by Doc Quantum
Much like the last time he had been here, the wood elemental known as the Swamp Thing was the only one in the group allowed access to the grove in which the Parliament of Trees resided. A band of native warriors were on constant guard against unwanted incursions into the sacred area, and they eyed John Constantine and the Challengers of the Unknown with grim and wary eyes, even as they bowed before the Swamp Thing himself and revered him as a god. Constantine had said little about why the Parliament wanted to see him, or how he could have possibly known that, but he had promised him some answers, which he wanted more than anything else at the moment. The Challengers seemed like they were just along for the ride, assisting a friend as he had assisted them on more than one occasion when they had first met. The idea of a Parliament of Trees was nothing too strange for them, though. Their careers had exposed them to things much stranger in their time.
“I am not… certain that I will be… returning…” the creature said grimly to his fellow travelers as he turned to meet the Parliament. “There is little… left for me to go… back to…”
“Well, don’t make up your mind just yet, mate,” Constantine said, sweating through his shirt in the South American March summer, even though he had already removed his trenchcoat. “Some of what you learn in there just might change your mind a bit.”
The last time he was here, he had formed himself at will in a body made of the tropical vegetation of the Brazilian rainforest, and was clad in flowers and ferns as he met his predecessors. Now, though, he was merely clad in his old, smooth, dark green form born of the swamps of Louisiana. It was fitting, somehow, to be in his true form, almost naked before those with whom he held a kinship. He stood there in the grove where the younger members of the Parliament resided, in awe once more and feeling as if he knew this place better than any other in the world. It was almost like finally returning home once more. And he was not sure whether this time he would ever be able to leave.
Much like last time, he had been seeking answers to questions burning within him, both asked and unasked. What new knowledge would he now be given?
“Your ancestors… bid you welcome… Swamp Thing…” said the human-like tree before him who was once known as Alex Olsen, “…at least those of us… who still can speak.”
“I have been called here… and I have come at your summons…” the Swamp Thing said. “What is it… that the Parliament of Trees wishes to tell me…?”
“You have many questions… written upon on your heart… young erl-king… Do you not wish… to learn the answers…?”
“I have been away from home… too long… only to find that everything… including myself… has changed…”
“Then be still… let your roots join our roots… your mind join our mind… and enter the discourse of the trees…”
The Swamp Thing laid his form down upon the cool grass and underbrush and, as he once did before, drifted off into the mind-scape in which the Parliament of the Trees met. Great, green thoughts, almost completely alien to that of humanity, met him like slow-moving, passing trucks, leaving what felt like vibrations in their wake. For the might and majesty of all of the wood elementals throughout history combined was something powerful indeed. After a few moments, which felt like days, they finally began to notice him. Several voices spoke in quick succession without sound, without language.
“Who interrupts the Parliament?”
“It is the young one.”
“He has returned.”
“Where has he been?”
“Speak, young one. Where did you go? How came you back?”
“Were you not dead?”
The Swamp Thing spoke to them in the same manner as they spoke to him, without sound, without language. “I assure you… news of my death was premature…” he said. “I have been away… from our earth. Visiting other worlds… other greens. Evil men… succeeded in forcing me… out of the biosphere. In desperation… I flung my essence… across space.”
“Other worlds?! Unheard of! None have ever torn their roots from the mother’s soil and survived,” one Parliamentarian objected.
“Then I… am the first. You need only… let our spirits touch… to know the truth.”
Once they had cast him out, these minds within the mind. Now the swimmer floated in the still waters of their stunned silence. And somewhere, deep in the dark undercurrents of this intelligence, he thought he caught a shuddering frisson of fear… or was it awe?
“You have done well,” a voice said as the Parliament fully knew all that had come before. “You have used the powers we gave you wisely in your absence.”
“What… do you mean?” the Swamp Thing asked, confused.
“They mean that the power level you had become used to until very recently was only a temporary situation,” said a new voice, different from all the others, the voice of a stranger.
“You…!” said the Swamp Thing as he saw the figure known as the Phantom Stranger floating in their midst.
