Journey to the source

I live on the fifth level of the Great Oak. Seven days ago the source of life dried up.

On the first day the village elders called a meeting. Everyone was in an uproar. This had never happened before in the history of our existence! Did we displease the gods? Was the Great Oak dying? Was this the work of a great and terrible wizard? The fountains that supplied us with the source, the water of life that sustained us, were simply all dried up. The people began to panic.

On the second day fighting broke out. Neighbours turned on neighbours, friends turned on friends. The source of life, once so abundant and free was now gone and no-one knew what was going to happen next. The panic was escalating.

On the third day the village elders tried to organise a search party to enter the trunk of the Great Oak. Perhaps the problem lay inside that which gave us shelter and life. No-one had ever been inside the Great Oak. The men never returned.

On the fourth day the first child died. Our people live for many hundreds of seasons before they return to the Great Oak, yet children are a rare blessing to us. To lose one of the few born to the village in the last fifty seasons was truly heartbreaking. The rest of us may not be far behind.

On the fifth day fires broke out in the village centre. With no water to put them out the merchants struggled to save what they could of their shops. Very little remained by the time the flames were brought under control. The majority of their goods were burnt to cinders, their shops reduced to ashes.

On the sixth day my younger brother died. He was two seasons old. While it was a rare blessing for children to be born amongst our people it was almost unheard of for two or more to be born. Our family was the first in several hundred seasons to be blessed with a second child. Yet that blessing was taken away almost as soon as it was bestowed. My parents were heartbroken. The village elders were heartbroken. I was heartbroken.

On the seventh day I stood before the entrance to the trunk of the Great Oak. It was time to find out why the source of life had dried up.

1

I visited Elric’s store on my way through the remains of the village centre. His store was one of the few still in business, if you could call it that. As the blacksmith most of his goods survived the fire, yet with the source of life gone no-one was in any position to be buying weapons or metal goods now.

“How can I help you, Hedda?”

“I’m going into the trunk. I need whatever you have.”

Elric laughed at me. It was big and hearty but not cruel.

“Little Hedda, what exactly do you think you can do?”

“What no-one else is. I’m going to find out why the source of life dried up. If I don’t we’re going to die anyway.”

“This is true, yes. But the men we sent inside the trunk never returned. What makes you think you’ll fare better than them?”

“Only one way to find out.”

“You sure are a stubborn child. Take whatever you need. Not like I need it anymore anyway.”

I picked up a small sword that glistened by the light of his blacksmith’s fire. I saw a reflection in it, something dark standing behind me. I spun around but no-one was there.

I turned back. There was a small shield engraved with an emblem of the Great Oak and a helmet with the horns of Svorn the Elder Stag.

“These will do.”

“You have excellent taste. And please, convey my condolences to your mother about young Eddi before you leave. A terrible loss for us all. His light will be missed.”

Elric crossed his heart and cast his gaze downwards. My heart still ached. Eddi was only a babe of two seasons, one of only four children in the entire village. Now only two remained, but for how much longer?

“I will. Thank you, Elric.”

“Take care, Hedda. May you return to us swiftly and in good health.”

I didn’t return to my parents. They would only try to stop me if they knew the course of action I intended to pursue. Instead I went first to the edge of town, the edge of the Great Oak’s branches. The edge of the world.

I came here often as a child. While many in our village looked to the upper branches and wondered just what lived up there I spent most of my time looking down, towards the roots. They say our ancestor, the first Elresian, was originally a ground dweller. He was a curious man and being unhappy with his lot in life he entered the Oak and ascended. He uncovered many secrets on the way and when he first set foot on the land of our village he taught everyone what he learned and was well loved for it. Well, almost everything, anything.

What was his home like, I often wondered? What drove him to explore the unknown regions of the Oak, leaving everything he ever knew behind? Why did he never return home?

