Distant Reaches - The Ballad of the Fallen Trees

Imperial Archives / The Ballad of the Fallen Trees

The Ballad of the Fallen Trees

The Ballad of the Fallen Trees
King Tree, the leader of the evergreen horde, was winning its deadly game. Art by Shay Plummer.

The sun rises as the next bard barges onto the rostrum: a strapping, angry man whose scowl silences the Hall.

“Why tell these pansy love songs, these boring history lessons, and these revisionist war stories?” he yells. “Here’s a real tale, one of superior men exulting in the taking of women, then assuming their rightful place as kings and—”


With a sickening, fleshy burst, the bard vanishes in an explosion of blood. The audience gasps. The red plume dissipates to reveal another man, crouched and shivering in a tattered, filthy combat uniform. The moist ping-ponging of the first bard’s organs ends as they roll to a stop.

“W-where am I?” the man says.

“Uh,” Imperial Bard Rothus ‘ja Darden says, “you’re at the fifty-seventh Conclave of Bards.”

“The Conclave?!” The man rises, trembling, drenched in gore. “I — I have a ballad I must share.”

“Go ahead,” Rothus says. He doesn’t know what else to do: No bard has teleported into the Conclave before.

“My name is Specialist Xeverro Salinas,” the man begins, “and I am the embedded bard for the Fifteenth Combat Expeditionary Legion…”

There was trouble at the Northern Grasp; that’s all they told us.

Yule celebrations were canceled. We were to depart Fort Frostrock come dawn and make the hundred-league journey north by any means necessary. We knew what that meant: travel by sleigh.

The Northern Reaches grow so cold and cruel this time of year, magic-bound steamhorses freeze and live horses fare no better. It is even dangerous to open the kennels.

But the Northern Grasp is less a place than a dagger encased in ice. Its beauty is that of a merciless sterility. Because the landmass looks like the palm of a hand with three stubby fingers outstretched, we think of it as the Empire’s next grasp: One day, Amal will pierce the impenetrable tundra further north and snuff out the cultures of the Frozen Flames for good.

I have never seen it that way. Even as a sickly child in the Booley Swamps, with my nose buried in sweat-stained books of history and politics and literature, any mention of the Northern Grasp sent a cutting chill through my body, as if a mad doctor was bisecting my spine with a scalpel forged of ice. The Northern Grasp did not — does not — look to me like victory within reach. It looks to me like a hand butchered and abandoned in the snow.

It was still dark when the dogs were saddled and readied, the sleighs packed with gear and rations, and the formation assembled. The legion commander called forward at the first blush of dawn.

Despite my heavy coats and furs, I shivered throughout that weeklong mush. I could barely feel the heated lanterns the mage corps supplied. Not even the memories of my last happy Yule three years past, drinking hot ‘nog in a storied House in Amalcross, could warm me.

I’d been stationed at Frostrock for two years, but not once did I imagine an assignment to the Northern Grasp. After all, the Icebound Outpost rests on the Grasp’s edge; that northernmost facility bears responsibility for the Grasp and anything beyond. It is the end of the world.

“We’ve received neither telegram nor messenger,” Colonel Markins said, “nor have any couriers or birds returned from Icebound in a month. You’re hearing about this now because the Imperial Generals demanded utter secrecy.”

We expected to arrive at Icebound the next day, on All Yule’s Eve. The ranking officers crowded into the commander’s tent, huddling over a detailed map of the Northern Grasp stretched across the commander’s table. Everything was heavy with the smoke of our breath and the leathery scent of officers’ tobacco. Outside, the wind screamed.

I was there because I’d be expected to recount the details of our inevitably glorious victory.

“It must be the people of the Frozen Flames,” Lieutenant Broida said.

“We don’t know,” Colonel Markins said.

“This close to the Grasp?” Broida said. He squeezed between two older officers and approached the commander’s table. “Ma’am, the Rilk’gar don’t even come here. It’s surely the Flames, preparing an ambush.”

“It’s not the Frozen Flames,” I said. “They don’t—”

“Was I speaking to you, bard?” Broida spat.

My ears burned. Broida was a graduate of the Unified Military Academies; I was still paying off my loans. He was wrong, but I knew better than to speak against him.

Broida turned back to Colonel Markins. “Give me the order,” he continued, “and I’ll assign my unit—”

“Silence, Lieutenant.”

The voice was deep, husky, velvet-like. A woman stepped out of the shadows behind Colonel Markins. She was short and broad and wrapped in the glittering fur of what I assumed was the hide of some slain Uncanny Being. Cream-colored patches covered her onyx skin — signs, I knew, of old, horrible burns from enchanted flames. Her bald head bore the tattoo of a detailed palmprint.

The officers around me shifted and tensed. I wondered briefly if Markins had taken a lover. But that was only a reflection of my own libido after two miserably celibate years at Frostrock.

This second interruption incensed Broida.

“Who are you?” he barked.

“I am Esper ‘ja Roarer, Imperial Magus to the Emperor of the Distant Reaches!”

She’d hardly raised her voice, yet the sides of the tent strained as if from a gale within. Officers tottered. I felt suddenly winded. Broida collapsed onto the table.

The Magus stared at the officers before her. “You have noticed the metal pallets packed upon some of the sleighs?”

There were some murmurs of affirmation.

“They contain magic weapons of my own devising,” Esper said, “bearing the mark of and Bound to my Rend.” She ran a heavy-ringed hand across the tattoo on her scalp. “At dawn, ensure every legionary is outfitted with one. We know not what looms.”

At that, the Magus returned to the shadows.

Colonel Markins faced us. “Dismissed,” she said.


The sun shone bright and distant as we made our final approach to the Icebound Outpost.

The day was crystalline: Beautiful and still, but sharp on the throat, stinging in the nose, and blinding to the eye. The land was empty. The thick snow had the glisten of frosted glass. It was as if we were sleighing across miles of the purest parchment in all the Amal Empire, tracing lines in invisible ink.

But for the panting of the dogs and the susurration of the sleighs, all was quiet. No birds called above us. No wind or breeze roiled. No one spoke.

The Icebound Outpost finally came into view. It stood atop the final ridge before the long descent into the Grasp, affording it an unobstructed view in all directions.

