Episode 7: Night of the Echowood – Tales of the Echowood
CONTENT WARNING: Depictions of burnout and depression, arachnophobia, fantasy violence, and vertigo.
As the Traveler struggles with haunting visions of their life before the Echowood, Grael takes a rare moment of quiet to tell them a story from his own past – a myth-making attempt to reach the stars high above the world.
Starring Sam Taylor as Grael and Tal Minear as The Traveler, 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/tote007
“Dark Emptiness” elements created by jalastram (https://freesound.org/people/jalastram/), Licensed under Creative Commons (CC 3.0 Unported: https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0/)
“Medieval City” element created by OGsoundFX (https://freesound.org/people/OGsoundFX/), Licensed under Creative Commons (CC 3.0 Unported: https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0/)
“Wind in basement” element created by jrosin (https://freesound.org/people/jrosin/), Licensed under Creative Commons (CC 3.0 Unported: https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0/)
“Breaking Ice” element created by dheming (https://freesound.org/people/dheming/), Licensed under Creative Commons (CC 3.0 Unported: https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0/)
CONTENT WARNING: Depictions of burnout and depression, arachnophobia, fantasy violence, and vertigo.
[Wind whistling in a large tunnel, low rumble]
Before we get started, this episode contains depictions of burnout and depression, arachnophobia, fantasy violence, and vertigo. Content warnings and a full transcript are available in the show notes.
[Footsteps over rough stones]
[Low, rising drone]
[Heavy metal door swings open, creaking]
[Rhythmic, pulsing noise and hum]
[Sounds of tightening restraints, straps, and buckles]
[Heavy switch is throne]
[Low, heavy pulse, distant roar, rising noise]
[Rumble, then crack of thunder and the sound of tearing]
[The Traveler wakes, gasping for breath]
[Sounds of the inn at night: owls, wind, and silence]
[The Traveler lies back down]
Traveler? Are you awake? I thought I heard something…
[Slightly louder knock]
I just want to make sure you’re okay…
Alright, then… Sleep well, and may what dreams find you be peaceful.
[Door closing further down the hall]
[The Traveler sighs, adjusting their sheets]
Yeah… Peaceful. Sure.
Homestead on the Corner presents: Tales of the Echowood
[Main theme ends]
[Fire crackling in the hearth]
[Wings, kitchen door swings open]
Alright, supper’s almost ready — just need you to grab that bottle of… Huh?
[Grael pauses, looking around]
[Wind gusts slightly, and the front door swings open – it was left ajar]
[Wings buzzing as Grael races out into the forest]
Traveler! Traveler, where are you? Trave–!
[Movement as The Traveler sits up from a blanket on the grass, looking at Grael]
[Grael sighs in relief]
Oh, there you are. I was worried you’d run off.
[The Traveler scoffs, then sits back]
You really shouldn’t be out here this late… It’s starting to get quite cold after dark, and I don’t want you catching your… your…
[Grael pauses, confused]
What are you doing out here?
[Movement, The Traveler gestures]
Ah… Stargazing, are we?
[The Traveler nods]
Well I suppose that’s a good enough reason to be freezing your tail off after sunset. Mind if I join you?
[The Traveler looks up, confused – then shrugs]
[Wings and movement as Grael sits down on the blanket next to them]
[Long silence – birds, wind, and insects]
I’ve always loved the nights out here. Nothing quite like stargazing to bring you back to yourself.
[Movement as The Traveler glances over at Grel]
I know, I know… I just haven’t had the time these past few months. Or… I guess I haven’t made the time. Immortality, it’s… It has a way of making time seem less precious than it is. Easier to waste.
[Small movement as The Traveler sits back]
When I was a child, though – I guess I saw it more like you do. I used to spend every night I could staring up at the sky, watching the auroras snake their way between the constellations, watching stars appear and vanish with the turning of the seasons. I even tried to reach them once, when I was barely a century old.
[Movement as The Traveler turns, looking at Grael in confusion]
Don’t look so surprised, Traveler. I’ve told you time and again how different this world is from the one you knew, and that includes the heavens above it. Where the stars you know are suns in their own right, blazing billions of lightyears away, these… Well. That will take a while to explain, and I doubt that–
[The Traveler scoffs, sitting back]
No, I suppose I’ve never let that stop me before. It’s just… This one is a bit more – personal. I’m not used to telling tales about myself, and it’s a dangerous thing to see yourself as a character in a story… Especially here.
Don’t worry, I’ll tell it… I just wanted you to know.
[Grael takes a deep breath, then releases it in a sigh]
For all the endless centuries of the Echowood, people have watched the skies: beasts and elves and fae and dwarf and witch and mortal kin. When first the sun dipped below the far horizon and the sky was shrouded in darkness, we looked up to see lights dancing against the curtain of shadow endlessly far above. We wondered what they meant, what they could tell us, what they were… But no one could find an answer. Observatories stared into the night sky for years on end, tracing the movement of the moon and stars and sun on charts that stretched endlessly on and on… But like all things in the Echowood, the stars resisted our understanding. Their positions and the constellations they formed shifted seemingly at random, sometimes drifting apart for centuries before returning to their places overnight. New stars appeared and old stars vanished, only to reappear after days or months or decades, and no one could find any way of explaining how. And so, like all things vast and unexplainable, the stars gave rise to legend and superstition. The stars were the gods looking down on the Echowood, always watching. They were the spirits of our ancestors, given a place in the heavens out of reverence and love. But the most common superstition was the same as on most worlds: that the movements and positions of the stars determined the fates of those below.