A bird flew by in the distance. How I longed to have wings to join it. Then I could easily discover both what sat at the roots of the Great Oak and in the branches high above. Very few people ever left the village and I had once hoped to visit some far flung lands on a grand adventure with Eddi like our ancestor before us had done.

Leaves rustled behind me. There was nothing but a cold wind blowing in. I tightened the strap of the Svorn helmet beneath my chin and made for the entrance to the trunk. It was a large door covered in runes carved into the bark. The source of life kept it sealed. The source of life was now gone. I pushed it open.

2

The inside of the Great Oak was dark and musty. A torch from the search party was still burning close to the entrance. I transferred the flame to a fresh torch and began my descent. The stairs were for the most part carved from the Oak itself. Man-made structures by the engineers of old supplemented areas where the Great Oak’s walls simply couldn’t reach.

Nobody knew how large the Great Oak truly was, but to reach the other side in a straight line – were it even possible – could potentially take days or weeks of travel. I didn’t have that much time. I needed to reach the source, and fast.

Thankfully the source was down, not up.

I descended. I descended until I wasn’t sure if I was going up, down or sideways anymore. I descended until my calves burned and the empty contents of my stomach echoed off the Oak walls. There was nothing to distinguish the endless stairs as I continued my descent deep into the trunk. Was this what madness felt like? An endless continuation of the same?

Finally I saw something below, the first unique structure since entering the trunk seemingly endless hours ago. It was a bridge, and at the foot of the bridge lay a sword.

It was covered in blood.

Elric’s crest was engraved in the handle; this was one of ours. A helmet sat in the middle of the bridge. Next to it was a severed hand.

The only way forth was across the bridge. I had no choice. I stopped and waiting, listening. There was nothing but the sound of my own breathing. I picked up a rock and tossed it across the bridge. It hit the wooden plank with a soft thud and then skidded off the edge. Silence surrounded me once more.

I took the first tentative step. Then another, and another. The bridge swayed slightly, but it was designed specifically by the engineers to sway. There was nothing to be afraid of. Nothing to…

Something collided with my helmet and sent me careening into the chain-guard. My torch went tumbling over the edge; I watched it fade away into darkness. Steeling myself I dropped to my knees and crawled along the bridge, gripping the edge so tight it felt like I was going to tear my nails off.

This time I heard the sound coming. The flapping of giant wings. They flew right above me, the creature attached to them letting out an ungodly screech. I covered my ears but it was futile. The sound was so piercing I was paralysed on the spot.

The creature breathed fire. Flames shot from its mouth and nostrils as it finished screaming. It singed the top of my head, lighting up the dark like a harvest bonfire.

That’s when I saw it. Something on the other side of the bridge. The same thing I saw reflected in the sword at Elric’s place.

I stood up and ran. I didn’t care anymore. The longer I was on the bridge the more likely that thing was going to kill me anyway. I tripped, hitting the planks hard but with so much adrenaline pumping through me I felt nothing. Nothing but the urge to reach the safety of solid ground on the other side. To find out who or what was there.

Wind blew past my face. It was coming back. I tried to hit the ground but was too slow. The creature barreled into my side; I hit the chain-guard and flipped over as it took off into the air again. With one hand grasped on the chain I tried to pull myself back up before it returned. My strength was rapidly fading and it was merely testing the waters. I wouldn’t survive another run.

It was coming. I was too late. I pulled out my sword with my free hand, closed my eyes and tried to focus. There was no way I could see it, but I sure as hell could hear it. As I felt the wind on my neck and heard the flapping to my right I thrust my sword upward. My aim was true. The creature screeched once more and landed on the bridge with a loud bang. The chains rattled violently. I held on with all my might, feeling like a child’s toy about to be dropped into the abyss.

I climbed back up. Tiny flames followed by puffs of smoke were shooting out of the creature’s mouth as it lay dying at my feet. I looked to the other side of the bridge but the figure I saw earlier was nowhere to be seen. I was alone.

