At the Root of the Worlds — Part Two

Most of the information that we had on kallikantzaroi came from worldwalkers, the various witches and shamans like Olivia who physically or astrally Traveled the Tree. The rest came from Alex’ brain and what he remembered reading in classified files or hearing at classified briefings.

They didn’t like crowds; most tribes consisted of no more than two dozen members. Since they were nearly blind, light had virtually no effect on them, but they were sensitive to strong smells; Alex’ unnamed agency had found great success with stink bombs laced with cat urine.

Gross, but useful.

Alex and I came up with a plan relatively quickly, while Ellie sat silent; she passed along books with relevant information, but otherwise remained quiet. It was a terrible plan, so we tried again. We circled round and round, always ending up back at the same place with the same plan.

After almost six hours, we were out of ideas and nearly out of time.

I cleaned up the plates, while Ellie headed back down to the basement. Alex sat down in the living room to make some phone calls and then trash the living room. Tonight, at least, the lines seemed to be working.

I’d cracked a few of his codes while we were still married, but I didn’t recognize this one. It was Latin. Beyond that, it just sounded like a garbled mess.

As soon as the plates were clean and set out to dry, I joined Ellie in the basement.

A few silvery-blue ceiling lights illuminated the otherwise dark space. There were no windows, but a pair of ventilation shafts let in fresh air as needed. Mushrooms of every imaginable size, shape, and color covered the raw dirt walls. A few spidery roots from nearby trees poked through the soil, tangling among the mushrooms; the oak in my front yard had developed a definite purple sheen to its bark the last few years. Stone pathways along the ground offered safe passage between rows of black lotus, moly, boney belladonna, chthonic jasmine, and the single charybdis fig shrub. Raskovnik grew in a few upside down tortoise shells, their tiny green leaves shivering at the slightest breeze. At the very back of the room, the papery trunk of a leuce tree curved out of the wall, a single handful of perfect white flowers decorating its crown; a gift from a grateful client after I rescued her Bluebird of Happiness from a black market dealer.

This used to be Alex’ man cave.

I ripped it all out a month after he left to move in with Olivia.

Smashing the room to pieces had been very cathartic and got me into the right headspace to finally sign the divorce papers.

A few weeks later, Ellie had invited herself to move in. She had found the torn out basement space, been quiet for a minute, then said, “Gardening is very therapeutic.”

I sat down on the bottom step now and watched her fuss with some of the green-capped toad’s stools that grew out of the wall right at eye level.

She didn’t turn around, her silver knife flashing in the low light as she cut mushrooms free and dropped them into the bucket at her feet. “Why are you helping him?”

“Make your argument for why I shouldn’t.”

She snorted, turning just long enough to glare at me. Swipe went the knife. “We’re not in your classroom right now.”

I dragged my fingers through my hair. “Sure we are. The world isn’t a stage, it’s a classroom. There are pop quizzes every day, and the homework will never end.”

Ellie hmphed, keeping her back to me. “He broke your heart. He broke his oath to you. He shamed himself, privately and publicly.”

“Olivia didn’t break any oaths.”

Another slash of the knife, another thunk of a mushroom. “She helped himbreak his oath. Neither of them deserve your help. But taking the risk of that saw falling back into the hands of the kallikantzaroi?” She shook her head. “No. Not worth it.”

“Not so long ago, you thought that saving one life was worth tremendous risk and sacrifice.”

She stilled, shoulders rigid. When she finally turned around, her lips were pressed so tight that they had turned white, and the knife shook in her hands. “I risked one life — my own — to save another. You are risking much, much more. Whole worlds. They are not the same. Don’t you dare.”

A deeply uncomfortable silence filled the basement. The chthonic jasmine twitched in response, petals unfurling to breathe in the pain and anger.

“You’re right. I apologize.” My voice cracked. “You want to know why? … All right. Here’s my reasoned philosophical argument. One, I considered Olivia a friend once. Someone I could trust to keep my husband safe when he was off somewhere doing whatever needed to be done to save the world. In memory of that former friendship, yes, I will help her. Two, Olivia is a skilled witch and worldwalker; in other words, someone who is needed, someone who fights to keep everyone else safe. Three, I walk into my classroom every day and lecture my students on ethics, on making difficult moral decisions, on making the right decision. Now it’s my turn. And four … he asked me, okay? It’s petty and it’s egotistical, but he came to me for help. Begged. And the part of me that hasn’t forgiven him — that will probably never forgive him because, yes, I still hate him — is reveling in that.” I tried to swallow, my mouth dry. My voice cracked again. “Are those good enough reasons for you?”

