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To Take an Æther's Life

To Take an Æther's Life

Jesse Patrick Bohanan
That is not dead which can eternal lie,
And with strange aeons even death may die.
– H.P. Lovecraft, The Call of Cthulhu

Jordan Niles walked by lantern-light, slowly pacing the old footbridge that crossed Valdus Quay. The new moon shone no light for his passing, and the stars were obscured by clouds that night. Still, there was no hint of coming rain that night. And so Jordan walked, lantern held high, doing his best to ignore the churning waters beneath him.

To call Valdus Quay a quay would be to overstate things. It was an inlet — a small one, at that. But to the residents of the surrounding eponymous town, it was death. Many a ship had been scuttled against the rocky shore there, despite the presence of a lighthouse at its northern end. Not one of the captains thus defeated differed in their stories in that regard: They all saw the beacon. What differentiated one story from the next was always the relative location of that beacon. It never seemed to shine where the sailors expected based on the nautical charts available to them.

But those were outsider ships that crashed. The townspeople knew better than to try their hands at navigating those cursed waters. They knew the truth of the Valdus family's legacy, almost as though they'd been there a century prior to experience it.

Still, the footbridge saw good use most days. So it was without much concern for his safety that Jordan, one of Valdus Quay's residents, continued his journey across the quarter mile of guardrailed path of wood planks and beams. His car was in the shop till morn, and his house was, unfortunately, situated across the inlet.

As Jordan reached the middle of his route, fog rolled in — fog that was thicker than was typical even for an autumn day like that day. The lantern did little to pierce the misty veil, but it was better than walking blind. Jordan continued along his route home, using the right guardrail to orient himself, the lantern raised up high in his left hand.

Just a little further, Jordan mused, and I'll be home to a nice warm supper. Mary must have the stove on by now. Soon the soup will be prepared. I must hurry. With these thoughts in mind, Jordan increased his pace, and before long, he was but fifty paces from the end of the bridge. The fog was starting to clear, and the young woodworker heaved a sigh of relief.

The man blinked but for a second, and a young girl — she couldn't have been more than seven years of age — stood facing him at the end of the bridge. He hadn't seen her before, and the fog was all but gone now. Strange that he'd miss something so obvious.

"On your way home, are ye, Mr. Niles?" the girl queried.

"Aye, that I am," Jordan replied. Come to think of it, I haven't seen this young'un around. Odd. There aren't that many families around these parts. But there's something so familiar about her face...

"Great!" the girl exclaimed. "Shall we walk home together?"

Her face was full of glee. How could Jordan refuse? "Certainly! And where is it that you live, young lady?" he replied, as he stepped off the bridge and onto the dirt path that led up the hill and into town.

"Oh, I live on Poplar Street," she said. "But I only moved in recently."

"Fancy that! I live on Poplar Street as well. My wife must have sent you to come fetch me, eh? Mary's always thinking ahead."

The girl shook her head. "I don't know anyone named Mary," she said. "You're the only person I've heard tell of on my street, aside from my ma. She's the one who sent me to fetch you. She said you were due home for supper hours ago!"

This is going from strange to downright bizarre, Jordan thought. Nothing this girl is saying makes any sense. Still, as if compelled by some invisible force, Jordan walked on through the night beside the girl.

"Say, what's your name, my dear?" Jordan asked as they reached the intersection of Woods Avenue and Poplar Street. "It seems you know mine, but I haven't the foggiest notion what yours is."

"Elizabeth," she said. "Elizabeth Anne. But you know that, Mr. Niles. After all, you're the one who planted my seed."

The metaphor eluded him for a moment, but when it struck home, it rammed into his soul like a freight train. "It– It can't be..." Jordan stammered. "Elizabeth? But, you're—"

"Dead? Oh, no, Mr. Niles. I'm quite alive. My ma said you tried to let my seed die before it could take root. But I grew anyway. I grew strong, stronger than you or Ma. Mr. Valdus tended to me ever since I left the earth. He made sure that, one day, I'd be able to fulfill my purpose."

"Mr. Valdus?"

"Yes, silly. The old lighthouse keeper. He never passed on, you know. His roots were so strong, the earth couldn't keep him buried for long. But I... I'm not quite that strong. Once I fulfill my purpose, I'll have to go back to the earth — for good this time."

"Your purpose?"

"Why are you acting so perplexed, 'father.' You told ma the night you put the poison in her food that you would be beholden to no man — that no fruit would ever be born of your seed. I suppose you spoke true. But you're beholden to this seed tonight."

Jordan stood stock-still, in a trance, as Elizabeth's arms turned to branches; her legs turned to roots; her body turned to a tree trunk; and her head turned to foliage. But this was no simple tree. The wood was black as soot, and dripping with acid sap. The roots and branches were covered with barbs. The leaves were emerald razors. And what's more: The tree moved, as a person would.

"Come," the tree rasped in a pale imitation of Elizabeth's voice. "Accept the earth's embrace!"

The trance was broken with those words, and Jordan turned to flee. But the tree was faster. The roots reached him first, toppling him to the ground. They surrounded his ankles and dragged him towards the trunk. Acid flowed onto his body. The branches lifted him from the ground, impaling him with their leaves.

"Please!" Jordan cried. "Have mercy!"

The tree paused its movements for a moment, before whispering a rhyme:

Seed to seed,
Ash to ash.
As thou doth bleed,
the earth doth slash.
What limbs thou hast,
the earth shalt rend;
with this the past
it shall amend.

Elizabeth the tree gorged itself on Jordan's blood and bone until sated.

When Mary Niles went looking for Jordan later that evening, the man was nowhere to be found. But a sapling took root that night at the intersection of Woods and Poplar, fertilized by the very ash of Jordan's corpse — though none knew it.

The lighthouse went out that night, and Keeper Matthews never could get it working again. The sapling, on the other hand, grew over time to a tree that dwarfed all others in town. The townspeople called it: The Tree of Dusk.