I had to press forth. There was no time to waste.

3

Three days passed in darkness. At least I think it was three days. It could have been one, it could have been seven. It was hard to tell in the darkness with nothing but endless stairs beneath my feet. Fungus and plants grew on the Oak walls. They didn’t make for the most nutritious meal but one did not beg when trying to survive.

Several times I felt something following me. When I turned around there was nothing there. When I stopped there was no sound. When I tried to spring a trap I would merely surprise an oak mole.

Was the darkness driving me insane?

After passing the bridge I noticed water running down the walls of the trunk. Unlike our source which came from below this seemed to be coming from above. Was there perhaps another source up there as well? It was only a trickle, but it was still water.

Two days ago, give or take, I passed the bodies of the search crew. Rather, the remains of the bodies of the search crew. Mogdir, one of my father’s closest friends, was missing a hand. I guess that was the hand I discovered on the bridge. The rest of the crew were cut up or torn to pieces. I gathered their meager belongings, said a prayer and went on my way. There was nothing I could do for them now.

As I descended lower and lower down the trunk I realised I could hear something. I was no longer surrounded only by silence and the sounds of my own footsteps on the bark. It was like something scratching. Something clawing.

I stopped. There was something ahead, hopping towards me. No, not something. Several somethings. I wasn’t imagining it this time. I looked around, trying to find a place to hide. My eyes had adjusted to the darkness. I was still unable to see for the most part but I was able to distinguish movement and shapes immediately before me. Something was coming and my instincts told me I didn’t want to be around to see it.

I felt the walls and found what I was looking for. Vines. I pulled on a few, found the sturdiest of the bunch and pulled myself up. I waited. I waited what felt like an age but I waited and did not move.

I heard them getting closer. Hop. Hop. Hop. I couldn’t make it out clearly but the creature appeared to only have a single leg. It was trailed by several smaller versions of itself. They were grotesque, like nothing I’d ever seen before. A single sunken eye sitting above a mouth full of razor sharp teeth. Each creature had a single arm to go with its single leg. They used this to scrape the ground as they jumped, long claws leaving scratches in the ground beneath them.

They passed without noticing me. I waited until I could no longer hear their furious hopping and continued on my way.

With nothing but myself for company the melancholy was starting to get to me. Would I even make it to the bottom? What would I do when I got there? I missed my brother. I missed him so much I found tears rolling down my cheeks without even realising I was crying. We were going to explore the world together. We were going to be heroes like our ancestor Elres. Fight monsters, destroy demons, discover new lands and help people. Not for money but for humanity.

Whatever was keeping the source from running, I was going to destroy it. Whatever it took. For my village. For my family. For my brother.

Several flights of stairs and a few overgrown centipedes later I found a small door. It was covered in runes like the entrance to the trunk from our village. Also like our village door it was no longer locked. I pushed it open and crawled inside.

A tiny room was carved into the walls of the Oak. As I entered a torch sprung to life on the wall in front of me. The study of a wizard? There was a small desk and chair in the corner, roughly the same size as Eddi when he was alive. An even smaller chest sat beside them. A single scroll lay inside.

It was a map of the Great Oak.

A small cross was marked roughly two thirds of the way down. Was that the location of the study? I ran my finger up, locating where I thought my village was. If the map was true I’d covered a lot of ground already but still had a lot more to cover.

At the bottom of the Oak – the location of the source of life – was a large demon. It was breathing fire, much like the smaller winged creature I saw earlier, but this demon was wingless and its lower half was entwined with the roots. I couldn’t tell whether it was the demon that was trapped or the roots that were trapped. I packed the scroll into my bag and crawled back out. Now I had a better idea of what I was facing once I reached the bottom.

The torch extinguished the moment I exited the room.

Somewhere in the distance I heard laughter. Or was that my own?

4

As I neared the roots of the tree I began to realise something. The creatures of the Great Oak were far more numerous down here. They were also far more terrifying.

