The black beast turned and shifted and fell. The earth split and opened beneath him, jagged rocks reaching for him like the fangs of a devil creature of old. He fell and fell, the earth opening below him as he plummeted, darkness surrounding him. At last the shattered earth rushed up to greet him, and he closed his eyes, preparing to join the AllMother.
Opening his eyes he lifted his head from where it rested on his paws. The scent of the rich earth filled his nostrils, and he looked about the clearing where his pack lay, all sleeping peacefully beneath the overhanging branches of the ancient forest.
To his right lay Silvermane, her fine coat shimmering with the first rays of the sun's warm light. It was good to see her in the calm of sleep. The pack had gotten precious little rest of late, always on the move, trying to stay one step ahead. He longed for the days when her pale blue eyes had seemed untroubled, when her only concerns had been her pack and the hunt. Now it seemed the scent of decay was always just behind them, and no one could think of much besides staying ahead.
The beauty of this place calmed him, helped him to forget the months that they'd been running. As he looked up at the green cover of leaves far above him, the sunlight glinted off his golden eyes. A thin pain stabbed at his right eye, an echo of a memory, of something lost in the recesses of his mind. A dark thing.
The sound of the water trickling in the stream below him brought him back from his reverie. It would be time to move soon, time enough to forage for food to keep the pack alive, and to move again. He lay at the top of a small valley, at its center a pond. Surrounding it were ancient trees, their great branches spreading out to shade the valley, their massive trunks covered in green moss. The ground fell away from his perch near the top in small cliffs, a stream running down the far side in stepped water falls, which shone with the morning light.The rest of his pack ,Treefeller, ShadowHunter, GrimTooth, and EverFind lay in a circle around the small pond, resting after the long nights run. The others had called his pack The Black Wind, and he and his brothers had been feared and revered in times of Battle.
This place was beautiful, peaceful, almost enough to make him forget. The sounds of animals, the smell of the earth,the sound of the stream, all spoke to him of the health and rightness of the forest. He wished that it would be so vibrant here forever, but he knew it would not.
A faint sound reached his ears. It sounded very far away, but to him it sounded like the most sorrowful howling he had ever heard, a sound so filled with pain and loneliness, he almost wished he could find its source. But he couldn't do that, he had to stay with his pack, had to guide them to the safe places.
Turning his head he recoiled in surprise. A dim grey trail led out of the valley, down low, down deep into a fissure in the earth, its grey walls leaning in, crowding the narrow trail. Deep in the fissure, a great brown back stood looking at him, tufts of grey hair falling and rolling along the trail, whistling with the wind along the grey earth.
Around him the branches of the ancient trees began to shake, their lush leaves falling, turning to ash as they fell. A clattering rattling din rose around him, as the world began to fade.
A rattling din woke the black beast, startling him straight from sleep to his feet. As his senses caught up to his body he realized the noise came from above him, and he spun around to back away, hackles raised. His one eye squinted and he instinctively growled a warning as he saw a dark shape in the predawn light. Recognition flooded in,and he recognized the trunk of a great tree standing before him. In the predawn light the old trunk was a deep dark brown, and looking up he saw that its long arching branches spread out like grasping arms on every side. Its leaves had long since fallen, the bare branches and trunk reminding him now of the skeleton of some mammoth beast. It was from the limbs of this ancient tree that the rattling noise came.
Gradually another sound came to him. At first he couldn't place it, but then like a flash, it came to him. Faintly, he could hear the sound of a two-leg's mirth. Whirling round and round he tried to locate the source, his ears pinned back, hair once again on end.
Louder and louder it grew, and with its loudness, came the realization that it was not a sound at all, but a mind-howl. "How could this be?", he thought, for no two-leg could mind-howl, and no beast could produce that rapid cawing sound that the two-legs called laughter. It was a wry and bitter sound, the sound one makes when there is no option left, except to laugh.
Abruptly the laughter ceased, and at his back, a deep voice, age worn but strong spoke,"Oh how could this be, that I have waited an age, and here before me stands the devourer of worlds. If she but listened I would beseech the AllMother to strike thee from my sight. But alas, there is no other to take up this quest. And so it shall be thine".
Turning to face the trunk of the mighty tree once more, the black beast slowly slunk down into a crouch, teeth barred and hackles raised, his one eye glowering at the sight before him. A tall human stood on the roots of the dark tree, his hand resting against its trunk. A great white mane of hair fell from his head in unkempt waves, a white beard spilling down his chest. One eye was obscured behind a black patch, and his weathered face was fixed in a solemn expression. His posture spoke of pride, of strength, and his grey eye fixed on the black beast unflinchingly.
