300 Word Writing Challenge -- #51 (October 2023) -- VICTORY TO THE JUDGE!

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The Judge

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The inspiration image for Challenge #51 is:

1696162931764.jpeg



Image credit: Christopher Bean


THE CHALLENGE:

To write a story in 300 words or fewer
INSPIRED
by the image provided above
in the genre of

Science Fiction, Fantasy, or other Speculative Fiction



In addition to receiving
the Dignified Congratulations/Grovelling Admiration of Your Peers
the winner
has the option of having his/her story published on the Chrons Podcast!



THE RULES:

Only one entry per person

All stories Copyright 2023 by their respective authors,
who grant the Chronicles Network the non-exclusive right to publish them here



This thread will be LOCKED until October 10th 2023
As soon as the thread is unlocked, you may post your story



Entries must be posted no later than October 31st 2023 at 11:59 pm GMT

Voting will open on November 1st 2023 and will close on November 15th 2023 at 11:59 pm GMT
(unless moderators choose to make an extension based on the number of stories)



We ask all entrants to do their best to vote when the time comes

but you do not have to enter a story to vote
as we encourage ALL Chronicles members
to read the stories and take part in choosing the winning entry!


You may cast THREE votes

NO links, commentary or extraneous material in the posts, please,
as the stories must stand on their own


PLEASE REMEMBER THIS IS A FAMILY-FRIENDLY FORUM

For a further explanation of the rules see Rules for the Writing Challenges


This thread is to be used for entries only

Please keep all comments to the DISCUSSION THREAD



** Please do not use the "Like" button in this thread! **
 
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Octophants always play the long game

'I see you.'

Rose had been late. The station was closing when her train pulled in. Shadows were drawing across the mall, and Rose took the main road home instead.

Which brought her over the river. To see eight purple thorned Tombernunckles trickling their way out from underneath the bridge. They shook with nervous excitement as she approached.

'I see you', she said.
  • It was two decades since Rose last saw the Octophant.
  • They used to be friends.
  • And always played together.
The Octophant slombened its wobbly ompterior out from under the bridge and slonked next to Rose.

'How did you find me?'

'I saw your Tombernunckles, some things never change.'

Hide and seek was their favourite game. They played for hours. The Octophant would never get bored.

'You were ages, I was beginning to think you'd forgotten about me.'

'I had', admitted Rose.

She had. There had been no time left for games after her mother died. The Octophant was left to hide alone, and play the long game.

'Your mother misses you.'

'I know.'

Rose stared at the Octophant, night had fallen and the streetlights threw a misty glow across its hedular plumage.

'Tell her I miss her too. That I'm doing well. I've met someone, he's kind.'

'I will.'

The Octophant grinned, sIx lombed stonds descended from its frontular gromk.

'Tell dad I miss him.'

'I will -wanna play another game?'

Rose nodded, 'this time I'll hide.'

The Octophant gathered its eyes, and secreted them behind the lombed stonds.

'One...', it said.

Rose jogged to the council car park. She picked a hiding spot. It wasn't a good one.

Rose smiled as she stepped back under some branches, her shape only partly hidden from a bright streetlight.

The Octophant had never been good at hide and seek.
 
The Fudge Conspiracy

The government’s activity confirmed our suspicions, the Alien surveillance post was nearby.

In the darkness of night my sister and I set out to gather proof of their existence. With gear and smart tablets in hand, and wearing our Inferred Cloaking Night Camo, we cautiously entered the secured area. A passing fox was our only witness as we crossed into the old woods and began our trek towards the target, satellite data and intel guiding our way. We hoped.

“Keep an eye out for traps. They’ll do anything to stop us from learning the truth.” I whispered.

“Careful, trip wire.” She pointed out.

We then moved to the opening of a small meadow. “Down on the ground, lasers overhead.” I warned as we carefully belly crawled to avoid detection as a hooting Owl looked on.

“They are serious about keeping this quiet. Why does the air smell sweet, brother?”

“Don’t know. Just keep moving.” It did smell sweat.

We made it to the other side and nervously walked along a trail to the target area, where we found the Alien surveillance post disguised as a small willow tree. Its mid trunk had a scar-like wound.

“Take a picture of me next to it!” She said, turning her flashlight on.

