The nothing lives. A primordial emptiness, devoid of form. The universe before the existence of motion, time, or thought. An infinite, unending void.
The nothing sleeps, dreaming of desolation, a soothing melody of absence in its mind.
But then, something happens.
A thing appears that wasn’t before. The first thing to have ever existed, as pure and round as a pearl.
The thing’s purity burns bright through the emptiness, stinging the nothing awake, bringing an end to its infinite dreams. It opens its dark red eyes for the first time and points them at the pearl in anger, confusion, and fear.
Poking and prodding, the nothing tries to understand this strange thing floating through itself, but cannot. Enraged, the nothing sets upon the work of unmaking the thing, this thing that shouldn’t be. Only then will it be able to return to sleep and its unending, empty dreams.
The nothing emits a mist of shadow that encompasses the thing, sucking at it, draining its essence, returning its base parts to nothing. But then, something happens. Somehow, the thing’s purity enables it to resist being unmade. Instead, it scorches the nothing with a painful burn.
The nothing recoils, never having experienced pain before. Then, it looks on in horror as it sees pieces of itself transforming into light and matter. They form a fissure that tears across the vast nothingness in an explosion of light, sound, heat, and raw cosmic energy. The nothing lets forth an agonized howl as the fissure grows and branches off, tearing it apart. Soon, the nothing finds itself on the brink of obliteration.
Thinking quickly, it ducks under the envelope of a spinning ball of gas, unmaking a portion of the nascent matter before it solidifies, creating a pocket of nonexistence for itself. Surrounded on all sides by matter, the nothing is unable to sleep, and thus unable to dream as it wishes. Thus, it waits, seething in rage and pain for eons upon eons, feeling nothing but hatred for all existence, waiting for its opportunity to unmake the universe.
It has waited an eternity for its opportunity, but it can wait just a little more…
“Just a little further, Chan” Nissinya says. “We’re getting close.”
Chandranya shuffles behind Nissinya along the pathway up the hill toward the eastern slope of the mountain. Evergreen pines and other forest fauna surround them; a chittering squirrel runs beside them for a moment, but they ignore it. The late-afternoon sun hangs orange-red against a purple-blue sky, with a smattering of stars faintly visible directly above them.
“I can’t wait to see it, Nis.” Chandranya’s voice is a measured, even monotone. She continually glances back over her shoulder toward the bright lights of the massive city now several kilometers behind them. In their wake is a vast stretch of farmland reclaimed by nature, filled with abandoned, vine-entwined barns, sheds and country houses, ruins from a bygone era.
Nissinya giggles gleefully and doubles her pace, gliding over a bed of dead pine needles covering a divot filled with pine cones. Chandranya sighs sulkily and continues a half-step behind her, but she doesn’t notice the pine cones until she steps on one at an awkward angle and twists her ankle, letting out a yelp.
“Are you alright, Chan?” Nissinya looks back at her, eyes wide with concern.
Chandranya stifles a curse, then pauses for several moments, standing completely still. Finally, she takes a small, gingerly step, then another, and another, testing her ankle.
“It’s fine,” she says, “let’s continue.”
The sky grows darker as they come to a crook in the path where it takes a sharp right, continuing on along the side of the hill. To their left is the tree line of a dense forest blanketing the mountainside. “It’s here,” Nissinya says, “where the path resembles an arrow pointing up the mountain. This is the way we need to go.”
Chandranya looks into the darkened woods with doubt. “Are you sure? What if we get lost? We didn’t even bring any water or supplies.”
“Don’t worry, Chan. I’ve been to this place half a dozen times already. I could find my way there in total darkness.”
“Let’s hope we don’t need to…”
“You worry too much,” Nissinya says. Then, she zips toward the tree line and disappears into the woodwork, giggling all along. Chandranya sighs once more, then says, “Hey, wait up!” and follows her inside.
The piney canopy covers her in darkness. The myriad branches and pine needles scrape against her face and sides as she hustles along, trying to keep up, but it seems like Nissinya is getting further and further away.
