As your story ends the flames grow dimmer. The fire darkens but its warmth persists.
I think I liked that one a bit better Jennifer, good job.
Katy, can you go get the first aid kit? I think the bat might have nicked me when it got tangled in my hair.
Oh, come on. Your backpack is only ten feet away and the fire's still bright enough that we can clearly see it.
There's nothing in the woods behind you, I can see clear back to that dark thicket of brush right there. Maybe there's a rabbit or something rustling through it occasionally, but nothing more than that.
Fine, Evelyn can you get me a bandage? Thanks.
The smoke swirling around Jennifer reminds me of a story where four archaeologists uncover an eldritch smoke monster and...
Oh, you've all already heard that one? Well give me a second.
You haven't heard the one about the plants outside New Berlin, right? Perfect.
Let the shining stars observe my words as I begin our eighth story.
Finding it isn't easy, even in this day and age. From the Chesapeake you go up the Susquehanna. From there you're looking for one of its smaller tributaries, before the river splits in two, called Penn's creek. From there you have to be careful again because that stream also splits in two; you want the north branch. Somewhere along there, past New Berlin but before Glen Iron, there's a dock hewn into the rock.
For some reason it's always easier to find the further back the river you start. If you start at New Berlin (always remembering to pronounce it with the downward inflection at the end so you don't raise the local's eyebrows) you have almost no chance of finding it. If you were to start in the Atlantic and canoe or kayak the whole way, you'd be unable to miss it. Most successful trips put in at least as far down as Locust Grove, but keep in mind that's still only a probable success, not a guaranteed one.
The dock is hewn into the rock on the south side of the north branch. It's slippery, covered with moss and some sort of watery slime that never washes off. If you hop out there and manage to not fall on your ass you'll see a set of trails leading off into the woods. You want to take the northernmost one first, following it along until the trail cleanly splits in two. From there double back and take the first path on the right you see; you could have taken it earlier but finding the split paths and turning around is the best way to know you have the right one. That one goes on for a good long while, stay on it. You'll see clearings and caves and a few old campgrounds off to either side, but that's not what you're here for. When the trail ends, when it just abruptly stops with no clear direction of where to go, you'll just barely be able to see the garden if you look between the trees to your left.
Most of it is overgrown, the old stone markers knocked over by animals and the elements, the things that used to grow there intermingled with weeds and shrubs and poison oak. But in the center, where some of the old stepping stones still suggest a central circle, there's an ancient bush with twilight-blue flowers. There's a weight to your step as you walk towards it. There's a curve and a slope to the ground as you approach. There's a mystery that buzzes around you, an electricity in a place that's never seen manmade power. You walk towards that plant and your heart tugs you ever closer as your brain pleads with you to run away.
Most of the time that's about it. That eerie, disconcerting feeling of elation and terror winding together as they pull you in opposite directions. A garden with a central plant separated from all the others for some forgotten reason, that focal point that checks and chokes the encroaching undergrowth just enough to keep the area recognizable as something cultivated. Most of the time that's it: the humming of unease through the air, the palpable dread and wonder of familiar flowers you're sure you know but can't quite place. But on nights with a clear sky and a full moon something even stranger happens.
Silvery moonlight tickles across the dark blue blossoms and the whole plant seems to wriggle and writhe. It's disconcerting to watch, you'd be forgiven for running right then and there, but those who stay to watch realize that the plant is breathing, or at least approximating breathing. It starts off spastic and uneasy before giving way to a more steady tempo, the deep blue flowers rippling with movement and reflected color. It's mesmerizing to watch, and most find themselves stepping closer and closer to the plant without realizing it. And then with one great huff and puff the petals open wide and spew a cloud of pollen into the night air.
Under the moonlight's glow the light refracts and warps around you, it's almost blinding. You can try to hold your breath and find your way away, but more likely than not you'll stumble about in confusion while breathing in cloying breaths of perfumed pollen. Some folks pass out, their fortunate bodies finding clearer air towards ground level. Others endure until they find their way out of the shimmering haze or until the particles disperse and dissipate. Whatever the case, they tear their way back through the forest like a rabbit trying to outrun a pack of hounds, heart pounding and adrenaline flowing until the garden is far behind them.
For some reason it likes the springtime more than any other season, and never in the same year as when its carrier found the motherplant. Perhaps it likes the idea of love being in the air in spring, perhaps it's where the idea comes from. Whatever the reason, an effected person will just be walking along, miles and miles away from that garden, and they'll feel a magnetic tug towards someone. It tugs and it tugs until you find yourself approaching them with not a single clue as to why, that same mixture of dread and jubilation stirring inside of you. Maybe you talk for minute or two if you're strong; if not you only manage a quick 'hello' before that tickle at the back of your throat triggers a wheezing cough of brilliant blue pollen.
It seems to move as if it has a life of its own, unbound by the laws of physics or the direction of the wind. It swirls out of you and into the other person, a river of choking blue. Within moments you're both standing stupefied, staring at each other as lust tingles through your bodies. There's a tinge of blue at the corners of you eyes and those of the other person as you simultaneously realize that the other person is the most beautiful being you've ever seen. There's a burning need that creeps through you both as you clasp hands and hurriedly find whatever privacy you can before becoming overcome with the need to writhe and fuck and moan. In the throes of ecstasy something surreal occurs, a mixture of the human and plant, a mingling of three things into two forms.
When it's over you're irrevocably bound together by that phantasmal force that lured you together, the one that now sends tiny shoots every few months from behind your ears. You both feel like you've know each other for longer than either of you have been alive, there's a constant glow about the two of you when you're together. You can't go out on nights with a full moon anymore because something about the pure moonlight sends you into sexual overdrive, compelling you to fuck near-mindlessly through the night until your exhausted bodies crumple into slumber on the setting of the moon. And of course you trim the shoots that grow from behind you ears before they become too noticeable to others, but you can't bring yourself to just throw them away. So you keep a garden seeded from the cuttings, one that grows dark blue flowers that shimmer in the moonlight. So far though none of them have the mesmerizing aura or the spray of pollen like the one hidden in the woods.
Or at least, not yet.