Episode 3: Empire of the Echowood – Tales of the Echowood
CONTENT WARNING: Themes of imperialism and warfare, mentions of death, violence, and torture, dread, and implied body horror.
Wandering the forest outside the inn, the Traveler stumbles across a broken sword, abandoned beneath the trees. Worried at what this strange artifact of war might mean, Grael tells them of the rise and fall of Etrius Oakheart: the first, last, and only emperor of the Echowood.
Starring Sam Taylor as Grael, with original music by Jesse Haugen. Written and produced by Trevor Van Winkle, and made possible by our supporters on Kickstarter, Patreon.com/homesteadcorner, and ko-fi.com/homesteadcorner. Executive produced by Axel Allcock.
For more information, additional content, and episode transcript, visit homesteadonthecorner.com/tote003
CONTENT WARNING: Themes of imperialism and warfare, mentions of death, violence, and torture, dread, and implied body horror.
[Sounds of a forest – wind, distant thunder, and far off waves]
Before we get started, this episode contains themes of imperialism and warfare, mentions of death, violence, and torture, dread, and implied body horror. Content warnings and a full transcript are available in the show notes.
[Footsteps through leaves]
[Footsteps resume, picking something off of the ground]
[Sword swung – once, twice, three times]
[A startled bird cries out, taking flight]
[Sword loudly dropped]
[Buzzing wings approach, and someone pushes the foliage aside]
Oh, there you are… I thought you’d wandered off. Not trying to skip out on work again, are you?
[Faint shrug and noise of indifference from the Traveler]
I know you don’t like helping out around the inn, but what else is there to do? Until we figure out why you’re here, there’s no reason not to…
[Metallic scrape as Traveler picks sword back up]
Where did you find that?
[Traveler gestures, faint vocal shimmer]
Here? But… I thought Oakheart didn’t make it this far into the deep-wood. Not unless… Maybe it was a scouting expedition? Or a deserter, perhaps?
[Grael flies closer, examining the sword]
Hmmm… Certainly old enough to be from the invasion… There’s more rust than sword now. Broken too… I don’t suppose you found the rest of it lying around here?
[Traveler shakes their head, vocal shimmer]
Huh… Must have seen combat, then. Though who or what could have done this in the Echowood, I don’t know. To break cold steel like this…
[Grael goes quiet, stops flying]
Ah. You have no idea what I’m talking about, do you?
[Traveler shakes head, vocal shimmer of confusion]
Well in that case… I think it’s time for another story.
[Grael takes flight]
Thought not out here. ‘tisn’t a tale to be told ‘neath the trees, that’s for certain. Let’s get back to the inn first… And bring the sword with you. Best not to leave such things alone out here.
Homestead on the Corner presents… Tales of the Echowood.
[Main theme ends]
[The common room of the inn – a crackling fire, wind through the eaves]
[Grael leans forward in his chair]
It’s a funny thing, isn’t it? War. Conquest. Empire. So often pointless. So often short-lived. Planned for months, years… decades. Bought in the blood of billions, in violence that never touches those who willed the conflict. Adorned in garments of empty glory. Undone in a single moment. The hollow promise of a lie that can never be made true.
War. Built on the lie that any land, any people, any world, can be owned by man or god or tyrant. Can even I say this inn is mine? I didn’t build it. I did not cut and mill its beams or quarry its stones. I care for it, tend to its needs… But no more than it cares and tends for mine. We own each other. We own nothing. We are what we are and belong to ourselves, and the lie that war pursues is a phantom fire above a yawning chasm. No empire is forever. No kingdom. No king.
[Music, sounds of the inn fade out]
But if there was ever an empire that seemed eternal, it was the one that marched behind Etrius Oakheart on the day he breached the boundary between worlds and made camp at the border of the Echowood. Oakheart’s empire was ancient, and it was powerful, and it had at its command legions of soldiers and siege engines bought and paid for with the wealth of a thousand plundered worlds. Yet that strength was nothing beside the will of the emperor himself. Oakheart: heir to a dynasty ten centuries old, named god and devil by allies and enemies alike. He was not the king who first conquered his own world, nor the one who discovered there were other realities, for those kings’ graves had worn to dust before he was born. No: Oakheart was simply the end of a long chain stretching back through dead universes and kingdoms broken upon the wheel of his family’s conquests, and he held to that lineage like a talisman, as he arrived once more into an alien realm, blinking in the light of an unfamiliar sun.
