Once upon a time,
there was a very lonesome tree.
The fertile soil in which it sprouted was
the thoughts frozen in time
when they were dedicated to the page.
The gentle rain it sipped was
the whispers that doubted a world
where the vision of what could be
was bottled up inside,
never to be released.
The light of life which fed it was
the scream that began everything
and resounds on and on and on,
echoing into forever.
Isobel’s work is hovering right on the edge of completion. The words are all where they need to be, she’s certain of it. All she needs to do now is shake off the manic fugue she arranged them in and understand why they belong there.
But before she can even begin, she feels something through her bond with Aulunla. Something beyond her ability to explain or even fully detect with these painfully limited human senses. There’s growth, sudden expansion, but also… a kind of abstract distance? An intangible something passing between them where before they were almost entirely united.
The tiny room that’s become her world twists and writhes and warps into something else entirely. The walls bend into a half-sphere centered around Aulunla’s book. The sliced-up pages of her collage start to blend and weave together, shaping themselves into… not a single huge sheet, but a new kind of structure. A chamber with walls formed from layers and layers of paper that overlap and splice through each other unpredictably, like the world’s largest primary school paper-weaving project. A cocoon of words and wood-pulp.
The phrases she originally placed in the collage are themselves swept up in this reshaping of reality. Some merge with their neighbors, forming more complete expressions of the sentiments she had in mind when she placed them there. Others gather and twist into shapes, spiraling sigils that vaguely resemble great trees and flowers in full bloom. They’re phrases in another language, somehow she knows they are, but the meaning behind them hides just out of reach… no, how could there be a meaning behind the script of a language she’s never seen before? There’s no possible basis for her to decipher them, not without some parallel text or…
No, no, she can’t let such a mundane idea hold her back now of all times. Aulunla put them here for a reason. There must be something it needs to say, some idea it needs her to integrate into the finished statement. She turns her full focus to the sigils, studying their shapes and the stolen words that now make them up, racking her mind for any way she might make sense of them.
Past this tree
souls would come and go,
drab and blind.
No time to think,
weighed down by emptiness.
The tree wished with all it was
to show them the color they could truly be,
if the truth inside them
was on the outside instead.
When that day arrived,
it would be loved by all.
But it was stuck in place.
It could not jump or dance,
only lie still where it was.
Still it reached out its roots,
stretching them far and wide
so that someway, somehow,
its feelings could reach others.
A wave of tree roots, thick and dark, burst from beneath the sawdust-sands before me. They rise up all at once and, having reached their apex, begin to fall like a trap snapping shut on me. They lash forward, their tips sharpening to a point as they lance towards me, ready to skewer me. I have no time to think. I just act.
I strike back in the way my heart knows best, the only way I can. My sickness — my curse — has already infected this place to its core, so I reach out and will it to swallow the world.
Something jabs at my chest. I glance down to see a thin wooden spike prodding me. One of the roots has halted right in front of me, right as it was about to drive through me. The rest of the roots have also stopped dead in their tracks. Their bases have all shriveled up, fading to the ashen color of undergrowth in later winter.
My blight crawls up the length of the roots and the rest of their tendril-like form follows in short order. The roots creak as an ashen brittleness overtakes them, and soon enough they begin to crumble away into the sawdust, collapsing into the rest of the mass that surrounds me on all sides.
I dig my boots into the dried-out platform of paint-drenched sawdust I’d made for myself before with hardly a thought and clench my fists. All around me, my platform begins to expand outwards until it’s reached about a hospice room’s-length away from me; it was no trouble at all to warp Aulunla’s Wound this much, and destroying those roots wasn’t too much harder.
Whatever Aulunla did, it certainly didn’t cure itself. My disease is still running rampant — it only delayed the inevitable.
…unless killing me would cure it, that is. I don’t know how that would work and don’t plan to find out.
The souls of this deceitful world
feared even their own truths,
and so refused the lonely tree.
But in the light of the moon
a little egg was lain,
nestled upon the tree’s branches,
seeking refuge from the world as it appeared
and feeling that couldn’t be all there was to it.
The tree loved that little egg,
and so the tree sang to it
of the world that could be.
“In this vast barren tomb
Which now acts as my womb
The sky opened up
To my mind’s deep lagoon
And from it descended
The most marvelous moon.”
My eyes narrow as I glare at the enormous, surreal tree towering in the distance, separated from me by a vast desert of rolling sawdust-dunes. My control doesn’t extend as far as the big tree and the strange scrawled emblem it wears as its crown, however. No matter how hard I strain, I can’t simply will it to fall down. The only change I see is a little white dot forming at the center of one of the tree’s spiraling branches, but something tells me that has nothing to do with me. Aulunla is preparing to try something else.
