The festivities of the night carried on for quite some time, and so it was well past dawn by the time Philius awoke. Shaking the sleep from his head, he carefully re-adjusted his ever-present bandana and went out to find his two companions.
“Finally awake, lad?” Brogan hailed him from a small campfire, a pot of tea already boiling. “You missed the best part of the morning.”
“I thought the older you got, the more you slept.” Philius joked, taking a seat next to him.
“Not our General.” Another early-rising bandit quipped from the other side of the fire. “The General’s been rising with the sun since he was a fresh-faced recruit. I wager even if the sun decides to take a day off someday, our old General will be up at the same time regardless.”
“My old drill sergeant used to say “Never have a man do something you wouldn’t do yourself”.” Brogan returned, blowing on his tea. “If I started taking it too easy, just imagine what would happen to the discipline of the men.” He shuddered. “Doesn’t bear thinking.”
While they had been talking, Philius had been scanning the clearing. “That aside, have you seen Chrysalism?” He asked, after a time. “She struck me as an early riser.”
“She also woke with the sun.” Brogan returned. “She said she was going to soak in some sunlight before her execution, so I expect she’s doing that now.”
“And you just let her go?” He asked with surprise. “You are trusting, General.”
“The world’s not so far gone as of yet where I can’t trust the word of a lady.” The General harrumphed. “But I suppose its about time to end this farce of a scenario.” He rose, and deliberately checked his blade. “Coming, lad?”
“Are you inviting me?” He smirked.
“Well, you’ll come even if I don’t, won’t you?” He snorted. “Let’s go.”
True to her word, Chrysalism was lying in a sun-drenched clearing, taking in the morning rays with an almost beatific countenance. The General coughed to make his presence known, respectfully waiting for her to rise before addressing her.
“Well Chrysalism, are you prepared?” He asked.
“I was waiting for you, General.” She smiled. “If it’s alright with you, there’s a place here I want to visit first.”
“But of course.” The General bowed. “Lead the way.”
True to Philius’ word, the tree colloquially known as the “Heart of the Forest” was right where he had indicated. Stretching well over twice the height and four times the width of its neighbours, they saw the tree well before they reached its base.
“A fine spot to meet your end.” Brogan nodded, appreciatively. “I often come here myself when I need to clear my head.”
“It’s big, that’s for sure.” Philius shrugged, kicking a surfaced root.
“She’s beautiful.” Chrysalism breathed. With an almost reverent slowness she removed her head, placing the summoned cranium on the ground before striding towards the great tree, placing her palms against it.
“It still gives me chills when she does that.” Philius noted, looking at the severed head on the ground. Brogan silently nodded his agreement.
Ignoring them, Chrysalism stayed in rapture-like stillness. Then, as if coming from all around them and nowhere at once, her voice rang through the clearing.
“Wake up, big sister.”
And then, even more disturbingly, the tree answered back.
“I was never asleep, little sister.”
Before their eyes, the tree split wide open from base to tip, and out of the resulting cavity emerged a giant figure, well over nine feet in height. Undeniably humanoid and female in form, the creature’s body seemed to be made up of overlapping roots, all of which moved and writhed with a life of their own. Behind wooden brows lay two golden pools of fine, yellow sand.
“A World-Gardener.” Brogan breathed.
“Say what now?” Philius exclaimed, still not able to tear his eyes away.
“When I was a lad, my grandmother told me about giant plant-folk that planted the trees, built the mountains, and dug the lakes in the times of yore." He half-whispered. "However, they grew weary of the destructive nature of Alveans, and sought to exterminate them. Like great avengers, they swept across the land, trampling whatever Alveans they found, men, women, and children all.”
“Really?” Philius asked with skepticism. “I mean, she’s not that tall.”
“True, my grandmother said they towered over mountains.” Brogan admitted. “Still, they had nearly exterminated all sentient life when the gods had to intervene. The cries of their children reached their ears, and they sought out the creator of the World-Gardeners, the reclusive Vaeafortanoe, the Cosmos-Mover. When he heard what his children had done, he was filled with sorrow and rage, and placed a terrible curse on them for their crimes. From then unto the end of the world, any of the immortal World-Gardeners who would willingly take the life of a sentient being would be forever barred from his eternal abode, left to wander the Void alone for eternity.”