“OK,” I answered. “Wait, what’s that?” I pulled back the bark-like panels from around the wound to reveal, a small window?

“Wow!” My sister explained stepping forward. “Looks like a miniature kitchen in there! And look, there’s a sign in the window too.”

“Really?” I questioned stepping back, and there was:

Due to supply issues, we are currently open 4 days a week and for limited hours. Please visit our online store to view our full line of products. Sincerely, the elves of Keebler.

“Are you kidding me?!”
 
Keep Clear

"Stay off the grass!" A leathery faced guard shouts at the assembled crowd, pushing back onlookers who wander too close. "This tree is off-limits," he follows up with a grumble. His back is bent with age, his beard a scraggly patch of grey and white. He smells of cabbage gone off.

"Who let you out of the sanitorium?" A young woman demands. She ducks as he swipes his cudgel at her, although the swing's weak. He's skeletal beneath his clothes, ancient and weak.

And the crowd is hungry. Fruit dangle from its branches, heavy and ripe in late summer, tantalizing and, if not for one lonely protector, free for the taking.

"Come on, old-timer; there's more than enough for everyone. Let us through and we'll pull one down for you." A chorus passes through the gathering. A rumor's brought them to this forgotten part of the city. Of magic and wealth: eat the fruit and be cured; sell the fruit and be rich.

"These pods ain't for eatin'. And I'm warning you the same as I warned your parents and their parents before. Do not cross this line. Do not touch the tree. Or else."

The young woman darts past him, her bare feet scrunching the grass as she wraps her arm around the tree. "Or else what?" She laughs and pats the trunk. Others follow, shoving the old man to the ground. They dance on the grass, pick bulbs and celebrate their tiny conquest.

"I warned you." He spits on the ground, his stained teeth drawn back in a snarl. "But you damned young’uns never listen!"

The tree groans as its branches sink into the ground, trapping everyone within its embrace. They draw tight, until the old man looks away, despairing as they cry out, and disappear.
 
Family Tree

They look exactly like us now, though their body temperature is 5 degrees higher.

The first free saplings were something of a novelty with their independent movement. They looked like walking twigs so no one worried. But mutation happened fast. Soon they were able to leave the mother tree for several hours. Only returning at night to draw sap.

During that evolutionary period they developed distinct legs and increased their range, sometimes gathering in groups, at first in fields and later moving into town. They congregated all day, usually standing in graveyards and cemeteries.

What we had not realised at the time was that they were sending root tendrils down to the bodies of the recently buried and extracting DNA which they were splicing into sections of their own.

Within fifteen years they had become almost completely humanoid, Maintaining only seed pods, rather than ovaries, the seeds from which they surreptitiously planted everywhere.

Indeed so like us they became that people started to find them physically attractive. With their mild manners and willing affection, relationships, although forbidden, occurred with increasing frequency.

Their acquisition of the power of speech finally cinched it for me and I started dating Magnolia.

I took the plunge and brought her home to meet my mother. Mother had been acting a little strangely of late, wandering off at night. I’d sometimes find her standing in the garden, just staring up at the moon. I was becoming concerned that it might be dementia.
She seemed to need my attention more and more to look after her. So I was worried she would object vehemently to Magnolia’s arrival.

But they hugged, or to be more precise, entwined.

“Well done bringing this lovely one home,” mother said, adding

“Is it me or is it cold in here?”
 
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Woodsong

I set up my drums on the tiny wooden stage while Abby and Paul fooled around with their guitars. Free concert in a state park; so much for the Wildfire Band making the big time. I wandered off to where Tessa stood, as in prayer, among giant oaks and pines.

I waved an unlit joint at her in salute. It was a running joke between us. I was the perpetually stoned wild man of the group; she was the Earth Mother, ethereal in pastel and lace, hair like a river of black silk.

Hell, yes, I was in love with her. We never talked about that.

"Hey, Ross." She floated over to me and gave me a hug. "I want to start the set with 'Woodsong' today."

That was unusual. We usually saved our one modest hit for the end of the show, but Tessa was the soul of the band. I nodded and went back to give Abby and Paul the news. No arguments from them.

Tessa joined us on stage as we messed with sound checks. Curious onlookers gathered around. Bored teenagers temporarily free of their parents. Moms and Dads with little kids in tow. A few old hippies, dreaming of Woodstock.

