The soldier yawned. It was the same task every night. He was always relegated to mundane duties. "Watch the skies," he repeated the commander's instructions in his head. He looked towards the Orchard, wishing he were with the company of friends. It was easy to find from the watchtower. The small fragments of lightseed were his only companions this far out. A soft blue illuminated the sky. The glow became brighter. The soldier sprang up. A trail of blue light descended towards the Orchard. He scrambled down the fragile ladder.
Azure screamed. His body was different. He forced himself to move, the stone path prodding his feet with each step. His body was covered in blood. He heard footsteps. Unsure, he stepped into the shadows, trying to avoid contact with anyone else. "Find the fallen fruit before it reaches the Orchard," someone called out as they ran past. Azure waited for some time before continuing to make his way forward. He kept to the shadows, hoping that the dark shroud surrounding him was enough to get him to safety. Then, a loud voice pierced his ears. "So many citizens injured and you decide to hang out in that seedy bar that Mandarin told you to stay away from!" "Yuzu, I--" "Enough, Crim! I am this close to letting you rot away in the Underground. Do you know how tough it was for me to enter a bar full of rosacaea? It's --"
Yuzu stopped. A large, dark silhouette stood before them. Crimson gently pushed Yuzu behind her before forming a leafblade. She pressed it against Azure's neck. The rain washed the blood off Azure. Crimson pressed the tip of her blade slightly harder. "Crim, wait," Yuzu said. "He's scared." Azure was shaking. Crimson tilted her head slightly. She put the tip of her leafblade under Azure's chin and pushed it up. She could see a glint of blue in his eyes under his hair. "Stay away, or I will kill you," Crimson said.
Crimson pulled her blade back. The leafblade unfurled, its strands wrapping around Crimson's arm before sinking into her skin. "Let's go," she said.
"Kill," Azure said. It was the first time he heard the sound of his own voice. "I... kill".
Azure stood in the rain. He watched Crimson and Yuzu disappear in the distance.
"My, my. Are you the one that has been wreaking havoc in the outskirts?" Azure turned around, feeling a hard impact to his face. Azure fell to the ground. He coughed out thick, blue liquid. He has not regained his strength. His breaths became shallow. "Stop," Azure said. The woman stood over Azure and smiled. "Why would I? I have nothing to gain from you being alive." Azure growled. He grabbed the woman's legs, pulled her closer and squeezed her neck. The woman tried to pry his hands away. Unable to release his grip, she split in two. Azure fell on the stone path.
"Very few have seen that and lived," the woman said as her two selves recombined. She was surprised by Azure's strength. Her sharp, black fingernails extended to the ground. "Enough, Onyx." It was a brief moment, but Azure saw an orange blur right before Onyx's arm was severed. Something was off. If he did not do something, his assailant will be killed. Azure stepped in front of Onyx. A razor-thin scythe stopped at his neck, belonging to a woman half its size. The woman moved the large scythe away. She held the tip of the scythe as it reformed into a wide-brimmed hat. She looked at Azure, puzzled by his actions. Her eyes narrowed. "The only reason you are alive is because Lord Malus needs you," she said. She put her hat on. Onyx knelt on the ground, gritting her teeth as she held the stump of her arm. The woman approached Onyx. Onyx controlled her breaths as she watched the woman from the corner of her eye.
"Return to the Orchard once you've cleaned up," Persica said before walking away. The woman stepped on Onyx's severed hand. It shrivelled. Her lips spread into a smile. Onyx writhed on the ground. Her arm was regenerating, but the pain was extreme. Azure perked his head up when he heard a cacophony of footsteps. He quickly moved into the shadows. Several people crowded around Onyx. "Commander," a soldier said, kneeling by her side.
"Take me back," Onyx said.
Another soldier helped her up. Onyx looked towards the shadows. Azure remained still.
The woman with the wide-brimmed hat walked up the steps. The hollow tree tower echoed every step. As she reached the top, a man turned his head slightly. He was thin, his skin dry and cracked. "Has the vessel arrived?" "Yes, my lord. The healers have made first contact. I made sure of it," the woman said. Malus smiled. "Thank you, Persica. That will be all." Persica bowed as she exited the room.
"One last show before the end of the world," Malus said. Pieces of his skin disintegrated in the air.
Mandarin sat with her legs crossed. Her exoform fanned out behind her, filling the space in the hollow tree that her tiny body did not. The sudden commotion outside broke her concentration. Her exoform quickly shrank and crumpled, loosely enveloping her bare body. She took a step, but the roots attached to her feet tugged at her.
