“We’ll have to go completely around this Sector,” I shook my head, downhearted by the wasteland I saw before me. A recent battle between Kist and Supernatural took place here less than a week ago. The machines were still smoking, wreckage was on fire, and black tar coated the earth. “There’s no possible way we can cut straight through here. There’s bound to be soldiers patrolling the area, and we’ll only get caught in the middle of it.”
“Then around it we’ll go,” the mole man nodded in agreement, taking lead to the right.
“Hey, now wait a minute,” Brent spoke up. “Between the three of us, I think we can fight through anythin’ this cemetery throws at us. There’s plenty of cover, and with your invisibility we’ve got this thing under control.”
“We shouldn’t risk it, Brent,” I replied. “It will only take us an extra day to get to Sector White. Besides, we shouldn’t want to rush to get there. I’m sure the entire place is surrounded by just as many sentries. We should calm our minds and save our strength for when we really need it.”
“Why can’t you learn to fly?” Brent grumbled, kicking a stone as he trailed after me and the mole man.
“I’ve been trying, remember?” I sighed. “Being a descendant of Air doesn’t necessarily mean I can do anything that she can. I’ve barely been able to kick up a stiff wind, let alone levitate myself.”
“If you can swing that heavy ass sword around like it’s a Sunday picnic,” Brent jested. “Then I’m pretty sure you can lift your own heavy ass off of the ground.”
“Ha ha,” I dryly laughed back at him. “I don’t see you coming up with any helpful suggestions.”
“It’s all mind over matter, isn’t it?” He said rhetorically. “If you will yourself to fly, then you sure as heck can. And the sooner you learn the better. I am sick and tired of walkin’, and my boots are just about worn through.”
“I can tell,” I grinned to myself. “I can smell them from here.”
“There better be a god damn challenger waitin’ for me when we get to Sector White,” Brent ignored my comment. “Someone with a nice pair of boots that I can cheat them out of.”
“Why don’t you ever play fair and square?” I asked him. “You’re a fair enough contender with your human skills without needing to resort to your inhuman ones.”
“These muscles can take down anyone, little girl,” he barked out a laugh. “I would just rather not break out in a sweat.”
“I’m sure there will be plenty of people that we’ll need to fight in Sector White,” I frowned. “We’ll just have to find out if it’s Kist or Supernatural that we’ll be going up against on our way to the White Tree.”
“What’s so special about this tree anyway?” Brent questioned. “Sounds like it’s dead to me. Who’s ever heard of a white tree?”
“Many say it’s a connection to the gods,” the mole man answered. “That any who ask for help, will be given it in three days time. Many have starved to death at the tree, waiting for a response.”
“So it’s a death tree,” Brent groaned. “You’re takin’ us to a death tree?”
“We’re going to try and find my brother,” I said. “If we ask for help, it is my brother the gods will send.”
“My guess is that the gods are goin’ to smote us with lightnin’ when they find us prayin’ to a friggin’ death tree,” Brent replied.
The walk was arduous, and seemed even longer by Brent’s sudden liking to complaining about anything he could grasp words around. In the end it was well worth the extra day’s walk. We hadn’t run into any soldiers or airships and it brightened my mood when we reached the white stone archway that led into the Eastern Quadrant of the White Sector.
“Isn’t there a map we can use for this place?” Brent spoke up, continuing his pessimism. Something was telling me that Brent wanted to be done with this Sector sooner than the rest of us, and he had been willing to go through a dangerous Sector in an attempt to fail at our mission.
“I think the crowd is our map,” I whispered to him. We had all pulled on some hooded cloaks that the mole man had stowed away in his pack, and followed after the lines of people walking into the center of the city. The rumor was that the city had been built around the White Tree, and the tree became the central focus point of religion and power for any person that heard about it. After an hour of walking, we came to a spot among the group of travelers and commoners.
“What’s everyone stopped for?” I asked my companions. Neither of them spoke. I turned to Brent and saw the dread on his face. He must have known more about the current outpost guarding the tree than he was letting on. Then a steady thrum of drums and horns slowly filled the air in a rhythmic cacophony, which enveloped the crowd, making them kneel down one by one and bow towards the center of the city.
The three of us remained standing, now able to see the white tree located at the focus point of everyone’s attention. There was a procession making its way towards the tree, all wearing white robes, carrying golden trays, and waving a golden banner with an emblem I had never seen before.