We always let Paul announce the group, because he was a huge guy with a voice that could command armies, although he couldn't sing worth a damn.

"We are Wildfire, and we are ready to rock!"

Abby, eye candy in a scarlet miniskirt, laid down the opening riff. I closed my eyes and got to work. Tessa's achingly gorgeous voice, honey and whiskey in equal measure, filled the air.

Somebody screamed. The guitars died. I opened my eyes and saw a woman-shaped pile of leaves, a million shades of green, on stage. It sang.
 
Bones in the Mangrove, Soul in the Orchid

Ana's fingers pressed against my palm, soft as rose petals and warmer than sunlit sand.

"Until tomorrow," she sang like any other day, and I let her go without knowing I would never feel her hand in mine again.

No Ana out in the Everglades, no Ana by the shore. Without her, time stopped somewhere between yesterday and tomorrow. Neither would ever come to be or come back to me. Something like life continued, but I never could call it that again.


Summer came, heavy and humid and humming, when something found me – a coyote, black-furred with just one glowing eye. Everything around me blurred together, except for that coyote. The mangy mutt stuck around for weeks until I chased it out of town. It turned back to me, and I swear it nodded toward the mangroves. It padded that way, to the place where Ana and I once played.

Years had gone by, but I still knew every tree in the forest.

The coyote leaped across the winding roots, and snappers darted through the tangle beneath. Eventually, it stopped near a tree I didn't know. Waves sloshed against it, unshakable. On its trunk, a Ghost Orchid floated on its invisible stem.

Ana always talked about finding one.

I climbed the mysterious mangrove to pluck the rare flower. My grip faltered – a skeletal hand reached from a slit in the trunk, holding out the flower. Heart racing, I tore away the bark with bloodied fingernails. I found her. My Ana, tucked inside the tree, offering me one last gift. As if she hadn't given me enough.

It would be my last gift to her, as well.

I offered the wispy bloom to the coyote, who took it delicately with its teeth. Off it went, to set us both free.
 
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Memory​

She always loved the tree.

It’d been a permanent presence in our lives for as long as we could remember. A place to run around when we were small, and a place to climb once older.

We were fortunate. Being the only two of our age in town, we didn’t need to share the tree. Running wild, we’d always end up there.

We had been inseparable, two peas in a pod, until he came.

Billy Gritts, an out of towner from the city. He had it all, knew it all. He told tales all day of the city and his adventures, bedazzling her with hijinks. Made sure I became the butt of cruel jokes.

Our tree became their tree.

They sat on our branch, legs swinging, laughing, and smoking cigarettes he’d pinched from his step-father.

He broke branches, throwing them at me until I ran, face crimson with humiliation and hurt.

I stayed away. Left them there. Reduced to wandering through empty fields and joyless woods.

The moving truck came as a surprise. A beast of a vehicle, all chrome, towering exhausts, and 3D styled brand name. Billy left that day. I watched as the truck rumbled past. My last view of him, a leering face and a single middle finger, nail grimy with moss from climbing.

I ran, saw her sitting in the tree, shoulders heaving, hands over her face, teetering on the branch. Hearing my approach, she looked up. Her face, riven by tears, showed hope for a second and then dismay at seeing me, not Billy.

I climbed up and onto the branch, more apart than we’ve ever been. She hid her face, leaned forward, and fell.

In the abyss that my life became, she remains a constant, haunting memory.

Sometimes, I even regret pushing her.

Sometimes.
 
The Watcher in the Dark

I watched it happen.

The two of them, engaged to be married, climbing a mountain to shout their love to the world. Figurative nonsense, but they’re only human.

There was a steep cliff, just below the mountaintop. As they traversed it, I watched as an oblong rock appeared in the empty space between her foot and the ground. The fear in her eyes as she suddenly lost her balance and tumbled into thin air.

He caught her, of course. So young, so strong, so quick. He held her hand in his as she dangled over the edge. But I watched as sweat appeared on his fingers, just as he shouted he had her. First one finger let go, then two, and then she was falling, her silent, him screaming. It took seven seconds; he never looked away.

The funeral was closed casket. His last memory of her would always be her falling away because he failed to hold on.

