Art by Eric J. Lee.
From the author: Lorenza, stripped of her humanity by a deeply magical fungal forest, must confront the wild magic that changed her after a series of murders which match the way she died.
My name is Lorenza, and I have not been able to speak since the day I died. For a while, I imagined that my voice would return, that it would well up out of the ground and echo through my hollow armor.
It never did.
Instead I drifted, voiceless, rootless, from sunrise to sunrise inside my small apartment, unsure as to my own existence. I could no longer hear myself, no longer smell, no longer feel; how could I be sure I was here?
I still lived with Maria in the College then, which is why I heard of Senior Researcher Goya’s death from her rather than the bulletin. I had been sitting, reading about mycorrhizal associations among the furthest root hairs of the God-Tree, when Maria burst into the room.
“They found Goya’s body down by the river,” she said, breathless, a dampened handkerchief flecked with the pollens of spring clenched in one hand. “The constable wants to talk to you, because you know more about this sort of thing.” She gestured at me, and then added, perhaps and hopefully despite her better judgment, “I mean, since you have experience with sorcery.”
A polite way to avoid calling me a sorcerer outright. After I had returned, dead, there was a brief trial; but whether my un-life was a curse from the forest or the last protection of the God-Tree was inconclusive. I generally remained inside, to avoid upsetting the other students. Goya had visited me occasionally, until the rumors of sorcery spread to him as well; but apparently avoiding me had not been enough.
The news of Goya’s death was not unexpected. He had been missing for two weeks, and before then had complained of illness and nightmares made of twisting bone. We all assumed the wild magic got him; he had led more than one expedition into the forest beyond the city’s boundaries or into Poden’s Devastation, the crater left by a woman who had delved too far outside and returned from it swollen with power. Nevertheless, Goya’s disappearance had been a serious blow to the botany department, and to myself, though I did not have the energy to admit it.
I’ve had enough of sorcery and death, I wrote, in chalk, on the blackboard I keep with me.
“He wasn’t near city boundaries,” Maria said, twisting the handkerchief between her fingers. “He was right by the river bank, reaching out to the God-Tree. Well within God’s shade, and out of the reach of the wild magic.”
I hesitated, half a letter already drawn.
“The constable found the spores of an unusual plant in the remains. He asked for you by name.”
I’ll go, I wrote, and then erased all the writing off the board.
I had no things to collect before we left. The walk from the College to the riverbank was quick, and the constable was waiting by the river with his marshals. I raised my hand and he raised his.
“Good afternoon, constable,” Maria said.
The constable blew through his mustache.
“I wouldn’t say ‘good,’” he said. I’d always appreciated his dry sensibility, although I suspect it came with the line of work. I looked past him, to the roped-off bank.
“Did he bring sorcery back from the wilderness?” Maria asked.
“Unlikely. Or at least not by himself. There’s been more than one body with the spores in ‘em,” the constable said. He was a short man with a stringy mustache half-hidden by the cloth mask he wore. He held himself with surety, but he never looked at R. Goya’s body, instead gazing up at the all-shading canopy of the God-Tree, our guardian from sorcery’s twisting corruption. Behind the constable, the riverbank was marked off by the police with posts and the bright orange twine. We had developed that alarming saturation of dye from Pycnoporus at the College.
I stepped over the rope without invitation. No flesh-burrowing spore could set root in my shell.
What was left of R. Goya was strewn across the riverbank, thick with the fluid of illness, recognizable only by the color of the hair matted to his shattered skull and his College robes. A few plants sprouted awkwardly among his remains, maroon tendrils drinking up the ripe fluids. Maria had covered her face with the handkerchief as if it were a doctor’s mask. She also looked out at the river rather than at the body. It must have been a sickening stench. For once, I was glad for my artificial body and my missing senses.
My armor had been made from the God-Tree’s bark, though when I had first put it on it felt as smooth and heavy as fine porcelain. I ran my hand over the surface and under my fingertips it was textureless, the color of the cloudy autumn sky.
How many? I wrote.
“Only the Researcher.”
How long has he been here? I pointed at the plants with the chalk.
