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6

↤ THE GREAT TREE ↦

(that is, on its origins, scope, and age)


It would be impossible to discuss the Great Tree — which has also been called “Eye of the World,” “The Only Immortal,” and “The God Who Rots,” amongst others — without remarking on its unusual growth. While there are accounts of such giant trees in other texts (Erod’s explorations of the far west being an example), they all possess similar qualities. A wide trunk with thick roots extending either deep down or far around the base to support their massive frames, and limbs reaching far out or high up to catch the moisture from the upper sky to feed its tall branches.


What makes the Great Tree unique, besides being the only example of its kind, is that it didn’t grow up as much as out.


The base itself is monstrous, as trees go. Situated roughly in the center of the Valley, the trunk is a twisted mass that erupts from the ground, each limb as thick as the now-extinct Crimson Furtrees of the Sarnosian mountains. Even if those limbs didn’t run along the ground, the footprint of the base alone would take someone a day to traverse its perimeter.


According to the best minds of our time, the Tree is long dead. There has been no new growth from its branches or splits from its trunk since time out of memory. It was this way before the ancestors made their homes here, and it is likely to be this way always.


The oldest record of its existence comes from one of the three surviving Stone Books — carved tablets that registered issues of finance.


The tablets, as tall as a man and wider than a family standing astride one another, were chiseled from the ashstone in the mountains and rolled over top of felled tree trunks to local villages before being embedded in the earth at the central Storehouse. Each village appointed a Chief Recorder and their Second (often one man and one woman, as a mix of sexes was thought to be more trustworthy) to determine who owned which land, property, and other wealth.


A unique ashwand was sharpened and formed for each tablet to produce distinct markings as it carved records, preventing others from falsifying them. This was from the unusual grain pattern of each wand, in tandem with the particular way each Recorder carved. When a wand had outlived its usefulness, an entry would be made on the tablet noting as such, and a new ashwand would be crafted.


This system of exchanging goods, while sluggish, had the benefit of removing the risk of theft, at least from larger property. There was no currency to steal or store, and the tablets themselves were both impossible to move and unambiguous in their accounting.


The entry concerning the Tree is notable in how ordinary it is. It was a transfer of a parcel of land from one farmer to another, for the price of his daughter’s hand to one of his sons. Translated, it reads in full:


// Fourth month, Thirteenth summer after the Fifth cycle \\

A land of seventy square paces, owned by Nettin and set one hundred and ten paces from the shadowside of the Bastard Tree to the sunside of the river, and no paces from the mountains, is granted to Eogin for the hand of his daughter Wysa to Nettin-sei, the fourth son of Nettin


The Tree here is viewed with disfavor, as its poisonous wood and bark were seen as cursed, so it was known for some time as the Bastard Tree and similar derogatives.


The poison — contained in its most concentrated form in the sap, but present throughout the tree — is toxic to ingest, touch, and breathe. If the wood is burned, the smoke will cause the lining of the lungs to burst, drowning the victims in their own blood. Even if inhalation is avoided, the fumes will severely blister the skin and eyes, causing immense agony and blindness with only a few seconds of exposure. The bark is stony and difficult to disturb without direct physical contact, so particles of the tree are safely contained if left untouched..


When not set aflame, air almost completely nullifies the poison within a short time of exposure, so the top exposed layer is safe to be near. But since the wood is so dense and the poison runs through every fiber of it, the Tree remains impervious to usefulness.


The bark is almost totally resistant to fire, although during blazes in the forest, sections can be caught aflame and lead to mass deaths in the surrounding area. The heat of one such terrible summer almost totally killed the singing birds that lived in abundance in the Valley.


Popular myth is that the Watchful Ones were covetous of the Valley (hence the name Valley of the Gods), and were envious of humanity’s natural desire to possess nature and attempt to own what wasn’t theirs. So they planted a single seed of immense size in the center of their sacred land and watched it grow until the branches of their sapling grew to enormity and walled off the beautiful place. And should anyone trespass upon it, or try to build there, they would risk the most terrible deaths imaginable.


Which is why Arteo could only sigh when, a few hours after they entered the dark cover of the forest, Kessa proposed a different path through the Valley.


“Why can’t we just climb on it?” she asked, settling against a rock for a moment’s rest.


“You know how dangerous it is to touch it,” Arteo said as he brushed the pebbles on the ground aside to comfort his seat. “Even a few strands of wood under the outer surface could kill us.”


“But what if we covered ourselves up? As long as we don’t let it touch our skin, we’ll be fine.”


Arteo turned to frown at her, and she realized her mistake. With a quick motion, he pulled up his bag and rooted around inside.


“Wait,” she said, already exasperated. “I believe you, you don’t—”


But it was too late, he’d already removed one of his books.


“Erod’s A Kindly Way in the World,” he said with cocky reverence as he waggled it around.


Kessa sighed and leaned back against the rock, preparing for the lecture. He thumbed through the pages, searching for a passage.