“Yes, the Stranger has been awaiting your presence here with us. He is an honored guest, a friend of erl-kings since centuries past, and the only outsider allowed into our sacred gathering.”
“You must explain all of this… to me.”
“I am afraid to tell you, Alec Holland, that you have been the victim of a great deception,” the Stranger said. “A conspiracy which was necessary to save all of existence was also required to keep you blind to the truth.”
“That you were greater than you are,” said a voice in the Parliament. “You have tasted what it meant to truly be a god, when you have not yet even become a king.”
“I am… confused… what do you… mean by all of this?”
The Phantom Stranger spoke once more. “Alec Holland, you were not ready at the time to be the champion, the king, that the world needed at the time. You needed assistance desperately if you were to become ready for your day of reckoning.”
“Why do you call me… Alec Holland…? Holland is… dead…”
“No,” said the Stranger. “You are Alec Holland. There is none other.”
“But how can that… be? His ghost… haunted the laboratory where he… died. I saw his… soul when I visited Heaven!”
“I must apologize for that deception, Holland,” said the Phantom Stranger. “You were too obsessed with the idea of returning yourself once again to your human form at the time. When evidence arose which could prove that you had never been human but were only a new creature who only had the memories of Alec Holland, we had to take that as an opportunity. And it proved a wise decision. After all, you could now open yourself to new possibilities undreamt of before when you had only thought of this vegetable body of yours as a burden. Jason Woodrue was easily manipulated into coming up with the planarian worm theory, and all it took was the removal of a few conflicting memories in order for you to believe this fiction.”
This was why, he suddenly realized, he had not once recalled the time he had briefly become human once more, or even thought about his lover at the time, Ruth Monroe. “But the apparitions… the ghost of Alec Holland…?”
“Merely illusions,” the Phantom Stranger said as he slowly began to change his appearance into that of the sandy-blond-haired human Alec Holland, his voice altering slightly as well. “The appearances of the so-called true human soul of Alec Holland as being a completely separate one from your own was the added evidence which proved the conclusion you had already been made to believe. We could take no chances that you would once again fritter away your time seeking a cure for your condition.” The Stranger then changed back to his normal form.
“Why? Why was all of this… done to me…?”
“It was for the same reason the third party in our conspiracy of three was brought in,” said the Stranger.
Alec Holland immediately thought of who that must have been. “Constantine…”
“Yes. John Constantine knew that a great evil would be unleashed upon the world, the universe, one which needed to be combatted by everything our world had to throw against it. However, although you were meant to be this world’s erl-king, you had not yet come into your kingship. Something had to be done to speed along the process. As John Constantine led you on what seemed to be a wild goose chase across America, the Parliament of Trees began to lend you their combined power. Within months, you came to know abilities that none of the Parliament members had ever individually held in their days of walking — abilities that elevated your status to that of a god. All of this was necessary so that you would be in top form when the war of darkness and light began as we knew it would. The ultimate darkness was the reason you became what you were.”
“Why, then, was this not… revealed to me… after it was over… and the ultimate darkness defeated?”
“It was intended to be, Alec Holland. It was certainly intended to be. But the ways of men are much quicker than the ways of the trees. Immediately after the war was over, you learned of your lover’s peril in Gotham City and went there to rescue her, only to meet your doom. Or so it had seemed. There was no time for you to learn the truth.”
“We thought you dead,” said one in the Parliament. “Or at least some among us did. But your disappearance was so odd, so unlike anything that had come before, that we were not quite sure what to think. And so we waited. Upon your return to this earth, we sensed your presence immediately, and we recalled the power that had been granted to you unawares — power which you had used wisely out there, as we knew you would.”
“Then… my time on Earth is over… My purpose for existence… is complete.”
“Nay! You have not yet begun your life, young one. As we said, you have tasted what it meant to truly be a god, when you have not yet even become a king. You cannot join the Parliament of Trees as one of the honored erl-kings until your appointed reign is over. And you have not yet taken up your kingship.”