“We need to get closer,” I started walking along the outskirts of the crowd in order to get nearer to the tree, edging along the walls of buildings to dissuade any interest in our party. Brent was immediately against the idea, but even more surprising was the mole man’s disinterest as well.
“Maybe we should wait until the ceremony is complete,” the mole man said when I had to stop from the thickening of the crowd.
“There isn’t any time,” I said in response. “Whether we wait five minutes or wait five years there’s going to be some sort of unrest or trouble that we’re going to get ourselves into by walking up to that tree.”
“Explain again why we have to do this,” Brent finally caught up to the two of us, having momentarily lost us among the throng of sightseers. “How many people do you think come up to this thing and pray that the tree will end the war? How will your prayers be any different?”
“How many people have asked the tree to keep the war going?” I lightly glared at him. “Probably just as many people if not more have offset that balance. We need to ask in a way that no one else could possibly deter.”
“And how do you suggest we get up there without bein’ stopped?” Brent asked.
“Leave it to me,” I took in a deep breath and exhaled, rubbing my hands together for warmth. Closing my eyes I imagined myself fading into nothingness, disappearing with the air, flowing gently with agility between the onlookers, drawing nearer to the prize, to the White Tree. A crudely made solid iron wall surrounded the tree with a single door as the only access point. The procession had stopped at a portable altar several yards in front of the encased tree, taking turns drinking out of their golden dishes, offering them to the sky and finally the earth. It struck a chord in me that they made an offering to Air and Earth, when they should have at least made a sacrifice to the tree itself.
I leapt over the iron wall with a little bit of air power and landed on my feet on the other side. The tree trunk had been etched into and written on with graffiti, making me realize how much influence the tree had over these people, and how little respect many of them had in return for it. I knelt down to place my hand on the roots of the tree, understanding its suffering and loneliness. I prayed to the tree that if it could send a message to all of the gods to find my brother and send him to me, that I would promise to restore balance and righteousness to the world. The tree shook and I heard the entire crowd gasp and cheer. When I looked up into the bows of the tree, I saw a single piece of fruit hanging on one of its higher limbs. I outstretched my hands and the fruit fell into them, revealing itself to be an apple. It only took a single bite to solidify my promise, and the tree began to shake even further, the limbs twisting and contorting as if it belonged in the Aged Forest.
The hum of the crowd began to grow louder, turning into loud shouts and exclamations. Double checking that I was still invisible, I pulled myself up to the top of the wall and perched there, taking a look across the vast expanse of holy seekers who seemed to double in depth since the time we had arrived. One of the men of the procession was now speaking loudly to the entire crowd, using an amplifier to spread his voice across the tumultuous hordes.
“Friends!” The deep voice resonated across the entire Sector. “The White Tree has awoken! It has seen the sincere sacrifice that we have procured in its honor, and the tree eagerly awaits to taste his blood!”
My eyes scanned the rest of the procession and I nearly fell off of my post when I saw Brent bound by several of the commoners, being carried up to the altar. How he managed to get himself captured among the company of the demi-god of Earth I couldn’t figure out, nor did I have the time to think about it. I needed to come up with a quick plan in order to save my new companion and get us out of Sector White as soon as possible.
The mole man was nowhere to be seen as I scaled down the iron wall, rushing over to the make shift altar and sliding underneath it. Brent was soon pressed up against the altar, bent over with his head resting on top of the stone slab. I saw a glint of silver come out from a processionist’s pocket, and I braced myself for the inevitable.
Please help, I silently prayed inside of my head. Don’t let me make a fool of myself.
I gathered all of the focus I could muster and braced my arms outwards, aiming my hands towards the figure closing in with the sacrificial blade. A burst of gale force winds shot out from my hiding spot and cleared a hole straight through my line of sight, starting with the man with the dagger. The entire crowd looked around at each other, craning their necks in an attempt to see what was going on. I quickly made sure that my invisibility was back up, tugging on Brent’s pant leg to let him know that I was there.
I hadn’t thought any further into my plan when a colossal quake wrenched its way through the earth, splitting the ground into multiple fissures, followed by an even louder cracking and crunching from behind me. The tree began to collapse in upon itself, and the entire crowd burst into sobs and wails of terror as their last mystifying hope crashed to the ground, leaving only the iron wall as a monument.
