Story: Dark Tree

Dark Tree: A Tale of the Fourth World is a stand-alone story that was released as an ebook on Amazon and Smashwords as an introduction into my fantasy series, The Fourth World. When the Dark Tree comes, people start dying. Only Mirek, a tired old guardsman in Suridruun, seems to be able to see the Tree and know what it portends. His sole comfort is that the Tree always disappears after a few days, taking with it the murderous rage it instills in the hearts of men. But this time, it is not leaving without him. 13500 words.

Dark Tree

by Brandon M. Lindsay

At Jannic’s side, Mirek stiffened, fingers twitching to the hilt of the cutlass at his hip, though there was no one around as far as Jannic could see. Mirek seemed frozen, eyes closed as if testing the air for an errant scent, then turned to look beyond the frosted ramparts at the clear sky over the city.

Jannic watched this, one eyebrow cocked. Mirek had always been odd, he had, for as long as Jannic had been a brother of the watch, at least. Though he had his moments when he was particularly strange. Jannic wondered with wry amusement if today was going to be one of those days.

Still, better safe than sorry. “Something the matter, Mir?”

Mirek was long in answering. “No,” he said in an unconvincing voice. “Just… nothing.”

Jannic couldn’t help but grin at the back of Mirek’s head. “Thought you heard something?”

Mirek didn’t say anything, just kept staring out yonder, his dusty blue skin blending in with the sky, making his hair and uniform appear as if it were floating. Jannic chuckled, soft enough so that maybe Mirek didn’t hear, but loud enough so that maybe he did. Part of him wondered, though. Every once in a while Mirek would get these… feelings, he called them. Never did explain what it was he was feeling, though, which didn’t do the rest of the watch much good, in Jannic’s opinion. But it seemed that sometimes whenever Mirek was overcome by one of his feelings, people died.

In gruesome, sick ways, too. Usually just a handful, but all of them, always, without any explanation or pattern. As if a few people all went mad at once and butchered whoever came too close. Just thinking about it gave Jannic a shiver.

Mirek was getting on in years. That’s probably all it was. Besides, he always looked like he was having one of his feelings. Jannic chuckled to himself again, a little louder this time, a little more confident, but it sounded phony even to his own ears. And laughing didn’t do much to banish his own dark feeling.

Some of the men in the watch talked, too, saying what if it was Mirek who was causing these murders? After all, he was always having one of his feelings before the murders ever happened. Some have even whispered about getting rid of old Mirek, or setting him up, or just plain hauling him in the next time it happened. No one ever did, though, because Mirek was just too Lady-damn good at his job all other times.

A healthy case of paranoia was a boon in this line of work.

Jannic sat on a bench of frozen planks—a bench that technically the guards weren’t supposed to have, seeing as it let them be lazy—and leaned back against the stone wall heavily, crossing his arms in a position of extreme relaxation. He shifted his helmet so as to keep the sun from glinting off of the noseguard directly into his eye. It was going to be a hot day, he could tell already. Streamers of mist curled from the ice-tiled roofs throughout the city, as well as off the igloos of the poorer folk outside its walls. No doubt the outlanders in the city would celebrate the ungodly heat by peeling off a few layers or even poking their odd pink and brown faces out from behind their masks of thick fur mufflers and scarves, but Jannic felt himself a good Tokkarintsmen, and the thought of a day warm enough to sublimate ice nearly made him queasy. Or maybe it was that dire elk sausage he ate earlier. He shrugged, settled further into a slouch, and tipped his helmet forward so that it covered his eyes completely.

Jannic knew it was going to be a long day, and he wanted catch a few winks while he could. Besides, Mirek would wake him if anything interesting happened.

He was just about to nod off when he felt something burrow into his chest.

His eyes shot open and he sat up. Panicked, he groped at his chest under his mail shirt but could feel nothing but his own unbroken skin. The feeling of something eating its way into him, like some sort of worm or insect, quickly faded. Jannic sat there, hunched over and panting and terrified, wondering what the Tree had just happened.

He glanced over at Mirek, who was as tense as a hunting cat, his hand still gripping the hilt of the cutlass at his hip, eyes just as wide as Jannic imagined his own were.

“Did you see something?”

Chest heaving, Mirek only blinked, but after a few moments, he shook his head. “No. I saw nothing. Just a nightmare, I reckon.” He tried to grin beneath his bushy white beard, but it failed to make Jannic any calmer. “You sure gave me a fright, though.”

Jannic wasn’t sure Mirek was telling the truth. In fact, he was sure the old man was lying. Mirek couldn’t school his expression to save the world, though Jannic supposed he never had a reason to. No one trusted him no matter what he said or did.

Perhaps that’s all that had Jannic unsettled: Mirek. He was just plain creepy sometimes.

Jannic leaned back into his slouch, determined he would get some rest. He had to calm his damn fool heart first. His left hand was still under his mail shirt, absently scratching where he had had the strange sensation. Jannic felt his unease melt away under the morning sun, and he eventually began to slip into sleep.

* * *

Mirek stared at Jannic, battling the fear that rose up within him. The fear was winning.

He had seen what had happened. Seen it, yet almost refused to believe it.

Almost refused, because to ignore it would be to die.

A spore had found Jannic. Mirek had never before seen it with his own eyes, but he knew what would happen. It was only a matter of time before Jannic changed.

Mirek had to do something before that happened, or innocent people would start dying. He flicked away his yellow half-cape and slowly, quietly, drew his cutlass so as not to wake Jannic. Mirek had to kill him before it was too late.

But could he? Jannic was no friend of Mirek’s—come to think of it, no one was, though Mirek didn’t let that bother him. But Jannic was someone that he knew, a face he had come to recognize and rely upon as part of his daily routine. Could he kill him?

Mirek raised his sword as he edged closer, then lowered it. He glanced over the frost-covered parapet, to the line of carts, horsemen, and people on foot on the road churned to thick mud and broken plates of ice below, either heading into or out of the city. Perhaps no one would notice if Mirek killed him now, while he slept. What if Jannic cried out? What if someone down below saw the glint of steel reflecting in the morning sun?

Mirek froze, licking his lips. What was he thinking? This man had done nothing wrong, at least nothing that would warrant his death. Perhaps he wouldn’t be like the others Mirek had seen. Perhaps—

With a strangled cry, Jannic lurched up off of the bench, staggering to a hunch. He held out his clawed fingers, which began to twitch as the muscles within began jerking them into odd positions. Bones snapped, but Jannic’s only response was a wet, gurgling pant.

The man’s stringy white hair curtained his face when his head bent at a sharp angle. The blood vessels in Jannic’s face had burst, leaving a pattern of red streaks to mar his pale blue skin. Dead eyes stared sightlessly in Mirek’s direction.

Mirek stared back, eyes wide, pulse racing. He couldn’t believe what he was seeing. Even though he knew that it had to happen, Mirek wasn’t prepared to witness it with his own eyes.

Jannic surged forward with unnatural speed, catching Mirek off guard. He didn’t even have time to raise the tip of his cutlass an inch before Jannic crashed into him, sending them both to the ground in a cacophony of clattering metal.

Mirek struggled to get out of from under Jannic’s weight in a panic, but his arm wouldn’t move. He realized he was still gripping his cutlass and let go. Jannic wasn’t moving. Mirek could see the tip of his sword over Jannic’s shoulder, covered with Jannic’s blood.

Mirek kicked the dead man off of him and scrambled to his feet. He stared down at him. He hadn’t wanted to kill him, hadn’t even known if he could. But he had killed him nonetheless.

Motion out of the corner of his eye caught Mirek’s attention. Men of the watch were rushing along the battlements, their yellow half-capes fluttering behind them, swords and halberds glinting in the sun. They had heard the commotion. They were coming for him.

Quickly Mirek unbuckled the cape from his shoulder and shrugged it off. He had to leave, and he didn’t want a blaring yellow signal telling his pursuers where he’d gone. He briefly considered abandoning his sword, and then dismissed the idea as foolish. All they’d see was Jannic’s dead body, pierced by Mirek’s blade, holding no weapons in his hands. They’d see murder, and may not give Mirek any leave to explain—not that they’d believe his explanation anyway. No, he would be a fool to leave his sword behind and himself defenseless. He rolled Jannic over, careful to avoid looking at his face, and pulled the blade free with a wet rasp of steel against bone.

