Forest for the Trees – e.1

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Her footsteps made no sound as she climbed to the top of a hill.  The woods around her were noiseless, without bird, without buzz, without the sound of branch rustling against branch.  There was little movement, for most of the particles that could be blown away had already found their way free, and the remainder formed only dark clouds that swirled through the trees at knee or waist height.  Weather and the slow, steady pressure of time had seen most of it compressed and condensed down, like snow without the crunch of a layer of ice on top.

The sky was brilliant with blue, but it was the only color she could see.  The landscape had been painted with the black of a charcoal without any shine to it.  That which could not be made black had been powdered or outright caked with the stuff.  If any of the large boulders she saw had any color to them at all, her mind convinced her eyes it was a trick of perception.  Soil had been thoroughly mixed with the stuff, sterilized in the process, and the color had bled out from it.  Gray at best, but most often black.

She raised a gloved hand, and the caked-on powder cracked and fell away as she reached into her jacket pocket and withdrew a brush.  She swept it over the glass eyes of her mask, then dusted off the filters of the breathing apparatus.  She’d alternately been glad at the silence of the apparatus and wished that the apparatus made sound, so there could be something.

The forest here was past the point of creaking.  That which would change had changed, and it had died.  The wind and movement would break it down, it would crumble, the wind would do away with the fine dust, the rain and snow would compress the larger granules, and all of this would disappear.

The branches that remained were skeletal, condensed in their way, much as the ground underfoot was.  They had drawn in the moisture, compressed with the weather, drawing in more moisture, and what hadn’t fallen away had become like needles, too thin, twisted, criss crossing one another.

The sun shone, and the blackened landscape ate that sunlight.

She stretched, shook herself as a dog might, to shake off the weight of the dust that had managed to accumulate on her, and then she sprinted down the hill, faster than any human could move.  The dust that was kicked up behind her formed clouds taller than she was.

She avoided the path, moving through the trees.  There was always the danger of something falling, but the density of the ground was better, where there were or had been tree roots, and where the ground hadn’t been cleared of stones and rocks for the road.  There were other hazards too, rare, but it really took only one unlucky step.

She was strong.  She had been made strong, because that was a prerequisite for being made fast, for being acrobatic.  She had been made to put up a fight, to lose that fight.  She had been made to be fucked, should anyone want it of her.  She’d been made to die, if anyone wanted to see it from her, and she’d been made to even like or want that death, if given the appropriate instruction.  The reaction she would have to the death or the fucking was up to others, not her, decided by a key phrase.  Her wishes had never factored in, not for her, not for any or all of the others, be they boy, girl, or other; nearly normal or strange; big or small.

It was the strength, however, that let her move through the sometimes knee-deep debris.  If she found that one step carried her forward into a ditch, her entire body plunging into black powder so deep that she could stand on her toes and reach skyward and her fingertips wouldn’t stick out of the powder, that strength let her gather herself together and then bound up and forward, free.

Spotting a sturdy tree through the film of black on the glass eyes of her mask, she leaped up, onto the thickest, lowest branch.  It didn’t break under her, and it didn’t bring the tree down, but smaller branches and finer structures all shattered at the impact.  Branch and twig fell to the cover below.  Much of what hit her broke and snapped without sound on impact, so light it could barely be felt.

She shook off her glove, then reached for the brush.  She dusted off her eyes and filters again.  She glanced at the filters, then pressed the back of her hand to her mask, mouth pressed against the breathing hole, and blew with as much force as she could muster.  Fine dust geysered out of the filters.

Tilting her head to the right, she reached up, and she brushed off her antlers, the top of her head, and her shoulders.  It was idle movement, vanity.  But the antlers were vanity.  So was the mask she wore.  Preening let her avoid kinks, cramps, or getting into too routine a set of movements.  It made her aware that a tougher branch had fallen amid the antlers, tangled up in the tines.

She would need to stop soon.  She was hungry, she needed to hydrate, to relieve herself.  The filters needed changing, and she needed to be somewhere reasonably clean and safe to do that.

Taking stock of the landscape, she searched for the telltale hints in the forest of black on black.  She saw a particularly flat expanse.

More twigs and branches fell in a shower around the tree as she jumped down.  The landing was an awkward one, but she caught herself.  The biology she had been given spared her a twisted ankle in the middle of a barren black wasteland.

The flat expanse took her a minute to reach.  There were more dips and rises here, more ditches to swallow her up.  She started bounding more than running, moving horizontally,  either hand and both feet ready to catch the first solid earth they came in contact with, finding secure footing, then moving into the next bound.

She slowed as she approached it.  Spots like this were especially treacherous, and bad things happened if she had a misstep.  The ground was soft, swallowing and sucking instead of absorbing and giving way.  Her hands found the equipment, the flask, the filter and crank for the flask, and the hose.

She had to dive into the powder to reach what lay beneath.  She fed the hose into the black liquid, then cranked the contents into the flask.  The crank was necessary, given the work needed to pull the fluid through the filters.

The flask started ticking with each crank, and she detached the apparatus, coiled up the hose, stowed it in the jacket pocket, buttoned that pocket to secure it, and then closed up the flask, the filter within.  She walked with care while continuing to work the crank, finding her way to the point where the powder wasn’t nearly up to her shoulders.

The filter would get the water mostly clear of the dust that choked it to the point it was sludge.  It was a problem that water and dust both tended to collect at low ground, that she had to dive into the powder to get at the pond, that she could fall in and find herself in something much like quicksand, her outfit and pack soaking through and becoming many times heavier in an instant.