“Most people don’t read this when they come on the Trail, you see, because they think they know everything about it by reputation, but they’re wrong.”


She mummed at him with disinterest.


“However, it’s really a great— Ah! Got it.” He pressed his finger to the page, tracing a line as he read, affecting an old, wizened voice, as he imagined Erod to sound. “‘Every few seasons, groups of the brave or foolhardy believe they can cut across the Valley by scaling the limbs of the Tree near the Southriver entrance and walking to its center and out again until reaching the northern point of triumph.


"'Yet such peoples are doomed to failure, no matter their countenance and preparation. Tales abound of men covered in thick animal hides, whose eyes were exposed and had wisps of the Tree fly into them, blinding them with a terrifying fire. Or the —”


“Alright, Tey, I’m with you. Tree scary, don’t touch.”


“You just don’t want me to read anymore, do you?” he said as he clapped the pages together, eyes narrowing suspiciously.


“No, by all means, continue to tell me all the horrible ways I can die out here.” She was joking, but not entirely. Arteo softened from his sarcasm as he packed away the text.


“‘Splashed with blood, over a shutter of white flowers, and lit by ocean waters in the night,’” Arteo recited, changing the subject.


“You can keep saying it, but it still doesn’t make much sense,” Kessa responded.


Arteo cast a glance to the sky, noting the sun’s path as the morning had now turned to afternoon. If he had ever been clever, now was a good time to prove it.


Their accommodations that night aside, he was distracted by the thought that he had abandoned reason to follow a beautiful woman into a dangerous place. He told himself that just because instincts weren’t strictly logical doesn’t mean they were incorrect. He wasn’t so desperate to be desired that he’d unnecessarily risk his younger sister’s life, not after all the heavy guilt over abandoning her.


No, it was something ineffable. The way the raven-haired girl strode across the meadow without pause for the dark embrace of the western path meant something, though he didn’t know what. And maybe there was more to his attraction than lust.


Regardless, the decision was made.


“Okay,” he said as he stood, brushing himself off, “let’s keep on.”


Kessa grumbled, but pushed herself up. Arteo was anxious to catch up to his not-at-all paramour, as she seemed to know what she was doing, and maybe being viewed as a thumb-sucking idiot would work in his favor. Fools aren’t threatening, and he’d played the role plenty enough to know.


Around them, the forest was primeval and menacing, even then during midday. The thick cover of leaves wrapping the trail choked much of the sunlight, so only ambient light breathed through the tumbling shadows above.


Kessa seemed unencumbered by his anxieties, and perhaps that was for the best. Although her carefree optimism in their journey and his abilities might be more hindrance than help. She needed to be more alert for danger, but of course she didn’t know what danger to look out for.


He tiptoed his gaze around the tree branches at the dark fur of moss coating the wood close to the canopy, just enough light for them to absorb during the day until they shed their spores at night. The moss itself looked unthreatening, no more a danger than any other bit of growth on trees or rocks throughout the Central Continent, but he’d read too many accounts of its terrible effects to believe it to be as harmless as it appeared.

He put those kinds of thoughts aside, they weren’t helpful now. He needed to be concerned with their resting place.


Ignoring the cryptic poetry Erod used to describe the cave, he knew that it would have to be elevated above the treeline to avoid the spores, and also that marpha kept to openings in the earth closer to the ground with less light and airflow. Plus the caydyd sloths were not known to climb much of anything, preferring to stick to the ground and root around in the soil for grubs and berries.


Glancing around, the forest was hilly but generally flat, with nothing notable about the terrain. It certainly wasn’t hiding an aboveground cave surrounded by white flowers. Even if it did, he wasn’t sure how’d they cut through the random patches of brambles that ran like deadly streams through the underbrush.

He turned his attention back to the trail and froze, grabbing at Kessa before she continued walking, oblivious to the danger ahead of them.


“What is —” she began, but he quickly shushed her. She followed his eyes to a mound of soil poking up from the ground in the center of the trail. It was unusually placed and seemed unnatural, though easily overlooked.

She wasn’t sure what his concern was, but the fear in his face was enough to convince him that it was serious.

He gradually backed up with her a fair distance until he felt relaxed enough to speak.

“What is it?” she whispered, drawing close to him.


“There are these kinds of wolves that live here. They dig holes in the ground and cover them to seem like nothing is amiss, but if you get close enough, they spring out and try to tear at your throat with their teeth or claws.”


Kessa’s face drained of color.


“And that’s one of their holes?”


“I’m not sure, I’ve never actually seen one, but it looks like drawings in one of my books.”


“Okay,” she said, “so what do we do? It’s in the center of the trail.”


“That’s not even our biggest concern.”


“Why’s that?”


“Look closely, beyond the mound.”


She squinted and tried to see what he was talking about, only to be gripped by a dry horror. The trail ahead was dotted for at least a hundred paces with at least a dozen such mounds pockmarking the soil. They were scattered seemingly at random, with only thin openings between them.


“What if we go around them? Between the trees on the side of the path?” she offered, but he shook his head.

