Distant Reaches - The Roots of Discontent

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The Roots of Discontent

The Roots of Discontent
Stromgyre the Whorled One grants strength — but only to the worthy. Art by Shay Plummer.

If it wasn’t for the saccharine stench of human corpses that still hung in the air, it’d be an idyllic morning.

The rains the night previous had lessened even that nigh-constant reminder of the recent tragedy. The warmth of the summer sun imbued the wreckage that still clogged many of the town’s thoroughfares with possibility; in the rubble of banks, shops, and tenements lay the seeds for a second chance. The Gods appeared to assent to the celebratory disposition that had spread across Amalcross, a fine omen on The Day of the Consecration.

“Healing Self Heals Others” were the words carved beneath the wooden statue of a twelve-handed shaman that greeted all who arrived at the Crossings neighborhood, a thrumming hive of construction and excavation. This ancient interpretation of Bouledar, the God of Healing and Community, reflected what many of the peasants who had lost their homes to the Great Quake believed: They needed all twelve of Bouledar’s hands and then some to salve their fractured families and the wounded, shaken city. At least on this morning, it felt as though Bouledar had answered their prayers — his salubrious digits had already begun their holy work upon the district.

Children streamed out of newly risen flats, improvements to the slums they had previously inhabited, running ahead of their parents into the gathering crowd. The Quake’s destruction, and the rebuilding it necessitated, had markedly bettered their lives already. Their shit no longer flowed in the gullies, for one. From destruction, sweet life could spring forth.

It was fitting that Bouledar bid the growing gathering welcome. Everyone who now bowed and held the hands of strangers had come to visit the temple newly erected in His name. The surging press included the living ancestors of all the Hundred Houses. The Imperial Family was there, too, their first public appearance since the Great Quake.

No matter the size of their purse, thousands walked together up a new tree-lined path that opened into a vast, circular courtyard. Here, all gathered together, and a hopeful feeling of community began to sprout out of their shared grief.

The Temple grounds were marked by thirty-seven freshly planted saplings, representing a new beginning. The courtyard gave way to a garden blessed by Fen himself. There were both exotic everpurple trees from unpronounceable lands across the Hurron Sea and the familiar bottlenecked Oocrahen trees from the local forests. Climbers, creepers, and wildflowers were in orchestral bloom around them. The scent of lingering death that had taken root in the noses of the residents transmogrified into fresh life.

If everyone in attendance were petals of a budding flower, the woman in surreal vermillion and teal robes at the center of a stage in front of the temple’s grand entrance was their pistil. At exactly midday, all attention was fixed on the great High Priestess Binder Farquen. No announcement or bell was required.

Unquestioned leader of the assemblage, the wizened Farquen still looked the part of the warrior mage she had been in her adolescence. Even with only one eye, she seemed to peer into the souls of everyone in attendance. Before she had come into womanhood, it was said Farquen ripped out one of her own blue eyes and replaced it with a red gemstone to affirm her complete devotion to the Meridian. There were whispers that the stone itself was Bound in ancient magic. But one thing was certain: She saw only the truth.

On Farquen’s left, a young man was set to hang.

On her right, a woman overflowing with child was attended by the Emperor’s own midwife. Her loud contractions echoed across the assemblage.

The man and woman had each been chosen via lottery, plucked to sate the hunger of the Gods. The random death of a peasant man, a fletcher’s apprentice, represented Chaos. The birth of a new child signified fresh Order, a great balancing of the Chaos. Or so it was said.

The peasant’s family were there in attendance, cheering. To have your kin chosen for such a sacrifice was a great honor, and brought a flush purse as further compensation.

The newborn child would be brought up in the Imperial Palace, destined for an honorable life in the Amalguard and given access to a fairytale life its orphan mother couldn’t dream of. That thought likely comforted her now, in the throes of agonizing childbirth.

After a particularly grisly cry, the midwife signaled to High Priestess Binder Farquen.

“The new Order is coming.”

Farquen’s announcement incited wordless, full-throated chants. Half of the congregation sang high, the other half low, finding a melodious middle.

The High Priestess removed a small, two-sided axe from her robes. One side was covered in velvet and soft to the touch, whereas the other… well, anything that touched that blade would never be able to touch again.

