To: Her prestige Navaneth Anassa, High Imperatrix & First Keeper of the Institute of Erudition
[9th Ring, Inner Order]
Your scholarly eminence,
Even now this unworthy hand trembles with excitement at your impending arrival to the Telperi flower’s research site. Upon hearing the High Imperatrix herself had accepted my invitation to witness the flora’s deadly blooming season, the camp has stirred into a frenzy anticipating your attendance.
It’s a three-day journey through the Donchad jungle’s muggy labyrinth to our research site. As such, I wish to gift you in advance an extraordinary breakthrough in our understanding of the Telperi flower’s time-bending properties: A first-hand account from the sole survivor of the tragedy that occurred during the last blooming season.
Doubtless your eminence has heard the sensationalized account: Of Taisto Crowfoot guiding the lovers Mae and Ravenna Ilia to the Telperi flower’s habitat, how the couple used the plant’s magicks to birth a child, of Taisto’s heroism in saving said unnatural offspring…and his tragic murder by that child’s hand.
While the posthumous publication of Crowfoot’s journal remains a bestseller even decades later, the surviving witness has famously refused to speak—until now. After 47 years of silence (and no small amount of coercion from this humble servant), Mae Ilia herself has at last agreed to come forward. The reclusive botanist provided her account as annotations to Taisto Crowfoot’s widely-publicized journal (4th edition, Grameer & Assoc. Publishing).
A word of caution: At 81 years old, Mae Ilia’s notes are somewhat…brusquer than the polished scholarship your eminent eyes favor, and given the heavy scars across her face, she is a poor candidate for public promotion. Yet the revelations she provides, if true, will revolutionize our field of psychoanimatic florae—as such, it’s my opinion that her notes, albeit abrasive, are well worth your grace’s time. May this account provide revelation on your journey to our humble research site.
With eager anticipation,
Dct. Aemila Rhamnousia
Head Researcher, Telperi Site
THE FANTASTIK JOURNAL OF TAISTO CROWFOOT1
Never-Seen LOST PAGES from Taisto’s Diary RECOVERED!
Discovered and Translated by ESTEEMED MASTER SCRIPTER POL GRAMEER2
[4th ed., Grameer & Assoc. Publishing. Exclusive rights: Institute of Erudition, lic. 38272]
[Day 4—Entry 16]
Arriving to Camp—Mua’lokopti—Pleasant Smells—a Curious Visitor
Welcome back, dear reader! After a grueling three days in the sweltering Donchad jungle, I at last led my foolhardy companions to the ivy-snarled cliffs of the Telperi flower’s habitat.3 Ah, my friends: No sight compares to this beating heart of the jungle. The elusive flower shelters within the mighty walls of Mua’lokopti, an ancient, extinct volcano named for the god of my people. Indeed, it is said Mua’lokopti protects the Or’orbo people and our humble island from within this mighty mountain, and His4 presence gives the Telperi flower its lethal, time-bending properties.
“Taisto.” Ravenna emerged from the brush. Sweaty but composed, her locs sat bound by a yellow bandana, though a single strand had escaped during the day’s arduous trek. She glanced upward, frowning. “This it?”
“Yes.” I gestured, reverent. “Behold Mua’lokopti, god of time, protector of Or’orbo island, whose impenetrable walls contain secrets from countless generatio—”
“Sweet mother, it’s obsidian!” Mae stumbled into the clearing. She collapsed, panting, though even in her exhaustion she studied the stony earth. “Volcanic sediment!” she exclaimed. “Porous, metamorphic…gods, I’m tired…but given time’s erratic flow around the volcano, it’s impossible to kno—”
“How do we get in?” Ravenna interrupted. I pointed. The only path into Mua’lokopti’s cavernous heart was a narrow passage between His ancient cliffs. “Let’s go.”
I laughed—ah, the naïveté of my companions!5 “Mua’lokopti has been sealed by the Telperi’s time barrier for nearly half a century. We wait for morning, then we can examine the entrance.”
“No time. We can pause for dinner, but we need to enter as soon as…” Ravenna trailed off. I frowned as her nostrils flared and (in most unladylike fashion!) sniffed. Her amber eyes narrowed.
“Someone’s here. Another camp.” She took a deep breath. “They’re…gods, they’re cooking something amaz—” Ravenna choked with surprise. “That’s impossible.”
Mae looked up. “What do you smell?”
Sniff. “Rosemary. Flaked pastry, with aged go’am cheese…” Her dark cheeks blushed. “It’s…your grandmother’s tomato galette.”
Mae raised an eyebrow, stepping over rocks to stand beside her wife. As a breeze rustled her long, black hair, puzzlement gave way to delight. “Spiced chocolate,” she breathed. “Poached pears in ambrosi wine, and…oh.” Mae’s eyes closed, savoring the scent. “Cardamom.” Her fingers wove through Ravenna’s. “Remember?” she whispered. “The night bazaar in Coramu, that little painted bakery along the river…”
Her brown eyes sprang open. “Taisto!” Her gaze was sharp. “What do you smell?”