“Tough break.” Philius commented.
Brogan ignored him. “And so they say, filled with anger and regret the mystical World-Gardeners retreated to the earth, resolving to ignore the affairs of mortals until the world finally fades and they can rejoin their creator.”
“And may that day be swift in its approach.” A sibilant voice filled the clearing, like a soft breeze. The giant tree-woman was regarding the two men with her soft, golden eyes, an inscrutable expression on her face.
“M’lady World-Gardener, you honour my forest with your presence.” Brogan bowed floridly, his mustache duplicating the motion.
“Your forest, little brother?” the World-Gardener smiled, amused. “Well, no matter. I have enjoyed the frequent visits of you and your company.” She paused. “Except the short rat-faced one. If you would pass on my request for him to stop relieving himself at my roots, I should be most grateful.”
Brogan’s mustache quivered. “That Renwouss, I’ll give him a piece of my mind, no mistake!”
The World-Gardener smiled, then turned back to Chrysalism. The two seemed to converse silently for a while, speaking without speaking. Then, as if unbidden, tears came to the eyes of the giant, twin rivulets of pure, clean water.
“Oh little sister.” She whispered. “I understand your intent, and would be honoured to have you meet your end at my roots. Fear not, I will likely follow shortly after.”
At this, Brogan’s ears perked up.
“A-hem-hem.” He cleared his throat. “I beg your pardon m’lady, but what manner of brigand is putting you at risk? I swear on my honour that my men and I won’t stand for such a thing!”
The giant smiled sadly. “My brave, brave little brother, the threat is beyond your power. You are no doubt aware of the invading army making its way past our borders? It would seem they have found this forest’s wood to be of suitable quality for siege engines, and already their engineers have removed a third of my body. I and the forest are one, when the last tree falls, so will I.”
“You and this forest are...?” The General’s mustache quivered with silent indignation. “Those savages! The World-Gardeners have been neutral since before the War of the Gods! How dare they!”
The World-Gardener blinked in surprise, then softly place a hand on the General’s head and tussled his hair. “Dear, dear little brother, don’t be angry on my account. After centuries of shamed exile, I finally go to meet my creator. I accept my fate without regret.”
“But…” The General started. Then, he squared his shoulders, and looked the giant in her eyes. “I understand. If that’s your wish, I won’t interfere.”
She smiled. “Good boy. Now, you and my little sister here have a promise to complete, have you not?”
Chrysalism’s headless body walked up to Brogan, on queue.
The General nodded, resolutely drew his sword, and brought it up to a ready position.
Chrysalism knelt down in submission.
“Oh hell no.”
Philius’ cry broke the silence. As one, all eyes turned to him in surprise.
“Are you all kidding me? What is this, some group self-pity session or something? Get a grip, people.”
“Why you…” Brogan started. “How dare you!”
“No, that’s my line.” The youth shot back. “You lot sicken me. You’re all just ready to accept your fate like this? You General, you’re going to let the owner of the forest you and your men have been calling home get chopped up and turned into ballistae and trebuchets?”
“Well…” He started.
“And you, giant lady!” He pointed at the World-Gardener.
“Me?” She asked in surprise.
“You’re just gonna lie down and die? You’re fine with your body being turned into weapons? You’re fine with the lives that’ll ruin? How you think you can face your god after such a spineless end is beyond me.”
She scowled, but said nothing.
“And you, lady!” He pointed at Chrysalism.
“That’s about enough, Philius.” She was now holding her head, and her expression was not friendly. “You don’t know my history.”
“And I sure as hell don’t care, either!” He shot back. “You’re so set on having your life end here in peace and contentment, but what does that serve but yourself? If your life is worth so little to you, the least you could do is use it to help someone else!”
“What could you possibly know?” Brogan muttered.
With a snap, Philius ripped his headband off, throwing it on the ground. Chrysalism gasped.
“What…what is that?” Brogan asked, staring at the youth’s forehead, and the glowing numbers ticking away on it.
“That.” Philius growled. “Is the time left before I die. Under six days, and counting.”ns188.8.131.52da2