It was six months before he started drinking again, but I was patient. Once he’d had several beers, I watched as a bottle of vodka appeared in an empty cupboard. He took to it like a hog to a trough. Blind drunk, he stumbled into his car, to drive to the mountain and scream his rage at fate, but he never made it; I watched as his brakes failed, and he tumbled over his own cliff.

She had waited for him beneath the willow, where they had first kissed, where he had asked, where she had said yes. They came together, two souls in boundless love.

And then they saw me. And they knew.

The rock. The sweat. The vodka. The brakes. Me.

I have subsisted on stardust for eons, but two human souls wrought with emotion, that is a delicacy.
 
That Smile from the Shadows

The impossible being is down by the tree again.

At least the archaeologists from the university cleared up the ghostly pavement thing. If you dig down about a metre, kerb and white lettering are visible. They reckon the site dates to the early 2000s.

Over a century gone, yet standing where the ground is now, not where it was when they encountered whatever it was that transitioned them what they’ve become.

My sergeant reckons it’s a resonance image, like the nuclear blast holograms discovered in the ruins of Chicago. People burnt into the air? Ridiculous. Until no other explanation could fit, scientists started looking, and then Zegelen detected the faint trace of their existence.

But they’re frozen where they changed state. How to you get to be a snapshot that moves?

“Delta Forty, what’s your ETA?”

I take a glance over my shoulder. Nobody’s peeking. It’s not a trick question.

“Four minutes out after rerouting for congestion, Control. On station soon as.”

I’m not even meant to be in this sector. But, drone routes to patrol zones aren’t set, so traffic trouble is an acceptable excuse.

“Thanks, Forty. Let us know when you’re on approach.”

On approach? Something’s happened in my patrol zone. Best get going.

As I flick between buildings, the smile on it’s face haunts me. Was the event that transitioned them a surprise? Some normal evening torn apart by disaster, fanatics, or slipshod science? I was a street officer, redeployed to drone duty after my accident. I know how things can change in unexpected, hateful seconds.

I also know what I have to do. I’ve always known, but been avoiding it. I’ll go down to the tree and ask them what happened.

One way or another, I’ll get an answer.
 
So the Tree Rustles in the Evening

It pulls up roots, beginning the long journey from the riverbank inland to its appointed place.

Every year at the same time, after the twin suns set on opposite horizons, the tree begins its pilgrimage as it has done for hundreds of years. Its resolve is strong, having never missed a year, even during the decades of drought and times of torrential storms.

The tree is different from every other tree around it. It’s taller, sturdier, with brightly colored leaves. The other trees are flimsy and plainly adorned, and none of them can uproot and walk.

It moves in jerks and clunks, edging past an audience of dumb trees that can’t speak. How it misses its home world, where forests are family and friends full of smart discourse and witty chatter. Here forests are silent.

The silence of this world is torture to its soul.

It moves, watchful of obstacles, crevasses, and sharp rocks.

This year. Perhaps this year will be the one.

A day and a night elapse.

Arriving at its destination, the tree positions itself at the center of the circle. It plants its roots and waits. Another day and a night.

The tree is fearful that something terrible may have happened to the ship. Certainly, they wouldn’t forget it. They would never abandon it.

It forces itself to remember the captain of the crew, an Earth woman, standing next to it in the circle, offering the farewell salute and wishing it safety and a successful mission.

“Five years,” she told him. “In five rotations of this planet we’ll be back for you. Make sure you return to the circle in five years.”

Five years later and every year after, it returns to the circle. And waits.

The silence of the forest is deafening.
 
A Dead End.

I’d been working the case for two weeks when she showed up.

For the day he’d disappeared – the 14th – his desk diary simply said, ‘Keep Clear’.The days before had appointments, birthdays and the rest. The days after – empty, nothing. He’d just vanished.

A brother from the West Coast had contacted me. He’d provided some photos and enough greenbacks to keep me happy for a while. I’d asked around, visited his old haunts, flashed his photo a few places but come up blanks.

I was in Sam’s Diner enjoying a breakfast and coffee like only Sam can serve up and mulling over the day’s runners and riders when she sat down opposite. I don’t normally appreciate people interrupting my breakfast but she was no ordinary dame – skinny as you like, five foot six, ninety-odd pounds, blue-rinsed hair and none of her own teeth. I guessed she was eighty going on ninety.

“They say he’s fine now. No need to look.”

“They? Who are they? And where is he?”

