At the Root of the Worlds — Part Five

I was falling and climbing, sliding and flying. I was bitterly cold and achingly hot. I closed my eyes, but I could still see. 

I was Traveling through a root of the World Tree. I was passing through the nexus of creation, journeying along the pathways that connected every world in my universe, every world in every other universe, everything, every where. 

Glimpses. The briefest, most haunting flashes of places that I could barely imagine: sand dunes taller than mountains, an endless ocean populated by opalescent whales, feathered serpents singing rainbows into existence, armored wolves slaughtering one another beneath a triple moon, an angry green sun burning the sky ….

Infinity.

I would Travel forever. I wasn’t a worldwalker. I would fall, climb, slide, fly forever, out of control, without end, forever and ever and —

— I would go mad.

The arrow. It shook in my hand, seeking, struggling to be loosed. I held on tight, fingers curled, clutching the arrow and my bow. The arrow bucked. I could almost feel its desperation, its desire to fly free, to find what it sought —

I landed hard, breath exploding from my lungs. Sand filled my mouth.

I pushed myself to my knees, still gripping the arrow. Two cracked moons low in the sky. Silver-white sand, stretching to the horizon in all directions. A single tree, trunk pitted, large silken red leaves hanging still.

I tried to draw a breath, to refill my lungs. The air was … wrong. Too thin, tasting of frosted dirt.

Turning on one knee, I saw Alex and Olivia. They stood back to back, Olivia’s hands and mouth still bound. Alex held a gun in either hand, his arms extended, gaze hard; his bandage was stained with blood. We were surrounded by kallikantzaroi. Half-a-dozen of the creatures hissed and snarled, tongues lolling, their matted fur white and black and red, and more were clambering out of a narrow fissure in the sand. The one who had dragged Olivia back into the water lay dead at her feet, its face a mess of bullet wounds.

“Olivia!” I tried to yell, but my tongue was gritty and the air didn’t carry the sound right. Still, she heard me, her head swinging around. Her eyes widened as I aimed, sighting down the shaft. She bent awkwardly, holding her arms out straight behind her back.

The kallikantzaroi charged forward, hissing, tongues curling.

The arrow flew, slamming into the strange metal-obsidian that bound her wrists. There was a crack. She strained, snarling against the band over her mouth. Another crack. The cuffs shattered. The arrow dropped into the sand.

I pushed myself all the way to my feet, pulling another arrow. One of the creatures dove at me, slavering, and I shoved the arrow through its right eyeball. It tumbled away, crying and whimpering. Milky white blood dribbled.

Olivia’s hands danced. She drew sigils in the air so fast that I couldn’t decipher them.

A geyser of sand exploded upwards, spun and twisted into a miniature tornado. It whipped to one side, catching two of the kallikantzaroi and shredding the meat from their bones. The torn mess flew in all directions as the tornado dissipated, wet and chunky.

Alex’ pistols cracked, again and again. Kallikantzaroi jerked, bleeding, still hissing. Skulls shattered. There was a pause and I heard glass break and caught a whiff of cat urine; a kallikantzaros ran past me, howling and reeking. More gun shots.

Clawed hands closed around my arm. I bent, twisted, pulling a bronze knife from my boot to drive it into the creature’s knee. It hissed as it fell backwards, and I loosed an arrow through its open mouth and into its head. 

Olivia flipped, rolling across Alex’ back as he bent over, switched positions with her, his guns flashing. More sigils, her gestures elegant, spare, graceful despite her exhaustion. There was an explosion of heat, the air rushing out, carrying a wall of sand, and the temperature suddenly plummeted. Olivia stood at the center of a sphere of cold, the sand now as hard as concrete and as slick as glass, gleaming in the moonlight.

The kallikantzaroi tumbled and spilled, hooves sliding across the ground.

I threw a vial of garlic water between the eyes of one. When it scrabbled to wipe its face, I slammed my knife into its throat.

Claws tangled in my hair, grabbing at the knot. I was jerked backwards. I stumbled, caught a glimpse of the tree with the pitted trunk and silken red leaves. I fell, I was falling again, down, down, down ….

… was I screaming? I was too hot and too cold again, and I was flying and falling, side to side, up and down simultaneously.

The kallizantzaros. The creature who had grabbed me and dragged me back into the Tree. Its clawed hand was still tangled in my hair, the second extended to gouge at my stomach and chest. Corset, dragon silk. Claws snagged, but didn’t cut.

Worlds flashed and flickered in the periphery, dizzying, nauseating, familiar, strange, curious, alien, bizarre ….

