At the Root of the Worlds — Part One

Image courtesy of Zoltan Tasi on Unsplash

“On the first day of class, I told you that ethics is derived from the Greek ēthikós, which itself is based on the root word êthos, meaning character or moral nature.”

I paused as pencils scratched across paper. Students filled the tiered hall to capacity, their heads down as they wrote. They varied in age and dress, from early twenties to late fifties, from blue jeans and sweatshirts to the formal robes of dedicants. A few watched me pace across the front of the classroom, and they were all definitely paying attention.


I smoothed my skirt and continued. “Larry Churchill, a prominent bioethicist — and, yes, that is yet another subdivision of philosophy that we will be studying — defines ethics as ‘the capacity to think critically about moral values and direct our actions in terms of such values.’ This capacity is universal. Every human civilization has a set of values, a set of ethics which its people are expected to understand and act upon, whether or not they are explicitly articulated. But humans are not the only species with ethical codes, and as much as values differ just among human civilizations, so they differ even more among non-human species.”

Some of the scribbling stopped. I caught a faint whiff of peanut butter and crackers and heard the rustle of plastic as at least one student tried to make up for missing breakfast.

“Eastern and western and southern and northern dragons. Nephilim and daeva and fae. Kitsune and shapeshifters and djinn. Selkies and mer and unicorns and qirin. Not to mention nymphs and demi-Deities and Deities. They all have their own ethical codes — often multiple codes. Among the fae alone there are as many different nations as there are human societies; probably more. Likely more. Many more.”

I paused again, hands clasped behind my back as I paced back towards the podium. Somewhere in the darkness of the classroom, a door opened and closed quietly.

“Which leads us back to the initial scenario with which I began today’s lesson. The Exorcism at Saint Cecilia Catholic Church right here in Boston in 1969.” I tapped a button on the podium and a black-and-white photograph of the building flashed up onto the classroom screen. “The entity which possessed little Margaret Clarkson was not a demon. That is to say, it was not a fallen celestial being from Catholic cosmology. But that was the only word which Father Malcolm and his congregation had to describe the being; that was their only frame of reference, their only way to understand what they were seeing and experiencing. At first.”

A shadow appeared within the darkness of the hallway along the lefthand seats, traveling along the wall as the figure moved towards me.

Then Alex stepped into view.

I blinked and swallowed hard. My breath rushed out of my chest, and for a moment I couldn’t see.

Hands shaking, I covered my shock by grabbing for my water bottle. I drained half of it, coughed, cleared my throat, and forced myself to focus on my lecture. I tapped another button and a boring driver’s license photo filled the screen.

“Margaret’s paternal aunt, Ellen Clarkson, was a green witch, one who recognized immediately that the entity possessing her niece was an oceanid. The girl had gone swimming the previous day and the curious entity had attached itself to her. It meant no harm. It didn’t understand what it was doing to little Margaret. All of which Ellen tried to explain to Father Malcolm and the congregation and her brother and sister-in-law. All they had to do was take the girl back to the shore, show her some pretty seashells, and let her splash around for a few minutes. But no one would listen, because, after all, Ellen was a witch and she was fallen and doomed to spend eternity in the pits of Hell. And so they threw her out of Saint Cecilia and attempted to perform an exorcism. That failed spectacularly, because — newsflash — the oceanid wasn’t Catholic.”

There was tittering from some the students, those who didn’t know how the story ended.

“The oceanid responded by sucking every drop of water from their bodies.”

The classroom fell silent.

Another button and the screen changed. Shriveled bodies scattered through the pews and across the floor, some covered in white sheets, most bare. Shellshocked police officers and medical personnel stood among the bodies, expressions ranging from disbelief to rage.

“One hundred and ninety-three people died in agony, including nineteen children. They died due to their own ignorance and fear and arrogance.” I paused again, willing my gaze straight ahead. I would not look at Alex. “Margaret did not die. Ellen Clarkson broke back into the church — literally, as the congregation had bolted the doors — grabbed her niece and drove to the nearest beach, with a dozen police cruisers and military vehicles in pursuit. She had just enough time to run into the water, Margaret in her arms, and coax the oceanid into leaving before they were surrounded.”

The screen flashed again. Ellen up to her waist in the water, a crying Margaret in her arms. Thirty heavily-armored police officers and soldiers encircled them, rifles and pistols raised and ready to fire.

From the corner of my eye, I saw Alex lean against the wall, arms crossed over his chest.

He looked tired.

Part of me was glad for that. Part of me was worried. I hated that I was confused.

