Conquering the Worm
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The Journal of the Walk, Friday, December 27th

The woods were quiet today.

That, of course, is to be expected under ordinary circumstances. After all, the deep forest is not a place many dare venture into, and those of us brave, mad or wayward enough to traverse its maze-like entrails rarely make a ruckus— it is unwise to attract whatever may lurk behind the trees.

This, however, was a different kind of quiet, one not brought about by the absence of man, but also the birds and the beasts of the land. I heard no chirping insects, no scurrying critters, not even the wind's bellowing voice. All seemed to have fled, exiled from the thorny labyrinth which I insisted on crossing. Amidst the silence, my steps echoed like those of a giant.

After a few hours I noticed the change. Blackened earth gave birth to naked trees of stony bark, their gaunt branches revealing the heavens above: what by morning had been a cloudy sky that promised soft rain was now a homogeneous thing of pure white, an empty void whose sterile light had no discernible source yet kept away the shadows of the forest. It hurt to look at. Tears pricked my lashes as I stared, and the afterimage stayed when I looked away.

The more I walked under that painful white sky, the more I realized that everything seemed drained of color, of life. Gray trees, ashen soil, white sky— all but me and what belongings I had stood silent, petrified and barren.

The word "inhospitable" crossed my mind. These woods, once home to countless souls, had become unwelcoming to life itself, even hostile. Such a tragedy was without equal: I had seen many forests cleared out to make way for civilization — for cities of lifeless concrete and steel, for edifices built to accommodate men of empty eyes and souls — but still nature found ways to resist and flourish amidst the gray. This gray was different, uglier than anything I had witnessed before, necrotic. No life would follow after the rot, after the blight. I could tell that the forest would remain dead and silent forevermore, like a battlefield burnt and salted with the tears of men and gods. Its husk would be a stain upon the world as the cycle of death and rebirth came to a painful halt. I knelt down amidst the dead trees and wept.

A great moan bounced through the dead trees as I cried, its echo lingering in my ears like thunder. It sounded like broken teeth scraping cold metal, like the mutilation of stars, like the call of decay. The sobs that shook my body gave way to the trembling of fear as I realized I was not alone in that arboreal cemetery. Soon, another cry came, and then another, rattling my bones as the horror seeped into every corner of my mind: there was something alive in the woods, and it was in agony. Carefully, tears still fresh on my face, I walked towards the place where the moans came from. There, at the center of a clearing — or rather, a crater — carved into the blackened earth, lay the thing that had caused the calamity. The Worm.

It was huge, a bloated mountain of meat, coils upon coils of slimy flesh that squirmed and shuddered as I got closer to it. Its mandibles clicked weakly, a wiry tongue still frenzily tasting the air for an unknown enemy, trying to alert the creature about a danger that had already crushed it under its heel. The Worm was the color of the blight — an unnatural hue of gray that made ash look colorful by comparison. All throughout its immense form, man-sized patches of putrid skin sloughed off into pools that the earth refused to drink, wounds festering and bubbling as the thing shifted beneath its wounds and recoiled in agony.

I dared not get too close to the Worm, my instincts telling me that this was the source of the blight, its very presence killing the land beyond any chance of rebirth. What an atrocious entity it was that even nature could not keep the cycle of death and rebirth from breaking under its foul slithering. But before I could go back, before I could turn around and leave for greener places, the Worm's tongue stopped writhing and held still towards me. Four pairs of bulbous eye sockets — some empty, some full, some bleeding colorless muck — opened and gazed at me.

"You…" the Worm said with its terrible voice. "Help me…"

Had this been any other creature, the sight of its suffering and the anguish of its pleading would have moved me to do anything in my power to console it in its final moments, to bring it some comfort before death claimed it. But the Worm was not any creature— it was an abomination, an unnatural thing whose existence was anathema to all that was good. Still, the call of an agonizing being was not easy to refuse, and I poised myself at the edge of the crater, careful to stay out of its tongue's reach.

"Help you?" I choked out. "How can I help you?"

The Worm trembled and coughed out viscous blood. I could tell that death was almost upon it.

"Remove it…"

It was then that I noticed the spear. Its girth rivaled the mightiest trees, its length stretching towards the heavens like a triumphant banner. Its entire surface — from the blunt end that poked the horizon to the merciless blade buried deep into the Worm's flesh — was covered in glyphs that spoke its True Name and its sacred purpose: to slay those who had grown beyond redemption, to stop corruption at its root. Though it paled against the Worm's gargantuan size, no human hands could ever wield it, let alone remove it from its kill.