The silence this time was not one of anger, but instead was tinged with compassion and more than a little pity. That made it worse.

Ellie shook her head, her shoulders dropping. “Come on over here. Get your knife. I don’t care about them, but if you’re going to come home in one piece, you’ll need to stock your arsenal.”

***

We had just finished filling the basket when there was a knock on the door at the top of the stairs. I absolutely did not want Alex intruding on our little sanctum (or getting a peek at the borderline illegal plants that we were growing), so I yelled “Hold on!”, tucked away my knife, and headed up the steps.

I pushed it open just enough to stick out my head.

He moved back. He tried to take a quick peek over my shoulder, but there was nothing for him to see from that angle.

“Yes?” I prodded.

“It’s after ten.” When I didn’t respond, he tightened his jaw and continued, “Shift change? 11:30? Saw?”

I grit my teeth. “Gimme a minute.” I pulled the door shut in his face and clomped back down the stairs.

Ellie was waiting for me by the storage locker we had built under the steps. She helped me change. Well-worn, comfortable blue jeans lined on the inside with dragon silk and practical knee-high boots with tough soles and inner slots for bronze knives; both part of a trade with a needle witch in exchange for killing the wærloga who was stalking his coven. A long-sleeved dragon silk shirt in the world’s ugliest yellow and a black leather corset; I had inherited both from my five-times great-grandmother Kathryn, who had made a career of killing things that needed killing and protecting things that needed protecting when she wasn’t entertaining gentleman callers at her upscale brothel in northern Boston. Leather utility belt, the pouches filled with healing salve, toad’s stools, fresh moly, dried leuce tree petals, vials of garlic water, one precious raskovnik bud, and a handful of charybdis figs, among other items; there was even an old-fashioned steel tinderbox. And a leather jacket, as well-worn and comfortable as the blue jeans.

My bow and seven bronze arrows, the slim quiver strapped to my thigh, were last.

Five-times great-grandma Kathryn had used these, too, but they had come into the family so long ago that no one knew how or when or why. Not for certain.

As my fingers closed around the familiar grip of the bow, I suddenly wondered if anyone had ever called her “Kit.”

Ellie framed my cheeks with her hands. She tilted my head so that I had to look her directly in the eyes.

She studied me for a long moment, her expression solemn.

“They aren’t worth your life. But the Tree is. All of creation is. If you die, you had damn well better make it worthwhile.”

I blinked rapidly and forced a lighter, teasing tone when I responded, “You’ve been reading military philosophy in between green witch grimoires again, haven’t you?”

She huffed and drew me into a tight hug. My arms wrapped around her, too, looser, trying not to bruise.

“I love you, Kit.”

I drew a breath, trying and failing to steady my voice. “I love you, too, Ellie.”

When she finally pulled away, she headed directly for the stairs, her back and shoulders straight. “Let me hit the bathroom before you tie me up. You’re probably not at the very top of the list, so it might be a few hours before Alex’ pissed off colleagues come knocking at the door. And make sure that Alex has sufficiently trashed the house. It’s — ”

“ — gotta look plausible. I know, I know.”

I flicked out the lights at the top of the stairs, leaving the soft white glow of the leuce tree and the weird, psychedelic greens and purples of the mushrooms in my wake.

***

“This blanket is scratchy.”

Even to my own ears, my voice sounded muffled and far away. The rumble of the tires was loud through the floorboard of Alex’ car. I wasn’t sure if he could hear me; but, even if he had, he wouldn’t answer. He couldn’t risk that someone might see him talking and wonder who he could be speaking to when he was supposedly alone.

A vial filled with powdered rainbow mushroom, copper shavings, dried chthonic jasmine, and a single thread from the scratchy blanket were enough to create a low-grade, temporary chameleon glamour. It wouldn’t last long and it wouldn’t stand up to a serious magical sweep; even a guard dog might notice that something was off. But we couldn’t chance using a full-blown invisibility cloak or reflection spell half-a-dozen other powerful workings; anything that strong would set off every ward around the storage facility.