[Sound of an echoing, dark portal, footsteps marching and machinery creaking]
As his eyes adjusted and his army poured through the portal behind him, Etrius took in the world his mage-smiths had delivered him. The sky was a deep, vast blue, dotted here and there with dark clouds that promised rain. He breathed deep, smelling the air. Ah… A young world, he thought, or at least a primitive one, its skies unsullied by the smoke of industry. He took in the clearing surrounding him, noting the narrow cobblestone road leading into the unbroken line of trees. Good, he thought – at least this world had roads. That would make his conquest easier, though he would need to have his engineers improve them if that was what passed for a highway in this place.
[Foliage moving, barking call of a deer]
On the other side of the clearing, a small, white fawn, clearly drawn by the noise, wandered out of the trees, staring at Oakheart with deep, curious eyes. One of his soldiers noticed the creature and raised his weapon to fire, but Etrius ordered him to stand down. They had food enough in the wagons being drawn through the portal. The soldier grumbled, but by that point the fawn had already bolted. Etrius breathed a quiet sigh of relief. He would have enough blood on his hands by the end of this to drown a universe. A small act of mercy was the least he could afford to give this world.
[Music ends, sound of rain falling and movements in a large camp]
For three days, the army mustered at the edge of the forest, clearing trees and raising a small city’s worth of tents and pavilions. A traveling merchant wandering down the road had been seized by agents of the spymaster and questioned about the Echowood: where the road led, who was in charge, and what kind of standing army they had. The merchant – confused and terrified – answered all of their questions as quickly as he could, and even seemed to be telling the truth… But that truth made no sense to the spymaster. No one held power here, he said: there had never been a king or queen or sovereign in the Echowood, and there was no royal army. How then was the Echowood defended? the spymaster demanded, turning the screws. The merchant just looked at him like it was the stupidest question he’d ever heard, and said that the Echowood defended itself. He died a few hours later, and all that had been learned was that the road led to an abandoned castle at the center of the forest, called Caraway by the local peoples. But this was enough for Etrius, and he ordered his troops to make ready for a long march into the woods.
[Machinery creaking, marching footsteps, horses’ hooves]
They moved out in force: the cavalry riding ahead to scout for assassins, thieves, and traps, with the chariots and siege engines behind them, and the mass of conscripted infantry bringing up the rear. A third of his force was left behind to keep the portal secure in case of retreat… Though Oakheart had no intention of retreating. The more he saw of this world, the more convinced he became that it was a primitive place, centuries behind his own civilization. He knew that there was magic here… of course he did. One could not travel between worlds as often as he did and not know that some worlds have magic, while others don’t. But he wasn’t afraid of it. The portal that ferried his soldiers across the veil was an invention borne of both magic and the slow forward march of technology, and at least a quarter of his soldiers were trained in the mystic arts of a dozen different worlds. As far as he could tell, the magic of the Echowood was something these people depended on as readily as the air in their lungs… Something they took for granted. He expected very little resistance when he arrived at this “Castle Caraway.”
[Music, sounds of marching fade out]
He did not expect to encounter no resistance at all, however – and that was what made him uneasy. As the days passed one into the other and his soldiers marched further into the ever-darkening depths of the forest, he expected at every turn or narrowing of the road to find an ambush waiting for them: a felled tree blocking the way, or a party of archers shooting down at them from the cover of the high canopy. But there was nothing. He was not the only one nervous about this – his soldiers, trained for war and violence and fanatic loyalty, were beginning to grow restless as violence failed to emerge from the pressing shadows of the trees. A few times, the camp commanders had to break up fistfights or duels between soldiers unable to cope with the silence. There were even one or two deserters caught sneaking away through the forest,,, but these were promptly hanged, and the disquiet in the camp began to subside.
Finally, as the first week in this new world ended and the second began, Etrius Oakheart and his warband finally saw what they had been searching for: a towering stone castle, glittering in the early morning light as it loomed over the treetops. Seven spires rose so high they seemed to touch the sky, and seven overlapping, offset ring-walls surrounded the central keep. But Etrius was less interested in the walls than what he saw shining from within them: torchlight, visible through every arrowslit and window he could see. Despite the merchant’s assurance that there was no ruler in the Echowood, the castle looked to be occupied in force.