“No questions,” she said, got up, and slowly headed to the door.

I drained my coffee and followed her out. Tailing her to an apartment a few blocks away was child’s play. I staked the place out for a day or two but came up with nothing.

Then the brother rang. “Thanks for your efforts but he’s been found. In the East River. Been there for some time. Suicide. I’d forgotten, the 14th was the anniversary of his wife’s death. Five years ago. They were close.”

Over to the precinct house. “Been in the river over two weeks. Not pretty.”

I got my shoe in the door at the old lady’s place. “You said ‘they’. Who are they?” She clammed up.

I asked around.

“Zelda. A spiritualist.” The neighbours said.
 
Wish You Were Here

Nikki wasn't meditating as she sat on the couch in pretzel fashion, eyes closed; she was trying desperately to regain her power. She recalled that,

ages ago, before she'd grown to puberty, she'd had the gift: the ability to imagine herself in a photograph, and then end up within that same

photograph. But she could never stay, as whatever mystical energy responsible for the gift would ebb from her quickly. Now, in her maturity, she

sought to reclaim that power.

Before her was laid out a photo of her mother the day before her tragic crash, the one that'd removed her from Nikki's life. In the picture, her

mother was leaning against a weeping willow, grinning her perfect grin. It had been their favorite tree, in that their beloved first dog had been

buried there.

Suddenly, there was a knock at the door. Nikki sprang up from her seat and hurried to answer it. She peeked through the hole. On the other

side was a man she didn't recognize. She opened the door as far as the chain lock would allow. The man who stood in the rain talked first.

"Hello, miss. I'm Philip Waverly and I was wondering if you had any time to learn about our savior, Jesus Christ. Also, I'm a bit cold."

Nikki became aware of the grimace she wore, turned it into a smile, and let Philip in. She laid a towel on the chair for him.

"Coffee?" she offered.

"Well..." he seemed to vacillate, "Sure." Nikki went about preparing the coffee as Philip spoke.

"You know, I'm not really a missionary," he said. In the kitchen, Nikki froze.

"Your mother took mine. Now I'm taking hers."

He shot her through the doorway.

She reappeared within the photo with her mother, grinning. She stayed there.
 
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Non-Euclidean Siblings

‘Cissie, where’s the conservatory?’ George shouted from beneath the ivy-heavy brow of his bedchamber window.
She squinted up at him. ‘Please tell me it hasn’t vanished again.’
‘Well, it’s not at the end of the green hall anymore. Last Whitsun it swapped with the study, but I checked, and it’s not there, either.’
‘I just knew we’d lose another room.’
‘The study’s more important than the conservatory.’
‘When mother returns from Whitby she’ll be inconsolable about her gardenias.’
‘Speaking about housekeeping: Have you contacted anyone about the silver birch growing through the ballroom? The Stonechats heard about it and asked to use it for their Maypole.’
‘Those gossips. It’ll be all over the village — I’m surprised Price hasn’t been round yet!’
‘The ballroom’s shrunk, too. There’re only two sets of French windows now. The left ones lead to the guttering on the cupola. It’s utterly diabolical. I walked out only to find myself sliding down the shingles!’
‘The right side still leads to the lake?’
‘Yes, but—’
The doorbell interrupted them.
‘Mr Price, how delightful,’ Cissie said, hiding her chagrin; behind Price malingered Mrs Stonechat.
‘A little bird told me you’re experiencing the shunting again,’ the boor from the Herald said.
She glared at Emily Stonechat.
‘Did she now?’

###

Over dinner, George reminded Cissie she’d not mentioned the second of the housekeeping issues, and pressed her.
‘The lake…Coombes says we’ve acquired a Carcharodon Floribunda.’
George grinned.
‘What have you done, brother?’
‘Nothing; I suggested our guests might enjoy a walk on the ballroom’s terrace…’
From the east wing, in the twilight of the early spring evening came a splash and garbled scream; from the west, the sound of someone falling from a height.
‘You didn’t!’ she said in mock horror.

Somewhere in the rhododendrons a bandersnatch began its supper-song.

 
human things

The machines worked for months…

They laid foundations, made kiln fired bricks and cement to hold them, shaped roof beams and floorboards from trees felled in the surrounding forest, and in nearby ancient quarries cleaved slates, and stone for paving.

