“That done, on to meditation so I can get the third floor finished.”
“Be careful,” Arizo warned, “Remember your mind is your body in this life.”
I nodded but still I turned to my inner self.
The world seemed to slip away.
I was back in the room I had seen in the inbetween when I was talking to Fate. Only this time all of my past lives weren’t there. The risers they had stood on were empty.
“Hello?” I called
In the center of the lowest riser a vague human shape appeared. I could tell she was human and female but not any details.
“Hello. You cannot stay long in this place. Our mind is not ready for all we have ever learned.” She had an accent that I couldn’t identify but I knew that it would grow stronger with anger.
I felt a twinge of pain.
“I need to settle all those that are interfering with me making our forest level.”
Another dozen beings appeared. 2 more humans, a bear, a deer, a minotaur, a wood nymph, a pair of harpies, a hawk, an elf and 2 trees. Even looking at all of them was making the pain in my head skyrocket.
“I am trying to make a forest level for our dungeon. All of your arguing is making it impossible.”
“You aren’t doing it right.” The elf said. He was male with a haughty voice and attitude.
“There isn’t enough ground for our roots to dig.” One of the trees added. They didn’t have a voice but we could all understand the words.
“Not enough caves to sleep in.” From the bear.
“We need more room to run.” The deer declared.
“Less open space”
“Lots of flowers” “More water” “Too hot” “Too cold” “Too dry” “Too wet” “More evergreens” “Less grass.” “LKJSDOIESDKJ” all the different voices blended into one cacophony.
“ENOUGH!!” I shouted as all their demands ran together and made my head feel like it was splitting in two. I was panting and needed this to end or I feared my core would crack or shatter.
“Starting with you,” I pointed to the tree on the far left. “You will show us an image of your forest and not make another comment. Once I have seen each one then I will leave and use the ideas you have given me and the limited resources I have to make a good forest level. We may add a different kind of forest deeper but you must stop giving me a headache or no forest will get made.”
Silence reigned. I could feel the competition and anger that had choked the room dissipate and embarrassment take its place. Though once again I wasn’t sure of the how, I could tell that everyone here had gotten so caught up in defending their ideas that they had lost sight of us all being the same soul. Now that I had refocused them they calmed and the pressure and pain became bearable.
Oh it was still there and I had this intimate knowledge of it growing every second like a timer ticking down to when permanent damage would be done. But for now there was no added pressure from my past lives fighting for dominance.
The first tree was a cypress and showed a beautiful, humid cypress swamp. Its feelings of pride and contentment seemed to fill the room. I could almost feel the water gently moving over my many exposed roots. The snakes, birds and even mammals that lived in my branches. How every tree's roots connected to its neighbors and they spoke. Through their roots all the trees of the swamp were connected. They not only shared gossip but could send nutrients and energy to trees in trouble. Or deny trees that were no longer doing their duty. At the end of their life a dying tree would push all their stored energy to the trees around them so that through their death their neighbors and friends could grow stronger.
The vision faded but the feelings and awe lingered. If every one of them had the same intensity I could now understand why they were defending their forest so strongly.
Next was the bear. As the image began she was under the ground in a cave with her cub. She slept deeply as the snow was blanketing the forest floor. While she slept she was more in tune with the forest. The exposed roots in her cave brought her news of the forest. The information was slow as the cold made even the trees sluggish. But as the snow began to melt and the first signs of spring were in the air the bear knew. It was time to wake and replenish what the long winter had taken from her.
The image shifted to later in the year. Her cub was older and stronger. Now was the time to teach him to climb. She showed him how to tell if the tree was strong enough to hold their weight and the signs that there was something tasty up there worth the effort of climbing. She could still feel the trees and their network but she couldn’t hear their words now that she was above ground and there was so much rocks and dirt between her and the roots. But when they were climbing she could feel the connection. The thick bark made it weaker but it was there and it renewed her sense of self and connection to the whole of the forest. This was her home and as the top predator it was hers to protect and manage.