Still cranking, working the filter through the sealed flask, she searched out high ground, and paused in the cranking to stretch and dusted herself, her eyes, and her filters off.

She was looking for things.  There was a long list of possible things, and she found one of those things as she secured the high ground here.  Hard geometric shapes, with right angles.

She ignored the flask that still occupied her hand as she leaped from high ground to high ground, avoiding the ditches.  If there was a pond, there could be other collections of water.

The shape was small, and near the road.  Examination revealed itself to be a carriage, much of the exterior changed into the black wood that would become black chunks, black splinters, and ultimately black dust.

Her feet kicked up the bones of a warbeast.  The toes of her boots caught on the wires and fastenings that had given it a facsimile of life as a stitched.  She stooped down to seize it, tore it up and away, and coiled it with her hands as she paced around the carriage.

One of the doors had fallen away, and the black wood had gotten inside.  Two bodies, a mother and daughter, sat together, each holding the other.  The material of their dresses wasn’t organic, so the black wood had left it alone, and the gold of the mother’s dress and the violet of the girl’s dress were startling after there being nothing but the blue of the sky.  Black wood had grown up and around them, ensnaring their bodies and the fabric.  The flesh had been dessicated, changed, and disintegrated, revealing the white bone beneath.

Fine dresses.  She knew what to look for.  This woman and girl were ladies of high station.

“My ladies,” she said, her voice muted by the dust.  Her eyes roved over the interior of the carriage, over cushions that had disintegrated, over the lacquered walls, and over the finer details of their clothing.  Her gloved hands traced their necks, then their fingers, searching for jewelry.  A pendant.  She dusted it off with her brush, but it wasn’t a locket.  There was no engraving or message.  She laid the jewelry on the bench.  “Perhaps it’s a good thing if I can’t know your family name.  I might resent you.”

She’d been told of family crests and colors, of the aristocratic lines and such.  She’d known some would be invited to the festivities.  In another scenario, could this mother or this daughter have conceivably been in attendance?  Ordering her killed?  Ordering her fucked?  Participating in either?  Would they have applauded as they watched her be beaten and battered for show?

“My name is Red,” she told them.  “I can’t express my condolences for what happened to you.  I can’t bring myself to feel any pity.  You played your role in bringing about this world, this is what you wrought for the sake of your pretty dresses and beast-drawn carriages, your balls and manors.  Most likely.”

With a gloved hand and her brush, she removed all but the most stubborn fragments of condensed black wood that had used to be the younger girl’s face.  Much of it had retained its shape.  Other parts had been deformed by the wood’s growth, where they were more exposed to the water and wind.

“Yet, in case you had no choice, born to a gilded cage with no clear opportunity to go… I’ll be your escort.”

There was a clasp on the wall of the carriage the two were facing.  Red undid the clasp, then eased the table down, the hinges protesting.  A share of the table disintegrated with the effort, but the rest seemed to be holding up.  A slab of condensed carbon.

She tried to keep the largest pieces intact.  The dress made things harder, so she cut it away, turning the knife to the seams, so the fabric would be left more or less in its panels and carefully arranged ties.  She laid the largest sections of dress out on the table, and then placed head and part of the upper body on it.  More had to be arranged so it lay in the gaps and cavities.  Arms and segments of leg were gathered together into a bundle, placed so half of their length was within the chest cavity, a hand and foot  were collected individually and set near the throat.

She broke away everything she could.  One of the hands, however, was particularly stubborn, almost entirely intact, barely gnarled.

Red turned it over in her own hands, and found herself holding it, as if giving the young lady a handshake.

She recoiled at that, and hurried to put it down and be rid of it.  The bones and densest parts of the young lady were gathered together into a bundle made of a dress she had no doubt been ecstatic to receive, and the bundle was tied together and secured.  Barely more than a Crown stone in weight.

After the hand-holding moment with the girl, Red was more brusque with the mother.  She used her knife to pry and break chunks away, to separate head and neck from torso, because she couldn’t have it be too bulky, and she couldn’t have it be too heavy.  She had to whittle it down as best as she was able, keeping the woman down to just the bones.

She discovered the woman’s dress had a secret fold that could be reached through to find the leg.  At that same leg, a pistol barely as large as Red’s closed fist was tucked into a garter holster.

“You have a story, miss?” she asked, dusting the thing off.  “Is this to protect yourself, or for the confidence it gives?”

Red tested the gun, and found it jammed.  She pocketed it.

Mother was bound into a bundle, one and a half stone in weight.  Both mother and daughter were bound together.

The jewelry was collected, then bound into squares of fabric, a bit from each of the two’s dresses.  It went into a side pouch of her bag.

“We have a long way to go,” she told them.  “It’s been days of travel through this mess, no sound, and barely anything to see.”

That which hadn’t been protected was lost.

She was grateful to have been protected.

Red began bounding through the landscape, seeking out anything that might be suitable for a stop.  She zig-zagged through the landscape until she spied a mesa-like bit of rocky outcropping.

“We’ll stop for dinner there,” she told the passengers, who were making her already heavy pack weigh that much more.  She was making use of her natural athleticism.

It had been almost a day since she had come across a forest that creaked, in the early-middle stages of its transition to dust.  The silence was maddening in its peacefulness, the landscape disorienting in its bleak serenity.