We halted so the Colonel and her staff could debrief the scouts. As we waited, I tried to control my shivering and focused on adjusting Magus Esper’s awkward weapon against my chest. It had the reach of a longsword but was heavy as a battleax, requiring both hands to wield. The blade was made of a malleable spiked chain. I could not imagine what manner of enemy it was intended to destroy.

“Specialist Salinas.”

I must have jumped a mile high. Magus Esper stood beside me, scrutinizing Icebound despite the midday sun.

“Magus ‘ja Roarer,” I gasped. “Don’t you need a headscarf, Ma’am?”

“What brings a young man from Booley Swamp to the Northern Reaches?” Esper asked.

I couldn’t imagine why the Imperial Magus wanted to know. I told her what I tell everyone.

“Serving the Empire is honorable,” I said, “and I want to sing in the Conclave someday. Service allows me to build a career, pay down my debts, and improve my songslinging.”

“A very pretty lie,” Magus Esper said. “Well done.”

I protested: “Ma’am—”

“I’m here for your wits, Salinas.” She faced me. This close I could see the rich green and yellow and red ring of her eyes — a thick wall of autumnal leaves encircling a vertiginous abyss. “Everyone in the tent last night thought the Frozen Flames are behind this. Probably the whole legion feels the same. Except you. Explain.”

I felt myself somehow falling deeper into her pupils. I pulled my eyes down to the hard white snow at our feet.

“Ma’am,” I said, “all due respect, I’m just a specialist and—”

“Dare you defy an order from your Imperial Magus?”

“No, Ma’am,” I gasped. I collected my thoughts as I caught my breath. “In the two-hundred-twelve years since contact,” I began, “the Frozen Flames have never kept an assault quiet. Their victories over Amal forces — any forces — may be complete and absolute, but there are always survivors to relay accounts. That’s intentional. It’s a warning: Stay away forever.”

After a long moment, I felt the Magus turn away.

“Prepare yourself,” she said. “We shall resume the mush soon.”


We were two miles from Icebound when the dogs ground to a halt and refused to move.

They bayed and howled and snapped at their traces, snarling at anyone who came too close.

Icebound loomed above us. Its stark façade glinted in the midday sun, entombed in such heavy ice I wondered how the structure had not collapsed.

No one knew what to do. Some of the legionaries formed circles and smoked together, their backs turned outward and their heads bowed to keep their conversations private.

I approached the group around Colonel Markins. Magus Esper stood beside her. Kennel Chief Quintus was at their feet, subduing a whining dog.

“Something’s spooked them good,” the Kennel Chief was saying.

“We need to get to Icebound, Chief,” the Colonel said. “We’re mushrooms for the picking, here.”

“It’s overriding all their training, Ma’am,” Chief Quintus said. “This’ll take some time.”

Colonel Markins crossed her arms. She squinted up at Icebound.

Magus Esper brushed her Uncanny fur. “I shall Bind the dogs to my will,” she said, “so we may—”

And then we heard the wild whistling shriek. It curled into the air and carried across our legion. There was a physicality to it, as if it was relieving pressure borne from the very bowels of the earth.

We all searched the white expanse for the sound’s source. We saw nothing but snow and ice, the pale sky, the rigid silhouette of the Icebound Outpost above us.

Rolls of tobacco hung loosely from mouths. Faces scrunched in confusion or fear. Hands moved uncommanded to the hilts of weapons. But no one drew their blades or readied their muskets, and Magus Esper did not speak the magic word to initiate her devices.

The packed snow beneath us shifted. Thick lines formed, split, and split again like great branching cracks in a pane of glass.

Then the snow erupted. Legionaries shot into the air, blood and bodies and broken limbs raining red upon the ripping white. There were screams and gunshots. Thick wooden tendrils burst forth from the snow, tearing through dogs and legionaries alike.

I plunged backward. Steaming innards washed over me as dying figures flailed above, hoisted by or impaled upon the writhing tendrils.

I saw one tendril looming toward me. Bulbous, like the limbs from the trunk of an ancient tree. It stiffened and whipped nearer. It would have me in moments. I raised the Magus’s worthless weapon in pathetic defense.

The Magus’s Rend on the weapon’s broad hilt glowed blue. The blade lurched alive, rotating silently but rapidly.

The spinning blade met the striking tendril and cleaved it in two with the searing sound of metal upon wood. Splinters and something hot and sticky pelted my uniform and face. The tendril lurched back, its two halves flopping and withering. The whistling shriek roared again.

And then the world spun.

Whole slabs of snow and ice and the permafrost beneath upturned like capsizing vessels. I tumbled airborne. Legionaries, dogs, and sleighs careened through space in a splay of gore and frozen earth, tendrils still snatching and screams still airing.

I hit the ground, felt a snapping in my chest, ate a mouthful of soil coarse as crushed stone. I choked on hot ferrous mucous then watched the ground redden as blood poured from my mouth.

There was a clattering, like heavy branches in a whirlwind. I thought of clubs dragging across stone.

I looked up. The sight I saw still boggles my mind: A forest — yes, thousands of massive coniferous trees — swarmed over the hills fleet as an avenging army, the smell of pine and sap sickly sweetening the stench of death.

And before me, thousands of small tendrils surged from the newly riven earth, tiny as the stems of leaves but undulating with motion. No, not tendrils: They were roots, living and murderous.

I scrambled back, every breath and movement a burning pain. But the roots had the wild speed of crazed rodents.

I swung the Magus’s weapon between my feet, severing a dozen roots. But two dozen more ensnared me up to my knees and entangled themselves in the folds of my armor, cutting through leather and skin like bladed wire. I screamed again, screamed as I felt the roots razoring through muscle and into bone —


An enchanted fireball, golden-blue, tumbled across the roots. Those caught in it crackled and burst with squealing gasps; the rest pulled away. The flame skittered along the roots that clutched me, burning them loose.

Something grabbed me. It tore the air from my lungs. The now-ashen roots fell away from my leg. I thrashed, unable to breathe but desperate to free myself, only to land in the commander’s sleigh with Magus Esper standing over me. Her Uncanny fur was singed and steaming but still glittering; her eyes had gone so abyssal I thought I’d fall into them forever.

She looked forward and roared, “MUSH!

The sleigh leapt into motion. The legionaries around me jolted and stacks of rations toppled, but we all held fast. Colonel Markins hoisted me up.