Time moved again and it was now full summer and food was plentiful. She roared to quiet the bickering of 2 wolf packs. They were fighting over territory as they did every year just after whelping. More bellies to fill and no more food to fill them. It was her place to remind them that all of this forest was hers. That they could hunt here but if she caught them trying to claim her land again they would feed her cubs growing belly. With grumbles but no challenge the wolves went their separate ways. She shook her head. Why there lived a creature that rarely ate more than meat was a mystery to her. She would starve if not for the berries, roots, fruit, nuts and other things she could eat besides meat. Though a nice fat salmon sounded good right now. Alas they wouldn’t return to the river until the leaves began to turn and the air grew chrisp.
The image of the bear faded and I was left almost raw. How connected and interdependent everyone in a forest was, amazed me.
Next was the wood nymph. Her forest was bright and green. With towering redwoods. Here there were 2 worlds and she was one of the few that could see and be a part of both. On the forest floor there was mostly open ground as the numerous deep roots drained the ground of almost all its nutrients. Only a few hardy bushes and ferns made the ground their home. There was a peaceful silence to the lower world. Perpetually in shadow and protected by the great trees life here was harsh and filled with twilight predators. Not that she had to worry. Her magic made the air taste fowl to most carnivores. Though she could do without that squirrel that kept trying to eat her hair. She pulled the rodent from her locks once again and placed him on a nearby trunk before walking away from the rodent.
She walked into another trunk and traveled to one of the many upper forests. Here in the wide dense canopy there was another story altogether. smaller, younger trees and plants lived on the branches of the great redwoods. Where the soil was made of leaf litter and animal droppings, and the sun was visible through the canopy. The air was filled with bird song and the chattering of animals as they lived their lives miles above the ground. She knew that for some they didn’t believe there was a ground. That below the lowest branches the trunks stretched down for eternity. There were birds that told tales of forests whose trees were no taller than the oak that she often slept under but she couldn’t imagine such a strange place where the sun hit the soil below.
Next was the first of the humans. The image began with a house deep in the forest. He stepped out in the crisp morning air. As he breathed out a cloud of breath could be seen due to the cold. Humming a tune he headed to the stable and began hooking his horse to the sled. Putting several sizes of axes on the sled they headed into the trees. They were mostly evergreens and the rich aroma made him feel energized and at home. Lumber was his trade and he did it well. Most of the village depended on him and his rival. With a huff he pushed thoughts of the other man out of his mind. Today was too beautiful to think on how that man treated the trees near his home. Now respect for the life giving wood.
He left those thoughts behind as they moved deeper into the forest. He only took the old and dying trees or ones that had caught a blight. He made sure to never over burden the forest. While many of the village didn’t believe in magic and the like they did know that his logs lasted longer than any his rival chopped. He knew that was the forest's way of repaying his respect.
Finding the right spot he stopped and sat to have his breakfast. The sun was just now making it through the branches and warming the ground below. His breath was still visible but the morning chill was gone from his fingers. As he ate his bread and cheese he watched the forest come alive. Squirrels chattering as they scampered above. Birds waking to great the day. Bats shrieking as they ended their night. The sounds of the forest were beautiful and never ending. At times when it was just him and the trees he thought he could hear them growing and almost speaking to one another.
As the image faded I could feel the peace of the lumberjack and his synergy with the forest around him. Next was the elf.
The trees in this vision were unlike any I had seen before. Their trunks sparkled and seemed almost metallic. Their leaves above looked like gold, silver and copper. Though as a breeze blew through them there sounded like any other tree. The lighting was also different. Instead of the golden or orange light of the sun from all the other visions the sun here was a cold blue. As he looked up shielding his eyes the sun looked farther away but the heat was much more intense. On his back was a water pack that would see him to the next town. At his side was another pack that contained the delivery.