I rammed my bow into its forehead. I felt its howl of pain in my bones, more than I heard it.

The kallikantzaros grabbed the bow, sharp fingers curling around the riser. I held on tight. I didn’t, wouldn’t, couldn’t, let go.

It smiled at me, drooling.

The pathway … changed. The root quivered and shriveled and a world opened up before me. But not a world, not a place, a nothing, nothing, nothing.

My soul screamed.

I let go. I let go. I let go of my bow.

The kallikantzaros shrieked and lunged, reaching for me, the bow spinning away.

Graceful fingers curled around my wrist, caught me, pulled me back, back, back —

— I landed in a thick pile of leaves. They crunched beneath me, spilling across my body, half burying me in gold, yellow, red, and brown.

I panted, inhaling the comforting scents: grass, dirt, oak, birch, pine, and so many others.

Olivia’s fingers flexed around my wrist, digging into the flesh. 

I opened my eyes. Trees. So many trees, some I recognized, others I did not, rising towards a brilliant sapphire sky and a sun that I couldn’t see, but there was warm light spilling through the branches.

I turned my head. Olivia knelt beside me, bent over double, her forehead pressed to the ground. She was breathing heavily, her skin clammy and pale. The strange band was gone. Razor thin horizontal cuts sliced across her cheeks and chin; clotted blood trailed down her face.

Alex was on her far side, her other hand clamped around his forearm. His free arm was draped across her back, his face pressed into her hair. He was crying.

Alex was crying.

I looked away, my eyes prickling, and drew a deep breath. Then another. I tried to roll away, to get away from them, but Olivia’s grip tightened again.

“Don’t let go,” she whispered, her voice raw. “Don’t let go.”

I lay still in the bed of leaves. I tried not to hear Alex weeping, tried not to feel Olivia shift as she sat up and leaned her head against his chest, tried not to notice the way he stroked her back and her cheeks. 

I failed.

My eyes prickled again, my heart thudding and then breaking clean through. The anger was still there, but duller, not as sharp. And the hatred, the hatred I had told Ellie and myself that I felt for Alex … that dulled, too, faded. It was a pain that I knew I could survive.

He wasn’t mine anymore. He hadn’t been for a long time, and he never would be again.

***

“Where’s your bow?” Olivia sat upright, her eyes red-rimmed. 

I stared up at the trees. A breeze moved through the upper branches. I kept expecting to see birds, bugs, squirrels; but there was nothing; just trees. And it seemed to be every season here at once, on every tree: some branches were bare, others were covered in new buds or thick with leaves, while other branches were heavy with autumn foliage.

“Where are we?” I asked, refusing to answer her question. I had finally accepted the reality that Alex was lost to me; I couldn’t face the reality that my bow was lost, as well. Not yet.

She sniffed, looking around. His eyes still closed, Alex rubbed his hand across her shoulders. She curled into his touch. “Some people call it the Ironwood. Or the Questing Forest. The Enchanted Forest. The Greenwood. This is the forest. It spans creation; every creation. Every worldwalker comes here, because only worldwalkers can come here.” She turned to look directly at me. “So don’t let go.”

“And that … other place, where the kallikantzaros was taking me …?”

“Nowhere and nothing. No where and no thing. A branch cut away, and lost. You would have been unmade, just like the kallikantzaros.” Her jaw ticked. “I’m sorry that your bow is gone.”

Alex’ eyes snapped open and he stared at me over the top of Olivia’s head. His hand stopped moving across her back. He opened his mouth.

“Don’t!” I barked, then swallowed and looked away. “Don’t,” I said again, lower, weary.

Olivia rolled her shoulders. “I’m better now. I can get us home.” 

The three of us clambered awkwardly to our feet. Olivia led the way, weaving in and among the trees in no pattern that I could discern; but she seemed to know where she was going. We passed maple trees and sycamores, cypresses and kapok, and even trees that were long extinct on our world; and plenty more that I could not identify, their bark and leaves in every imaginable and unimaginable color.

I caught swift movement out of the corner of my eye, at the same moment that Alex tensed and reached for his pockets.

“Don’t worry. Those are just the Wolves. Here. This is it.” Olivia stopped in front of an ordinary looking ash tree, its branches heavy with leaves and buds and seeds. She began to take a step, but I dug my feet into the ground.