“On your feet, soldier,” the Colonel said.

She caught me when I nearly collapsed again from the molten pain in my legs and feet. But I steadied myself and raised Esper’s weapon, prepared to wield it in close-quarters broadsides.

The trees did not let up. They surged across the shattered earth, their firs rigid and bristling in the wind of their pursuit. Their combined systems of roots kept pace with ease as snow tore around their conical bodies.

The legionaries left behind who weren’t already dead were snatched up in the tree’s clawing roots and branches and —

I turned away. Only three of our seventy-two sleighs remained.

The dogs mushed for Icebound. Their legs were a blur of impossible motion, pink foam billowing from their snouts. I knew then that Magus Esper had Bound her will upon them — that it was she who was driving them far beyond the brink of death so we could survive.

If, of course, the Icebound Outpost could protect us.

“They’re gaining!” someone shouted.

I looked back. My gods, the trees could nearly touch us!

Legionaries, take aim!” Colonel Markins called.

I dropped the Magus’s weapon and flung my musket over my shoulder. I struck the loose snow from the flint and aimed.

Steady!” Colonel Markins called.

Down my sight I could see mangled bodies dressed upon their limbs. I saw human torsos, blue and black, impaled through grasping branches. Arms and legs, dangling like street baubles on a windy day. One tree had crowned itself with a legionary’s dented helmet and another was bedecked in soiled garlands and a bloodstained wedding dress.


A meager volley of gunshots rang out. My musket’s kick sent a whorl of pain across my chest.

The trees countered before the gun smoke cleared.

Their branches whipped, and a dark green cloud washed over us. Steel needles rained upon the sleighs, piercing wood and metal, boring through flesh, shattering cartons. Cries rang out. The sleigh swerved. I groped for balance. A legionary slammed against me, covered with and blinded by fascicles of spikes. The dozen punctures in his neck choked his anguish, and he fell gurgling over the railing.

I watched the sleigh alongside us veer. Its lead dog stumbled, nosedived, brought all the others crashing down. The sleigh inverted, pitching its legionaries overboard. The trees plucked them from mid-air. The sudden inertia of the trees’ grasp was enough to dismember two of them.

Some trees decorated themselves with my dead or dying comrades. Others wound up their branches and hurled the bodies at us.


The bodies landed with such force they shattered upon the sleighs or snow. Or pulverized any legionary with whom they made contact. Blood and splintered steel covering everything.

Magus Esper yowled like a beast undone. Was she hit? Without her, we were doomed. I looked, saw the blood flowing from her nose and the veins bulging across her head and the sweat dripping from her chin, her eyes tight and her mouth gaping with a stillborn scream and her teeth bared wider than any predator. Her Uncanny fur singed and steamed, the strain of her myriad spells — her will, her weapons, whatever she was about to unleash — taking their steady toll.

But the trees were on us. Their branches lashed and grabbed and groped for us. I raised the Magus’s weapon and severed branches and needles. The appendages flopped dead into the sleigh, spilled burning stinking sap that blurred my vision and jammed the blade. The sounds of sawing and yelling and curses and screams arose. The trees let out their whistling shriek.

I sawed and parried and feinted, dodged a close swipe, and glimpsed one branch arch up. As it struck I realized it was aiming for —

“The Magus!” I cried.

I lunged for the branch. I was not fast enough.

Colonel Markins was. She leapt in front of Magus Esper. The branch tore through the Colonel’s armor and out of her back. Its tip unfolded and ensnared her further. A balloon of blood burst from her mouth. The branch whipped back, and Colonel Markins vanished into the fray.

Magus Esper wheezed something I couldn’t hear.

It was her magic word: Another golden-blue fireball, this one thrice as big as the last, launched from her joined palms. It crashed through the trees, incinerating needles and bursting trunks. Bark sharp as shrapnel hailed down on us. The stench of burning bodies wafted from the heat.

The Magus grabbed her head and fell to her knees. She groaned as blood drained from her nose.

Her fireball plowed through the trees in its path, but those that had not been engulfed were closing around those that had. There would be no respite from the attacking evergreens.

Suddenly the sleighs screeched across concrete. Sparks flew from the iron runners. We’d arrived at Icebound. Praise the gods, its gate had been opened.

CLOSE THE GATE!” a voice screamed.

It was Lieutenant Broida, spilling out of the other surviving sleigh but unable to stay on his feet. He was drenched in blood. Needles protruded from his shoulders and back.

I straggled for the emergency levers on the curtain wall. Another bloodied legionary, Private First Class Dumont, arrived first.

The barrier launched upwards. The trees slammed against it, their blows echoing through the enchanted metal.

And then the concrete rumbled beneath us. If the trees’ roots could burrow through Icebound’s foundation, it was over.

We watched small cracks form. Tiny pebbles danced with the vibrations. Private Dumont cradled himself, his eyes squeezed shut. Broida chanted the word “no.” I couldn’t breathe.

The vibrations dimmed. The rumbling quieted. The pebbles stilled.

The trees shrieked again.

But we were safe for now. Only the four of us had survived.

We wept. And then, madly, we laughed.

Then we realized Magus Esper had collapsed and wasn’t breathing.


We didn’t know if we’d have time to get her to the infirmary, so we pulled the Magus out of the sleigh and set her flat on the ground.

I thought I’d need to restart Magus Esper’s heart. I patted her down, searching for the seam in her Uncanny fur. The singed tips loosened beneath my palms, blackening my bloodstained hands with soot, but the fur repelled the blood that smeared off me. The Magus’s Binds had consumed enough of the material that I could see the tanned hide through some spots on the fur.

“What’s wrong with her?” Broida said. He was pacing.

“There’s no seam,” I said. “We need to pull it off her.”

Dumont kneeled beside me to help.

Beneath her Uncanny fur, Magus Esper was far more petite than I had imagined. I found a pulse.

I tilted the Magus’s head back to open her airway, pinched her nose, and leaned in.

“We need to move inside,” Broida said, “where it’s safer.”

I tapped Private Dumont to take over. “Revive her first,” I gasped.

Lieutenant Broida spun on me. “We can do that inside!”

“First aid now,” I said, “otherwise she may go into cardiac—”

“Are you disobeying my order?”

I screamed, “You can’t protect us without the Magus!”