“Hey, Nis,” she says, breathing hard, “Slow down!” Nissinya doesn’t seem to hear her, disappearing completely from view as her giggling fades into the sound of the breeze whooshing through the woods.
“Nis? Nis, where are you? Are you there?”
She receives no response.
Hunkering down instinctively, Chandranya holds her breath and remains completely still, listening for anything that might be moving through the woods. All she hears is a passing zephyr winding its way through the conifers. Slowly, she places one foot in front of the other and continues the way she was headed, through the trees and underbrush up the hill.
Soon, she comes to a large, rocky outcropping that blocks her path. She looks around on either side but sees that there’s no way to progress unless she climbs the five-meter wall of jagged stone before her. Sighing reluctantly, she places one foot on a sturdy-looking stone near the bottom of the wall and steps up onto it as she reaches for another stone sticking out above her head, pulling herself up.
When she’s about a meter off the ground, she grabs at a stone that’s almost out of reach. As she stretches for it, her foot slips and her body swings from the wall like a barn door. She flails her free arm around to control her momentum, then manages to swing back toward the wall and grab hold once more. Breathing heavily, she clutches to the wall until she calms. Then, she resumes her climb.
As her head crests the top of the wall, she’s struck by the view that opens before her. A lush, verdant valley filled with gorgeous, vibrant trees, grasses, and bushes with leaves the color of emeralds; flowerbeds filled with exotic, pastel-colored flowers; a winding stream with deep-blue water glimmering like opal. In the center is a humongous tree, its size easily dwarfing all those around it. The tree’s gigantic shadow covers one whole side of the valley.
Chandranya stares down at the valley as she pulls herself up onto the rocky plateau. Her mouth hangs down in amazement.
“Incredible, isn’t it?”
Chandranya turns and sees Nissinya leaning against a nearby tree with her arms crossed, grinning. “I’m sorry I left you alone for a minute, but I wanted you to discover it yourself, the way I did.”
At the sight of her, Chandranya feels the warmth of acceptance and belonging. She wants to embrace her, but resists the urge, smiling slightly instead, her gaze bouncing back and forth between the immense, idyllic beauty of the valley and the welcoming, friendly familiarity of Nissinya’s smiling face. She experiences a rush of joy that’s almost overwhelming, making her feel lightheaded. Then Nissinya takes her hand and says, “Come on!” Chandranya glides along beside her, smiling.
As they follow the winding path down into the valley, the air grows humid and warm. The early evening sun seems to float higher into the sky, making all the vividly colored foliage around them sparkle.
Approaching the tree, Chandranya sees that a doorway appears at the base in the crux between two of its sprawling, octopoid roots. But then she feels a wave of apprehension. She squeezes Nissinya’s hand and says, “Nis, what is this place?”
Nissinya looks at her with a grin and says, “I can’t tell you. I have to show you. But it’s amazing, trust me.”
With those words, Chandranya feels her anxiety disappear. She squeezes Nissinya’s hand again and says, “Alright.”
Together, they step through the opening into the moist, cool air inside, perfumed with a pungent but not unpleasant arboreal aroma. A blanket of glowing green fungus coats the heartwood walls which are run through with veiny vines, revealing a dim hallway leading deep into the bowels of the tree. This time, Nissinya squeezes Chandranya’s hand and says, “This way.”
The two scurry down the hallway, giggling in excitement. The further they go, the denser and brighter the moss becomes until it’s so bright it burns their eyes and they have to squint. Finally, they reach a small chamber in which no moss grows, though some of the light from outside spills in, providing faint illumination nonetheless. Inside the chamber is an orb the size of a bowling ball that’s hovering close to the ground in the middle of the room. The orb’s form shifts to the periphery of Chandranya’s vision when she tries to look directly at it, as if it’s an elaborate optical illusion.
“This is what I really wanted to show you,” Nissinya says. “Or, I guess I should say, to whom I really wanted to introduce you.”
“What?” Chandranya says.
“Shh… watch and listen.”
Nissinya approaches the floating orb slowly until she’s within about a meter of it, then she kneels down and bows before it reverently. It starts to hum as she draws near, increasing in volume and intensity the closer she comes. Then, she reaches for the orb, her hand disappearing beneath its opaque surface. Her body jolts violently, and then she murmurs a string of gibberish in a strange, inhuman voice.