Bloody sword in hand, feeling ever the idiot, Mirek glanced one way, and then the other. He’d never make it to the steps before the group of watchmen did. He did the only thing he could before they reached him.

He jumped.

And crashed onto the steep slope of a roof tiled in sheets of ice. Bits of broken ice began to slide down the roof as he did. He gorge rose as he came to the edge and went over. For a few breathless moments he was falling through the air. A crossbow bolt fired from the battlements—followed by a bevy of cursing—nearly nicked his nose, and then he smashed into planks of wood and baskets and shouting merchants.

Mirek kicked his way free of the demolished merchant stand, mumbling an apology to the proprietor, and limped away to an alley where he could tear off his watch tunic and wrap himself in the discarded rags of a beggar, which he found in a pile of frosted refuse. The watch—his former comrades—would be looking for a man like him, so he had to look as little like himself as he could.

* * *

Hours passed while Mirek huddled in that alley. He didn’t stay because of his injuries—they were painful, but not crippling. Nor did he stay because the men of the watch were looking for him. Suridruun was a fair-sized city, and it wasn’t difficult to lose yourself in it, which was a problem the watch often had when trying to uproot criminals who have gone to ground. No, Mirek stayed in that alley because to leave it, he would have to face the Tree.

Battered knees and arms creaking, Mirek finally pushed himself up from the stone wall encrusted with hoarfrost, swallowing the fear swelling within him. The alley stank of death, which was a rare scent for a city in Tokkarint lands, for a freezing death was the odorless embrace of ice and numbness. He didn’t bother to investigate the cause of the stink; its mere presence was ill-boding enough to make him simply want to leave, even when he knew what he would have to face if he did. He hesitated at the alley’s mouth. That same scent seemed to be wafting down the main thoroughfare. Mirek shook his head; likely just his imagination. He pushed his way into the crowd and froze when he let it come into view.

A massive bole, as wide as three city blocks, rose up into the sky, translucent like dark, smoky glass, looking like a corrupted and twisted version of the city’s gleaming crystal spires over which it towered. Leafy branches as wide as a city street stretched out from the trunk, made from the same ghostly substance, yet stirring in the wind as if made from the stuff of normal trees. The branches of the Dark Tree spread beyond the city’s walls in every direction.

Glints of golden light flicked into existence along its surfaces, as if the unseen glassy texture of its bark caught and reflected the rays from some unearthly light source. It was an impossible sight, Mirek knew, but impossible or not, there it was, as real as the buildings it dwarfed.

And the people brushing past him, going about their business as he stood in the middle of the street gaping, were completely unaware of it.

Mirek was fairly certain he was the only person who had ever seen the Dark Tree whenever it arrived in Suridruun. One of the dangers of his occupation as a watchman was dealing with the violently insane, and he had never heard of anyone ranting about a giant tree that suddenly sprang up in the middle of the city. Nor had he heard any mystic grumblings from those inclined to such things, and he had kept an open ear in those quarters, too.

No, he was certainly the only man in the city who knew the cause of all those deaths. And more to come, he thought bitterly. He shook himself from his stupor and began limping forward, careful not to let his eyes drift upward too often.

Hopefully, the tree would go away soon. When it had in the past, the madness and the killings stopped. Mirek didn’t know how it left or where it went, but it did so the same way it arrived—suddenly, unexpectedly, the only sign of its coming and going a soft chime that Mirek was sure only he heard, a soft chime that signaled both the beginning of his dread and its end. Again, he didn’t know why he alone was privy to this signal. All he knew was that once it was heard, the moments passed with agonizing slowness until he heard it again.

The chime would come soon, he knew, no more than a few days from now at the most. That was the way it had always been; no matter how many years lay between its appearances, those appearances didn’t last a long time, as if the Dark Tree’s presence there was unstable. It was a small comfort.

A lot of bodies could pile up in a few days.

Already Mirek found himself glancing in the faces of those who passed him by, searching for telltales of the panic and hysteria that gripped people during the days when the tree had come before. Nothing yet, and the streets were still crowded. Fear hadn’t cleared them yet. Oh, but it will, he thought as he shuffled past market stalls and criers, pulling his rags closer about himself.

The tree was problem enough, but he had more urgent matters to consider. His brothers of the watch had seen him kill one of their own. They would be searching for him, and fervently. Never in Mirek’s life had a man of the watch killed another. Never mind that Jannic had practically thrown himself on Mirek’s sword.

Never mind that one of the spores, glittering like fireflies, had drifted down from the Dark Tree’s leaves and into Jannic’s chest, infesting him with an insatiable hunger for killing.

Again Mirek stopped to look up. A few spores now fell from the tree’s canopy, nearly hovering in place, so slow was their descent. Some would be carried off and out of the city, as if on errant breezes. Some would fall to the snow-packed, ice-encrusted streets, and then straight through them, as if stone were nothing more than air.

Some would find people.

A passerby jostled him, and Mirek started. He was getting odd looks. Muttering to himself incoherently, he pressed on. Better they think him mad than wise just then.

Perhaps I am mad.

Shimmering yellow silk flashed through a gap in the crowd ahead.

Instantly, Mirek’s pulse began to race. He fought the instinct to sprint away, and instead veered into a cluster of people. A Wyrric fire eater performed her act, much to the wary delight of the onlookers. Mirek attempted to appear as inconspicuous as a beggar can in such company. No one bothered him, though a few of the onlookers wrinkled their noses and regarded him with severe disdain before pointedly ignoring him. He didn’t care, so long as they didn’t catch the attention of the passing watchmen in their yellow half-capes.

Pretending to pay attention to the fire eater’s act, Mirek glanced out of the corner of his eye as the three watchmen slowly walked past. They studied each blue-skinned male face intently, ignoring the outlanders completely. Apparently they didn’t believe he could come up with that elaborate of a disguise; hopefully the one he now wore would suffice.

Amazingly, it seemed to, as they walked past him without a second look.

Mirek sighed out deeply through his nostrils before turning to continue on. He couldn’t believe that he was now suspected of murder by his own brothers of the watch, though he hadn’t done much to dispel whatever suspicions they might have harbored of him. Mirek wished he had made more of an effort to befriend them and wondered why he hadn’t bothered. That he was unable to come up with a reason disturbed him. He shook his head and shivered—he couldn’t remember the last time he’d actually shivered, especially when the sun was shining—and stared down at frosted paving stones in front of him as he strode forward, lost in thought.

A fist grabbed Mirek’s ragged clothes, yanking his gaze up to a sneering face, eyes as frigid and unforgiving as ice. Breath steamed out between gritted teeth.

“Hello, Mirek. Or can I call you murderer, now?”

* * *

The tip of a thin blade pressed up against Mirek’s ribs, releasing a trickle of blood. No one would know what was happening to him. Anyone walking by would think a watchman was merely telling some beggar to move along. They would be as oblivious to the presence of the dagger pricking Mirek’s skin, hidden as it was beneath Sorn’s yellow half-cape, as they were of the Dark Tree.

“I saw what you did to Jannic,” Sorn said, leaning in. “I knew you were shit from the moment I first saw you.” He pressed the blade deeper, urging Mirek up the street. No one seemed to notice anything awry as they began walking with Sorn and his blade now at his back. If anyone caught a glimpse of the bloom of blood staining Mirek’s chest, no one mentioned it. People knew better than to interfere with the work of a man of the watch.

“Keep moving. I know how to keep you from screaming.” The tip of the blade prodded Mirek in the back painfully, right at his kidney. He bit back a grimace and did as he was told. Of all the watchmen, he lamented that it was Sorn that had found him. No one hated Mirek as much as Sorn did, and Mirek had made no friends. Mirek had always done well as a watchman, better than Sorn, and with little effort. He guessed that was what had always infuriated Sorn. That someone was better than him, and without even trying.

