Ascending

Howl walked through the forest and tried to remember how he came to be here. All around him ancient behemoths burst from the soil and fought for a piece of the sky. Ferns and flowers of every shape, size, and colour crowded around their bases. From above him sunlight pierced the smallest openings in the canopy and transformed the forest floor into a mosaic of light and dark. Leaves and flower petals fell and scattered across Howl's path. The entire forest was as beautiful as a dream. A small puddle lay to Howl's left, and in it he caught sight of himself. Small bits of leaves and sticks tried to blend into his dark brown hair as it fell to his shoulders. His deep-set eyes stared out owlishly at the world. His smile was two pink lines split by a thin layer of darkness. Howl shifted and his torso came into view. Howl's shirt had been torn away by thorns exposing his pale white flesh and light pink nipples. Glancing away Howl kept walking. His jeans, cut-off at the knees, made a barely audible swishing noise as he walked. Small scratches peppered Howl's lower legs right down to his feet. His shoes had been eaten by mud along with his socks, leaving Howl thankful for the soft moss he was walking on. Weariness finally overtook the lonely boy, and he sat on a convenient rock near the side of the path. As Howl took a break, he stared into the forest trying to discern a pattern or new path that might help him get out. Fervently he began to wish for a guide. Suddenly, Howl leapt from his seat as a rustling in the bushes announced that a figure was emerging. It was a boy, sort of. Howl realised it was a Neko, a creature from Japanese lore that was part human and part feline. The creature was mostly man except for the short black fur running down its back and ending in a long tale. And how sharp its nails and teeth were! Even its eyes were strange; they almost seemed to glow in the dark. The boy seemed twitchy, but eventually his curiosity overcame his fear; he came closer. He straightened and smiled. Then, he spoke.

"Hello! I am called Sakura. What do they call you? And why are you in the forest? Are you really a human? You smell like a human, but I've never smelled human before; so I can't be certain." Sakura's rapid-fire questions left Howl shocked and silenced for a moment, but he quickly recovered.

"Um, Hi. They call me Howl". Sakura smiled wider.

"Howl? That's a cute name. So Howl why are you in the forest? Are you lost? I bet you're lost. You left the trail when you weren't supposed too. But that is okay because I found you. I bet you want me to take you out of this forest. Am I right?" Now that Howl was used to Sakura's questions he just smiled.

"Could you take me out?" Sakura nodded and walked off toward a new path that Howl couldn't see.

"Course I'll take you out. Though I've never been outside the forest before. Have you? Wait, of course you have. You are human. What is it like outside the forest? I'll bet it is so cool. I have heard some pretty awesome stories about the outside. Do you want to hear them?" Howl nodded as he struggled to keep up with Sakura's vigorous pace. As they walked Sakura began to tell stories that he had heard from his brothers and sisters who had been outside of the forest. Howl was spell bound by the tales of this strange land, of a city where creatures from all over, including humans, met to talk, barter, and celebrate life, of wandering knights and their quests for glory. Of the royal family and their magnificent castle overlooking the city. And of the minor gods, goddesses, and spirits that lived in the land, sea, and sky. As Sakura talked, the two walked late into the night. Soon the sun was setting, and Sakura said it was time to sleep.

"Sleep? Where? I don't see any beds, you don't mean on the ground do you?" asked Howl alarmed but Sakura just laughed.

"What is a bed? And why would we need it to sleep?" Sakura motioned for Howl to follow him and pushed aside the branches of a tree that looked like a weeping willow.

"This is a dreaming tree. Dreaming trees hide the softest moss in the forest. It is deep and plush and very comfortable". Intrigued Howl knelt down and felt the soft moss. It really was softer than outside on that path, not to mention much thicker. As Howl straightened, he heard laughter from above him.

"Well, well, well… hello little brother! What stories are you spinning now? And who is this human you are traveling with? You better not be leading another young man away from the path or father will be angry with you." Howl stared up and saw another Neko in the thicker inner branches of the dreaming tree. He was a little taller than Sakura and looked much stronger. Even his nails were longer and sharper. However, his back had the same colour fur running down it towards a tail much like Sakura's.

"Sakura, who is that?" Howl whispered. Sakura smiled and laughed.

"Hello brother Soma! And how are you this day? I hope mother and father are well." Howl gasped as Soma fearlessly leapt from his perch and landed on the ground.

