Freebie Mondays: The Tree is Very Old (Story 21 of 22 Stories in 2022)

Freebie Mondays: The Tree is Very Old (Story 21 of 22 Stories in 2022)

Since I write roughly 22 stories every year, I thought it might be fun to do a project for 2022.

In 2022, the 22 shorts I write for my blog will be taken from prompts related to the 31 stories in 31 days project from January of 2022. Each will relate to the multiverse that all of my stories take place in, and I will try to keep the main characters that appear on my blog to the background (unless I get a super cool idea).

I’ve written each of these stories on stream. If you want to witness this installment as it was crafted, the VOD is on youtube!

The prompt for this one was: “the tree is very old…”

I was originally planning to use this prompt for a short in my Space setting (which has appeared several times during this project). But as the year is winding down, there were a few characters I wanted to feature who hadn’t gotten attention. Crescent is a really important character in the multiverse who had yet to appear as a narrator, so I decided to feature him.

This prompt therefore ended up occupying the world I simply refer to as ‘aliens.’ In this setting, alien portals have been opening between worlds, depositing alien people on Earth. While source is investigated, those who are stranded beyond their homes must make do (as there is no way to control the opening of a return portal). Crescent, one of these alien refugees, departs on a quest to save Domerin from an infection whose origin lies on the other side of a mysterious portal.

I haven’t written a lot in this world yet, but you can read a related prompt here!
. . .

“I’m sorry, I haven’t heard of it,” was the most common response to Crescent’s query. Many people tilted their heads to one side or shook them and said, “I have no idea what you’re talking about.”

It was fine, anticipated even. He had little information to work with, much of it vague and obscure. If not for the pictures Domerin provided of the odd black marks spreading slowly beneath his flesh, Crescent would have had nothing concrete to offer the pockets of alien communities he spoke with.

He knew this would be difficult when he set out. He braced himself for a struggle.

He just hadn’t expected it to be this bad.

When he did get a thoughtful look or a musing response, it was always either cryptic or useless.

The most frustrating response had been, “That’s just dye, sweetheart. Give him a vigorous wash.”

Because three years of trying to extract whatever left those marks in Domerin’s flesh could have been solved with the right kind of bath, certainly.

There were a lot of rumor rumblings, stories people carried with them from their homeworlds. Cave paintings, myths, speculation.

“He was probably born with alien DNA and didn’t know it,” one of his contacts proclaimed boldly. “Now his other side is simply starting to assert itself.”

The most useful answer he had received so far was, “The source of those marks have transformative powers. But what the end result will look like, I couldn’t say.”

Domerin was transforming, all right. For three long years, he’d fought to halt the process to no avail. Now they were all pretty sure the final transformation would lead to the grave, and Crescent simply could not abide that.

Somewhere out there in the myriad of souls that had crossed through the gateways, there had to be one that knew the truth about the marks.

“They come from a vine,” an older woman informed him as she handed his picture back. She handled it with delicate care, as if it were fragile and might crumble if jerked too strongly in one direction. “It’s a pervasive species. Aggressive. If you ever see another one, you should burn it before it can take root.”

Crescent steeled himself for another wave of frustration, but this was the most accurate response he’d yet received, so he couldn’t banish the small flame of hope it kindled inside him.

“How would I know what it looked like? Where should I look?”

The old woman coughed a bitter laugh. “You’d know when it stung you. I would say you shouldn’t look, but better to know as early as possible.”

She fell silent for several long minutes, considering the question before offering further answer. “You could identify it by its black spots. At first, it might look like plant rot, but the markings indicate porous pockets along the plant body – part of its extensive defense system.

“Be careful not to get too close, dearie. Every part of that plant can prove deadly.”

Crescent jotted her message down furiously, and even sketched what she described. It took him three tries to gain her approval, but it doubled the amount of information he had in his arsenal for questioning.

When he shared the sketch, he received a new wave of unuseful replies such as, “I heard they were eradicated ages ago,” accompanied by a wrist flip of dismissal. There were a lot of my grandmother’s second cousin’s roommate saw one once, which made Crescent grit his teeth so hard, it was a wonder none of them cracked.

But at last he started to receive one response with such frequency he couldn’t ignore it.

“There is a woman,” one of his contacts admitted hesitantly. “She knows exactly what this is.”

“I need more than a woman if I’m going to find her,” Crescent protested vehemently.

But his contact only flashed him a tired smile. “I don’t know her name, sadly. Just that she’s a wise woman. Most of us think of her as something like a sage.”

It was dreadfully difficult to master his disappointment after that particular meeting. There were several people among the pockets of alien communities he was aware of that were considered sages or wise folk, people who carried knowledge and healing skills through the portals from their homeworlds and found demand for their practices among those who could not seek assistance from humans and still maintain secrecy.

Finding the wrong one would be a lot easier than finding the right one – especially since he knew only that she was a woman with knowledge of a specific plant.