Tatters of memory flitted through the beast's mind. A great two-legs doing battle with him, fighting across the earth, across the water, through the skies. At last fleeing before him and falling. A fiery pain in his right eye. Was it this two-legs who stood before him? Something was similar about the two, but it was like seeing the shadow of a tree, and comparing it to the tree. The same but different. Growling deep in his throat, he edged further away. He was sure that if it came to battle he would triumph, as this twolegs had no long-tooth or firestick, but still he had no wish to fight. He wanted to continue on, to find food, to get where it was that he needed to go, wherever that may be.
"Peace oh Ulfr Gramr, I have not the strength left to battle thee. There remains nothing to battle for. If I must, I will place my hand inside thy maw, as surety of my peaceful intentions"the old man said with a wry smile. "But I would vastly prefer, to simply sit, on the roots of this great tree, and rest my weary bones. I have things to tell thee, of this world, and of the AllMother to. Wilst thee listen?".
Indecision struck the great black beast, a feeling he was unused to. He did not trust this twolegs, nor any twolegs for that matter. They were destroyers, and although he could not remember the ending of the world as it had been(should be), he was certain that it involved them in some way. He was certain that this twolegs before him, with his unflinching grey eye, his pride, and his scent, like smelling pure,hard, unbending iron, had affected it personally somehow. But that was another age. There was nothing left to fight over, one lonely tree in a vast wilderness. He could not eat the tree.
Deciding to hear the old twolegs out, he relaxed his posture, sitting back upon his haunches. Even seated his head was level with the old man's ribs, a fact that reassured him. Surely the old man would be easily defeated should it come to battle.
The old man settled himself, using the tree to ease his way down, slowly, painfully onto an exposed root of the great tree spread above him. Settling himself with a sigh, he looked directly at the great black beast seated before him. "Now beast, tell me, for though I think I know the answer, I wish to hear it from thy lips. Dost thee remember the ending of this world that men call Earth? Dost thee remember the pain of the AllMother, and the great battles that signified the death of all things known?".
Again the great beast was struck with the unfamiliar feeling of indecision. He did not wish to display ignorance of any kind before this strange twoleg, who felt like an enemy, but smelled as natural as the roots of the tree upon which he sat. But he could see no harm in it, nor any way around it, so after a moments pause he sent a mind howl at the old man. It contained the images that he could remember, a few flashes of the pack, a few flashes of the human with the long tooth, and then the endless feel of wandering the grey waste alone.
"Mmm yes", nodded the tall stranger," precious little".
Even though he had sent the mind howl at the twoleg, the black beast felt surprise at this blatant confirmation that the twoleg had heard, and understood. The mindhowl had been the exclusive communication of his brothers and sisters, from his pack and others. With the exception of the SkyBrother, no other creature had ever been able to communicate with the mind howl. His lesser cousins, who the twolegs kept as pets could hear it, but not respond. Even if another creature could have heard it, they wouldn't have understood what it was or what it meant. The mind howl didn't use words to communicate as the humans did, but more a series of scents and sights, remembered and connected in a stream and sent along in sequence.
"Well then,"said the old man, leaning back against the trunk of the tree,"I shall tell you what I can of what has passed, and what shall come to pass".
"I am very old, older even than thou. I have been known by many names over my long life. Men have called me Gangari,Bragi, Bagi Ulfs, and Alfodr. But now, those times have passed, and my name is only Harbador, the Grey Beard. Once men called me god, and I ruled with great power over my brethren. Upon this great earth, grew nine trees, which we called the Yggdrasil, The Tree of Life. The Yggdrasil was divided up into nine pieces, each appearing to be an individual tree, but all connected, all really one. These great trees were the conduits through which the AllMother spread life upon this planet".
Sighing, Harbador paused, his stern face briefly turning up the stars. As the black beast watched, the old man appeared to compose his thoughts. After a few moments he looked back down, grey eye into golden eye, and continued.
"The thing that man forgot was the very existence of the Allmother. The reason that man forgot the AllMother, is because of my brethren and I. We were born before man, and what we were was concentrations of life force from the AllMother. The AllMother is the life force of this planet, and from her every living thing is born. But she is not sentient. She does not think like my brethren, nor like men, nor you, nor even so much as a fly. She is everything beautiful in this world, she is the root of all that should be, she is what men called "nature". She is very near to death."