“There is nothing… left for me back there… nothing but sorrow…”
“So it was for most of us. So it will be for your successors. But this time is merely a proving ground which every apprentice goes through. You have proven yourself an able student in the past. We hope you will be so once again in order to take up your throne when you are ready. You have a kingdom to rule before you can join us.”
“What kingdom… do you speak of…? As I have seen… the trees, the flowers, the grasses… they do not need to be governed. What need is there… for a king?”
“There are others like you in the world — many others. Trees awakened into consciousness, as well as former men who have become wood elementals like us.”
“But I… I thought I was the only one… the one wood elemental… designated for the world at this time!”
A low rumbling could be heard in the Parliament suddenly, rising in volume and expanding the entire assembly until Holland finally realized that it was nothing less than laughter.
“Is a rock the designated rock of the world? Is an insect the designated insect of the world? Nay, young one. Wood elementals are but a species like any other, its members ranging in rank and ability. Besides the ordinary vegetation of this world, there are princes and princesses, dukes and barons, dryads and wood nymphs and many others, as well as one who may yet become your queen. But there can be only one king. And that is what you must become.
“An entire other world exists alongside that which you knew in your human life. In this supernatural world, that which you understand only as magic is everywhere, occasionally permeating the natural world. You have seen this world enter yours at several points in your lifetime. Spirits, demons, vampires, werewolves, dwarves, elves, goblins, satyrs, centaurs, fairies, sprites, brownies, and many other creatures of legend still live, though most have left this realm. You must be aware of them, for your world is as a bridge between theirs and the world of humanity.
“Beware of the dukes and barons who seek to overthrow you, young one, particularly those others who share your youth. Be cautious with them, but know that they, particularly the elder ones, also can teach you what you need to learn. Use what little wisdom you have to distinguish the good teaching from the bad.
“In your absence, the Green has fallen into disrepair. Many ancient trees once awakened into intelligence have become bent and estranged from us, and many of them have made themselves also the enemy of man. They seek harm to all but themselves. These bent trees need their king to set them right once more. As well, a great evil has entered the wood since you’ve been gone. It seeks to turn all the Green to its own way, and it has succeeded in attracting many followers, disenchanted with the destruction caused by humanity. This evil must not succeed in taking over the kingdom which is rightfully yours, young erl-king.”
The Swamp Thing merely listened as he was told all these things by the Parliament of Trees. And after a few moments of silence, he asked some more questions of his own.
“Tell me, what were those creatures… I met in the swamps… where I died and was reborn? An alligator-creature… giant ants… and others… They were made of plant-matter like me… only they were animals.”
“They are your servants.”
“Then why… why did they attack me…?”
“They do not yet recognize you as their king. When you have fully come into your kingship, they will be your faithful subjects. And the swamp in which you were born as a wood elemental shall be your throne, the seat of your kingdom. This is why so many of them have likewise been born in that swamp. It was in anticipation of the coming of the king. Whenever an erl-king is born, his subjects prepare the way for him for the day when he is ready to assume his kingship.
“Young one, you must also seek no longer to become human. Each of us is given one chance, and once chance only, to return to our human form. You were given that chance, and you chose to become a wood elemental once again.”
“But it was not… my choice. It happened… suddenly…”
“You may not know it was your choice, but it was. Did it not happen when the Swamp Thing and not Dr. Alec Holland was needed?”
“Yes… I suppose so…”
“Then that is your answer. Seek not to turn the clock back any longer. You must now look to the future and become the king you were made to be.”
“But I am little… better off than I was… when I first became the Swamp Thing.”
“Your might will grow as you grow into your kingship. You will never again be the wood god you were, but you will become the king of all the woods.”
“What happens… if my body is destroyed…?”
“If your body is beyond repair, you will be able to seek out a new one elsewhere. But it will take time for it to fully grow, as it did the first time you grew a new body. You will no longer be able to shed and create bodies at will like you once were able to, however, nor will you be able to create and control more than one body at a time. That was merely one of the gifts we granted you for a season. As well, your form will remain the size it is until such time as you are ready to retire as king and join us. Your strength will become greater as you learn to wield it. But do not seek power. It shall come to you as needed.”