“Margaret, now an orphan, was handed over to her paternal grandparents to be raised. They wanted nothing to do with her, however, and she disappeared into the foster care system. Calling her an accessory after the fact, authorities arrested Ellen and charged her with one hundred and ninety-three counts of obstruction of justice, aiding and abetting, and conspiracy. In her defense, Ellen Clarkson argued that she was obeying ‘an extra-human code of ethics.’ The oceanid had acted appropriately to defend itself and she was assisting an injured and wronged being in returning to its natural habitat … far out of the reach of human authorities.

“The case went all the way to the Supreme Court. And in 1971, in Clarkson vs State of Massachusetts, the highest court in the land ruled in her favor. To this day, it remains a controversial decision.” I rested one hand on the podium. “After all, helping an imprisoned and abused unicorn escape back into the wild is one thing. But what if a ghoul needs help procuring dead human bodies to eat? Do you try to stop a dryad from killing the human who cut down her tree? Incubi and succubi require sex in the same way that humans require oxygen; is it ethical for you to procure unwitting sexual partners for them? Or to warn someone away from an incubus or succubus, even if that being is on the verge of starvation? What about changelings? Can a parent offer up their own child to the fae in exchange for a favor or blessing? What if that child is the price for ending a drought or a plague that threatens thousands? If you are not the parent, can you interfere? Should you?”

I dropped my hand from the podium, moving closer towards the bottom tier of chairs. The room was silent now; not even the scribbling of pencils.

“How to act (or not), and when to act (or not), and why to act (or not). These are the questions we will be struggling with. And not just this semester. These questions will follow you out into the world, where you will have to deal with them every day; not just in your capacity as judges and police officers and teachers and witches and priests of various Deities and whatever other occupation; but as human beings who share the world with beings who are most definitely not human, and who have their own very definite concepts of right and wrong, good and evil, and every shade of grey in between.”

A long, low tone sounded from the speaker overhead. The students looked at me for a moment, then began to gather up their textbooks, notepads, and bags.

I raised my voice to be heard over the ruckus. “For Friday, don’t forget: Aristotle chapters three and four, Confucius chapter four, du Châtelet chapter two, Kant chapter five, and Arendt chapters five and six.”

There were grumbles as the room slowly cleared.

I waited by the podium, my heart beginning to thud. My pulse accelerated as the number of students dwindled, until only Alex and I remained.

He was in my space, in my place.

He would break my world apart — again — if I let him.

He didn’t move from his spot by the wall.

“All that to read by tomorrow? Don’t go easy on them, do you?”

I finally turned to look at him. Five o’clock shadow and deep grooves around his eyes and mouth. Messy hair. Leather jacket, blue jeans, several layers of dragon silk shirts, thick-soled boots. He probably had a dozen guns, enchanted daggers, spell bottles, and potions tucked away in various pockets.

Standard issue for any sort of law enforcement.

Come to think of it, I wasn’t sure which agency he was with now.

Not that I cared.

Not at all.

“No, I don’t,” I finally answered. Was my voice shaking? “They can’t afford for me to go easy on them.” I started to gather up my own bag and notes and nearly-empty water bottle.

“I need your help.”

I snorted, anger burning my throat, and turned my back. “Make an appoint — ”

“Off the books.”

I slowed to a stop. I heard him walk closer. Considering how quietly he could move, I knew that he was deliberately making noise.

“Olivia’s been kidnapped.”

Biting my lips, I turned back around. He was close enough now for me to smell his herb soap and to see the desperation in his eyes.

“By what?”


My mouth dropped open and I gaped at him. “What …? How — no. Why?Why would kallikantzaroi kidnap Olivia?”

“They want to trade.”

Prickles of unease crawled up and down my arms and back. I drew a sharp breath. “Trade,” I repeated dumbly.

His lips flattened and he ran a hand through his hair, making it even messier. “Olivia and I were part of a task force that broke up a tribe of them a few weeks ago. We killed most of them. We figured a few got away, but not enough to cause any problems. We confiscated everything we found in their cave. Everything.”

I stared at him. “Their saw. They want their saw back.”

A single dip of his head, more a twitch then a nod.

I rubbed my hand over my face, spinning in a circle. When I came back around, I shook my head. “No.”

“Kit — ”

“No!” I shoved my hand against his chest. He barely moved. “You do not get to call me that! Do not! Not anymore!”

He glared at the floor, hands braced on his hips. His wedding ring glinted at me. His chest rose and fell rapidly. “I can only say I’m sorry so many times.”

“Well say it again!”