The chant stopped abruptly as the High Priestess swung the Untouchable end of her axe at the wooden stool upon which the man was standing.


One year earlier.

A tall, thin man stumbled, lost, in a vast nothing.

The man was starved, parched, empty of meaning.

Until something wriggled beneath his feet.

One of the Earth’s own brown fingers, the root of an unseen tree, was touching him.

The man followed the root. It was soon joined by others — an infinite network taking him deep into a thick, fog-ridden wood. The forest was a haze of forgotten memories, and he was Remembering.

Everything led to one great Thing, the beginning and end of all life: an ancient, twisted tree. There was no bark, just exposed white wood. Its thick-limbed branches held up the cosmos. Its twinkling leaves were the stars in the sky.

Nothing reached further than the trees. Nothing had a longer memory.

The roots coiled in spiraling, concentric circles around the world. More accurately, it was the world that grew around these roots. Forests, flowers, mountains, stones, lakes, oceans, animals, Salavasters, Rilk’gar, humans — each began as buds from the Tree.

The man found himself within the Tree’s inner circle of roots. The primordial whorl.

Return to us.

The Tree’s many branches stretched out wide, welcoming the dreamer with open arms.

The man pushed forward, hungry. He reached out to touch the Tree…


Dreues Stave stirred back to life, or what was left of it. He had become mere decoration in his own dusty bedchambers. His face was pale, tormented by ghosts. The red splotches on his emaciated cheeks, it was remarked, numbered the sons he had lost.

The sun had risen well beyond the view of the window, its rays leaving the lord’s bedroom aglow. Dust motes danced in the afternoon light.

Dreues grumbled and creaked, lurching out from under layers of thick linens. He was late.

He was about to call out for the pages when he remembered they were no longer in his service. He could no longer afford them.

Dreues was nearly seven feet tall. Always lean, he had once been likened to a slender yew tree. Now he looked like a withered branch, about to snap under the weight of the past year. He was only middle-aged, but the weight of tragedy had added soupy rings under his eyes.

Of all the Hundred Houses, Stave’s own was hit hardest by the Quake. His was a proud industrial family who, alongside (and in fierce competition with) Houses Gravsend and Finewood, built many of the buildings that had made Amalcross the most exalted city in the empire. Now, their family was in the midst of a clearcutting.

When the Great Quake hit, most of Dreues’ projects — building contracts for schools, factories, warehouses — went up in literal flames or washed out into the Amal Straight.

In the cloudy mirror, he watched his proudest project perish, as he had done every morning since.

He imagined his firstborn son, Drayven Stave, praying amongst the commonfolk in the pews of the once great Skaardruf Temple. The finest in the city. Until its stone walls shuddered, shook and collapsed, crushing Drayven and hundreds of others down into a chasm, pulled into the Earth. Skaardruf had been hungry that day.

The Gods were insatiable whores.

Dreues unwrapped a bloody bandage around his right hand, revealing a pus-ridden wound upon his palm. The infection pulsated out through the lines on his hand, reaching his wrist.

Dreues’s grandfather had boasted that their family’s flesh was closer to bark than skin, impenetrable to cuts, scrapes and bruises. They were the roots of the realm, after all, claiming to be the oldest family in the Reaches, with blood that could be traced back to the trees themselves.

And now a fucking splinter was going to kill him. Cruel irony?

“Pathetic,” Dreues spat.

In the wake of the Great Quake, Dreues had been one of the first to lend his hands to the cleanup efforts. He had gone straight to where Skaardruf’s temple once stood, determined to find his son’s body. He worked for three days without food or rest, but no body was found in the ruins. The only thing he had uncovered was a fresh lesion, slashed by a piece of wood as he dug through the rubble with his bare hands.


Dreues turned and saw his three surviving daughters in the doorway, already in their most formal dresses. Nearly as tall as he, they stood together like a copse of trees.

“You look terrible,” his middle daughter Elowyn remarked with a smile. Dreues’s responding laughter only brought further pain to his joints.

“We’re going to be late,” his youngest daughter Ilana said as they started to dress their father.

“Splendid. We don’t want to appear desperate now, do we?” Arden, the eldest, said.

