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She drops her phone as if she suddenly realizes she was holding a live tarantula, and then breaks in to a run while waving her hand frantically up and down. Instinctively she dashes toward the open space around the tree. Once she is convinced she is not being followed, she rests her back against the huge tree trunk, trying - desperately - to catch her breath for a moment. Just a single breath...



When she looks back to ensure she's not followed, she sees the cloud of lights continued drifting toward the phone, but it fell facedown on the grass, which leaves them floating around it in a lazy swirl. Eventually the light of the screen times out, and the lights start to drift up and away into the mist... though she notices that most of them are drifting in a particular direction, to the right of where she stands against the tree.

The tree at least doesn't seem to have barbs, its trunk covered in smooth bark that has artful whirls of lighter and darker shades. The lowest branch would be hard to climb to, but seems sturdy.


She stares at the whirls in the bark, letting the flows of light and dark soothe her ever-fraying nerves. Calm. Grounding. Deep breathes. She notices the smell of the forest as a familiar sensation among all the shifting strangeness.

Once her heart has stilled, she looks up at the tree, trying to make out how high it goes. She isn't particularly athletic, but getting a chance to survey the forest might give her any hint on how to get back to her regular, normal, safe, boring, mundane, intensely missed and absolutely desperately craved for world.

She smiles as she realizes how this experience has quite readily cured her of her existential ennui.

She considers the rope and then the branch. She could swing the rope over the branch, then tie in a couple of knots to form loops like the rungs of a ladder. The bigger question is if she could even scramble up and down such a ladder without breaking her neck ...

She shakes her head. No, it's too risky.

Instead she slowly walks back to her phone and retrieves it, hopefully not disturbing the swarm of light motes.

Then she looks around: Are there paths leading off the hill? Can she see other notable locations in the landscape she might want to explore? Does the tree have any other features she may interact with that will not reliably lead to any rearrangement of her cervical discs?

A door, perhaps?


The light motes don't return from her picking her phone up, though she can still see some of them gleaming in the distant mist when they pass by the darker shapes of tree branches or trunks.

They weren't that clear before, which is when she realizes it's gotten darker again. Not by much, but enough that she can see a little less further than before.

Now that she pays more attention to the hedges around her, she notes some berries growing in the brambles on the opposite side of the tree where the lightmotes flew. Both directions have openings in the hedges where she could more easily pass, and behind the tree (from the direction she approached) there's a fourth path, this leading down to what looks like a small gully that ends on one side in the entrance of a cave, just at the edge her vision.


She looks back and forth between the light motes and the cave.

Of course, it's getting darker but there is also a free light source. The question is if this light source is actually safe, and if it will break her phone.

She suddenly remembers that some of the light motes had gone in to her phone. She pulls her phone out of her pocket but does not turn it on. Can she notice anything unusual about it?


She can! The light motes seem quite content swimming around in the dark of her off screen. Each is a bit smaller than her pinky nail, but their illumination spreads over about a third of her phone at any given time to reveal a dim and murky picture below... and after a moment she recognizes it as a picture she took a few weeks ago. Soon the picture changes to another one, the three motes swimming around until all of it has been illuminated at least a little before the picture switches to another.



"Yes, my phone is now a fish pond of magical lights", she muses, giving up slightly more on what she once considered reality.

She turns on her phone screen again, and holds it out toward the swarm of light motes. Presumably this will result in her having acquired a magical lantern. "Or maybe my hand will explode now", she thinks wryly, "wait ...". She backpedals quickly. This place doesn't run on the power of manifestation, right?

"My hand definitely does not explode!", she blurts out quickly and far too loudly.



Her hand does in fact not explode, and the lights do indeed start to return, first a faint glimmer in the distance, then a noticeable stream of white spots against the background of the mist that coalesce into the motes. A few come from other directions, but the vast majority come from where they disappeared to last time.

First one, then two, then three, then a handful at a time sink into her screen, until it's like the screen is on maximum brightness. Only then does the stream of lights stop floating toward her phone, instead wandering around in midair again and dispersing back in the directions they came from.



Her face lights up, both from actual electromagnetic radiation as well as feelings of joy and wonder.

She reaches out her hand to try and touch one of the fleeing motes.


It's like passing her hand through a spot of warm air, and for the moment that the mote is inside her the red tint of her blood against the dark shape of her bones is briefly evident.

And then it's flying through and away, unbothered.


She laughs in delight, her momentary plight forgotten for all of three seconds. Then she catches herself on the way down. "Does this place actually run on manifestation?", she wonders.