Oh, reader: The jungle breeze wafted with caramelized plantains dipped in coffee, an Or’orbo delicacy served in the great city of Dolithi on the island’s western tip. Ah! The scent taunted my heart with memories of home: Dolithi’s misty streets, the sprawling piers jutting like the lamplit arms of a mighty octopus, the lighthouse market where my darling children love to play.6
From behind us: the gentle rustle of leaves. I froze.
“Well?” Ravenna snapped. “You smell something or no—”
“Quiet,” I whispered. Even as her face grew indignant, I waited, muscles tensed, until…
There! I whirled around, palmknife valiantly in hand…and blinked. Two gold coins floated in the air before me. Yet my astounding vision discovered patterns in the jungle depths: the sleek form, the verdant fur swirling into graceful, pointed ears.
There, mere paces away, stood a jade lynx.
“Exquisite,” Mae whispered. I, too, felt my heart leap: The majestic jungle cat’s emerald fur blended so flawlessly with the trees that only its gaze, two eyes of molten gold, reflected from the leaves. Its half-raised paw was larger than a dinner plate, the lynx’s fearsome size so great its stare stood level to my own!7
My companions quailed before the beast, but as one accustomed to even the most lethal of the Donchad jungle’s creatures, I slowly sheathed my knife, offered my hand, and whistled a certain series of notes. The jade lynx’s eyes narrowed…then it padded slowly towards me. Hardly daring to inhale, I felt the beast’s hot breath against my face. The cat growled, a rumble so deep I felt it in my chest. I whistled again, softer…and lo! The jade lynx’s golden eyes glazed. It leaned forward, nose twitching…and with a guttural purr, nuzzled my palm: the mighty predator, tame as a kitten!8
A breeze blew through the clearing. Again, scents of my beloved Dolithi taunted me, but the jade lynx’s eyes dilated, its verdant ears perked as it sniffed the air. With a huff, the creature padded past me towards the cliff walls. Its fur stood out like jeweled moss against the volcanic stones. The lynx strode past Mae and Ravenna, hardly flicking an ear in acknowledgement as it stalked towards the source of the scent: The narrow passage leading into Mua’lokopti’s volcanic interior.
Ravenna watched, rapt, as the cat crossed the clearing, but Mae was grinning like madwoman. “Rav,” she breathed, “it’s a psychotoxin.”
I frowned, confused, but Ravenna started. “Are you sure?”
The smaller woman breathed deep. “Unless my 82-year-old gamma’s opened a bodega in the heart of the jungle, we’re smelling something else, tricking our senses. A scent in the air, enticing us…tricking us…”
“The Telperi flower.” I squinted at Mua’lokopti’s dark entrance. “It’s…attracting us?”
The lovers exchanged a look. “Not quite,” Ravenna said. “Countless plants emit sweet scents to attract prey, but this? Our unique favorite foods? This is something else, something targeting our memories. It’s hunting us.”
Mae’s notebook was already out, pencil materializing as she scribbled. “An olfactory lure,” she muttered. “The Telperi flower releases a toxin—pheromone?— targeting its prey’s psychoanimatic energies…” As the jade lynx vanished into Mua’lokopti’s depths, Mae wrote with a frenzy, skin trembling with gooseflesh from the poison’s effects.9
I warned my charges to retreat to the safety of our tent, lest their untrained minds succumb to the Telperi’s sweet temptation. Ravenna, ever sensible, applied her mask, but despite my repeated pleas, Mae’s gaze remained fixed on the volcano’s entrance. I warned her again, exclaiming she wasn’t accustomed to such an assault on the senses, yet alas! As if in a trance, the woman refused to lift so much as a finger.10
Ravenna put a hand on Mae’s shoulder. “Mae,” she said gently. Mae looked at her, exasperated, but folded under her wife’s stare. Muttering, she donned her mask at last.
“It’s almost dusk. We’ll rest here,” I instructed. “In the morning, we’ll examine the entrance, see if Mua’lokopti is safe to ent—”
“No.” Ravenna’s neck craned up as she took in the ancient volcano’s towering height. “The scent means the Telperi flowers are already blooming inside. We have at most days until they close again—once they do, we won’t be able to enter their habitat for another 47 years.” She tightened the straps of her bag, jaw set. “We go now.”
I laughed, as if she had made a mighty joke…but Mae, too, was adjusting her pack, stepping towards the volcano’s entrance. “You…you can’t just walk in there!” I exclaimed. “No living soul has entered Mua’lokopti in half a century. Only fools rush towards death!”