"As I said, the reason that men forgot the Allmother is because of my brethren and I, and those who followed in our path. When a man dies, or a beast, or even a tree, his essence, what man called a soul, makes its way back to the AllMother. There it mingles with the life force of other creatures, before returning through the Tree of Life, to this earth. We firstborn of the Mother, those who were once known as "Gods", we came to realize this pattern. In the early times, we were not immortal, but only long lived. In our long lives, we came to recognize certain patterns in nature, and in recognizing them to manipulate them. As we performed great feats, men came to 'Believe' in us, and over time, the more who believed in us, the more powerful we became. We sought this power, we drank it down with the greatest of greed. We came to realize that every man who died believing in us, when he returned to the AllMother a piece of his life force came to us".
"So, in recognizing this, we saw that the path to power led in the Faith of man. We began to protect man, to ensure that more and more men believed in us, to reach greater and greater heights of power. So it began, but ever onward and ever greater did it become, until great wars were fought in our name, and many died for our petty ends".
"At this time we also realized that the life of the planet flowed out from the great limbs of the Yggdrasil, and we sought to control this, and to some degree to protect this. My brothers and I took eight of the great trees, and moved them to eight realms that man could not reach, and in so doing those wondrous trees became safe from the saws, the fires, and the drums of war. We left only one tree on this Earth, and from that one tree sprung all life".
"But this was both our triumph and our folly. With the creation of eight new worlds, we 'gods' withdrew from this world to worlds of our own creation. We thought that our influence was insurmountable, and we could retreat to a place where we could be left to our own devices, to indulge our whims, building great landscapes full of unimaginable beauty, building our homes in the sky, and creating wondrous beasts which could never exist with the natural beauty the AllMother unthinkingly spawned. But while we lay in indolence, the world moved on."
"We as gods were nothing more than hiccups of the AllMother. Concentrations of life force that exceeded that of normal beings. As we were born, others like us were born, and in our absence they grew powerful. As we had discovered, they to discovered the key to gaining power was the life force of man. And as they grew in power, they realized that we had stolen something from the earth. They used their vast life forces to draw the Yggdrasil back to this realm".
"We tried to stop them, for although our motives had not been pure, by moving the Trees we had protected them. But by then it was to late. Man no longer believed in us, and as the new Gods power grew, ours waned."
"Finally, we returned to this realm as shadows of our former selves. Our great make believe realms faded with our power, turning black and crumbling around us, forcing us to return here, to live in the shadow of our replacements. But this was not the great tragedy.".
"A time came when the power of all gods was reduced to almost nothing, save for one god who stood central. He had many names, but commanded the faith of the entire world. This in itself may not have been a terrible thing, for he was benevolent, preferring to leave man to their own designs. The great tragedy was that he had no knowledge of the AllMother, and refused to listen to the words of those of us who had fallen so far."
With a sigh the old man climbed to his feet. He stretched and knuckled his back, ran a hand along the bark of the great tree. Walking over to the small pond, he knelt, cupped his hands and took a drink of the clear waters. Noisily he cleared his throat, then walked past the pond and stood looking at the stars.
Warily the black beast circled around until he was between the pond and the tree. Harbador's story only increased his disliking for the old twolegs. In his mind, the Grey Beard was even worse than a regular twolegs. With an effort, he suppressed a growl.
The old man began to speak once more, his back to the beast. "He had no knowledge of the AllMother, and believed only in his own power. Under his reign, man multiplied, and spread to cover every corner of this earth. This in itself was not evil, but man began to corrupt nature, began to create things that never should have been. These things became like a cancer in the great pool of life, and eventually, things that returned from the AllMother, returned with the cancer still in them. Twisted things, things that wanted nothing but to rend and destroy."
"Worst of all, as man expanded they came into the lands where the Great Trees had stood since the dawn of time. And as man came upon these places, they cut down those Great Trees, and started the Long Death. The rest thou canst imagine, as it has brought us to where we stand today. A man and a beast, a tree and a pond."
The black beast looked around him, taking in the melancholy surroundings. The skeletal tree stood at his back, the tiny pond before him. Across the pond, the old man's white hair hung to his shoulders, draping across his tattered black robe. The beast could just make out the black broken figures of what looked to be small dead trees scattered around in the distance.
"And now what canst be done? When all is lost." Harbador spoke with a great sadness in his voice, but as he turned to look at the black beast there was a hard glint to his eye. The beast's hackles rose. It was a glint of anger, as before a challenge was issued. But in the next instant, it was gone, the grey eye passive once again.
