Audiobook Edition:

This text has been transcribed from the original, which is carefully preserved in the Precious Archives at Reynaud. The scholar who authored it remains unknown, but it’s theorized they were one of the Companions, due to details only a member of the party could know. But without confirmation, this remains speculative. All writing has been preserved, including notes and asides, with the exception of the missing section concerning the events at the Basilica, which was torn out prior to its arrival at the Archives.

1

↤ PRELUDE ↦

(that is, the story of the World Rake and all its fine travelers)


Every year, thousands attempted the Pilgrimage, knowing full well only a few hundred would still live by the end of the journey. By and large the crowd bustling around the World Rake resting post was composed of young men who hadn't yet lost the illusion of being immortal.


Every traveler to the Trail of Gods, no matter how foolhardy, knows at least two things before they set out:


  1. The wood of the Great Tree is poisonous, and burning it will easily kill with toxic smoke from the flames.

  2. If you hope to live, don’t take the shortcut through the Basilica.

And it wasn’t unusual for a traveler to begin in the early hours, mostly so they would start when the sun rose and illuminated the valley of the Great Tree from the hilltop at the peak of the polished stone stairs. They all were entranced by the idea of seeing the path laid out before them, as so many had done before. Many had stories from their fathers or grandfathers detailing the treacherous journey and wild encounters along the way.


On the night before Arteo di Finia would begin his journey, he was alone and thinking of just that. Eschewing the dark swill of alcohol, he sat with spring water and the thick stew in front of him, sheltered in a corner on one of the few chairs along the walls. The candlelight from the black metal chandelier danced with the fireplace glow and the laughter from the raucous gathering.


The World Rake in its current iteration was built 700 years prior, with some records indicating an older structure that met its demise existing as far back as 1600 years before that. The property had long been owned by the Copperheart family, who had consistently kept at least one surviving member to run the rickety watering hole for excited travelers.


The building easily revealed its age, with dark wood beams holding up the stone-slate roof that curved slightly as it pointed up to the cloudy sky. Two windows astride the entrance door, the glass distorted by old craftsmanship and time, stared as unblinking eyes into the night, glowing with the firelight to welcome those beginning their journey.


Inside was constant bustle and activity, the stone hearth popping with fresh logs from a near inexhaustible supply out back, while long, dark-stained wood tables stretched through the interior. Fizzing beer steins overflowed as they clinked together in unending toasts, while bowls of the Rake’s stew steamed above glowing coals.


It’s rumored that the cauldron bubbling in the back cooking the sole item on the menu was part of a perpetually boiling concoction that had been heated continuously for hundreds of years, stretching back to the founding of the tavern. The pot is constantly replenished with spices, roots, and salted meats, always ready for the next hungry mouth. As there is always activity, day and night, the stew never depletes, the cast iron saturated with the flavor of generations.


As spring had finally arrived, the road through Valley was opened, so the Rake was packed with hundreds inside and out, mostly men and mostly convinced they would be the exception to the grim statistics.


Arteo was not so optimistic, but he had little choice. His family line had been hog farmers for the past several generations – also known somewhat uncharitably as Shit Swaddlers – and he was the only one of his brothers to survive the Plague of Three Seasons some years before. His sister was tasked with looking after their ailing mother, while their father continued to toil with the swine, despite his back becoming more and more his enemy every day.


Being as their place in the world was set by birth, Arteo’s only option to achieve something greater for the sake of his family was to complete the Pilgrimage. Doing so would, like all the others, give his family sufficient privilege to advance to a greater sphere in life. He would be allowed to attend a Scholar’s House and learn a new tradecraft, perhaps even find his way into governance (though his heart held only contempt for the profession).


He had already taught himself how to read and write, something only his sister could do in a more rudimentary sense. A sympathetic matron at the library in the nearby city to their farm took pity on him and allowed him access to some texts on the Pilgrimage, including detailed accounts of the exploits of those who had conquered it – but only after the library had officially closed for the night so other proper patrons wouldn’t have to interact with him.


Erod’s A Kindly Way in the World was one of the more prominent and well-regarded volumes, but he also found useful information in such diverse readings as Sap of the Poison Branch by Ymir Parti and Creatures of the Westfall Valley by the scholars at Carta.


Secretly though, he wished to travel elsewhere, to see the grandeur of the world and all the peoples in it. The World Book, also by Erod, was one of his favorites, detailing the lands over the Glass Sea and all the strange and mysterious cultures inhabiting them. He loved reading about the Silken Dancers in Denivére moved as if gliding through water. Or about the funny weasel-like animals that laid sparkling silvery eggs in the nests of birds to trick them into raising their young.


He longed to see the Sacred Spires of Gravas, to touch the stone feet of the carved giants in the White Lands, and to eat the sweet ocean-plum pudding at the sea port of Maneas. But he could never do any of that as he was currently cursed to be. He would never be granted a travel pass to cross the waters, nor even be allowed to venture to the coast and slide his feet into the sand.


Truly, he just wanted to stop being a damned pig farmer. His mind was never in his small town, or of the slop buckets that needed tending, or even of his sick mother. He cared for them all, but the limited life he was forced into by birth was suffocating, stifling whatever spark and energy he had to give to the world.