She’d wanted to get away.  To understand what was out there.  She’d spent so long in the labs, a prisoner, she hadn’t been able to see the outside world.  Once she was freed, she had found out she wasn’t truly free, either.  There were restrictions and threats of another sort.  Ongoing skirmishes and civil wars, prohibiting travel to other places, plague, black wood.

She’d needed to get away.  Sylvester had rescued her, but he had threatened to be another thing that bound her, one of the things that had scared her most, once she’d found out about it, experiencing Ferres’ trial runs and tests.  To be killed was one thing, but to have the choice of how to face or feel about one’s own murder was another.  Her relationship to Sylvester threatened to be a subservient role she wanted, that was not entirely of her own choosing.

She felt much the same about Paul, in a different way.  With Paul, it wasn’t about leading and following.  It was about giving and taking other things, and not being sure she was choosing that.

Sylvester was gone now.  The Lambs were largely gone.

For months now, Red had traveled.  She’d stopped in cities and towns, observing, taking notes, sending messages back to the others, and then she’d left again.  It had only really been this corner of the Crown States that she’d started to feel the impact of all of this.  Here, it was especially bleak.

Being out in the midst of all of this, she could find herself, free of others and their complications, she could decide how she felt about things like love and Paul and Sylvester and she could see through the glass eyes of her mask that the world wasn’t there waiting for her anymore, now that the dust had settled, literally and metaphorically.

There was nothing but the occasional set of bones, without enough about them to let her distinguish or name them.  Choked ponds, spidery forests, and silence.

What had they fought for?

She reached the hilly outcropping of rock, high enough up that the dust didn’t really reach it.

She was gentle with the bag as she set it down, accounting for her passengers.  She was careful to dust herself off before pulling her mask off.  Her hood came down, and she was careful with the antlers that were attached to the hood.

The air was stale.  Her hair stuck to her face with sweat.  All around her, it was charcoal darkness.  Flat, forest, hidden swamps, hills, dusty clouds.

She cranked her flask more, then drank from it, emptying it.  She paced as she did, walking over the largest, flattest bit of rock, surveying her surroundings.

Part of it was to look for a place to relieve herself.  She spied one place, far off to the side, and approached it, starting the arduous process of peeling away the jacket and other conveniences, then starting on the skintight sleeves that protected her from black wood and plague.

An arrow struck rock an arm’s length away from her head.  It shattered, and one fragment spun away, in an arc such that she could have caught it out of the air.

She turned on her heel, and she was running at a full sprint before her own gasp of surprise was even fully expressed.  She dashed for the bag.

Four young men and women in red clothing were coming over the side of the rock, not far from her bag.  All wore masks.  Mercies.

They were like her.  They were survivors in this bleak land that didn’t allow for life.  They and others like them were the reason she was reluctant to set foot on the road.  Traps abounded.

Her explorations were supplied, paid for, and encouraged with the idea that she would keep an eye out for certain things.  The state of the black wood in various places was one of those things.  Creaking wood.  Settlements could be found and checked.

There were rarer things, too.  Survivors outside of the major settlements were one of those especially rare things.

Enemies?  She was supposed to watch for those.  They weren’t necessarily rare, in her experience.  There were enough out there.  People who roved, Academy people wearing Academy gear, with no idea the war had been won, soldiers with their masks and rebels with those same masks, stolen from the dead.  So many were hostile and dangerous.  Almost always, she’d ran.  Twice, she’d had to use her axe.

It was rare that she’d get caught off guard.  Had they been more patient, she might have been caught with her pants down, she mused.

It wasn’t so bad as that, but it was still dire.  She jumped behind a bit of rock on the mostly flat hill, and she glanced out only long enough to check on her bag.

Her mask was there.  Her jacket, all of the equipment.  Her weapons- even the small gun.  Without those things, she might as well have been trapped on a small island, surrounded by sea and unable to swim.

They were doing what she was doing, in large part.  They weren’t as covered up, but they might have been using similar equipment.  They were roaming, and they were seeking refuge in spots like this, too inorganic to be affected by the black wood, too high up to be caught in the storms of dust.

“Hello!” she called out, her back still to the rock.  Her voice sounded strange without the mask on.

“Greetings!” came the jovial response.

“I’m not much of a threat!”

“Nor are we!”

She patted her pockets, and she found a kerchief.  She often used it to wet and wipe away the dust as she pulled off her outfit and washed up.  She tossed it out to the side.

The arrow flew by a moment later.

“It’s awfully hard to convince our visitor we’re not a threat when you’re shooting at her.”

“I thought I could hit her.”

“You could if you weren’t useless with that thing.  Give it back.”

“Not a threat?” Red called out.

“Not when Ansel is shooting!” came the jovial response.  “But he’s not shooting anymore.  It’s my bow, and I can put an arrow through a sneezing donkey’s arse without making it bleed anywhere you could see.”

She hung her head at that.

“You can,” one of the other Mercies said, “But that doesn’t mean it’s guaranteed.”

“One in three times,” the Jovial Mercy said.

“One in five, at best.”

“I don’t suppose you’d let me go with my things?” Red asked.

“We need our protein, my dear, and you’re it,” Jovial said.

“Jewelry!” one Mercy said.  The sole female one.  “Watches.  There’s a whole bag filled with things!  She’s a looter!”

“I am not,” Red said.  “The possessions go with the bodies.”

“One, two, three… hm.  Twelve parcels.  Some with fine things in them.  Some with less fine things.”

“Twelve parcels.  Two bodies,” another Mercy said.

“Three, could be,” the female Mercy said.  “It’s hard to tell.”

“Still, something doesn’t add up.”