He ran through the trees with lightning steps and feather-like foot falls. The freedom of rushing headlong through the trees made him want to shout with joy. Though he didn’t dare to. He was as good a fighter as any but there were beasts that roamed the trees that no one wanted to face alone. Then again that was part of the thrill. Knowing he could outpace the giants and the massive insects that called the trees home. As he neared the midway marker he slowed his strides. Here was the center of the forest and a stone altar to the forest spirit sat.
He brushed debris off the altar and sat beside it to enjoy his lunch. It was a calming and wonderful luxury. To be alone. In any of the towns there was always someone nearby and they always seemed to demand attention. Wanting a job done or wanting news of the other towns or the greater world. He couldn’t get a moment's peace. Not even at home where his mother and sister were constantly trying to set him up with the perfect match. Tilting his head back and looking into the shining leaves above, here was his match. The trees and the forest were his love. The freedom and the solitude. Not that any other elf understood that.
His vision faded and I was once more in the hall with 13 of my past lives. The pain from being here was more pronounced than it had been and I was beginning to wonder if I would run out of time before seeing them all.
“I will be quick.” The first harpy said as his forest began to take over.
It was twilight and most of the forest below was quiet as creatures settled in for the night. Now was his time to shine. Barrel rolling through the air with joy he cried out his mastery of the sky. There were chuckles from the others in his brood. They also ruled the skies and flew at his wing tips on their nightly hunt. Their prey would be moving through the forest litter unaware but always watchful. It took a skilled hunter to surprise a deer. They were quick and had a bit of protection magic that warned them of any danger. Taking one of the tigers that also stalked the trees was another option but much more dangerous. Tigers were agile and if you didn’t strike just right you would become the prey instead.
A soft hiss from one of his mates and the brood turned. There was a small herd of deer below. Catching just one of the large bucks would feed the village for days. Sharing smiles they all prepared to strike.
As that forest faded the deer waiting his turn glared at the harpy.
Even though it had been a small clip it showed how dependent the harpy was on the forest and how the trees protected the animals that called it home, but that there were numerous clearings that allowed predators to strike.
Their most recent life, the human in the center that had first arrived, She looked at me with sad eyes and a vision began.
There was no forest. Instead she showed massive factories that poured smoke and poison into the air. Forests ripped bare to feed humanities ever growing greed. Fires consuming what precious little nature was left. Massive islands of trash floating in the oceans. Rivers poisoned by humans. Children starving and abused while adults fight over reasons to hate each other.
Those otrosities faded to her standing on the top of a hill behind her house looking out over the landscape. Here there was no fire or starvation. Trash was contained and disposed of to the best of her ability. Just rolling hills covered in trees of all shapes and sizes. Peace seeped into her as the awfulness of the world faded for a just a while. She descended into the valley and walked among the trees. Brushing her fingertips along the bark and letting their solidarity calm and soothe her. Any trash she came upon was picked up and placed into the bag she carried to be disposed of. At times it didn’t feel like enough. Like she should do more. But today this was all she could do. Keep this piece of the world safe. Her family owned this land and as long as she lived it would be kept as wild and free as possible.
I could tell as it ended that for her the forest was a place of hope, not a place of death. She didn’t want me to make a forest level because she didn’t want to see others die in her sanctuary.
“I understand. But I hope you can see that I don’t plan to murder everyone that enters.”
“The road to hell is paved with good intentions.” She replied and faded from the room.
Not knowing what to say or do I looked to the deer that was next.
His dark eyes bore into me for long moments before the room faded and we were under another tree canopy.
This forest looked much like the last, and like the one outside my entrance. Trees of all shapes, sizes and ages. The buck looked about the forest. His ears turned forward as he raised his head from grazing. A soft snap in the distance was all it took for him to take flight. His long legs ate the miles as he leaped with grace over fallen logs and made sharp turns that skidded the dirt under his hooves. Soon enough he slowed to a canter and then stopped altogether to listen for any other danger. His heart beat faster but his fight hadn’t pushed his body too hard. His massive lungs tasted the sweet morning air.