I didn’t feel Broida’s fist on my cheek until after my back hit the ground. Broida stood over me, gaping. Then his hand was bladed in my face.

“That’s a write-up, Specialist!” he shouted. “We will move at once and—”


The word winded both of us. My arms gave out. Broida landed on top of me.

Magus Esper was facing us, her eyes closed. She leaned on Dumont as she took deep, slow breaths.

“When you’re ready,” she said, opening her eyes, “let’s get inside.”

Broida rose off me. He offered a hand to help me up, but I did not take it.

The four of us explored Icebound by inches, pressed against the walls like mice creeping through a den of sleeping cats.

There was no sign of the legion that manned the outpost. Desks were in good order. The dormitory beds were all made. The kitchen was spotless, though the food stores were empty.

By the time we reached the infirmary, Magus Esper had recovered her strength. She cleaned the deep lacerations crisscrossing up to my thighs, then healed the wounds.

All legionaries learn first aid and basic medical Binding, but Esper’s work was something else entirely. I felt the cuts along my bones repairing and the punctures in my muscles filling, saw the gashes rising and tightening with fresh skin. My shattered ribs reset themselves, and my chest molded itself atop them.

It was more unpleasant than painful. Like there were fingers flexing and fixing themselves inside my tissue.

Magus Esper brushed the new singes off her Uncanny fur.

“The scars will be garish,” she said.

As if such a thing mattered.

Lieutenant Broida was tending to Private Dumont. Dumont had survived a direct blow from the trees, but the branch left a jagged laceration curving across his back.

“Sir,” I said to Broida, “I’ll take care of Dumont so the Magus can care for you.”

Broida wouldn’t meet my eyes.

“Are you sure, Specialist?” he said.

I took the scalpel and medical chisel from his hands. Really I just didn’t want to get stuck tending to the Lieutenant should the Magus see to Dumont first.

Broida walked away. I focused on Dumont. Before we could begin healing the wound, I had to finish removing the scabrous white resin that had hardened within the lesion. The skin around it was raised and bruised, a yellow tint blooming across his back. Dumont trembled on the examination table.

I laid my hand on Dumont’s shoulder to steady and comfort him.

I drew the scalpel along the perimeter of the hardened resin. His skin slackened as the dense white pus, pinkening with blood, drained. Dumont gasped and grunted as each inch of loosened resin peeled away with the stringy tension of dried glue.

With Broida healed, Magus Esper turned next to Dumont.

“We need to discuss next steps,” she said. She held her hand against Dumont’s back. Her Uncanny fur began to singe once more. Dumont twitched as she healed his wound. “Give me options.”

“We check the kennels for dogs,” Broida said.

“Even if there are any,” Magus Esper said, “they’d be too weak to mush a hundred leagues, let alone with a sleigh.”

“And the trees would easily catch us,” I said.

“We could sneak away at night,” Dumont suggested. “They don’t have eyes.”

“Then they use other senses to track prey,” I said. “Maybe they can read vibrations in the ground.”

“We can’t stay here,” Broida said. “You saw the stores. There’s no food.”

“There’s our dogs,” I said.

All three of them gawked, appalled.

“What?” I said. “Do you or don’t you want to live?”

“We’re not going to survive.” Magus Esper stood, brushing away the newest singes from her Uncanny fur.

Dumont blanched. “But if we call in reinforcements—”

“That would be tantamount to murder,” Broida said. His face darkened.

“And we’d received no word from Icebound for more than a month,” I recalled. “Assume the trees will intercept any bird or messenger we could send.”

“So,” Magus Esper said, “how do we kill them?”

A silence fell upon us.

“Your magic,” Broida said. “Can’t you design a spell that will burn them up or rot them?”

Something Broida said struck my memory.

“They are incredibly resistant to magic,” Esper said, “and the toll of my spells was massive.” She gestured at her weathering Uncanny fur, still glittering but increasingly pockmarked and thinning. “As a Draw, nothing is equal to my fur. I spent three full days combating the Uncanny Being from which it came, and that I slayed it was due to luck more than skill or strength. And yet, even with the economy of my spells’ Courses, you can see the cost of each Act. I have other Draws, yes. But spells of this nature are thorough and consumptive, and I lack sufficient resources. It will not be enough to neutralize the forest.”

“A suicide charge,” Broida said.

“That would be hopeless,” Dumont said.

“We must ensure the maximal effect, regardless,” Magus Esper said.

“There’s nothing we can do,” Dumont said. “We don’t even know what happened here! And if you’re weakening—”

“Rot them, though,” I said. I looked at Broida. “You asked if she could rot them.”

“But she can’t,” Dumont said.

“But what if she could?” I said. “Look, growing up in the Booley Swamps, my best friend had a pet badger. Most kids in Booley have lizards or toads or marsh hares. But she’d found this badger injured at the edge of the Swamps and nursed it back to health, then adopted it. Anyway, when it died, she wanted to give it a water burial. We took it to one of the pools beside a kingtree, and that was that.

“But throughout the next year, the kingtree weakened and withered. No one could help it. Finally, they drained the pool to heal the roots directly and found the rotting body of the badger entangled there. It’d been poisoning the kingtree.” I wrung my hands, trying to somehow splash them with the point. “That’s how we kill them all.”

“We don’t have any poison,” Dumont said.

“Not yet,” I said. “We use the—” The words caught in my throat. What I was about to suggest was a horrible crime. “We use the—”

“We use the bodies of your fallen comrades,” Magus Esper said for me. “I incorporate their corpses into my Draw and integrate them within my Course. Expedite their decomposition and convert them into enchanted herbicide as part of my ensuing Act.”

Dumont gagged. “The use of humans in Binding is forbidden!” he said.

“Thus you think we don’t study it lest the need arise?” Esper said. “I am the Imperial Magus. I have mastered all forms of Binding in service to the Amal Empire.”

“It’s profane,” Broida said.

“It is necessary,” Magus Esper responded. She rubbed her hand along her bald dome. “The only problem will be my Rend.”

“Your Rend isn’t on any of the corpses,” I said.

“The corpses are no issue,” Esper said. “I can use your identification tags to enable a chain reaction. Rather, my Rend is not on any of the trees.”

“The bodies — the herbicide won’t be enough?” Broida asked.

