So… I’m going to take a risk here and share scene 1 of my WOPR (work in progress). It’s been simmering for years. I would love your feedback.
Asher’s militia snaked through the forest like a human centipede.
The Council’s order had been clear: Investigate a dank cloud of smoke rising from the direction of Chima, a vibrant little village Northeast of Pilan. The third such fire in a month. No Chiman runner had met them on the trail, which was no surprise. He knew what awaited them upon their arrival.
Thickening smoke burned Asher’s eyes and throat as they drew near to the blaze. Blinking through involuntary tears, he glanced hatefully at the accursed Trees towering in the distance. The giant weeds swayed high above the world like demigods surveying their handiwork.
Breaking through the singed bush surrounding the village, Asher stopped his march. Chima now spewed black, laced with acrid fumes from things that should not have been burning. He felt a lump sticking in his throat, his grief pinned mid-swallow by rage. His sombre militia spread out in his peripheral vision, taking in the smoldering remains of what had been Chima just hours before.
No one bothered looking for survivors. The fire had begun sometime before sunrise. Everyone, young and old, had been tucked into bed.
Charred remains littered the scene. Dozens of Chiman villagers lay contorted amongst their burnt out huts. Men. Women. Children. Livestock. The town’s stone well was the only structure still standing, a giant white tombstone mourning the sooty carnage.
Asher turned to face Belag, his broad-chinned second in command. “Another fringe fire.”
Belag nodded. Asher turned to face the village again.
Several blackened bodies lay prostrate at his feet, arms stretched out like gruesome claws. They had almost dragged themselves clear before succumbing to the flames. One of them, a woman, had died screaming. Her mouth was now baked open, teeth distended. The stench of burnt flesh and hair offended Asher’s nostrils. The remaining plumes of smoke had long since ushered the villager’s souls into the mournful purple sky.
“What now?” Belag asked, then laughed, because there was nothing else to do. “Another report to the Council?”
“That’s why we’re here, Belag. To investigate.”
“Are you serious? The Council knows full well what’s happening to the people. They understand the danger of the Trees and the death they bring. But they refuse to act. More words are nothing to them.”
Asher trembled. He wished he could vomit out the despair crawling around in his gut and be done with it. “This is just like Kalea,” he whispered.
“Just like Kalea.
“The village you grew up in?”
Asher nodded. He’d escaped one of the first recorded fringe fires as a child, crawling clear without a blister while his parents died screaming. The memory had never stopped punishing him.
Turning to face his men with his back on this new terror, Asher tilted his head to heaven, trying to drink in the sunlight, straining to defy the smoldering horrors behind his back. It didn’t work. The warmth felt dull and powerless.
Opening his eyes, he surveyed his loyal militia—an earthy band of serious warriors, many bearing the scars of stories like his own. Fifty nine brave souls at the last count, plus their women and children. All looking to him now.
“I don’t have to tell you what I’m thinking,” he said, addressing the group. “You know better than most how the Trees steal everything. Life, light, simple pleasures. The lives of those we know and love.”
Before a fringe fire took him, Asher’s father had shared stories about the day the Mother Seed arrived. A curious pod, he said, not much bigger than a Gengi fruit. The thing appeared one day during the Blasca festival, set like an offering on the altar of the old Temple in Trehanu. The elders planted it in the Temple Courtyard that very day, convinced the gods had bestowed it for some divine purpose.
Soon afterward the priests began reporting disturbing visions. They claimed the gods were offering fresh revelation. Most people remained suspicious until the first Tree—the Mother Tree, as it would be called—sprouted. It doubled in size every day until her bloated trunk split the Trehanu Temple in two, cleaving the sacred obsidian like week old bread.
Asher shook his head at the thought. That should have been an ample warning that something was amiss.
It should have been, but the priests were quick to herald the destruction of the Temple as a divine portent, a sign to accept the priestly visions and reject the old ways. Within a year the Mother Tree was a mile high and its willowy upper branches fanned out several miles, forming a canopy so dense that it literally blotted out the sun. Its golden fruit shimmered in the sunlight, but the gloom beneath its branches killed all native plant and animal life.
As the trees’ roots expanded, flammable gasses collected in giant bubbles beneath the topsoil, swelling until they burst into open air and hissed into explosive gardens of flame. Strangely enough, these fringe fires only seemed to erupt beneath towns and settlements. A supposed sign of divine judgement for not worshipping the Mother Tree.
Asher raised his voice. “Bothers, I have served the Council all my life, and I serve them still. But we’re losing our world, one village at a time. We cannot sit back and let this happen. The Council must hear us this time.”
“We’re with you, brother. Unfortunately, the Council is not,” Belag replied, eyes rimmed with sadness.
Kinar, another keen warrior, stepped forward to speak. “To a man, all of us serve you, Asher. Along with our prayers and families. But the Mother Tree is a greedy wench. Her roots stretch miles beyond her branches. And her children are just as murderous.”
Belag nodded. “How long has it been since the first ring of Trees sprouted around the Mother Tree, Asher? Fifty years? Now they nearly match her in height. They have given birth to two more rings of those filthy weeds. Their branches weave a canopy of death, blacking out the sunlight and killing all but the Cultists who live in their darkness.”
“Which is why we must stand before the council again before sunset,” Asher replied, feeling weak.
“No, we have to find a way to stop the trees. To burn them down,” Kinar replied. A buzz of agreement rippled through the militia.
“The Council is frozen,” Belag replied, desperation in his eyes. “You know this. They refuse to do anything for or against the Trees for fear of offending the gods.”
Asher raised his hand, silencing the debate. He sighed, grasping for words. “I agree, we must stop the trees,” Asher said finally. “But first we must make the Council listen. You know we can’t mobilize the people in force without their blessing.”
“Then we will all die,” Kinar countered.
Belag put his hand on Asher’s shoulder. “You know they won’t hear us.”
Asher knew. Over time, an elaborate Cult had grown up around the Mother Tree. Dissenters were fewer by the day. More and more good people had become drunk with the priestly delusions. Many now believed the Trees were divine and deserving of worship. The general population, while not exactly thrilled with the new religion, were gradually bowing to it in order to survive. As a result the Cult grew daily.
“If we don’t convert, we burn,” Kinar said, clearly exasperated. “I refuse to do either.”
Asher felt trapped between his men and the burning corpses behind him. “What would you have me do? If the Council won’t listen,” Asher began, then stopped himself, unsure of what to say next.
“I say we bring some of these bodies along,” Kinar suggested, clenching a fist. “We should dump a few on the Council table for the elders to gawk at. Maybe then they’d take us seriously.”
The soldiers cheered. Asher contemplated hitting Kinar and would have if he hadn’t been right. He sighed. The men had reached their breaking point. He had to do something or risk losing their allegiance.
Bending down, he grasped the roasted skull of the woman at his feet and wrenched it off her shoulders with a sickening crack. Several men gasped as he held the macabre orb up to his face, framed tenderly by his trembling palms.
“May your death bring life to many,” he whispered to the slain mother. He slid her skull into a leather pouch at his waist. “Come, my friends. The Council will hear us.”
He felt a strange burning swell under his ribs as they turned to leave.
Would you read more? What did you think worked? Didn’t work? I’d love to hear from you.