“That would merely be the truth,” Dreues retorted, trying to make his right hand into a fist. He succeeded in contorting it into a claw more sickly than fearsome.

His daughters recoiled.

“For Skaardruf’s sake, cover that,” Elowyn said.

They all winced, including Elowyn. Skaardruf’s name had become taboo in the household.

“I’m sorry, Father,” she said. He batted away her apology with his good hand.

“They are but words. He has divided enough of us. Now, leave me. Your father can dress himself.”

His three daughters shared doubtful looks — even before his ill turn, Dreues Stave was hardly the fashionable sort — but they left him.

Dreues returned to the dais where the mirror hung. A scroll was open on the counter.

Out of obligation or pity, the High Priestess Binder had invited Dreues and his daughters to her rectory for a party. If only it was just a party. Billed as a fundraiser to help rebuild the realm, it was where she would receive whispered bids to build the new temple that would take Skaardruf’s place.

Nobody, not even Dreues himself, expected him to secure the bid over the Finewoods, but he had to try. For his daughters’ sakes.

Yellow, resiny pus oozed out of his palm.

He was running out of time. A rotting tree scheduled for removal.


When Dreues and his daughters arrived, they were part of a thick procession of horse-drawn carriages delivering lords and royals up a winding hill.

They passed beggars on either side, many homeless after the recent disaster. Not a single carriage stopped for them, impatient to reach the safety of the party behind the iron gates.

A few of the carriages moved without horses, powered by spells woven by Binders. It was a gross display of wealth under such circumstances. Dreues knew Lady Serai Finewood was inside one of them. While Dreues’s buildings crumbled, she had married into wealth not once but four times over. Many branches of her family — unseemly though it was — now dripped with gold. Chancellor Kringe of the Magist Imperial University was one of many who spoke out against her blasphemy, but there was no limit to the wonders of coin. The commission of a new dormitory (emblazoned with the Finewood name, of course) soon sealed his wagging lips.

At the hilltop was Meridian’s Edge, the High Priestess Binder’s rectory. The site of the lodge, constructed upon the edge of a cliff overlooking the Boern River and a symbolic dividing line between order and chaos, was no accident.

If one imagined a rectory to be a humble host for the pious, this was not that. This was a castle of profound majesty, built to provide the Meridian’s most fervent believers with a splendid vantage point to judge the faith of the city’s citizens below.

While other buildings collapsed and fell into the river during the Great Quake, somehow this rectory, built on the precipice of a cliff, had stood stock still. Untroubled by the Gods. This only inflamed the rumor that there was some ancient Bind in the very roots of the building that made it immovable, the cliffside itself a geological marvel immune to mudslides. 

Dreues shivered as his family passed the iron gates into Meridian’s Edge.


Upon entrance into the castle, a massive mountain of wax marked the center of the space, a product of decades of melted candles. Hundreds of them were lit now.

On one side of the mountain, the castle was decorated in all blue to represent Order. There were blue drapes, blue rugs, furniture upholstered blue, even blue paint splashed upon the flagstones. The blue tablecloths upon the tables were covered in a cornucopia of blueberries, blue cheeses, blue potatoes, and vibrant azure Klustrundu cakes.

The other side of the castle was dressed in all red to represent Chaos. Red drapes, red rugs, furniture upholstered in satin. The vermillion tablecloths held a feast of red berries and peppers; of fatty red meats, cooked rare; and cakes rising with piles of red frosting roses upon them.

It was a bewildering symmetry.

The monks in attendance, strewn about like pieces on a game board, further reflected this commitment to the never-ending battle between Order and Chaos with their robes split down the middle in red and blue.

The walls of the castle were thankfully removed from this tired ritual. Instead, they were decorated by hulking wood art tableaus, weaving historical events like the founding of Old Amal with religious tales such as the Creation of the Realms, the Gods, and All Things.

There was the birth of the Creator, Skaardruf, from Nothing. Then, “The First Spell,” Skaardruf’s rending of reality that created life and spawned his foil, Syzygax, the God of All and None.

Then came the Meridian, the porous boundary between Chaos and Order over which Skaardruf’s children, the Greater Gods, fought. And so on. Dreues, like everyone else in Amalcross, grew up with these stories. Normally, he’d pay them no mind.