“The trees are mobile,” the Magus said. “If they’re not Bound within the spell, they might discard the bodies before enough damage is done. Or even isolate the affected trees to protect the larger forest. If we can Bind a tree, or even just its roots, I’ll create a feedback loop to ensnare them all.”

“How, though?” I asked. “How do we get close enough to a tree?”

“We can’t go back out there,” Dumont said.

“We use Icebound’s tunnels,” Broida said. “They provide simple access to the watchtowers east and west of here. The trees’ roots are surely there, but they’d be too tight for the trees themselves. Since we saw no sign of upturned earth until the trees attacked, it’s safe to assume most are still traversable. Private Dumont,” Broida said, facing him.

“Sir?” Dumont said.

“Head topside. Tell me in which direction the trees are most heavily congregated.”

Dumont rose.

“I’ll collect additional Binding materials before we go,” Magus Esper said.

“Ma’am,” I said. “You need to stay here, where you’re most-protected, so you can initiate the spell.”

“I shall go where I please,” she growled.

“He’s right, Ma’am,” Lieutenant Broida said. “You’ll stay here.”

Magus Esper glared at us. Broida and I held our breath.

“Private Dumont will stay with you for protection,” Broida attempted. “Specialist Salinas and I will go into the tunnels and place your Rend on a tree. You must be able to activate your spell, even if we fail.”

I huffed at the thought of dying with Lieutenant Broida.

The Magus’s eyes narrowed. “Fine,” she said. “Just don’t kill each other first.”


Dumont burst into the infirmary, needles puncturing his stomach, left side, and buttocks.

“Sir,” he wheezed. He collapsed.

We lifted him to a table and set him on his right side. The fascicles were lodged so deep in his stomach some bulged or protruded through his back.

“They’re scaling the walls,” Dumont strained. “They’re breaching the grounds.”

Could the trees survive disarticulated from the earth? And if so, for how long?

“Where are they densest?” Broida asked.

Dumont’s lips unfurled into a widening rictus of agony. I thought his cheeks would split. If he meant to speak, what came out was an anguished, choking scream.

“Private Dumont!” Broida insisted. “East or west?”

“Lieutenant.” Magus Esper put one hand on Broida’s shoulder and another on Dumont’s. Her glittering Uncanny fur singed slightly. Dumont’s breathing slowed. His eyes softened.

“Oh, no,” Broida said.

Dumont’s body relaxed. I covered my face with my fists. My rage was not quite able to overpower my despair. How did we get here? We should be around a fire, enjoying All Yule’s Eve dinner.

Magus Esper pressed her thumbs onto Dumont’s identification tags. I watched one of her golden rings glow and flake. When she let the tags fall back to Dumont’s body, I could see her Rend imprinted on both: The same palmprint emblazoned upon her head.

She turned to us. “Give me your tags,” she said.

We gave them over.

“When the time comes, my Rend will incorporate you into the spell. If you are not already dead, you will be killed as you are repurposed into herbicide.”

She handed us our tags. Mine were warm to the touch.

“I am changing the plan,” she said. “I shall join you in the tunnels.”

We did not argue.

We grabbed the Magus’s inactivated magic blades and left Dumont’s body for the trees. The silent halls were disturbing, but at least we knew the trees were not yet within the compound.

Broida served as point, leading Esper and me deeper and more downward, turning and turning. Icebound isn’t that large, but I was disoriented. The place felt like it was only getting bigger.

“Almost there,” Broida said. “Just a few more—”

A thick bulbous root smashed through the walls ahead of us. Broida staggered backward, falling away before any of the smaller roots could snag him.

The tunnel rumbled around us. It would cave in.

“Back!” I yelled.

We retreated as the thick root twisted. Its smaller offshoots reached for us, cutting through air and slashing the walls.

We raced toward an intersection. Broida and I went right, but the Magus went left.

“This way!” I yelled.

I reached for her. But another root tore through the hallway. The walls crumbled and the shaking threw me onto my back.

I saw the ceiling burst above me. I covered my face —

Broida grabbed my ankles and pulled me to safety. A mound of detritus crashed down behind me. I coughed on dirt and dust.

“Magus ‘ja Roarer!” Broida cried. I hurried to my feet.

“I’m fine!” she called. “Affix my Rend however possible! The closer it is to a density of trees or roots, the better. I will hold out as long as possible before I activate the spell.”

“But Ma’am—”


Black roots snaked through the rubble, uncoiling to strike. I pulled Broida away.

We ran.


We raced through impenetrable darkness, stumbling over ourselves and each other, slamming against walls. It felt like we fled for hours. The roots didn’t follow, or perhaps they did and were poised to strike at any moment. It was impossible to tell.

I fell. My muscles seized. My lungs clenched. My head throbbed. It was too quiet. I knew we were doomed, but I felt suddenly alone and that made everything worse. I groped for Lieutenant Broida in the dark.

“Broida?” It was half a whisper and half a plea. “Broida!”

Did we lose each other? Had the trees gotten him? Had I taken a different turn? I was breathing too fast. I was choking on air. I was somehow drowning.


Broida’s voice. Right beside me.

I surfaced. My muscles eased. My breathing normalized. And I felt so stupid. The Lieutenant was right there: He was fine, I was fine. I didn’t even like him, yet here I was calling out for him like a lovesick pauper —

I tore the thought from my mind. I cleared my throat.

“We need to keep moving, Sir.”

“It’s not going to work,” he said.

“How far are we?” I asked.

He didn’t respond.

I finally had my heart rate under control. I took a deep breath through my nose and smelled something faint. Something pungent and organic, but not unsweet. It was a smell as personal to me as my memories of Booley: moisture and moss, fungus and dirt….

I stood. “On your feet, Lieutenant,” I said.

I heard him rise. I clutched his chest plate and led him forward, toward the smell. A dim glow poked through the darkness ahead of us.

“That smell,” Broida said. I heard him sniffing, struggling to rationalize the ochre odors when everything here was ice and blood. “What is that?”

“It’s them,” I said.

The smell strengthened as the glow bloomed. The hall in front of us had caved in, but the glow bled through a hole where the floor met the wall. There was a blast of humidity, though no less cold.

I faced Broida. In the hazy orange light, I could see his lips flatten and his throat contract. Then his eyes met mine.