His eyes lifted and his glare hardened. “Fine. I’m sorry. I’m sorry that I cheated on you. I’m sorry that I fell in love with my partner. I’m sorry that I tried to hide it from you, and then lied when you found out. I. Am. Sorry.” He wiped the back of his hand over his mouth and I realized that he was shaking. “Now … will you please help me …? Please?”

How, when, and why to act, or not.

A woman’s life? Or my pride?

Professor, learn thy lessons.


I tossed my bag over my shoulder. I didn’t, wouldn’t, couldn’t look back as I walked towards the exit. “Come on. If we’re going to take on kallikantzaroi, I’ll need supplies.”


In 1964, a group of idiots in white hoods gathered in the rotunda of the Mississippi state capitol. They were angry that people they considered to be their social, intellectual, racial, and sexual inferiors — in other words, everyone not a straight, white, middle- to upper-class Protestant male — were getting all uppity and demanding equal rights.

So the idiots in the hoods performed their own rite. They pulled out a book they should not have had and spoke words that should never have been spoken.

And they tore the Veil between the Worlds to shreds.

Things which had once been hidden were no longer hidden. Things once locked away were now free. Things once confined to their own realm could now Travel the Tree and make their home in worlds where they didn’t belong.

Buildings, neighborhoods, whole cities disappeared, only to reappear days or weeks later … different. Fae paraded through the streets of London. Dionysus drove every woman in Athens mad and lead them out into the hills to dance. A pod of mer tore down every oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico. A giggling storm of sand and flame swallowed Riyadh, leaving only a sheet of glass. No one’s really sure what happened to the American troops in Vietnam; the few who made it home were too traumatized to be coherent.

My parents were tweenagers at the time. When I was a kid, they tried to describe the world before the Mississippi Rite. A world where the skies were filled with airplanes, telephones always worked, and NASA was planning a mission to the moon. A world where fae were few and far between, shapeshifters stuck to the wild places, and witches like my parents and gramdmother kept their heads down and their magic secret.

I couldn’t even imagine it.

Alex offered to drive me home from the university. I laughed and headed to the bus stop. There would be enough talk from the neighbors at the sight of my ex-husband driving up to the house in an actual car; I didn’t need the added gossip that would be born if I was in the car with him.

Forty minutes later, I unlocked the front door and shoved it open, calling out, “Ellie! I’m home! I’ve brought company. Don’t kill him.”

Alex grunted behind me. I left him to close and lock the door, and headed through the living room to the kitchen.

A voice echoed up from the basement. “Kill who? What are you talking about?” The stairs creaked and a moment later Ellie clambered up into the kitchen. Dirt streaked her cheeks and stained her jeans, and her thin white hair was pulled back into a ponytail.

She stumbled to a halt when she saw Alex.

“Ellen,” he said. No handshake, just a dip of his head.

She squinted at me. “Are you sure? The stairs are pretty steep. He’d bounce a few times on the way down.”

“Positive.” I dumped my bag and keys on the counter. “Olivia’s been kidnapped by kallikantzaroi.”

Ellie’s head drew back, her chin tucking in tight. “Oh.” Another pause, then a long sigh. “I’ll get the library started. There’s cold roast beef in the fridge, and I made bread earlier.” She kept talking as she headed through the back door of the kitchen, past the dining room table that had never been used as a dining room table, and into the library. “Make me a sandwich, too. No mustard!”

“Yes, ma’am.”

For long minutes, the only sounds in the kitchen were the clanking of dishes and the soft thud of doors and drawers being open and shut.

“This place hasn’t changed. Except maybe the basement. Your doing, I would guess?”

I squeezed a thick glob of mustard onto my sandwich. “Not reminiscing with you.” I stabbed a knife harder than necessary through the layers of bread and meat and sawed the sandwich in half. “I need details. The number of kallikantzaroi, where Olivia was taken, where and how the exchange is to be made.” I threw him a glance over my shoulder, the first time I had looked at him since leaving the university. It hurt. “Do you know where the saw is?”

He nodded. “Getting it won’t be a problem. I have access to the facility. But they’ll realize fairly quickly that it’s gone.”

I held his gaze, saying the words that would hurt both of us even more. “You’ll be an oathbreaker. Again. An oathbreaker twice over. No one will trust you enough to work with you ever again. No one will want to work with you again.”

His jaw tightened. “True. But they won’t hold that against Olivia. A few years in a very secure cell, lots of paperwork, lots of binding death oaths promising not to divulge classified information, and I’ll be done. Out. Sit at home and read, or garden. Or … something. It will all be worth it if it means getting Olivia home safe.”

More silence as his words pinged around in my brain. I could only wonder if he would have taken such risks, sacrificed so much, for me.