“There are brambles all around, most of them hidden under bushes and dead leaves. We’ll be torn up and I don’t think we want the scent of blood on us right now.”


She sank down a little.


“Do we have to go back?”


A good question, and one he didn’t know. They’d been walking for some time, and even if they doubled back and took a safer route, they still needed to be in a cavern for the night. With such vague maps and borderline indecipherable descriptions, they might not have time to make it to cover before dark.


“These wolves are mostly nocturnal, so they tend to rest during the day,” he began, thinking out loud. “I’m not saying they can’t wake up when the sun’s out, but they should be deep asleep right now. If we’re quiet, we might be able to sneak past them.”


“Are you speaking true, Tey?” She was incredulous. Even worse than the idea of having to walk hours back was to walk the short distance through the hidden menace ahead of them.


“I am.” He swung his bag around and searched to find his hunting knife. He unclasped it from its leather pouch and gripped it in his hand before securing the bag behind his back. “Stay close, soft breaths, gentle steps.”


Kessa didn’t have anything to say, but sidled up to him and tightly laced her fingers with his. Despite the temperate weather, a thin sheen of sweat had beaded on both their faces.


He moved tenuously, concentrating on breathing in slow, rhythmic movements. He was grateful for the noiseless wrinkled leather of his worn boots. They moved around the first mound, and he took care to lift each step and set his foot down with purpose. Kessa mimicked him as best she could, watching her footfalls with more intensity than ever in her life.


Arteo didn’t even know what he was looking out for. He wondered if there be a rustling of earth before a strike, or if the ground would simply erupt in a snarl of teeth and claw. It was a nagging yet distant thought, pulsing as a heartbeat through a lover’s chest. All of the forest and its many sounds — the falls of the five rivers, birdsong on the wind, the indecipherable voices of other travelers — wilted to absence as his attention narrowed to the mounds and their denizens.


There was space enough to avoid touching the bases of the piles in the soil, giving them room to glide silently between the mounds as they clung to each other.


As they passed the final mound, a sense of relief fell on him as sudden rain. It was in moments when danger seems passed that people can be careless, seemingly assured they’re safe. Later he wouldn’t know if he actually made the sigh that prompted the attack, or if he only imagined it.


Not one mound moved or twitched at all, the burrows empty. No, the wolves were on them from the darkness of the forest, four of them sliding out from the space beneath the underbrush as silently as watersnakes gliding on the surface of a lake.


Calling them “wolves” was a denigration of wolves. The creatures crouching before them were some hideous malformations.


They were about the size of the average dog, but the features were all wrong. The snout was short and asymmetrical, with deadly teeth overbiting the entire top of their jaws. Viscous, foaming drool caked the inset lower jaws and ran in uneven strands to the dirt.


Their eyes were entirely black, dull, and hungry. The front legs, which, like their back ones, were entirely too long and slender, ended not in paws, but human-like hands covered in the same wiry, ashen fur as the rest of their bodies. Each of the “hand’s” three digits and apish thumb were crested by a retractable, serrated claw. Their hind quarters ended with slim, naked tails patched with diffuse hairs which dragged as lifelessly on the ground as a rat’s.


Arteo felt impotent with the hunting knife that suddenly seemed too feeble to protect anyone.


The diseased animal nearest him leaned back and pounced. In a moment that he would reimagine in his mind, he slashed at it, catching its face and blinding one eye. It fell to his side and writhed around in the dirt, emitting a hideous, strained yowling that sounded more terrible than anything he’d ever heard.


Two of them approached with vindictive stares, while one turned on Kessa, whose back was pressed against a tree. Arteo pushed himself up, knife at the ready, his mind turning over at the frenetic pace someone in panic will do.


Kessa’s thinking was as breathless as she was, but she had the insight to reach a branch above her head and pull herself up, narrowly avoiding the hound’s disturbing appendage as it scratched a mark into the trunk. She struggled to wrap her thin legs around the branch, straining to curl her body upwards and pawing at the bark to gain purchase. Beneath her, the ragged, slobbering horror leapt up again and barely missed her back with its claws, tearing the loose cloth of her tunic.


All of life craned down into that moment for Arteo, as he knew that this was how their journey, barely begun, would end. At once he saw the beast making an attempt to pull Kessa down, the monster on the ground dying from the wound he inflicted, and the two remaining creatures preparing to end him. So certain was he of his fate that he didn’t react when the arrow plunged into the face of one nearest him.


It collapsed without a sound, as if it had only been a doll. The other two pulled their attention to the new threat, and Arteo heard another thrum as a second arrow felled the one by Kessa. The final one yelped and raced off into the forest, leaving only the percussive drumming of its legs as it ran.


Neither Kessa nor Arteo moved, stunned by their sudden savior. He finally stood tall and relaxed when he saw the raven-haired woman emerge from behind a tree farther down the path, a crossbow in her grip. As she did, the wounded animal at his feet gurgled and breathed no more.

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