Black Tree (Part 2)

(In case you missed it, here’s part 1 )

         The Breathers glided up the steps, flaunting their strength. The rain and wind pummeled and whipped their cloaks, but it only steeled their resolve. Their blonde captives were draped over their shoulders, heads bouncing.
        Nora’s waist was numbed from the bony, inhuman hand wedged into it. The Breather’s other hand and arm synched her legs together, leaving her hands free to rail against the beast’s backside. Yet with each rap of her fists, her captor quickened its pace.
         Lukis writhed and nearly broke free from his captor, but the third Breather helped it regain control of him. He sputtered curses at the cloaked trio; they replied with smiles.
         When they reached the courtyard, the wind changed pitch, like the fluctuating wailings of a mourning mob.
         “Nora!” Lukis yelled. He was craning his head around the Breather’s side to look at the tree.
         She likewise angled her body to follow his gaze, squinting through the wind and rain; her face went cold at the sight: the tree shook, but not from the wind. It whipped its limbs, giving it the appearance of an octopus. The black fruit flew in all directions from its convulsions. Its trunk bent, nearly cracking, as it swayed its enormous canopy.
         “It’s hungry,” the third Breather said as it leaned towards Lukis.
         The tree moaned, sending a tremor through the courtyard. Its tirade intensified, and bark ripped from its trunk with the increased exertion.
         The Breathers hesitated and slowed their pace.
         Nora and Lukis squirmed again, and to their surprise, their captors let them fall. They rose to their feet, ready to run or fight.
         The cloaked trio slowly fanned out, as if herding them.
         With their attention on the Breathers, the siblings back-stepped towards the tree. One of the Breathers raised its hands, knelt down with its face to the ground. The other two mirrored the gesture.
         Something swung over Nora’s head and swatted Lukis to the ground–a branch.
         Nora whirled on her heel to see the tree extending its limbs towards them. A long branch swung from the left, but she dropped to the ground before it could grab her.
         It brushed over her and slapped its wispy limb onto Lukis. It wound itself around his torso and lifted him up. He made a feeble attempt to wriggle free, but it constrained him.
         He looked to his sister. “Nora, I–” The limb pressed down on his mouth, then carried him to the trunk.
         “Lukis!” If I wouldn’t have ducked… Nora sprinted after him.
         Another branch came down from above, but she leapt to the left. It swung into her knee, tripping her. Ignoring the pain, she rolled to the right; her vision spun with the constant alternation of dirt and sky.
         Dizzy, she stood up with bent knees and ready hands.
         Another branch coiled above her. Its breadth was wide and its stem bent like a poised snake. She pivoted to flee, but it lashed down and wrapped her with its thin fingers. It gouged her skin, drawing blood, as it coursed over her and synched her tight.
         The tree brought her to its trunk, beside Lukis, who was still gripped by the branch. The trunk cracked open, and it groaned again, sending a bellow that rattled their spines. A wave of steam rode on its breath and splattered their faces with black sap.
         The tree rammed Lukis into the opening. He gave a yelp, but it was soon muffled after he fell headlong into the tree’s gullet.
         Nora watched her brother’s waist, legs and feet disappear into the black tree; a stupor drowned her senses at the sight. The branch brought her into the steaming hole, but she didn’t fight. She was done.
         The deeper she went, the warmer it became. Her ears filled with fluid, and the tree’s groaning now rattled inside her head. She squirmed when her mouth filled with liquid; she recognized the taste–the black sweat. Her skin went numb, she couldn’t breath, her heart pounded and her throat tightened. She writhed, but her body was wedged tight by the narrow passageway.
         She lost feeling in her legs, then her arms. Her mind was the last to go, lulled into darkness as everything else went numb.