And suspects seemed to sometimes… disappear whenever Sorn was responsible for them, some of them even petty criminals. Sometimes they would show up later, themselves victims of horrible murder, throats slashed and extremities missing and bits of skin peeled away, but most often when they went missing they stayed that way. Whenever the captain asked Sorn how they ended up missing, he would merely smile and say they overpowered him. A lie, of course; Sorn was a powerful man. A careless hug from him could shatter ribs.

Mirek didn’t look forward to whatever Sorn planned to do with him.

Perhaps a knife in the kidneys and a quick death would be preferable.

Another pair of watchmen was coming their way. Mirek hoped against hope that they would see him and Sorn, and come to investigate.

The dagger scored a fresh slice in Mirek’s back, causing him to wince. The pain didn’t come immediately, but when it came his eyes watered. He bit his lip to keep from crying out.

“Eyes to your left, murderer.” Sorn’s breath was warm against Mirek’s ear.

He did as he was told. A sound of rustling cloth and clinking mail: Sorn raising his arm in greeting, perhaps. Mirek was artfully guided forward with some distance between him and his captor, doubtless appearing as nothing more than another anonymous face in the crowd, below their notice. He counted his steps, and realized that the two guardsmen must have passed by already, leaving him alone with Sorn. His chances for salvation dwindled with their passing.

He found himself led into a graveyard, one empty of the living. Carvings of names were etched into round, frost-rimed granite stones that were hunkered down among the brittle tundra grass. There didn’t seem to be much more room for new stones, and the grounds were unkempt, the grass high. Mirek doubted many visitors came here, old as the stones looked. If he were to wind up buried in a pit here, no one would ever know.

Sorn spun him around. A grin darkened his face. “Not yet. Death has not come for you, not until you’ve paid for what you’ve done. And you won’t be needing this.” Quick as a snake strike, he snatched the sword hidden in the folds of Mirek’s rags and tossed it behind him, next to one of the grave stones. Sorn gestured with his knife to the wall of a building—an old inn, by the look of it—and said, “Move that crate and pull up that grate. Quietly.”

Mirek obeyed, finding a rough-dug hole in the ground that opened into blackness. It was some sort of room under the inn.

“In you go.”

Ignoring the protesting aches of his scraped joints, the bleeding cuts on his stomach and back, and dread that threatened to overwhelm him, Mirek gripped the grate and lowered himself into the dark.

* * *

Sorn dropped the gate shut and, with much less effort than was required of Mirek, pushed the crate back over it. Satisfied that no one would stumble upon his secret prison, he grinned and clapped the dust from his hands as he made his way back into the street. He had to tell the captain that this part of the city had been swept clean and that Mirek had likely gone to ground elsewhere. It would give Sorn time, time to exact revenge upon the horrible injustices that so often went unnoticed by others.

Even if this one, in particular, had not gone unnoticed. Dozens of people had seen Mirek ruthlessly murder not only an innocent man, but a man of the watch, a man that might as well have been his own brother. It was sickening.

Yet Sorn knew how the system was prone to perpetuating injustice, rather than correcting it. He had seen it time and time again. He had seen the guilty walk free and begin their evil habits anew. It was something that he had seen his whole life; it was the reason he decided to become a man of the watch.

And though the watch itself was woefully ineffective in curbing man’s baser instincts, it did provide Sorn with… opportunities, to bring his finely honed sense of justice to the task.

He was very, very good at what he did.

Not only would he get a confession out of that murderer Mirek, he would learn to understand him. He would get under his skin if he had to.

Sorn looked forward to the prospect with relish.

The crowd parted at the sight of his uniform, as well they should. The best most of them could ever hope for was to not be an obstruction to justice. Few of them could actually ever be just, fewer still enforcers of justice. It didn’t matter, so long as they stayed the Tree out of his way.

Sorn stopped and glared at a woman who stood precisely in his way. He gripped the hilt of his sword in unabashed threat, yet she didn’t move, or even seem to see him. She merely stood there, somewhat hunched and off-balance, fingers twisting in what could only be a nervous fashion, the sleeve of her dress torn and pulled down to expose the blue skin of her shoulder. Her white hair was tangled with patches missing, as if she had gotten into a fight with herself and lost.

Sorn considered going around her. The woman was clearly deranged. Yet he couldn’t help but think that she stood there deliberately, for the sole purpose of interfering with the business of the watch. Deciding he was going to teach her a lesson, Sorn took a step forward.

She lifted her dead gaze then. Broken blood vessel spiderwebbed her face.

Suddenly she moved. She was upon him before his blade cleared the scabbard.

* * *

Once the crate had been pushed back, the darkness was total. Mirek sat on a bare stone floor that was cold, even to a Tokkarintsman, with his knees pulled up to his chest and his arms wrapped around them. The dry air carried with it a scent of offal, rotted fish, and the smoke of burning elk chips. He wondered if he was in some old storage room in the inn, or somewhere else entirely.

Maybe that hole in the ceiling was the only way in or out. Maybe he would die here, slowly, of starvation or dehydration.

He didn’t like being alone in the dark. Alone with his thoughts.

On the other hand, the Dark Tree was out there. At least there was that small comfort.

He tore small strips from the rags he wore to bind the cuts, considered how filthy they were, and decided that death from infection was far less pleasant that bleeding to death. He tossed the strips on the ground and listened to himself breathe.

Except he wasn’t the only one breathing.

Instantly, he tensed and backed himself up tight against the wall, and then into the corner.

Evidently, he made a lot of noise in the process. “It’s all right,” came a gruff, nasally voice. “I’m not the one you should be worried about, as you’ve no doubt discovered.”

Mirek felt himself relax, if only slightly. “Are you a prisoner, too?”

Something in the darkness changed, though Mirek couldn’t tell what for a disorienting moment, only that it hurt his eyes. Then he realized that a small flame was now casting a dim light from across the room. He hadn’t heard the striking of flint on steel; the flame had just appeared.

The flame hovered above a hand. A hand covered in fur.

Mirek inhaled sharply. “Sorcerer.”

“And what of it?” said the other man with a casual indifference. He chuckled softly. “Unless of course you too believe that my existence is a crime worthy of incarceration.”

“No, I… I’m sorry. Of course not. I’m beginning to believe that Sorn is quite insane. You probably did nothing wrong except be in the wrong place at the wrong time,” he said bitterly.

A brief silence stretched between them. “Like yourself, perhaps?”

Mirek nodded. Then, realizing the sorcerer likely didn’t see the motion, said, “Yes. I was witnessed killing a man in self-defense. No one saw what truly happened.”

“Oh? And what was that?” came a slightly mocking reply.

Mirek hesitated. He didn’t quite trust this sorcerer, though he never trusted anyone, as a general rule. Still, here was a man versed in magic. Perhaps he could tell him something of the Dark Tree that was the cause of this mess.

He opted to test the waters before taking the plunge. “You wouldn’t believe me.”

“So what’s the worst that could happen? You’re already captured by a man who doubtless plans to kill you. At worst I could have a good laugh at your expense before I, too, am murdered. Telling an amusing story is the least you can do for a fellow inmate.”

“Your name first. And move the flame closer to your face.” Mirek wasn’t sure he actually wanted to see the sorcerer’s face. He’d had the misfortune of seeing a sorcerer up close once before. Seeing outlanders with their pink and brown skin was one thing; seeing a man whose features were fused with those of an animal’s quite another.

“Very well.” The flame drew closer to the sorcerer’s head, revealing a cowl, which was typical garb for a sorcerer, Mirek knew. Better to hide their repulsive features from those who would harm them. Although no such luck this time, evidently, Mirek thought, considering where this one had ended up.

Cloth rustled, and the cowl was pulled back. Mirek tried to steel himself for what was coming, though some part of him knew that nothing could truly prepare him.

Deep brown fur, thicker than what Mirek would have expected, covered every inch of the sorcerer’s head. His jaw protruded slightly, caught between the muzzle of a beast and the mouth of a man. The tips of large canines reaching below his lips glistened in the flickering of the light of the flame. His black eyes were half-closed in a frown. They did not rise to meet Mirek’s own.

Mirek stared in open astonishment. He half-expected it to be some sort of elaborate joke that Sorn was pulling on him, putting him down in a pit with a fake sorcerer. But no. This was real. Despite everything Mirek had experienced this day, he never thought he would come face-to-face with someone who looked like this, with someone who could conjure flame from air.