The leader of the procession quickly strode over to the large iron gate, prying the doors open so he could peer inside. What astonished everyone the most was the sheer fact that nothing remained of the tree. Not a single scrap of wood was lying on the ground. The only thing that could be seen was a cleanly swept dirt floor, containing a symbol a foot in diameter etched into the very center of the iron prison. It was not the same symbol that I had seen upon the procession’s banner. However, it was simple enough that I could remember the symbol and draw it from memory once we were in a safer area and by ourselves, so my main priority was grabbing Brent and getting us out of there.
When I turned around, Brent was nowhere to be seen, and I cursed under my breath at his lack of consideration; although he seemed scared enough out of his mind that I could probably torture him for weeks on the encounter. Everyone must have been so distracted by the destruction of the tree that they didn’t even notice Brent escaping.
What had really happened when I met back up with the mole man just outside of the Eastern Archway, made a lot more sense than what I originally thought. The mole man had lost Brent in the crowd, and knowing that things were going to go sour, he tunneled his way to the stone altar and bided his time until Brent had crossed paths with it. Then once the catastrophe occurred with the tree, the mole man opened up a hole to the surface, dropping Brent down below, and quickly resealing it before anyone noticed.
The two of them were unaware of what I had accomplished with the tree, so I had to fill them in on the details, choosing to refrain from hurting Brent’s ego any further than he already had. We took a generous hike before setting up our new camp inside of an overturned vehicle carrier. The mole man momentarily left us behind to secure our immediate perimeter, leaving Brent and I in an awkward silence.
“I tried to prevent it from happenin',” he mumbled while shuffling through his knapsack.
“I had a feeling you were keeping something from me,” I watched him, waiting for Brent to say something more.
“I’ve been there before,” he sighed, shaking his head. “I put all of us in danger because I was too embarrassed to tell you.”
“Why should you be embarrassed?” I furrowed my brow in confusion. “It’s not like you planned to be a sacrificial bird.”
“Sheep,” Brent said. “Sacrificial sheep.”
“Sorry,” I frowned. “I don’t follow. What’s a sheep?”
“You don’t know what a---“ Brent gaped. “Sort of small, four legged, fluffy body white like cotton? A sheep!”
“I’m sorry,” I apologized again. “My parents home schooled Cirrus and I. They didn’t see the point in teaching us about things that used to be.”
“In any case, girl,” he grouched in frustration. “Everyone there knows who I am. I messed with the minds of every person residin' in the Sector, includin' those idiots inside of the processional.”
“When?” I stood up in anger, not sure if I was more furious that he had placed us all in danger on purpose, or that he had forcibly altered something in all of those people.
“About four months before I ran into you folks,” Brent finally swiveled his head to look at me over his shoulder. “I made them believe that I was a god’s gift to man. Somehow they got it in their heads that I could make the city flourish again by makin' the White Tree bloom once more. That’s when I high tailed it out of that place. It’s been the first time I’ve been back since then, and I figured they’d forgotten all about it, but as soon as we set foot inside of the Eastern Archway I started gettin’ weird looks from the locals, knowin’ looks. And of course that damn processional had to be in town. They smelled me out before I could even defend myself.”
“Didn’t you try to undo what you did to them?” He didn’t have my sympathy quite yet.
“Hell I tried,” Brent stood up and crossed the room. Stepping in front of me he grabbed my shoulders and stared into my eyes. “I tried, but the idea was too engrained in their minds. I knew I couldn’t return here, but I’m part of your company now, and I couldn’t abandon you in a place like this.”
“Well thank you for being honest,” I backed away from him. “But it would have done a lot more good if we had known ahead of time.”
“I’m sorry,” he threw up his hands in frustration, letting them roughly fall to his sides. “We’re safe now. You got your magical prayer, you destroyed a sacred relic, and you blasted a group of innocent people. Mission accomplished.”
“How dare you,” I fumed. “How dare you try to turn this on me. I wasn’t the one that had to be rescued! You botched up everything!”
“How many damn times do I have to say I’m sorry?” Brent roared.
I momentarily cowered against the back of the vehicle carrier’s steel frame before turning and walking out the window that acted as our door. The mole man passed by me, but didn’t say anything. He was Earth. He could feel my anger vibrating enough through the ground to know not to talk to me.