But it was far easier to ask for the wise woman than to flash the pictures of the dark marks and hope for a response. And it was easier to keep frustration at bay when he could reassure himself that the person with the knowledge he needed did exist, if only he could find her.

With every gathering he visited, with every sage he spoke to, he moved one step closer to his destination. He knew he was close because people started to say, “I know the woman you speak of. She’s a telepath. Never speaks with her physical voice.”

Asking for the telepathic sage allowed him to make grand strides and, at last, when someone pondered the information he presented, the light of recognition flashed within their eyes.

“The woman you want is called Rose Drathmore. She’s difficult to see – the community is fiercely protective of her. But she makes her services available to those that need them when she can do so safely.”

“Rose Drathmore,” Crescent replied, saying the woman’s name as though it was a sacred prayer. “Where can I find her?”

His contact considered for a long moment – a sure indication of the protective nature previously mentioned. But he had established trust in this case, and it was well rewarded.

“Three weeks from now,” was the reply. “Dayton Ohio.”

It wasn’t a lot – but it would be enough.

*   *   *

<The tree is very old.>

Like everything else about the woman sitting across from Crescent, her first words were a shock.

He waited for several days for an opportunity to meet with this telepathic sage. Gaining an appointment was equally difficult for everyone who hoped she would address their queries, so Crescent couldn’t claim he’d been treated unfairly. He tried to stress the urgency of his task, though he wasn’t sure if it ultimately made a difference – everyone trying to gain a meeting like this considered their issue of paramount importance whether or not it involved a life or death situation.

He had been expecting a wise old witch with a wrinkled face and gnarled hands, bent by age and experience. Not a young woman still tall of stature and black of hair with the light of youth and vitality still clinging to her skin.

Only the sage’s eyes spoke to the depths of her experience, and it was clear to Crescent that she had suffered at some point in her past. There was no way to tell if her race was the sort that lived a long time without showing signs of age, or if some ability she possessed from her home planet granted her longevity. But he recognized the darkness surrounding her eyes, the place that mirth and good humor couldn’t quite touch.

He often saw the same when he looked in the mirror.

<It has survived the changing of its environment for eons, adapting, mutating, spreading.>

It was strange to speak with someone who never moved their lips. Yet Rose’s voice rang loud and clear in the vaults of Crescent’s mind, making each word easy to understand. He even thought he could see the tree looming out of ancient undergrowth near the top of a weathered hill. Its trunk was bent with age, its branches so twisted they seemed to entwine with each other.

Everything about it, from its trunk to its leaves to the fruit that grew along its core was dark from the rigors of time. The bark of the tree was the color of earth after rain, the leaves such a dark green, they almost looked blue or purple. And the fruit almost looked black, though Crescent suspected the flesh of it was meant to be some shade of red.

“I’m not sure I understand,” he admitted softly when the woman fell silent. “I thought the marks came from a vine.”

<The vines all spring from the same tree,> the sage explained with a gentle smile. <Many believe it has offshoots that have taken root in many places – and that might be so. It is a hardy plant. That is why those who recognize it say to burn it the moment you find a patch of growth. But those of us familiar with it know that it all links back to the same tree in some form or another. It all feeds the central mass – the only place where the fruit and seeds grow.

<Those of us that share an origin world with it call it the Eperu.>

“Eperu?” Crescent repeated the unfamiliar word slowly, trying to get a sense of it. That was the name of the thing killing Domerin – but how did he stop it?

Rose bowed her head and some of her long, midnight hair draped across her shoulders. <It is a word as old as the tree to which it belongs. And throughout the ages, it has been granted many meanings. Some regard it as a sacred thing, others as a test. Many also now view it as a curse. But I believe ultimately it comes down to experience. For some, the Eperu is a blessing – for others, a fate worse than death.>

“The vines are poisonous?” Crescent pressed. Much as he would like to receive an ancient history lesson from a race he wasn’t priorly familiar with, he wasn’t sure he had time for the finer details. He needed to know what was happening to Domerin.

<In a way,> Rose replied. It was the kind of answer that threatened to drive Crescent mad but, luckily, the woman didn’t make him wait. They were seated in the small tent she used for consultations, and she leaned across the small table set between them before folding her arms in front of her.

There was no crystal ball, no trappings of fortunetelling, though there were comfortable, warm-colored tapestries lining the canvas walls, granting the meeting a homey feeling.

<The vines carry the essence of the Eperu fruit. Even where I come from, this is an odd way for a plant to behave. But as I said, all of its offshoots, everywhere it plants its seeds, connects back to the core. It is not trying to replicate or duplicate itself. It is trying to protect its survival. But the purpose of the Eperu essence is not necessarily to kill. In fact, there have been many that have sought the plant over the ages, hoping to be granted great rewards if they can pass the Eperu’s test.>

“Who would ever want to be infected by that thing?” Crescent blurted, realizing only after he had spoken that he might be insulting a part of this woman’s culture. His expression instantly became contrite, and he bowed his head. “Forgive me,” he murmured. “I don’t mean to speak out of turn.”