Mirek frowned at this last thought. He didn’t know much about magic, but he thought that sorcerer’s could only manipulate the essence of what was already there, not create it out of nothing.

“My name is Tharkrist. I am from Shannod, but the heat there doesn’t well suit my… condition.” The cowl was drawn back over his head, the flame brought away to obscure Tharkrist’s face once again in darkness. “Having seen my face now, do you feel you can trust me more, or less?”

That was not a question Mirek was sure he could answer. Instead, he asked, “Where is the flame coming from?”

Tharkrist’s cowled head tilted. “You have an interest in binding?”

“Well,” Mirek said, “somewhat a general interest in magic.”

Tharkrist nodded slowly, considering him. Mirek felt himself under scrutiny, as if he were the topic of inquiry, but the moment passed. “From the fireplace in the inn. I have to keep this flame small, not take too much of the inn’s fire, so as not arouse the innkeeper’s suspicion. He doesn’t like it when I bind.”

Mirek was appalled. “He knows you’re in here?”

“Of course. He’s seen what this Sorn does to people who get in his way. So he stays out of it, or as best he can.”

“But… how is it you’re drawing the fire through the ceiling?”

“Ah, you are a sharp one. Fire is an ethereal substance, unlike some others, like earth. It can be bound to a single point,” he said, gesturing with his hand to the flame above it, “and drawn to it through other substances without disturbing them overly much. Many do not have the level of control required to do this. I do.”

Mirek considered this. “Are there limits to what you can do?”

“Of course,” said Tharkrist, though his tone held no reproach. “There are limits to everything. Moving our bodies, even moving our minds in the process of thinking—these things require energy within ourselves, and done too much can result in exhaustion. Taken to extremes, they can result in madness or death. With binding, it is the same.”

“If you can bind fire, why haven’t you escaped? Gathered all the fire you could and use it to burn a hole through the wall?”

“Given infinite power, control, and energy, I suppose I could have. Even given what I’ve been through.” Mirek wasn’t sure what he meant by this, but let it go. Leaving the flame where it was, Tharkrist raised an admonishing finger. “But you forget our agreement. Indeed, you have taken from me more than you have given. Were I a man not used to such arrangements, I would be incensed. Alas. But I would still here your story.” He gestured for Mirek to speak.

Mirek bowed his head. “You’re right, and I apologize. My name is Mirek. I am a watchman here in Suridruun. I was manning the wall today when my partner went mad and attacked me. He fell into my sword as he did.”

He almost didn’t want to go on, but decided that the silence dragging out between them was more uncomfortable than the truth. At least as Mirek understood it. “He was… infected by something. I don’t know what exactly, some sort of spore maybe. But I’ve seen it happen before, just not so… close.

“I wasn’t sure the same thing would happen with Jannic—that was his name—but it did, just as I feared. I had drawn my sword, prepared to do what needed doing, and he jumped at me. There were several witnesses, Sorn among them.” He shook his head. “I’m afraid that no matter what I say, I am in serious trouble. They will say I am the mad one.”

“You mentioned a spore,” Tharkrist said. There was an odd tension in his voice. “Why did you call it that? And where did it come from?”

Mirek sighed. “This is the unbelievable part,” he said. “The spore fell from… a tree. A massive tree growing in the middle of the city, one that only I seem to be able to see. It almost doesn’t seem to be really there. I mean, people must come and go through the part of the city where its trunk grows without noticing, and it almost seems to be made of some strange, ethereal substance, like glass, but not quite so solid, but more solid than smoke.” He chuckled mirthlessly. “Perhaps they’d be right to lock me up.” His laughter suddenly stopped when he remembered where he was.

Tharkrist seemed frozen where he sat. Mirek wasn’t sure if the man was even breathing, until he spoke again. “A tree, you said.” He turned away, apparently lost in thought for a moment. “Well, then, I suppose it is my turn. Instead of telling you why I can’t escape, I will show you.”

“I’d rather hear what you were thinking about the tree.”

“Yes, of course. But first this.” Tharkrist lowered his hand, yet the flame stayed where it was. Mirek realized that holding his hand there had been a bit of theatrics, or perhaps some way of grounding the scene somewhat. He didn’t know how he would have felt seeing a flame floating through the air had he not talked to the stranger first.

As if of its own volition, the flame moved, casting light on the arm which Tharkrist had just lowered. And then to the sleeve of his other arm. No hand was illuminated here, which Mirek didn’t understand until the flame moved to where it would illuminate his legs.

And where they ended, just above where his ankles had been.

Bile rose in Mirek’s throat. He turned away. He couldn’t bear to look anymore. He couldn’t bear to see what kind of atrocities Sorn was capable of. “I’m… sorry, Tharkrist. No matter what you’ve done, it was not enough to justify what he did to you.” His apology seemed so inadequate, even though he was not the one who cut off Tharkrist’s hand and feet. Someone should have to apologize, and Mirek had a feeling Sorn wouldn’t. “How are you…?”

“Still alive? Look.”

Mirek squeezed his eyes shut for a moment before complying. The flesh on the stumps looked… wrong. And then he realized that they had been burnt.

Mirek vomited before he could help himself.

“One of the advantages of being a sorcerer, I suppose,” Tharkrist said with a casual amusement belied by the quiver in his voice. Mirek was grateful when the flame moved its way back up. Tharkrist had thrown back his hood and now met Mirek’s gaze in what he thought could only be a gesture of trust. Horror resided in Tharkrist’s eyes, horror which Mirek was sure reflected in his own.

“I can’t very well walk out of here,” he said, “not anymore. I could burn this place down around me, but I don’t believe that whatever Sorn would do to me could be as bad as burning to death. Perhaps he is counting on that. After this,” he tilted his muzzle in the direction of his feet, which were thankfully shrouded in darkness, “he knows what I fear. Almost worse than bleeding to death.

“But that is not as important as what’s going on out there. Do you know why Sorn captured me?”

Mirek shook his head.

“Stealing. From the Church.”

Mirek chuckled softly. Stealing from the Church was like stealing from the God himself. No wonder Sorn was so affronted. “What did you steal?”

“Reports, cross-referenced from the Dreamers and statisticians.”

Mirek had no idea what he was talking about.

Tharkrist seemed to sense this and continued on. “I am a gatherer of knowledge, especially when such knowledge is kept from the people. I figure if it’s important enough for the Church to hide, it’s important enough for me to know.

“Have you heard of animals being stillborn?”

Live birth was not something humans normally had to deal with, but Mirek had been around enough dire elk stables to be familiar with the concept. “Yes. It means they’ve been born dead.”

Tharkrist nodded. “Exactly. Brought into this world without the spark of life within them.” As he leaned forward, the light of the flame glimmered in his black eyes. “The same thing has been happening with people. In the Second World.”

“The Second…” Mirek blinked, uncomprehending. Like live birth, the Second World was not something he ever had to think about. A few general things were known about the worlds adjacent to his own—the Third and the Fifth—things that the Church had allowed to trickle through their veil of secrecy, but almost nothing was known about the other worlds. They just weren’t things that anyone in the Fourth had to worry about. All Mirek knew was that he had lived in the Second World, died in the Second World, and must have done something right by the God in order to make it to the Third. Beyond that it was pure mystery.

“How many people?”

Tharkrist shrugged. “Not a huge portion of the population. But a significant enough number to raise interest in the problem two worlds away.”

“And this report… proves this?” Mirek wasn’t about to ask how.

“The methods of determining this sort of thing are rather oblique, but yes, the evidence is strong.”

“And what does this have to do with the Tree?”

“Mirek, how long have you been alive in the Fourth World?”

Mirek leaned back. He didn’t like where this line of questions was going. “Twenty-eight years. Though my apparent age at the time of my arrival was thirty-five.”

“Twenty-eight years?” Tharkrist was smiling now, which was doubly unsettling thanks to his canine features. “How interesting. How very, very interesting.”

Mirek felt his hackles rise. “Why do you ask?”

“And you are the only one who ever sees this Dark Tree?”

“I said—”

“And these murders didn’t occur before your time, am I right?”