[Sound of clattering chains and creaking wood]
As Etrius turned about and began to call his engineers to bring up the siege engines, he heard something unexpected: the loud, clattering clank of chains and the creak of old, heavy wood. He turned to see the drawbridge just ahead of his army slowly lowering, as the portcullis rose behind it. No soldiers waited on the other side: no knights, no champions, no wizened old mages trying to hold back the tide of empire with a dusty spell-book. There wasn’t even an emissary to discuss terms of surrender. The defenses of the castle simply opened onto an empty corridor, leading deeper into the imposing castle before them.
Oakheart was not stupid of foolhardy, for all his other flaws. He recognized the possible trap as soon as it opened, and ordered several of his scouts into the castle to clear away any hidden dangers or concealed troops. It was early morning when they entered the castle, and the sun had already set by the time they returned. Etrius thought they might have been caught, but soon enough they emerged, looking confused and not a little bit disappointed. The castle, they reported, was empty: no soldiers, no courtiers, not even peasants to tend the grounds and keep watch over the walls. The candles and lanterns he had seen burning in the windows were the only sign of life in the entire complex… and to all appearances, it seemed like no one had lowered the drawbridge.
[Owl hoots, sounds of night]
By now, Etrius was more sure than ever that this was a trap – though how it could be, he didn’t know. His scouts knew how to spot curses and magical wards that might seek to hex those who entered unaware. They knew every manner of poison and assassination used on a hundred worlds, and could trace their quarry across an entire planet if need be. There was nothing they could have missed… and yet Etrius was still afraid.
[Horse hooves marching forward]
It was not a fear he could allow his troops to see however, and so he cleared his throat and ordered them to secure the road while he and a company of his knights rode into the Castle Caraway. Night had fallen by that point, and only the light of the phantom torches lit their way into the heart of the fortress. Despite the word of his scouts, Etrius still stopped at every crossing and corridor, ordering a search of each dark passage before they carried on. In this way, it took nearly an hour to reach the keep at the center of the seven walls, and in all that time Etrius could not shake the feeling that even though the castle was unmistakably abandoned… he was being watched.
[Heavy wooden door creaking open]
The door of the keep was unlocked like all the others, and swung open easily at his touch. Inside, past a small anteroom and through a second set of doors, was the throne room of the Echowood.
[Music, faint metallic ringing]
It was a lofty, worshipful place: all arches and domed ceilings and tiled floors, leading up to a throne carved of rough, natural stone. To all appearances, it looked out of place in the middle of all the finery… And yet, it did not feel out of place. Not to Etrius. Not in this strange and haunted forest. Sitting on the seat was a crown… A thin circlet of gold studded with emeralds so bright, that they seemed to shine in the half-dark of the torches. In another world, at the end of a long conquest, he would have preferred a more formal coronation. As it was, he simply crossed the floor, picked up the crown, and set it atop his head without ceremony. The soldiers who accompanied him, uneasy as they felt, immediately knelt and proclaimed, in one loud, strong voice: “Long live the king. Long live Oakheart.”
[Footsteps marching, sounds of the forest]
The problems began the next morning. After a fitful night’s sleep in the bedchamber above the throne room, Etrius ordered his engineers to begin cutting back the forest on either side of the road. There had been several points where it had become too narrow for the siege engines to pass easily, and he would not be forced to abandon them if retreat was needed. The engineers rushed to obey, eager for any task which took them outside the walls of the silent castle. Drafting a few companies of infantry, they began marching down the road to the first choke point… Only to stop short when it came into view. None of them said a word for a long moment, unsure what they were looking at. They all remembered how narrow the road had become at that point, but surely, it hadn’t been completely blocked? And certainly not blocked by thick oak trees that were decades old at least.
[Desolate, low wind]
[Hammering, sawing, and sounds of falling trees]
Still, they were engineers, and they had a job to do. And so, after a few minutes of arguing over the best course, they began to chop down the trees, all the while keeping an eye on the forest around them. They half expected to see new trees sprouting up as soon as the old ones were cleared, or find roots reaching out to grab them as they worked, but the work went smoothly. By midday, the road was clear again, and by late afternoon it was widened to the emperor’s specifications. No magic slowed their progress, and they saw no one in the woods beside a handful of squirrels and one or two curious ravens.
As the sun began to set and the forest grew darker, the engineers remembered just how quickly night fell beneath the trees. And so they ordered the soldiers to set their tools aside and make for the castle with all speed. While it went against protocol, everyone in the army was convinced this patch of forest was completely uninhabited. They didn’t have to worry about losing their tools to the denizens of this world, and the heavy load would only slow them down.
The engineers were wrong. When they awoke the next morning and marched back to their worksite, every single axe, pry bar, and pick had vanished from the place they’d abandoned them. The engineers quickly called out one of the army’s scouts to see if they could track the thieves.