She looks around, using her new lantern to see more clearly. Do her surroundings look more friendly? Did flowers sprout and birds take wing? Is the tree singing and flowing with a song barely out of hearing? Is ... I mean, come on, you get the gist!

Her mind stutters for a moment, self-consciousness creeping in, breaking her momentum. Fear clutches at her sides. Then she looks down at her phone again, bright as can be, joyful maybe.

Does anything look different yet?


Her phone, in the moment she glances at it, is flickering through pictures rather rapidly now that the whole thing is illuminated at once. Her surroundings seem... definitely not unfriendly the way they did on the way up the hill? Nothing seems to be obviously changing, although... the berries do seem tastier, when she looks at them again. The branch seems lower than it did. The whirls of the bark seem more artful.

All explainable by her mental state, her attention, or even just the way the light has changed. It's definitely a bit darker again, tipping more obviously into twilight.


She narrows her eyes slightly, and purposefully starts humming a tune. For some reason the most cheerful tune she can easily remember is God Bless Ye Merry Gentlemen, so Christmas carols it is. It's not even the right time of year but ... okay, focus. Focus.

Berries. She pockets as many of them as she can manage without squishing them.

Then she makes her way back to the tree and looks up in to the canopy again. Climbing is kind of risky, but also, this world might actually run on manifestation while containing murderous vine-wolves... Some risk-taking - very optimistic cheerful risk taking - might be in order.

She slings the rope off her shoulder, and throws it across the decidedly lower lowest branch. She is careful to keep her hands wrapped in her coat sleeves as she goes, though this makes the process of knotting the loops in to the rope slightly more challenging.

Once she is done, she steps into the lowest run, then sticks one arm through the highest loop she can reach, wrapping the vine rope around her arm. Then she puts one foot through the next loop, and her other arm goes upward through a loop higher.


This is, in fact, as hard as it seemed, if not more so, cheerful tune and attitude or not. Her arms burn as she pulls herself up, one careful fist at a time, and while thankfully the branch feels as sturdy as it looks, her rope is less cooperative, seeming to poke and prod her everywhere her body weight rests against it, regardless of her protective measures.

She eventually makes it to the top and collapses onto the branch, arms trembling with the effort and body a collection of stinging points, every previous prick and scratch she gained since arriving here seeming to be burning all at once, making her whole body itch as she catches her breath.


She grits her teeth, forcing herself to tolerate the pain while stabilizing her breath and her center of gravity.

How high up is she now and how bad do those scratches look?


A few of the scratches are bleeding, though none seem to need attention. Just a few drops of blood, here and there. She didn't exactly fail to climb the vines, she is here after all, but it definitely was unexpectedly complicated, and it's hard to know whether next time will go better.

She's about 4 and a half, maybe 5 meters up. The next few branches are closer to her than this one was to the ground, one even in reach if she goes on tiptoes.

It's dark enough that even from this elevation, it's hard to make out much in the distance... though in the direction from which she picked the berries, she can make out something that looks... vaguely... like a clearing, and some orderly rows of plants. Almost like a garden?

And from the direction the majority of motes went, she sees... light. Some steady glow, far enough in the mist that it's mostly just a lighter patch of it, illuminating the ghosts of trees along the way.


She regrets all the life decisions that led her to being a marginally bleeding mess lying on a tree branch 5 meters up in the air with no obvious way to get back down that won't result in her being a significantly more bleeding mess.

She glances up the tree trunk and then back down to the ground far below. Fear lances out through her body, shaking her hands as they clutch the tree branch. She lowers her face back down to the bark, and closes her eyes for a few seconds.

One deep breath, and a hefty dollop of peppy self-talk later, she has decided she will swing back down the vine rope. She will hold it tight in her coat-gloved hands, and let the magic of carpet burn save her from plummeting to her death increasing corporeal discomfort.



This is about ten times as terrifying a way to travel, but also shockingly efficient and surprisingly safe. She lands on her feet without too much jolt to her knees, and while her sleeves are now slightly shredded they kept her hands mostly safe.


Relief floods through her the moment she hits the ground. She gracefully crumples in to a heap, enjoying the realization that she made it out of that questionable decision in one piece.

"Ok, time to get going.", she thinks, "Where did the light motes travel off to again?"

She will very determinedly walk in that particular direction.


The twilit forest is more painful to navigate through, more unseen thorns scratching and snagging, more hidden roots stumbling her steps. But her phone helps find paths around the particularly thick batches, casting a kaleidoscope of rapidly shifting light out as her screen continues to display different bits of media on her phone every second.

Eventually the distant light becomes more and more pronounced, though it's not getting any darker, so far as she can tell. Instead she's just getting closer to the source, almost able to make it out above the hedges until she finally pushes through one last gap to find...