“Not as long as the plants suggest.” The constable held out his hand. He wore thick, padded leather gloves. “We found them scattered around his body.” He held an open drawstring bag, little pointed spores piled inside, thick-walled and huge, at least by the minuscule standards of spores. I took them in my hand and brought them close to my head.
“Since you were his student, we were wondering if you recognized them.”
No, I wrote. I’d never seen anything like them before; not so large, nor so thick-walled, as that rendered spores useless for cultivation. I would need a closer look.
“Did he, to your knowledge, talk about or practice sorcery?”
I tapped the board where I had written no. Like me, Goya’s only interest had been botany. In any case, practicing sorcery was a serious charge, one that would bring the hammer of investigation down upon the entire botany department. Poden’s Devastation, almost a full quarter of the city, had lain in fruitless waste for almost fifty years because of the folly of the woman it bore the name of. Only the God-Tree killed magic; we were safe in the God-Tree’s sheltering embrace.
“We would like you to examine the spores; maybe grow one of the sprouts and determine how dangerous it is,” the constable said.
I dropped the seeds back into the bag and held out my hand. He closed the bag and dropped it into my palm. It was too light to feel. I tied it to the chalkboard.
“Is it the plant that killed him?” Maria asked, through her sleeve.
The constable shrugged. “It seems likely. We found parts of a developed root system. Not in R. Goya’s body, but in the body of a suspected sorcerer in a different borough. Insides, mush. Fertilizer with the bones scooped out.”
Maria looked very ill; uncharacteristically pale.
“That’s why we want you to look at them,” the constable said, tilting his chin up in my direction. “No bones to steal, no flesh for them to root in.”
Of course that was why.
We should leave, I wrote. I’ll tell you anything I find. Maria, you look unwell.
I bent and scooped out the sprout. It pulled out of the flesh easily, little roots not dug in deep enough to resist. I stored it in the constable’s leather bag and carried them back to our dorm room. When we got back, Maria rushed to the shared bath to scrub off the scent of decay, and I planted the sprout in an old ceramic pot. It looked pathetic next to the window, delicate mauve pods bruised. Not something that would kill a man.
Over the next day, the sprout wilted instead of growing. The spores I planted did not swell or split. I watched them day and night. The dead don’t sleep.
“I wish you didn’t keep it in the room,” Maria said, the next morning, when she awoke to find me still vigilant by the window. “I dreamt I was infected by it.”
She studied music. She didn’t understand. I had died for my plants. But the only thing I saw in her was concern, for herself and for me, and it was hard to hate her for that.
I picked up the blackboard. I’ll move them to the greenhouse, I wrote.
Maria looked incredibly relieved. “Thank you,” she said, and moved to the little kitchen. I could hear the pan sizzle. I wrote another note on the board and waited for Maria to turn around.
I want to see if it grows, so I will be there with it. Will you give my letter to the constable?
It was evening by the time I finished the letter and hauled all of the plants down to the greenhouse. I put my signature on the pots. No one else would touch them, not in this partition of the greenhouse; sorcery was infectious, and death contagious.
It was the second time I had left our room in a month.
I waited for a week without results. Maria would come to the door to check on me. Sometimes she would bring a book, or an update from the constable. I told Maria to be careful.
“I am careful,” she said.
The sorcerer who killed Goya is still out there, I wrote.
“Maybe Goya was the sorcerer,” Maria said. I shifted to stare at the pots again, the back of my head to Maria. I had often wondered if she considered my death my own fault. Maria shuffled her puzzles and papers, and chewed on the end of her paper-wrapped graphite. “Maybe the seed only roots on living things.”
My blackboard was leaning against the glass, so I didn’t reply. Maybe it roots on living things, drinks their fluids. Maybe it would drink from fiber as well as flesh. I stood without speaking and stole a common fruiting wildflower from the control beds. By the time I returned with the pot, Maria had left, and taken her papers and puzzles with her. Angry, perhaps, or resigned.
I dug up a spore and nestled it among the roots. As I watched, little white roots spread up the stem, bloating the wildflower. I lifted the leaves with my finger, examined it closely, and tried not to imagine the pale tendrils worming through muscle and fat. In my hand it was still just a fragile sprout. I hunkered down, my shuttered lantern by my side, and waited until even the evening lamps that dotted campus flickered out for the evening. My thoughts wandered; I wondered if I could convince Maria to prick her finger and bleed into the soil.