I grit my teeth. My heart hammers as I take in my new surroundings, trying to get my bearings as quickly as possible. This isn’t that different from things Yurfaln and Irakkia did in their own Wound, but the scale is different. My sense of Aulunla’s presence, this feeling of oppression draped over me like layers of wet quilts weighing me down, is different.
The only thing that’s the same is the feeling of danger surrounding me from every angle… but more than anything else is this sense of uncanniness, that what’s going on shouldn’t be possible. Not because this surreal scenery is a rejection of everything familiar in the world to me, though. No, it’s because something in my aching, churning gut tells me this isn’t quite right.
This doesn’t follow from everything Aulunla has done before now. It doesn’t fit with how it was doing anything. It took the form of a book, not a monster, and influenced the world by persuading people to act out its insane rituals. If it had the power to drag me into this kind of hostile Wound, why wouldn’t it have done it earlier, before my infection got this far? Where did it even get the power to do all this in the first place?
More importantly, Aulunla isn’t supposed to be able to do this. If I think of this the same way I thought of its book, as a story it was telling that wouldn’t be nearly finished if it ended by killing somebody ten pages in, this feels like it switched to an entirely different story. Whatever’s happening is… a contradiction. Against its nature.
It doesn’t matter if this is how it ends…
I won’t let you sully this dream…
I won’t let you take my treasure…
Those words it spoke were almost like a vow… but, to me, they also felt like a prayer.
With this last page…
I’ll use everything…
My eyes wander up to the multicolored sigil, that weave of scribbled-out flowers the giant tree is holding up triumphantly. A moon writhing with fields of moving flora made from crumpled paper revolves around it. For some reason I can’t quite place, just looking at that sigil sends a shiver of worry through my body, yet as poorly drawn as it is, there’s also something undeniably beautiful about it. But then, I can’t help but feel like it’s also somehow… pitiful. The colors that form it flicker and squiggle as though they can’t quite hold themselves straight.
…And focusing on the sigil, I think I get it.
When Aulunla transformed, it crunched itself and its power into a single point. That big shoddy emblem is… some sort of concentration. It’s trying to express the culmination of Aulunla’s prayer. It feels almost like some sort of signpost, or maybe a radio station blaring ‘this is me, this is me, this is me’ to the whole wide world, but… the signal is clouded and fuzzy. It’s a beacon with a light that would be as pure and intense as a star’s, if only it didn’t waver and flicker like a candlelight against a strong wind.
But there’s also something else.
I can only hear it faintly resounding in my soul, but there’s a voice behind this world. A message I can barely make out, but not fully understand. A chant, as though in performance of some great ritual.
“And down from that moon came a wonderful boon:
Flowering rabbits, hopping as per their habit:
To spread joy firsthand, they depart their homeland,
With the seeds of oasis falling down from high places,
They touch to the ground and start making their rounds,
Leaving bountiful trails springing up from their tails
Of orchid-colored apples oh-so pleasing to sample
And great ice cream knolls singing happy carols.”
I guess I unconsciously dismissed my tarot diagram of Aulunla’s Wound at some point — it didn’t have much to say, anyway. I call my cards back into being and will them to form a new spread. A dozen cards float out before me and… wobble uncertainly through the air, like paper drifting on an unseen breeze but never quite reaching the ground. By their colors, my infection has mostly crawled over Aulunla’s presence, but a single card hovering in the center — a crayon-painting rendition of the Stars inverted, with half of the stars bearing little upside-down smiley faces — is still bright with its power. Its last bastion, a lighthouse in the storm of my corruption and its own chaotic self-reshaping.
If I can take that tree with my rot, maybe even just that glyph, I’m certain I can break whatever Aulunla is becoming.
The solidified ground beneath me trembles at the deep, heavy sound of an impact in the distance. My eyes dart up from the spread of Tarot cards to see a plume of smog, darkly colored a mixture of red and green and blue, rising up about halfway between me and the black oak at the center of the Wound. A warning, maybe, before Aulunla shares with me the full extent of its unleashed nightmares.
The first impact was only the beginning. Soon enough, another object howls down from up above and crashes into the great sawdust cloud-desert stretching out before me, hurling up another plume of multicolored dust. And then another. And another.
I look up, and see the human-shaped silhouettes I’d noticed before, previously content to float within the swamp-sea of dyes and paints that envelops the Wound’s sky, passing out of the inverted ocean’s surface. When they drip out of that great syrupy body of mucky colors, gravity starts to affect them again, and as they fall, their paint-drenched bodies begin to bloom.
From that twisted swamp-sky, solid silhouettes begin raining down one after another, their bodies exploding into floral growth as they plummet before impacting like meteors upon the sawdust dunes. Where they land, they explode forth into gardens of spiraling flowers of every shape and color.
But that’s not all I see. A lump forms on the surface of the paper flower moon that circles slowly around the black oak at the center of the Wound. The lump squirms and wriggles and rips itself out of the moon’s flesh, taking a chunk of the gardens of false flora on its back as it breaks free.