'"I am fine, as are mother, and father, and the rest of our siblings. Right now I am just worried about you and your new friend". Sakura nodded.

"This is Howl. He was lost in the forest until I found him. Then I offered to guide him out of the forest. And then we talked and talked forever and ever. And then it started getting dark, and I knew we would need our rest, so I showed Howl the dreaming tree. Now we have found you." Soma silenced his brother with a gesture knowing full well that Sakura could ramble on for a very long time.

"I see, very well. I will allow you and your friend to share my camp fire, but tomorrow when I leave, you are taking Howl straight to the border of the forest."

"Very well brother, whatever you say goes." Sakura submitted. Soma nodded and showed them a small cooking fire on the other side of the tree. Three sticks were placed around it; each one was holding a large fish above the flames. Soma picked the biggest and began to devour it while Sakura pulled the other two from the fire. The smallest was given to Howl who quickly began eating his meal. When they were finished Soma took the bones and buried them in a shallow grave he had dug beside the fire pit. Because his hunger was sated, Howl began to feel very tired and started looking for a place to lie down. He finally settled on a small area in the roots of the dreaming tree. The moss almost seemed to conform to his body as Howl lay down and got ready to sleep. Beside him he heard Sakura settling down as well. Soma opted for the branches of the dreaming tree high above them. Within moments Howl was fast asleep.

Howl awoke as the first rays of sunlight lit up the inside of his eyelids. Above him the branches of the dream tree waved as if in greeting. Suddenly, the branches disappeared as the head of Sakura silhouetted against the dawn eclipsed them.

"About time you woke up, sleepy one! You slept for a very long time. My brother Soma has already left us and the sun has been up for ages. We should head for the border before he gets back or he might get mad." Howl nodded and stood up, shaking his arms and legs and stretching wide. Once again Sakura took the lead, and they were on their way. This journey was much shorter than the last, and soon the two had made it to the edge of the forest. Beyond the forest lay a wide field of grass and wildflowers. Everything was bright and happy compared to the cool and mysterious interior of the forest. Howl had to shield his eyes until they adjusted to all the light.

" Now we just have to cross this field and we should find the town of Memorial. Have you ever been to Memorial? I haven't, but I here it is really cool there. My siblings said that Memorial was built a long time ago by all the peoples of this land. Even the Neko people helped out. There was a big war with a powerful enemy and the final battle was fought on the grounds of Memorial. The enemy was defeated, but the humans who lived there lost their homes. To repay them for their sacrifice everyone built them new homes that were better then their old ones. After that everyone just kept building there, and soon all sorts of people lived there. Memorial became a centre for trade and politics. I always wanted to see it, and I guess this is my chance. So shall we get going?" Howl nodded before replying.

"All right. Now I can't wait to see this place either. Maybe I can find out more about how I got here." Side by side the two friends walked out across the fields.

The Town of Memorial was a very misleading name. As Howl took it all in he couldn't help but think it was more like a city. Some of the buildings even looked like giant wooden skyscrapers. Everywhere was bustling with activity even though it was late in the evening. The strangest part was the people. Hundreds of strange people and stranger creatures crowded the streets in amicable chaos. Angels and Harpies soared above the town. Mer-folk rolled around on primitive wheelchairs. Golem wandered around carrying massive loads. A couple of Demons did magic tricks in the street. Humans walked around dodging through it all. Even little kids of many diverse races were playing tag together. As the two travelers approached the gate into the city a man on horseback rode over. Howl blinked and realised it wasn't a man on horseback. It was a real live centaur guarding the entrance.

"Welcome travelers! Have ye come ta visit the fair town of Memorial?" The centaur was smiling despite his fearsome appearance and the fact that he was armed and armoured.

"Yes sir, I'm Sakura of the Neko and this is my friend Howl." The centaur nodded.

"Aye, we are all friends here at Memorial. So don't go doing something stupid I'll have to knock ya round for kay?" Sakura laughed but Howl was terrified by the idea of the deadly warrior taking a dislike to him.

