At the Root of the Worlds — Part Four

We took the long way around the Zoo, up and around and back down the far side. The maintenance shed backed right up against the stone wall, and there were gouges in the rock; partly natural, partly carved by desperate hands.

Alex climbed up first while I swapped out Olivia’s undercover, uncomfortable shoes for my practical, appropriately-sized boots. He laid flat along the top of the wall, head moving slowly back and forth. When he scrambled onto the roof of the shed, I climbed up after him, then dropped to the ground.

Only a handful of tall lamps illuminated the interior of the Zoo, scattered at regular intervals along the looping pathways. The little light they offered caught snatches of movement: staff coaxing some of the animals into their enclosures for the evening. I caught pieces of words here and there as the zookeepers chatted at the animals and to one another; nothing high-pitched or alarmed.

A fancy, shiny padlock held the door of the shed shut, backed up by a stinging, prickly keep away ward. I could feel it poking into my skin as I drew close to the door. They couldn’t ward the public areas, but they could place protections on the more restricted buildings. Something the Zoo had added after the repeated break-ins by Diánoia’s guests?

When Alex knelt to inspect the lock, I tapped his shoulder. He looked up at me and I pulled the single raskovnik bud from my utility belt. His eyebrows jumped, then he nodded. He popped the bud into his mouth, grimacing at the foul taste, then spat on the lock.

The padlock snapped open and the ward faded, intact but no longer a barrier.

I kept my hand on his shoulder as he stood and slid open the door. It creaked in its track. We carefully stepped through and he closed the door behind us. I heard the lock snap back into place and felt the ward flash back to full strength.

Shuddering, I released his shoulder, gratefully tugged off the stinky jacket, and tossed it to the floor. My dragon silk shirts and the inner lining of my jeans were plastered to my skin. The dried mud on my face and hands itched. I felt disgusting.

A warm yellow-orange light appeared low to the floor, then lifted. Alex held up the liquid sun, the fluid swirling inside its crystal vial.

I blinked in astonishment. I had only ever seen one of those in my life.

I wondered if he had stolen the liquid sun along with the saw, or if he had acquired it someplace else.

Alex pointed at the coat I had dropped and waited for me to pick it up. Then, finger to his lips, he carefully led me around boxes and barrels and shelves neatly lined with tools to the back corner of the shed. I tossed the jacket aside again and dropped to the floor between bags of mulch and a stack of crates. Alex pulled off his own coat and cap, and quietly lowered himself down beside me.

And we waited.

I drank some more of the sour grape juice. Alex nibbled on a hard nutrient bar.

We swapped. He finished off the juice and I managed to swallow the last few bites of the cardboard-flavored brick.

And we waited.

Silence outside. Owls. Bats chittering. Goats, and a weird warbling that must have been the alpacas. The lion snarled and everything went quiet for a while until the goats started bleating again.

Footsteps. The lock rattled.

Alex slid his free hand inside his jacket and pulled out a small, palm-sized mirror. The sigils etched across its surface were dull in the yellow-orange light.

The lock snapped open and the door began to slide, wheels grating.

I slipped my arm through the crook of his elbow, reaching forward to wrap my bare fingers around the exposed skin of his wrist.

Touching him. I was touching him again. And only hours ago I had yelled at him for almost touching me.

Alex crushed the mirror in his hand, his blood coating the glass, filling the shallow indentations of the sigils. I felt the faint shimmer as the reflection spell blanketed us.

A figure stepped through, tall, clad in the green overalls of the Zoo staff. His heavy belt rattled with tools and his flashlight cut through the darkness. He walked up the space between the shelves, dug around, examined a few random bags, and pulled one out. He circled around, light bobbing, walking right past us and out the door.

Wheels ground, and it slid back into place. The lock snapped shut, the ward clicked. Footsteps fading away.

Alex slowly uncurled his fingers. Shards of bloody glass tumbled to the ground.

I spent the next twenty minutes picking slivers of mirror out of his palm and fingers. He flinched twice, but stayed quiet. When I was sure that all of the glass had been removed, I slathered healing salve over the wounds and wrapped his hand with a strip of plain white cotton.

And we waited.


At eleven, we left our hiding spot and carefully slipped out of the shed. Alex tucked the vial of liquid sun back inside his jacket, the light fading once he stopped holding it.