“Wait. You don’t ….” I swallowed. I looked between them, back and forth, really looked at them, together. “You’re right. You should have told me. You shouldn’t have lied. But you’re … you’re better. Together. You fit. The two of you. More than we did.” Olivia frowned, and Alex seemed on the verge of speaking again. “You don’t have to go back!” I blurted. “You can just … Walk away.” I shrugged, flushing. “I can’t stop you. I can’t follow you. And I’ll have no idea where you’re going. When they ask, that’ll be the truth.”

Alex and Olivia exchanged a long glance, silent.

He lifted a hand to gently touch one of her bloody cheeks, and shook his head. “One oathbreaker in the family is enough. Olivia took a vow when she signed on with the agency. I won’t ask her to violate that just so that I can avoid a few years in a cell.”

“It’s going to be more than a few years,” I whispered.

Olivia closed her eyes, tears leaking from the each corner.

Alex shrugged, his smile resigned. “Like I said when I asked for your help: she’s worth it.” 

I had no answer to that, not here and now.

Olivia squeezed his arm. Then she stepped forward — “Deep breath” — pulling us with her —

— and we were in water. I flailed. Alex grabbed my arm, bubbles rising from his mouth. He pointed, following the bubbles. We kicked, the three of us swimming up, up, up. I reached out, forward, up.

My hand hit the bridge. I curled my fingers around the lip of the walkway, stretching, straining to pull myself above the surface of the water. When my face touched the air, I gasped, sucking in a deep breath.

I blinked rapidly. A gun was pointed between my eyes.

The same agent who had stood at the head of the swarm, who had called my name and ordered me to stop. He was still surrounded by a swarm, only now there were also cars, heavy-duty trucks, huge lights, and angry-looking dogs.

“Doctor Moretti.” He tilted his head, eyes hard and suspicious. “Consider yourself rescued. Witch Clarkson will be relieved.”

I didn’t respond, just wiped water from my chin.

“Agent Cutter, welcome home.” His gun swiveled, more agents joining him, some in tactical gear, others in suits. Every weapon was pointed at Alex. “Gutierrez. Out. Now.”

***

They wrapped Alex in chains: his hands, his ankles, his chest. They stripped him of his weapons and spells, and then they tossed him into the back of a plain car. Olivia just had time to reach through the open door, touch his hair, press her forehead to his, whisper something that I couldn’t hear … and then they pulled her away and the car was driving off.

I hugged my leather jacket tighter around my body. The bench in front of the otter house was uncomfortable and I was dripping wet and cold, but the otters were cute. They swam in circles, thrilled by all of the unexpected activity in their Zoo. 

A pair of agents walked past me, boots squelching, their legs coated in a slimy, jelly-like substance. They glared at me, muttering about charybdis figs. An irritating, sneeze-inducing cloud from the puff mushrooms still lingered around the front gate, forcing people to cover their faces or use the side entrance. And there were Great Dane-sized toads hopping around, with agents frantically trying to corral them. 

“Doctor Moretti?”

“Olivia needs medical attention, Agent … what’s your name?” I squinted up at the one who seemed to be in charge. “Did you find the guard, uh, Alex knocked out?”

“Dare.”

“What?”

“I’m answering your first question.”

My stomach rumbled. I was having trouble following the conversation. I needed food, a shower, and a warm bed, badly. “Right. Agent Dare, Olivia needs medical attention. There’s a dedicant of Eir in the transient camp. Name of Krysa. I’m sure they’ll take care of her. Did you find the guard? Oh, and thank you for rescuing me.”

His mouth thinned. “Witch Clarkson is adamant that Gutierrez coerced you into assisting him. Forced his way into your home, smashed some of the furniture, threatened her and tied her up.”

“Yep. That’s what happened.”

“You jumped after them.”

“Pretty sure I fell in.”

He stood in front of me for a long minute, hands on his hips, unmoving in the center of the chaos that had consumed the Zoo. His eyebrow twitched. “Where’s your bow? And why do you only have five arrows?”

My gaze dropped to the quiver. I ran one shaking hand over the bronze feathers of the fletching. The arrow that I had used to pin the bronze case with its saw to the bridge had been confiscated by Dare’s people; I had seen it being taken away. But the arrow that I had loosed on that desert world beneath the twin cracked moons had not returned; maybe it had followed the bow into oblivion. Only these five, for whatever reason, had remained with me. 

I drew an unsteady breath. “Gone.”

Silence greeted my answer.

“I’ll be in touch,” he finally said, and turned away.

“Olivia —”

“Agent Cutter’s injuries will be seen to,” he snapped over his shoulder and stalked off, leaving me alone with the otters.