"By the by me names Curran. If ya ever need me I'll be here or in that there guards quarters" Curran pointed off towards a building that reminded Howl of a stable only far more luxurious. Waving goodbye Howl and Sakura walked into the city glad that they had made a new friend. Sakura and Howl worked there way slowly through the crowds. At first Howl wasn't sure where Sakura was leading them until the cat-man stopped by a kiosk at the side of the road. On the other side was a demon. He looked mostly humanoid but his skin was deep red like a lobster and two horns protruded from his head. He wasn't wearing a shirt but he did have a collar of spikes around his throat and another at his wrist.

"You smell like my sister demon, do you know her? You should know Kari cause her scent is all over you. My name is Sakura and this is my friend Howl. We met in the forest. Do you know where the temple is? My sister told me a lot about it and I have always wanted to see it." For a few moments the demon just stared before shaking his head and answering.

"You must be one of Kari's brothers. Yeah I know where the temple is. You just follow this street straight up and you will see it over the rooftops. Tell them Rajiv sent you and they should let you in." After they thanked Rajiv the two slipped back into the street and followed the flow of people. Sure enough they soon saw the spires of the temple not far off. The temple was a harmonious collision of the many cultures. The bottom was solid blocks of stone supporting mighty trees topped in gold swirls. The trees held up walls of swirling marble. It was just as beautiful within. Statues, paintings, and massive mirrors decorated the walls. Men, women, and myriad other beings strode purposefully through the hallways in full-length robes. One of them approached them and exclaimed happily. Pulling back her hood Kari introduced herself to Howl and happily hugged her brother.

"Brother Sakura! I did not know you were coming to visit. Welcome to the Temple of Unity. Come, I must show you the sacred tiles while you are here." Kari quickly showed them through to a long hallway decorated with giant stone blocks. Each one contained an image from the lore of the land. As they walked down the hallway Kari told them the stories that each tile represented. The closest tiles showed the present, the happy people constructing the town of Memorial. But as they went further back they began to show scenes of a time when the land was over run by terrible Nightmares. They destroyed everything good and pure in their path. People, animals, homes. Many were lost. One tile showed a frontal view of the Nightmares. They looked like shadows given life. They were insect-like, with long blades for arms, lengthy legs, and no faces, just feelers and gaping mouths. The sight made Sakura shiver. Past the Nightmare were tiles from before the war. Most of them showed many people starting homes, and villages. The oldest tiles showed the beginning of the world, a ball of fire emerging from a wave of energy. The very oldest tile was so corroded you could hardly see anything at all on it.

"This is the very first tile made by an ancient seer and artist. It was called "The Source God". He never told anyone why he called it that. But he did say that this person was the source of the energy wave that gave birth to our world, and therefore all of us here in HowLan." Howl turned from the image and stared at Kari.

"HowLan? Where did you come up with that name?" It then occurred to Howl that he had been feeling déjà vu for a while now without even realising it.

" Doesn't the picture of the "Source God" look a little like Howl?" piped up Sakura into the silence. They all turned to look at the tile. Past the dirt and grime Howl could just make the picture of a boy. One that looked just like the boy he had seen in the puddle back in the forest. Howl froze up and receded into his thoughts. "The Source God" was Howl? Admittedly Howl had always dreamed of being a god but he had always known it wasn't possible. Unless this was a dream, then it all clicked into place. How he didn't know how he got here, the strange coincidences, how everything seemed to work out for him. This was a dream, a dream where Howl was a God. In the real word nothing went well for him but here it was all different. Here Howl was in command.

"Howl? Are you okay? You don't look well. Are you sleeping standing up?" Howl blinked and Sakura popped into view. His face showing concern and worry.

"I'm doing fine Sakura. Now stand back, I want to try something." Staring at the tile with his own image inscribed upon it Howl focused on the dirt, he saw the dirt falling to floor and the dust leaped to obey his command. Howl really was a God, at least in his own mind. Sakura and Kari stared at their friend in wonderment but Howl had already moved on to his next challenge. Walking down the hallway Howls eyes alighted on the picture of the nightmare. Without a second thought he stood before the fearsome image and focused his newfound power. The Nightmare seemed to peel itself off the wall and reform itself into a powerful destructive force. With a terrifying screech the beast leapt at Howl slicing the air with its claws. Before anyone could do anything but stare Sakura reacted on instinct and moved into the way. Time seemed to slow as the blade plunged into Sakura's chest with ease. The Nightmare was as surprised as anyone and tried shake Sakura off. Blood sprayed from Sakura's growing injuries as even more damage was caused by the Nightmare's flailing. The Nightmare lashed out one final time and Sakura slammed into a tile depicting a happy family in front of there new home. Sakura hadn't even hit the floor before the Nightmare raced off to claim more victims among the priests and priestesses of the temple. Kari fell to her knees beside her brother and tried to assess the severity of his wounds. Kari was one of the best healers at the temple but not even her skill could help Sakura now. Howl had not moved since the Nightmare had unleashed its attack. His face was pale and spattered with specks of Sakura's blood. A drop fell tear-like into Howl's gaping mouth. The taste woke Howl from his daze and he spun to find his loyal friend.