[Slow footsteps through leaves, nervous, distant whispering]
The scout spent nearly half an hour methodically examining the soft, newly cleared soil – an ideal canvas for footprints and drag marks – before returning to the engineers and sheepishly admitting that they could find no sign of anyone coming or going in the night, much less carrying away the missing tools. The engineers looked at one another with fear in their eyes. It wasn’t that they couldn’t easily replace the lost items: there were three full sets of tools in the wagons they’d brought to the castle, and ten times that back at the portal.
No: it was the fact that conquests greater than this had been brought down with far less effective tools than the ones they’d just lost. If Etrius found out and believed that a rebellion was arming itself…
[Jail cell door rattles and slams shut]
He found out, and he did believe. His wrath ran cold and hot in turns that few could predict, as he locked the engineers responsible in the castle’s dungeons, killed the scout who’d failed to find the thieves, and then issued a royal pardon for the soldiers who desperately just wanted to go unnoticed in the whole affair. But before he did that, he’d ordered a search of the surrounding forest for any villages or settlements within riding distance. It didn’t turn up much: the handful of small communes huddled into narrow clearings and valleys certainly didn’t seem like the sorts of places where armed rebellions began. Even so, the soldiers rounded up anyone they could find and dragged them back to the castle.
[Chains rattling slowly]
The king turned these over to the spymaster after he’d questioned them, ordering him not to kill any of them if he could help it. Enraged as he was, they needed answers, not blood… At least for now.
One by one, they were interrogated, tortured, and questioned… But the spymaster quickly realized that unless these farmers and gatherers had received better training than he had, none of them even knew about the missing tools.
After a few days, he went to the king and asked him to let the prisoners go. The king was about to fly into another bloody rage when suddenly, the doors of the throne room burst open.
[Music ends, doors creak open, running footsteps over tile]
One of the soldiers he’d pardoned rushed in, holding a muddy axe over his head with a grin of wild delight. The guards at the door tackled him to the ground less than ten paces in, but before either of them could cut his throat for threatening the king, he blurted out something about the missing tools. Everyone in the throne room froze at this, before Etrius looked at the axe the unfortunate soldier had dropped. Despite the layers of grime and the rusted edges, it was clearly the work of his war-smiths: one of the engineer’s missing tools.
[Low tones, sounds of a mess hall at dinner]
Grateful just to be alive, the soldier quickly stammered out what happened: he’d been having dinner with one of the camp cooks, who’d been going on and on about different cultivars of potato and how they grew differently on different types of worlds. As he spoke, the soldier suddenly realized that for all their searching for the missing tools, no one had thought to look below ground.
[Sounds of the forest at night, digging]
Borrowing a spade, he went out into the forest alone and began digging around the spot he’d abandoned his axe. It took him less than a minute of digging to find it, barely a foot below the surface. A few more hours of digging confirmed it: all of the missing tools had simply sunk into the earth while they slept, leaving no trace of digging or burrowing. He didn’t know how that was possible, and the only clue he could find was a thin, branching root from one of the nearby trees, still wrapped around the handle of a pickaxe.
[Sounds of the empty, echoing throne room]
A great number of prisoners were quickly released from the dungeons, and a formal apology was issued to the scout corps on behalf of the king… but few felt relief. They knew magic. They knew war. But this was something else entirely… Something not even the most experienced soldiers had ever seen. The people seemed totally passive, uninterested or unable to resist the empire. But the land they lived upon? That was another story entirely.
[Music, marching and clattering machinery, sounds of building and logging]
Despite his misgivings and driven by his need to subjugate the land, Oakheart ordered the engineers back into the field, this time with the full might of the army behind them. The road was to be widened even further, he said, and the trees they cut down used to build watchtowers and outposts at set distances between them. If the Echowood was resisting them, then he wanted it under constant observation. Despite their stay in the dungeons (or perhaps because of it), the engineers marched out with renewed energy, keeping track of their tools at all times and carefully overseeing the constructions.
For a while, everything seemed to be going well: the road was expanded all the way to the portal, and the soldiers tasked with guarding the passage between worlds cheered when they saw their comrades again. Seven watchtowers were built in as many days: scant but solid platforms large enough to hold a pair of scouts and keep them safe from enemy archers. The first fort in the Echowood was coming along nicely by that point too, its walls of upright, sharpened logs filling in as more and more of the forest was cut down around it. And in all that time, the army of Etrius Oakheart still saw almost no one else passing through the forest. Even the animals seemed to grow fewer and fewer each day, and when one of the engineers spotted a small white fawn at the edge of the road before it vanished back into the forest, he almost thought he’d imagined it.