“Nis, what are you doing?” Chandranya says. “Nis? Nis!”
Nissinya looks at Chandranya and gives her a grin. “It’s ok, Chan. I’m communing with the spirit of the tree. It… tells me things…”
Chandranya gives her a disturbed, disbelieving look and says, “Wh-what kind of things?”
“Shh… watch… and… listen. It’s going to be fine.”
Nissinya reaches into her pocket and retrieves a small razor blade, then carefully slices a small cut into the upturned wrist of the hand embedded in the orb.
Chandranya watches as blood drips from Nissinya’s wound, but instead of falling to the floor, it arcs through the air and flies into the orb. The eldritch object pulses with a loud, reverberating hum that echoes down the hall.
At once, a sense of profound peace and wellbeing fills Chandranya’s psyche, and she swoons with the immense pleasure of the sensation. She looks at Nissinya’s face and sees that it’s the picture of ecstasy as well.
And then the sensation ceases as quickly as it began, leaving behind a vague sense of numbness and emptiness in Chandranya’s mind. This dissipates within moments, however, and she returns to feeling normal.
“What was that, Nis? Chandranya shakes her head and bats her eyes, exhaling slowly. “Nis?”
Nissinya turns her head to look directly at Chandranya. She has her lips pursed and brow furrowed in such a way that Chandranya has never seen before. She looks like a different person, appearing even more unfamiliar as her lips curl upward into an odd, crooked smile.
“That was why we came,” she says, “what I really wanted to show you. This place, this whole place is alive, not just the way a plant is alive, but with its own unique consciousness and spirit. I wanted to introduce you to it, and if you’ll join me in communing with it, then we can feel good like that together, always and forever. Come, join us.”
She pulls her hand out of the orb and holds it towards Chandranya, who regards it dubiously. She sees that Nissinya’s wound has closed already, leaving behind a barely noticeable scar.
Chandranya looks at Nissinya’s face and sees that she now more closely resembles her old, familiar self. But still, there’s something off about her, and Chandranya is reluctant to believe her. But then, she felt the power of the orb herself, and it felt good. She can’t help but wonder what other good things she could experience through it, especially with Nissinya by her side.
Chandranya sips her burned, muddy coffee as she flips through the newspaper. The texture is rough and unpleasant on her fingers. She hears the door to the café open and glances up to see who it is, then freezes.
The person standing in the doorway looks like Nissinya, but different as well. She’s much skinnier and paler with dark circles under her eyes. Nissinya was always spry and vibrant and triumphant in her manner, but this person looks shrunken, worried, and defeated.
The woman with an uncanny resemblance to Nissinya scans the room and looks straight through Chandranya, then approaches the counter to place her order. Chandranya watches her the entire time. Is it her? Could it possibly be? What if it was? What would she do? Would she talk to her? What would she say?
The woman pays and takes her coffee, then turns toward Chandranya. She looks at something over Chandranya’s shoulder and then heads toward the exit and leaves, sipping her coffee. Chandranya watches as she disappears from sight. After 20 seconds, she realizes she has been holding her breath. She inhales a big gulp of refreshing air, then tries to focus on her paper once more.
But she can’t concentrate. Questions keep popping up inside her mind like intrusive thoughts, things she’d been wondering about Nissinya, things she wanted to ask but just couldn’t bring herself to call her. She finishes the lukewarm dregs of her coffee, then stands and rushes out the door.
She finds Nissinya standing outside the coffee shop with her hand on her hip. One look at her smile is all Chandranya needs to see to know it’s her.
“I knew you’d follow me out here,” she says, sipping her coffee.
Chandranya laughs nervously and says, “I wasn’t sure if it was you. I- I-” Her mind goes blank, and she has no idea what to say next. She feels extremely awkward, while Nissinya just stands there calmly, poised as ever.
Finally, Chandranya blurts out, “H-how’ve you been?”