"Oh, yes," Mandarin said. The roots pushed a branch up to her. She leaned her weight on the branch and hobbled out of the hollow tree.
"Move away, move away," she said, waving her walking stick. The crowd gathered around spread back.
Mandarin stared at the naked man lying on the ground. Her eyebrow twitched. Definitely a bad omen. The younger women stood around her, their curious eyes scanning the man's body.
"What is it, Grandma?" a curious girl asked.
Mandarin grunted. "With my luck, it's probably the end of our world."
Crimson and Yuzu walked up to the village to see a crowd huddled outside the central tree.
"Crim, he followed you," Yuzu said.
"He looks dead," Crimson said. Mandarin jabbed at the still body with her walking stick. Azure forced his eyes open. The daylight stung, He sat up. There were many scents, but two were familiar to him. Mandarin looked at the streaks of blue down his back.
"Crim," he said. His voice was hoarse.
The group went quiet, all eyes were on Crimson. Mandarin hobbled her small self towards her. Crimson looked to Yuzu for support, but Yuzu had moved to the back of the crowd. She slowly mouthed an insincere 'sorry'.
"Yu-zu," he said.
The crowd turned to Yuzu. She froze for a second before making a quick dash away from the piercing stares.
Mandarin pounded her walking stick down. The crowd was silent. "In my hut, now!" she said. The trees shook and the seed extruding from her forehead seemed to bulge out even more. She turned to one of the villagers. "Bring the male too!"
Crimson and Yuzu sat perfectly still as Mandarin stared at the three of them.
She set her gaze on Azure. "Look at me," she said.
Azure slowly lifted his head.
"What is your name?"
Mandarin paused. The silence was overbearing. Yuzu concentrated on staring at the ground.
"Which family do you belong to?" Mandarin asked.
"Ericacaea. A blueberry," Azure said.
"Yuzu, Crimson. Leave the hut," Mandarin said.
The girls stood up and headed to the entrance. Crimson turned around. "Grandma, I --"
Mandarin waited until she was sure the girls were a distance away. She leaned forward.
"Do you know why you are here?"
Azure paused. "I am the symbol of death," he said. "Like you."
"I'm just a wrinkled old fruit now," Mandarin said. "I guess this is Gaia's way of sending a message."
"Why did you choose to let this world continue? Why didn't you revive this world?" Azure asked.
"Being the symbol of death isn't as easy as it seems," Mandarin said.
"Your decision to preserve this world for this long has disrupted the balance in the world we were born in. Their lives are in danger."
"Are we not lives?!" Mandarin said as she pounded her fist on the floor.
"If we do not reset Laviver, both worlds will end," Azure said. "Disease is already starting to spread."
Mandarin crossed her arms.
"Four seasons," Mandarin said. "I want you to see the beauty of this decaying world before you make your final judgment. Preserve the memories of this one."
"Very well. Until that time, I will remain by Crimson's side," Azure said.
Mandarin nodded. "First contact," she said.
When Mandarin and Azure emerged from the entrance, the entire village was huddled around it. "This male, Azure, will live with us for now. He will stay with Crimson," Mandarin said.
All eyes were on Crimson again. Mandarin hobbled to Crimson and grabbed her top. She pulled her down to her level and whispered an instruction. Crimson scowled.
Crimson sat at the edge of the cliff, escaping the commotion. She rested her head on her knees. The wind ruffled her red hair. The clouds were dull. It started to drizzle. She looked down at Laviver. Clusters of light dotted the world, converging around the colossal tree in the centre of Laviver.
The rain drops stopped falling on her shoulders. Mandarin was standing behind her. She had formed a parasol with her sleeve, using her walking stick as a handle.
"I could have formed my own shade," Crimson said. "I like the rain."
Mandarin laughed. "When you're as old as me, all it does is make your skin rot faster."
Crimson buried her head into her knees. She looked at the circular opening in the middle of the village. The children were running around an amused Azure, tugging at the loose sections of exoform that he had crudely draped over his body. A green-haired girl climbed up his back, twirling his thick hair. Yuzu had to pry her off him.
"Do I have to do this?" Crimson asked.
"Avoid him if you want," Mandarin said, "but your paths will always cross. Gaia's laws cannot be broken."
Two men were lying at the village entrance. Their skin was turning black.
"They're Musa. Get the healing leaves," Mandarin said.
Crimson tended to the other Musa. She turned his body to the side. His entire back was black and rotting.
"He's dead," she said. "This is a severe case of anthracnose."
Mandarin scowled. "This is not good. I need to tend to this one," she said.
"You three, get to the plantation. Now."