He nodded, and I nodded back.

I adjusted the Magus’s inactive weapon and got on my knees. I crawled headfirst through the hole. A child could have done so with ease, but I had to strain and squeeze. My body snagged on jagged concrete and my armor caught on welded wire. I coughed and gagged as the smell grew worse. I was stuck. But Broida pushed me through, then gravity did the rest.

I fell onto a wet, spongy path. I could hear the trickle of liquid. Lanternflies floated in both directions as far as I could see, and in their warm light I glimpsed motion on the wall and ceiling: beetles, spiders, roaches, millipedes.

And the smell — the smell was sickening, too sweet and too rancid, too thick. Like composting vegetation. Like carrion before the rain. Like decomposing —

I sprang to my feet. An icy red-brown stain seeped through my tunic and down my legs, spreading beneath my armor. I saw the bones and rotting appendages on the floor, the blood and decay along the walls and ceiling, the bits of brain matter interspersed amongst black spreads of moss, the dribble of fluids where the floor wasn’t level and the stagnant pools where it was. The insects devouring and devouring and devouring. The thick strips of roots suckling along the path.

Severed fingers lie amongst evergreen pines.

I heaved. My gut flipped. I vomited what little breakfast was still in my stomach. My brain blared to leave; I could think of nothing else.

“Salinas!” Broida was stuck hanging from the hole. “Salinas!”

I couldn’t speak. I raised my arm and gestured to stop, go back, get me away. Instead, Broida grabbed my hand and pulled himself out. He landed in the muck at my feet.

I watched Broida undergo the same sequence of revelations while I regained my composure. I tried breathing through my mouth to avoid the smell, but the sticky, wet taste of rot coated my tongue and throat.

“Which way, Lieutenant?” I managed to ask.

He wiped the last of the fresh bile from his lips, looked ahead and behind, and then nodded forward.

It was as good a guess as any.

We hurried down the hall, Broida in the lead. We kept quiet, not wanting to disturb the dormant roots beside us. We breathed as shallowly as possible.

“You can call me Jerome,” Broida said.

“Say again, Sir?”

“You don’t have to call me ‘Lieutenant,’” Broida said, “or ‘Sir.’ You can call me Jerome.”

“Yes, Sir,” I said. “If that’s what you want.”

His shoulders sagged, but he didn’t look back.


The tunnel widened. The roots thickened, coiling into great ropey tangles and massive woodsy knots. They wriggled like large lazy snakes but did not seem to notice us. Rotting bodies were entangled amongst them as human mulch. I saw the glint of metal identification tags.

Thanks to the lanternflies, still-denser roots were visible ahead. We kept our distance from the bodies and the bugs but were unable to avoid the nearly invisible dripping of liquid. And we had to slow down to watch our feet as the roots overran the floor.

We finally came upon the greatest confluence of roots thus far. They melded into a solid limb — a thick buttress root that cradled a pile of bodies and then extended up and through the wall, where it attached to the bottom of a tree trunk.

I pointed to the base of the trunk.

Rend, I mouthed at Broida.

How? he mouthed back.

I looked at the buttress root. Then at the bodies, a putrid mass of bones and flesh accented with tattered clothes.

I carefully placed my right foot on the nearest corpse. I felt a layer of mush compress to bone — then the bone strain under my weight as I shifted forward and lifted my left foot to another corpse, higher in the pile. The body sunk deeper into the mass of mud and root matter with a muddy squelch, but held. A flurry of black motion activated as maggots and millipedes fled the pressure of my boot.

I gulped down my hot rising sickness and leapt ahead.

My weight was too much for the next corpse. The bones snapped.

I fell through the corpse and sank waist-deep into the bodies beneath it. I felt the poke of broken bones and the rush of slushy tissue against my pantlegs. I sensed the vile tickle of a hundred thousand tiny legs before I saw the swarm of bugs. Repulsion scrambled my thoughts. But I was close enough to reach the tree trunk.

And then I realized what Broida had asked: not how we would reach the trunk, but how we would Rend it — how we would place the required glyph of the spell upon it.

The bugs crawled up my legs, around my belly, along my groin. Cold fluid seeped into my boot. I didn’t think. I withdrew my tactical knife and sliced open the palm of my left hand. There was an electrical pain as hot blood spread across my frigid skin. I squeezed my hand into a fist, then pressed it hard against the trunk of the tree. The bark pricked against my wound, but the tree did not respond.

I withdrew, leaving my bloody palmprint behind, and clambered out of the pile. I crashed down, hitting every root along the way. I writhed on the ground, slapping and smacking my legs and chest to get the bugs away. Broida was with me already, brushing my uniform and armor of any insects.

I gritted my teeth, trying not to gasp too loud.

“You’re okay,” he whispered. “Give me your hand.”

I pulled away. “No,” I said.

Broida snatched it back. “Just give me your hand!”

We froze as the echo of his voice died.

But the roots still took no notice of us.

Broida tore a piece of cloth from his sleeve and wrapped my wound. Then he helped me to my feet.

We hurried further down the hall, away from that tree.

“Good job back there,” Broida said.

“Thanks,” I said.

“We ought to Rend more,” Broida said.

“One should be enough,” I said.

“Just to be sure,” he said.

“Yes, Sir,” I said.

We trudged forward, but the roots thinned.

“I keep thinking we’re going to get out of here,” Broida said. “I know we’re not. But I keep thinking about someone back in Amalcross.”

He halted. I stopped beside him. He looked at me, looked away, looked back at me. Then turned and walked forward again.

“Her name is Valme,” Broida said. “We’re engaged. We’re to marry next solstice. I keep thinking about her. About the honor I’ll bring our families. She said I didn’t need to commission. That we could make a meager life together and she’d be happy. But I — I insisted. I had to prove something. That I was better than what anyone thought of me, even her. Or… I don’t know. You know you can’t marry while enrolled at the Academies? Only before or after. She waited so long for me, and she’s still waiting so I can have the money for a good ceremony. And now—”

He wiped his eyes and coughed a little too long.

“Salinas,” he said finally, “you have someone back home?”

“No,” I said.

He flinched, but I held my tongue. Why share this with Jerome Broida, of all people?

“I mean,” I said, “I did. Not anymore.”

I tightened my jaw. I had swallowed this story down for so long. Now it was forcing its way up.

