What the Garden Wrought
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Once, in an old world far away, there was a garden. All the beasts who roamed about in those days thought it barely a patch of dirt, more a stain in the concrete wasteland than anything beautiful. There is truth to be found in the telling that it was no Garden of Eden - but a garden it was nonetheless. That was all that mattered.

In the midst of this pallid place, there was a crow. This crow, he was a greedy old thing - all greasy feathers and bright black eyes, eyes that smote the soul. He was always fighting with the other beasts back then, seeking out their precious young to dine upon. Glory, desire, gluttony - all were under wing and claw. All he took through blood.

As with all things, kingdoms rise, and kingdoms fall. One fateful day in his righteousness, upon killing the crown younglings of both the rabbit and fox clans-by-the-stream, he declared the dirt patch for his own. Stakes had been drawn, but it mattered not. He knew he'd won.

"You will call me King-Crow, for I own this garden!" he cawed out, even as red rabbit meat still dripped from his sharp beak. His voice was as bawdy and reckless as his forebears. No beast of the earth nor creature of the air answered, of course, but he screeched on anyway. "I'm the king of this world, and I shall never die!"

He ruffled his feathers after that, pleased with himself that day and every day after. He was proud of his dirt patch. In his beady eyes it was the most precious thing imaginable. With rich black earth and cobbled sides, it was more beautiful in colour and form than all the waters that encircled the earth - or what little remained of them after the gods' wars, anyway.

But even kings don't last forever, and neither do dead gardens. One fateful day, the crow flew too far to the west while hunting. His neck snapped on the canal walls. Death-kissed, he would caw no longer. The clans-by-the-stream rejoiced.

Seven days passed, after that. Then the first green thing in a thousand-thousand years sprouted in the dirt-patch, riven from the bird's last kill.

All the world wept.



What's that skeleton?

What's that sound? Is that a bird?

I look to the garden for answers, the place of the Great Tree of Hammo. It is said that the King-Crow died near here.

Am I a liar?

I find nothing but skulls. Did they take me for a fool?

Am I a fool?


Wait… there's something else.



One day, a child came to the garden.

These were the years where the peoples of the south had been coming up out of their burrows, renewed from the clutches of war. Strange folk with large carts moved into the old cities, their luggage to their backs and their spawn at their hips. All beast-clans now lay hidden in ancient fastnesses, watching and waiting with fearful eyes as the wide world changed around them. They always watched, now. Never acted.

Strange metal monsters put red iron to the land. Swords tore up the earth, swords from the wild places where the cold winds blew. Soon enough, new towns sprung from the destitute wastes - towns with which the whole world would be conquered. That was the idea, anyway.

These were the people of metal teeth and silver claws; they called themselves the children of Ub-past-Sunderland, and they believed themselves gods. They wished to strip the land of the green gift it had been kissed with after the King-Crow died. In their eyes, they brought progress. To take the world and use if for their own - that was penultimate. That was their gift as gods.

They were always together, hunting in their strange packs - the fox-clan hadn't liked this. Now all the foxes' heads lay on pikes.

There was a celebration on this particular day. They'd killed the old fox-king, smoked him out his hole by the witch-wood, displaying the bloody thing by their spikewalls for every beast of the earth to see. All their kind was there.

All, but one. The child had left his pack. He was crying, and the garden…

The garden had called to him.

The dirt patch was not dirt any longer, but rather the site of a tall pine tree, hoary and grey. Its roots were many, and the concrete about it was now long-since crushed and broken. Scratch-marks had been torn into its roots - pretty patterns by little claws, waxing images of forgotten deeds and old victories. His tribe's voicewalker had told him stories once with his mouth-above-mouths, back when their tribes had first come down into those green lands two winters prior. Here was where the heathen foxes had first dug their halls, he'd said. Here was where they flourished.

It was only fitting, then, that here also was also where they breathed their last. Beneath his boots the boy could still see the drying blood of the fox-king. The old coot had been skewered there earlier that day. He inhaled, stilling the butterflies in his gut.

Come on. No foxes anymore. The boy had no reason to be afraid. He couldn't afford that.

"I will show them," he whispered to himself, voice all scratchy. "I will show them I can be grown-up. They'll see."

He took out a blade, the sharp thing that he'd stolen from his parents' hall. Raising it high above himself with as much strength his spindly arms could muster, he swung hard into the pine's bloated trunk.

"See?!" His screams were hoarse, cheeks stained with salty tears. "I can do the job all of you couldn't. I'll cut down this tree. No fox will rise again. I can be good, I- I can. See, papa? See?"

The world held its breath.