Suddenly, the frail Musa grabbed Mandarin's arm.
"Save Paradisiaca," he said.
Crimson dragged her feet. She loathed summer, and this region of Laviver seemed twice as hot.
"What's wrong, Crim?" Yuzu asked.
"I hate that you love the heat," Crimson said.
Yuzu dropped the sack she was carrying on the ground. It kicked up a cloud of dust. As Crimson tried to cup a handful of water, the sack flattened, letting the small amount of remaining water run out. It pooled on the ground. The flattened piece reattached itself to Yuzu's garment. Crimson watched as the pool of water evaporated in the heat.
"Sorry, Crim," Yuzu said as she walked ahead.
"What are the Musa like?" Azure asked.
"They're a strange bunch," Crimson said. "They usually keep to themselves unless they're sick. We've helped them before, but usually they come to us."
The usually lush and leafy plants, the Musa's homes, were dried and torn apart. A sea of black bodies were piled on top of each other. The bodies were twisted, the Musa's faces frozen in agony.
"No, they're all dead," Yuzu said.
They approached slowly. Yuzu looked at the leaves. She held one of the large leaves in her hand and caressed it. She saw faint spots. "They were sleeping when it happened."
A large plant stood beyond the waves of blackened bodies and wilted plants. Its leaves spanned upwards.
"Yuzu, let Mandarin know."
Yuzu nodded and took a small leaf from a pouch on her waist. She traced her finger over it and held it up high. As she felt the gust of wind, she let go. The wind carried the leaf upwards. The group headed to the centre of the plantation. A banana plant much larger than the others. The leaves fanned out and up into the sky. Dangling at the end of the long spine was a single, pale red flower.
"That's the heart," Crimson said.
"Help... me," a voice said.
The head of a pink-haired girl was engulfed by the plant. Only her head was exposed, covered by thick clumps of smooth, pink skin. Crimson began cutting at the thick trunk. Yuzu tried pulling the girl's head, but her body was too entrenched. Azure observed the long, yellow pods scattered around them. They looked fresh. The disease had not affected them.
As Crimson struck the trunk, the heart began to pulse erratically. The yellow pods split open and large Musa emerged. Azure hit one back,
"They don't look like normal Musa, Crim."
Crimson took a breath and choked. "No, they're rotten, like imperfect forms. The plant is defending itself."
She cut one in half, but it continued pulling itself towards her. Yuzu channeled her exoform at the arms, blocking the relentless strikes of the Musa warriors. Their blades cut deep into her exoform.
"Did you contact Mandarin?"
"Yes, but the winds are light here. I don't know it will take," Yuzu replied as she jumped over a Musa that lunged at her.
Crimson stabbed another Musa, pinning it to the ground with a leafblade. She formed another leafblade in her right hand, severing the legs of the Musa approaching from behind.
"Azure, she's controlling the plant. Kill her."
Crimson and Yuzu jumped out of the way as the tentacled flower , but Azure grabbed the spine and tore it apart. The screech rattled his ears and he froze.
“What are you doing? Kill her.” Crimson yelled out.
Azure could not move. “I can’t.”
Crimson rushed forward. She cut the heart off the spine. Her skin came in contact with the black ash, and it ate away at her skin. Crimson jumped on one of the tentacles that slammed to the ground and rushed towards the heart. She thrust her blade forward. Azure grabbed the tip of her blade with his fingertips.
“What are you doing?” Crimson asked.
“We must save her.”
“Get out of my way,” Crimson said.
Azure’s exoform shot out from his back. It shrouded them and the plant in a sphere.
“Crim!” Yuzu cried out. Yuzu slammed her fist against the thick wall of the sphere.
Crimson trembled. Azure was covered in a dark exoform, almost flowing around him. “Defy the laws of Gaia and face death,” Azure said. Crimson was on her knees. She could not move. Azure walked towards the plant. His hands penetrated the trunk, and he tore the pink-haired girl away from the plant, leaving a trail of sticky sap. He flung her aside before collapsing. The sphere unraveled and snapped back into Azure's body. The plant began to wither. Its leaves flopped to the ground. The flower screeched, dispersing a cloud of black spores. It spread throughout the plantation, and the remaining Musa turned to ash, their bodies blackened.
The black spores spread through the plantation, decimating what plants were left standing. Yuzu jumped into one of the yellow pods as the spore cloud rushed past.
A figure watched from outside the plantation. The tails of her bright red coat flapped as the cloud of black spores rushed past her. “Experiment complete,” the woman said. She rubbed her lips with her fingers and smiled.