––––––––––––––––––––––

         The buds popped. Little eyes peered out, puzzled. The courtyard’s cobblestones were barely visible under a liberal layer of prairie grass. The buds inflated until the souls nestled inside broke free from the membrane.
        Once Nora’s head popped from the bud, the silence surrendered to the sounds of birds, wind and laughter. Her body expanded, rapidly outgrowing the bud. When she thought she would fall from the membrane, a slithery arm corded around her and gently brought her on the ground.
         She inhaled and relished the foreign air. A number of people gathered in the courtyard, faces evincing the same confusion she held. Many of them were captivated by the sun, for it had just risen, throwing orange and red streak across the sky had just risen, and no one in Kosmos had ever seen such a sight before.
         Nora gasped, for it was then that she noticed the crumbled walls. A hesitant joy rose within her. Hesitating, she looked up.
         The tree towered above, but it was now white, with golden leaves. Its present glory had surpassed the hideous ambition of its former self, now stretching its branches farther, higher, and wider.
         Its branches were riddled with people, incubating inside its buds. They grew, as she did, until the tree brought them to the ground. She recognized some of them, but most were strangers.
         Nora surveyed the ever-growing crowd until she spotted Lukis. He stood at the edge of the courtyard, smiling at her.
         She looked away.
         “It’s better now, my baby,” said a woman’s voice beside her.
         Nora smiled before turning to see the familiar faces of her mother and father. “Ma, Pa,” Nora’s eyes quivered with tears, “what happened?”
         “The tree took us all,” her father said. “After you and Lukis went in, so did the rest of us. It was…” He lowered his eyes and shook his head. “But that was then. We have a new life now.”
         Lukis approached them; Nora looked down at the grass-covered cobblestones, scratching the back of her head.
         Nora saw Lukis’ feet as he came to a stop, but she didn’t look up.
         “Nora,” Lukis said.
         She looked to the side, saying nothing.
         “Nora, look,” Lukis said, “no more walls.” He stepped closer and placed a hand on her shoulder.
         She tightened. With clenched teeth, she looked at her brother. His face blurred from the tears.
         “Look.” Lukis pointed to the edge of the village.
         She blinked away the blur and followed his finger. A forest, whose autumn colors mirrored the hues of the morning sun, stretched towards a vast mountain range, where the sun peeked through two towering pinnacles. She scanned every shade and color of the pigmented legion of trees, trying to believe they were real.
         “We’ve lost our world, gained our life,” Lukis said.
        The crowds around them stirred, and Nora’s family followed their pointing fingers. A crippled man, who had apparently just wandered out of a small hovel near the edge of the village, stood watching them.
         “It can’t be…” Lukis pushed through the mass of people and descended the steps from the courtyard.
        The cripple hobbled towards them, and when he saw Lukis, a surge of vigor quickened his pace.
         They met and embraced, as brothers reunited. Nora’s abdomen sank. Ivan?
         Their parents, gasping, started through the mob towards the stairs. Nora sighed, then trailed them at a lazy pace.
         Lukis was blurting questions at Ivan as they met at the bottom of the courtyard stairs. “How many years have you been out there? What happened to the tree? How did you survive?”
         Ivan smiled at them, each in turn. “What matters is that you’re free.” He looked at the tree. “The black is gone, and the price was worth it.”
         “Price?” Lukis asked.
         Ivan nodded, crimping his lips as the tears crept into his eyes. “I’ve been alone for over a hundred years, Lukis.” He bowed his head. “Alone.” Drops of tears fell to the ground.
         “What?” Lukis said, mouth gaped.
         “The tree’s appetite had grown too large, so the Breathers had no choice but to sacrifice the whole village. Of course, this meant their destruction, for after a few dozen years, the tree ceased to produce its black fruit, and so they all starved.
         “But the Breathers didn’t go quietly. After I left you in that cellar (I was trying to protect you), I went to cut down the tree, but the Breathers found me first. They kept me alive, but only to torment me as I watched the whole village die. They called me the ‘chief insurgent,’ and blaming me for the loss of Kosmos, they got the final say by casting a spell on me, binding my fate with that of the tree. Thus, I lived without age or time, immortal.
         “For decades I roamed the streets, alone. The tree was ever before me, quaking and thundering, but slowly withering from a lack of black filth to feast upon.
        “The walls crumbled, stone by stone. The tree shriveled and cracked. For a while I thought it would crumble completely, but after a number of years, it returned to life, but not with the hideousness of its former self. Its leaves grew golden, its bark became radiant.
         “It was then that I realized the depths of evil in the Breathers’ spell. My life was sustained as long as the tree was black. Now, the tree, along with the souls it stole, finds new life. And I,” he paused, looking beyond the wall, “am an old man living beyond my time.”
         “Ivan…” Lukis said, “are you dying?”
         “Please, enough talk.” He patted Lukis’ shoulder, then looked at Nora, their parents, and everyone in the courtyard. “I’ve been waiting to venture out. It didn’t seem right to leave without someone to share it with.” He turned towards the open wall. “We can set aside our dreams, for we’ve awoken to find them true.” He led them through the grassy streets, through the broken walls and out of Kosmos.

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