“It’s not as though we needed the excuse of you being a grave robber to eat and kill you, mind you,” Jovial said.  “But perhaps it’ll feel more right if you feel as though you deserved it.”

She hated this.  Being cornered, being contained, knowing that horrible things were coming.

What had all of this been for?  How was it worth it?  She’d steeled herself to get through Ferres’ training and treatments at Beattle, she’d helped the others, encouraged them, fought, and even played her part on Ferres’ stage, for the Lambs’ ruse.  She’d dreaded it and it had been just as bad as she’d feared.

She had played her part in the war.  She had played a part in the cleanup.  She had played her part in the months that followed, patrolling, searching, mapping out a changed landscape, to make sure no disasters unfolded while they were without a leadership.

She felt so angry, and the anger was so familiar.

“I don’t know what tricks you’ve got up your sleeve, ma’am,” one Mercy said.  He was close.  “But if you’re kind enough to not put up any kind of fight, we’ll make it quick, so you’re dead for everything that comes after.”

I got this far, she thought, but the statement lacked in heart, and she worried she’d need all the heart she had for what was imminent.

She’d gotten this far, but the journey had been long and tiring.  She felt heartsick, after seeing the depth of the darkness and the damage done.  There were bodies, there were fallen villages and cities, and whatever the Lambs had said, they were gone now, and the words had lost some meaning, this far into the bleak wastes of the black woods, where civilization was so far away.

“I’ll cooperate,” she said, lowering her head.

“Thank you,” the Mercy said.

He stepped around the rocks that were providing her cover.  She was quick to move, to act.  She lunged at him, keeping him between herself and the Jovial Mercy who was wielding the bow.  His guard was down, and he stumbled, while she tried to guide that stumble.

But as fast as she was engineered to be, he was engineered to be strong.  She’d hoped to use momentum and timing to drag him toward the edge.   She’d hoped to go over that edge with him, and be gone or in a hiding place by the time the Jovial Mercy was in a position to shoot.  She didn’t manage to drag him more than the initial one step to the side.

An arrow cracked against the stone below her, shattering.  The pain came a moment later.  Jovial had placed a shot through the gap between his fellow Mercy’s legs, to graze her calf.

“I’ve been fighting for a long time,” she said.  She stumbled back, and her injured calf didn’t want to bear her full weight.  The Mercy right in front of her reached out and grabbed her.  She spoke to him, defiant, “I got this far.  I’m not about to stop struggling now.”

“There’s a point where you break, you know, where you have to stop fighting back, give up, and tend to other things.”

“And how is that doing for you?” she asked.  “You get me, and then what?  You subsist on the animals that retreated onto these mountains and places like this, you wait for them to run out, and you wait for the black wood to take over everything?”

“We have a chateau to go back to,” the female Mercy said.  “Books to read, food to look after, we’ll keep ourselves occupied until the Crown returns.”

“You’re Crown?” Red asked, her eyes widening.

“Of course.”

“So am I.”

The Jovial Mercy sniffed a laugh, as if one from the mouth was too much effort for the petty lie.

“In my jacket.  There’s an envelope.  Inside breast pocket.”

The small Mercy checked.  She retrieved an envelope, then unfolded it, reading it.

“What is it?” the Jovial Mercy asked.

“She’s Crown.  The letter is signed by others.  She’s an envoy.”

“Where are you from?”

“Bathaven,” the Small Mercy said.  “Other places before that.”

“We thought we lost Bathaven.  Our messengers said the bridge washed out and things looked grim on the other side.  I thought you had to be defectors, to be in an area with no settlement to fall back to.”

“Things were only grim because the people panicked.  Now they’re quiet.  We’ve been using the port when the weather is clear,” the Small Mercy said.

“We’re on the same side,” Red said.

On the other side of the group, the Jovial Mercy toyed with an arrow.

“We are,” Red said.

“I recognize the signatures,” one of the other male Mercies said.

“I expect you’re right,” Jovial said.  He smiled wide.  “I’m awfully hungry, though.”

Red’s expression faltered.  She limped back a bit further, then remembered that the Jovial one had a bow.

“You were made to be loyal,” Red said.

The statement felt hypocritical to the point she thought her whole being was diminished by it.

“I was.  I was also made to be hungry, to seek out my protein sources,” Jovial said.  “It’s the funny thing about life, isn’t it?  It finds a way around things.  We adapt.  I’ve adapted to my current circumstances.  And they’ve adapted to me.”

The three Mercies didn’t look particularly happy.  Their instinct was supposed to keep them loyal to the Crown.  That didn’t give them the drive to push back when someone was being disloyal, perhaps.  Or he’d bullied them enough to get them to cooperate up to this point, and they didn’t have it in them to fight back.

Red had seen so many of the methodologies.

“It’s treason,” Red said.  “I’m a representative of the Crown, performing a vital service for the Crown.”

Of all the statements she couldn’t have ever imagined she’d say with such conviction.

“It’s only treason if I get caught.”

“Raise your muzzle, blackest of wolves,” Red said.  It was like a prayer.  “Howl, and we shall howl with you.  Hunt, and we shall hunt with you.  Bloody those claws, and fill that belly, and we shall draw blood and feast alongside you.”

“You consider yourself one of us?” Jovial asked.  “You think you can hunt with me?”

“All but the one with the bow bear the pelts of wolves.  He… he bears the pelt of a traitor to the Crown.”

She hoped it could hear, if it was even out there.  It was finding its own independence.