[Sounds of night in the deep forest]
As these reports continued to pour in from the forest surrounding the castle, Etrius Oakheart still slept uneasy in his bed. In any other place, any other world, he would feel sure that his conquest was complete. There was no army to resist him, and no ruler powerful enough to raise it. He sat unopposed in the very seat of power to which the whole of this forest swore allegiance…. But why did it not feel like he was in control? Why did the Echowood still feel beyond his grasp? And why did visions of the ever-expanding green still fill his dreams with terror?
[Wind through trees, creaking wood]
Late that night, in the watchtower that overlooked the fort’s construction, a pair of guards stood watch through the hours of darkness. They’d drawn the night shift, and though neither of them were too happy to be there, they were at least grateful they hadn’t been conscripted into building the fort. One of them – a somewhat portly man named Fesik who’d signed to Oakheart’s army just before they arrived in the Echowood – watched the darkened construction site with hazy, half-lidded eyes. The moon was full, but still hung low enough in the sky that its light couldn’t breach the trees surrounding the fortress, casting the structure into sharp-edged shadows. His compatriot, Afina – a shield-maiden and sword-master recruited from a warrior civilization many worlds away – had the more important job, watching the highway for any sign of raiders.
Of course, she saw nothing, as the guards had seen nothing for weeks, and so when Fesik tapped her on the shoulder and asked if he could catch a few winks while she watched the fortress, she agreed almost without hesitation. She did of course give him some grief about what he’d been doing all day to make him so tired, and his answer was about as off-color as you might expect. They traded barbs for a few minutes before Fesik finally dozed off against the watchtower’s low wall.
As he began to snore, Afina paced slowly back and forth, keeping her eyes first on the road, then on the fortress, then back. At first, nothing happened… Then suddenly, as she walked back towards the fort side, she froze. The rough walls and the logs which formed them were still cast in shadow, so she couldn’t be sure what she was seeing… But she thought the shadows of the walls hadn’t been turned that way a moment before? Even in the depths of night, the walls were clearly plumb and square with one another… Why then did they seem somehow – twisted?
Before she could get a clearer look, a thick cloud passed over the moon, and the shadows dissolved into a murky mess of greys and blues and blacks. She thought of waking Fesik to confirm what she’d seen, but decided against it, thinking that he needed sleep and not wanting him to think she was getting jumpy. She simply returned to her march, and saw nothing out of place until the sun rose the next morning. And then she saw everything.
The walls of the fortress were a splintered ruin, foundations overturned and logs twisted and cracked around one another in ways that should not have been possible. The gates were thrown down from their hinges and shattered into oaken splinters, and the cornerstones had sunken deep below the earth, pulling much of the fortress down with them. In short, a week’s work had been torn down in less than a night, all in utter silence beneath the watchful eyes of Afina and Fesik.
Thankfully their commander managed to shield them from Oakheart’s rage, citing the poor visibility and clear supernatural nature of the attack. The king agreed, though he still ordered the commander demoted and beaten for not illuminating the building site properly. When the engineer corps arrived the next day and asked if they should clear the rubble and resume building, the emperor pursed his lips and thought for a long moment, then said no. The watchtowers were complete, and would have to serve for now. He’d finally figured out his strategy, which he decided then and there to share with the engineers. They listened with mounting horror as he said, that if the forest itself was what resisted him, then he would subdue it in the same way he’d subdued a thousand armies on a hundred worlds. He would cut it down and salt the earth on which it grew. He would harvest the Echowood and build his empire upon its ruins. He would make this world a warning to all other realms which thought to betray him.
The engineers were silent for a long moment before one of them – the youngest – blurted out that they simply didn’t have the numbers for such a project. Even if every soldier was released from guard duty and scouting missions, it would still take years – maybe decades – to clear the forest, and even longer if they hoped to do so safely. The other engineers quickly tried to hush them, but Etrius simply raised his hand for silence. Of course they couldn’t do it with just the army, and of course they couldn’t afford to deploy them for such a task, or they would quickly lose their foothold in the woods. No: in order to do this, they would need to hire the shadow-bound.