They'd a forge for a time too, pouring and working molten metal for fixings, hinges, handles and keys.

By the time the actors arrived, their summer residence had varnished floors and stained glass windows. The surrounding clearing featured a tiered spiral of carefully laundered grass. They sat out there, in wicker chairs, on benches and on swings. They behaved with grace and humour, apparently at ease with their existence, and engaged in other human things.

A few had actually been human, at one time. For now, they returned to familiar roles, for the ruse, for the meme.

It took half a day to draw that certain local from the forest. She watched them from the base of a tree at the end of the spiral. Elderly, but vital and standing straight, she wore layers of hand-me-down garments, reminders of the crowded world that cradled her parents. She'd a quiver and a hunting bow, and a pair of game birds over one shoulder.

For nearly an hour, the actors beckoned and waved hello, but the forest dweller stayed put.

In time, a young man of perhaps twenty years ventured near.

She put an arrow through his eye, another in his chest. Kneeling beside the body, she removed his head with an axe.

"Why?" the still animated mechanism enquired.

"I warned you to stay away."

"How did you know?"

"The house is all you," she replied, and set the head alight.

Returning, she met her granddaughter in the forest shade. "How was grandfather?" she asked.

"Immortal, immutable, impossible. Let's go home."
 
Contractual Obligations

They say you can’t have nightmares if you don’t sleep. Bullsh*t. I haven’t slept since I was twelve years old, but that didn’t stop the nightmares. Ever since I made that horrible “deal”, my life has been a living nightmare. They didn’t stop, I just traded sleeping nightmares for waking ones. And I fear they will never end.

Tonight finds me back with the trees. They reach for me — grabbing, pulling, twisting — attempting to bend me to their will with a systematic precision reserved for the ritualistically programmed mind of a sadistic automaton. Why? They already stole my soul. Tricked me. The trees are not my friends. They constantly remind me of our deal, that I owe them for helping me. But they didn’t help, they damned me. So they can go to hell.

I shouldn’t come here, but this is where she calls to me, her voice little more than a whisper on the breeze, a wisp through the leafless late fall forest, its bare limbs grey and lifeless poking out into the cold and dark like fingers of the dead attempting to grasp some last vestige of a life long departed. She calls and I listen, mesmerized by the siren that begs me to join her in forever love within the autumn full moon shadows.

How much longer must her memory remain? She didn’t know I can’t die. She didn’t know what I gave to the trees. She didn’t know about the deal. Once the woman of my dreams, now inaccessible to my dreamless mind and but a ghost in the woods. God that deal sounded so good, not wasting any more time asleep. No more nightmares. Eternal life. I would kill myself to sleep again, this time forever. But that’s not part of the deal.
 
A Woman for All Seasons

Mark awoke with a start. He’d had that dream, that awful, wonderful dream. It had a pretty woman smiling like the Mona Lisa and a spring-green tree. Its meaning seemed as clear as the cute nose on that pretty face. He was longing for things he’d left behind. Unfortunately, today was only the sixth of the once-every-six-months wake period. That meant he would age only about a year during the 100-year journey to Alpha Centauri. Still, he worried how he’d feel in years to come.

After the cryo-sleep chamber had been invented, it was soon clear that humans had to wake up and move around every six months or not retain sufficient muscle tone, most emphatically including the heart, to have a normal life after waking. It had seemed to Mark to be a really good thing because a ship-check could be made simultaneously. A real win-win for humanity’s first interstellar travelers.

After a week of checking and taking care of the few small problems. Mark and his crewmates prepared for another siesta. He wondered if the girl and tree would inhabit his dreams again. She did.

Several cycles later Mark began to note subtle differences. It might have been his imagination, but it seemed that the tree’s leaves were a bit larger, more like a midsummer tree and the girl’s smile was fading. Mark tried not to worry.

By cycle 50 the tree’s leaves were mature and the girl had stopped smiling. Mark shared his worries with the doctor. She told him not to worry.

Cycle 75: The leaves were brown, and the girl looked pensive. He was again told: “It’s nothing. Don’t worry. Your vitals are good.”

Cycle 90: Winter had fallen, the tree was bare, and the girl had frozen to death.

So had Mark.
 