“Death?” Mae turned. “Ravenna and I are botanists, Taisto. Death isn’t life’s opposite, but its absence: An inability for life to exist. Ravenna and I cannot create a natural child together. This,” she nodded towards Mua’lokopti, “is our chance—our one chance—to change that. Rushing towards death? No, Taisto.” Her dark eyes blazed. “Ravenna and I are chasing life.”
“There are other ways,” I snapped. “Safer ways. Countless orphans exist in the world. You could adopt any one of them.”
“Perhaps.” But like the jade lynx, Mae’s gaze was fixed on Mua’lokopti’s dark entrance.
“…come or don’t, Taisto. It makes no difference.” Ravenna was striding across the rocky clearing. “We’re going in.”
[Day 4—Entry 17]
Beyond the Walls—Many Paths—an Attack from Above—Vines
Oh, reader! What choice did I have, but to pursue my foolish companions into the depths? Ravenna, ever the bold one, had already vanished into the narrow passage. I called out to them, begging…yet as Mae’s black hair melted into the darkness, I found my own feet hurrying to follow. Yet even I, the most valiant of men, hesitated before the entrance—Mua’lokopti’s obsidian cliffs loomed on either side, the mist spilling forth ebbing and flowing like the breath of a forgotten god. Concern for my own life paled to my terror that harm befell either woman: I fastened my courage to the sticking place and entered the forbidden heart of my people.11
Light dwindled as Mua’lokopti’s cliffs tapered into a narrow tunnel, the darkness so absolute I had but instinct and my thrashing heart to guide me.12 I bravely struck forward, fingers brushing the unforgiving stone as I called out to Mae and Ravenna.13
Suddenly: a cold something seizing my wrist! I leaped, knife half-drawn…only to fall to the ground, hopelessly entangled with Ravenna. Expression murderous, she released my wrist.14“Get off me, Taisto, or you’ll find even a botanist can maim with a sharp enough pencil.”
As I rose from the earth, I found Mae nearby, lamp in hand at last. We gazed around us: The tunnel was oval, as if formed by some great divine worm, extending several paces before splitting into three different paths. Two uneven entrances lie to our left, another on the right so small one would have to crawl to manage it. Of the jade lynx, we saw neither pawprint nor emerald whisker.
Before I could offer my expert instincts, Ravenna was striding into the smaller of the left tunnels. “We follow the breeze,” she called back. “The current’s coming from the volcano’s heart, since the top remained open after Mua’lokopti’s eruption.”15
“…which the Telperi flower uses to carry its psychotoxin to outside prey,” Mae mused. Indeed, the tunnel in question ruffled my sweat-slicked hair, bearing once more the salivating scents of fresh Dolithi coffee poured over caramelized plantains. So, after a quick recovery of fallen gear and minor scrapes, we plunged once more into the darkness, our noses leading the way.
How long we walked, I never knew. The tunnels were winding, the dark volcanic walls monotone, and even your humble guide’s profound sense of direction was rendered helpless in the serpentine paths. Several times we stumbled: The floor was uneven, like frozen ripples in an endless pond. “That’s exactly what it is,” Mae noted upon my commenting. “We’re walking on the calcified remains of a molten river. Escaping air formed these tunnels even as it cooled the lava, hardening once Mua’lokopti exploded itself into a sh—”
An inhuman screech from above! The glimpse of a many-limbed shadow, then the air filled with the creature’s shrieks and Mae’s very human screams. The crash of glass shattering joined the chaos, followed by the whoosh of flames blossoming around us from the broken lamp’s oil. Flames roaring around me16, I squinted through the intense heat to find Mae flailing in frenzy, her screams echoing as she battled the creature clawing at her face. Through the inferno I glimpsed a furred face with too-large eyes, limbs longer than the body clinging to Mae like some demonic—
“Moli’ki,” I snarled. I had but seconds to act: Stripping off my jacket, I leapt boldly into the flames and thrust my garment at Mae’s head, tearing the creature from the botanist’s scratched face. My jacket writhed as if possessed, the beast within howling with fury, but my knife was already drawn (premium steel from Siddleman & Co.: Quality Gear for the Modern Adventurer!). I slammed the business end into the writhing jacket, and with a cut-off shriek, it was over.
Ravenna was already tending to her wife, ignoring the flames with her characteristic impenetrable focus. Mae’s face was a horror of blood and scratches. “What in the [EDITOR HAS REDACTED THIS PHRASE FOR COMMON DECENCY] was that monster?” she snarled.
“Hush. I need to clean you up—”
“Don’t tell me to bloody hush Ravenna that [EDITOR HAS REDACTED THIS PHRASE FOR COMMON DECENCY] ripped open half my [EDITOR HAS REDACTED THIS PHRASE FOR COMMON DECENCY] face.” Mae’s eyes, pools of rage in a face of blood, stared at my crumpled jacket. “Is it dead?” she spat.