[Low tone, muffled argument]
This sparked another round of debate… though not with the engineers, but with all of the advisors currently sitting in the throne room. The empire, they said, hadn’t hired the shadow-bound in millennia, and the last time they did so the mercenaries decided to simply seize the world they’d been sent to conquer when the emperor ran out of gold. Etrius listened, and nodded, and then said he was going to do it anyways. The long centuries had cooled the anger of both parties, and he would make sure they had enough gold to pay the mercenaries twice over before he brought them to the Echowood. And so, after a few more counselors tried to convince him not to and were swiftly silenced, he ordered the mage-smiths to send a message through the worlds to the shadow-bound: prepare for war.
[Sounds of village life, trumpets, and movement of soldiers and horses]
The next day, the farmers and villagers in the tiny communes around the castle woke to the sound of braying trumpets. Stumbling outside in the half-dark of early morning, they saw a party of soldiers – infantry and artillery and towering cavalry on proud horses – assembled in the village square with a herald standing before them. Once the people had been assembled or pulled from their beds by the other soldiers, the herald opened a small, sealed scroll and read out the proclamation:
“Etrius Oakheart, first of his name, lord of all realms, protector of the nine worlds, and king of Castle Caraway, etcetera, decrees that a war tax is to be placed upon all villages, towns, farms, covens, institutions of learning, communities, markets, etcetera, in order to secure mercenary forces for the continued security, protection, improvement, and safety of the Echowood, its people, and its lord. Signed Etrius Oakheart, emperor of the Echowood. Long may he reign.”
[Low, tense tone]
The silence that fell over the village at these words chilled the blood of each and every soldier. The people of the Echowood stared at them with a look in their eyes that could have easily been bland acceptance, or cold hatred. A few of the soldiers found their hands drifting to their swords, and the horses began to whinny nervously beneath the weight of that gaze. Then slowly, one by one, the crowd dispersed, wandering away from the village square and into their homes as if obeying an unspoken command.
[Footsteps, doors opening and closing]
In one of the smaller towns, the herald watched as an old elf – who must have been nearly 500 years old and clearly showing their age – limped into their small home just down the road, stayed inside for nearly five minutes, and then emerged carrying a large woolen sack.
[Dragging, metallic noises]
Whatever was inside was clearly heavy, and they struggled under the load all the way back to where the soldiers stood, before throwing it down at their feet. The bag landed with the unmistakable crash of coin striking coin.
The herald’s jaw dropped in disbelief as he saw the shimmering glint of pure, bright gold shining from within the bag. At first, he thought that the old elf had perhaps been a prospector in their youth, but as more and more of the townsfolk returned from their homes with their offerings in tow, each and every one of them deposited a heavy sack of gold in front of the tax collectors.
On every other world where the emperor had demanded taxes, unrest and upheaval had followed as sure as day follows night. But across the Echowood, in a dozen villages separated by hundreds of miles, thousands of farmers and peasants wearing threadbare clothing and living in hovels badly in need of repair produced sacks heavy with gold, silently handing over more wealth than any of the soldier had seen in one place before. Of course they checked the coins as soon as they could, handing them off to any members of their company with knowledge of alchemy or chemistry. There were countless minerals known to the empire which looked and felt like gold, but would be worthless if paid to the shadow-bound. But no… every test they could think of proved that the coins were good as gold: solid gold, polished to a shine and seemingly minted less than a year ago. A single bag would have paid the shadow-bound for a year. In the end, there was so much of it that they needed to leave some behind to keep their wagons from breaking under its weight.
[Wooden wagons rattle back into the castle]
As carts full to bursting rolled back through the gates of Caraway, Etrius Oakheart looked on, content that something had, at last, gone right. The gold was unloaded in a matter of hours, and the great hoard was sealed away in one of the locked vaults deep below the castle.
[Heavy wooden door creaks shut]
The key was given to the emperor with no small degree of pomp, and he accepted it with all the grace a life of royalty had taught him. He told the assembled soldiers they would march out once again the next morning, further into the Echowood. If the small villages deep in the forest had so much to give, then what of the larger towns the scouts had discovered at the edge of the wood? What of the bigger cities that they were sure to find?
[Distant cheering voices]
The soldiers cheered at his words… not because they were excited about the gold, for they knew they’d never seen a piece of it. They were excited because, if nothing else, those larger towns might actually be able to put up a fight, and they would at last be able to burn their unease and fear in the crucible of violence.
[Crickets and distant wind at night]
Etrius dismissed his soldiers and soon retreated to his bedchamber, tucking the key to the vault beneath his pillow. He checked to make sure the dagger hidden in his headboard was still secure and sharp, changed into his dressing gown and extinguished the candles, and then promptly fell into bed, completely exhausted.