The Circle of Death


Where on the plains of Anhamara the grasslands part for patches of woodland, there where the growth is most lush, Death lies waiting. Not openly; Death contrived many ways to provide for its insatiable appetite and found stealth to be a pleasing one. Stealth and patience, if the wait is worth its while.
And here, in these woodlands, waits the deadliest trap of all.

The first settlers built their homes at the edges of the woodlands to evade the plains’ summer heat. Much like the local animals had, until they learned that heat was preferable, survivable. The settlers never took note.
The place seemed ideal. While adults would work the fields and roam the woodlands in search of roots and herbs and berries, children would find endless ways to include the woods in their plays. The community thrived and grew, crops flourished and people were whole. Life was good, Death eternally devious.
They developed a new product, ForestSoil®, soon famous for its fertile mixture of elements and minerals. It sold far and wide in ever increasing quantities. Doom-merchants warned that life was too good to be true, too good to be natural. They were laughed at, dismissed. If Death could laugh, it would have stuck a claw in its maw to prevent a telling bark from escaping. Not yet, not yet. Wait…

Decades passed.
...Now!
Simultaneously, 374 million people suddenly died.
Who knew that ForestSoil® contained a rare element, through food now present in people’s bloodstream, that registered an yet undiscovered cosmic event, recurring every 227 years, by vibrating so violently it literally made blood boil.
And yet, it did not satisfy Death.

Years go by. People move on.
Where the neglected fields on the plains of Anhamara give way to woodland, abandoned homes lie waiting, beckoning.
 
Invitation

Alex first saw her when he was twelve.

Playing close to the Hedge; that eternal boundary keeping the People safe from the monsters of the Beyond, he was disconcerted to see a girl, high in the branches of one of the few trees that encroached close to the barrier.

She smiled at him and waved and whilst Alex thought this strange behaviour for a monster, he was also shocked to see how much like the People she was. When he mentioned it to his parents that evening, they warned him he must never speak with her, under any circumstances, and to play elsewhere. After that, whenever he saw her, he told no one.

Sometimes he would see her two days running and then not see her for weeks. When she hadn’t appeared for six months, he’d assumed he wouldn’t again. But he did. As always, the same tree, that same wave and smile. He was surprised at how relieved he was by her reappearance and that was the first time that Alex really appreciated that she was no longer a little girl, but fast becoming a woman grown. He longed to have a conversation, to ask her about life beyond the Hedge. If monsters were a lie, why was there a need for the Hedge?

Eventually he plucked up the courage to speak.

“I wish you could come over.”

“Hi.” She was suddenly standing beside him, smiling.

“I…” Alex stammered. His heart was hammering but whether from shock or her beauty, he could not have said.

Up close he could see how perfect her pale, almost translucent skin was. She was no different from the People - other than having sharp, and somewhat longer canine teeth. He found them fascinating, almost beguiling.

Even as they touched his neck.
 
The Odyssey

She comes to me at night. Veiled by the shadows of a bright conjuring moon. She hovers close as I venture near the old city’s gate. Close enough to smell the plummy fragrance of her hair drifting pleasantly upon the night’s gentle currents. I want to go to her, to hold her, but she always slips out of reach like a playful apparition, but of a kind you wish would haunt your dreams.

And haunting she does. Her smile is as warm as I remembered. Warm and enchanting, like an entrancing light that both spellbinds and beckons.

But tonight, I push on. Further past the gates where the air is much colder now, and it blows much harsher now than it did mere moments ago.

She calls to me. My own name sweetly nestles in my own ears. And I freeze. For just a moment though. I won’t turn this time. I won’t! For I know what she will do if I turn. She will retreat. That mischievous pixie! Smiling, laughing, coaxing me just a little bit back into the city.

Forward I press, and that is when I see something quite peculiar. A light. Glowing a reddish hue, looming quite large on the horizon. My heart beats rapidly though I do not know why. And with every fibre of my being, I want to reach it. It’s as if… no. It can’t be? But somehow, I know that it is.

SHE is there!

I now turn to look at her with great confusion. She has transformed. Disfigured, grotesque, hairy and massive, entirely unrecognizable. She is angry and screams a scream of death, warning me NOT to go towards the light.

* * *

AI SYSTEM ALERT > HUMAN Q4596035697 IS AWAKING FROM PERPETUAL HIBERNATION. LIQUIDATE WITHOUT PREDJUDICE. IMMEDIATELY. <
 
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