But now, Dreues looked at them as if… a chapter of the tale was missing.

Dreues’s hand trembled. His wound shifted, the lines on his palms curled —

He saw the Roots — or rather, the Roots saw him — revisiting from his dreams. 

We were here before these Gods.

Tendrils of pain shot through him.

“Father!” Ilana cried.

Dreues found himself on the crimson marble floor, his head ringing from the impact, staring up at… Lady Serai Finewood.

Dreues’s daughters helped him to his uneven feet before he could fight off their help. Everyone else in the Hall watched the scene.

“A splendid entrance, Dreues,” Serai practically cackled. Her two younger husbands, Meryn and Thierry, and her two even younger wives, Ginelle and Lysand, grinned on either side of her. “One wonders at your family’s ability to build a temple when you can barely stand yourself.”

Her four partners, laughing at her jape like good lap dogs, followed her across the room.

“Whore,” Elowyn muttered. “Are her partners’ noses always drowning in shit?”

Lords do well to find one partner that will tolerate them. Somehow, Finewood had dug up four that not only tolerated her, but worshiped her. And they were all rich.

“Are you all right?” A stout nobleman with a forgettable face carrying two goblets of wine interrupted them as Dreues gathered himself. One goblet was colored blue, the other a normal red.

“I-I’m fine,” Dreues forced out the wooden words.

“One wonders if Farquen has taken this all a bit too far,” the man said, motioning to the drinks and offering one to Dreues.

“I’ll drink to that,” Dreues said, taking the red wine. “And my apologies, sir, have we met?”

“Oh, no, not at all,” the man said. “Tebb Misthorn.” 

He offered his hand to Dreues’s good hand.

Instead, out of habit, Dreues shook the stranger’s hand with his bandaged one. If Tebb was disgusted, he didn’t show it.

As they shook hands, something awoke inside Dreues, deep in his subsoil. A warning signal flared up suddenly, acting through Dreues’s infection. Indeed, it felt as if the infection now snaked up through his fingers into Tebb’s own hand.

Dreues traveled with his tainted blood up the arteries of the stranger’s arms, into his ears, into his mind, moving like a tendril of root through soil. It was an out-of-body experience, and yet he had never felt more in his body.

There was an openness for connection, to couple roots, to join networks, but once he, it, whatever this was, reached Tebb’s heart, alarm bells sounded. It was clear they had found poisonous soil.

Tebb Misthorn was not real, and now Dreues saw the man’s true and vicious vicious face within his mud-brown eyes. A concealed thought was unearthed: “Drink the fucking wine, old fool, and get this over with.”

Dreues’s probe continued through dark tunnels within the man’s mind.

Reeve Aylard was his real name. He was in disguise, an agent of the Imperial Catechism, a servant of the Emperor himself.

“Kill him.” Dreues somehow saw the Emperor’s painted lips utter the command.

Ah. That explained the alarms that rang throughout Dreues’s awakening body. Aylard was sent here to kill Dreues, to lop off House Stave at the root. They sought to turn over his lands to a foreign merchant, to legitimize the druglord marrying into the royal family to help bankroll the city’s reconstruction, to graft a foreign body onto the ancient roots and stem of House Stave.

Tebb felt nothing of this invasion, breaking off the handshake only a beat earlier than was customary.

“Excuse me, I must find our host.” Dreues pressed the glass of red wine back into the man’s hand. He now knew it had been laced with Ghrut venom.

“Nice to meet you, Reeve Aylard.”

Dreues said this in a haze, doddering off like a much older man, leaving Tebb, or Reeve, to wonder if he heard the sick man properly.


Whilst his daughters attempted to save face, discussing investment strategies with Borden Ioanna, Dreues planted himself in an empty corner of the party.

No longer connected to Tebb or his body, he questioned what had just happened. He was surely going mad as well as dying. Dreues picked at the oozing scabs on his hand, peeling dead skin off like bark.


“I was worried you wouldn’t be able to make it.” Dreues had jumped an instant before the words were directed his way.

“High Priestess Binder Farquen,” Dreues turned to his venerated host. He bowed. Farquen kissed his right cheek, then signaled he could rise.

“I was honored by your invitation,” Dreues said.

“You were surprised,” Farquen corrected.