He’d put on a good show, but it was no secret that he hadn’t been sleeping… that he hadn’t had a proper night’s rest since arriving in the Echowood. Every night, his bedchamber creaked and groaned in ways that seemed to make no sense, and no matter how many times he rose with candle in hand looking for the source, he could find none. And when sleep did finally take him after hours of restless turning, his dreams were sharp and coarse to the touch, many-limbed and branching off into leafy canopies that blotted out the sun and moon and stars and worlds. His doctor had frowned and fussed over him every time he brought it up, prescribing every remedy and sleeping aid found on a thousand worlds. None of them helped. Etrius still woke exhausted every morning, his few scant hours of sleep robbed by visions of green.
It seemed tonight would be no different. A waning moon stared in at him through his window like a half-closed eye, its light harsh and cold. He might have drawn the curtains, but he knew it wouldn’t help: it would still be out there, watching him. A loud creak carried through the floorboards, and Etrius didn’t even try to convince himself it was just the cold. A barn owl hooted from the gardens, and the emperor could not even manage to be angry at the noise – he knew it was not the owl who kept him from slumber. It was this place… This Echowood. It would not let him rest.
[Footsteps and movement]
After several more hours, he was too tired to even remain in bed, and so he stood up, slipping a thick green cape over his dressing gown and tying his boots. Descending the stairs, he passed the throne room and continued down into the bowels of the castle, counting the doors until he arrived at the seventh level below ground. This castle was still a maze to him, but he knew his way to the vault well enough: unlike the rest of the tunnels and corridors in this place, it seemed to stay the same no matter how many times he visited it.
He opened the hidden doorway, slipping out from behind the thick tapestry that concealed it into the corridor beyond. The vault door stood just ahead of him: unguarded, of course. There was only one way in and out of this passage, as far as anyone else knew, and that was watched over by a full platoon of his most loyal troops. They would have let him in if he’d asked of course… but truth be told he didn’t really know why he was here. Something nagged at his mind, quiet but persistent, and he knew it would not go away until he looked inside. Pulling the key from his pocket, the king slid the locks open one by one, then pushed.
[Vault door creaks quietly]
The door swung open on well-oiled hinges, making no more noise than his own tight, anxious breathing. The torchlight flooded into the pitch darkness of the vault, illuminating the stone and iron walls inch by inch… And Etrius saw what now lay scattered across the floor, half buried by the empty canvas bags that once held more gold than he had ever dreamed existed. And in that moment, Etrius Oakheart finally understood.
[Quiet throne room, metallic ringing]
It was nearly dawn before any of the guards noticed that the vault door was ajar, and longer still before they found the hidden door. Far above, in the dark and silent throne room, Oakheart sat alone, his circlet of gold held between his fingers as he stared at it through bloodshot eyes. He had done everything right – everything his father had taught him to do, everything his ancestors had done to save their people and their world from ruin. He had conquered. He had won. And at the end of it all, a single world had been enough to undo him. Had it all been for nothing? Should he have let his people, his way of life, die out forever? Abandoned the rule of conquest and tried to change their ways? He could not pretend he’d not considered it. But no: his people were what they were… and the worlds belonged to them.
[Deer barking, distant, echoing whispers]
He didn’t hear the sound of approaching hooves, but when he looked up from his crown and saw the small white fawn from the clearing standing across from him, Etrius snorted with laughter. Of course it was the fawn. Who else could it be? Even if he’d let his soldiers kill it when they arrived in this world… even if he’d been the one to do it himself… it would still be here, waiting for him at the end. He knew what it meant, had known since the vault: that his little act of mercy meant nothing when he came in blood and pomp and power to claim this world… nothing but a feeble attempt to save his own soul. Slowly, and without speaking a word, he replaced the crown upon his head, stood, and faced this specter of the wood as King Etrius Oakheart, emperor of the Echowood… As himself. No one but the fawn heard him scream.
[Morning birds, door opening, running footsteps]
It was fully morning before the lone soldier burst into the king’s bedchambers to tell him that the vault had been breached. Somehow, someone had slipped past the guards and carried off the collected gold, replacing it with the dry chaff and foul-smelling soot that now filled the chamber. Before the soldier could say this, she stopped short. The bed was empty, and clearly had been for much of the night. She knew the king was meant to be holding court in the throne room today, working with his advisors to draft the shadow-bound’s contract. Perhaps he was simply getting an early start?