***

A young agent in a suit, her hair neatly pinned, was tasked with driving me home. I caught a glimpse of Olivia seated on the back gate of a truck, Krysa’s fingers cupping her cheeks. As we drove past the transient camp, Diánoia stepped out of the shadows to wave her hand in blessing. And then I was away, out of Attleboro and headed back up I-95 to Boston.

I slept most of the way, my neck twisted at an uncomfortable angle.

The sun had just lifted above Boston Harbor when we pulled up in front of the house. The suit never said a word; she just let the car idle as I climbed out. I caught glimpses of curtains twitching, and wondered what stories my neighbors would be sharing over the fence. The car finally pulled away when I shut and locked the front door behind me.

Ellie was sound asleep in her chair, her legs propped on the footstool in front of the fireplace. There were fresh dirt streaks on her face. I fixed her blanket and then quietly went down the steps to the basement to stow my now-useless arrows.

I wondered what five-times great-grandmother Kathryn would have to say about that. About me losing the bow that had been passed down for uncounted generations.

She would not be proud —

I stumbled to a halt when I reached the bottom step.

The garden was gone.

Only a few plants remained: some rainbow and corpse mushrooms, the toad’s stools and black lotus, and the single charybdis fig shrub. The moly, boney belladonna, and chthonic jasmine, the raskovnik and the leuce tree — gone.

I dropped onto the stairs in shock, staring at the nearly empty walls and floor, the dirt bare and dark brown.

A shuddering breath rattled through my chest, then another and another. I curled forward into a ball, arms wrapped around my legs. Pain and grief tore through me, the roar of an avalanche. I don’t know when the tears started, or the sobs that rubbed my throat raw. I only know that a gentle hand settled on my shoulder, and a comforting arm wrapped around me.

Ellie pressed her cheek to my back, whispering nonsense words of comfort and sympathy. Then she kissed the back of my head. “Oh, my girl, my dear girl. You have already lost so much. Do you think that I would let them take this, too?”

She bent forward, dropping to her knees on the bare ground. She pressed her hands against the dirt, and let them slowly sink into the earth up to her elbows. She closed her eyes.

A moment passed. Two. Three.

Dirt dribbled down the far wall, pushed up from the floor. The leuce tree emerged, its brilliant white flowers and papery bark smudged, but intact. Moly poked back up through the ground, followed by a slim clump of boney belladonna. The chthonic jasmine was next, a single stalk, the head turning towards me, the flowers shivering; and then the raskovnik, the earth almost seeming to burp as it spat one upside down tortoise shell back into the basement. 

Ellie sat back down next to me, shaking the dirt from her arms. “It’s not everything. I couldn’t hide it all, or they would have been suspicious. So, some of it. Enough that we should be able to regrow the whole garden in a year or so.”

I threw my arms around her in a bruising hug, laughing, hiccuping, and crying all at once.

Epilogue — Three Months Later

“… which brings us back to my previous example: Charles Hensley. The governor had made a deal — sworn a binding oath — with the Court of the Black Pearl. The fae would provide five years of summer and improved soil fertility, allowing the residents of Providence, and many neighboring communities, to grow the food they needed to survive. They grew so much food that they were actually able to export some of it to Boston, Worcester, Hartford, and Newport, allowing those communities to stabilize by the end of the 1960s; which, in turn, helped stabilize the rest of New England, with federal control fully restored by 1974.”

I waited until the sounds of scribbling slowed and stopped. My students looked up expectantly.

“The terms of the deal were clear: good weather and food in exchange for fifty children, who would be selected at random when the five years came to an end. Hensley agreed. The state’s General Assembly and the state police went along. But when the time came, and Hensley’s own son was selected by the fae — he refused. He broke his word.”

I clicked a button on my podium. One after another, black and white photographs of Providence flashed onto the screen: the shell of the State House, the twisted and torn bridges, the parks overgrown with carnivorous plants, the crater where Hensley’s house had once stood.

“The fae do not operate by human ethical standards. The Black Pearl, in particular, places a heavy emphasis on deal-making; honor and status are derived by making clever deals which benefit the Court, and which are carried through to the letter. A deal-breaker, an oathbreaker, is, to the Court of the Black Pearl and many other fae, the lowest form of criminal; not even worthy of a trial. Execution is the only suitable punishment, and it was carried out immediately.”

Pictures continued to slide across the screen.

“Hensley was the Governor; by fae standards, both the ruler and the representative of the people. And as he had shamed himself, proven himself to be without honor, so his shame and dishonor were theirs, as well. And they all paid the price.” 