“Where’s my sandwich?” Ellie yelled. “Research makes me hungry!”

Cans of soda under my arm, I picked up one plate for her and one for me, leaving Alex to make his own dinner, and headed back to the library.

Ellie already had a pile of books at her elbow, with a half-dozen more opened on the central table. I set down her plate and drink, and turned one of the books to get a better look at the images that filled both pages: a line-drawing recreation of a Greek vase from the fifth century B.C.E. and a still photograph from 1980. The photo was credited to the FBI, with a note that it had been taken during a raid on a kallikantzaroi nest just outside of the ruins of Seattle.

A single, vaguely humanoid kallikantzaros was visible in the center of the image, with more figures out of focus in the background and around the edges of the photo. Matted, shaggy legs and tail similar to those of a goat. Human-like torso and arms, with less hair than its legs. A perpetually erect phallus, pitted and broken tusks, a lolling tongue that reached nearly to its belly, and the milky white eyes of a being that spent most of its life in darkness.

Ellie’s head was still down as she studied the book in front of her. She reached for her sandwich with one hand, her fingers trembling slightly. “Why did they take Olivia? And why isn’t whatever agency they work for now trying to get her back?”

“Because the kallikantzaroi want to trade her for their saw, and whatever agency Alex and Olivia answer to would never agree to that.”

Ellie dropped her sandwich. “I thought — I thought this was just a research and rescue operation.”

She leaned back in her chair, eyes wide. They followed Alex as he entered the library and sat down at the far end of the table, only a few bites left of his sandwich.

“Absolutely not,” she said. “I’m sorry, but Olivia’s not worth it.”

Alex stopped eating.

“How many worlds have already been lost to those horrors?” she continued. “Hacking away at the World Tree, sawing away at it leaf by leaf, branch by branch. Root by root. Weakening it to the point that it can no longer heal itself. And then what? Everything dies, that’s what. Everything. And you want to give them back the very weapon that will help them do that?”

Alex tossed a piece of crust onto his plate. “You hate me. Fine. I understand that. But give me some credit. If I really planned to just hand over their saw, I already would have done so. I wouldn’t have asked Kit — Kathryn — for help.”

Ellie puffed out her cheeks and glared at him.

I felt warmth at his praise. It twined through my chest, knotting with the tangles of anger and hatred (yes, hatred) that already lived there to form a confusing mess. Frustrated and annoyed with myself, I squashed the whole tangle further down into my belly so that I could focus.

I grabbed another book. This one had only a short entry on the kallikantzaroi, detailing information I already knew: naturally immortal but not invulnerable. Like most living things, they died when you lopped off their heads. Also vulnerable to bronze, fire, and garlic. They lived deep underground, no matter the realm, supposedly venturing to the surface for only the few days around the Winter Solstice when the worlds were perfectly aligned. No one knew why they left their caves then, but it was the reprieve that the World Tree needed to heal whatever damage they had caused the previous year.


As Ellie had said, leaf by leaf, branch by branch. The Tree could grow new branches, but once a world had been lost, there was no restoring it.

I sat down and pulled over another book. This one included a note that kallikantzaroi liked to eat frogs and worms.

That could be useful.

“You haven’t answered my questions yet.” I didn’t look at Alex, instead taking another bite of my sandwich. I felt the sting of the mustard. It made my eyes water.

“I only interacted with two kallikantzaroi, but we figure — at most — that five escaped the purge of their nest. Olivia … she was taken outside the grocery store. We were going to grill this weekend and she’d stopped to pick up supplies. The exchange is set for midnight on Friday at the Capron Park Zoo.”

I felt my eyebrows jump. “Odd place for an exchange.”

“Took me a while to figure out what they meant. They don’t exactly know the human names for places.” He hesitated. “This is classified. Does not leave this room. There’s a root under the zoo.”

Ellie grunted. “That explains why Attleboro did so well after the Rite, while Boston proper didn’t. And why the zoo’s endangered species breeding program is so successful.”

“Is that where their nest was? The one you purged?”

He shook his head. “No. That was …. That location is still classified and not relevant to the current conversation.”

Ellie rolled her eyes and took a big bite out of her own sandwich.

I took a swig of soda, washing away the zing of the mustard. “So they plan to lure you there with the saw, then kill you and Olivia, and use the root to Travel to safety. Probably back to wherever they were hiding out after their nest was raided.”

“Seems likely.” He pushed his plate away, reaching for one of the books that Ellie had left open. “Which means that we need a plan.”

[End Part One. Read Part II of At the Root of the Worlds!]

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