Nissinya shrugs, exposing a series of small scars running all the way up and down her wrists like tally marks. Her smile disappears, and she says, “You don’t need to feel guilty. I know why you stopped talking to me, and I understand. I should have told you what was going to happen. I just wanted it to be a surprise for you like it was for me when I first found… her.”
Chandranya looks into Nissinya’s eyes and says, “And how is… she doing?”
Nissinya frowns, then looks away. Chandranya can see tears welling up in her eyes. “Not well,” Nissinya says, sniffling.
Chandranya furrows her brow. “What do you mean?”
“She’s… well, she says there’s something wrong.”
“Yes, it’s hard to tell what she means, but she says there’s ‘something stirring’ beneath her, ‘something angry, empty, and beyond ancient.’ When I ask her to explain, she won’t, or she just repeats that same phrase. Her voice sounds weaker and more distant every day. I don’t know what to do. I’ve even been performing certain… rituals, but nothing seems to help.”
Chandranya eyes the scars running up and down Nissinya’s arms. “What kind of rituals?”
Nissinya frowns as fresh tears appears in her eyes. “Whatever it takes to save her.”
Chandranya sighs and looks at her up and down. “Nis, you… you don’t look so good. I think you should go see a doctor. And… I don’t think you should go back to that place. At least, not until you’re better. Do you understand what I mean? Please tell me you do.”
Nissinya glares back with tears running down her cheeks. “Don’t tell me what to do.”
Chandranya trudges along up the side of the hill, following the path Nissinya showed her. Though the sun hangs in the cloudless sky, the air is frosty, and she can see her breath. She shivers.
The point in the path appears on the horizon, and she hurries toward it. Then she ducks into the tree line, following the strange trail from memory. She manages to find the rocky outcropping and has no trouble scaling the wall again, despite the thin layer of ice clinging to the stones. As she pulls herself up over the ledge, she gasps at the view. But her expression is not one of awe and wonder as before. Instead, she appears shocked and horrified.
The once verdant foliage is rotten, the leaves and grasses turned to myriad shades of orange and grey, all of them putrid. The flowers are decayed beyond recognition, and the stream reduced to a trickle of opaque sludge. The great tree stands leafless in the middle of the valley. Its limbs appear withered and weak and strained, as if the entire tree is about to collapse onto itself.
An uneasy feeling follows her as she makes her way down. The air grows colder and drier, and she feels her teeth chattering involuntarily. The sky grows overcast in a matter of moments, and thunder sounds in the distance. Chandranya’s survival instincts implore her to stop, turn around, and head the other way. She ignores them.
Reaching the doorway, she looks inside and sees that the glowing fungus which was once so bright and abundant is now dim and sparse upon the woodwork walls. She can barely see a meter in front or behind herself as she enters the hallway. The air inside, which was once so warm and wet and sweet-smelling, is now cold and dry, reeking of decay. An odd buzzing hangs in the air, just below the surface of conscious perception. Reluctantly, she begins shuffling down the hall, terrified of what she’ll discover at the end.
Finally, she reaches the entrance to the chamber and finds that it’s completely dark inside. She stands there, trembling and breathing heavily as she listens for any signs of movement. “N-Nis?” she says. “Nis, are you in there?”
She breathes out a sigh that’s a mixture of relief and, curiously, disappointment. As she turns to leave, she hears the unmistakable sound of someone striking a match. She looks back and sees Nissinya sitting inside the chamber, lighting a candle beside her. Its muted light plays about her features, making her appear inhuman. The light of her razorblade flashes as she picks it up.
She wears only her underwear, and Chandranya can see scars of various lengths and depths covering her body. Blood streams down over the scars from the dozens of fresh wounds. It then flows away from her body, undulating through the air and into the orb which floats near the ground before her.
The orb is easily a third of its former size and seems to be shrinking. It hovers shakily and unsteadily as if it might fall to the floor at any moment. The blood from Nissinya’s wounds seems to be nourishing it, but just barely. Not enough for it to thrive or to even sustain it.
Chandranya stares in horror at the copious amount of blood pouring out of Nissinya’s veins. She quickly determines that there’s no way she could lose so much blood and not be in serious danger.
