EP 43: A PLACE SO STRANGE



The world writhed beneath my feet, and bellowed with my breath. Each corner of every shadow watched me just as I watched them. And in the light, where all things are shown, the life remained hidden. This world was alive. Not as a collective, or an all-encompassing planet, but alive as one.

A singular, enormous, almighty entity.

I was not an insect to this living world. I was not a thought. The eyes that watched me were not eyes at all, but like nerves sending signals to the great mind. I stepped over plants that on any other planet would not be classified as such, and I climbed mountains that on any other planet would not be named as such. The mountains themselves had come alive to devour the very skies themselves.

Pink. All was pink. Where the lights shown, pink glistened in oil and slime. No grassy fields or swaying trees. The ground was not earthen. Soil did not accumulate after a god’s replenishing or time’s wear on organic life. Rock and stone did not press into shapes nor structures.

Flesh engulfed the lands. A wriggling web-like mass of moving bands. As if a trillion worms thick as a man had amassed and devoured the world. The outside layers were hardened and crispy. My feet crunched on each step. But slip between the coils and the ground’s intestinal resemblance showed face.

The “trees” were not trees.

In the region I marched, large purple bristled stalks climbed into the air. Brown in color but rugged like a pachyderm, each stalk’s cylindrical sides were adorned in massive red bubbles. The bubbles were filled with liquid, and corpses of countless organisms floated inside.

A creature no larger than a cat, formed of green flesh, mouthless and lacking any other form of discernible external sensory organs, scurried up the living tree. When its limbs grasped the bubble, the brown hide collapsed, pulling the creature inside as the balloons of crimson slush were retracted. Moments later, the tree expanded once again to show its new kill.

I saw more of these green creatures. Some were baked in other colors. But all had this in common: they reminded me of foliage. Limbs moved as if boneless. More akin to tentacles with a more rigid structure—like fins stretched to resembled arms. Body shapes closer to fish or cephalopods than mammals or reptilians. Covered in frills or flanges. No mouths or eyes or ears. Perhaps they made their way with eyes unseen, able to sense heat or other light waves hidden to my mammalian features?

The world lie dark for many days. Night? Day? I could not tell. But the sailors in the sky—some cross between a bird and ray of the sea—drifted for kilometers in search of blinding white sun rays which fought through the deep dark clouds.

The world felt as if always in a full moon. White hot sun, shadowed by clouds, darkened in perpetual maelstroms.

I nearly called for Peridot, or another of my kind, but did not. There was a peace to the darkness, and a puzzle for my mind to dissect. I wished to be witness to the nature of this new world myself, without the tainting that another perspective can have on one’s experience and memory.

Another’s words shaped your own vision. Sometimes, the horrid nature of my Curse allowed me the true silence one needs for a healthy mind. Solitude, this day, would be no burden, but a welcome gift.

BOOM!

On the horizon came a billowing silver reflection. Fumes. Smog. Smoke. Perhaps a volcanic heat source? I dismissed that idea. There seemed to be no rock to turn volcanic. Perhaps a fire? Maybe these fleshy appendages rising from the ground could become dry and come alight by lightning’s strike. But I saw no threat of fire caused naturally. Maybe a magician lived on this world. I reckoned magic be the cause.

The further into the flesh-woods I marched, the less of the veiled sun’s light reached me. The green creatures of all shapes and sizes all but disappeared. I lit a lantern from my Boundless Bag, and strode forth, wanting my experiment to yield fruit.

Fruit it yielded. Sort of, but not entirely, literal.

As the hour passed and I scaled wild moors cloaked in canopies, my light attracted all swarms of creatures. Shapes of every sort and frames of every build, mostly small as myself or tinier. Green creatures adorned in varying ornaments. Some like hybrids between insects and birds, others a strange cross between fish of the water and beasts of the land. All moved through their living environment with vigor and vivacity. They pursued me and my light over a long hill, and then I realized what I’d suspected.

The flora of this place had taken the niche of animals, and the animals had taken the niche of the flora.

The standard for Creation across so many worlds was the opposite. But I’d only been to parts of the vast Garden. The edges of all realities and Existence itself contained all imaginings of all things.

I never thought of a world where plants were animals and animals were plants. In fact, the thought of it alone sent my mind spiraling into a thousand “what ifs” and “how coulds.” If chlorophyll-filled creatures could behave as animals, and animals could be as idle as plants, then what was the distinction, really?

Blinking lights. Screaming steam. Quaking ground.