The Jovial Mercy nocked his arrow.  His expression was more firm now.

He didn’t get his chance to shoot her.  The Wolfdog, as Lillian had termed it, was already sweeping out from the darkness below the rocky bit of hill.  The Jovial Mercy turned, arrow drawn back, and found himself faced with a wolf as big as any carriage, with no weak points in plain view.  The beast’s eyes were covered with lenses, its muzzle a mess of machinery and breathing apparatuses.

Jovial fired the arrow as he tried to leap aside.  The arrow did nothing of consequence, and the Wolfdog did something of final consequence.  It pounced on the Mercy and by size and momentum, it destroyed him.

The others remained stock still.

“Lay your head down to rest, black harbinger,” she said.  “Stay clear of me.  Begone.”

She watched it lope away.  Where her breathing apparatus was silent, it hissed and wheezed.  The saddlebags, tent, and the packages that were the ten other dead bodies she’d collected hung off of its sides.

Her guardian, her nemesis.  Her Wolf, with another project’s best qualities.  Her feelings toward it were complicated.  It was supposed to be her partner, as she worked well with it, but the memories she associated with it were so grim.  Lillian had urged her to give it a try.

She felt guilty, in a way.  It wasn’t dumb, and it had some of the instincts that domesticated dogs did.  It wanted to please, and it was keenly aware of her and her mood.

It knew she hated it, so it lurked in a place where it was out of her sight, out of her thoughts, its wheezy breaths out of her earshot, yet where she was still in its earshot.

She was coming to terms with that.  Like so many other things, it seemed like a loss.

She stepped forward, walking without nearly so much fear, now.  She had to pick her way past the bloody smear that had once been a Mercy, and she had to walk between two of the Mercies to get there.  They didn’t approach or comment.

The Small Mercy was sitting by her bag, gathering the components and pieces back into the bag.  No longer sorted, sadly.  She’d have to rely on memory.

“As an emissary of the Crown, I’ll ask you to lead me and my partner to Bathaven.”

“Yes, ma’am,” the Small Mercy said, extending a hand, the mask held out.

It was an image of various animals all blended together, softened, made warm.  A deer, a rabbit, and other prey animals, combined into a single pretty face.

It was hard to articulate why she’d asked for a mask with that face.

Whatever face she had or mask she wore, it wouldn’t be hers.  Not anymore.  She wanted to make peace, to conquer that demon.  She didn’t want to wear anything else, because then she might not have been able to take it off and reveal this face again.

“I’m sorry about him,” one of the other Mercies said, possibly reading her expression as something else.

“Good,” Red said.

She pulled the hood up, and clicked the small antlers into the waiting places at the top of the mask, as part of the arrangement to get everything sealed.

“You’ll keep me company,” she said.  The Wolfdog had been doing much the same.  “Take me to your home.  I’ll take record of how things are doing, check on the people you’re supposed to be watching over, and I’ll be gone, leaving you with only my urgings that nobody is to hunt.”

“Nobody?”

“We’re trying something experimental, and we can’t trust there won’t be other mistakes like this one.”

She saw their expressions change.

“For now, at the very least” she said.

That got her some nods.

“If I may?” the Small Mercy asked.

“Yes?”

“There’s something you might find of more importance than the report.  Can I show you?”

“What is it?”

“A plant.  It’s not too far out of our way.”

She frowned at that, behind her mask, but she nodded.

They were faster than she might have thought.  Once they all had their gear on and masks in place, they set out as a group.  Where she was strong in a way necessary to let her be agile, they were nimble as a side effect of their strength.

She was faster, but she didn’t have to slow herself to a crawl to let them catch up.  She could get ahead, peer back over her shoulder, and see the direction.

She liked having people, she was realizing.  She liked company, and it helped with the dark thoughts, the feeling of pressure on all sides, in this bleak place.

Not so much that she felt like she could or would keep her Wolfdog company on the long way back, but she would work on that, as she worked on so many things.

If she was to take Sylvester’s offer, she would need the Wolfdog’s assistance to be properly useful.  She’d memorized the commands.  It was hers.  Bonded to her.  She was it’s.

She simply wished this wouldn’t be so hard, bleak, and uncertain.

“There,” the Small Mercy said.

There.

She blinked, convinced her eyes had fooled her.

It wasn’t massive.  It wasn’t even pretty, or useful, or anything of the sort.

But, amid black trees and black ground, black branches and black clouds of dust that drifted close to the ground, there was a slice of green, like clover.  It encircled the trunk on the side closest to the sun, and it peeked through where the dust wasn’t piled too high on the ground.

This.  This was why.  Why she fought, why she’d tried.  It was hope.  Acknowledgment on some greater level.

“What was it your friend said?  Life adapts.  We adapt.”

“He wasn’t a friend,” the Small Mercy said.  “Not really.”

Red was quiet.  She reached out to touch the green leaves, that were somehow surviving despite so much.

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50 thoughts on “Forest for the Trees – e.1

    • It had only really been this corner of the Crown States that she’d started to feel the impact of all of this.
      -in this corner

      “For now, at the very least” she said.
      -comma

      Such a quiet chapter. I like the WolfDog, I like the plant. Jovial was nice.

      • ” or getting into too routine a set of movements”

        or getting into too much of a routine set of movements? There’s probably a better way to write that.

    • ‘There were other hazards too, rare, but’
      to
      ‘There were other hazards too; rare, but’

      I wonder if she would have called the Wolfdog to change its filters, too, since she thought-mentioned that her own needed changing? (Or else a longer-term solution for the Wolfdog, less frequent changing needed?)