I hit the button again. A single photograph remained on the screen: the mass grave that now covered India Point Park.

“Take note, all you future politicians in the room: when you assume a position of public trust, you are responsible for and accountable to the public. Take care in what agreements you make and with whom you make them. Never forget the impact that your words and actions will have on the public you have chosen to serve. Never forget your duty to your fellow citizens.”

A low tone sounded overhead, and my students began to gather up their bags and papers and books. 

“Enjoy your weekend, but remember for Monday: Aristotle chapters five and six, Machiavelli two and three, Pirsig eight, and Rousseau seven and eight.”

I smiled and nodded and waved as the students descended the tiered seats and shuffled to the doors at the back of the classroom. A few smiled in return, or waved; none had ever been bold enough to ask why the university had ordered me to take a week’s leave, and then restricted me to my desk for another two weeks.

I was lucky that my TA had been prepared to take over.

Gathering up my own bag and notebooks and water bottle, I turned towards the exit, only to pull up short.

“Agent Dare. I didn’t hear you come in.”

“Doctor Moretti. It’s SAC, actually.” He paced towards me, a long flat case in one hand. He was in a suit this time, the cloth cut to hide the various guns, daggers, and spell bottles that he was no doubt carrying.

“Special Agent … in Charge?” I translated. 

He barely nodded. “We have concluded our investigation. I wanted to return this to you.”

Dare held out the case. 

Eyebrow raised, I set aside my bag, took the case, and opened it. 

The sixth bronze arrow lay inside. It looked … dull.

I felt my jaw tighten. Taking a steadying breath, I closed the case and looked back up at Dare.

“Thank you.”

Another bare nod and he turned away.

I took a step forward, hugging the case to my chest. “Dare. Special Agent! What happened? Can you tell me … Alex? And Olivia?”

He half-turned, studying me for a moment, then continued on towards the door. His voice echoed back over his shoulder. “I recommend that you stop by your office before you go home.”

“Why?”

No answer. 

I didn’t even hear the door click open and shut.

Muttering, I loaded my arms with my bag, the arrow case, a pile of notebooks, and my water bottle, and headed down the hall to the philosophy department office.

I found Cyrus at his desk, carefully shuffling papers into the various in-boxes for myself and the other five instructors. He looked up when he saw me, smiling over his glasses. “Hey, Professor. Got a package for you.” He leaned down, disappearing behind his desk for a moment. He emerged a moment later with a leather bundle; slightly curved on either end —

— I dropped my bag and books and water bottle, and snatched the bundle from his hands. I laid it down on his desk, knocking askew some of his piles of papers.

“Uh,” he said.

I hastily unbuttoned the leather and flipped back the top.

Inside, carefully tied with thongs to hold them in position, lay my bow and the seventh arrow.

“Professor? You okay?”

I licked my lips. “Cyrus, who delivered this? Was it a man? Tall, suit, never smiles?”

“Well, tall, yes. But a woman. Long red hair. Gorgeous, even, uh, well, even with the scars. She said she was returning this? You’re into archery?”

I ran my fingers along the familiar and comforting riser and the smooth curves of the upper and lower limbs. “Did she say anything else?”

“… Something about taking a walk in the woods in ten years.”

I suppressed a flinch. Pulling the flap back over, I quickly re-buttoned the leather bundle and added that to my armload. I offered a distracted “Thanks! Have a good weekend!” and ran down the hallway and out the front door.

There was no sign of either Dare or Olivia. I had no doubt that he had cleared it through official channels before returning the sixth arrow to me; he was definitely that kind of agent. But Olivia? Probably not. How long had it taken her to find the bow and the seventh arrow? How many journeys had she made into the World Tree? How close had she come to being unmade in the No Where that was No Thing to reclaim it for me?

I shuddered. The uncontrollable fall, worlds sliding past, the kallikantzaros clawing and drooling. 

And why hadn’t my five arrows disappeared and made their way to the bow as soon as she stepped into the world with it? I drew an uncertain breath at the thought, remembering the dullness of the sixth arrow inside its case.

And how had Dare known?

Too many questions.

I shook my head.

Maybe Ellie would have some insights.

And the new raskovnik seedlings were ready to transplant.  

Adjusting the various awkward items in my arms and over my shoulder, hugging my bow close, I hurried towards the bus stop, and home.

[End (For Now)]

[Rebecca Buchanan is the editor of the Pagan literary ezine, Eternal Haunted Summer. A complete list of her published works can be found there.]