I wonder how things would have gone if the old plant had done as he first intended, and simply handed over the flower. Pointless speculation, for certain, but I cringe inside to think of the beauty I was ultimately a part of destroying.
He had turned away from me and taken a couple of steps toward another part of the garden when he stopped and turned back to me.
“It occurs to me,” he said, “that this flower is worth a great deal to you. And I fully understand what you have suffered through already to come even this far, with much of your journey still ahead of you. But… I must ask you for a great favor before I bestow this one upon you.”
I could feel my fists clenching in frustration. I am certain that my eyes narrowed and a part of me considered using force upon the old man to get what I had come through so much to acquire.
“You wonder why my people have been so… unaccepting of you. Let me tell you why, and then you will understand why I ask this thing of you. A thing, you must understand, that only someone of your nature is in a position to accomplish.”
I forced myself to relax. At least I had not been accosted since entering this garden, and it was a pleasant enough place to hear a tale told by someone from whom I was asking a favor of my own.
“My people have ever been blessed by the gods of Sky and Sun, Earth and Rain. We are a chosen people upon this world, and have been for many millennia. We live in harmony with the natural world around us, having, as we do, the innate ability to touch the minds of each other and those of the lesser animals around us.”
Aside from the mythological mumbo jumbo, this was the first admission I had had of their psychic powers.
“However, a generation ago, when I was a much younger soul, we were invaded by men, most likely from your world. These were not normal men, but a cabal of sorcerers, what we call the Cursed ones. They were no longer living, yet they were still animate, as you are, and would not follow the natural order of decay.
“These men entered our world and destroyed several of our cities, burning and defiling the ground wherever they went. Our warriors fought as bravely as they could, yet these Cursed ones used their infernal powers to attack our great strength, our Mind Talk. Any who opposed them directly found their souls pulled apart by a great mental wailing. The few who escaped the reaping which followed were never the same and constantly talked of a great screaming which would ever echo within their minds. None of those unlucky few… survived… for long.
“We have lived in fear ever since. For though the Cursed ones do not follow us, and seem happy enough to have taken up residence in those lost cities, they also seem to never age or die. We live in fear that they will one day become restless and descend upon us once again to take more of our land, and our sanity.
I had a terrible sense of where this was going. Aside from my one experience with a sorcerous neighbor, and he was but one person and far from a powerful group of undead who could wipe out whole cities with impunity, I knew very little of how to defeat such beings.
“I don’t see what I can do…,” I began but he held up a branch to quiet me.
“Of course I do not expect you to wade into their midst with a spear and dagger and wipe out a menace which has stymied a whole race for a generation.”
Had I breath, I would have exhaled in relief.
“Yet… there is a thing which you can do. A task you are uniquely suited for, for you do not have our weakness of Mind Talk for them to exploit. You alone may be able to infiltrate their midst, for they have many servants from the ranks of the dead, and perform a simple task which will give us the advantage. With this advantage, our own brave warriors will be strong enough to wipe their scourge from our beautiful world and return the balance to normal.
“If you do this simple thing, I will provide you not only with the healing flower you need, but will also provide another boon which I may not speak of before my friend here.”
I had forgotten about the man in the cage and looked over at him now. He looked to be observing the both of us keenly, though quietly.
“What say you?”
I hesitated briefly.
“What choice have I, really?”
I looked upon that false, smiling Sharpie face and wondered how these plant men truly showed their emotions. I could not read this being, though I felt I could trust him. Indeed, I may even have liked him if I had had time to get to know him and was not in the very early stages of the most desperate quest of my life.
“What do you need me to do?”