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True Illumination

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True Illumination

There was once a lush and beautiful forest teeming with life, and any who passed through it felt refreshed and cheerful. Its borders stretched all the way from the village of Terrapacia, on the west, to the great waters of Undalar, on the East, and every time the people of the village held a wedding, or a feast, or a celebration of any kind, they held it in the forest.

Now to the North, in the craggy wilderness, deep in the crevice of a great stone, lived a recluse named Mendax, who was neither a human nor an animal, nor any creature that belonged on this world. He was a hellion of old, with dark powers, and he shifted form to whatever suited his purpose.

Mendax was resentful of the sounds of happiness and revelry coming from the people, so in his ire, he made a thick, dark blanket of fog to cover the entire forest, so that not a single beam of light could get through. Soon, every living creature fled, and every green and growing thing wilted and died. All but one ancient tree in the center of the forest, the last of its kind, whose limbs stretched high above the dark fog, and whose firmly anchored roots ran for miles underground.

Over time, all the other trees became as petrified ghosts, and the shadowbeings crept into the forest, making it their home. Occasionally, a hapless villager would venture into the territory on a dare or a quest, and the shadowbeings would devour the poor soul, bones and all.

One day, a little girl named Rana wandered away from her mother at the market. She was looking at the shapes in the clouds, and followed them all the way to the edge of the forest, where the clouds stopped, and the fog began. Rana knew she was not supposed to enter the forest. Her mother had told her this, and she’d heard all about the Terrapacians who had disregarded the warnings of their mothers, never to return. But Rana was a very curious child, and she did not believe these stories, so into the forest she went.

It wasn’t long before Rana was lost in the dark, and the shadowbeings stalked her every move. They threw stones at her feet to trip her, and whispered frightening things in her ears to make her run ever deeper into the fog. She had been running a very long way when she came to the middle of the forest, to the great tree. She could not see it; she could only feel its massive trunk, like a wall. Pressing herself against the wide timber, she dearly regretted disobeying her mother.

As the shadowbeings surrounded Rana, the tree felt her tears against its trunk and took pity on her, opening itself and pulling her inside, where they couldn’t reach her. There Rana stayed for many years, until she was an old woman who could no longer remember what the light looked like.

The tree grew to love Rana, and did its best to provide everything she needed to live. Inside the trunk, she was warm and comfortable, and ate her fill of the tree’s fruit, which was crisp and tasted slightly of honey, with a hearty seed in the center. The tree even learned to speak to Rana by rustling its leaves, so that she wouldn’t be so lonely.

But one day, as the tree opened itself to allow her to gather fruit, something unexpected happened. Away in the distance, Rana saw a dim light glowing, and though the tree rustled frantically at her to stop, she walked toward it.

As she drew closer, the glow became brighter, until she came to a clearing where a single small candle burned. Its light danced with such a dazzling beauty, that it seemed to sing, and as Rana knelt down to look closer, the flame smiled at her, and said, “Keep me with you. I’ll make the world a bright and lovely place.”

Imagine her joy, after so many years, to hold the light in her hand. As she walked tall and proud, so excited to show her friend the tree what she’d found, she saw the shadowbeings fleeing from in front of her, for everybody knows that shadowbeings cannot abide the light.

But the tree had lived for a very long time. It recognized Mendax in all his forms, and would not allow Rana to bring the candle inside, knowing its true nature. And in fact, Mendax had always been furious that the tree continued to grow and thrive under the thick fog, and would indeed burn it to the ground if given the chance.

Rana didn’t know any of this, however. She only knew that here in her hand, she held the only light she’d seen these many years, and angrily she turned from the tree, convinced that it was only jealous that she’d found a new friend.

The candle proved to be a troublesome friend, though, and demanded all of Rana’s energy and attention. She wanted so much to see the world around her, but if the candle noticed her looking at anything other than its light, it would grow very dim until the shadowbeings crept almost close enough to grab her, and then she would huddle close to the candle and blow gently on it until the light grew brighter.

Rana spent so much time paying attention to the candle that soon she hardly slept, and grew thin and weak from not being able to gather the abundant fruit she’d eaten most of her life. She missed the tree very much, but couldn’t bring herself to leave behind the coveted light.

Mendax took great satisfaction in tormenting the woman in this way, and he intended to keep doing it until she either died of exhaustion, or until he became bored and allowed one of the shadowbeings to drag her away into the darkness.

The tree looked on with a broken heart, watching the old woman he’d loved since her childhood endure so much suffering, and receive so little in return. Day after day, he watched, until he could tolerate it no more.

With a great tremor, the tree began to wave its limbs to and fro, causing a mighty wind to blow all through the forest. The old woman became very frightened, and ran to the only place of safety she’d known since the day she became lost in dark so long ago. She reached the tree, only to find it closed to her, and knew that it would not open again unless she left the candle behind, so that’s what she did.

Mendax stood in the wind, sneering at the tree. How foolish! It thinks it will extinguish my light by causing this great wind to blow, and thus be rid of me, he thought, and burned all the brighter in defiance of the gale.

But the tree continued waving its limbs, and the wind continued to blow, while Rana huddled inside, fretting terribly over the fate of her beloved candle, frightened that she would never see the light again. She thought the shaking would never end, but it did.

Hours passed, and when the tree finally became still, Rana opened her eyes and unclenched her fists. Slowly, the trunk opened, and as Rana crawled out, she saw the most amazing sight she could ever remember seeing.

The wind had blown away the dense fog which had covered the forest, and all around her the world shone with the bright light of the sun.

Rana was overcome with joy, and she danced and leaped and sang out loud with all the energy and excitement of a young woman with no cares. She whirled around and around until she caught sight of how beautiful and tall and majestic her friend was who had cared for her all these years, and then she sat down silently, and stared in awe at its glory.

Mendax was livid that the veil of his dark fog had been blown away, and he burned hot with rage, flickering and blazing with as high a flame as he could muster, but Rana could no longer see him in the brilliant resplendence of the day. He flared and glowed and sputtered, but it was to no avail, because he no longer had a hold on the woman. Neither did he notice that his wax was all but melted until it was too late for him to do a thing about it, and he smoldered away into nothing.

Though the forest was in ruins, the light filled it with beauty. All the shadowbeings fled, and soon life began inching its way back to the forest floor, and growing upward. This was Rana’s home, and here she would stay the rest of her life, watching things grow.

And neither the people of the village, nor the creatures of the forest were ever touched by the darkness again.

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