I nudged the bundle with my boot. It didn’t move. “Yes.”
I opened my mouth to protest, but Mae’s look sent a chill up my spine: Her face, normally so joyous and curious, radiated hostility for her attacker’s corpse.17 Slowly, I opened the jacket, revealing the remains beneath: A small, monkey-like creature, smooth claws protruding from dark-furred limbs. “A moli’ki,” I began. “Rare creatures, only found on Or’orbo—”
“Considered the blessed offspring of Mua’lokopti, as they have no means of reproduction.” Mae rushed forward despite Ravenna’s protests. Mae’s hair had come loose, spilling over her bloody face in dark sheets. “So,” she whispered, “they do exist.”
I frowned. “You know of the moli’ki?”
“How do you think we thought to come here?” Ravenna gently tilted Mae’s face to finish cleaning the gashes, though she too glanced at the corpse as if she wanted nothing more than to study it. “The moli’ki are a scientific mystery: Only seen near Mount Mua’lokopti, with no sexual organs to speak of. No mating rituals. No infants seen on record. The Or’orbo believe them miraculous children forged by the volcanic god himself.” Ravenna stared at the dead moli’ki, her eyes bright. “Mae and I have a different theory.”
I confess, reader, it took me a moment to realize their lunacy. “You two were serious earlier? You can’t…you actually think a flower—”
“We need to move on.” Ravenna rose, already gathering the fallen things. “Mae, your lamp’s shattered to hell, so we’re down to two, unless we want to use flares.”
I balked. “That thing gauged Mae’s skin like a rake. She needs disinfectant, stitches—”
“Yes,” Mae replied. “I do.” But she, too, rose and strapped her backpack back on. She looked at Ravenna, who nodded. “Let’s go.”
With that, both women continued down the tunnel, following the intoxicating scent of the Telperi flower. I paused before following. Leaning down, I covered the moli’ki’s corpse once more with my jacket, whispering a prayer to Mua’lokopti to protect his blessed offspring.18 Then I, too, hurried forward into the darkness to catch up.
The scent was overpowering now, our weary limbs buffeted by the tunnel winds. Ah! It felt as though Mua’lokopti himself were sending a warning, repulsing us from our foolhardy destination. Before long, the first creeping vines appeared along the tunnel walls: Feint veins of purple, thin as spider’s silk, pulsing with a soft inner light. The vines grew thicker as we walked, their glow brighter, until we walked through a tunnel not of stone but leafy, purple light. Abruptly the tunnel ended—we emerged, like so many bees from a honeycomb of holes, into the forbidden heart of Mua’lokopti.
[Day 4—Entry 18]
The Telperi Flower’s Domain—The Child—Ravenna’s Gift—our Hero’s Demise
In my seasoned years, dear reader, these eyes have beheld wonders: Obelisk walls of ocean exploding in steam against the Burning Cliffs, the iridescent glass trees of Or’ulmo Island, which shatter sunlight into dappled wines and golds upon the forest floor. But oh! Those sights now fade from my mind like footprints on churning sand, replaced by the exquisite, awful vision of the heart of a god.
Sunlight poured down Mua’lokopti’s throat, its stone walls deeper than blood. So high did the volcano’s shaft soar that the distant sky was but a glinting coin of blue. A single ray of light pierced down to the volcano floor19, where my companions and I stood in a vaulted chamber vast enough to fit the Institute of Erudition’s Crystal Library.
And in that cathedral of stone, the Telperi flower.
Vines of purple light laced every crevice and crack, glowing roots so deeply entwined that the ground itself glowed. Vines twisted up the great domed walls, sprawling like radiant veins towards the dome’s peak where sunlight poured. My head bent in reverence.
“Let’s go,” Ravenna said. We made our way towards the center, a laborious task of weaving through the labyrinth of vines. At last, we stood at the center of all things, the Telperi’s purple glow our only guide in Mua’lokopti’s dark heart.20 Ravenna’s lamp flickered out, but the vines were more than enough to see by. As for the flowers themselves…
“Gods, they’re repulsive.” Though I am loathe to echo Ravenna’s unpolished language, even I balked at the sight of the Telperi flower proper: Great mottled bulbs, each the size of a large child. A layer of spiked, bristle-like hair covered each bulb’s flesh, through which a sickly red light glowed from within.21
“No wonder they’re hidden from the world,” Mae chuckled. The bloody gashes in her face furrowed as she frowned: Charcoal already in hand, Mae sketched the hideous flora, muttering in a language I didn’t recognize.
A chill crept up my spine. “I count but seven bulbs. Impossible!”