“Nis, listen to me,” Chandranya’s voice is firm and resolute. “You need to stop this immediately, and we need to get you to a hospital. What you’re doing is extremely dangerous. Whatever you’re trying to get out of this, it can’t possibly be worth your life.”
“I’m glad you’re here,” Nissinya says. She lifts her razor and slices a long cut across the top of her chest, not even wincing as the blood begins to pour from the wound, floating through the air and into the orb. “I wanted you to see this because…” her voice drops and she hisses as she speaks, “this is what love looks like.”
Chandranya sighs as she drops her shoulders and shakes her head. “You’ve completely lost your mind, haven’t you?”
Nissinya says nothing as she slices another long cut into her shoulder, watching the blood ooze out of the wound.
“This is insane,” Chandranya says. “What am I even doing here? Why do I even care about you? Why? Why would I even care if you sit there and bleed to death? This is absolutely ridiculous and totally absurd. I can’t believe I ever cared about you in the first place. I’m leaving!”
She turns to leave and marches down the hallway. As she does, the ambient buzzing intensifies, and the light from the fungus brightens, so much that it stings Chandranya’s eyes. She winces and squints so that she can just barely see between the aperture of her eyelids. She hears Nissinya cry out and sees her staring back at her with a panicked expression.
She opens her mouth to speak, but when she does, her voice sounds completely different, echoing with a strange resonance as if coming from somewhere close by and far away at the same time.
“The nothing, it approaches! I cannot resist it. I cannot… ah!, AH!, AHHHHH!!!”
A misty purple blob slowly oozes across the surface of the orb, bubbling and boiling malevolently. Globs of the substance spurt onto Nissinya’s wounds. She cries out as if in great pain and desperately tries scraping the substance off herself, but it sticks to her like tar and spreads across the surface of her skin.
Meanwhile, the slime covering the orb solidifies and constricts, crushing it down with a wet, sickening crunch! The ball of slime continues to shrink until it disappears, leaving an empty void in the space the orb once was. Nissinya lets forth a guttural, anguished howl, reaching for the orb in vain, but it’s gone.
The purple slime covers Nissinya’s entire body, and she curls into the fetal position as her teeth begin chattering uncontrollably. “S-s-so c-c-cold,” she manages to say. It solidifies and constricts around her as she bucks and struggles, knocking over the candle. The flame ignites a patch of dead fungus, and the fire shoots out of the chamber and into the hallway, setting the walls and ceilings alight in a matter of moments. Nissinya lets out one last bone-shivering scream and then falls silent.
But then, Chandranya watches in disbelief as Nissinya’s body lurches to its feet, surrounded by the growing flames. The substance covering her absorbs all the light from the flames, making her appear as a gigantic blob as if someone poured a bottle of ink into the air and it stuck. Then, she hears a stomach-turning pop! then another, and another, and another. Nissinya’s form shifts and changes, growing in size until the head nearly reaches the top of the chamber. Her body’s features take on some of the aspects of a tree, with bark-like skin and a stump-shaped head. It opens its eyes, which are a horrible red color, and stares at Chandranya malevolently. Then, it takes a silent step toward her.
She screams and runs away as the flames turn the hallway into an inferno, their orange-yellow light casting wild shadows across her terrified face. She makes it three steps before something cold and slimy wraps around her leg, tripping her up and causing her to fall flat on her face, stunning her. When she regains her senses, she sees that a long, octopoid vine extending out of the creature’s arm-like appendage has wrapped itself around her. It feels impossibly cold, and the skin it touches on her leg burns with a penetrating numbness. The vine continues wrapping her up until it pins her arms to her torso, immobilizing her. A purple mist begins to form around her, thickening into slime as it covers more and more of her body. She begins feeling extremely tired and starts to forget who she is, where she is, and what’s happening. She desires nothing more than to simply fall asleep.
But then a chunk of burning heartwood falls from the ceiling, landing on top of the vine in the place where it stretches between Nissinya and the creature’s body. The burning wood pins the vine to the ground, and it unravels from Chandranya as the creature lets out a shrill, high-pitched, piercing scream.