"SAKURA!" Howl knelt by his friend and stared into his pained eyes. Howl could see the light that was his friend slowly fading away.

"Sakura, why did you do it? Why did you jump in the way?" Howl asked. Sakura tried to smile but grimaced instead. As his death drew near and screams echoed from the main room Sakura tried to speak.

"I couldn't let you die. You're my only friend. Besides, your too cute to die." Sakura broke into a fit of coughing as another scream echoed into the room. Howl stared at his faithful, foolish friend and knew something had to be done. After all he had brought all of this about. Then it struck him; he was a God wasn't he? What good was it being all powerful if you couldn't bring a friend back too life? From Howl's raised hands green healing energy poured out and wrapped itself around Sakura's bleeding body. When the light faded Sakura was healed. For a moment Howl sat and examined his handiwork until the restored Sakura wrapped him in a hug.

"Wow Howl, I'm as good as new" Sakura pulled back and." looked into his friends eyes "But how did you do that? Are you magic now? I wish I was magic." Sakura stopped as another scream broke out but this time it was followed by the battle cry of the town guards. Howl rose to his feet and started running down the corridor. Slamming the door open Howl witnessed the full horror of the attack. People and corpses were sprawled everywhere, the tears of those standing mixing with the blood of the wounded. In the centre was the Nightmare battling against Curran and two other guards. Curran was losing. One of the other guards was already missing an arm even though he fought on. Howl shouted out to the beleaguered defenders.

"Stand back! Curran please trust me! This is all my fault and now I am going to set it right!" Curran heard but was too busy blocking a downward strike by the Nightmare. Howl was finished with this and ready to give his powers a real workout. With ease Howl conjured a flaming scimitar from the air and charged into the fray. His first strike removed the distracted Nightmare's right arm. Shrieking the monster retreated from the battle. With the other warriors Howl backed it into a corner. It sat for a moment in a pool of it's own pitch-black blood. Then it started scrabbling up the wall. Sadly for it Howl was too fast. Snow-white wings burst from his back and sent him soaring after it. The scimitar in his hands shape-shifted into a mighty spinning razor and shot out of Howl's hands and straight for the Nightmare's back. A mournful death cry was the last anyone heard of the Nightmare as the still burning flames destroyed its corpse. As Howl landed he willed away his wings and fell to his knees. As he knelt there in silence a little mermaid rolled near to him and tugged at his sleeve.

" Hey magic man, could you help my mommy get better too?" Looking up Howl saw a mermaid in the corner of the room. Her head had been removed. Looking at the expectant trust the little one placed in him he knew he had to try. He was after all a God here right?

Hours later Howl collapsed bloody and exhausted into a bed provided by the temple. His powerful sorcery had indeed saved the girls mother. And everyone else the Nightmare had hurt. He had even managed to fix the damage to the temple. But it had taken a long time and all of Howl's strength. All in all it was a happy ending. Content with his work Howl got comfortable on the bed hoping for some shut-eye before some more work he was planning on tomorrow. As his eyes closed he felt someone poking him.

"Sakura, leave me alone I need to sleep. I'm exhausted." His sister Rosaline started laughing.

"How could you be tired Howl? You have been napping out here all day. You were supposed to pick fruits for me; instead you wandered into these woods and fell asleep like a silly! And who is Sakura anyway? Your crazy big brother!" Howl gasped, he was awake. Really awake, the dream was over. He met up with his parents a few minutes later and they all went home with some fruit they had found near Howls napping spot. Howl returned to the real world and spent his days as a mortal once more. But everyone so often he would disappear and become lost in the woods, and occasionally he was found by a good friend who led him out of the woods and into a world rife with imagination.