Out in the starless night a scraping sounded, a thick branch against glass. But there were no large plants outside the greenhouses and no wind to rustle them from the inside. It faded and then sounded again, this time closer to where I was; then closer, again, then closer. I fumbled to open the lantern. Not out of fear, no. I thought the noise might have been another student, drunk off rye, stumbling in the dark.
I held the flickering oil flame up.
A skeletal thing, far across the greenhouse, scratched at the door. It hooked one claw under the screen and slipped through the crack, fluid, unfolded itself on the other side. Splayed ribs worked as scissor-hinged legs on its sinuous body, back and forth and back again.
It was almost as long as a person was tall, almost as big as me and my hollow bulk. It slunk through the rows, past me, broken head swilling, searching with empty sockets. It paid no mind to me, nor to the lantern’s light which as it stepped inside revealed it to be constructed of disordered vertebrae, spine teetering on splintered rib cage and riven collarbones. Thin white roots gleamed against the browned bone; mauve leaves and stem threaded the creature together. It touched the pots with gaping nose-hole, moved its head back and forth, snuffling blindly.
The creature dug at my sapling. I was horrified; my first instinct was to throw the lantern at it, but hot oil might set the greenhouse ablaze. I set the lantern down, careful to make as little noise as possible. It didn’t matter; it only had interest in the plant, like an animal rooting for fungi. I wanted to catch it. Was it Goya, returned to life, animated grotesquely by the forest in a mockery of order? Did nothing die in the forest, the lost expeditions now bulbous and veined into the undergrowth? I thought I had been the only one who survived, because of the armor I wore on my fatal journey. An experiment that proved only that the forest would not even part for God.
In a sudden fit of rage I realized that the creature, the sprout, the entire forest, must be ignoring me because I was dead. Just like the College. I picked up my blackboard and hit it and it went sprawling, my plant trailing from its misshapen jaws. I thought to kick it but it was back up and skittering towards the door, and in my clumsy haste I tripped over the pot it had discarded and fell. The pot broke into shards. I felt no pain, of course, not even the pain of my palms scraping concrete.
By the time I struggled back to my clumsy feet it was gone with no trace, not even an open door. Only a single smashed pot, and myself whole and angry. I was too angry to be frightened. Sorcery.
I began again.
The second plant grew at the same pace as the first, tendrils choking out the liquid of its host flower, veined pilei unfurling, roots digging in deeper and drinking fluids from the stem.
Maria came by in the afternoon with a response from the constable, an impatient scribble.
“They’re ready to consider it a case of sorcery practiced,” Maria told me. “They’re interviewing his other students.”
I stuck the note under one of the planters without reading it and told her I would stay in the greenhouse until I cleared Goya’s name, and that at dusk she should lock the windows of our apartment and not answer any knocks at the door. She left frightened.
I waited fifty-four hours before I heard the monster tap, tap, tapping at each window in the night. I lit the lantern and saw its sickly gait, how it pressed its makeshift nose and crooked teeth against each pane, looking for a way to come inside.
It was a different monster.
I thought it might have been older than the first, yellowing bones cracked by the growth of roots. It crept around the stands to the pots and hesitated, stared at me with shadows instead of eyes.
There was something familiar in the cant of its fractured jaw. A human skull had been shattered and re-sewn into the shape of an animal’s head, teeth sharpened, too broken to make even a skull’s grim smile. It dug the plant out while I stood there frozen. It shook the parasite off the sapling host, and left clumps of dirt behind.
I was not the only one. I was not even one of two. How many more existed? Did the forest grant life after life in its wildness after all? I followed it out of the greenhouse, holding the lantern ahead to light my way. The God-Tree’s canopy blocked the moon. The branches provided shadow for us both.
We crossed the College campus without incident. Who would interrupt a procession of the dead?
When I glanced down past the banks of the river, I saw that the creature cast no reflection in the dark water, overtaken by the light that I carried.