“So few,” Ravenna whispered. She squatted in the vines to study the closest bulb, face bathed in red light. “This makes no sense. How can seven bulbs produce enough psychotoxin to lure prey from the jungle outside? Why have miles of vines if they’re only feeding—”
“Rav!” Mae’s voice was urgent, panicked. She was kneeling before a different bulb, face reverent as she stared into the pale light. I gasped: Beneath the Telperi’s translucent flesh, a dark shadow moved. I could just make out the silhouette of curved claws, a twisting tail…
“A moli’ki!” I exclaimed. “The scent must have captured the poor creature—the Telperi’s imprisoning it alive even as it’s being eaten!”
“No.” Without looking, Mae pointed to a spot next to the bulb. I stepped back, horrified. Even Ravenna drew a sharp breath: Another moli’ki lay on the ground, vines sprouting from its body. Its tiny chest moved so slowly I mistook it for dead. Unlike the nest of vines around us, the tendrils sprouting from the moli’ki glowed not purple but red, feeding into the nearby bulb where the shadow within stirred once more. I stepped back, a chill spilling up my spine.
“You don’t actually mean—”
“Yes.” Mae placed a hand on the bulb’s bristled surface, her fingers dark silhouettes against the red light. “This is how they do it,” she whispered. “This is how the moli’ki reproduce. That’s why they attacked, earlier: The moli’ki protect the Telperi, because it’s how they generate offspring.”
Ravenna fell to her knees beside her partner. Trembling, she reached out to the bulb’s surface, resting her dark hand atop Mae’s. “It’s possible,” Ravenna breathed. Tears streaked down her cheek. “By every god, Mae…it’s possible.”
We stared, dumbstruck, into the glowing womb—to my astoundment, the moli’ki inside already stirred with greater purpose, its outline more developed than moments before. Suddenly the bulb gurgled, peeling open from the top—I gagged as the enticing smells of plantains and coffee mixed with a thick, sulfuric stench.22 But the small moli’ki staggered out, tiny vines shriveling and breaking off its body before our very eyes. The parent moli’ki stirred as well, vines pulling out of its body as parent and child sluggishly touched noses for the first time. The smaller moli’ki was no infant, however, but a smaller replica of its parent: A perfect copy, led away through the vines by the original.23
Ravenna frowned, examining the withered vines that had connected the parent moli’ki. “Translucent. Whatever the Telperi extracts from the parent to make the offspring, it isn’t blood.”
I muttered a quick prayer to Mua’lokopti, my head towards the unseen heavens, but when I looked down, Mae and Ravenna had strayed away. Both women now stood by the largest bulb. It stood empty: No moli’ki stirred within, no parent connected by vines. “We could each do one,” Mae mused. “Try for two.”
Ravenna opened her mouth to reply, but struck by brilliance, I cut her off. “You are…sure you wish to do this?”
“We are, Taisto.”
I scratched my chin, thoughtful. “If the bulb connects to the parent with vines,” I said slowly, “could you not both attach to the same bulb?”
“Brilliant, Taisto!” Mae exclaimed.24
Ravenna rose. Slowly, she looked up through Mua’lokopti’s heart, up towards the distant sliver of starlight that glittered overhead. “We don’t know the cost.”
“We know the cost if we don’t.”
Ravenna looked at Mae, face unreadable…then she strode over to her wife, took Mae’s face in both hands, and kissed her. I blushed, looking away, but moments later: “Taisto.”
I turned. Both women were dropping their packs, removing their jackets. “It’s time to meet the second half of our deal,” Mae said. “The Telperi are the sole means the moli’ki have of producing offspring—they’re not going to like our use of a bulb. Will you watch over us now, as you promised in Dolithi?”
I opened my mouth to protest, but already they were sitting, vines instinctively wrapping around their legs. They stared at me—Mae with hope, Ravenna with duty. A feeling fluttered in my chest, and I felt within me a sense of protection I haven’t felt since my own children. I nodded, solemn. “Nothing will touch you. You have my word.” Reader, I meant it.
Ravenna lied back, the vines already creeping up her neck. She closed her eyes. Mae grinned, lying beside her wife…but before closing her eyes, she looked at me. “Thank you, Taisto.”
I folded my arms, uncomfortable. “Let’s just get this over with,” I muttered.