Many more swells of many different sizes — a few nearly as big as the first, but most so small they look like specks from my distant viewpoint — begin to bubble up across the moon like a succession of tumors. Most rise up, squirmily rip themselves free, and then take a bounding leap from the ruins of the moon — which now looks more like a big ball of many-holed cheese covered in mold — to the spiral-pattern branches of the huge black oak. The few that were unlucky enough to sprout from the bottom of the moon just fall off and crash into the sawdust desert below.
As the paper-flower-covered lumps hop down the spiraling branches of the black oak in the distance, the small little specks following their larger siblings, I’m finally able to get a better look at them. They’re like… terracotta sculptures of rabbits, decorated all over with artificial flowers as if to replace their fur. Big black glass baubles surrounded by paper sunflower petals pass for their eyes, while their ears look like long, flat, plastic cactuses which twitch and flop stiffly as they make their way down the towering black oak… passing on their journey by the white dot I saw had formed at the center of one of the tree’s spiraling branches before, which I now notice pulsating.
That little white dot is bigger than before.
I don’t have time to consider what that may mean, however, before everything gets worse. I hear the sound of wind breaking on a falling object above me just in time to notice it: another one of the people-silhouettes dropping from the swamp-sea-sky above, but this time, it’s about to fall right on top of me.
Without even thinking, I draw from my supply of health to force strength into my scrawny legs. In the blink of an eye, I rush forward and out of the human-shaped missile’s path, bringing my floating tarot spread along with me. I call forth my blight and desiccate the watercolor-wet sawdust around me to force it into a sturdy, walkable shape as I go. The blossoming, human-shaped comet strikes down with a force that quakes out from the point of impact and rattles my makeshift foothold, nearly causing me to trip over myself as I escape, but I catch myself with my cane, panting as I look back at the dense mass of smoggy color the crash landing generated.
“My precious treasure,
whose joy is my pleasure,
How shall our gardens grow?
With silver bells and shiny glass shells,
And lotus-heads all in a row.”
When the dust settles, a vibrant grove of bizarre, pastel-colored plants has already begun to spring up where my platform of solidified pulp had once been. Aulunla’s giant, alien, fake-seeming flora springs up and expands quickly, like a fast-forwarded time lapse video of a garden’s growth. The thicket spirals outwards with hard, spiny wooden stems, and slithering, thorny vines, growing tall — taller than me — in an instant. And it only keeps growing. Blossoms and fruits begin to spawn from the garden in short order, forming glittery purple apples and silver bells – that is, literal bells made out of silver, rather than silverbell flowers – and prismatic glass orbs in the shape of what I can only imagine is a child’s idea of a fruit they’ve only ever heard about.
But the flowers themselves are something else entirely, something a few strange fruits could never compare to.
With a rasping hiss, one of the blooms sprouts rail-thin arms and legs from its stalk and tears its newly-grown, human-like figure from the ever-growing mass of the thicket. It steps forward on lanky limbs brandishing long, thin talons of wood.
Like the plant it spawned from, the monster is taller than I am. Its briar-covered body seems almost scrawled upon the world, like a child’s stick figure scribbled into existence. In the place of a head, a pastel-colored paper chrysanthemum unfurls far wider than its own emaciated body. At the center of the chrysanthemum is a glass eye, and inside that eye is reflected a vision of another world, of a world with a different sky and different laws even than this horrific Wound I find myself trapped in, but… it’s too blurry to really properly make out, as if it’s not quite fully formed.
And behind it, more such spindly limbs split off from the flower stems, forming ever more bodies.
“…No, no, no.”
And before it can even do anything, I call upon my blight from the depths of this Wound I’ve already tainted down to its roots. The sopping sawdust around me dries up in an instant, shriveling into a crusty scab on the landscape about the size of a big square swimming pool. This large patch of land cracks, fissures slithering across its surface to reveal a dim green glow seething beneath: the light of my power taking hold over a segment of the Wound. The thicket of alien flora that was springing up in front of me does not escape: it cringes and wilts from the sudden influx of rot, shrinking into itself, and the flower-headed monstrosity it spawned is no different.
My tarot spread disperses into a ring of cards orbiting around me. In the form of vaporous tendrils of toxic mist, I will the surging plague I’ve called to the surface of the Wound from the surrounding fissures and into one of my cards, then snatch that card from the air between my left hand’s middle and pointer fingers. More easily than even breathing, I fling the card like a dart into the glass eye of the flower creature, and the sharp corner of the card embeds itself there. The plague flows straight from the card into the blossom-headed creature, and it crumbles into colorless sawdust instantly.