I have nothing to be afraid of, I told myself, I am nothing but this armor, I am dead and therefore cannot die, but I didn’t look down into the water again for fear of seeing my own reflection. The branches overhead began to thin. Far above us, leaves rustled, as if the Tree itself were saying “turn back. You will be overcome with sorcery. There is worse than death in the wilds.”
Soon we reached the area few people lived, under the furthest tips of the God-Tree, where the canopy was thin enough to see through but where the wild forest would not grow. The night itself was effused with moonlight, droplets of dust and pollen dancing in the lantern’s beam. The sky was full of stars. I felt as though I passed through them, through the dust, and it was impossible to tell where the sky ended or the ground began.
The bone-creature paused, then darted through tightly twined undergrowth — spongy purple sedge — into a barely concealed hollow in the ground, and like a fool I clanked after it. I broke branches and crawled to fit inside. It would have smelled like pine.
Did the bone-creatures dwell in this hollow? Had they dug themselves a den, a hole crawling with the roots of the God-Tree? Little feathered tendrils branched through the damp soil, fine like hair but as hard as faience. Before I had died, I had pricked my hands on them more than once. The God-Tree’s roots would fill this hole, someday, forcing the forest out and away from our shelter. For now, if I went much further, they would end and the soil would fill with a greater latticework, the massive underground fungal systems of the wild forest.
I crawled for a while on my hands and knees, forward and down the gentle slope, spurred on by white flashes, glimpses of the monster in front of me until my lantern illuminated a wider hole. I stood, shedding dirt. The ceiling was high enough for me to hold my lantern aloft, and so I did.
Two bone-creatures crouched at the far end of their den. They all clicked their jaws together when they saw me but made no other move, tracking me with misshapen sockets, or maybe with what little remained of their noses. Behind them sat a man, cross-legged, barefoot, and gaunt, pieces of bone scattered around him. He was sewing. He did not look up. A candle had been worked onto one of the roots that protruded from the ceiling. By its faint light he stitched bone shard to bone shard, dipped his fingers into a pot of wet clay and pressed the teeth to the jaw patiently, tooth by filed tooth, as though he were creating a work of art.
I stepped back and my head bounced against the ceiling. He did not look up. I wanted nothing more than to run. If I left, by the time the constable got here the sorcerer would be gone.
“I know your name,” the sorcerer said. His voice was dry, and echoed of the bones he scraped together. “You must be Lorenza.” The monster I had been chasing curled around him, rested its head on his shoulder. It still cradled the plant in its jaws. They both watched me with empty eyes.
It took me a while to realize that they expected a reply. Had I a mouth, I would have spoken, but I stared at him dumbly, the blackboard and chalk forgotten against my chest. Murderer, I should have written.
“Ah, that’s right,” the sorcerer said, head tilted. Markings on his face caught the candlelight. Two claws pierced his sharp cheeks. No, not claws — pieces of the Heaven canopy. And where they punctured his skin, red lines of infection spread, echoing the root systems of his golems. “You’re mute.” He put his hand through the lower jaw of the creature, pushing the sprout out onto the floor. I heard his fingernails scrape against the hollow in the skull. He held its lower jaw gently, as if it were his child, his puppet, or an extension of his own hand.
“What drew you here?” he asked, turning the creature’s head to face him. “Why did you follow this one, and not its sibling? Here, I will tell you why, Lorenza. These are your bones, the plant your body. I watched the College tear them out of the shell of your ceramic body. They were going to bury you, all your flesh and calcium, the seeds in your flesh, all gone to waste. I rescued them from the grave for you.”
He released them, and my bones crawled to me. I wondered if Lorenza had been cleared out with her body, and all that was left was this hollow shade and the bones that crouched at my feet watching the sorcerer like a hound watching its master. No! I wanted nothing to do with those bones or the sorcerer who had stitched them together. He could keep them and they could rot in their lair forever.
But I had to know if the spores were the seed of life.
The man and the monsters watched as if still expecting me to speak in comradeship or raise my hand in anger but the truth of it was that I could not speak and could not lash out. I felt an upwelling, words in my throat and mouth, and I opened my mouth to speak but I had no mouth and there were no words.