“—why do you ask!” Mirek was standing now, breath coming in ragged gasps. He knew all too clearly why Tharkrist asked. He just wanted the sorcerer to say it. He just wanted to know that his paranoia hadn’t gotten the better of him, that his fears weren’t just a product of his imagination.

Tharkrist indulged him. “People have been arriving in the Second World dead for twenty-eight years.” He gave Mirek a moment of silence to let that sink in, and then said in an offhand manner, “What do you know of the First World?”

Mirek was still digesting this and flipped his hand dismissively. “Oh, just what anyone knows. That it’s where our souls originated, as some sort of fruit on the Birthing Tr—” He froze. Even the air in his lungs was stuck, unwilling to finish the word because doing so would finish the thought.

Tharkrist’s long white teeth were bared in a knowing smile. “I’m sorry? Were you going to say the Birthing Tree?”

Mirek sat down heavily on the ground. “No. It can’t be. You think that the Birthing Tree is…” It was too preposterous to think, much less say.

“No. At least not the whole thing, but…” He shrugged. “I’d say the evidence strongly suggests that part of it is here. A twig of it, or perhaps a shadow of a twig.”

Mirek covered his face with his hands. “Oh, Lord have mercy on my poor wretched soul and take me from this world.”

“Oh, I doubt very much he’ll be doing that any time soon. It sounds like you have a job to do first.” And with that, Tharkrist barked a laugh.

* * *

Sorn crouched in the shadow of the Temple of the Lord, arm muscles tense as he held his sword in front of him. He wiped sweat from his brow, and only when he looked at his hand did he realize that the sweat was actually blood.

Turning to the ice-encrusted stone wall of the Temple, he gave his thanks to the Lord that it wasn’t his blood. No, it was the blood of the wicked. The thought that he wore such a trophy ran a thrill up his spine.

The world had gone insane. Pockets of violence had erupted all over the city with no seeming pattern. One moment a Tokkarintsman had been perusing clay jars in the market, haggling with the shopkeep over their prices. The next moment, the man had broken the shopkeep’s arm and bitten a hole in his neck. A dozen—or many more, Sorn didn’t know—such incidents were sprinkled throughout the city, causing a panic wherever they happened.

Luckily, he had been present for some of them and was able to quell such evil.

He crept to the street corner, careful not to arouse too much suspicion. The people here were calm, though there seemed to be an undercurrent of fear thrumming through them. They hadn’t seen anything yet, but they knew something was going on, something evil.

If they saw Sorn step into the sunlit square covered in blood, they would start running and screaming. It didn’t matter that it wasn’t the blood of the innocent; people were generally fools, and couldn’t sense such things as intuitively as Sorn could.

He silently cursed himself for his lapse in judgment. This whole errand had been a waste of time, even if it did provide a few opportunities to lay waste to injustice. The captain had been dead when Sorn arrived, his limbs ripped—not chopped—ripped from his body and were nowhere to be found. The captain’s jaw had been snapped open and his tongue eaten right out of his mouth. While the captain had been no stalwart defender of justice, he had been a man of the watch, which was as close as most men got to serving the good. He was, all things considered, an innocent.

Sorn didn’t believe in coincidence. No, if one looked hard enough, if one gathered enough confessions from the weak, he could find a pattern.

Sorn was adept at finding patterns in the minds of the crooked.

This whole catastrophe had the stink of sorcery about it.

And he knew only one sorcerer who would delight in seeing another man’s limbs taken from him.

Again, Sorn cursed his folly, leaving that murderer in the cellar with Tharkrist. No doubt Mirek had furthered the sorcerer’s corruption with his own. Nothing like this had ever happened until those two were together.

Odd, random murders always seemed to coincide with Mirek’s odd moods. Sorn had never trusted him, though at the time he hadn’t been sure what Mirek’s connection to the killings was. At least that’s what he told himself; Sorn knew it was his compassion, his weakness, that prevented him from pursuing justice with that vile scum sooner than this.

Yet that was nothing compared to this grand oversight. Leaving them together was the worst mistake Sorn had ever made in all his lives. The grip on the hilt of his sword tightened and saliva flooded his mouth as he imagined all the ways he could correct his mistake.

A single scream, sharp and piercing, pealed from the depths of the crowd on the street. People spun, eyes wide with terror, and then began running in every direction. That one scream was like a spark that set off a wildfire of screaming, burning through them as if they were tinder.

At least Sorn didn’t have to worry about upsetting them now.

One corner of his mouth cocked up in a half-smile, he trotted forward, sword at the ready.

Justice was here.

* * *

Tharkrist was not a small man, and lifting up onto Mirek’s back had been nothing short of a chore. “At least,” Tharkrist said, waggling the stumps of his limbs “I have a little less weight for you to deal with.” Mirek didn’t think that funny at all.

He was somewhat amazed at how quickly he had come to trust the sorcerer, as trust was something that didn’t come easily—or at all, most times—to Mirek. He didn’t think it was Tharkrist’s pitiful state; indeed, the sorcerer didn’t seem all that pitiful when Mirek considered his command of magic. Was it the guilelessness of his voice? The honesty reflected in his eyes? Mirek just wasn’t sure.

Perhaps it was something simpler. Perhaps they were kindred spirits, bound together by circumstance.

Although Mirek wondered where such trust came from, he didn’t question whether or not it was warranted. He trusted Tharkrist, and that was that. It was an odd sensation, one that wasn’t altogether unpleasant. It was because of his trust of the sorcerer that he decided they would escape together, or not at all.

It turned out their cell was actually a cellar, holding racks of wine casks for the inn. Some of the tapped and emptied casks had been filled with things that made Mirek want to vomit. He couldn’t understand what kind of monster, even someone like Sorn, could do that to people.

Sorn had smeared dripping, black gobs of pitch on the support beams and posts throughout the cellar, so that if Tharkrist tried to use his power to escape, it would ensure a quick and fiery death for him. Tharkrist’s eyes gleamed hungrily in the light of his tiny flame as he said what he wanted to do to this place now that Mirek would help him escape.

“Not until we know what sort of man the innkeeper is. Perhaps he is just as trapped by Sorn as we are.”

Tharkrist bared his teeth and snarled in a low voice, “Any man who allows his clansmen to be murdered without trying to stop it is an enemy of Berahmain and all the God is fighting for. Killing him would only be justice.”

“No. The watch needs to see this place, to see what kind of men these are. We would be doing these men a favor by destroying the evidence of their crimes. Our best chance at justice lies with escaping this place unseen and bringing the watch in force.”

A growl rumbled in Tharkrist’s throat where it rested against Mirek’s shoulder. Feeling it unsettled him.

“All right,” Tharkrist said, “I accept, unless our lives are at stake. Justice can only prevail if we are alive to tell about it.”

Mirek nodded, shifting Tharkrist’s weight higher up on his back as they passed row upon row of wine casks. The place almost seemed a maze. Mirek wondered if Sorn had shifted things around down here to confuse any potential escapees. A ridiculous scheme, but Sorn was mad enough to think it would make a difference to someone who was determined to get out of here.

Mirek was determined. He would not be discouraged by a few dead ends.

They arrived at an iron door. No light filtered through the gaps.

“I sense the breath of old fire here,” said Tharkrist. “I think the door has been welded shut somehow from the other side.”

Of course. Sorn was insane, not stupid. “Can you undo it?”

“Set me down.”

Mirek was only too happy to comply. He rested Tharkrist against the wall perpendicular to the door. Tharkrist nodded his thanks and the flame went out, plunging them into darkness.

“Is that necess—”

“Shh. Let me work.”

At first there was only silence. Now that his other senses provided him with nothing, Mirek’s sense of smell sharpened. The smell of death and old blood, though muted by the cold, made him gag.

Thankfully, it was quickly overcome by the smell of burning and sulfur.

A popping sound rang out, and a thin, dull orange line of light pierced the darkness from one side of the door frame. That line dimmed, and a second line sprang to life at the top edge of the door frame. Mirek was amazed to see Tharkrist’s firebinding at work.

A thumping of boots upstairs. A loud voice. “What the Tree is going on?!”

“The innkeeper’s coming,” Tharkrist said. Mirek couldn’t see him, but he sounded weary. “Can you take care of him?”