Dreues, pale, nodded.

“Goddess Polmos has been at your door often of late,” Farquen continued.

“I wish she would fuck off,” Dreues said. This blasphemy inspired a raised eyebrow, but Farquen respected the honesty.

“Death is followed by life. This current cycle has been difficult, but should you learn from your hardships, the life that grows out from your tragedies will be more bountiful. That is the truth of The Meridian.”

Our truth is older.

Dreues’s hand went numb.

“That is why I invited you,” Farquen said. “To see if you have learned from death, from Polmos’s teachings. Our tragedies were great, but they were necessary to rebalance our world.”

Dreues mulled this over. What had he learned? “Our”tragedies? This woman desired to turn his grief into a lesson, a sermon for the impoverished folk outside, begging for mercy. Sermons didn’t feed the people. Sermons didn’t build roofs over their heads.

We do.

Dreues looked into the High Priestess Binder’s red eye. Defiance germinated inside him.

They brought Chaos into the world.

Farquen somehow pierced through him and saw his anger, his petulance. Had she heard the voice?

The pale man began to convulse, a great quake brewing within him.

The castle became a forest. He saw Drayven and his sons praying in communion with nature. It was Farquen’s presence that made the ground shake. That caused the trees to fall. Not again. He wasn’t going to watch his son die again. This woman wasn’t going to kill any more sons and daughters.

“No!” Dreues shouted and reached out to save his son –

And was greeted by Farquen’s lead sentry, who smacked him across the face with the hilt of her sword.

Dreues’s body slapped the floor for the second time that night like wet driftwood. He went black and still.

Everyone gasped, shocked at the attack, wondering if Dreues would rise this time.

“Did Dreues try to attack Her Holiness?” Lady Finewood wondered loudly, inciting innumerable hushed whisper campaigns, stoked by her four fawning partners.

“We are sorry, High Priestess, our father is not well,” Arden said. Arden and her sisters crowded Dreues, now surrounded by three guards. He was limp and cold, his eyes open and blank, flitting back and forth.

“Not well? He’s a madman!” Lady Finewood shouted. “He attacked Her Holiness. This is treason, this is punishable by death–”

Farquen’s red eye found Serai Finewood, cutting her off.

“Dreues is not of sound mind and body. He is Imbalanced,” Farquen said.

“One imagines balance to be necessary in the construction of the new temple, my lord,” Serai hastened to point out.

Farquen ignored her. She nodded to a pair of the silent monks, who joined her. They approached Dreues, now seizing. Everyone retreated, including his daughters, giving them room.

One monk held Dreues’s shaking head still. The other locked his feet. Then they flipped him over onto his stomach in one quick motion.

Farquen removed her sandals, revealing hard and calloused feet.

Like a storm cloud of judgment, she loomed over Dreues’s prone body. The onlookers who had witnessed the rite of Realignment previously closed their eyes and covered their ears. Not that it helped.

The woman stepped onto Dreues’s right calf with her right foot. She put all of her weight into the stride, onto the man’s tendon. Cartilage and muscle crunched underfoot. His ankle either snapped into place then or was forever ruptured.

Those who saw the act shuddered, cried. Those who blinded themselves didn’t fare much better, at the mercy of their imaginations.

Farquen placed her left foot upon his left calf. The gristly crackle of his muscle and tendons sounded as if his limbs were being chewed.

She continued the slow climb up Dreues’s body. Each step created pronounced pops that everyone felt deep inside their own tightening, choked chests.

Left. Right. Dreues’s left knee clunked into a fresh position.

Drues’s daughters held each other, weeping. They all three fell to their knees.

Left. Right. When Farquen walked above Dreues’s bladder, piss pooled onto the floor.

Dreues’s pancreas squished under her heel, sliding to the other side of his stomach.

When Farquen trod over his back, the cacophonous claps from Dreues’s spine were like heralding trumpets of war.

She lingered at the nape of his neck. Guests peered between their fingers, hoping it was over. But the final, most dangerous step had yet to occur. Dreues’s final judgment. Better men than he had died in the act, unable to be Realigned. Could he be saved?

Farquen kicked out her heel one way. Crack. Then the other. Another crack. If the kicks didn’t land true — or rather, if Dreues wasn’t capable of Realignment — his neck had been snapped and he was already dead.