"I cannot do that," I said. "Please forgive me; I am not strong enough."

"Agh! Pathetic!" The Worm seethed, its remaining eyes staring at me with hatred. What little strength it conserved seemed entirely focused on spitting vitriol. "You mortals are good for nothing other than to grovel and to die!"

"Is there any other way I may help you through your pain?"

"Pain…" Its voice grew quieter, but no less hateful. A shiver coursed over its mutilated body as it struggled to speak. "What do you know about pain, mortal? Look upon me, gaze upon my glory! I am the Conqueror, he whose coils ensnared the very gods and tore them from their heavenly thrones! And still this thing, this laughable splinter, has brought me down, reduced me to begging your aid. This… this is pain."

"What further harm could come from asking for kindness?" I asked. "You are wounded, in agony. Is your pride so great that even when shattered it refuses to yield?"

"I was like the gods once!" the Worm furiously bellowed. "Lesser creatures like you feared me on every world where my shadow lurked. My kingdom was one of magnificent decay. I was bigger, stronger than any other! Such was my righteous claim for supremacy, for dominion over Creation… but the gods envied me, denied me! And so they sent their champion, the leader of their Wild Hunt, to keep me from my true destiny, to prove that I was beneath them! Because… because…"

"Because gods cannot die," I solemnly said. "And thus, you are no god."

A roar that was both indescribable pain and wrathful humiliation left the Worm's mandibles. Its coils shook, the land trembling with such force that I feared tumbling down to where it could reach me.

"Do not mock me, mortal! I am the Conqueror! I will rend your bones into ash, defile your flesh and digest your soul!"

"Forgive me," I said. "I meant not to insult you, only to point out that which is and that which will be: you are dying, and that is inevitable. It is my hope that at least my listening to your story brings you some respite, for it means you will be remembered once you're gone."

The Worm squirmed and let out a monstrous laughter, a sound so awful that I thought its death throes may finally be at their end. My jaw clenched as its foul head tried rearing itself from the ground to look me in the eye, only to fail and collapse anew. It did not try again.

"Remembered?" The Worm mocked even as it finally accepted that its body was beyond salvation. "No, I will be more than just a memory. My legacy… it is unstoppable. You see it, do you not? It grows around you, changing the land as I die. It shapes the world in my image."

"You are poisoning it," I acknowledged. "Your blood is poison, poison that even nature cannot heal from."

"Even you, wayward one, will succumb to it in time. There will be nowhere to run, nowhere to hide. Crops will wither. The waters will become as tar. The land will be ash, and the skies will watch eternally over a world of silence and emptiness. This is my legacy— I will be forever."

"Why?" I asked. "Why take us all to the grave with you? We have done nothing wrong, nothing to deserve this."

"I am forever," the Worm sneered. Then, weakly, it said: "And if I cannot be… no one will…"

A final twitch surged across the Worm's body, mangled flesh trembling and contorting as life left it. It vomited a pool of gray bile, its tongue landing heavily on it with a sickening splash. Then the eyes became cloudy, and its agony was no more.

I spent a few minutes in silence, gazing at the carcass that had once fancied itself a Conqueror. Though I felt no sympathy for one as vile as the Worm, I thought it appropriate to stand by its side if only to understand what it had once been. Even in death it had hoped to kill, to spread its influence over those who would outlive it. It had done it out of spite, out of revenge against the gods who had justly defeated it, out of hatred against those it considered inferior.

Such malignant resolve disturbed me, but I thought it was the right thing not to dispel the Worm's final wish. For this reason I left the truth unspoken, unknown to the evil thing that had died unrepentant and undaunted under my watch: the spear that had felled it — as divine and unstoppable as the gods who had crafted it — was also meant to limit the Worm's desolation of the land. The forest had only perished where the Worm had been cast down and left to die, meant not to fulfill its monstrous will, but to forever entomb it— a lonely mausoleum for one deserving no funeral rites. It had been a sad, senseless thing for the Worm to spend its final moments wishing harm to others, but it might have been much more tragic for it to realize its futility, forgotten by all but this wayward traveller.

I soon left behind those cursed woods, away from that forsaken corpse. Greener places awaited me, so I whistled a mournful tune for the trees as I pondered my moral: however foul, all creatures deserve some peace in death, even if that peace is nothing but a lie.


Art by Piesol - PL

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