When all is said and done, the doom that came to Leafington was one of our own making. Knowing full well that it is a fate we cannot escape, we are ready to accept our lot, as we were so ready to surrender our souls to Mr. Orrpus Mendel on that day so long ago. Mr. Mendel was indeed responsible for our town's good fortune, but our co-operation with his scheme has brought a great evil upon our kind. Do not trust its outward appearance, the green arbors, the miasma of colour, Leafington is lost. And, like any plant with seeds that blow on the wind, it has already spread its doom to every other town it has traded with. Every boot that has set foot onto Leafington has picked up the seeds in its treads and spread them further across the world. I can only hope that this warning will travel just as fast and reach the outside world in time.
You see, Mr. Mendel is a devil. A devil with a face like an angel, with twinkling blue eyes like a summer's day sky, a smile as warm and open as a hearth fire, a face so ageless and fascinating, so filled with life and expression, that it is impossible to look away once he has you fixed in his gaze. The beauty is a fey glamour to draw you in. You must never look into his eyes or he already owns your soul. Do not shake his hand, or you are already lost to the world of the living. His vines will snare you and you will be dragged down into the dark insanity that he will eventually spread to the rest of the world.
Mr. Orrpus Mendel had always been a mysterious figure, so much so that most people still don't even know his first name. All we knew, all we cared about, was that Leafington desperately needed a savior, as it had been hit badly by the incessant warring of the period, and this charming, confident man had appeared as if an angel sent down to answer our nightly prayers. This was back when Mad General Diggory's armies rolled across the entire continent, hell-bent on world domination. Leafington was not known for its gardening back then, in the way that it unfortunately is now, or indeed for anything else. Named after Prince Leaf of Leonster, it was merely a coincidence that it was also a village of green and plenty. The soil was fertile, the crops were bountiful and it was unfortunately situated directly in-between General Diggory and the nation he happened to want to own at that precise moment. There was no choice for us but to surrender. The Mad General was true to his word in defending the village from bandits, stopping the raid the instant we surrendered without a single drop of blood being shed, never allowing his soldiers to loot or to harass the populace. He also demanded almost the entire harvest as tribute to aid the grand war effort, leaving the people so poor that he may as well have overtly stole from them. At around the time that Mr. Mendel came upon the scene, Diggory had moved on, abandoning the village that no longer had the money to support itself, so drained of its economy that it could not build itself back up by farming, not when it had no other industry.
Mr. Mendel was a master gardener, he said, and he had been looking for a village such as Leafington for his entire life, a place with the perfect conditions to grow the new breeds of flowers that he had been carefully developing. These flowers would not grow anywhere else – it was to do with the type of soil, and the source of the water in the river, and the way the leylines intersected where the village was built, so that the power of the Earth magnified and welled up at this spot. Once they began to grow, buyers from every corner of the world would flock here, and the village's future would be secured. One day, he promised, Leafington would be great, and the whole world would hear of the little village that had grown overnight into a gardener's paradise and a major trade hub. He only needed a few days' time, and a place where he could live and grow his plants in peace and quiet. After the first week, he would begin to accept apprentices for training in the ways of the master gardener. He would only select those who showed the greatest potential, although if selected, he could unlock their true potential in ways that no other gardener could. Gardening was not just a profession, or even an art form, he explained with the same bright-eyed reverence as any priest, but a type of magic, a commune with the forces of life and the planet itself.
Nobody bothered to ask where he had been growing the plants beforehand, and why he suddenly chose to move. Nobody even suspected a thing when the apprentices began disappearing for longer and longer intervals, failing to emerge from the garden for weeks on end, often bringing more 'guests' of the young people in the town in the middle of the night, or when the varieties of plant he claimed he was able to grow became more and more surreal and terrifying. When he proceeded to actually present the people with the plants in question, they didn't question his explanations, usually a combination of mysticism and tales of far-off lands. Once the money began to come in, thousands of Guilders for each plant, nobody questioned him at all.
It was with the growth of the first 'phantom plant' that Leafington's fortune truly changed. They were truly magical plants, miracles of botanical engineering, such that it became eerie to think that they were even possible. Some of them produced their own light within seed sacs, like natural lanterns, others grew fruit with the exact appearance, texture and taste of cakes, or silvery bell-shaped seeds that produced the most beautiful music when they shook in the wind, or razor sharp petals that grew in exactly the right shape to be plucked off and used as blades to defend Leafington's borders. True to his word, Mr Mendel had brought wealth and fame to the land. Foreign dignitaries flocked to gaze upon the beautiful village with its unique flora, and often bought several of them for tens of thousands of Guilders each. Mad General Diggory himself, now Mad Emperor Diggory, personally ordered his entire palace lined with Sparklestar bush, which were to be the only illumination permitted. Shortly after, he passed a law that harming even a single leaf or petal of a Sparklestar bush was punishable by beheading. By this time, the village had grown into a fairly large town, although Emperor Diggory forbade its further growth, in order to keep its condition pristine, stating that the plants would not like the dirty, noisy conditions of the big cities. Leafington was declared under his personal protection. Despite their earlier bad experiences of relying on the madman, the people of Leafington were a little worried he would have a fit and burn the place down on a whim, so they agreed. After that, peace and tranquility reigned in the town of flowers.