Chandranya cries out and covers her ears. She rolls out of the path of the vine which violently whips back and forth while the creature struggles to free itself. Stumbling to her feet, she accidentally sucks in a lungful of smoke from the fire and begins hacking and coughing violently. She rushes through the doorway and out into the night, struggling to suck fresh air into her lungs.
Hurrying away, she doesn’t look back until she reaches the top of the outcropping at the edge of the valley. As she begins her descent down the wall, she sees a red glowing light spreading up the trunk from it base. Then flames erupt from beneath the surface of the bark all up and down the trunk, igniting the entire tree like one massive bonfire burning bright against the night sky.
The flames light up the valley, sending long, jagged shadows dancing like spectral devils. There’s a tremendous crack! and the tree splits near its base. Then, with a loud, whining, echoing groan, the burning treetop comes crashing down, falling atop a grove of dead trees in a tremendous explosion of embers like fireworks, turning the valley into a roaring blanket of fire.
The force of the explosion knocks Chandranya back, sending her flailing backward from the wall. She lands with a sickening thud, knocking the wind out of her as her head bounces off the hard dirt of the forest floor. Moaning, she tries to lift herself up, but slumps to the ground as she closes her eyes.
When she opens them, she sees the sun’s rays poking through the canopy. The sky above is clear and blue. There’s a chill in the air, but it’s not unbearably cold.
Groaning, she sits up and is immediately set upon by a throbbing headache. She struggles to stand on her wobbly legs, but somehow finds her footing. Slowly, she makes her way back through the woods and down the path back toward Eventide City.
As she limps along, she feels a stinging sensation on her right leg around her shin and calf. She stops to look and sees a strange mark in the spot where the creature’s strange vine wrapped around it. It’s dark purple like a severe bruise. Upon closer inspection, she sees a series of fine lines forming an intricate pattern within the mark, so detailed it seems to have been drawn by an artist.
The stinging intensifies and Chandranya whimpers, worrying that the pain will become unbearable. But instead, it dissipates, fading away as the mark disappears. Breathing a sigh of relief, Chandranya continues her trek back to her home in Eventide, trying to imagine how she would explain Nissinya’s disappearance to anyone who might ask.
Once she makes it to the outskirts of town, she begins looking for a cab. She spies one facing her a block away that appears unoccupied, but it hurriedly pulls away as she approaches. She sees another one a couple blocks down the street and begins scampering toward it.
A teenage couple holding hands in ratty leather jackets turns the corner a few meters ahead and start walking toward her. At first, they don’t notice her, smiling and laughing as they chatter to each other. But then, the girl throws a passing glance toward Chandranya, looks away, then looks back, eyes wide in surprise and fear. The boy sees his companion’s face, then turns to see what she’s looking at. The moment his eyes fall upon Chandranya, his own face forms the same expression, and then they both turn and run back the way they came without saying anything. Seeing this, a wave of anxiety washes over Chandranya. She breaks into a quick trot toward the cab, wanting to be home immediately.
Approaching from behind the taxi, she opens the rear passenger side door and slides inside. The car seat is cushy and comfortable despite the age of the cab, and she feels herself relax a little. In a strained, scratchy voice, she says, “1122 Dupuy Boulevard, in the São Mateus neighborhood, please.”
The cab driver glances at her in the rearview mirror and then, like the young couple a few minutes ago, does a double-take. He gasps in fright and hops out of the car and sprints down the street without looking back. Chandranya watches him go, then slowly exits the cab and begins the five-kilometer trek back to her apartment on foot, her dread building with each and every step.
Finally, she arrives at her apartment building. She doesn’t see anyone in the foyer or the entryway, nor is there anyone in the elevator or the hallway of her floor. She enters her apartment and flips on the light. It looks the same as she left it, semi-clean with clothes strewn about, but she won’t let herself be distracted. Slowly but resolutely, she makes her way into the bathroom and stands in front of the vanity with the lights off. She lifts her hand, and, after a moment’s hesitation, flips the switch.
Her facial features have all disappeared. Her face is a flat, blank slate, like that of a mannequin.
Her mind snaps.