The once-vibrant grove is now dull and gray, drooping as it succumbs to my plague. It grows no further, only slowly shrinking and collapsing into itself. The purple apples have become dry and wrinkled, the silver bells are tarnished, and the crystalline fruit have fallen from their stems and shattered on the ground.
Now that I’ve rotted this segment of the Wound, it’s mine now, and for some reason, Aulunla isn’t taking it back. It probably can’t take it back. I can’t erode the Wound from too far away — Aulunla’s hold on its world is still strong even compared to my entrenched corruption, but my disease is still very much entrenched. Everything around me is fair game.
And if that’s the case, it means that if I can reach that colossal black oak at the center of the Wound, I can topple it and the shoddy sigil it’s been holding up like it’s something to be proud of from the inside out. But there’s always the worst case scenario: that even if I make it all the way to the giant oak tree, Aulunla may still have a way of shrugging off my infection, regardless of the fact it’s only getting stronger with time. In that case… I still have something up my sleeve. Something I’ve held onto since I killed Yurfaln, waiting for just this sort of emergency.
I turn from the rotting wreck I just stained Aulunla’s world with and hike up the slope of the sawdust dune between me and the great black oak. Drawing forth my blight lowered the elevation of the land around me relative to the surrounding dunes as it compressed and solidified the sawdust into a level field, forming a shallow pit. I solidify the mulch as I make the climb out, forming a wide path that unfolds before me like a velvet carpet with each step I take.
And as I crest the heap of soggy sawdust as though I were scaling a pink pastel cloud, the occasional boom of person-shaped meteors crashing down into the distant wasteland around me like cannonballs all the while, the expanse of Aulunla’s wound once again unfurls before me… dramatically changed.
In the separated spots where the human-silhouettes that spilled from the swamp in the sky have touched down, gardens fit for giants have sprouted and flourished into wild overgrowth — just like the one that nearly landed on me began to do. The flora on the edges of these groves are just a bit bigger than usual, and surrounded by smaller plants still sprouting up at their feet, but the closer to the center I look, the more clumsily proportioned the flowers become, looking like giant, childishly constructed replicas of the flowers they’re supposed to represent. The fruits they bear are equally lopsided, growing to obscene proportions which bend the stems of the flowers growing them.
Not only that, all throughout the sawdust wastes, terracotta rabbit creatures are racing around in a frenzy, their stumpy feet prancing gracefully off the painted sawdust without sinking into their sodden depths. The large ones lead the packs, followed from behind by a formation of much smaller rabbit-things. Where these flower-infested rabbits romp, behind them a trail of Aulunla’s signature not-quite-real plants springs up.
But above all else, the first thing my eyes fall on as my gaze pans over the Wound is a soft serve ice cream cone… towering in the distance. It’s sprouted at the very center of one of the gardens, becoming an almost comical sort of centerpiece. The swirling spire of dripping sludge piled high on the cone looks like it was made from a mixture of coagulated paints the glaring color of poisonous frogs. Two googly eyes are pressed into the slurry, but when their shivering black pupils turn to stare unblinkingly right back at me, I decide there’s no point in wondering what Aulunla could possibly stand to gain by making that thing, much less what it meant by it.
All around me, this alien forest of parchment flowers and crystalline fruits and thorny stems and now apparently giant ice cream cones is encroaching upon the sawdust wasteland this world started as. It’s rising up, forming a barrier between me and Aulunla’s great black oak, cutting me off from my target.
And from all across the Wound, wherever those human-shaped comets have landed and planted another overflowing garden of nonsense flowers, those emaciated, blossom-headed stick creatures are forming from the thicket, ripping themselves free, and beginning a mad rush towards me. Dozens of them, all coming together from every angle to form a swarm. Their thorny, scribbled-out bodies skitter across the sawdust dunes like spiders, their movements blindingly quick and utterly inhuman.
They’re not alone. Some of the giant terracotta rabbits have also diverted from their prior courses and are now stampeding directly towards me, bringing the smaller ones along for the chase. All around me, Aulunla’s creations are charging on my position, and while their glassy black eyes betray nothing akin to murderous intent or anything resembling human emotion, their intentions are fairly clear.
Above it all, Aulunla’s shoddy flower-patterned crest still shudders and sparks as though laughing, telling me to come get it.
I should have known. There was no way this was going to be that easy. Aulunla would never let it be that easy — not now. It said it was using everything it had. My infection is only getting stronger, but that doesn’t matter if I die before it’s finished its work. Our battle has become a contest between whatever time Aulunla has left ticking away and how long I can manage to survive against its desperate onslaught.
I take a deep breath, hold it, and close my eyes. My cards circle steadily in a ring around my body. I reach for the magic within myself, the spiritual poison that is mine alone. It bubbles forward endlessly, sharp as a scream and bitter as contempt. I gather it up, drawing deep from the wellspring of my curse, my scourge.
And then I turn it on myself.