Everyone waited for the results in silence except Dreues’s daughters, who were sobbing out prayers.

Farquen bent over her subject, tilting her ear to Dreues’s open mouth.

A moan of breath wheezed out. The man still lived.

The monks flipped Dreues back over.

“Balance is restored,” Farquen said. “For now.”

Her announcement was met with enthusiastic applause, mostly because they were happy it was all over. But the night was anything but.

They created Imbalance only to vindicate their own power.

But We are always in balance.

Dreues sputtered back to consciousness. He stood up under his own power, straighter than before.

“Thank you, High Priestess Binder Farquen.” Dreues bowed. “I am sorry for my behavior. I am dying.”

This was said with absolute certainty, but it didn’t rate as news for anyone looking at the man. His splotchy cheeks had erupted, now a constellation of broken blood vessels, spider veins spreading all over his body.

“Alas, my newfound Balance has delivered me sullied robes, Your Holiness. May I–”

“Take your leave,” she said. Several guests snickered, including Lady Finewood and her four echoes.

Dreues cut off all potential aid from his worried daughters with a look, then made his escape.

He staggered through the castle hallway in a fog. His visions intertwined with reality, the drapes becoming the trees of that forgotten forest.

His sickness spread up his arms, creeping into his spine. He was choking on the fetid air of this place.

He pushed past a throng of monks and exited the rectory.

The cursed man stumbled off the path toward the cliff’s edge, unable to divine reality. Internally, he felt better, stronger than he had over the past year while his body was decomposing. Something new was growing inside to transform his outsides. The pain was extraordinary.

He reached a single crooked tree overlooking the black river below. His hand was now white, colorless, bloodless. A dead weight that threatened to sink him into the soil. Death was chasing him, he was sure of that. Perhaps he could beat her to it…

He looked to the water below, a roiling black torrent, a release from shame, from grief. Drayven awaited him.

Dreues took a step into the abyss, but a branch caught onto his robes, pulling him back from the brink.

Then the branch snapped and he fell to the base of the old tree. The branch stuck with a thud into the dirt, landing like a signpost.

The stick began to transform, reshaping into a curved sword, carved from antiquity.

We always provide.

Dreues lifted the blade, marveling at the gift.

He marveled too at his glowing hand. He wasn’t sick, he realized. The pain was a seedling that needed to grow.

On his knees, he looked up at the tree in front of him. It was the tree from his visions. And this time, he found that he knew the tree’s name.

This was Stromgyre the Whorled One, the First Tree of the First Forest. Its name had been forgotten, but now Dreues remembered. It had been his family’s god once.

“Thank you,” he whispered.

Stromgyre was Dreues’s god now and again.

Dreues lifted the blade and chopped off his dead hand.

The hand fell to the dirt. Dreues dug through the soil with the sword, crafting a hole into the Earth in which he buried his hand.

Once the deed was done, he returned the sword back to the tree, for it was not his to carry.

The sword grew back into the tree, becoming a branch once more.

With his remaining hand, Dreues reached for the tree’s trunk and this time, felt its smooth skin.

Immediately, Dreues felt strength return to him. Hope. Confidence. Rooted in faith.

Just as immediately, alarm bells chimed once more inside him.

The alarm bells saved his life.

Dreues shifted his weight ever so slightly, somehow prepared for the blow Reeve Aylard landed on him in that moment. Instead of rolling off the cliff as had been Aylard’s design, Dreues crashed into the tree’s trunk.

From beneath his cloak, Aylard drew a falchion, a cleaver much like a butcher knife. Dreues was unarmed. He simply sat still, leaning on Stromgyre.

Aylard swung the sword at Dreues’s neck. Instead of rupturing his jugular, the blade stuck into Dreues’s neck as if his skin were made of thick bark. Dreues felt nothing. The blade clattered to the earth.

The crooked tree’s arms grabbed at Aylard. The agent tried to struggle, to wrest himself free, but escape was impossible. Instead of rending flesh from limb, however, the tree’s arms wrapped around Aylard in a bewildering embrace.

The branches then began to caress the man. Dreues’s severed hand — now of the tree, completely made of wood — emerged from a hollow at the tree’s center. The hand reached between Aylard’s legs.