I rose above the hill and the fleshy world under my feet trembled and retreated—like worms into their holes when their rock is lifted. I found myself sliding down a hill of wriggling earth towards a glade in the trees. The trees themselves were retracted into the ground, leaving only their purple bristles above like bushes, and were being moved several meters from a massive conflagration of their kin.

Three crushed trees burned, cloaked in oil by the smell of it, pinned beneath the haul of a once-flying frigate. The fires turned the wilderness alight.

Two engines blazed in blue flames. One had exploded, sending shrapnel in a wide radius, while the other seemed to be punctured by its sister’s shards. The crashed site appeared otherworldly, but familiar.

Rather than a crater of mud and charred earth, and the scent of burnt grass blazed with fury, I saw the shriveled hide of world-flesh reduced to a noodle-like structure bedding the dying trees. Horrific in a different sort of way. Like a mirrored reality of some kind.

A hatch popped open. Blinding white light burst from the portal, followed by a troupe of tripping green figures. Four long legs per person trudged and stumbled from the dying vehicle. Their bodies were pear-like, with two pairs of similarly shaped arms on either side of the body. Long stalks held tiny, incredibly mobile heads.

The crew of the vessel practically fell from the ship. They panicked and fought over one another to distance themselves from the vessel. Moments later, as the ground shook and vibrated and screamed, I understood.

The flesh-wood devoured the ship. Entanglements of worm earth and what remained of the trees clawed the vessel and all the fiery fury beneath the surface. In moments, all was quiet, and the ground repaired itself by replacing the charred layers with fresh ones hidden beneath.

A despondent crew sat as witness to their own damnation. Were they explorers or warriors? The guns on their ship proclaimed a possibility of combat. Was this some far off land they’d come to explore? Was this a sister world they’d come to colonize?

They seemed to be native. No hazard suits or clothes of any kind. Remarkably, they moved with such fluidity I would guess they had no bones or major hard structures in their bodies. Entirely plant-people.

I put out my lantern and camped beneath a swath of jumbled cyst bushes. Foul, yes, but they did not smell or seem like cysts of mammal flesh. Everything smelled like a fresh wilderness, and not the flayed hide castle of some demon ruler. A strange circumstance given what my eyes fed to me compared to what my nostrils smelled.

After what felt like half an hour or so, the crew’s bodies began to emit a lime-green bioluminescence. Patches of mossy flanges and such moved like hairs along their skin. They appeared to be communicating. Planning.

They certainly crashed. Now how would they get out of this mess?

I wished to say hello, but they didn’t speak. I would be a foreign entity in every sense of the word. My magic for communication could only go so far. And perhaps Rahnashath had his merits—I’d only interfere with this vibrant, unique, sheltered peoples.

They were so foreign from their biology to their magic to even their communication and mechanics that I felt unable to introduce myself. The manner with which I found company in my Curse—by aiding others and seeking situations in which I could help—felt impossible, here. And it made me wonder about more than just plants, and animals, and my own desire for company.

But how easy I felt speaking with humanoids or other adjacent beings, even if from entire other universes, simply because they appeared familiar to me. Simply because a Dragon born of Loche’s Creation desired a similar creature or shape or behavior to other worlds despite their own uniqueness.

I was comfortable in my WorldWalking. Most places were catered to beings like me. Even born a mouse, I aspired to humanity my entire young life until I sought humankind to the point of becoming humanoid. The divine figures of Dragons and humanoids weren’t the only preferences in the Garden. Grass, and skies, and planets too. Some worlds weren’t planetary or had suns unlike the nuclear variety. Some universes hadn’t a single sky and were merely stone and rock and elemental forces mimicking atmosphere.

Across even the mighty variety of the illimitable omniverse, there was still a standard. A standard into which I fit snuggly when I visit most worlds.

Then there are worlds like this.

A place so alien and opposed to cosmic convention that even I—a being who had walked many worlds—felt desperately out of place. Like a traveler come with their camera, observing but unable to empathize.

There was a beauty in that, and a sorrow.

The wreck was picked up by a passing vessel. Seemingly, there was civilization on this world, even if I’d seen no signs besides the crash thus far. I ventured far and wide looking for these peoples’ home. I eventually had to hunt. And the taste of plant beasts is one without flavor or spice or category, though I wished to try the cultures of this world’s interpretation of their raw resources.

Eventually, I felt a drive within me. A desire to scale the mountains.

A calling.

Upon those peaks of hard, cuticle-like formations levitated a man in a porcelain mask, red coat hanging off his shoulders in the shade of his sunhat. A canvas twice my height levitated before him. The brush in his hand moved precisely, and absolutely.