Looking away from the black beast, the Grey Beard began to walk back to the great tree. When he stood before the tree, he reached out and slowly placed his hand on the great trunk once more. "What can be done oh Ulfr Gramr, oh Wolf King?", the black beast stirred at this. He knew this name Wolf. Was it his name?
"No", he thought. Memory tickled at his conscious. Wolf was the name the twolegs had had for his kind, nothing more.
"This is what must be done," the old man said, and as he spoke he seized a chunk of the massive tree trunk, the tendons in his hand standing out like weathered iron chords. With a great cracking thunk, a piece of the trunk a yard long was pulled free. Tossing the piece of trunk to the ground the old man bent to the earth, breaking a thick root off a foot from its tip, and placing it beside the ripped trunk piece. Last he tore a strip of black cloth from his robe.
This completed Harbador turned to retrieve the wood he had collected. The black beast sensed more than saw, that something was happening to the wood. Something was shifting, changing becoming different. When the old man turned back to the wolf, in his hands he had eight small smooth wooden rods, and a wooden jar. Looking up to the trunk of the tree, the black beast saw that the wound had healed itself, leaving no mark of where the piece had been torn from its side, nor did the root show a break.
"Here is what thou must do Wolf King, oh thee Devourer of Worlds. Thou must take these striplings, which are cuttings of this, the last Tree of Life, and this jar of pure water. Thou must go forth into the world, and return these cuttings to whence the eight trees once stood, and in so doing thou shall restore life to this barren world."
"But heed this warning. As each tree is reborn, so to will many things return to life throughout this earth. But the cancer is still in the life stream. As you return this world to life, so to shall come many great horrors. This is a perilous journey. But none remain to undertake it, save thee."
The wolf narrowed his gleaming yellow eye. Why had not this twoleg made such a perilous journey, here for an age and yet not moving to aid the AllMother? He sent a mind howl to the Grey Beard, an image of the old man carrying the tree cuttings out to the world, the greenery returning.
Harbador chuckled, a bitter dry sound, lacking any mirth at all. "Oh would that I could Ulfr Grimr. Watch."
The old man lay down his bundle, and began to walk down and away from the tree. He passed the pond, walking steadily out towards the small broken trees. When he got to a distance that the black beast judged he could run in three breaths, the black beast noticed something strange. He could see through the edges of the old man's robe. When the Grey Beard reached a distance of six breaths, he began to fade. The wolf could see through the man now. At a distance of nine breaths, the old man disappeared.
"Thou seeth", came a voice behind the beast,"I cannot leave this place."
The black beast spun about in surprise. Behind him, the old man stood once more, leaning with one hand on the trunk of the tree.
"Now, you must take these things I have wrought, and you must restore this earth. With your permission?", as Harbador said this, he picked up the cuttings, the jar, and the black cloth from the ground. When the wolf did not resist, he tied the cuttings around the wolf's shoulders, the cuttings laying flat on his back, the jar hanging by his chest.
"And now I have spoken to thee of all I wish to speak and more. I grow weary. And thou hast a journey to make". Harbador began to turn from the wolf.
"Wait", the black beast mind-howled at the man.
Pausing Harbador turned back to look at the wolf. "Yes?", he said.
"I need to know something" howled the beast. "Do you know my name?"
"Yes beast." again Harbador chuckled his dry, mirthless chuckle,"You have had many names. You are the The King of Wolves, The Devourer of the Wold. You are the End of Man. You are Valcrim, the Black Beast."
With this he turned away, and to the black beast's astonishment, he disappeared into the great tree. Valcrim was left alone, to contemplate this latest revelation. A weary contemplation it was. Although he now knew his name, he could remember nothing more of life before this weary grayness. At last he stood, took a last drink from the pond, carefully bent and filled the jar, before turning and loping off into the early morning light.
Harbador stood before the calm subterranean waters. In his own time he had stood here once, in search of knowledge, and given up something great in exchange. This place had been known as the Well of the World then, and had been much more difficult to find. Now it lay directly beneath the roots of the last great Yggdrasil.
"At last it begins", he said to the waters,"We have waited thus for an age, but now, the wait is finally reaching its end."
Reaching up he flipped the eye patch back so that it lay upon his forehand. "I have to say though Mother, when I saw that it was he, I wasn't sure that he wasn't coming for this". His hand slid down against his cheek, lightly scratching the scar the patch had covered. Above the scar, a golden eye peered thoughtfully out at the glowing green waters.