His eyes shot open and he let out a grunt of pain. I just stood there, frozen. It was a tree with a face. Even taking everything I’d already gone through into account, this was weird. This was beyond weird. When he first started yelling at me, it didn’t even register.
“Lay down your torch! Its light offends me!”
When his cries of protest finally got through, I lowered the beam from his face but did not turn it off. I’d need the torch if I decided to turn and run. Just as I was about to ask him who he was, several of the beams of light converged above him at once, lighting him up like a candle. In that brief moment of illumination, I beheld his form; a naked human male bonded to the bark of a willow tree, such that no boundary existed between man and plant. Moss grew where hair might have once.
“What are you!?”
His gaze fell on me like a storm of spears, seeing me with such intensity that, for a brief moment, I nearly convinced myself I had a soul for him to peer into. Then, he blinked and I saw the weariness in his eyes, a weariness so ancient that it withered me just to look at it.
“I am…something that should not be.”
The sorrow in his voice forced pity to well in my heart.
“Are you the Last Human King?”
He seemed to stop and consider that question, tilting his head. When he answered, it was in careful, measured tones.
“I do not know. I may be, but, equally, I may not. All I know is that which I have seen.”
I sensed he was leading me in the conversation but decided to just go with the flow. As long as, in the end, he had something to say contributed in some way to the fight against the Tree Walker, I was willing to listen to whatever he wanted to tell me.
“What have you seen?”
He looked down to the leaf-covered clay beneath him and seemed to droop but when I made to step forward, he suddenly looked upwards and his many limbs started shaking angrily.
“I have seen man rise from dust and return to it! I have seen man burn man and shed not a single tear when new life did not bloom from the ashes! I have seen villages grow to empires and empires fall away to nothing! I have seen everything, Hannah Rodriguez! I have known your most secret thoughts and actions! I have gazed into the abyss of the human heart but it has not gazed into me! You come here, seeking truth, but know you the truth of yourself!? You come here, as Marcus Prendergast came, ready and willing to fight the fight of all mankind, but do you think you are worthy of carrying the mantle of man!? Answer me, mortal, and speak truthfully, for no lies may poison the air of my domain! I see, Hannah Rodriguez, I know! Speak!”
I won’t deny that I came extremely close to wetting myself then. In my defense, I’d just been screamed at by a fucking tree person. But, scared as I was, it didn’t take me long to respond. I’d never noticed before but, when the possibility of lying is discarded, the truth comes easily.
“I have everything to live for. With the money I’ve been left, with my training and skills, with the property I own, I could live out the rest of my life in relative comfort. I don’t have to do this. I could turn back now. I want to turn back, as a matter of fact. But what I can do and what I want to do aren’t what’s important. My rights and my desires are inconsequential in the struggle against the Tree Walker. It’s not about what I have a right to do, its about what it’s right for me to do. Continuing is the only course of action I can consider. Give me a weapon, give me direction and I will give everything I have to give, including my life. I am worthy, not because I give this freely, with no fear or trepidation, but because I give it in spite of my fear. Tell me what I must do.”
He stared at me then, for what seemed like an eternity. Then, unsmilingly, he spoke.
“Go to where the Radau rises. Walk its banks, let your heart guide you. Within those newborn waters, you will find a woodman’s axe. Take it from its resting place and go to the Black Forest. As long as you bear the woodman’s axe, you will walk without guide to Nebelfort. There, you will face the other, whom you call the Tree Walker. I do not know if you will succeed. None can know for no truthful man has ever stood here before. Take the axe, Hannah Rodriguez, and strike at the heart of sin. Wound it, destroy it if you can, but strike! Go now, the time approaches! Go!”
As he bellowed the final syllable, a great wind came from nowhere and started blowing at my back. Wordlessly, I ran, the wind carrying me and giving me speed. I ran.