The sun would be up soon and it would be time to rest. Before then he turned and made his way to the field. All deer came here at least once every few days. It was a place to share news and to test yourself. It was also a safe place to eat in peace. Being part of the herd kept them protected. Though wondering on their own or in small groups was normal.
That forest faded as he came into the field where mist rose from the grasses and many deer turned at the sound of his approach.
Without preamble another forest took over. The hawk sat on a branch preening her feathers. Eucilyprics trees were the perfect place to sit and rest. There were few larger birds and the koalas below paid her no mind. We so long as she wasn’t foolish enough to try for their joeys Their docile faces hid sharp fangs and long claws. She wasn’t after a koala though. She preferred mice or a rare snake. Or a magpie if they dare try to swoop her. But right now her belly was full and she could just enjoy her home. The diversity was what made it interesting. So many kinds of plants and animals all living together in harmony. From caterpillars to cassowary all sharing the same space.
The feeling of unity persisted as the vision passed. The hawk beat her wings a few times as she looked at me. I nodded but a wave of pain came over me. There were only 4 more to go and then I could put this all to rest and sort out everything I was learning.
The female harpy was next. Her forest was sparse and cold as hardy trees tried to inch their way up her mountain. Snow surrounded her cave as she stood on the ledge. There was no brood or village here. For her life was solitary. And that was how she liked it. No one to tell her what to do and no one that could threaten her. She ruled this territory with razor talons and swift wings. All quivered under her shadow. She was queen and they were just lucky to live below her gaze.
She didn’t feel the need to show anymore. Turning to preen her feathers. Superiority oozed off her every feather. I could tell she expected I would model my level after her forest and any other ideas were useless. I would roll my eyes if I had any.
A bright pink cherry tree was next and it pushed forward a forest as if rolling its eyes as well. It stood at the edge of a crystal clear lake. The ground was pink with petals from the trees. There was magic in the air and you could feel the creatures moving through it with caution and respect. The tree’s job was to guide the dead on to the afterlife. In the shade of this forest no undead could live. Though if you were lucky, on just the right day of the year the trees may open a path to the other side and you will see your loved ones again. If only briefly.
This tree obviously agreed that the forest should be a place of peace not of fighting.
The final human glared at her. “Lies!” She shouted with passion as her vision took over.
She was running through a swamp. She had been chased here by other humans but they knew entering the swamp was as good as killing her themselves. Under these branches was dark magic, the restless dead and gators as big as 3 men. She stopped and panted, her heart hammering and her lungs straining to get any air out of the dense humidity. She looked around with wild eyes as the sounds of the forest resumed. There was no telling where she was and the paths in the swamp changed meaning there were no landmarks to lead her home. She knew she would die here and no one would ever find her body.
Before she could despair there was a bubbling in the water near her feet. A hand reached out of the mire and grabbed at what little solid ground she stood on. She was frozen in terror as the hand found purchase and began pulling itself out of the water. There was muck and moss covering the thing but it did little to hide the horrible sloughing skin or the dead eyes that stared at her with hunger. Letting out a scream she resumed her fight praying to every god or deity she could recall that she would make it out of here alive.
Fear was palpable as the swamp faded. The human had tears in her eyes and turned away from me as she vanished into nothing.
“There is only me.” The minotaur said. “I will not haunt you with visions of a life long gone. My forest was made of many trees and it was my duty to protect it from outside influence. I see now that while we are the same soul we are different in body and purpose. You are to test and teach all that enter the dungeon, not to preserve the wild places. Do as you feel is right, not as others, even us, tell you.”
“Thank you.” I told him voice strained and pain radiating through my entire body. “I have to go.”
With a small cry that inner room shattered and I was back in my core room with Arizo.
“What happened?!” She cried. “Are we under attack?!”
“Please……” I begged.
“Please... lower... your……... voice….” The pain was lessening but exhaustion was taking its place.
“No… attack… will explain… must rest……” I trailed off as darkness filled my vision.