      The cranking confused me: You crank (pump) the unfiltered water (‘through the filters’) into the flask until the flask is full, then once you’re away from the body of water you don’t stop cranking? Does the effect of the cranking automatically switch from pumping in water to filtering the filtered water even more? If it was moving the same filters through the water, water going through in reverse direction, the water would just come out the other end having picked up the dust that was left behind. Does the flask have a loop in it, the water going round and round through filters in the same direction to become cleaner and cleaner? If the hose borrows this pumping-round-the-loop power, why is there ticking when the flask is full, and is it still ticking once the hose is off? (It feels as though there should be a cleanish smaller hose, to attach to (or open from) the other end of the flask–the end that you can drink from, not the one with the filter–that you then connect to the filter-end where the longer hose connected, so it can go round in a loop. Maybe less wear/danger if it’s an internal hard loop rather than an external hose loop, though?)

  1. Well, so it actually was the last chapter.

    Now this is interesting, it seems that Sy didn’t get the opportunity to use the primordials to wipe out nearly the entire world, at least what I guess. And the line “Academy people wearing Academy gear, with no idea the war had been won” does it imply that the Academy has won the war (because otherwise it should be that the war was lost?), or does Red mean won from her perspective? I’m not sure there.

    It’s as ambigious as Wildbow epilogues are, with the mention that Sylvester is gone now could either mean that she doesn’t see the Noble that he became not as Sylvester anymore or that he actually expired by now.

    • “She had played her part in the months that followed, patrolling, searching, mapping out a changed landscape, to make sure no disasters unfolded while they were without a leadership.”

      I took this line to mean that the Lambs are still undergoing their transition to Nobles. It might takes months and months of surgery before they are ready to face the public as their new selves. In the meantime, there’s no real leadership in Lord Sylvester’s group..

  2. Red constantly saying that the Lambs weren’t there anymore coupled with her mentioning Lilian and Sylvester and working for them still means that she no longer really thinks that the Lambs exist as they were. That the Lambs she met before are gone now, not just Sylvester, so either Lord Sylvester won and brought the Lambs over to his point of view or maybe they’re only going along with it publicly while doing their own little subtle thing in the background. Fun that.

    Also, should there be a Twig 2 and man does it look there is, I’m really wondering whether we’d still see it from Sy’s eyes. While I do want to say yes to that a part of me is looking forward to it while another part is just absolutely filled with dread at the prospect. Fun Fun.

    I love Twig Wildbow, your best work yet. Looking forward to your future stuff for sure.

      • Worm’s plot was actually pretty wrapped up.
        Honestly, I feel Twigverse has a lot of space for other stories. I mean, we’ve barely seen one country in a whole planet. Sure, a lot of the rest is barren, wait-to-reconquer wasteland, but there’s a lot of room.

      • I get where you’re coming from. But for me I feel like there’s a lot of stuff to follow up. I mean, if it ends up with the LambLords having accepted the Crown’s control of the world and being part of the system then yeah maybe this is where it should end, but it seems to me that they’re still aiming to fight against the system only doing so internally, and I feel there’s a lot of stuff to explore with that.

        I mean, can you imagine the state of the UK right now? New Amsterdam was the capital of a colony, an important colony, but a colony nonetheless. The seat of the Crown’s power must look freakin Horrifying.

    • Honestly, I want a Pact sequel the most. I feel it is Bow’s best setting, regardless of the shortcomings of the particular plot, a combination which mostly makes me feel of wasted potential.

    • I think that’s why you can’t breathe it. It colonized your lungs.
      In any case, it desiccates all it encounters, so even if they weren’t carbonized they’d be dried into mummies with a thin black wood cover.

  3. Okay, Wildbow’s epilogues are universally *fantastic*. There’s something perfect and timeless about them, how they encapsulate a core concept so well.

  4. This is great. I love seeing Red’s dynamic with the wolf, and the whole feeling of the scene are beautiful.
    I wonder what else we’re getting for epilogues. Hoping for some Avis! Depressed bird woman surely has a lot of insight to share.

  5. I noticed that the comments here are generally high on praise, and now that we are wrapping up, I wanted to chime in and reduce the echo chamber effect.

    I feel that there is a reason why Twig has an order of magnitude fewer comments than Worm in its final chapters. I won’t say that Worm, as a story, is necessarily better than Twig. Wildbow’s style has improved, and most of the jarring constructions from Worm (“he told Regent and I,” “half again as tall,” “anyways” used in formal settings, “at this juncture”) are more or less avoided here. (Though Wildbow still insists that “via” is an abbreviation and should be written “via”) There’s definitely a lot of improvement over the last years.

    I would say that Twig is not as popular because there are fewer main characters, the side characters are completely uninteresting/forgettable (this meshes well with Sy’s not being able to remember anything about them), and everything is painfully drawn out. Most battles here are verbal, and as such they are not fair to the reader: all we see is Sy talking for a while, and then everything bends to his will. What he said is irrelevant, and the formula for each verbal spar is

    Sy: you will do X.
    Interlocutor: I won’t do X, you are manipulating me.
    Sy: yes I am. Do X.
    Interlocutor: k.

    While this is all consistent and paints a very detailed picture of a specific kind of psychology, it’s pretty uninteresting to read. Even the battles (like the girls vs Infante or Sy vs Infante) end by conversation and someone being convinced for no good reason (first battle, Infante; second battle, Infante’s doctors). To readers this is really unfair, a dues ex machina resolution.