I passed a flayed man suspended in mid-air. Whatever killed him had done so recently; blood was still dripping to the floor beneath him.

There were serpents twice the size of a man on the surface. There were smaller winged creatures that attacked in a whirlwind of fangs and claws. There was creatures that were slimy to the touch coating the walls. I made the mistake of touching one in the darkness and lost all feeling in my arm for an hour. Now I was forced between navigating blindly or risking paralysation.

The most disturbing of all was the shadow I could see. It was always there, darker than the darkness. Sometimes it was close. Sometimes it was far. But it was always there. Always following me.

I was hungry. I was thirsty. The Oak was withering around me.

5

An onion creature sat on the path before me. It was fat and stout, resembling an onion. Perhaps it was edible.

I thrust my sword into its back. The creature didn’t even see me coming. My eyes were becoming well adapted to the darkness, I didn’t even need a torch anymore. It put me on somewhat equal footing with the other creatures in here. We weren’t so different, not anymore.

The onion creature’s blood spilled all over my boots. It stank, but I was hungry.

It tasted putrid.

6

The darkness smiled at me.

7

There was a bridge followed by a room. In the room I found dinner. Or was it breakfast? I also discovered another small chest with a scroll inside.

“We’ve done what we can. It won’t hold forever. It needs life. To those who find this, we are sorry. Go back while you still can.”

I was getting closer. Soon I would be able to help the village. Help my parents. I could barely picture their faces anymore. No matter. Find the source. Kill the demon. Save the Oak.

I checked the map one more time. No-one knew exactly where our ancestor Elres came from. He brought with him only tales of the Great Oak’s roots and a single memento; the crest of his former village. The sun being swallowed by the moon.

The sound of scratching outside grew louder. Or was it gnawing? The water trickling down the Oak walls also stopped. There was no fungus here, no moss or vines. It was almost as if the Oak itself was finally dying.

Perhaps it really was. Perhaps I was too late.

I steeled myself and opened the door. The door the first engineers built when the Great Oak was still but a sapling.

The darkness greeted me. I greeted it back.

“You’ve been following me all this time.”

There was no reply.

“I know who you are.”

“Who am I?”

Where was the voice coming from?

“No-one important.”

“No, I’m not.”

“Why are you following me?”

“To watch the moon set over the sun.”

“There is no moon in here.”

“Nor is there a sun.”

“What awaits me?”

“What awaits every living creature?”

“Then let me meet it.”

“What makes you think you haven’t already?”

“I don’t have time for this nonsense.”

“On the contrary, time is all you have.”

“You’re not making any sense.”

“Why must there be sense to see the truth?”

“What truth?”

“The truth of death. The truth of life. The truth of the source.”

“I know what I must do.”

“Do you?”

I did. Somewhere between stabbing onion creatures in the back and slaying the children of hoppers I came to understand what needed to be done. The only way I could save the source and bring life back to my people. It was not a difficult conclusion to reach.

“Why did you leave the roots?”

“They had nothing further to offer me. Stagnate or grow. There is no in-between.”

I nodded.

“I have to go.”

The darkness was gone. I adjusted the shield on my back, tightened my sword belt and stepped onto the withered stairs.

The demon was gnawing. The demon was scratching. The demon was pulling and twisting and tearing the roots from the ground. The demon was killing the source. I was going to kill it.

8

The demon was a god and I but an insect at its feet. The source of life stood between me and it. It was barely a puddle, a soft trickle at the bottom of the Oak that made up the world. It was beautiful and inspired such emotion I never knew I was capable of. And it was dying.

The demon ripped forth another great root with its claws, shredding them with its teeth. The creature’s lower half was entwined with the roots, it was difficult to see where one began and the other ended.

I removed my shield and placed it on the ground. It would be of no use here. The emblem of the Great Oak smiled up at me. I smiled back.