Both women gasped as the vines pierced their flesh: I could glimpse slight movements beneath the skin as the Telperi explored their veins. Mae trembled, her jaw clenched, but to my surprise Ravenna was the one more intolerant to pain: More than once she cried out as the Telperi’s connection dug deeper into her being. Then the bulb flared with an inner red light—as if on cue, both women slumped, unconscious.25
How long did I stand guard? In a place where time itself is molded like clay, does such a question merit asking? The lovers laid side by side, hands entwined, vines woven through their joined fingers like lace. The vines had entered in a dozen places: Beneath their skin, Mae and Ravenna’s veins glowed purple at first, but as time passed, the glow deepened to an intoxicating red—a sacrifice of blood!26
And so the battle began. True to Mae’s prediction, the moli’ki attacked in droves. In a matter of hours I had rebuffed dozens of the screeching creatures, my arms and face scratched to ribbons, my clothes shredded in a hundred places. But though sweat glistened off my skin, mol’iki blood dripping from my knife, valiantly I fought on! For every moment I glanced amidst the slaughter, the shape within the glowing bulb grew larger, more defined. In a matter of hours (moments? years?) the silhouette of a child lay curled within the Telperi’s womb. And so I fought with ferocity, corpses growing at my feet with every slash—
Then Mae screamed.
Her back arched, glowing veins bulging, an inhuman screech forcing out her throat. The moli’ki fled. Mae screamed, and screamed, until at last her rigid form collapsed beside the Telperi bulb—which, even as I rushed to Mae’s aid, had begun to split open. I froze, panting, my body slick with sweat and blood and grime. The petals parted…
A trembling girl, steam rising from her curled form. Had my coat not been abandoned in the tunnels, I would have attempted to cover her shivering body. This was no infant—just as the moli’ki’s offspring seemed older, the child’s body was closer to that of my own eight-year-old daughter. A thick, coarse vine grew from her belly, connecting child to both mothers.
The mothers! Both Ravenna and Mae lie unconscious beside the shivering girl. Even as I stared, the vines piercing their bodies began to shrivel, withering to nothing. “Ravenna! Mae!” I attempted to rouse them, but neither stirred. I wept. Was this my fate? To guard this pair until they awoke, slaying moli’ki until either they or I fell lifeless amongst the vines? I drew my beltknife once more, exhausted but determined…
The other pods split open.
There were no infant moli’ki within—these were empty, yet they split open all the same. The glow within each bulb began to spread: The vines nearby, once a gentle violet, now glowed sickly red. I stared in dread as small puffs of glowing particles floated out from the petals. My unmatched instincts grasped our danger: The Telperi’s trap was springing! If we didn’t escape, we’d be captured in its net of slowed time, slowly digested over the next 47 years.
Frantic, I shook both women. Mae groaned, but Ravenna remained limp. I checked her pulse and quailed—she had no heartbeat. Ravenna Ilia had sacrificed too much of herself: The life of the daughter had come at the price of a mother. I muttered a prayer to Mua’lokopti, but oh, there was no time! I turned to the child—
Strong fingers grabbed my leg. I shouted in alarm, looking down to find Mae’s eyes open, wild. “Save her,” she croaked. “Save…her…my daughter…our…daughter…” Her other hand pointed, fingers trembling, at the silent, still form of Ravenna.
“She’s safe!” I shouted, turning her head towards the child. The girl, to my amazement, was shakily rising to her feet, stepping barefoot from the bulb with limbs trembling like a newborn deer. Wide-eyed, she stared at us, an indecipherable sound escaping her newly-formed lips.
“You…you…you…” But Mae’s body gave out at last, collapsing to the glowing earth.
I had to act fast. Hurriedly I threw the unconscious Mae over my shoulder, seized the girl by the hand and sprinted for the tunnels. Already the very air seemed thicker, every step like running through Dolithian cane syrup. Using my renowned strength, I pushed on, past blood and vine and stone and tunnel until, convinced every step would be my last, I reached a point in the passage where the vines grew no more, where the air turned normal and my limbs no longer fought against Time itself. By the skin of our teeth, we had escaped the Telperi flower’s deadly trap—oh, reader! All but sweet, noble Ravenna.
by Mae Ilia, regarding her notes
…I’ll stop my annotations there. The rest of Taisto’s journal—the Or’orbo guard hunting for my “missing” wife, how my daughter was never seen again, Taisto writing in hiding until the journal abruptly ends with his murder—is irrelevant. Fictional garbage, save one point: Taisto was murdered. But while Grameer seemed content to demonize an innocent child born by unconventional means (He called her unnatural. Nothing in creation was more natural, more organic than her birth), my daughter did not murder him, High Imperatrix Anassa.
Did you think I wouldn’t know? We were connected, the two of us, by the Telperi’s roots. I felt your mind as I felt my own, and from the agony of our siphoning souls I felt our daughter’s consciousness blossom into existence. And when it became too much—when the Telperi’s demand for energy was too high—I felt your panic. Your fear of death, and the certainty that for our child to open her eyes in this world, ours must close. I was ready to make that sacrifice.
You were not, Ravenna.
You sent far more than your energy through the vines. I felt your consciousness shift, push like fog into the newborn body of our daughter. I felt you force your way into her mind, shove her newfound awareness out, back into your own dying body. I felt her agony, her confusion, the screams of her soul. We were connected, Ravenna. I screamed with her.