Mirek swallowed, wishing he had had the foresight to carry some other weapon besides his sword, which now lay discarded in the graveyard outside. After the day’s previous misadventures, every joint and muscle in his body ached. Sitting on the cold stone floor in the cellar and carrying Tharkrist on his back hadn’t helped matters any. “Yes,” he said, and almost believed it.

The second line dimmed, and the final edge of the door began to glow with a warm, orange light.

Heavy feet began to thump down some steps beyond the door.

Mirek felt his body tense. If he survived this day, he would go away somewhere, to a place where no one knew him, to a place where no one would want him dead.

A man had to dream, didn’t he?

The orange light suddenly flared, spilling sparks and flame out of the door frame.

“Shit! Help me up!” Mirek positioned himself so that Tharkrist could pull himself onto his back. “Sorn planned ahead. He stuffed pitch in the doorframe, in case I—”

Screams. A massive weight crashed into the door, blasting it off its hinges. The large, man-shaped form of the innkeeper staggered into the room. The man’s face, arms, and chests were covered in liquid flames, dancing across his burning skin to the rhythm of his cries.

“Go!” Tharkrist barked. “Go now!

Lines of pitch erupted in flame as the burning innkeeper stumbled blindly, desperately trying to rub the flames off his skin, doing as much damage to his flesh as the flames did. Only a moment passed before the posts and beams were afire, bathing the room in wild orange light and filling the air with forceful heat.

Their only exit was blocked by a huge, thrashing man on fire.

“Can’t you do anything about the flames?”

“No! Just go!” The tone of his voice was enough for Mirek to determine that Tharkrist was drained, teetering on the edge of exhaustion. Steeling himself, he gripped Tharkrist’s legs tighter around his waist, crouched low and sprinted for the burning innkeeper. At the last moment, he lifted his knee and brought his foot down quickly, crushing the man’s instep.

Howling maniacally, the innkeeper stumbled off to their side and collapsed to the ground, rolling about, clutching his broken leg, and sobbing uncontrollably.

Mirek didn’t spare the man a second glance. He sprinted towards the door. The panic flowing through his veins tapped a reservoir of hidden strength. He almost didn’t feel the aches in his body or the weight of the sorcerer on his back. All he could feel was an all-consuming urge to escape.

He took the stairs two at a time. The stairwell led straight to the common room. It was empty. He made for the door.

A whoosh filled his ears, and then an eerie silence as he was a mere two steps from the door. Heat and light exploded behind him, and it was as if a hand scooped him up, lifting his feet from the floor, and launched him at the door.

He closed his eyes and threw his arms up before his face. Wood crashed into him, then he was flying, then the ground smashed into his back. Heat and light and screaming pain and he didn’t know what the Tree else was happening.

Mirek came to finally, not knowing how long he was unconscious, and opened his eyes. He was on the street, which was strangely empty. The afternoon sun shone down on him cheerily. He looked over. The inn was a roiling ball of flame.

Maybe it hadn’t been wine in those casks after all.

He suddenly realized that he no longer felt Tharkrist’s weight on his back. He pressed himself onto a bruised and bleeding elbow, and caught sight of the sorcerer not far away.

Face down on the cobbles. Not moving.

“Tharkrist,” he groaned. “Tharkrist!”

No response.

Mirek struggled to his feet and scrambled over. He rolled Tharkrist over. The sorcerer’s eyes were closed, his breath coming out in short, ragged gasps.

Still alive, at least.

“Hold on,” Mirek said, eyes casting about for something—anything—to help him move him to safety. Berahmain only knew that Mirek wouldn’t be able to carry him on his back anymore. “Just…” Stay alive. Please.

A wheelbarrow lay tipped on its side. Its contents, a pile of frost-rimed firewood, were sprawled out across the open door to someone’s home. Mirek didn’t pause long to consider the oddness of the scene. He only thanked the Lord as he righted his prize and rolled it over to where Tharkrist lay. The barrow was large enough for a man, but it wouldn’t be comfortable. He doubted Tharkrist was in any position to mind right now.

With some grunting and exertion, he loaded up his charge.

Tharkrist opened his eyes.

Mirek sighed in relief. His vision suddenly blurred—most likely from the heat, he told himself. He wiped at his eyes anyway. “You’re awake.”

Tharkrist’s black eyes fixed on him as he affected a weak smile, then his gaze drifted off to some point behind Mirek. He mumbled something.

Frowning, Mirek leaned in. “What did you say?”

Behind you.”

Mirek spun.

* * *

Sorn’s blade quivered as it scraped rib bones, plunging ever deeper into flesh. He imagined he could feel the final beat of the heart softly jolt along the length of his steel, and then nothing. With an excited smile, he pressed his boot next to the sword wound and kicked the wicked creature free.

He had no idea so many evil people lived in his city. Perhaps the sorcerer was actually doing Sorn a favor by exposing them, bringing their true nature to light so that Sorn can rid the Fourth World of their foul presence.

He was quite beginning to enjoy himself.

It didn’t matter that the cruel, violent beast at his feet was a child of an apparent age of no more than fourteen years. Sorn was raised into the world as a ten-year-old. He well knew the darkness that lurked in the hearts of other children.

He didn’t bother to wipe down the blade. Its curved surfaces were saturated with blood. Sorn knew his sword liked the taste of it, so he left it there. Today, his sword feasted.

An explosion roared to life two streets away. He lifted his gaze to see a black cloud of smoke belch into the sky, lit with red and orange veins of flickering fire.

The inn.

Far from disappointed as he knew he should have felt, Sorn only felt his excitement grow. This was an interesting new development. He wondered what it meant.

Baring his teeth ever wider in a feral grin, he ran towards the fire, his skin crawling with expectant curiosity.

* * *

The blood smeared across the sporebound’s blue face was dark, almost purple in the light of the burning inn. Dead, glazed eyes stared out of that face. The cheek muscles on one side were slack; on the other side, tightened into a chilling, mirthless smile. It was as if the creature’s mind was at war with itself, unable to consistently command the body to purposeful action.

For which Mirek was grateful. The sporebound man was massive, nearly twice as thick as the innkeeper. Little of that girth was comprised of softer tissue. One foot lumbered forward; the other dragged, nearly tripping the giant of a man. His shoulder jerked back suddenly, making a loud popping noise, as if something dislocated. His fingers danced uncontrollably, as if imagining a million different ways to cause harm.

Mirek backed up, cursing when his heel hit the barrow. The man—no, creature, now—advanced slowly, but Mirek knew that could change in a flash. Only twenty feet separated them. If Mirek made the wrong move, it would be over in a heartbeat.

Frantically his eyes searched for a weapon, for anything that would even the odds. He remembered the firewood… but they would be slick with ice, short, and difficult to grip besides. Not much of an advantage, and he would have to abandon his friend in order to get it.

Friend. It was as if Mirek only now understood the word, after living in this world for so many years, alone, not truly caring for anybody, not cared for by anybody. No, he would not leave Tharkrist alone to die. Not for anything.

Then he remembered the sword. If he could distract the sporebound, draw him towards the graveyard…

“Tharkrist, play dead.” He glanced over his shoulder. Tharkrist wasn’t moving at all. He tried not to let that worry him. “Good. Just like that.” Slowly, Mirek began edging toward the graveyard.

The creature watched him listlessly. Its fingers suddenly twitched into fists, both legs locked into a tensed stance.

“Yes,” Mirek muttered, “follow me. Come on.” Without tearing his eyes from his opponent, he took another step.

The sporebound took a step, faltered, fell to its knees with a pain-wracked expression. Something burst from its massive chest in a spray of blood.

Glistening steel.

With a gurgling last gasp, the creature fell forward, revealing a figure behind.

Whereas the sporebound’s eyes seemed vacant and dead, this man’s seemed alive and vibrant with madness.

Sorn stepped over the giant man’s corpse, casually flicking his cape—more red than yellow now—behind him. His eyes closed. His smile was exultant, rapturous, ecstatic. He breathed in shuddering breath and raised his arms heavenward as blood dripped down the curved edge of his blade, over the crosshilt, and across his knuckles, dripping to the ground as if he were squeezing a heart in his fist.