<No forgiveness is required,> the sage insisted, waving a hand to show there were no hurt feelings over the outburst. <For those that do not share my home, the Eperu is myth, rumor and story. But for those of us that grew up in the shadow of the great trees leaves, it is a Gatekeeper – a tester of our strength and will, a mentor whose lessons few can hope to master. To seek the test of the Eperu is a mark of great strength and will, an undertaking only for the stoutest of heart. Once, only the best among us were allowed to approach, though now there are those who venture across worlds to feel the sting of the vine.

<You asked who would ever want to approach the Eperu tree, but you do not know what it offers.>

The sage tilted one of her arms upward and pressed a finger near the base of her elbow. She drew the finger up slowly and, where her finger passed, a series of silver marks appeared just beneath her skin. They twisted and wriggled into her veins for just a moment before vanishing back beneath the surface of her skin. But when Crescent squinted to gain a closer look, he realized the markings were shockingly similar to the advancing black tinge that tainted Domerin’s body.

His jaw fell open.

Domerin had spent the last year insisting that his condition was a death sentence. But here was someone who had clearly survived it.

And not just survived it – sought it.

“I don’t know where to begin,” Crescent breathed. He suddenly had so many questions, he couldn’t settle on just one.

But it was survivable. Domerin could fight this thing and live.

“How-” he started, but the sage’s light chuckle filled the vaults of his mind, cutting him off.

<There is no exact method for survival of the Eperu’s test. As I said, only the strongest of heart and will can endure the transformation. Most perish to the poison. But those that live are enhanced by their experience.>

“Enhanced how?” Crescent demanded breathlessly. Most of Domerin’s experience had involved illness in the wake of the dark marks’ spread. But there were also the claws that sprouted from his fingernails whenever he found himself in a dire situation.

Was this part of the transformation? Would he gain some form of beast form when all was said and done.

<That depends on the person,> Rose replied with a shrug. Then she lowered her arm back to the table. <My abilities lie with the mind, with thoughts and feelings. I can pluck each and every one of the questions out of your mind right now, though I am uncertain I have answers for all of them. If your friend were a healer, they would find themselves more inclined to the understanding of their patients needs, perhaps. And of course a warrior will come out the other side of the Eperu’s transformation as more of a warrior than they started.>

But what did that mean? Domerin was already a capable fighter. He would argue he didn’t need enhancements to do his job. Though it appeared he was going to get them whether he wanted them or not.

<Before you ask, I cannot say exactly what your friend will become when his trial is finished. Just that whatever he is now, he will be more of it by the end.>

“How does he complete this process?” Crescent pressed. It was all he could do to remain in his chair when he wanted to leap up and run around the meeting grounds whooping and cheering. He had hoped at best to learn the origins of Domerin’s condition so that they might find a treatment that could counter it – now he had proof that Domerin could live a long, full life. It was more than just hope, it was certainty.

But the sage reached across the table and grasped his hand. The sadness in her eyes and the grimness of her smile brought him crashing right back down to the earth, and he swallowed hard.

What’s the catch?

<As I said, there is no key to surviving the Eperu’s transformation. He must endure it and hope that he is strong enough to come out the other end no matter the changes. I cannot offer you a potion or incantation to ensure success. It all relies on him.> She nodded to the photo still set on the table between them.

Crescent swallowed hard. It wasn’t the news he hoped for – certainly not the sure thing he believed he could carry home a moment ago.

But it still isn’t a surefire death sentence either.

Rose squeezed his arm, perhaps picking up on the shift in his thoughts. The smile she offered him now was sad, but still encouraging. <You said your friend was struck by the Eperu vine most of three years ago – Earth standard time?>

Crescent nodded, unable to find his voice at the moment.

The woman’s eyes widened slightly, but only for a moment. <Then he is strong indeed. Most complete their transformation within sixty hours – Earth standard time. If he is strong enough to fight the change, he should be strong enough to endure it. Provided he hasn’t exhausted himself in the struggle, of course.>

Crescent swallowed hard. How much damage had they done trying to prevent the spread of the marks? If Domerin had simply submitted to the alien power the day it entered him, would all this be over by now? It certainly sounded like that was the case.

But what would his own people have done to him if he transformed overnight into something alien? Without his project establishing trust and connection between the portal refugees many people would be in dire  straights compared to the small inroads they’d managed to carve over the last twelve months.

Perhaps he has already become more than what he started – I certainly can’t complain. Crescent wouldn’t even know Domerin if not for his current project assignment.

Rose squeezed his arm again. <I am sorry I cannot give you the answer you wanted.>

“No,” Crescent rasped, scraping the word past the lump that rose in his throat. He reached across the table and set his hand atop hers. “Don’t be sorry for things outside your control. But you have given me hope, and that is no small thing.”

He had promised, after all, to do everything in his power to make sure Domerin survived the black marks. Now he knew it was possible, he certainly wasn’t going to back down.

Two steps forward and one step back was still, after all, a step in the right direction.

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