And when I awoke in the jungle, bleeding and bitten and alone, I knew. On the verge of death, I dragged my drained limbs over mud and stone, spent agonized hours crawling back through Mua’lokopti’s tunnels, until at last I found the first tendrils of the Telperi’s vines. And there I found you, Ravenna—or at least, your gasping body, pressed against an unseen barrier, blood dripping from your eyes.
The Telperi’s trap had sprung.
I could not touch you. When time flows at two speeds in the same space, they repulse each other: Like magnets that refuse to touch, a barrier is formed. The Telperi’s chronotoxin creates an invisible wall that prevents any creature from leaving—or entering—its net of slowed time.
I thrashed against that barrier. I clawed at the volcanic walls until bloody stumps replaced my fingernails. The moli’ki attacked me, again and again. I ignored them, frantic to save you, but to no avail. The net, once cast, is impenetrable. Your body seemed frozen, slowed by the flow of time on your side of the barrier.
I did the only thing I could. I stayed.
Your first gasp took six years. Another eight, and you had fallen to the floor as the toxins consumed your flesh. It took 31 years for you to die.
But even then, as I watched your body take its last, shuddering breath, I knew it wasn’t you. The face I beheld was not my beloved Ravenna but the expressions of an infant who didn’t understand, who despite decades of time’s wheel had entered this world mere seconds ago to find it cruel, painful…but not alone. For 31 years I lived in those tunnels, unable to touch my daughter even as her hand spent a decade reaching out to me. I screamed when, at last, our child took her final breath, trapped in a body that wasn’t even her own.
And all the while, I hunted you.
Whether you hid from me out of fear or shame, I don’t know. It doesn’t matter. Eight years after Taisto’s murder, the Institute of Erudition announced a new High Imperatrix—a prodigy, a young girl gifted in psychoanimatic florae beyond peers thrice her age. And so I journeyed to the Crystal Library to attend the ceremony. I stood amongst hundreds as the scholars placed the First Keeper’s robes around a girl’s shoulders, smeared her brow with ash from burnt olive wood. And I watched, breath held, as the new High Imperatrix stepped forward to speak.
And there she was. Our child.
Blossomed into the beauty of youth, she had your wild hair, my narrow frame. I choked back tears as our daughter raised a hand to the crowd, and when I beheld her face, my own solemn eyes stared back. Even then, I hoped I was wrong. Even then I prayed the young woman I beheld was truly our daughter, and the desiccated bones the Telperi flower left behind—bones I still haven’t buried, that I can’t even touch—once held my darling Ravenna’s soul.
Until you smiled.
Did you think I wouldn’t recognize you? I, who have committed your every smile to heart? Far better than my own, I know your lips. When our daughter smiled I saw you, Ravenna. When she spoke, I heard your words through our child’s stolen voice.
And so Mae Ilia vanished, replaced instead by “Aemila Rhamnousia”, who conveniently suffers from a rare skin condition that allowed me to conduct my research in private. After 31 years watching our daughter die, it took another 16 years, two degrees in auratoxicology, and exile for violating the ethics of research to reproduce the moli’ki’s immunity to the Telperi’s chronotoxin. But I figured it out, Ravenna. I have discovered the secret of the flower’s horrors.
And so will you, High Imperatrix.
Even now the paralytic powder I dusted over these pages is taking hold, freezing your nervous system to render you immobile for days. I hope this letter falls beside your eyes when you collapse to the palanquin floor. I hope you reread these words as your guards—men I hired, paid for long ago—carry you through the Donchad jungle to me. Read these words, Ravenna. Read, and know I love you more than any living thing. Know I can only say that because you stole the greatest living thing in this world away from me.
We will enter the Telperi’s domain together, you and I. We will stay there until the chronotoxin releases and we are trapped, as our child was trapped, in that inescapable net of time. But while her desperate gasps for breath only pushed the toxins deeper into her lungs, I will breathe unharmed. And as decades pass outside between the space of our breaths you will know what it is like to wither, helpless, until you have long since abandoned sanity and your flesh is dust.
And when it is done—when the Telperi has finished its meal of you and your bones are at my feet—I will burn your corpse beside our daughter’s. And as Mua’lokopti’s mouth smokes once more I will emerge, five decades hence, into a world that has long forgotten our story.
So sit tight, dearest Ravenna. Await me, as I have patiently waited for you these 47 years. Fret not, my love. You won’t be alone for long.
I am coming.
- Comments provided by myself, Mae Ilia, 47 years after the events described herein.
- By “discovered and translated”, Grameer means he bribed a night-digger to steal the journal from Taisto’s grave, edited the words within an inch of their life, and has over the past four decades published several “newly discovered” entries to sate his readers’ capricious appetites.
