The chill wind whips through cracks in my bark with a hollow whistling sound. I shiver. My limbs have long forgotten the warmth of summer.
The towering shapes around me fracture and fall in the gale. The lives within died long ago; now they are my silent companions. Their brittle trunks remain only as empty husks, rough gray sketches of the lush forest that once bloomed here.
A spirit weaves between the trees in front of me, pale and spectral against the night air. A knot tightens in my bark. Normally I would lash my roots through its heart, but today I hold still, trying not to alert the wraith to my presence. I am tired of resisting. That I exist at all is an act of defiance against the curse plaguing these lands.
Its moonlike eyes are vacant. There is nothing alive and vulnerable to fuel its cold bitterness on this isle of death, nothing to be hunted or consumed. The spirit slips between the trees, leaving me to my solitude.
I look across the forest of shadows and my branches waver. My gaze catches a tiny flame of red growing amid the endless gray. Nestled in a mound of black dirt, the smallest flower bud pushes up from the ground, its petals so bright they burn my eyes.
It is a nightbloom. Long ago, they carpeted the floor of the Blessed Isles, blossoming on the evening of the summer solstice. By morning the flowers wilted, leaving only blackened petals, not to be seen again until the following year. But for one night, they illuminated the forest with blazing crimson, as if the very ground was aflame.
I look around and, for a fleeting moment, hope that if one flower exists there might be others. But there is only the somber gray of these dead isles.
My boughs creak as I take a shaky step forward. I approach the bloom, transfixed, crushing ashen leaves to dust underfoot. My colossal frame towers over its delicate shape. I lean down until my face is inches above the sweet-scented petals. The potent groundwater within my heartwood stirs, awakening in recognition. Life.
The flower's neck is tilted as if curious. Deep vermillion veins spread across each petal, and its pale green stem is coated with hundreds of silvery, velvet-soft hairs. I could spend eternity basking in its every facet.
Every moment it grows and shifts in subtle ways; its stem pushing ever higher while its petals slowly unfurl. I am enchanted by each movement, however minute. I watch as the bloom spreads to reveal the filaments extending from within, its heady scent flooding my mind with color. For a moment I forget the cold, the hollow wind, and my own bitterness.
A pale light flickers and I flinch. A glowing shape approaches. My bark tingles. Nothing from these bloodless woods is an ally.
The cursed spirit is returning, attracted to the lure of movement. Life is not so still as death.
I flex my limbs in fury, no longer eluding violence. I welcome it.
For one night, a living thing will exist on these barren isles unmarred by corrupt forces.
The specter races toward the flower and tries to inhale its fragile life. Before the bloom withers into a lifeless shade, I fling myforward and lash them about the spirit's legs. She screeches, recoiling as if burned, and I roar. The groundwater within me is anathema to such unnatural beings.
She twists and breaks free of my grasp. I hoist my roots and smash them to the ground. The impact splits the barren topsoil and sendsthrough the earth. The reverberations strike the wraith and she reels in agony. I laugh bitterly. As she stirs, I sling my limbs through her form and she dissolves.
Dusky mist rises from the ground, accompanied by a foul stench. As the wind moans, dozens of spirits materialize before me, their garish faces gaping silently at the scene before them. The nightbloom and I grow before the wall of shadows. I will not let them destroy this one pure thing amongst so much darkness.
I throw all my rage into my blows, driving them back with furious strength. I cannot destroy every spirit on the isles, but I can hold them off for a time. A wraith tries to dart past me. I howl as I lift my roots to pierce its heart, and it dissipates into mist.
My strength is draining with so many spirits nearby, but I refuse to concede.
The flower grows brightly beneath the moonlight, oblivious to this battle for its very existence. A single crimson petal falls from its perfect blossom like a drop of blood. The lifecycle of the bloom is near its end, bringing death, and with it, respite. But I do not crave it. I feel I could cleanse the entire island of its scourge in my fury.
The cursed mist has risen above the treeline and swirls in great clouds. An endless host of spirits pours from the fog, mouths agape with ghoulish hunger. I rise to my greatest height and slam my limbs into the ravenous spirits, shattering one after another into dust. Still, more come.
I howl as I stir the air into a crudely twisting, and nourish the storm with my wrath until it expands in a tempestuous whirlwind. I revel in the chaos as the maelstrom surges in a frenzied circle around me and the flower. It blasts the spirits violently back beyond the trees. From within this nightmare, I have carved a sanctuary where life can grow.
I turn to the flower. We are silent together at the eye of the storm, still amidst the madness. A second fiery petal falls from the nightbloom, then another. My energy drains into the maelstrom, but I do not falter and the tempest rages on. With each passing moment, the blossom droops further until it faces the ground. It is perfect in its slow, natural decay. I cannot look away as it gradually loses its crown of flaming petals and wilts completely.
It is dead.
I lower my branches and the maelstrom quiets. Above me, the sky is slate gray - as bright as it ever gets in this grim place. The gloom of the mist encroaches once more and the spirits return. Their faces are blank, no longer sensing the illicit life of the nightbloom, no longer anticipating the joy of a fresh kill.
They retreat into the hollow woods. I whip my roots through a specter as it passes me, scattering its essence into the fading mist. The others edge farther away from me as they return to their gloom.
Though the land appears unchanged, these isles are not the same gray wasteland they were yesterday. The waters of life stir within me and the soil beneath my roots is fertile again.
Though its petals decay into dust, the luminous nightbloom burns fire-bright in my mind, igniting my fury. Just as these islands were born of burning rock, I will cleanse them of their pestilence in a flaming blaze.
I follow the trailing spirits as they slip between hollow trees.
They will pay for their wickedness.