The garden burned, each leaf and petal, each branch and bramble luminescent with the flames that devoured the green paradise.
“It’s still lovely isn’t it?” Way asked.
“It always will be,” Jin replied. In her hand she held the torch of burning silver that had set fire to the wild roses and plump fruit trees that surrounded them.
Try though they might, the flames couldn’t consume the boughs and stems they engulfed. As fast as the foliage burned away, new growths sprang to replace the ones that were lost to the ashes.
“Did everyone manage to get out?” Way asked.
“Not everyone who went in,” Jin said. “But I don’t think I lost any that were still alive when I got here.”
“What about Pen? Wasn’t he supposed to be helping you with this?” Way asked.
“Nope. This was an ‘Independent Study Project’. He’s off locating one of his sister-selves,” Jin said.
“Does it still count as ‘Independent’ if you called us in?” Way asked, referring to Kari and herself.
“Believe it or not, ‘requisitioning the proper resources’ is a subject we covered last semester, so I think I can convince Professor Haffrun that this is the practical application of that work.”
“Hmm, maybe I should put in for credit for ‘Expeditious Responses to Impending Disasters 301’ if Jess will buy it,” Way said. “She did a section on that about a year ago.”
“I guess that leaves ‘Intro to Trickery’ for me then,” Kari said.”Or is hanging out with you two considered a Masters level class in that?”
“I don’t know what you could be speaking of my dear friend,” Jin said, looking away at a particularly fascinating burning leaf.
“It’s true,” Way said. “If she was being tricky, she’d have managed to get us an assignment together that would take more than a day to resolve.”
“I’ve tried!” Jin said. “Cosmic calamities just aren’t that common. At least not in the realms Pen has me assigned to.”
“I’m going to guess that might be why he assigned you here,” Kari said.
“He’s just evil enough that you’re probably right,” Jin said.
“Your plan isn’t to prove to him that letting you get bored is a bad idea is it?” Way asked.
“My plan, such as it is, consists of freeing the Gardeners up from the Green Allure and giving them a nudge towards setting themselves up as something other than food for a hyper-species,” Jin said.
“The Gardeners?” Kari asked. “Are those the people we rescued?”
“Yeah,” Jin said. “They managed to instantiate one of the Dreams of Paradise.”
“Which we then set on fire,” Way said.
“It wasn’t a particularly kind form of paradise,” Jin said. “It offered peace and boundless joy, but at the cost of becoming food for the garden’s furthered growth.”
“So these trees around us?” Way asked.
“They’re the remains of the people I was too late to save, transformed into beautiful vegetation and preserved for millennia to come,” Jin said.
“Can’t we transform them back?” Kari asked.
“Yes and no,” Jin said. “Reality here doesn’t allow for reversing the transformations yet.”
“We could force the issue,” Way said. “It wouldn’t be that much of a step forward for them technologically.”
“We could, but if they discover the answer themselves, it’ll be built on work that shows them how to avoid falling victim to a whole host of problems like this in the future,” Jin said.
“It seems cruel to leave the garden burning though,” Kari said.
“It has very little that could be called ‘awareness’,” Way said.
“The burning is a lesson for the forest too,” Jin said, “It’s constantly changing, being destroyed and reborn in new shapes and forms. Eventually it will find a body that can subsist on something other than the life force of sapient creatures.”
“Ah, I see. This is Trickery 201, not the basic version of the course,” Kari said.
“Nudging sapients towards forming more enlightened societies is one of the primary missions of the Diplomatic Corp.” Jin said.
“And Professor Haffrun will probably commend you for that,” Kari said. “She’ll also probably notice the other threads you managed to tie together here.”
“Such as?” Jin asked. Her expression was one part innocence mixed with two parts amusement and dash of curiosity.
“Well, you managed put together a group vacation for us on a world that looks like a living oil painting. On top of that you’ve set the forest up as a permanent, blazing reminder to the people that trying to take shortcuts to universal happiness can end badly. Oh, and lastly, you’ve left something inexplicable and beautiful to awaken any future dream weavers who might be born here.” Kari said.
“Technically this forest is a natural part of the world. There’s no dream portal here anymore to sustain it.”
“So technically it’s not a danger to the fabric of reality, but come on, how could anyone not find this inspiring?” Kari said.
“You really enjoy awakening other dreamers don’t you?” Way asked.
“I understand why the Parliament doesn’t want us doing it willy-nilly,” Jin said.
“Yeah, it doesn’t always turn out that well,” Kari said. “Like, say, with my world.”
“Actually you’re one of my strongest arguments in favor of sharing what we are,” Jin said. “Yes, the Emissary was a problem when he time looped your world, but ultimately you were the one who broke his hold over it.”
“With a lot of help!” Kari said.
“Which you’ve then gone on to repay,” Jin said, gesturing to the world around them.
“It could have turned out very differently though,” Kari said.
“I know, which is why I can see the point in not taking chances we don’t have to,” Jin said. “The thing is, everything we do is going to have consequences and, in situations where those consequences are going to affect other people, I think ‘inspiring’ isn’t a bad goal to shoot for.”
“Is that why we’re here?” Way asked.
“In part,” Jin said.
“And what part do you really need us to play?” Kari asked. “Since we all know you could have rescued those folks on your own with no problem.”
“The Gardeners got drawn in by a lie that promised Eternal Peace. I had to break them out of that and even though it was for their own good, that’s going to color how they see me,” Jin said. “For them, I’m most suited to play the role of the great destroyer. If I appear dark and terrible and threatening, that will resonate with them on a undeniable level. I can be the nightmare that keeps them from risking their own destruction again.”
“And what about us?” Way asked.
“You can be for them what I can’t,” Jin said. “You can be their angels.”
“If you’re keeping them safe though, what will we do?” Kari asked.
“Show them how much more they can really be,” Jin said.