He swung the red thing into the tree's side once more. Then again, and again, and again - but to no avail. On the final stroke, the axesword shattered in his hands, breaking into a million little pieces. He'd held it wrong. Everything was bleeding now, his knees cut. He cried and cried. None answered. He was too far away from his other gods, the ones so lost in their reverie. They would not come.

The boy was not alone, however. The other beasts had grown bold in those days. With no foxes or crows to rule the land - and all the foxes that remained distracted by their petty wars with false gods - the rabbit clans had come back to the flats by the canals. Even in the dying light of the sun, the boy saw them: the little white spots popping up in the dark around him, so alike to the ghost candles in the festivals of his youth. A great bull-rabbit bounded up to him, the shaman of all hares-by-the-garden, nudging his side only to jump back when he screamed.

"Go away!" he cried, vision blurring from the pain. The boy didn't have time for the spectres of his mother's stories. "Leave me be!"

Red eyes bored into him. Suddenly he felt a creeping sense of shame - for what, he did not know. They were not leaving. They would not leave. The rabbits had come to his dying body for one reason alone - they wished to give the boy up to their own spirits to hold a trial by the old ways, to the world that had birthed him. The brown river was not far off. So it was that even as he lay dying, the bloody boy was taken and set adrift in the murky water. If he were to live, let the gods heal him - be they his kin, or the Hare-Mother herself.

Neither answered in the end. But even in the ides of death, gifts can be found. In the final hour, a god came to the boy at last, born from beyond the bleeding water. As he fell away, the faintest whispers grew in his heart, in his mind.

"You will not die yet," it said to him, sable feathers flashing. "You will never die."

The boy could not speak, could not whisper. His lungs were filled with water. He knew that he should have been dying, with nothing to see or feel, but that never happened. Instead, his mind's eye revealed a great, black crow, shuffling over his corpse. Its mouth was full of worms. Askew upon its head sat a tall crown made of rabbit's teeth, purple-gold in the dying light.

Help, the boy croaked out. Need… help. The crow only stared, red dripping from its beak. The boy screamed again, but his voice was muffled by water.

What must I do? the child implored, his heart near bursting. The fat crow opened its beak at last, chortling.

"You need not do a thing, little sparrow."

The twin minds fought then, crow and boy, bird and beast locked together deep in the watery depths of the mind. A body washed to shore. The beach was stained with blood.

Help me! the boy cried in his head. Help me!

The crow was smiling now, smiling with its bleeding eye.

"Death is temporary, no?"

The voice was hard and unforgiving, etched with something darker. A warmth flowed through him then. All smelt of iron.

"Tut tut, soul-child. The hour is late, and there is no time for such dalliances. No time," the greasy thing whispered, the words wrapping around the boy's world like a hurricane. "No time indeed. We will be eternal."

Help.

"We must."



I don't think I'm a fool anymore.

I saw a child's hand there, twisted in the ashes. Seven fingers. A crow's nest in its palm.



A chill creeps in my heart. I'm not alone.




A boy came stumbling back into the city three days after, his face as pale as milkglass. He stopped for a while at the garden, bloody hand smooth against the grey tree. He left soon after.

That didn't matter anymore - none of it did. There was no time.

The beasts fled in fear from him. The new gods pushed him to the earth. His parents admonished him. His brother scorned him. His sister held his hand, gentle. The boy didn't care, didn't bother for any of it. It wasn't important anymore.

He used to be the king of the world, after all - but death had stolen that from him. There was no value to feeling anymore. Only doing. The world had wronged him. He was meant to be its king, but instead it had killed him.

He'd been king of the world.



And so he'd watch it burn.





Light. I see orange from portside. The forests and beaches of this world are aflame, the night stained with their smoke. Stars are falling away, one by one into the boiling sea.



This will be a dead universe soon. Everything I've trained for has told me as much. Yet here I am, doing nothing. My thoughts heavy and full of fear. My doubts besiege me.



It's cold. Why is it cold?


I don't know what it is. I can't know what it is. It all started here, didn't it? In this garden, on these shores. The people here say the boy rose from the hills like a ghost unfettered. In his right wrist is carved life, in his left death. He has a crown of crow's feathers, his third eye filled with pus.

But that- that's just a story. I don't know the real truth. I have questions of my own. Was there a point to it? What's the moral?

Could I have stopped this when I had the chance?



I thought it dead. But nothing dies anymore, does it? Nothing dies.

That's no moral. I'm stupid, aren't I?



Stupid. Why are you so stupid?

Do your-

Do my duty. Right.




It's so cold. I-I must warn Arnald. The Hand… it must know.

It must know everything.






The King-Crow has come.





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What the Garden Wrought » The Yellow Book (WIP)

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