The elders told many strange tales about the forest under the mountain; travellers never seen again or those who returned as shadows, nameless trees, blind beasts that took the shapes of children, nights with no end. The heart of the forest held the power. It was the rite of the apprentice to venture there, the final act before replacing the old mystic in the village, when the secret fire passed from one to another. It was said that the journey could end in only two ways; enlightenment or death.
It took Ash several days trek to reach the mountains and forest beneath. He was awed with the peaceful hush of the place where no birds sang, hearing only the whisper of the leaves. He found the sweet pine smell pleasant, the soft mat of fir needles underfoot comforting. Far from being frightened, Ash had to fight the urge to lay down and sleep. He pushed onwards through dark boughs that streched away endlessly on all sides, grey sky above and gloom ahead. There was nothing strange about this place of dimness, only a sombre silence that infused everything.
The way led upwards, on the mountain's back where the trees grew like hairs. Each day he walked until nightfall to set up camp, a small fire to keep the chill away. His provisions could last for weeks if he was careful. The occasional stream or brook refilled his flask. In time, he reached the heart of the forest, a large clearing of stony ground where nothing grew and the indifferent peak loomed over all. Ash saw nothing unusual and was relieved to have the task done.
His journey back down the mountainside was quicker, his heart lighter and thoughts running freely in the innocence and hope of youth. He would be the new mystic, a life of purpose and respect stretched out many years ahead. He thought about this final test, what was to be learned from the journey. Nature's magic flowed as usual here, the impermanent permanence of everything, the cycle of change invisible to the eye. When the elders spoke of magic, it was the unreal, the fairytales of children. That magic did not exist, only the beauty of nature's wheel was true. Perhaps this was the final lesson - to be seer was to see the elder's superstitions clearly, to know what was truly real and what was not. There was power in this.
After many days walking and thinking, Ash came back to the familiar slopes of his valley, the village nestled in the green below. It looked different somehow and not how he remembered, but the broad valley was the same as ever and so he trudged onwards. He passed many strangers along the way, the reverence from unfamiliar faces making his unease unfurl more with each greeting. Instead of feeling reassured, these displays of respect only heightened his agitation. He was not the new mystic yet, why did these unrecognisable people treat him like an elder? Ash reached the village square and made straight for the old mystic's house. It was long empty, cobwebs thick with dust and grime-caked windows. Where had his teacher gone? He recognised no-one in the square. Feeling disorientated and afraid, he went to the well to splash water on his face, a round mirror of water exposed to the bright sky. An old man stared back at him from the well, familiar eyes framed with wrinkles and white hair. In horror he realised - Ash looked upon his own reflection! The weird magic of the forest had embraced him after all.