“You may think I have done wrong,” the sorcerer said, in answer to my silence. “These bones are not dead. No more than you. Give them your chalk and board and they will speak.”
As if possessed, I loosened the chalk and the chalkboard from my neck and I set them down in front of the creature.
The sorcerer bid it write. Without hesitation it took up the chalk in its jaws and began to make methodical marks upon the chalkboard; but after the first few moments when no words manifested among the rhythm I realized it was nonsense, the empty mimicry of words. The chalk wobbled across the board clenched in jaws unable to form a single legible symbol.
It had no voice, like me; but it had no thought either. I snatched the chalkboard and the chalk back and the sorcerer began to stand, face creased with displeasure.
“Let her speak her mind!” he said.
I erased the pale traces of the chalk’s antlike wandering. It has no mind, I thought, but I did not write that, and it was fortunate I could not speak because in the face of my own hesitation, the sorcerer retook his seat.
“I am glad you came,” the sorcerer said. “I wanted to meet you.”
I wrote: Why did you kill R. Goya?
“Oh, well, that was for you. You spent so much time in holed up your room,” he said, so calmly the sentiment almost seemed reasonable.
And the others?
“I’m not a murderer,” he said, with a shrug, as though repetition were a form of truth. “The first was an accident — who knows at first what gift they find in the wild forest — but it flowered beautifully. I had to think. What do I do with this flesh? Discard it, like the College? But life has its way. If a soul finds new purchase in faience, why not in bone?”
I tapped the chalk against the board, then wrote again.
The sorcerer’s face broke into a smile, creasing his face around his pus-swollen cheeks. “I want to see where the plant was born,” he said. “Where you harvested the seeds. I want you to take me there. Into the wild forest. I’m not insane; if I go alone, I know the forest will take me. But you are the armor of the God-Tree and you will protect me.” He held out a hand, palm upwards, towards the creature and towards myself. “In return, we will make you whole. These bones can still wear your shell, you will flower inside, your armor will blossom like a seed, you may walk among the people again and they will not turn from you.”
He was lying. I could see the fear on Maria’s face in the eye of my mind, fear of the forest breaking its bounds and striding into the city itself. Wordless, I placed the board to hang around my neck again, hunched, and moved back to the tunnel that led to the exit. I could hear him and his golems scrabbling after.
Even if the seeds had come to the city entwined in my remains, how would I find their origin? I only knew how long I had been in the forest stumbling lost and rotting because when I returned, others had told me so. And it didn’t matter; if my poisoned life came from the forest, then that was where its false gift should flower. When I emerged from the tunnel I picked a direction that lead away from the city and I walked, my lantern raised, towards the darkest shadow of the night. I could hear the sorcerer behind me, his easy steps and the skittering of his bone-creatures behind him. Here was my fate. He thought wearing the God-Tree would protect him, but the forest resented the armor and I was walking by choice into its maw.
When I passed under the last grasping twigs of the canopy, the composition of the ground itself changed, became spongy, turned and overturned by the uncontrolled growth of the forest outside. Small mushrooms squished underfoot with the noise of rotten eggs crushed in their shells, and within three strides of the canopy’s end the little domes had sprung into waist high gatherings of inky protuberances. In six strides they were as tall as I was. In nine, they towered, and other plants wove through them, some leaved, some spined. I flinched at the touch of each reaching stalk. The forest rose and rose before us until I had to turn to squeeze between the hexagonal stalks and tried to keep walking in a line, a straight line, so I could return. The sorcerer took to clutching at my waist. If I turned back the way would shut behind me. It would have been pitch-black if not for the lantern’s yellow light.
“I’ve never been so far out here before,” he said. His voice was small, muffled in the dense growth. “I turned my back to God one day, I walked into the wild and I thought I would never stop. But it became dark and the branches reached out to me. I was weak and I fled. That was when I saw you, your muscle become fabric. You pulsed with mycelium. Flesh is merely another sort of soil, you know. It is where the soul seeds.” The forest itself contained no animals, no sound, not even the exhalation of wind through the dense stalks and pods.