“Like you and Valme, we were going to marry,” I said. “But his mother forbade it. My debt and lineage would shame the House.” I flexed my wounded fist to work the pain. “I was hurt. He argued with his mother. Then one day he tells me if I enlist, I’d gain his mother’s approval, and we could marry after I graduated from Basic.”

“His mother forbade it even then?” Broida asked when I didn’t continue.

“My second week at Basic, I got word of his marriage to another man,” I said. “I graduated, and the Surrogates’ Guild had already delivered them triplets.”

Broida glanced back at me. No matter how brief it was, I loathed his wide look of sympathy.

“I’ve always wanted to be a bard,” I continued. I was unable to stop. “I knew I’d have to go to a university I couldn’t afford. The thing about Booley is you’re never supposed to leave. Fealty to the Empire, sure, but the Swamps come first. Even Willem Qoyle, who brought us so much fame — his death is less an assassination than it is comeuppance for putting Amal before the Swamps. I lost my home and acquired a lifetime’s worth of debt to be a bard. I lost my man as a bard. And now I’m here, and I’m never going to be a real bard after all.”

Broida was quiet for a moment.

“It sounds like he had a shit family, though,” Broida said.

I thought I’d kill him. Instead, I found myself laughing.

“Jerome,” I said, “I don’t think you’ve ever said a truer thing.”

I stumbled. My foot was caught under something. I looked down.

A thick root had ensnared my right ankle. Like a noose.

“Broida,” I said.

He looked back. He saw. Our eyes met.

He drew the Magus’s weapon.

The root snapped up, pulling me to the ceiling. Then through it entirely.

The darkness was a thick smothering blanket. Dirt and concrete and mulch moved around me, somehow allowing my passage but clawing scraping tearing at my armor and exposed skin. Tectonics growled, plates ground — the monstrous earth roared around me, hungry.

I tried to scream. My mouth filled with soil, cold as old clay and twice as hard.


I don’t know how. But when the earth receded, I was still alive.

I was drawn still up, up, ever up. I saw the cloudy night beneath me, as if I was falling into the sky. Above me, I glimpsed the Icebound Outpost before a myriad of cross-hatching roots obscured the sight.

The frigid wind gnawed at my skin. I saw shadows in motion but could not make out what they were. My vertigo increased as the air thinned.

Finally, I halted. Additional roots snaked around my free ankle and wrists, then righted me. The shadows surrounded me. But in front of me stood something massive and broad, as big as a clocktower.

The clouds parted and the low moon shone through.

The once-empty Northern Grasp was now covered with trees. Uncountable miles of trees. All of them bedecked in some way with the bodies or limbs or remnants of those they’d killed. I could see upon them the clothes of Amal citizens and the devastated armor of fallen legionaries. And I could see furs and banners totally unknown to me. I knew then that peoples of the Frozen Flames had also fallen prey.

And before me stood the most massive tree of them all. Naked but for the evergreen needles covering it, thick as a forest canopy.

It heaved a sigh, long and low. A brutal breeze cut through the air. The leaves of the thousand trees rustled around me as if a hundred thousand rattling snakes awoke upon their branches.

A branch reached out and stroked the length of my body — the intimate touch of a lover or a killer.

“Who are you?” I cried. “What do you want from us?!”

The branch found my identification tag. It tore the tag away and receded.

The undulating roots below me shifted and roiled. From them, two figures rose to my eyes, both borne on the ends of branches.

One was the head of Colonel Markins. The other was the upper half of Kennel Chief Quintus’s body. The roots had braided themselves up the Colonel’s neck and branched themselves through her missing eyes. And they had coiled themselves into Quintus’s torso like a fibrous spine.

“Hello, little leaf,” the head of Colonel Markins said. It was not her voice, but one coarse and baritone. I could see the vibrations of the roots as they approximated human sound.

I screamed. I thrashed against my restraints. I could only hope to fall to my death. I could not face this insanity.

But the branches pulled me taut.

“Be still, little leaf,” Colonel Markins’s head said. “You shall be ornamented soon. But first you must show us.”

Chief Quintus’s body spasmed and tittered.

I felt small roots slithering up my back and around my neck — into my ears and nose.

“No!” I cried. “No!”

The roots snaked inside. I gagged and moaned. I could feel them creeping through my skull and behind my eyes, planting themselves into my brain. The pain was tight and prodding.

“Show us, little leaf,” the head said, “what you sought amongst our roots.”

I squeezed my eyes shut. My tongue lolled. Quintus’s titter rose to a laugh. Visions from my life blasted out of sequence in my mind, like images from a deranged zoetrope. Where was Magus Esper? Why had she not activated her —

“A witch,” I heard the head say. “What wants a witch with us?”

The pain drilled deeper. I yowled and choked. I had to resist. I summoned a different memory, one of a badger and a water burial in Booley beside the —

“King Tree,” the head said. “Yes. I shall be King Tree. And we shall be my forest.”

The roots burrowed further. Into my head, my heart, my stomach. Steering through me like we’d steered the mushing dogs toward Icebound, closer, closer, closer, closer, closer —

“We shall spread our roots,” King Tree said. “We shall grow our forest. We shall retake our lands. Never again shall the little leaves fell us. Never again shall we be your clowns and sacraments. Never ever again, forever.”

The King Tree was supplanting my mind. It was invading my history, upending my knowledge, uprooting the memories of my lovers and enemies. I could not hide. I was a child cornered in a barren room and the encroaching shadows were saws.

My joints stretched and popped. My tendons strained and cracked. My skin split and tore.

“Everyone you love will feed our roots,” King Tree said. “Everything you know will end. But that is not death. It is change. You will become of the forest. You will live for eons amongst us. As a prisoner of our bark. Behold, little leaf. Behold your King Tree.”

My eyes were forced open.

It had no face, but I swear King Tree was grinning. The sight blasted my mind. I felt the roots in my brain sink unresisted through everything. My sickly childhood. My exile from Booley. My hope when I signed the enlistment papers. My humiliation reading the letter at Basic. My proposed plan to Magus Esper.

“Ah,” the head of Colonel Markins purred.

Chief Quintus’s torso convulsed with laughter.

The roots removed themselves from my mind and head. As the agony subsided, I felt the snot and spit and tears frozen against my face. The air I inhaled burned.