The lone maintenance worker/security guard — the same individual who had accessed the shed earlier — was easy enough to find. His voice carried as he chatted at the otters through the exterior glass walls of their enclosure. They watched him curiously, paws flat against the windows, heads bobbing and twisting as we stole up behind him.

I pressed a fistful of crushed leuce petals over his nose and mouth. Half a breath, and he was sound asleep. Alex caught him as he fell, dragging him through the door of the enclosure, and left him there on the floor. The otters swirled past the interior window, circling.

We double-checked the rest of the grounds, making our way up and down the pathways, careful to stay out of reach of the lights. The great white lion paced along the edge of his island, watching us on the far side of the safety fence. I could hear the goats and alpacas and cranes, and the birds and insects inside the rainforest building. When we reached the concession area, we cautiously made our way along the shuttered food stand, stopping where it connected with the front gate.

Alex crouched, angling just enough that he could see around the edge of the wall. I followed suit, leaning above him. From here, most of the parking lot was visible, trees growing dark and tall just beyond the asphalt. I could see a few small campfires in the tent city and vague figures moving around.

Alex tugged on the hem of my jacket with his unbandaged hand and I squatted down next to him. He leaned in close, his breath ghosting across my ear as he whispered, “They’re in the camp.”

I licked my lips, trying to ignore the heat of his skin. “They don’t know we’re in here. They’re waiting for us in the camp.”

He nodded. “We’re going to be making a lot of noise. They’ll come running. Got anything that can slow them down?”

I gave him an arch look, and pulled the handful of charybdis figs out of my utility belt.

Alex grinned and held up three whole puff mushrooms.

I shook my head. “Clearly the laws don’t apply to you.”

“Says the woman growing raskovnik in her basement.”

Shaking my head again, I tossed the figs, one at a time, across the space in front of the gate. They ended up in a rough, jagged line, dull reddish-black bumps on the ground. The puff mushrooms followed, Alex rolling them very carefully to keep them from rupturing.

Then it was back around the concession area, left at the rainforest building, to the otters again. Out of sight of the front entrance, we stood, stretching, working out kinks. As I was checking my utility belt, I felt Alex’ gaze on me and looked up.

Given the way his head was angled, his expression was hidden by darkness, but his voice was heavy. “Thank you. Again.”

I pulled the slim bronze case out of my pocket and handed it to him. “Don’t mention it. Please.”

He was still for a long moment, then nodded, took the case, and turned away. Back straight, he made his way through the small amphitheater to the edge of the lemurs’ lake. He stopped at the end of the long wooden bridge that bisected the water. A few golden-eyed lemurs scampered around the islands that sat on either side of the bridge, jumping from one piece of playground equipment to another, only mildly curious about the strange humans in their territory.

I hung a left and dodged through the shallow play area. The fountains had been turned off, the water long fallen silent and drained away. The tiles were dry and bright blue, inlaid with images of smiling mermaids.

They only smiled when their bellies were full.

Not a decoration I would have chosen for a children’s play area.

A wrought iron fence and low stone wall at the back of the play area marked it off from the lemurs’ lake. I crouched down, making sure that I had a clear view of Alex at one end of the bridge, and the entire length of the bridge itself. I could smell the water, and hear it slapping softly against the wall below me.

No sign of the kallikantzaroi yet.

Reaching into my belt, I pulled out a dozen small toad’s stools and flung them, hard, across the water. They bounced and rolled across the nearer island, a few splashing into the lake. One of the lemurs scampered up close for a sniff, made a disgusted sound, and raced for the safety of a nearby jungle gym. Between the moonlight and the wet ground, it wouldn’t take the toad’s stools very long to transform —

The water on the near side of the bridge began to bubble and hiss. The lemurs disappeared inside their treehouse. One clawed hand reached out of the lake, grabbed the bridge. Then another, and another, and another.

Instinctively, I lifted an arrow from my quiver and notched it in my bow.

A kallikantzaros climbed out of the bubbling, hissing water, red fur dripping. It nimbly clambered up onto the railing of the bridge, sniffing, horned head cocked. When its white gaze fixed on Alex, it growled, tusks stretching its lips. Another kallikantzaros leapt up behind it, fur a brilliant white, hooves clacking against the wood as it jumped to the far railing. The kallikantzaroi chittered in agitation, the sound grating across my skin, bouncing around the hollow of the play area.