“It’s beautiful. This is the birthplace of life itself. Why do we shun it? Why does the God-Tree chase it away? The first rats fed here, and crawled, and grew. We turn out life itself. That is why we die at all, you know. We rejected the first gift and now cower in the shadow of bones. But I will find the birthplace, and no-one need suffer.”
It was beautiful, in the way death was beautiful, the inside turned out, intestines spilled, the colors of life turned dark and bruised and vivid. I hadn’t missed it. In the day it was more colorful, but in the lantern’s light the reds turned black, the blues turned black, the greens made a bruised yellow that bruised further when I shoved the porous stalks aside. They blossomed under my touch but the blooms recoiled from my fingers. We were intruders here, but the forest did not care for us; it only watched. The sorcerer’s words kept him company. Maybe he thought words would keep the forest at bay.
We reached a small clearing, maroon and mauve in the lantern’s light. I stopped and let the fungus curl around my boots. The sorcerer pushed past me. “Is this it?” he cried. I hung back. Writhing, seeking roots sprouted in his footsteps. My hands — my gloves — curled shut. But who was I to tell him that this would kill him, now that he had already come so far? And as for me, what was a second death on top of a first?
He fell to his knees and pawed through the undergrowth with his bare hands. His creatures crowded around him, nosing through clusters of mossy rosettes. Curved tendrils sprouted from his linen robe, along the line of his spine, spreading over him like a fisher’s net, and the undergrowth reached up to knot into it.
I had no eyes to shut. I looked up, but there were no stars, only twining boughs; but unlike the God-Tree this canopy sparkled, dense and low enough to touch.
First his speech was cut by coughing; then by choking.
“Why won’t you shelter me?” he cried. I did not know if he spoke to me or to his monsters, or if indeed he still could see.
I held the lantern at rest. Soft noises squelched and rustled as his search found him and consumed him. I remembered that when I had died, the filaments had crowded my throat, the same way the sorcerer’s plant had no doubt crowded Goya’s throat, rendering us speechless in life and speechless in death.
The cries he made were just as quiet as mine had been.
When the noises sounded less of flesh and lung I lowered my gaze. His body had become a tightly tangled bush, flowering, deep red flowers with huge, fleshy leaves. The creatures were trapped in the twigs and vines. They scrabbled for purchase against the slick growths. I scraped vines from my legs, where there was no tissue for the plant to root in, and when I was free enough stepped backwards. With a last rattling shift in the sorcerer’s tangle the creatures fell limp, puppets with their strings cut.
A soul is what fills the hollow spaces in the form of the living, and when you die it seeps into the ground and away. Those old bones had movement but there was no life in them, only the sorcerer’s borrowed motion, no matter what else he thought moved them. Not alive. The forest had granted them a final death.
I found my shattered, patchwork skull and pressed down on it with my heel. The bone crunched under the pressure, driven into the mossy underground. I crushed them all, one by one, and let the forest take them and the sorcery in them. They belonged to the forest now, while I… I wore the armor of the God-Tree and I belonged in the sheltered city of fired clay and living flesh. My armor was poison to the forest. In a way my scheme to bring the God-Tree’s shelter with me had come to fruition after all.
I picked the direction in which the stalks looked shortest and I walked until my lantern guttered out, and I kept walking as the wild forest turned away from me. Eventually the first sun rose, and by its light I saw above and ahead of me the distant and silver reaching twigs of the God-Tree, framed with the halo of the morning-sun’s light. I had survived the night. I was alive by the will of the God-Tree
as are we all
life granted and guarded by the armor of the God-Tree. But who else could be so sure, as one who walked through the wilds at night with no flesh for the forest to take root in?
I crossed over from the spongy earth to smooth dirt packed by travel, shook my body vigorously to dislodge any stubborn spores, then made my way down to the far bank of the river to wash myself of any remaining contaminants. I submerged myself; with no breath and no eyes to close, I waited and watched the sun filter through the rippling current. The purifying waters flowed out from the roots of the God-Tree to the forest, where the unclean joined its own.
I emerged dripping from my hollow joints, stopped and looked down into the calm water. White-glazed armor and an empty-eyed helmet stared back at me, glimmering in the morning light. I nodded at my reflection, and returned to campus to write the constable a letter.