“I will say,” he said, not even glancing in my direction as I rose the final stretch huffing and puffing, “this place is quite the sight. All dark, no light, plants of the forest taking flight!” He rose his hands in the air in celebration, “Nearly done!”

My breath left my chest.

Kilometers in the distance, in the black-grey smog of the sun’s struggling rays, a neon green sky-whale swam through the sky. Two hundred meters or more in length, the astronomical size of the behemoth was—as Porb told me—due to its primary diet of the very ground on which we walked.

“A ballodoss,” Porb said, “of incredible size. You see the fins, there, on the side? Hard to tell from this distance without a lens. It has one-hundred and thirty six fins on either side, descending in size from the mouth.”

It seemed a cross between a millipede and a whale. Thick bodied and mobile, I was surprised to see something so enormous after killing the ACU worlds prior. How strange to see living beasts so unconventionally large so near in time?

“I didn’t know creatures of that size existed,” I said, sort of lying, as to let Porbiyo lead into conversation about all the titans he’d seen. As I spoke, the ballodoss opened its mouth. A web of tongues poured onto the ground and began writhing into the flesh. Trees were torn and wriggly pink roots were devoured in a cyclone as the ballodoss turned upright—making a sky-scraper like shape from the web to the beast’s tail—and drilled itself into the ground.

A chunk of the forest was consumed with a biological process. I thought only magic and weapons of destruction could so such things.

Porb said, “There are larger ones out there. Creation bears no limits. Even when an atmosphere or gravitational field prohibits size, gods have their way with the laws of physics. If they wish it, it will be.”

“Do you think there are beings sentient like us so large?” I pondered the scale, “Imagine a civilization of such a size.”

“Gods, Dragons, Genesar,” he said, “perhaps they are the players in that game of grandeur. Or,” he paused, “Bereavus. One of us.”

“Bereavus,” I had heard that name before. Several times.

“City-stealer.”

“What does that mean?”

“Exactly as it is,” Porb gazed into my eyes, “imagine a being as us, thrown from world to world, place to place, warped into a Liminal Curse, though he does not take spoons, or rooms, or instruments, or draws beasts. But he snatches cities. Each time he breathes, souls leak from his gut. Each time he eats, a spine grows from his back shaped as a skyscraper. Each time he blips, gods cower with his divine presence and worlds are shattered by his lust for well aged societies. . .” Porb shrugged, “he’s, as you would say, an ass.”

“You’ve seen Bereavus?”

“Twice. I don’t think it plays by the same rules as you or I. Otherwise, there’d be a lot more destruction in Peridot’s wake.”

I nodded, as he must be correct. Surely I’d have heard more about this Bereavus if he blipped at the same rate as the rest of us. Then again, I’d not even met half of all Peridot’s Agglomerates.

We sat in silence for a time, as watched as the balladoss descended so deep into the flesh the world that its tail peeked out like a tree itself. Hours passed, and the creature eventually wriggled it’s way free and lethargically floated into the distance beyond the far mountains.

“You’re painting,” I said.

“Of course.”

“No, really painting. Slowly, methodically.”

I sensed a smile under his mask. “Some moments are not for the simplifications of magic, Ratman. Sometimes a decent, flawed, hand-painted portrait is better than a photograph snipped by my soul.”

When I laid eyes on his piece, I saw no distinction between a photograph and his painting. It was beyond the work of mortals. Perfect.

“How did you do that?”

“A millennia of loneliness. Now let’s go! I feel something else nearby.” He rolled out his flying carpet and patted it for me to ride.

“You know, that ballodoss was more plant than animal.”

“Oh please, as if there is a difference. Life is life. I like beasts—active, engaging, fascinating animals! Flesh or flora, it makes no difference. If it moves its mine.”

I climbed onto the carpet, which felt like a trampoline, and we slowly flew over this odd world in search of animals for Porb to draw.

I took Beep from my pocket, and rubbed the paint. I could not tell if he’d painted or pictured her portrait. She came alive and rode with us the whole way. “Did you paint her, Porb?” I asked. “Or was she a ‘photograph?’”

He scoffed, “Of course it’s a painting.”

I knew that, but his aggression towards sentimentality made me laugh. I needed a laugh.

We found a lot of strange creature on that world, but never any sign of any civilization. I still wonder where they were, or how they built their societies. Perhaps under the fleshy ground? Perhaps in the skies? Perhaps beneath the seas? I’d never know.

We had fun, though, exploring a place so strange to us.

Porbiyo wasn’t the kind of company I dreaded, anymore. Our friendship grew. Maybe I even enjoyed his company. This time he called for me, after all. He’d never done so before.

END