“How will I… travel? This lumbering body… is slow to move…”
“Young ones always desire speed and quickness. They forget they are no longer human,” one of the members of Parliament said the others.
“Do not worry, young erl-king. The woods hold many secrets. You will soon discover the way the erl-kings of old visited the far reaches of their kingdom. This is one of the skills you must learn.”
“Where shall I… learn these skills from… if not you?”
“There are older wood elementals out there, young one, some even older than many in the Parliament. Seek them out as your teachers, for they will have much they can teach you. Many of them have served in previous kingdoms as faithful servants of past erl-kings who now reside with us. And they are spread out all over the world. You must travel and find them. Seek out also other young ones like yourself, and tell them that the king has been found and that the kingdom is coming.”
Another one spoke very gravely. “We know also the burden on your heart and the desire you feel for revenge against the men who nearly caused your destruction. Young one, do not become a slave to revenge. For that is the way of man, not wood, and should you give in to revenge, it will prove your undoing.”
The Swamp Thing lowered his eyes. He had wanted to immediately seek out and destroy the men in the DDI who had been responsible for his near-destruction and who had caused him to flee the earth well over a year ago. Now, however, those desires seemed so very small and petty to him. Had he forgotten the strong belief in never taking human life he had once held? This was another thing that had changed when he had been tricked into believing he had himself never been human. Sunderland had been the first man he had ever killed, but he had only killed the Brujería since then, as it was necessary to put an end to their evil. Now, though, why would be want to stain his hands further with the blood of other villains, thereby reducing himself to their level? He raised his eyes as the Parliament spoke their final words to him.
“You are now merely a student, a novice. You must become a master. You were briefly made a god, but you must now learn to be a king.”
The Swamp Thing found himself suddenly back in the grove where the younger erl-kings were at rest, and he opened his eyes. He had been told many things this day, yet what he had been told raised many more questions. When he had arrived here, his future looked so bleak that he was willing to leave the world of humanity and join the Parliament of Trees and rest in the Green. However, now that he fully knew what — and who — he really was, his future was replete with endless possibilities.
“The Parliament… has spoken…” said Alex Olsen, the original Swamp Thing, as he had once said almost two years past. “I trust that you… have found the answers… you were seeking?”
“Yes, and more… But I am not sure… what I should do with them.”
“Do the same as I did… more than seventy years ago… and seek out others of your own kind… some as allies and some… as teachers. And beware those… who seek your overthrow.”
Alec Holland turned and walked out of the grove, where John Constantine and Ace Morgan of the Challengers of the Unknown were awaiting his return. The small band of native warriors who were keeping a close eye on them bowed reverently as the Swamp Thing passed them.
“Well?” said Constantine. “Did you have another interestin’ session with your mates?”
“One could say so…” said the Swamp Thing. “I also learned… of the conspiracy… and the part you played in it…”
“Hey, mate, it weren’t my idea,” John Constantine said, looking defensive. “It was a necessary thing that had to be done, but it was the Stranger who put me up to it.”
“Don’t worry, Constantine… I may not be happy… having been a pawn in this game… but the past is past… and I finally know who… and what… I really am.”
“Good to hear, but aren’t you going to tell us anythin’ about it? Don’t keep a bloke in suspense.”
“The words spoken in Parliament… are words meant for erl-king ears only.”
“Oh, so that’s the way it is, then? Mum’s the word, is it? Fine thing. I’d ask the Stranger about it, but knowin’ him, he’s got tighter lips than you have.”
“Ease off, John,” said Ace. “Dr. Holland — er, I should say, Swamp Thing — what do you plan on doing now?”
“I’m not sure… but I would appreciate… a ride back to Louisiana… and please… call me Alec…”
“Consider it done, Alec,” said Ace, smiling. The three rejoined the other Challengers at the jet, and the group was soon gone.