He knew he could be more, do more, if only the rest of society didn’t think so little of him. Of course they would happily eat the fruits of his labor, paying a pittance for the difficult task of rearing the ugly and mean Blacklace hogs that they’d raised since before his great-grandfather was born. But they would never respect him, and that made all the difference.


“A toast!” A burly man with copper skin and thick, red curls for a beard stood and raised his mug at a nearby table. His leatherwear instantly gave him away as coming from a family of more repute than Arteo’s. “To the men of the Pilgrimage, as we slay this beast together!”


A cheer went up from some of the men sitting around him, accompanying the sloshing of drink as their cups clacked together. At the roar of acceptance from the surrounding tables, the bard in the corner began to fiddle something on his odd stringed instrument, a lilting voice rising up to sing of old times and older stories.


Arteo just shook his head and lamented the sorry state of his own attire – a tunic from second-hand wool discards, dyed a sickly green that would surely wash out with enough use and time in the sun, and an old hat – his grandfather’s – with pockmarked holes dotting the brim. That and the hog-skin sack he carried with him were his only possessions for the journey, along with some meager rations and, of course, his books. He would have to make do with using what he’d learned from them to survive and live off the land.


He wondered if the men caterwauling were truly red-beard’s kin, or merely some hired help to complete the journey, as the wealthier families did when their young ones left to weather the Pilgrimage and ascend even higher in society. They could easily afford guides who could step in front of danger and lead the next in line of their precious lineage to the other side of the Valley unharmed. Arteo could only consider it, but tried to put it out of his head – bitterness wouldn’t keep him alive.


The corner of his eye kept a watchful gaze on the raven-haired woman whittling a small piece of birchwood at the end of the communal tables. Her sharp-brimmed hat hung over her face, hiding her eyes as she slit piece after piece of tinder to the ground, shaping the small object into the fattened body of a man. Her cloak held her in solitude, making her only more enticing to Arteo.


He chided himself for thinking of his loins on the eve of such a dangerous venture, but maybe that was appropriate. If he was to die, he wished to know the tender touch of a woman before rotting. More than the youthful fiddling with the farm girls nearby, he wanted to enter and feel the warmth wrap around him as he found purchase inside of a beautiful girl.


There were other, looser women in the tavern. They hung on the muscled and the charming in equal measure, busty robes leaving little to the imagination. They would come here to find a journeyman that would hopefully survive and give them a comfortable life after they emerged on the other side, filling their bellies with fat children and easing their way in the world. The display was sickening but understandable – this wasn’t an easy place to survive, let alone thrive. You take your advantages where you’re blessed with them.


“Excuse me?” came the light but firm voice of the woman. She had managed to silently approach him while he was lost in his mind. When he looked up, all he could see were her vibrant blue eyes, the colors crashing like foamy ocean.


Not knowing what to say, Arteo could only manage, “Uh, me?”


“You’ve been staring at me on and off for the last hour,” she sneered. “Are you planning something heinous?”


He had been staring absently. His father always told him that if you want to look at a beautiful woman, look for a note, not a song.


“No! No, of course not,” he stammered. “I was just… I was wondering what you were carving, that’s all. It looks unusual and displays, uh, talent.” He knew women hated being called beautiful by strangers. It was better to compliment their clothes, their abilities, or their taste – things they had more control over than the bare luck of their form.


Her eyes bore down on him with skepticism, but ultimately judged him harmless.


“You’re just a boy.” And with that, she turned and walked off back to her dim corner of the raucous gathering of the brave and the foolish. Arteo could only frown and sink into his chair like his bones had left his body. She had regarded him with the same contemptuous stare as most other fair-faced women in his life.


He would never call himself ugly, but perhaps ungainly. He felt his limbs were somehow both too short and too long at the same time. Bushy eyebrows mismatched his patchy almost-beard, and he could never right the mess of auburn hair atop his head. But he had whimsy, and he hoped that would be enough for someone one day.


His attention turned to the time-worn map of the Valley carved into the far wall, the knifeblade dips and ridges casting pulsing shadows from the firelight. He had only seen drawings from maps and books of the Great Tree, as the only vantage to see it directly was within the Valley itself, and therefore only for travelers on the Trail. The map on the wall of the Rake was no different, and less detailed than others he’d come across.


According to those books he coveted so dearly, it was taller than any mountain, yet the limbs erupted from it in a twisting, uneven spiral from its base in the center of the Valley, creating forced paths that pushed travelers into dangerous and unexpected places. If one could walk a straight line from one edge of the tree’s outer reach to the other, going from sunrise to sunset, it would take nearly two days to complete the journey.


Very few sections of the giant branches had tunnels carved through them, without which travel would be impossible. Those who carved them were brave indeed, for the poison contained in the wood was so potent as any contact would assure death. But the journey mostly required following the twisting paths of the treacherous limbs throughout the Valley before exiting via the northern gateway arch to rest in the quiet village of Meadowland.


A sudden rabble from the front had the entire Rake standing at attention. Arteo, lost in his own mind, had only a moment to realize that the sun was coming up.


It was time to begin.


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