Sorn’s eyes opened and fixed firmly on Mirek.

Ah.” It was a sigh of tremendous release, as if Sorn had finally found the meaning to his existence.

Mirek stared at the man, dumbfounded and aghast. Then angry. Then furious.

He couldn’t wait for the watch to bring this man to justice. No, Mirek had to kill him. Now.

He spun on his heel and sprinted for the graveyard, grateful to hear the thumping of Sorn’s boots behind him in time with his own strides.

* * *

The worm was heading for his sword, running with all his hate-filled, black energy. Sorn trotted after him, but then stopped. So what if he got it? Mirek was a tired, beaten old man. Sorn was younger, more virile, faster, stronger, better in every way possible. And as he was discovering that day, justice had a way of favoring the better man.

Let him get his little pig-sticker. It might make things a bit more interesting, and Sorn would spill his guts just the same.

He turned his attention to the dog-faced man lying insensate in the wheelbarrow. Sorn laughed as he walked over. He bent down next to Tharkrist’s malformed ear, sucking in the scent of blood and smoke through his nostrils, and whispered, “Thank you for the gift. It was sublime. Thank you.” He laughed again, bringing his face close enough to nuzzle against his matted fur. Which is just what he did. “You have pushed me to the limits of my being, shown me what I truly am. The least I could do for you is the same.”

He seized the handles, lifted, and began running. The fires reflecting in his eyes shined ever brighter.

* * *

Mirek snatched the hilt of his blade and whirled with it extended in front of him, expecting to feel Sorn’s blade crash into his own.

He was alone in the tall tundra grass.

And Tharkrist was alone with Sorn.

No no no!

Mirek raced back to the street just in time to see Sorn running, barrow in hand, straight towards the burning inn.

Sorn let go of the barrow, grinning with malicious delight.

Before Mirek could do anything to stop it, before he even had a chance to do anything, the wheelbarrow—and in it, the friend that Mirek had come to love—rolled through the front door of the inn, straight into the inferno. Right before Tharkrist passed out of sight, his black eyes flashed open wide. Then the screaming began.

Mirek couldn’t go in there to save him, not without consigning himself to death. He felt as if a bit of his own soul was in that fire, dying in agony, screaming its lungs bloody. He wanted to go in there, do something. Perhaps that was a better fate than this, than living life having lost his only friend, but Tharkrist’s earlier words came to mind.

Justice will only prevail if we are alive to tell about it.

Justice had its chance. Now was the time for vengeance.

With the rage of all the soldiers throughout time who had seen their brothers fall in battle; with the pain of all the husbands throughout time who have seen their wives raped and beaten, left to die in a dingy alley; with all the helpless hate of those who witnessed injustice and could do nothing; he let loose a cry that could split the heavens, that could shatter the crystal towers that withstood the ages, that could make the God himself flinch in terror.

How he had crossed the distance between them, Mirek didn’t know, but all his rage, all his anguish, all his ferocity was bound into one single downward stroke, as if both the Lord and the Lady had funneled the power of all of history’s armies together, fused them into muscle which was then turned to deadly action.

Sorn, eyes wide with astonishment, wasn’t fast enough to bring his sword up to block a strike of such violence. He wasn’t fast enough to dodge out of the way, either—but he tried.

Time slowed to an exquisite crawl, as if to allow Mirek the opportunity to savor his vengeance fully. As though the blade were an extension of his arm, he felt the parting of each thread of silk as a slight tremor, the popping of each mail link as if it were a knuckle in his own hand. He watched as flesh parted as easily as liquid. The shoulder joint beneath, though made of bone, yielded as quickly as a prostitute at the sight of gold.

Once the blade was through and Sorn’s arm completely severed from his body, the world exploded back into motion.

The sword’s edge cracked into the paving stones, sending a lightning bolt of pain up Mirek’s arms. Numb and drained, he dropped the sword and tried to move around Sorn and into the alley, away from all this.

He ended up falling to his knees only a few paces away.

He turned and saw Sorn standing in the same spot, holding his sword in the hand still attached to his body. The man looked down at his other arm for a brief moment, and laughed.

Sorn turned to Mirek, the inn behind him blackened as if blanketed in darkest night, its windows gaping like the pits of gouged eyes.

* * *

Perfect. It was all so perfect.

Sorn had sinned, he knew. He had shown mercy when moral fortitude was necessary. And for that sin, he had paid with an arm.

Justice was a mystery to most men. But not to Sorn.

Not to the avatar of justice. Not to judgment made flesh.

What most men did not understand was that justice was the will of the world realized. What will be will be, and what will be is just.

And he with the most power determines what will be.

He couldn’t feel any pain, even though blood pulsed from his shoulder. No, he felt utterly undiminished. He could feel his missing arm, hand, and fingers as if they were still there, muscles flexing and joints clenching, even though he knew they were not. Not even the destruction of his body could bend his will to that of another.

Feeling a flush of excitement, he turned his attention to Mirek, that wretched, sad little creature kneeling on the paving stones, eyes as wide as those of a puppy that knew it was about to get kicked. Mirek’s will suddenly seemed to deflate, as if he knew that he had lost, and that Sorn—that justice—had finally triumphed.

Then Mirek’s head jerked up and his eyes focused on something.

He mumbled something unintelligible.

The man was about to die. Sorn was feeling in an indulgent mood. Smiling, he said, “What did you say?”

Mirek shielded his eyes with one hand and pointed with the other. “Behind you.”

* * *

Mirek hadn’t understood, at first, why all the fires had gone out. It had been just one more insane thing in a day full of them.

He didn’t understand until he saw Tharkrist, fur singed in places, skin blistered in others, crawling from the charred timbers and rubble on his elbows and knees, in his remaining hand holding a small sphere of light that blazed brighter than the noonday sun.

An entire inferno, bound into a single point.

Sorn, evidently concerned that something might be wrong, glanced over his shoulder and met Tharkrist’s black eyes.

Liquid fire sprayed forth from that small sphere of light in a blinding torrent.

Mirek covered his face with his arms. The heat was overwhelming. The afterimage burned into his retinas was of a man consumed by the light of justice.

When the heat finally abated and Mirek could see again, he lowered his arms. All that was left of Sorn was the severed arm, twitching on the ground.

Without wasting a moment, Mirek climbed to his feet and raced over to where his friend had collapsed.

* * *

Mirek trudged forward through the city with Tharkrist on his back again. The burden now seemed… less. As if the sorcerer had lost even more of himself. He was completely dead weight, unable to make the slightest effort to stay on Mirek’s back. Tharkrist’s last binding had taken all the strength the sorcerer had left, and he had had little enough to spare as it was. If it weren’t for his slow but regular gurgling breaths, Mirek would have thought him dead for sure.

That couldn’t happen. Mirek wouldn’t let it.

Walking was all he could do, so that’s what he did. He had no particular destination in mind. He merely wanted to walk, to get away from there. No matter where he went, each street seemed a tableau of bloody death and wanton destruction. The graceful, sweeping crystal spires which dominated Suridruun’s skyline seemed to stare down at the carnage, aloof and untouched by its vulgarity. Mirek had never seen the effects of the sporebound in such numbers. In the past when the Dark Tree had come, the incidents had been sporadic. Now it looked as if the city had been visited by a plague of violence.

Of course, sporebound or not, Sorn had been infected by that plague. Perhaps had been infected the worst of all.

Mirek felt that all that was possible just then was forward motion. With every step he took, the Dark Tree loomed larger in his vision.

Whether he was willing to admit or not, he knew that the Tree was his journey’s end.

“Mirek.” Tharkrist’s voice was weak, almost inaudible.

“Yes.”

“Do you have any family?”

“No.”

“Any friends?”

Mirek smiled as his eyes watered. His grip tightened, though Tharkrist was in no immediate danger of falling off. “Just one.”

Tharkrist grunted and then went silent. The small sound of Mirek’s bare feet padding across the quickly chilling paving stones echoed faintly.

“Our clans,” Tharkrist whispered, “Tokkarint and Shannod. People think that we are enemies.”

“Hush, friend. Don’t say such things.”

He continued as if Mirek hadn’t spoken. “But we are not. Even though the clans of the Lord and the clans of the Lady are meant to fight, we are not enemies. No, the Lord and the Lady are not forces in opposition, but forces in balance.”