By this time, the entire first batch of apprentices had grown up, became master gardeners and had children of their own, who were in turn trained in the Mendel method of gardening. There were virtually no non-gardeners left in Leafington apart from the bare minimum, increasingly imported, needed to keep the town maintained and its people fed on something other than edible flowers. The walled gardens themselves, awash with a riot of colour, sparkling wisps of lights and, increasingly, strange growling noises, now took up most of the town like a second palace, and were heavily guarded. Most days, the gardeners were hardly ever seen to enter or leave. Only certain types of trade, mostly garden related, was allowed into the inner sanctum of Leafington. Gradually, almost imperceptibly, Leafington began to close off from the outside world altogether.
And still, nobody asked questions. Nobody asked what the growling noises were, or the strange elongated shadows that flickered in the night, or what exactly happened to you in Leafington if you happened not to be a particularly good gardener.
It had been one of the apprentice gardeners, drunk on the beer that Leafington brewed from a mixture of its edible plants, who first saw the lights in the sky. They had been out at night, well after Mr. Mendel's strictly enforced curfew, as part of a prank that involved putting a Sunset Snapper on one of the senior gardener's patio chair so it would bite him in an unfortunate place. At first they assumed it was the strong and mildly hallucinogenic drink that was causing them to see the disc-shaped lights steadily growing larger and closer. UFO sightings were common all around the Plaza continent, and were usually attributed to hallucinogenic drugs. They hid underneath a gazebo and watched the lights manifest into small cylindrical metal shapes that landed silently in the central clearing. A hatch opened in the nearest one and a terrifying shape descended the steps leading from it. A gold-plated skeleton with a leering painted skull walked towards the door of Mr. Mendel's office. The man greeted the monster as though they had known each other all their lives, and they began whispering. Curiosity overcame terror, and the apprentices sneaked forward to listen more closely.
"... reached critical mass. The biotechnology has been fully developed and has already been deployed to every key region of the planet. We're almost ready to move to the second stage," promised Mr. Mendel, beaming that cheerful, unassuming smile of his.
"What about the humans?"
"I have them firmly under my control. They will soon be programmed into perfect units in my terraforming machine. The failures have been... given to the machine as samples, so that the plants are keyed precisely to the human genome. The correctly conditioned humans will not be in a position to object when I move them off planet. I can promise you that this world will be made perfect for your purposes," he said, "You'll make a lot of money. It won't matter to you what I plan to do afterwards. Repeat the process on another planet, for another buyer, I suppose."
"This is all well and good, but it's moving rather slowly."
"Patience, Mr. Goldbone, good craftsmanship takes time. With the rate that plants normally grow on this planet, you're lucky I've managed to make this much progress," the smile did not vanish, even when he was annoyed. The only time he really looked disappointed, it was when nobody wanted to come and visit him in his garden, or when visitors hadn't brought guests. It wasn't a matter of fear, you couldn't refuse Mr. Mendel of anything. The look on his face was heartbreaking, like upsetting a puppy. Neither of the apprentices could match Mr. Mendel's face with the kind of person who would sell out an entire planet to invading aliens, who would manipulate an entire world, and who would feed those who failed him into some kind of nightmare machine. He didn't even gloat over his evil or mock those who he had exploited; he talked about it as if he was just negotiating another plant sale.
Suddenly, the skeleton whirled around, looking frantic. Mr. Mendel gave him a puzzled, mildly concerned look.
"My cloaking device has been down the whole time! Some idiot turned the power off again! If I find out they unplugged it to put the kettle on again, someone's going to have a fun and exciting trip out of the airlock!"
"You mean, we're compromised?" a hint of disappointment was finally showing through.
"Mr. Mendel, are you absolutely sure all your workers are asleep?"
"They should be, but I'll have guard plants sweep the perimeter," he said, then brightened up again.
The two apprentices heard growling and snapping teeth behind them. They ran, not looking behind them, then climbed the walls. One of them was bitten fiercely in the leg, and has never been able to walk on that leg since, while the other claims to have been shot with a strange ray. He seems okay, but sometimes he sleepwalks, and nobody can quite work out where it is he goes. When he returns, he wakes up screaming in a language that isn't from anywhere on the planet. On every other detail, their stories collaborate, and it all seems to fit together so well, now that we stop to think about it.
These days, there are more lights in the sky with each passing day. It's now impossible to get into Leafington unless you're one of the people who is drawn to the gardens, as if hypnotised, then just disappears. The flowers have spread over every continent and have cross-pollinated into the wild until they have overrun most other species. Appeals have been made to Emperor Diggory by concerned environmentalists who want Leafington shut down, but they are generally dismissed as paranoid sensationalists, and besides, it isn't clear what Diggory would actually do to stop the plants from spreading even if no more were grown in Leafington. They have grown up and moved from their nursery now, and they can survive on their own. Plants had already been the true dominant species on the planet, and now they were literally paving the way for an invasion by another sentient species.
Anyone else would have given up hope, but I can still remember the days when there were heroes among us, heroes who rose up to battle great evils. When Emperor Diggory was simply a troubled monarch of a border province, repeatedly abducted by Undead fiends in an attempt to sacrifice royal blood in the ultimate necromantic ritual, adventurers flocked to rescue him and slay the monsters. Now that the enemy is not a corruption and overabundance of death, but of life, I can only pray that it will be no different. And that the evil ultimately comes from the stars should not matter, for if there is evil and lawlessness beyond the stars, then there must be some good somewhere.