“We have washed away your blood, little leaf,” King Tree said. “Your struggle was futile.”

The roots beneath me parted. A third body, dangling, rose.

It was Lieutenant Broida. Impaled with a branch through the mouth. His eyes open but dark.

I howled. There was nothing else I could do. We had failed.

“Hush now, little leaf,” King Tree said.

“Gods damn you,” I wailed. Impotent. Doomed. “Gods damn you!”

“The gods shall be ours, too,” King Tree said.

The rattling of the trees around me reached cacophony. Quintus’s body shrieked with the cackle of a madman. The jaw of its head detached and fell away.

Broida’s body retreated with the branch. His limbs dangled from the motion. His palms turned outward.

I could see bleeding wounds on both —

Broida had Rended a tree! Possibly more than one. And where was Esper? If King Tree didn’t have her —

Broida’s identification tags glowed a dim blue.

All around me, tiny blue dots appeared like twinkling lights adorning the trees.

The rustling of the forest ceased. Quintus’s cackle went dead. There was a moment of unbroken stillness.

Then I heard the sizzling. I saw Broida’s body burn green and bright from the shadows, thinning and decomposing into an auburn mush. The colors bloomed throughout the forest as any corpse bearing tags began to be repurposed.

The forest dashed into a paroxysm of motion, shifting and parting like layers of disrupted floating algae. A noxious green haze swirled with the stench of burning corpses.

Trees swarmed about each other, but already I could see branches stiffening and straining in death throes as their trunks shriveled and disgorged soft pulpy guts.

The world tottered. King Tree was freeing its roots and lifting itself up. It held me tight. But I could see another blue glow coming from its base.

A Rend.

Broida’s palmprint.

“Hey, King Tree,” I said.

Its heavy buttress roots were still disentangling themselves from the ground. But I could feel King Tree shift as it turned an iota of its attention back to me.

I smiled. “Get fucked!”

The Rend detonated. Blue flames seared their way through the maze of King Tree’s bark.

King Tree aired its whistling shriek. This close to the sound I thought my eardrums would burst. King Tree cleaved itself from the Rend, its trunk splitting with a thunderous gnawing crack. The head of Colonel Markins and the body of Chief Quintus exploded as the roots and branches burst out, flailing, withering.

And I laughed. I laughed, awash in the smell of curdling sap and the taste of ash. I laughed as the branches cuffing my hands and ankles snapped from my weight, laughed even as I began the long drop down, all the way down to the ground, my fall broken over and over and over again by the flurry of fleeing trees, the rigid blow of their panicked branches or the softening prick of their rotting needles or the pulpy cushion of their trunks bowing, bending, bursting from my tumble.

I landed on my chest and felt my ribs re-break. The white-hot pain stole my laughter. The roots of trees trampled over me, lame as half-severed fingers.

Finally, they laid across me shriveled and limp.

One last whistling shriek reached my ears. As my vision cleared, I saw the fleeing figure of King Tree disappear into the haze.

Soon the icy stillness of the Northern Grasp returned.

The sun was rising. It was All Yule’s Morning.

I’d survived because King Tree had taken my tags. But I would still die out here. I stood. Breathing was agony. But after everything that had happened, it was bearable.

I’d had a wish, once, to be a Bard and sing at the Conclave. I knew it was happening right now, back in Amalcross. It all felt so far away. I smiled at the thought.

I trudged through the haze, across distressed snow and disturbed earth. A certain smell came to me. It wasn’t the herbicide, but it was still the smell of burning flesh.

I had nothing better to do. I followed it.

I came upon the body of Esper ‘ja Roarer, Imperial Magus.

She was on the ground, steam billowing from her body. The snow around her had melted down to the frozen dirt, and she was lying in a puddle still boiling.

Her glittering Uncanny fur was gone. Half of her body had burned away: Her torso bore smoldering stumps where her legs, waist, and right arm once were. Some flesh bubbled atop her exposed rib cage. Only the thin skin on her face and her head remained in full. Her Rend was still visible.

Magus Esper had told us these spells were consumptive. They had consumed the entirety of her Uncanny fur, one of the rarest of materials in all the world. They had consumed the corpses. They had consumed the trees, even what they could of King Tree itself. And then they had consumed her.

I held my head in my hands. She had been a powerful woman. I could not imagine anyone in the Amal Empire, or even the Distant Reaches, more powerful than her. I prayed her sacrifice would not be in vain.

I looked over her once again. I saw her heart. Somehow, it was still beating.

She coughed. Her organs and muscles tensed.

“Magus Esper,” I gasped.

She tilted her head toward my voice. Her eyes had melted in their sockets, leaving waxen streaks along her cheeks.

“Salinas,” she said. Her voice was weak. “Impressive.”

“You did it,” I said.

“We,” she said. “But not yet.”

I blinked away tears. What did she mean?

“Go,” she said. “Tell Amal what happened. The Emperor must know.”

“I can’t,” I said. “It’s impossible. And who would believe me?”

“Dare you defy an order from your Imperial Magus?”

I choked and coughed.

“But, Ma’am,” I said, catching my breath, “how?”

“My final Act,” she said, “that shall consume me fully.”

She struggled to lift her remaining arm. She sighed.

“Take my hand,” she said. “Press it to your face.”

I did as she ordered. She worked her fingers and her palm, rubbing ashen blood onto my skin.

“I know you will tell this tale well and true,” she said. “Do not disappoint me.”

“Yes, Ma’am,” I said. Her palm was still against my face.

She inhaled.

She said, “Blessings.”

It took less time than a blink. The world burned blue. I was at once everywhere and nowhere. I did not need to even breathe.

And then I was somewhere again.

I was here. Right here, right now. In this Conclave.

And I sang you my ballad: The Ballad of the Fallen Trees.

A Christmas tree ornament with the visage of a howling Rilk in a Santa hat with a Santa-esque beard.
Happy Holidays from the Distant Reaches! Art by Shay Plummer.
Subject Notes: #85 (circa 724 AE)
Previous Post
Subject Notes: #85 (circa 724 AE)
The Frozen Flames Welcome You
Next Post
The Frozen Flames Welcome You
Never miss an adventure...
Subscribe now for stories, lore, art, and more delivered to your inbox.