Willow at the Labyrinth’s Core

Reading Time: 4 minutes


The wall of towering hedges marking the maze’s end drips with smoking streaks of my blood as I stagger into the clearing’s light—clean light, a false sun, under a sky bluer than I’ve seen in years. Fibers from my torn tunic burn deep in my wounds, and I throw my sword to the ground as the hissing metal continues to melt, no match for the final guardian’s acidic maw. I wipe my brow with a shaking hand. It’s almost over.

(Illustration created by Erik Homberger using an image by minka2507 from Pixabay)

The damning tree stands peacefully, its roots thick and creeping over the mossy mound it crowns. Splayed out around it, skeletal remains circle beneath the branches, half buried as though fused down. The bones are bare and palest gray, preternaturally aged and stripped by the cruel magic of this place. But I steady myself as I move in—every moment, the curse worms its way that much nearer our shrouded haven. The farmlands lie already reduced to swaths of fiery horror, and irate heavens pour poison on the few survivors who endure. I will succeed here where these conquered souls succumbed.

I will scorch the willow’s heartwood to cold, lifeless ash.

As I hobble forward, I am not careless in my passion. I heed the warnings, keep my eyes trained low. Even so, the closer I get, the larger a strange longing blooms in my chest. A musical hum plays around the edges of my hearing. I focus on the ground: my booted feet meet the farthest sprawl of roots, then the first bones, a delicate skull. Another. The green and yellow and teal patchwork of moss blanketing the enemy’s soil seems to breathe beneath me. I stand six paces from the trunk’s villainous bark when numbness creeps up my fingers, consumes my lips—only the dying wails of my compatriots falling to the monsters in the labyrinth lend me the clarity to fumble for my hatchet.

I exhale a confounded breath. When I take another step, the hum pulsing around me deepens precipitously. I must have crossed some threshold—the sound buzzes through my ribs like heartbreak, and I can feel my body and will weakening with each moment spent so close. I begin to sweat. The air grows thicker, an invisible sludge, and the force of its resistance tightens back my skin as I press on—

I’m panting when I reach the screen of foliage nearest the tree’s body. The willow’s turquoise braids sway in a gentle breeze around its branches, and in madness, I think I may dodge through them. But I’m too slow now—the leaves brush the filth of my shaven head, and as they swab over me, the touch sings with such delicate warmth that my vision swims. My throat constricts, heaves of emotion scraping it raw. Shaking, I grip my weapon in both deadened hands, just a step away from the glorious, the sublime, the benevolent enemy—

I break.

As my knees hit the earth, the willow’s heart speaks to me. Not in words, but in inner sight, in understanding—in doom. I double over in dazed delirium as I listen. The calamity cannot be ended by such unworthy hands as mine. My hatchet falls—no, is thrown—far behind me. How could I ever have dreamed of slaying something so beautiful, so pure? Surrender oozes through my skin. The air I breathe, too graciously enriched to gaseous nectar I don’t deserve to taste, indebts me by itself to whatever is asked.

And the requests come: Won’t I fertilize these grounds, in owed atonement? Won’t I shed my flesh in necessary apology, feed the well of ruin for my fiendish kind’s demise? My children’s faces fight to the fore of my mind, the thought of my bloodline beyond them that will never be, my youngest’s rattling cough and frailty ever worsening as the smoke intensifies. But then the images slip, and all I feel before my blameless deity is shame, disgraced by the threat I’d so very nearly posed.

Of course, I am granted mercy. The urgent hum connecting flesh to wood vibrates down to my bones, soothing my guilt, leeching the tension from my tired muscles, and my eyes glaze to a compliant serenity I never knew I craved. Remorse may have eaten me alive, yet here, in the home of holiness itself, is true forgiveness.

I inch out a hand. An attempt to touch divinity would be selfish, an unseemly act of vulgarity, but just the once—I have to try. I’m not sure I can reach it in time, before my body gives out completely. But in a last push of will, the tip of one finger . . . it scrapes the bark.

Ecstasy shoots through my veins like opium. I cry my unworthiness, profess my devotion, shout my vilest apostasies in eternal self-loathing gratitude—

I fall to my back.

The mangled wails in the fields beyond fill my ears, but with the heavenly roots below me, the sound is sweet: a cosmic lullaby for my resting place. The flames licking the earth raw, the smoke painting the true sun a pitted red, the dark orange haze of the curse permeating the toxic air outside my perfect mossy bed—what is this beauty I am so privileged to witness in my twilight moments? What could I ever have done to deserve such a blessing?

And then my skin peels away to feed my blood into the hallowed ground.


This story previously appeared in The Colored Lens.
Edited by Erik Homberger

Lex Chamberlin (they/she) is a nonbinary and autistic writer of sci-fi, fantasy, and horror. They hold a master’s degree in book publishing and a bachelor’s degree in philosophy, and they reside in the Pacific Northwest with their husband and quadrupedal heirs. Find them online at lexchamberlin.com