A triptych of vignettes, both fantasy and sci-fi, about a dimension-spanning tree, its birth and death, and the civilization grown in its shadow.
Originally published on the site Mirror Dance, September 2014. 2,250 words
The World Tree
Metal and stone, alternately glowing under the god’s touch as he ran a delicate, pointed fingernail along the dagger’s length.
“And you are sure,” the god said, his voice the sound of creaking wood–of an ancient oak in a forceful wind. The dagger, on its proffered pillow of black silk, was withdrawn by its creator.
The goddess shrugged, placing the instrument with its cocoon-spun nest on the table that stretched before them, lesser gods arrayed, before and below the pair, looking on. “My brother. My King. This knife is all that I said it would be.” Her gaze at him was moonlight–cold, bright, and a bleaching white.
“I did not truly doubt,” he replied, “My sister. My Queen.” And his smile was dazzling, and the greed that he brought forth then was new, and sparkling, coruscating over the hungry faces of the lesser gods who had never seen its kind before.
The dagger was forged of the five elements, in a way that had not existed before the goddess turned her waxing attention to it. An Art grew and blossomed and put forth fruit under her eyes. And that fruit was the way to give the god what he desired above all: dominion over other worlds, other gods, other things yet dreamed.
She forged that swift knife not in fire, but of fire, air, metal, wood and stone, blended in clouds and cooled in starlight. And then she presented it to him, in that glorious assembly, the host of Heaven, soon of the Five Realms.
Together, the pair stood by the stripling of Art, its pale spring-green leaves rustling in no breeze that blew through that Realm.
The god held the dagger, his smile the light of the noon. “Now all you need do,” whispered the goddess, her voice the star of twilight, “is a trade.”
“What is life but that? The knife spoke to me as I brought it forth, as I gave it existence from my own. A sacrifice: to gain what I most desire, I must give up that which I most love.” She smiled, a soft dawn. “I give the knife to you, brother.”
He smiled back, stroking her cheek gently, and she closed her eyes, her happiness shining on the Host.
She did not see him draw the dagger back. She could not see him strike the blow, deep into her chest, the cracking the sound of ice calving. The tearing the sound of Realms splintering.
Her eyes were open as she fell to her knees, her inspiration leaking from her in gouts, the deep emerald of summer foliage.
“Forgive me, my sister. My Queen.” And the god pushed her, then, wrapped in the thick fog of his betrayal, and she toppled from the clouds into the breach, the rift between the stars, and its maw trembled and gaped.
The god and his assembled Host stumbled back as the tree spasmed, its tiny twigs and branches writhing in a tempest, in temptation, and then it began to grow.
It stretched both towards and away from the deep-nothing Rift, for unbeknownst to the god, the Realms were cyclical and the deepest world was above his. It hardly mattered, for the Tree soon reached its potential through the fissure, and took root in the soils of all worlds.
And the God took his place at the crown, the canopy spreading below even the pettiest of the demi-gods, their eyes all above to their King. And then all the beings below them reached up in supplication.
But the World Tree was not without its own cherishings. Deep within, where the great roots tangled and spread, there was a boll. And bound within that knot lay unseen treachery.
For the goddess, whose body was now hidden within layers of sap-lacquer, had told her brother the truth, but not what she believed: that of all things, he loved himself the most. That he should have sacrificed himself. His act of creation was a strike born of a lie. The boll knew, the Tree knew, the dagger knew. And all shivered in anticipation.
For a lie in the foundation makes for most unsteady roots.
I can still see her now, the World Tree far in the distance, its roots spread out above and behind her, as she danced with silent joy.
We knew something was amiss soon into our pilgrimage, when we should have entered the canopumbra; overhead, sky continued, unabated. The grasses were scorched by the unaccustomed sun, their tiny purple flowers dried and crumbling into dust.
The berry bushes too, known as Pilgrim’s Bread, were dessicated as well, denying us the taste we had longed for. Waited a lifetime for.
We crested a hill and there before us lay the destruction. The smell of crushed greenery, so potent, even from this distance. The moist earthen odour. The tangled mess of roots were facing us–perspective narrowed the tremendous trunk, foreshortened the glorious crown. It seemed unimaginable that the mighty World Tree had fallen.
We should have bowed our heads. We should have genuflected. Instead, I stood shock-still, and my partner danced.
We continued on our road, Kirmat and I; I at least felt the need to finish what I had started. A sign-post let us know to expect a walk of at least five more days. We would reach an inn by sundown.
The inn was deserted, shuttered, locked. We broke in and investigated the pantry. We took one jar of brine pickles and one of sweet preserves. We had bread and cheese of our own. I left coins.
The preserves were Pilgrim’s Bread. More sweet than I imagined.
We walked onwards. The roots were immense: they filled the horizon. The leaves were a bent halo, a green corona; the trunk invisible. We wondered of what had happened to the towns, the great cathedrals, that lay so close to the Tree.
On the fourth day, we smelt smoke.
As we entered the farmlands around the great Citadel, we realized we could go no further. The smoke drifted around us, dirty ground-clinging clouds, obscuring every view. We had seen no people and now the city that was to be our refuge was burning. There was nothing to do but turn back.
We sought shelter in an empty barn cellar–the storm overhead was the wildest that either I or Kirmat had ever experienced–it was cool, dampish, but proof against the maelstrom outside. I dropped my pack and clicked on the lantern, its greenish glow a comfort.
“It sounds like the gods fighting,” I said, barely above the still-audible wind.