Aylard gasped in surprise, pain, and pleasure. The hand, in concert with the branches, stroked, tugged, tickled the spy’s member.

In moments, Aylard succumbed to primordial desire, releasing his seed into the earth.

And with his seed, he had planted his new allegiance, reborn a seedling of Stromgyre the Whorled One, converted to the Cult of Cyrilliun, like Dreues before him.

“I am yours,” Reeve Aylard said to Stromgyre in religious ecstasy.

We are all One.

Aylard swooned, falling upon the tree and into the tree, absorbed into its trunk, swallowed up into its dark, vegetal embrace.

Dreues Stave bowed to the tree, then drew up to his full height, taller than before. The stump at the end of his right arm had been replaced by a hand of wood.

Dreues turned back to the castle and strode toward its evil iron doors.


When Dreues returned to the Hall, Lady Serai Finewood was making arrangements with Farquen.

“We can start on the morrow before the rooster’s rouse,” she promised. “We will build on the previous plot…” Serai continued on, but her words held no import to Dreues.

She is a blight.

Dreues wasn’t sick. Everyone else was. He pressed his new wooden palm to the wooden panels upon the walls. The wood creaked, reawakening. Nobody had ever heard a forest grow before: It was deafening, louder than thunder.

Finewood and Farquen turned with everyone else toward the sound.

The wooden walls that had been depicting the Creation were changing, telling a new story in real-time. A woman was now carved into the wood.

Lady Finewood demanded: “What is this monstrosity?”

This was a wooden likeness of Lady Serai Finewood herself upon the walls. She had with her two men and two women, in chains.

Everyone watching the tale unfold now turned to Finewood’s four partners, who looked more vacant than normal.

Lady Finewood took her struggling prisoners beyond the city’s walls, deep into the Booley Swamps.

There she reached a mud hovel, like a beaver dam. Inside was a dark mage that everyone in the Hall recognized. Nearly everyone save Farquen screamed at the fearsome countenance chiseled in front of them.

This was Azaroth the Banished — a grim sorcerer stitched together by the body parts of mythic animals — the gray neck of a Crocotta, the shaggy chest of a Parandrus, the black hindquarters of a Yale, their horned skulls stacked into an orb that the man’s webbed claws held.

Azaroth drew inscriptions into the mud with the orb, casting a powerful Bind upon Lady Finewood’s beautiful, suffering prisoners.

Dozens, nay, hundreds of trees burned as a forest turned desolate — the Draw for Azaroth’s spell.

The chains holding the four men and women dissolved. Their eyes and faces changed. Life drained from them. Lady Finewood and Azaroth fornicated with the four men and women in the mud, a demonic bath of hair and feces. The etchings in the wood echoed their lusty animal howls.

Several of the party’s guests puked their wine upon the floor as the scene played out in the crawling, whorling wood plaques. A few tried to hide their arousal. Others left to wash away the visage from their mind… or succumb to it.

The wooden images continued to writhe. Lady Finewood returned to Amalcross, now joined by two husbands and two wives. Bound to her by magic.

Everyone in the castle was numb. People loved to gossip about dark magic, but to see it? Experience it? Be in the same room with it? They were now, all of them, unable to speak, unable to grasp this new reality. They had whispered about Finewood behind her back, but now were unable to confront the truth in front of them. They wished they could be oblivious once more.

They all looked to High Priestess Binder Farquen. After all, her eyes only saw truth. And what she saw was a pox on her city.

“No, no — this isn’t true,” Lady Finewood cried. “This is sacrilege. Madness! My husbands, my dear husbands and my wives, my lovely wives, what we have is born from love. The truest of loves. Right, my beloveds?”

Lady Finewood shrieked and hugged her two husbands and two wives, but the youthful quartet stood transfixed, as if bronzed. 

“They are just shy, Your Holiness, please–”

Farquen peered into her. The cloven hooves of a monoceros burst from Lady Finewood’s fine clogs. Finewood’s eyes now twinkled with darkness. There was a part of Azaroth inside her.

Before panic took hold of the gathering, Farquen etched two words into everyone’s consciousness: “Be calm.

