Written to @InspectorCaracal’s prompt, also the title of this piece.
The tree stood in the middle of a blasted wasteland, and the one thing that everyone agreed on was that it was magic.
Whether it had been put up by one of the last mages in the great wars as a way to heal the wasteland, or whether its creation had formed the wasteland, nobody could agree. Whether it was a blessing or a menace, no two people concurred on. And thus there were two paths through the wasteland, one that ran right next to the tree, and the other which wandered almost a mile away to avoid it.
The tree itself loomed over its own oasis, a small circle of greenery in the middle of an otherwise lifeless expanse. It was easily over thirty feet wide at the base, and it loomed two hundred feet in the air. And yet its lowest branches were easily reachable from the ground.
And on those branches, you could find anything delicious you might expect to find on a tree. You could reach for a tart apple on one branch, only to find a juicy peach on the next, lemons and avocados, almonds and walnuts. Parts of the bark grew cinnamon, if you knew where to look, and parts were birch-like.
The tree looked over a small lake, the only potable water in the entire wasteland, and the path wound around it, taking its shade and its life as protection against the wasteland.
The other path through the wasteland had no such protection. It went, straight as possible, through an area which had once held a thriving city. Now, no fragment of a building remained bigger than a fist, and most pieces of rubble were the size of an pea. Nothing grew, not even moss or weeds. Nothing lived, not cockroaches or rats or lizards. Even to spend too much time in the miasma of the wastland was to risk death, and some who could not control themselves would wander off the path, their bleached bones quickly adding to the rubble.
The tree itself was not without its dangers, however.
Most of the fruit was exactly what it seemed like – tasty and nutritious fruit and nuts, berries and such. But sometimes, you would bite into an apple or a peach or a cherry and fall into a deep sleep.
If you had friends who moved you away from the tree and fed you water, in three or four days, you would awaken, and be only a little the worse for wear. But if you traveled alone, or if all of your team ate the same fruit, you would fall on the ground that looked like grass, and those plants there would slowly (but far quicker than grass normally grew) come over you, burying you, and thus you would become part of the nutrition of the oasis without ever awakening.
But there was a third way across the wasteland, and that one, while even more deadly, took into itself the true nature of the oasis and its goals.
These few brave people crossed, not east to west along the shorter length of the waste, but north to south, through the longest part of the blasted wasteland.
They wore clothing that covered everything, nose and eyes and toes and fingertips, and they walked using the sun and the stars as their only guides. They started from the tallest remaining building just outside the wasteland, and they walked without stopping until they reached the oasis.
Their whole body was covered with the miasma of the wastes, and they rolled in the grasses like a dog until every bit of the dust was gone. Then, and only then, did they unrobe and eat their fill.
There we re many ways to die on that route – not closing your clothing well enough, not walking fast enough, walking too fast and tripping, becoming distracted by an illusion and walking off the route, simply not following your guiding stars and getting lost. But in the oasis, nothing would touch them with the miasma in the grass, so they could eat, and sleep if they needed to, and eat again, and then they would walk, again, out to the other side, dropping fruit pits and seeds, nut shells and husks, all along the way, stopping and opening the special flap and shitting into the dead and barren soil when they felt the need.
On the other side, they would rest for three days and repeat the trip.
Maybe two people a year made this trip and survived. But those two could see the fruits of their labor – tiny trees growing and living in small pockets of nutrition in the wasteland. Places where the miasma wasn’t so thick. And the deadly grasses of the Oasis reached further and further out as they became slowly accustomed to the miasma and, in doing so, slowly became less deadly.
It would be a very, very long trip across the wasteland, hundreds of years, but the oasis at the center would some day be the entire wasteland.