The demon breathed fire, burning the roots by its feet. The flames lit up the room, blinding my eyes. The earth rumbled as roots tore free. Large chunks of stone and dirt flew past my head. It was the end of days and I was to be a first hand witness to it.

I began walking towards the source. Demons rushed me. They were demons but they wore the faces of those I loved. Keldin, our portly yet friendly neighbour down the street. Selva, the village teacher and mentor who never had a cross word for anyone. My mother, who would give her life for her children yet had to watch her own die before her very eyes. My father, a silent man who demonstrated his love through handicrafts designed to make his children smile. Elric, the blacksmith who always gave the children some bread and cheese when their parents visited his shop. Eddi, my baby brother who only weeks ago had said his first word. “Hedda.”

I slew them all. I slew them indiscriminately and I slew them passionately. They wanted blood and I was the one to give it to them. They wanted the warmth and the light, they yearned for it so much it drove them insane, but all I had left to give them was the darkness and the cold.

Teeth latched onto my ankle. As flames lit the sky above me I watched a trickle of red slide into the creature’s mouth. It reminded me of a piece of moss covered in hair and spikes. I kicked it off.

A creature resembling a goat on human legs let forth an inhuman growl and charged. It fell onto my sword, teeth gnashing and saliva flying.

I was not their light. I was their darkness.

Something hit me from behind. I hit the ground hard, smashing my teeth against a rock. The earth rumbled once more as roots ripped up and threw creatures high into the air around me. The demon roared. It roared so loud it seemed to echo on forever.

Teeth bit into my shoulder. I rolled over and found myself face to face with a hopper. Only this hopper had two arms and was at least twice the size of the ones I’d seen on my descent. I threw my arm up to defend myself and the creature clamped on with bloody fangs and tore. It tore my arm right off and I could do nothing but scream. A scream I couldn’t even hear over the roar of the demon battling the roots of the Great Oak.

Another flame. The waters of the source of life bubbled and steamed. The bark of the Great Oak caught fire and dropped off. The floor was a sea of flames and blood.

I kicked the giant hopper off my chest and ran. It took my good arm. I swung feebly with my right as some onion creatures rolled towards me. I was loosing a lot of blood. I didn’t have much time.

The demon, its head so high above me I wasn’t even sure if I could see the top, seemed to look right at me with its burning yellow eye. It ripped a leg free and rolled over. There was only one leg left. It would soon be free.

Blood trailed behind me. I threw my helmet off and ran as fast as my legs would take me. The creatures became a blur of faces. Faces of loved ones, faces of lost ones. Another ear-piercing roar ripped through the air. The creatures seemed to disperse around me, running away and not towards me.

The blood inside me boiled. Not metaphorically but literally. My entire body felt more alive than ever, every sense heightened to levels beyond pain. I hit the source and fell face first into the tiny puddle of boiling water that remained.

It began to cool.

It began to spread.

My blood continued to heat, my skin started to blister. The trickling from my arm stained the water with my life source yet it continued to rise in waves, filling the spring with raging waters.

The demon roared, digging its claws high up the Great Oak’s trunk and trying to pull its last leg free. It blew fire and tried to burn through the trunk. It blew fire and tried to burn through the roots. It blew fire and tried to destroy the rapidly reviving source, but it was too late.

The roots grew longer. The roots grew sturdier. The roots took hold and pulled the demon down into the ground with them. They grew faster than it could burn, faster than it could chew.

Wave after wave of water poured forth. Creatures were drowned. The Great Oak almost instantly sprang back to life. Rivers, lakes and springs refilled and gave birth to life.

The demon struggled but it knew it was doomed. They would fight again someday, but this day the Oak had won. The source received what it needed. The source received life, and the source gave life back in return.

The blood in my veins cooled. Darkness swallowed the light. The moon ate the sun. I returned to the ground from whence my bones once came.

The darkness smiled at me.

I smiled back.

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