Crude and simple, and therefore more likely to succeed.

This was a terrible plan.

The car hit another pothole.

The road was definitely getting worse. We had left the maintained areas of Boston and were moving into the ruins of the seaside docks, home to smugglers, addicts, ghouls, and super secret government facilities.

Boston’s harbor had been a hub of activity before the Mississippi Rite. I had seen the pictures, listened to my parents’ stories. But the shipping industry had collapsed by late 1965. Safe passage across oceans now populated by mer and sirens and kraken and dozens of other nonhuman species could only be guaranteed by the presence of a sea witch among the crew; and there just weren’t enough of them to go around.

A thunk and the back of my head hit the floorboard as the tires bounced in and out of another pothole. The blanket was rough against my face. I gripped my bow and the enchanted vial, and fought a sneeze.

Alex loudly cleared his throat and the car started to slow.

I closed my eyes and evened out my breathing.

The car pulled to a stop. I heard Alex roll down his window. Buttons beeped as he typed a code into a security pad, followed by the loud creaking of a gate as it slid open. Alex pulled forward again, gravel crunching beneath the tires, then came to a full stop a few moments later. He cut off the engine and waited.

Footsteps.

“Evening, Agent Gutierrez. You’re out late.”

“Evening, Josiah.” The sound of a pen scratching across paper as Alex signed the entry log. “Just being paranoid. I’m double-checking the evidence we brought in from that siren nest last week.”

“Sure thing.”

The door opened, the car rocking slightly as Alex climbed out. A thunk, the car rocking again as he closed it. More footsteps on the gravel. Alex and the guard talking, their voices growing muffled with distance. Mundane things: baseball, grilling, guns, baseball.

Silence.

I waited in the dark, my nose itching. I managed to tilt my head without moving the blanket very much and scratched my nose on my collar. It didn’t help.

Footsteps as the second guard circled around. There were only two outside, according to Alex. This wasn’t an administrative center or an R&D lab; it was a storage facility in a rundown part of the city. Too heavy a security presence would have attracted undue attention, so the nameless government agency relied on anonymity and wards to keep the location safe.

Light burst through the window, penetrating the weave of the blanket.

I stilled, holding my breath.

The flashlight swept the back of the car, then the front. More gravel crunching and a grunt, and I wondered if the guard was checking under the car. Then footsteps again as he moved away.

I exhaled slowly and went back to waiting. And waiting. And waiting.

Ellie had the right idea. I should have gone to the bathroom.

***

Despite fear and adrenaline, I was half asleep when the car door creaked open. I froze, only relaxing when Alex cleared his throat.

The engine rumbled and we were away, bouncing over potholes until we reached the maintained roads.

After long minutes of driving, Alex pulled over and clicked off the engine.

I tossed the blanket and the vial aside, feeling the very faint tingles as the chameleon spell broke and drifted away. I scrambled out of the back seat and looked around to see that we were on a grassy patch parallel to the road, but hidden by thick shrubs and a tall tree. I climbed into the front passenger seat, balancing my bow between my knees, and held out my hand.

Alex slipped a nearly-flat bronze case into my palm. I flipped it open, then had to lean forward to catch at least some of the moonlight.

I felt my lip curl in surprise. “This is it? It looks like a comb.”

Black, toothed, barely two inches long and an inch high. Not metal, not obsidian, but some strange, arcane material.

I reached in to run my finger along the edge.

“Careful! It’s — ”

“Ow! Fuck!”

“ — sharp.”

Alex closed the lid while I sucked on the pad of my finger. It stung, a lot. I glared at him.

“Magic saw,” he said. “Kallikantzaroi magic. One of them picks it up, and its as long as my car with teeth the size of your arm. Sharp enough to cut the World Tree.”

My finger throbbed. I shook my hand. I wasn’t going to waste one of my healing salves on a small cut. Even if it did hurt like the world’s worst bee sting.

I slid the case into an interior jacket pocket, ignoring the passage of a late night bus as it rumbled down the street.

“Need a bandaid?”

“I’m fine, thank you.” I sucked on my finger again.

In my peripheral vision, I saw his hand reaching for me. Immediately, my heart started to thud and I shoved myself into the corner of the seat.

“No!”

I was yelling and I didn’t care.