    I hope that Worm 2 will go back to interesting physical tricks, not just endless conversations to which Wildbow has been gravitating. His world-building is great and his stamina is awesome, but his story-telling really needs some self-reflection.

    • I think that I want to put a little something about this constructive criticism above.

      To me its clearly an unfair comparison to make between the ending of Worm, and this wrap up of Twig, both in the breadth of the fan base of the genre, as well as the simple age of each chapter.

      With regards to the stylistic approach that Wildbow has taken in Twig; dialogue, clever and convoluted schemes everywhere, its important to remember that with each new world and novel he writes, he adapts the Narrator, and what we see of the world through them, to the characters and the world itself. I would not be surprised if the next project (may there be one) revolves around entirely new concepts and stylist choices. Everyone loves Worm, don’t get me wrong, but I don’t want to box Wildbow, or any author for that matter, into a comfort zone, and trying new things is how we learn. I personally have loved all three of his novels, and couldn’t be happier with Twig.

    • Not to say your opinion is invalid or anything, but I found the constant fight scenes in Worm to very tiring, and it always felt like I was forcing myself through them to get to the next bit of dialogue. I greatly prefer the more talky conflict in Twig.

      I don’t think the action is why Worm was more popular than Twig, because mildly clever fight scenes are really a dime a dozen in many other stories. I think Worm was more popular because it lends itself better to fan participation. For example, there’s an intuitive and accessible template for creating your own parahuman characters in the Wormverse: just fill in the blanks for “power”, “faction”, “trigger event”, etc. Even if you have trouble coming up with a creative power, there are tools like the in-universe classification system to help you along. This makes it really easy to write a ton of fanfics and grow the fanbase. It’s the same kind of phenomenon as what happened with Homestuck and its fantrolls.

      • You’re right, I can see how the fight scenes can be tiring too – in the case of Pact, there was too much fighting for me, though I found that Worm was more balanced on that front. (I did also skip the details of some battles and revisit them during subsequent readings, so that helped.)

        I thought a bit about the superpower trope simply being a catchy subject, but Twig characters do have superpowers/specializations of their own. Why doesn’t this lend itself to the same kind of fan participation?

        • The whole point of Academy science is that anyone can get modified into anything else.
          There’s no unique power individuality. Thus less identification to this or that.

          “Which kind of Noble would you be ?” doesn’t really lead to the crazily diverse consequences of hosting a Shard. Everyone ends up matching their own beauty standard, with super voice and pheromones and titanium carbide plated skin and telescopic sight with photographic memory and extended hearing ranges with variable sensitivity and… Oh, you need more room to install those systems ? Just grow a few feet taller to make some.
          You get the idea. There’s no reason to under-invest, anyone can be all the things.

    • Disagreed. I don’t have time to offer a full review of both, but I think the main reason Worm was so popular is that superheroes are very popular, and Worm had a fresh take on that genre. It’s hard to get a fresh take on such a popular thing, and Worm did it very, very well. Twig is its own story, and as a story it’s good. Worm on the other hand is made much better by the constant comparisons in your head between the story and superhero movies/comics. Every clever thing Skitter did was that much more clever because Superman would have just punched harder in the same situation.

      I think you make some good points. I don’t necessarily disagree with them–I just think those points are more personal opinions, and the difference of popularity is due to what I mentioned above. I expect if Worm 2 is much of a direct sequel (and so the setting is not really “our earth plus superheroes”), and nothing else changes between the two books, its popularity will be much smaller than Worm 1 for just the same reason. Of course, Bow is a much more experienced writer now, so the following will be good I expect.

    • To put it succinctly, I believe the popularity issue stems mostly from genre. The superhero genre is more accessible than than biopunk and claims a much wider fan base.

    • I have to disagree with you on your judgment of the scale between action vs dialogue. My favorite bits of worm were the same as my favorite bits of twig- the politics and psychological warfare, (plus the grueling character arc which is sorta wbs trade mark at this stage) which imo was what distinguished worm from other superhero stories which are, as many people here have said, currently very popular in general. In fact I’d say the fight scenes were what I found weakest in both stories, (in all fairness, many writers struggle with them. After sex scenes, they’re one of the hardest things to write and read) and I’d often skip over them. I think worm is a terrific story, and certainly in my top three superhero works of all time, but for me its my least favorite of wbs works, and it makes me a little sad that everyone seems to constantly use it as a benchmark for wb, who has in so many ways improved as a writer since then.

  6. Forest for the Trees – e.1
    That little ‘e’… who’d have thought you could break my heart with a single letter?

    She had been made to put up a fight, to lose that fight.  She had been made to be fucked, should anyone want it of her.
    Gah, Red is just as difficult to read as she is to talk to, it seems.

    But the antlers were vanity.  So was the mask she wore.
    She started bounding more than running, moving horizontally,  either hand and both feet ready to catch the first solid earth they came in contact with,
    This is really neat imagery. To be honest, I had forgotten that Red had a deer motif. I don’t know what kind of doe has antlers, but I’m sure there’s one species or another.

    She had to dive into the powder to reach what lay beneath.  She fed the hose into the black liquid, then cranked the contents into the flask.
    This is fun to imagine, too.

    The material of their dresses wasn’t organic, so the black wood had left it alone,
    Inorganic fabrics? In the Twig universe? Well, I suppose wealthy people wear them.

    “My name is Red,” she told them.
    I admit I didn’t realize it was Red until she actually said it. I didn’t think she had enhanced strength and agility, and even then I wondered if she’d already been enhanced by the LambLords. I think I’ve got it straight now, though.