“Perhaps they are,” Kirmat replied, rooting through her own pack for bread and the last of the pickles. “I expected you to be more… joyous.”
“Joyous?” I scoffed, but took the proffered slice. “What is there to be joyous about? The linchpin is gone. The Citadel burns. These are the end times, Kir.”
“I know,” she replied, grinning. “We live to see it, Elti–we will live to see our Realm be free!” Thunder exploded over our heads, we both started, then laughed at our own superstitions. “Let the gods war against each other. Our turn will be next. People will claim the ruins of this world. The Great Tree is dead and now, humankind is free.”
Frost blossomed, crusting Tamar’s helmet as he stepped from the expedition pod to the step. And then, with great reverence, he placed his right foot down on the decaying bark, his weight pressing into the corpse of the Tree. Even at this altitude, the trunk’s texture was spongy, with much give.
They had all expected it to be frozen.
His gloved fingers brushed uselessly at the rime, too late realizing that it was condensation inside the visor.
He swung his craft-bound left foot onto the mass of the largest root, where he had landed, and carefully–oh, so hesitatingly–ungripped his fingers from the ‘pod’s support frame.
He was standing on the highest point of the Tree, untouched by industry. He was historic, now.
Above his head, the Rift sneered, a slash through glimmering space, a reminder of how far his people had to go.
He opened his voice recorder, hooking it to his belt, plugging the fabric-wrapped cord into his helmet. “Testing–I hope to the gods that this works–” for he had no way to test it. Tamar began to walk, then, spiraling circles, describing everything that he could see.
They should have sent a poet, he thought, struggling for another way to describe the rotting bark while he steadied his balance on the spongy surface. He was running out of methods and metaphors to explain the sheer vastness, the whole of the Trunk spread out before him, a decaying continent, far over everyone’s heads. As far below as the stars were above.
Or were they?
For a moment he fancied that the stars were moving closer, dancing downwards. He stared so long, entranced, that his eyes watered: when he blinked, all was as it was–
There was someone standing on the horizon. Waving at him. Beckoning forward.
He lurched, as his step sank through a thin edge of bark. He pulled his foot free, recording all his thoughts regarding the vision, and carefully but inexorably, plodded forward.
Sometimes he thought she was a constellation rising. Other times a high-drifting wisp of cloud. Whenever Tamar blinked, however, the vision resolved itself. Herself. Pale and wavering, moonlight on water, but real. Smiling at him.
Her robes fluttering, twisting around her figure, she pointed down.
There was a large protuberance on one of the sky-exposed roots.
“It’s large enough,” Tamar whispered into the recorder, “to hold a person, curled.” He didn’t know why he said that.
Eyes filled with light, he waded through the rotten, crumbling mulch towards the boll, taking out his bark-sampler from his kit. It was the only implement he had that was sharp enough. He drove it down, a single stab; the knot split in two, dawn bursting from within, bright and scorching, the light spreading like thickened sap down the sides of the Trunk.
Even through the helmet Tamar could smell the spring, the scent of warm rain on winter-starved earth. The rich smell of things growing, no longer a pungent world-wide smell of decay. The light hit him, and the warmth spread through his suit, to deep within his exposed core.
He was soaring now, his suit left behind and below, arm and arm with the smiling woman, who brought the dawn with her, trailing from her.
“Where are we going?” he asked, the light everywhere, emanating from within him, too.
“The Rift,” she said, her voice birdsong. “The Tree no longer forces it open. Everything is returning to as it was. The worlds separate once more. The Tree and I are one, and our time is now.”
Tamar looked ahead, his eyes the darkness of the Rift and the Void beyond.
In the long days of the Second Rebuilding, after the Tree had desiccated in an instant, the people poured into the region from all corners, yearning to stand where the Tree once grew. Where there was nothing now but a long, wide trench, a wallow formed from the Tree’s collapse and long decay.
Dazzlingly soon, in the way of the world, even this Rift–named in memory of the sky’s symbol of the gods–was covered in grasses and flowers.
One of the visitors, a young girl already Tree-bound with her parents, had seen the light from her inn room window. A light of day breaking, spreading from an instant point no larger than a faint star. The light washed over everything, and then all was dust and gale.
She had hurriedly slammed the shutters then. And didn’t look again until morning. The Tree was gone, the Rift closed, the gods truly vanquished.
Still in the area, many days overdue home, torn between idolisation and fear, she and her parents visited the site, the new Rift. One of her parents though there would be a world-wide celebration. The other thought war. Jostling for power, so easily provoked.
The girl, tired by their bickering, wandered off the path to the edge of the new valley, climbing a few paces down its shallow side, gathering berries, when something caught her eye. Metallic. Old and rusted.
A voice recorder, the newest of newest technologies, here as old as the carts creaking on the road past.
She turned it over in her hands, curious, and then Tamar’s voice burst out, booming. It echoed through the Rift, along its edge, rippling through the air, available to all. For a few minutes it was the sentiments and observations of a scientist, dry and boringly objective. Then, a pause, of breath being drawn, and he began to describe seeing something on the root-horizon. A long sigh, of aching release, of pain long held; of soothing and peace. “My Queen,” he whispered, his voice echoing.
Then, a scream, starting low and rising, sharply, agonizingly. A rushing, booming, roaring noise, a familiar terror and the girl clapped her hands over her ears, the once-new voice recorder tumbling down, its gentle landing amidst the Pilgrim’s Bread lost in the cacophony of the Tree’s final felling.
The recorder crumbled into a fine reddish dust, and then, all was quiet, save for the gentle rustling of the breeze in the grasses of the Rift.