The Wood

The Wood is the greater area immediately surrounding and containing all the living worlds that compromise reality at any given time. It is what exists on the other side of our universe’s boundaries. It is vast beyond imagining and incredibly hostile, a virtually endless, nightmarish forest that exists in perpetual darkness beneath a black and empty sky, populated by dormant night trees, hellish abominations and countless hordes of insatiable undead.

It is believed that the Wood was the first living world ever created. The original Garden of Eden, if you’d like. During its lifetime, it was likely a vast and thriving forest, filled with diverse flora and fauna. However, like every universe that has ever existed, it contained a flaw. Eventually, it began to die. The skies darkened. The forests became hostile. Life began to vanish. And so a new universe was crafted. The Wood became the foundation on which the next world was built. And then the next. And the next. And so on. As each universe died, its borders deteriorated and it became swallowed by the Wood, merging with it, expanding it, pushing it farther out into the surrounding Oblivion, a vast, ever-expanding island in an infinite, toxic sea. It is now the sum of all the countless worlds that have existed since its creation, an expanse of black forest so vast that it defies comprehension.

It is technically possible to use the Wood to physically travel to any living world, assuming you can find a way to pass through the barriers holding these worlds together and actually make your way across the immeasurable distances that can lie between them. But navigating the black forest is virtually impossible. Things don’t work right in the Wood. There’s no way to measure direction, for starters. Compasses don’t work. Maps are useless. And distances can vary drastically for no logical reason. Traveling from point A to point B isn’t always the same as traveling back from point B to point A.

Even time behaves differently in the Wood than it does in our world. And it is so vast that the difference varies greatly depending on where you are in the Wood. We, in our world, exist near, but not at, the center. Here, where there is a greater concentration of living and dead worlds, time typically moves more swiftly, although it becomes warped near the borders between living worlds, rippling in such a way that it often slows down in places, making it nearly impossible to predict. If you were able to travel to the Wood and back in a twelve-hour period, you might return home to find that you were gone only an hour or that many days had passed. The farther out one travels, however, time slows. And at the poisonous farthest reaches of the forest, where the foul fumes of Oblivion permeate the thinning air, it is said that time slows to a maddening crawl.

But most people unlucky enough to find themselves in the Wood never leave it. Not even in spirit. Because it is a dead world, there are no spirit highways there, no outlets to carry away departed souls, making it a terrible place to find yourself dead. Most souls that die there are left trapped forever inside their own carcasses for all eternity. Unless it happens to be an extraordinarily strong spirit that can escape and freely roam the endless forest, it will rot with the body until the two become completely fused. After weeks or months or years of agonizing nothingness, the corpse eventually reanimates and wanders, blindly searching for some semblance of the life it once knew. These are not zombies. Not as Hollywood has molded them, anyway. They are neither reanimated by black magic nor by viruses. They aren’t contagious. They aren’t driven by some supernatural hunger to devour their victims. It’s not food they seek, but rather life. A living soul. A reminder of what they used to be. Driven by a mad desire to escape this endless dead existence, they will seek out any living thing and tear it to pieces in their insane desire to find that once-familiar ember that has long gone out inside them. And each time a world dies and merges with the Wood, every living thing remaining in that world becomes trapped there, most doomed eventually to become another undead denizen of the forest.

Furthermore, it’s not even safe for the undead to wander the Wood. There are things in the forest that feed on corpses. Great, flying carrion eaters prowl the skies. Fester vermin swarm the crossroads. Massive titans roam the middle expanses. And fallen gods of dead universes slumber beneath the ruins of shattered cities, just to name a few of the nasty surprises waiting out there.

And then there’re the night trees, themselves. Although harmless in their dormant state, they are easily awakened by even the faintest light. And if they soak up too much light and awaken fully, their coiling branches will drag anything that passes beneath them up into their skeletal canopy to be devoured.

Although the Wood is a single, inconceivably large forest, it does have specific features scattered throughout it. There are crossroads, where the living worlds meet and time becomes muddled. Then there are the countless ruins of fallen civilizations. Entire cities lie rotting away out there, some of them home to unspeakable things. There are also the vast stomping grounds, areas spanning incredible distances that have been trampled into empty wastelands. At the farthest reaches of the forest, there is the noxious, swamp-like rim, from which even the dead can’t return. And beyond that, the shores of the toxic Oblivion, itself. And then there are the Denselands, where reality has been folded over on itself so many times that even the bizarre physics of the Wood are broken.

The Wood is a graveyard for dead worlds. Everything that ever was but no longer is ended up there. And it stands to reason that much of it is still there somewhere. Treasures. Artifacts. Lost knowledge. Objects of incredible power. All of it can theoretically be found, if one only knew where to look and how to get there.

But it’s been said that only the gods can traverse the Wood’s endless acres and discover its many, hidden secrets. And for good reason. Entering the forest is a fate far worse than death. It is eternal damnation on a horrific scale.

So unless you happen to be a god, keep out at all cost.

in Off the Map