The open-handed slap that Farquen landed on Lady Finewood, which delivered her to the marble floor, would be forever called the Great Aftershock, for even those who weren’t attending the party, reported having felt a rumbling in the Earth, and the denizens of the city sent up a great shout in fear that a second earthquake was coming.

Farquen approached Finewood’s partners. Her red eye glowed as she looked Meryn, Thierry, Ginelle, and Lysand over. They remained frozen in place.

“I am sorry for this,” she said to them softly. “But there is no other way.”

“Undress them.” She gave the order to a pair of monks. The loudest silence had taken over the rectory.

When all their clothes were removed, a certain disturbing pattern became clear to onlookers.

Ginelle’s left nipple was pierced by a bronze stud.

Thierry had his balls stuffed in a steel chalice.

Meryn had a golden ring around his cock.

There was a silver piercing around Lysand’s exposed vulva.

No one had seen Farquen remove it from her cloak, but her fabled two-sided axe was now in her hands.

She swung the axe. A tinkle of metal bounced upon the floor.

And again. The steel basin dropped.

Again. The ring ricocheted off the ground.

One more – another broken ring fell.

Not a drop of blood spilled.

Their Bind now released, the spell exacted a further toll. After all, a spell always takes what it wants. And it wanted the soul of Lady Serai Finewood. As the newly freed spouses collapsed to the floor, Lady Finewood began to writhe as the Bind sprang back upon her.

Her skin rotted. Her hair fell out. Her bones crunched. Blood and organs evacuated through her bowels. Her skull caved in, her body shrinking in on itself until she was mere paste on the marble floor. Only a pair of crinkled hooves remained.

As steam rose from the gore, Meryn spat on the pool of guts that had been his wife.

This was fitting punctuation for a traumatic evening that had left the guests captive in confused horror. Now released from the tension, from the thrall, they exalted in their survival and unleashed cheers of pandemonium.

Everyone rushed to get more drinks.

But the profound maelstrom stopped immediately when Dreues approached High Priestess Binder Farquen.

He appeared a stranger to many in attendance – this was no longer Dreues the Pale. His hand had healed. His robes were cleaned. He somehow looked older than all of them put together and younger than he had been in years. He was taller; he had to be the tallest man in the city, and his flesh looked tough and strong, unlike flesh at all. Each step was rooted in certainty, and that confidence spread throughout the castle.

“I have died and learned much, High Priestess Binder Farquen,” the man said. “If Her Holiness would honor me, I wish to share these lessons with all who will listen, through a new temple that honors our ancient gods, who alone can help us tend to the future.”

Farquen’s red and blue eyes looked into Dreues and saw only truth. She nodded.

“Your Balance has connected you to something older than even I yet know,” Farquen said, her jealousy plain. “I wish to learn with the rest of the realm.”


When the last of the hanging man’s dying gasps had echoed across the courtyard and were replaced by the newborn baby’s squalls, High Priestess Binder Farquen addressed the people of Amalcross.

“Chaos and Order are balanced once more. Gods bless the Meridian.”

Everyone in attendance repeated the words.

Well, not everyone. Dreues Stave, Arden Stave, Elowyn Stave and Ilana Stave whispered other words:

We are the Roots, the fingers of the Earth, of His natural design…

They were not alone.

“Let us all pray together,” Farquen continued. “Welcome to Bouledar’s Temple.”

And with that, the giant wooden doors opened, revealing a nave not unlike a womb. The warm oval dome felt safe; its shape creating a whispering gallery where no secrets could fester. Many future visitors would remark that it was a lot like being inside a tree’s hollow, further evidenced by the birds and small mammals that nested there.

The woodworking on display was unparalleled artistry that would inspire songs, and draw visitors from beyond even the distant reaches of the empire.

The seven antechambers featured altars to the Forbidden Gods, carved of wood. The twin statues of Skaardruf and Syzygax upon the stage were carved out of the bark of living trees that grew past the roof, becoming twin spires for the bell tower.

Below the statues, underground and out of sight, were roots.

These roots were alive and had been so longer than forever. They told the story before the stories of men. They were here before and would be here after.

It may have looked like a temple of the Meridian, but its design was much, much older.

This was Stromgyre the Whorled One’s home.

The Spirit of the Old Raids & the Bloody Bonnets
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