    “Yet, in case you had no choice, born to a gilded cage with no clear opportunity to go… I’ll be your escort.”
    Last chapter Noble!Sy said something about finding lost family members. I’m guessing Red will deliver the bodies somewhere where they can potentially be identified… but I imagine that’s a whole lotta bodies to identify. Did the Crown States government keep dental records?

    Red turned it over in her own hands, and found herself holding it, as if giving the young lady a handshake. She recoiled at that, and hurried to put it down and be rid of it.
    I like this. It’s a fun little bit of characterization for Red.

    Red tested the gun, and found it jammed.  She pocketed it.
    Is it a Chekhov’s gun if it’s established to be jammed?

    That which hadn’t been protected was lost. She was grateful to have been protected.
    When I first read this, I didn’t have much context for where to place Red chronologically, so I wondered if this was taking place after Noble!Sy had already deployed Fray’s Last Option. I don’t think that’s the case, though.

    Her relationship to Sylvester threatened to be a subservient role she wanted, that was not entirely of her own choosing.
    Red doesn’t even trust her own motivations, because the way she was manipulated to play a part runs that deep. That’s terrible.

    She felt much the same about Paul, in a different way.
    Red and Paul were an item? Did I just forget that? It also sounds like Red may have had a bit of a crush on Sylvester, but who hasn’t, really.

    Sylvester was gone now.  The Lambs were largely gone.
    She mentions Sylvester’s offer later, so I think this means “gone” as in, those Lambs had already undergone their respective transitions to Lords. It could also mean literally gone, as in, to the Crown Capitol to carry out their plan. There’s another bit later on where she talks about being without leadership, so that would make sense.

    She’d spent so long in the labs, a prisoner, she hadn’t been able to see the outside world.
    she could see through the glass eyes of her mask that the world wasn’t there waiting for her anymore,
    What had they fought for?
    Ah geez. That’s so tragic. I feel really bad for Red.

    “Not a threat?” Red called out.
    “Not when Ansel is shooting!” came the jovial response.
    I liked these Mercies a lot. Gallows humor, I suppose.

    she’d helped the others, encouraged them, fought, and even played her part on Ferres’ stage, for the Lambs’ ruse.  She’d dreaded it and it had been just as bad as she’d feared.
    I recall that even Sy was surprised by how brutal the play was, once he finally saw it. Poor Red.

    “You played your role in bringing about this world,”
    She had played her part
    Red keeps coming back to this; she sees everything through the lens of “playing a part” because of her background, and it seems to have made her vulnerable to the Just-World Fallacy. As an aside, I kind of like the usage of stage metaphors in an epilogue. It puts me in the frame of mind of, like, a curtain call.

    she worried she’d need all the heart she had for what was imminent.
    I think she’s talking about her ruse. Heart is something you need to play a role convincingly. I don’t know to what degree her allegience to the Crown is part of the ruse, though.

    Jovial had placed a shot through the gap between his fellow Mercy’s legs, to graze her calf.
    Yep, he’s a good shot.

    Red had seen so many of the methodologies.
    Used by Ferres, or by Sy? Or both?

    “You were made to be loyal,” Red said. The statement felt hypocritical to the point she thought her whole being was diminished by it.
    “I’m a representative of the Crown, performing a vital service for the Crown.”
    Of all the statements she couldn’t have ever imagined she’d say with such conviction.
    All of these lines taken together seem to indicate that if Red is working for the Crown, it’s for the purpose of subterfuge. In that case, the signatures could be real, but I suppose they could also be forged.

    “Raise your muzzle, blackest of wolves,” Red said.  It was like a prayer.
    Seems needlessly cruel, to use the exact same lines that were used for the wolf in the play… oh, wait, I suppose it’s actually the same wolf. Well, that’s disturbing.

    Her guardian, her nemesis.  Her Wolf, with another project’s best qualities.
    The other project being Dog, of course. I wondered if Lillian had somehow acquired Dog and modified him, until I realized just now that this is literally Red’s original wolf.

    Lillian had urged her to give it a try.
    Lillian was the “heart” of the Lambs; she was always compassionate. I hope she knows what she’s doing. It sounds like she’s been busy.

    No longer sorted, sadly.  She’d have to rely on memory.
    Ah, that sounds so irritating.

    Whatever face she had or mask she wore, it wouldn’t be hers.  Not anymore.  She wanted to make peace, to conquer that demon.  She didn’t want to wear anything else, because then she might not have been able to take it off and reveal this face again.
    She wears a mask she hates, because she’s afraid that if she didn’t hate it, she’d never take it off. That’s sad, but inspiring in its own way. I have a feeling that this mask metaphor is going to connect back to the freshly minted LambLords and how their new outer selves connect with their inner selves.

    If she was to take Sylvester’s offer, she would need the Wolfdog’s assistance to be properly useful.
    Sounds like she’s pretty much convinced to go for it, then.

    there was a slice of green, like clover.
    Yeah, I was worried that it was going to be a red flower, too. Though… somewhere in the back of my mind, I’m still worried that anything that can survive in these conditions might be malevolent.

    This.  This was why.  Why she fought, why she’d tried.  It was hope.  Acknowledgment on some greater level.
    I wish you all the best, Red.

    I was hoping that this chapter we’d get a new name for the Mad King Sylvester, so I wouldn’t have to keep calling him Noble!Sy, but alas, it was not meant to be.

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