He slid away, hands raised in a placating gesture. He turned and faced the windshield, curling his hands around the steering wheel, his jaw tight.

I swallowed hard, hating the tremor I heard in my voice. “You lost any right you may have had to touch me a long time ago.”

“I know.”

Silence, awful, painful, suffocating.

I scrunched around in the seat, leaning my forehead against the window. My breath fogged the glass. My finger throbbed.

“I should have told you. Before …. As soon as I realized that my feelings for Olivia were changing, I should have told you. Being an oathbreaker wasn’t the worst part. Everyone knowing that I was an oathbreaker, changing agencies, jobs, losing friends and colleagues. That wasn’t the worst part. Hurting you was. And for that I am sorry.” His fingers twisted around the steering wheel. “I will never ask for your forgiveness, because I have no right to do so. I don’t deserve it.”

I blinked rapidly and scrubbed at my nose. Drawing a deep breath, I opened my mouth to answer, only to stop when a dark car sped past down the road.

Alex sat forward in his seat, frowning. He glanced down at his watch. “Well, that was faster than I expected.” His gaze moved back and forth between the road and his watch. When a second dark vehicle whipped past us, he clicked on the engine, but left off the headlights.

“Plan B. We need someplace closer to the Zoo to hole up until tomorrow.”

“No safehouse?”

Alex shook his head as he drove slowly and quietly two blocks down the street, then turned onto a narrow alley. “No safehouse. Hope you like sleeping in the car.”

“As long as there’s a bathroom nearby, I can sleep anywhere.”

***

Before the Mississippi Rite, the forty mile drive south-west down I-95 from Boston to Attleboro would have been a quick trip. Now, it was a torturous route down back gravel roads and dirt tracks, with short bursts on the interstate. Aside from the usual buses and semitrailers, we only spotted two other cars, and those were headed north.

It was after three in the morning when we finally backed into a garage in Attleboro, about a mile from the Capron Park Zoo. It was a fancy neighborhood; much wealthier and more connected than my community. The garages here were actually used to park cars, not just store junk or rent out to people desperate for a roof over their heads.

The garage Alex selected had three slots, and stood far across a neat yard from a looming pre-Rite mansion. One slot was empty, one held a pair of motorcycles, and one was glamoured to look like it held a red truck.

There was a weird moment as we backed in when I could see both the walls of the garage and the red truck, the two images overlapping in nauseating detail. I bit my tongue, waiting until Alex had cut the engine and we were settled in place. The garage door automatically rolled back down. I slowly exhaled, unfocusing and refocusing my eyes until the truck was just a faint red smear and the walls were solid.

Alex pointed towards the corner behind the empty parking slot. “Bathroom.”

I climbed out — closing the door carefully, uncertain how far the sound would carry or if there was anyone in the mansion to hear it — and gladly made use of the facilities. They were spartan, but the fact that there was a functioning bathroom in the detached garage just reinforced how wealthy and connected the homeowner had to be.

I returned to the car, pulling the door shut softly behind me. “Nice place.”

“I did an off-the-books favor for the family a few years ago. They keep this spot open for me, no questions asked.”

“Did you do an off-the-books favor for whoever you were talking to on the phone earlier?”

He glanced at me, then away. “Maybe.”

I shook my head. “How many people owe you favors?”

“Not enough to help me get Olivia back.” He shifted the seat, pushing it back and laying it just flat enough that he could stretch out his legs. “You should get some sleep.”

I ignored his suggestion. “So I was your desperate last option?”

“You were my only option.”

Gritting my teeth, I exited the car and climbed into the back seat. I tucked the used spell bottle into my utility belt, laid my bow on the floor, and pulled the scratchy blanket over my body and up to my chin.

More silence.

“Do you think they’re at the house?”

His eyes were closed, but he still answered. “By now? Definitely. Ellen’s fine.”

More silence.

“My TA better follow the lesson plan. I better not come back on Monday and find out that my students spent Friday goofing off.”

“The last thing your TA would want to do is piss you off. Your students will be fine. … The university won’t put you on administrative leave, will they?”

“For being kidnapped by my ex-husband and forced to help him steal a powerful magical artifact? A couple of weeks, maybe. I can put on as good a show as Ellie. I’ll be fine.”

We would all be fine. Just fine.

Silence.

We slept.

[End Part Two. Read Part III 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.]