His words had a strange ring of truth to them. “So what are you saying?”

“That perhaps you do not exist in opposition to the Dark Tree. That you, too, are a force for balance.”

Mirek paused, glancing up briefly, and continued walking. He didn’t know what to say to that.

“I’ve never loved Shannod lands. See this fur; I wasn’t meant to live in a desert. No, I’ve come to love these frozen lands of yours. They are filled with an austere, crystalline beauty, the way the sun reflects off of snow-capped peaks in the distance, the sleeping glaciers that extend for miles, the frozen waterfalls that seem to shift from year to year, but not before your eyes. Only if you’re watchful do you notice.”

“Stop this. You’re not going to die.”

“Yes I am. Set me down.”

Mirek gently laid him down on the paving stones. He tightly gripped Tharkrist’s forearm in his hands.

“You have a power within you, Mirek, one that has lain dormant your whole life. It is a power that we all have, but some have it greater than others. Some call it soulbinding. Others call it love.”

Weakly he took his arm from Mirek’s grip and held it hovering near Mirek’s heart. Mirek could almost feel the touch of that phantom hand. “Not many would give it to one such as me.” Tharkrist’s eyes held the traces of a smile. “My soul to yours, brother.”

His arm fell.

Tears streamed down Mirek’s cheeks and into his beard, but he didn’t brush them away. He hoped that in the waning light of the day they might freeze to his skin, and might have one more instance of austere beauty to show his friend before night fell.

But Tharkrist’s eyes were already closed in sleep.

* * *

Mirek stood before the Dark Tree.

He was close enough to touch it, yet even so the distance between them seemed impenetrable. He couldn’t believe that after all these years hiding in terror of it that he would be standing here fearlessly gazing into the glassy striated surface of its trunk.

Tharkrist was right; Mirek knew that now. The facts were there. They always had been. He had just been unwilling to recognize them for what they were.

Mirek had been created unhappy and unfulfilled. He had been created as an empty vessel waiting to be filled.

So he raised his arms, closed his eyes, and opened his heart.

He could still see them through his eyelids: tiny points of light, the bits of souls not yet meant for this world. He had to take them into himself so that he could take them home.

The sky seemed to fill with vibrant streaks of light. He felt something building within him, building, building, building

He opened his eyes. The tree was gone, as was the city. He didn’t know where he was, yet it felt as if he were no longer in the Fourth World. All was darkness, yet he felt a sense of speed and motion—

He felt as if he was pulled inside out, mouth yanked into his stomach, eyes pulled out the back of his skull, knees bent outward and feet pulled up… and then he was himself again.

He was standing on something as white as purest snow, something gave off a faint white luminescence, curving in on itself before and behind him, stretching out to either side.

Another white object jutted out of it, extending out of it, and another and another, with more, countless more branching out of them into the infinite inky blackness beyond.

“Welcome to the Birthing Tree,” came a man’s voice behind him.

Mirek spun. There stood a man in a tunic and trousers that seemed to be of simple enough cut, but fit as if melded around him. He looked young, younger than Mirek anyway, his white hair and beard cropped short, with skin the same powder blue as Mirek’s own. He was smiling as if he was the only one in on a joke.

“You… are a Tokkarintsman?”

The man chuckled. “Hardly.” His hair darkened to a deep mahogany and his skin flushed to pink. Then his face blurred to something that seemed to have features even if Mirek couldn’t exactly place what they were. Wyrric Clan. Faceless Clan.

“You’re the Lord.”

Finally his features returned to the blue and white Mirek first saw him wear. He smiled smugly and bowed. “At your service.”

Mirek fell to his knees, bracing himself with his hands as he struggled to draw in air. His mind couldn’t wrap around what was before him. Even the glowing white bark of the branch on which he knelt, and its rough texture beneath his touch, seemed almost like an elaborate hallucination. He looked around him in awe, seeing the various branches of the Tree splitting off into blackness in every direction. He couldn’t see any leaves or any of the fruits from which souls were born, but he knew then in a visceral way that he was no longer in the Fourth World. Excluding divine beings like the Lord and Lady, he was perhaps the only man in all of the Berahmain’s Creation to have seen what he was now seeing.

“I’m in the First World,” he said, the words coming only after an effort of finding them. “This,” he knocked against the wood he knelt upon, “is the Birthing Tree. And you.” He glanced up. “You are the Lord of the Fourth World.”

“Yes, we’ve been over this. Now get up.”

Shakily, Mirek stood. “But… why?”

“You already figured out the answer.” The Lord cocked an eyebrow at him. “Well, your friend did, anyway. I’d wager you’d have lived and died a hundred lives before figuring it out for yourself.”

“And… where is the Lady?” He could think of nothing else to ask. Nothing sensible, anyway.

The Lord’s eyes narrowed, flicking from branch to branch. “Up to no good, I’m sure.” He seemed to suddenly remember Mirek standing there. “Anyway, thanks.”

“Thanks?”

“Yeah. Without you, this whole place would have been a mess. The Big Guy,” he said, pointing up with his thumb in a conspiratorial manner, “seemed to think it was all my fault, since the Tree Fragment ended up in the Fourth. So I took care of it. With your help, of course.”

“Big Guy… you mean… Berahmain?

“So, I’m giving you a choice. It’s a choice no one gets, but you aren’t really anybody, are you? Your soul wasn’t born here.” He gestured to the Tree expansively. “You were created from one of the soul fragments that got loose in our world.” He scanned Mirek from head to toe, appraising him. “You seemed to have a whole soul now, though.”

“What… what do you mean?”

The Lord’s face turned solemn. “Your friend. He gave you all he had. He’s a part of you, now and forever.”

Mirek turned away. He held a hand to his chest, to find if he could feel two heartbeats.

No. Only one. But it was strong.

“I understand. So what is my choice?”

The Lord shrugged. “You can go back to your old life and keep going as if you never left.”

“Or?”

“Start over.”

Mirek closed his eyes. He knew what that meant.

If ever a soul fails to succeed in the Challenge of a given world, it returned to the world prior to that one upon death. So if Mirek were to fail the Challenge of the Fourth World, his soul would have been transported to the Third for his next life. This can go on forever, Ascending to one world, Descending to the next, in a vicious cycle. Unless, of course, something gives.

One such point was for those who fail the Challenge of the Second World and returned to the First World, that of the Birthing Tree. Once a soul leaves here, it cannot come back and remain the same. If it did come back, it got absorbed into the Tree, changed into something else. Like a dead body absorbed into the earth, to then become the fodder of the creatures that dwell there.

The old soul dies, and a new one is born.

Many people claimed that such a cycling of souls was beautiful and profound. Deep in their hearts, however, Mirek knew that such a destruction of the self was viewed as the purist form of hell.

But what did he really have to go back to? His job? His ruined city? Everything he ever had that mattered was right here with him.

“I would ask one more boon from you,” Mirek said.

The look on the Lord’s was incredulous. “Really? You do realize that no one gets the chance I’m giving you. The chance to return from here.”

“I know, but neither choice is truly satisfactory to me. And you owe me.”

The Lord crossed his arms. “Fine. What is it?”

“I want to start over…” He knew he could do no less now; he was a different person now. “But let me keep my memories,” Mirek said, meeting the Lord’s eyes forcefully. “All of them.”

“Is that it?”

Mirek hesitated. When does one get to make demands of the Lord like this? “Yes, that is all I want.”

“Keeping your memories kind of defeats the purpose of starting over, wouldn’t you say?”

“No. I wouldn’t.” Never again would his soul be incomplete.

“Fair enough.” The Lord turned to go.

Mirek raised his hand. “Wait. There is one more thing.”

The Lord turned back.

Mirek couldn’t help but smile. “When I return to the Fourth World, I want it to be as a Shannodsman.”

The Lord stared at him for a moment, then said, “Traitor.” There was a ghost of a smile on his lips, though.

Mirek’s smile widened. He knew there was a part of himself that would say the same thing.

With that, the Lord waved farewell, and then all was turned to brilliant white light.

* * *

Copyright © 2012 by Brandon M. Lindsay

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