[Footsteps, door creaks open]
She turned and ran down the stairs with as much decorum as she could manage. The door to the throne room was unguarded and unlocked. She pushed the heavy oak doors open with a crackling, ancient din and slipped inside, stumbling over something in the dark as she entered. She cursed at whoever had let the torches burn out in the night… Then gasped.
[Music, sounds of rustling leaves and vines]
The torches were still lit, and she could see them flickering behind something… Something thick and dark that filled almost the entire chamber. But besides the torches, nothing else about the throne room was recognizable. On every wall, thick tangles of ivy covered the stone from floor to ceiling. The tiled floor was shattered, thick roots tunneling down and through the priceless marble into the soil beneath. And in the center of the great hall, where once sat the rough hewn throne of Etrius Oakheart, stood a towering oak tree as thick as a wagon, rising all the way to the domed ceiling and filling it with its grasping roots. From a branch about twenty feet above the floor hung a circlet of pure gold, its brilliant emeralds flashing in the torchlight as it turned slowly in the breeze.
There was a thorough search of the castle, but it just confirmed what everyone already knew: the emperor was no more. Whatever this place was, it had finally had enough of its would-be conquerer and took his wealth, his crown… his very being. The Oakheart line was ended, and in less than a week, his soldiers had fled back through the portal.
[Marching footsteps, creaking machinery]
As they marched out of the Echowood, they saw the ruins of their watchtowers and half-build fortress cast down and shattered, half-sunken into the soft earth beneath them. And every so often, they glimpsed dark shapes and glowing eyes watching them from the shadows beneath the trees. But even if they hadn’t seen such things, they could all feel that something had changed. The Echowood had been waiting before, taking a measure of their king and his soldiers… and it had finally made its decision. They were not welcome here.
[Sounds of the inn slowly fade in]
The rest transpired quietly, all-but-unnoticed by the peoples of the Echowood. The soldiers left, the last of their fortifications were pulled below ground or dismantled by the witches who lived nearby, and in the heart of Castle Caraway, a proud oak tree continued to grow in an abandoned throne room, twining itself around the pillars and beams of the place, as it became more and more a part of the realm Etrius had tried to conquer. Back in his own world, there was a great deal of bickering about what was to be done about the Echowood, but his heir – a distant cousin with no stomach for war or magic – decreed that the Echowood was to be an untaxed protectorate of the empire, never to be conquered or ruled by another. That proclamation meant very little, of course: the empire crumbled a few decades later, beset by corruption and under attack by the shadow-bound, who were none too happy to hear their services were no longer needed.
[Thunder rumbles, then crashes]
Nearly a century later, as the empire breathed its last gasp, the oak tree growing through the keep of Castle Caraway was split in two by a bolt of lightning. The crown, still held aloft by its branches, melted and fused to the charred wood, emeralds staring out like shining green eyes. None would ever wear that crown again, and none have since… and the Echowood remains unbowed.
[Grael leans back in his chair, then sighs]
[Grael flies to the bar and uncorks a bottle, pouring himself a glass of wine]
[The Traveler makes a faint, questioning sound]
Do not mistake me, traveler… I do not admire him. I condemn him for the murderer he was. I loathe him for the bodies piled high on a hundred thousand worlds. But still… I pity him. I pity him all the worlds he could not see for conquest. I pity him the life he might have led, all the paths he might have taken. I pity him his fate.
[Grael picks up his glass and flies back over]
And because I pity him… I do not become him. That is enough, I think. That’s all a story needs to be, sometimes: a warning.
[The Traveler makes another noise, picking up the sword]
No, no… You keep it. This is not a place for swords, even broken ones. But it might still prove useful. After all… I’m not the only one who needs to be reminded of such things. Oakheart was flesh and blood and bone, just like you… At least, until he wasn’t. Keep it.
Tales of the Echowood, Episode Three: Empire of the Echowood. Starring Sam Taylor as Grael, with original music by Jesse Haugen. Written and produced by Trevor Van Winkle, and made possible by our supporters on Kickstarter and Patreon.com/homesteadcorner. Our executive producer was Axel Allcock. To learn more about the series and listen to our other podcasts, visit Homesteadonthecorner.com. If you’ve enjoyed this episode, feel free to connect with us on Twitter and Instagram @echowoodpod, and leave a review on Apple Podcasts or the podcatcher of your choice. I’m Trevor Van Winkle, this is Homestead on the Corner, and you’re listening to: Tales of the Echowood.