- Yes, I’m skipping the entries outlining our journey through the jungle. If you want an account of losing half your body fluids to bloodflies and the other half to flux after an ill-advised drink from the Donchad river, you’re welcome to go try it yourself.
- Mua’lokopti—both linguistically and the Or’orbo guardian deity—is female. Astute readers will notice the pronoun changed from Her to His between the journal’s first and second editions, just before the editor, Pol Grameer, presented this text to the Institute’s (then male) High Imperator.
- This from a man who just called Mua’lokopti impenetrable, only to point towards the entrance seconds later.
- This is one of Grameer’s more irritating romanticizations of Taisto. When Ravenna and I shared the true purpose of our journey to the Telperi flower, our guide explicitly told us he had no interest in children, nor did he intend to have any. Having spent three days trudging through the jungle listening to the man speak, I found myself increasingly favorable towards his decision to not have progeny.
- The cat was, at most, two feet tall.
- The idea of anyone ordering a housecat—let alone a jade lynx—to so much as twitch a whisker on command should attest to the ludicrous fictions imposed upon this text.
- The Telperi flower’s alluring scent is, biologically speaking, harmless. Ravenna theorized the plant’s two-spore system: The pods first release a potent pheromone to lure prey, targeting not body or instinct, but core memories. This astounding spore often goes underappreciated given its deadly successor: The flower’s infamous chronotoxin, which ensnares the lured prey in an inescapable net of slowed time.
- I did lift a finger, actually. Guess which one.
- The “breathing” mist is noteworthy: Mua’lokopti’s walls aren’t obsidian, as claimed, but rather a titanic shell of hardened lava from the volcano’s final eruption. The porous stone traps droplets from the humid jungle even as the volcano’s interior breeze cools the trapped liquid. This causes the stones to “breathe” as the walls expel mist even while trapping more droplets. Also, in fairness, Taisto did fear for our lives over his own, in the sense that we had yet to pay him.
- We had lamps.
- Unnecessary, since we had lamps.
- A marvel Taisto could suddenly see Ravenna’s face, until one accounts for the fact that we had lamps.
- Ever since Grameer’s foolish publication of Taisto’s journal, dozens of fans have attempted the treacherous climb to reach Mua’lokopti’s summit and peer down the volcano’s opening to the Telperi flower’s domain. 37 have died.
- The oil dribbled in a small puddle—the fire could barely burn a book. This one, preferably.
- People always assumed that of Ravenna and I, she was the more vengeful. They were wrong. But you already knew that…didn’t you, High Imperatrix?
- In the ensuing years when I all but lived in those tunnels, those “blessed creatures” never ceased to harass me. Between the scars on my face and the moli’ki’s symbiotic relationship with the Telperi flower, I’ve come to hate the furry bastards. Unrelated, moli’ki has since been introduced as a delicacy in Dolithi’s markets. I’m particularly fond of a sweet stew preparation.
- For this to occur, the sun would have had to be directly overhead. It was well past dusk by the time we reached Mua’lokopti’s core.
- See note 19 re: the dramatic shaft of light that has suddenly vanished.
- No—they were beautiful, the flowers. Graceful and delicate, their bulbs glowed with life, the swirling petals tipped with light. Grameer destroyed Taisto’s original descriptions and sketches of the Telperi’s beauty…though given Grameer’s famed, ah, insecurities, his hostility towards yonic imagery is unsurprising.
- See note 21.
- As noted, the Telperi’s deadly chronotoxin slows time to consume its prey over decades. Whether the Telperi repurposes that same chronotoxin here to speed time within the bulbs for an accelerated gestation period, I cannot say. But of one thing I’m sure:
- This was, in fact, my idea. Contrary to my reticent reputation, I wrote a letter to the editor, Pol Grameer, after reading the first edition of Taisto’s journal. Amongst other clarifications, I explained how my work in psychoanimatic florae allowed me to hypothesize the possibility of energy transfer between species. Three months later, I received Grameer’s single-line response: I’m sure you helped as best you could. I always meant to reply, but the chance, I fear, is now lost: Just last month, Grameer was dragged screaming from his office in chains. It seems his secretary, Marthalam Olmein, exposed documents proving her employer spent decades embezzling from the Institute of Erudition. Lovely woman, Martha. We happen to be members of the same floriculture society.
- Oh, no. We were awake, you and I. The Telperi merely paralyzed our bodies as it pillaged our flesh, our souls, our minds. We couldn’t fathom the cost, but we felt it, didn’t we, my love? Every heartbeat of agony, we felt.
- The Telperi consumed our energy, not our blood.
About the Author
David-Christopher Galhea’s fantasy works have appeared in the British Fantasy Society (forthcoming), Inked In Gray, the Arcanist, and Arsenika, among others. He received his M.A. in Medieval Literature from The Ohio State University, which he uses exclusively to teach his cat Latin. He enjoys tea.