I risked a quick glance over my shoulder, searching, listening for any sign that Alex’ agency colleagues had heard the creatures and were now making their way into the Zoo.

But, no.

I turned back to see another kallikantzaros emerge from the lake, dragging Olivia by her long red hair. Her feet kicked, splashing, catching as they hauled her over the railing, trying to relieve some of the pressure on her scalp; I felt myself cringing in sympathy. Her hands were bound behind her back by something dull black and metallic. A second metal band wrapped around her face, covering her mouth. The metal cut into her cheeks, and I could see the streaks of blood running down her face.

Not metal. Not obsidian. The same strange material as the saw.

Whatever it was, just as it could cut the World Tree, so it apparently could also cut a worldwalker — and prevent her from walking. If Olivia could have escaped, she would have done so.

They tossed her onto the bridge with a loud, wet splat.

Alex took half-a-step forward, and his expression in the moonlight was terrible.

Two more kallizantzaroi dragged themselves out of the water and onto the bridge.

Five. Five creatures of nightmare who would kill Alex and Olivia, take back their saw, and return to hacking away at the World Tree, leaf by leaf, branch by branch, root by root, unmaking creation.

“You bring teeeeeeth?”

I flinched as the first kallikantzaros spoke, his voice stabbing into my ears.

Alex reached into his pocket and held the case aloft with his bandaged hand.

I heard a croak, and then another.

A small greenish shape hopped across the nearer island, and then another, and another. The shapes continued to croak and grow and hop, now the size of rabbits, now the size of spaniels.

One of the kallikantzaroi turned, its attention caught. Its long tongue flicked, spittle flying.

I pulled back on the arrow, sighting down the shaft.

A toad, now fully transformed and the size of an Irish setter, jumped up onto the bridge behind the cluster of kallikantzaroi. It gave a throaty croak, oblivious to the danger it was in — until one of the creatures lunged at it, claws extended. The toad squealed, bleeding, and frantically tried to jump away. The kallikantzaros lifted the toad in triumph and danced, claws embedded deep, tongue twisting and shimmying.

I put an arrow through its head.

Alex’ gun cracked, bullet tearing through the throat of the creature on the far railing. Something white that might have been blood splattered. It flailed and plunged into the water.

The arrow disappeared, reappeared in my quiver.

The kallikantzaros still standing on the near railing shrieked, a teeth-grating howl of outrage. The cry was picked up by the other two remaining creatures, their mouths wide, their hooves kicking at the wooden planks. I took the first creature down with an arrow through the chest, the bolt almost immediately re-materializing at my side.

Olivia threw herself forward, towards Alex. He sprinted towards her, boots seeming to barely touch the bridge.

Shouts. I heard yelling behind me, and the distinct whoomp of the puff mushrooms and the wild, watery swirling of the charybdis figs.

Olivia fell, her shoulder and cheek slamming into the wood as the kallikantzaros grabbed her ankle. She was kicking, Alex was running, I was shouting, shouting something.

The creature grabbed Olivia, wrapping an arm around her throat, and jumped backwards, over the railing, dragging her back into the water, down, down, down.

Alex screamed her name, ran faster. Leapt, disappeared into the broiling lake.

Pounding feet behind me, lights flashing.

Swearing, I jumped up and ran for the end of the bridge, following the line of the wrought iron fence. Through the amphitheater, across the wooden planks —

— box. Little bronze box with the saw. Alex had dropped it. I notched an arrow, let loose, pinning the box to the ground —

— the water was still hissing and bubbling. I dodged around the dead kallikantzaros, squatted as I ran, dragging the tip of another arrow through the smear of Olivia’s blood, nocked it in my bow, and jumped up onto the railing.

Someone yelled my name. I looked back as agents in leather and body armor and the ragged clothing of transients swarmed the end of the bridge and the fence across the lake. The lemurs huddled in their treehouse, eyes bright. Lots of guns pointed at me.

The agent at the front of the swarm shouted my name again. His tactical gear was so dark that it seemed to swallow the moonlight. He ordered me to stop.

So much for the terrible plan.

I dove into the water.

[End Part IV. Continue to the conclusion in Part V!}

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