by being decidedly not a place of rest or celebration. This one was a battlefield. Masses of souls, wearing gleaming armor of gold and silver, clashed against one another. Their cries were not screams of terror or rage, however, but of joy. Here, they could strive against a worthy enemy without ever losing comrades or suffering injury.

At each ledge, some souls would peel off from those climbing and seek one of these openings. They seemed drawn to their proper place just as had the souls below. None of these places attracted the Human’s family, however. The Human began to worry. Would a living soul be welcome in one of these places, or would this just be another separation?

The family continued to climb, past places where souls joined their departed kin, past worlds which resembled one another yet each higher one was more beautiful and restful, eventually reaching the top of the Tree. The staircases reached a broad canopy, and the souls who climbed this high stepped out onto broad, springy foliage. The overlapping leaves were each the size of the Human’s old house, and there was no fear of falling through, as they only gave slightly beneath the Human’s feet, and did not move at all at the passage of the souls.

Here, more beings could be seen. These were different from those below, however. They shone with brilliant light of many colors. Each was different in appearance, but all radiated a sense of benevolence and welcome. Some resembled human form, but with immense wings. Others were masses of many wings and eyes. One varied from male to female each time the Human looked, both forms beautiful to behold. Some had no defined shapes, while others took the forms of animals, or had a mixture of human and animal traits. Some embodied aspects of nature, light and fire and water and the stars in the sky. The air was full of sound. The whispers of the leaves provided a backdrop for the sounds of joyous song that came from many directions.

Many of the remaining souls moved off towards one of these beings. In some cases, they were warmly welcomed, and moved past onto spreading branches beyond. Some of these areas seemed to contain still more glorious beings, while others shown with brilliant light. The souls who entered these latter seemed to join with the light, becoming one with the divine they sought.

The Human’s family did not seek any of these areas. In life, they had not followed any particular faith. Coming, as they did, from traditions that rejected them, the Human and the Human’s love had not felt part of the faiths of their people. The Human wondered what became of those who did not have a spiritual home in the Present. They had escaped Oblivion, but the City of which so many had spoken was nowhere to be seen. The Human’s family, however, seemed to know where to go, as they started off, pulling the Human along.

Here, between two grand branches, was a smaller limb. It was still broader across than the path the Human had followed for so long, but it was far smaller than the branches around it. It bent up ahead, and the Human could not see where it led. The Human’s family did not hesitate, though, and they proceeded into the glowing foliage.

The branch twisted and turned, rose and fell, and the Human marveled that they could travel so far out from the great trunk and the branch was still broad enough to hold them. Turning one final corner, the branch cleared the canopy, and the family stepped out into the open.

Ahead, the leaves of the branch made a clearing like those the Human had seen before. On the far side, a great silver arch overhead. It was covered in writing from many tongues. They all read the same thing, “The World To Come”. Beyond the arch, the surface of the leaves took on a silvered hue, and the leaves merged together to form a broad boulevard. Ahead, buildings of the same material glinted in a light that came from everywhere and nowhere at the same time. The family approached the arch and stepped through.

Among the buildings, souls drifted about, and other, more solid beings went about what appeared to be normal daily business. Seeing the Human’s family standing in the street, one of these beings stopped and came nearer.

It was a bit taller than the Human, and was as solid as the Tree had been. It did not waver or shift in any way. Its face was smooth except for great dark eyes. Its head was smooth and grew no hair, but always seemed to emit a faint aura of warm light instead. It wore a robe that shifted colors gently from one to the next. When it spoke, no mouth was evident, but the Human heard the words nonetheless. Its voice was warm and kind.

“Welcome. You have come far. Be joyful that your journey is both at an end and yet just beginning,” it said, bowing slightly.

“Thank you,” replied the Human. “What is this place?”

“This is the end and the beginning. Where the Past meets that which is to come. Here, souls who have ended their journey rest until they are ready to venture out anew. You are not a soul, however. How did you come to be here?”

The Human told the being the tale of loss, grief, despair, hope, and perseverance that bridged the death of the Human’s family and their arrival here.

“It seems you HAVE come far,” chuckled the being. “Do not worry. You will not be separated from your loved ones. As they spend time here, they will remember their lives and you. Souls here remember their lives and contemplate what they have learned and what they have yet to know. Those that desire to return to life can be reborn and live anew. Some choose to do so together, in fact. Those who have reached the end of their journey, who feel no pull to return to the Present, remain here until the end of all things.”

“What happens then?” asked the Human. “Does all of this disappear?”

“Oh no!” laughed the being. “Time does not ever truly end. Once all souls have reached their chosen rests, they will return to the divine. All souls came from the Infinite and to the Infinite they will return, bringing with them all they have learned and experienced. For some, the path will be very long and painful. Some throw themselves into Oblivion, so great is the burden they carry. There, they will forget their pain, hate, and suffering. This will allow them to rejoin the rest of us as whole beings. Once we are all reunited, we will begin the World anew. Thus it has always been, and thus it shall always be.”

The Human stood silent for a moment. “How long have you been here?” the Human asked.

“Long enough that I am nearly ready to return to the Present for my next life,” said the being with joy. “I’ve started taking on a form already. I wonder what life I shall live this time? In the past I have learned so much, and I wish to learn even more. But that is for another time. For now, let us find you all a place to stay. And you, my friend, you have a decision to make.” The being gestured to the family and led them further into the city. They passed beautiful fountains and plazas, tall spires, houses of worship of many types, each ringing with song. Eventually, they came to a street lined with houses. Each had a small garden where jeweled flowers grew. Many had children, some still insubstantial, and others nearly as solid as the family’s guide, playing out front. The being brought the family to a house that bore a resemblance to the home they had once shared. It even had a bench out front. Behind the house, trees stretched into the distance, shining with the same light as the World Tree.

“This seems like it will suit you!” exclaimed the being. The Human’s family moved towards the door of the house and the Human tried to follow, but the being interfered, reaching out a hand.

“I said before you had a choice to make. You already have your memories. But you do not remember any prior lives, correct?” The Human nodded. “I thought so. Since you came here without dying, the memories of your past life have not been cleared away. The grief that brought you here is keeping you in this form.” The being gestured to the Human’s body, dark and solid and heavy. “What you must decide is this: will you release your grief and pain and, with them, your present form? You will need to let go of your desires, fears, even your memories. Know that they will return with time, but the process of releasing your attachments will be difficult. In a way, you will be letting yourself die. So that you may be reborn.”

The Human was stunned. To come so far to lose everything again? To forget the very people who meant so much? The being stepped close, and put a gentle hand on the Human’s shoulder.

“Remember, though, that your family will still be with you. You will remember them in time, as they will you. If you cling to what you have now, you will lose them nonetheless when they are ready to be reborn and you cannot follow. Their cycle will continue. You must decide if you can release your bonds and join them.” The being stepped away, and, bowing low, turned and left the Human. The Human turned back towards the house. Through the window, the forms of the Human’s family could now be seen just a bit better than a few moments before. The children were following one another around the house, and the Humans’ love had taken a seat by the window, just as in life.

The Human sat on the bench outside of the house that now held the promise of joy, considering what to do. There was nothing to be lost but sadness and reminders of what had gone before. The Human’s eyes closed.

When the Human woke, the world had become very strange.

It seemed a long night had passed leaving the Human somewhere new.

There was no grief for what was lost.

The Human turned and saw a house made of silver, with gleaming green trees behind it. From inside the house, movement and laughter could be heard. The Human rose and went inside.

Once there was a Human who lived at the edge of the forest.

The Faded Kingdom – Chapter 16

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.

The Faded Kingdom – Chapter 15

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.