A clearing, bathed in a soft, ethereal glow of the motes. Hundreds of them are gathered here, swirling around in gentle currents above her.

In the center of the clearing there's something that looks very much like a Christmas tree, complete with ornaments and tinsel. Except the tinsel is moving, strings of motes that spin in upward spirals around it, forming a mesmerizing display.

And the ornaments are nothing of the sort. They're fruit, glowing fruit, each containing some flickering or moving images.

Motes pour out of her phone and toward the tree, each a different hue, where they gather into a rainbow sphere that swirls and coalesces into a new fruit on one of the lower branches. Through its translucent skin, she can vaguely make out some images from her phone's gallery.

The last thing she notices are that some of the branches of the tree are clearly missing, cleanly cut stumps sticking at varying lengths.


She stares in wonder... a Christmas tree. The Christmas Carroll she was singing.

Wow, she needs to think about this. How much of the manifestation is based on her feelings, her actions, her thoughts? Is there a strong relation between how this world moves and changes around and any one part of her, or is it more a probabilistic affair, or - even more dizzying - an associatively pattern-matching kaleidoscope.

That last option would be a little daunting, and truly more reminiscent of an LSD trip than anything else. Though maybe that is the right frame to consider.

Could she use this experience as a chance for personal growth? There are some risks. Like with any drug, she might step off the metaphorical roof cause she believes she can fly. Reality generally has pretty adversarial opinions on that sort of thing.

She wishes she had a better way to tether herself to that underlying reality. How can she know if the ground is where she thinks it is when the world is scrambling the input signal?

She bites her lip. Her thoughts have run down and no clear answer presented itself. Some heuristics might help though. Some handles to focus her attention on.

First of all, keeping her spirits up seems key. Focusing on the light motes that helped her and did not hurt her, led her to more wonder and beauty. Being prepared also seems to help. That rope really came in handy.

"Oh shit", she breathes. She realizes she left the vine rope at the big tree. Retracing her steps does not seem appealing though. Better to learn to keep track of her gear from now on.

She looks around, and considers treating the light motes as sentience. They have been friendly and beautiful. It seems like a clearly winning move to empower whatever factions in this world are benevolent to her.

So she smiles, and nods at the motes as they flow past her. Next she holds out her hand.

Do any of them land on her? Do any of them give her any sensation except warmth? She specifically focuses on conceptualizing the motes as little animals with minds of their own with tiny inner worlds filled with simple and endearing emotions like little... birds? Curious, helpful, beautiful. Maybe a bit of a hive mind, considering how they move and coalesce and seem to lack any personal identity.

Can she speak to them?

"Hey there," she whispers softly.


The motes don't seem to respond in any obvious way. They just keep floating around, occasionaly joining the upward spiral, or floating off elsewhere. Once in a while a mote will emerge from one of the lit fruit and then sink into a transluscent grey one, lighting it briefly with a flash of color before exiting again.

The whole process is utterly quiet. Her gaze jumps around, taking in individual pieces, then the whole swirling mass, imagining them like a flock of birds, then a hive of friendly bees, looking for patterns, legibility.

But nothing obvious emerges. A few motes wander off or in, mostly individually but occasionally in clusters of two or three, but most stay in the clearing.


"Maybe they can't sense me", she thinks. They responded to the light of her phone, but not to sound or movement. She can't think of any way to make a fire, and she has already used her phone screen. What about if she uses one of the fruits to sign to them?

She walks over to the tree and reaches out to the rainbow fruit that formed from the motes that traveled within her phone. She fails to notice that she is holding her breath, lips slightly parted, as her hand gently cups the fruit. Images from her cell phone cycle across its surface - Shots of the sunset across the city, art she had collected, a few stray selfies, images of her students at their graduation ceremony, her mother showing off a new embroidery pattern, the dilapidated motel room she had ended up in after an aborted attempt at hitchhiking. The images keep coming as she stares mesmerized. Slowly she tugs the fruit downward till the stem snaps quietly away from the branch.


The fruit is warm in her palm, like holding a lightbulb that's in the process of cooling down. Its skin feels closer to a peach than an apple, though its smell is... citrus? Pineapple?

A sense of familiarity also flows through her as she holds it. A sense that this particular fruit is *hers.*


A smile spreads across her face as a flush of delight rises through her body. She bites her lip again. On pure impulse she kisses the fruit. Then remembers that her intention was to try to communicate with the light motes. She slowly raises the fruit up in front of her, arm stretched, and moves it in an arc over her head.

Do the motes respond?

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