Truth be told, I’ve never had much patience for such beliefs, no matter which world I was in. Growing up, I loved the stars: loved to sneak out at night and stare up at them until the first light of morning spilled over the horizon and lit the sky aflame. But whenever I told anyone about my stargazing, they always assumed it was spiritual in nature – an attempt to commune with the lights that guided our fates and set our paths. It didn’t help that I was fae. Like many in this world, the people in the village where I grew up saw the fair folk as legends made real because of our magic, our stature, and our appearance — but sprites and fairies and pixies are not all gifted in magic, and we are no more a fantastical people than any other. There are simply fewer of us around, and what few there are tend to prefer the solitude of the wilderness to the cramped bustle of the village square. You can probably tell, then, that I had very little in common with the rest of the fae. But even so, a pair of wings could hardly go unnoticed, and so I spent my childhood pigeonholed into a role that did not fit me: the village fae who consulted with stars and did magic strange and wonderful. I left when I was still quite young – a little past 75 years old – and never really looked back. But I didn’t forget the stars.
[Sounds of the forest]
I was a different sprite back then: impetuous, obsessive… a little reckless, even. Comes with youth, I suppose… Especially a youth with centuries stretching ahead of it.
[Footsteps through leaves]
So I ventured far and wide across the whole of the Echowood, looking for dangers to confront, mountains to climb, enemies to fight. Back then, I wasn’t content to simply tell stories – I hungered to make my own legend, one that would be told and retold for millennia. I saw myself as the noble knight-errant, the winsome adventurer, the wandering hero… As anything besides what I was, it seemed.
[Brief sounds of sword fighting, laughter, and roaring]
Oh, I did put a few small wrongs to right, outsmarted some villains, won out against a few rampaging beasts… B ut that was more down to luck and the law of averages than my own strength. If you throw yourself into a hundred fires, you’re all but certain to extinguish a few – and I certainly got burned enough to prove it. But still I pressed on, refusing to admit defeat, refusing to accept I wasn’t the person I pictured in my mind until finally… My luck ran out.
[Low, rising drone]
[Wind and crickets in a desolate wasteland]
It isn’t much of a tale in itself. I was hunting a nest of arachna out in the western wastes… A region of the forest where the church of light had succeeded in fully driving out the local witches, only for the trees and wildlife to become overgrown and infested as a result. I was making my way north when I found a massive redwood fallen across the old road, its branches so wide and so tangled in the canopy that I couldn’t fly around, over, or through them. So instead, I was forced into the undergrowth, hacking my way through with my smallsword as I tried to find another way around. Any sign of the road vanished the moment I left it, and within ten minutes I was hopelessly lost. Night was falling, and I felt the hairs on the back of my neck stand up as I realized I was lost and not-quite-alone in the middle of spider territory. If I was still out here come nightfall, then no amount of magic would save me.
I tried to turn around and follow my path back, but the downside of having wings is that you don’t tend to leave footprints behind you, and soon I was even more hopelessly lost in the brambles. My nerves were on fire by that point, every rustle of the wind or snap of a twig sounding like the unmistakable approach of an eight-legged killer. My heart felt just about ready to explode when a warbling, creaking song rose from one of the higher branches nearby.
[Sound of a crow calling]
I spun, raising my sword to fend off an attacking spider… Then stopped. Up in the nearby branches was a single crow, staring down at me with deep, dark, questioning eyes. I felt my heart unclench. I was just about to ask if it knew the way out of the forest – when I felt the bristle of coarse, hairy legs against my skin and the bite of sharp fangs on my shoulder.
[Spider purring, hissing]
[Sword swings, slicing, sound of something falling]
I spun around, my sword flashing in the fading light as it found the head of the horrible spider and cut it cleanly from its abdomen, sending it rolling across the forest floor as its fangs released and the creature fell dead. That was some comfort, but I knew it wasn’t anything like a victory. I was bitten, and if I didn’t find somewhere safe to hide, my paralyzed body would soon be found by another arachna, and carried off for dinner. They didn’t often prey on the fae folk – most of the time we were too small to be more than a snack. But I knew that the monsters weren’t picky eaters, especially in this sparsely populated bramble.
[Crow calling, sound of bird’s wings]
In the end, the raven was my salvation. Feeling no small measure of guilt for its part in my plight, it guided me to the nearby ruins of an astronomer’s tower, abandoned when the witches’ exodus and the church’s attitude towards science made this part of the world inhospitable to their work. I struggled to keep up as my wings began to grow sluggish and stiff with the poison, but the raven was patient and meticulous, making sure I never lost sight of it as it flew from branch to branch.
[Heavy wooden creaking of doors opening and closing]
By the time we reached the tower and I pushed my way through the heavy wooden doors, I was barely standing upright, and I only just managed to seal the tower shut before I fell backwards to the floor, unable to move as the venom ran its course.
A full day passed in that state… and then another… and then another. I cannot say I was fully unconscious, for the poison of the arachna only paralyses its victims to make wrapping and eating them easier, and they don’t much care if you’re awake for that part or not. Thankfully I’d avoided that fate, thought I couldn’t say I was too happy to be laid out on the cold, hard stone for three days, unable to even adjust my position. I knew my back would be a mess of knots and stitches when the numbing effects of the poison wore off – but I was alive. That was the important thing.
I dozed in and out of sleep with little regard for whether the sun was up or not, and several times woke in the middle of the night, unable to fall back asleep. I wasn’t too mad about it, though. Whenever it happened, I simply tilted my head back as far as I could and looked up. Whether it was dumb luck or something more, the place I’d fallen had a partial view of the open ceiling of the observatory, and the stars beyond it, glittering cold and beautiful in the night sky. As I lay there, not quite cold and not quite in pain but knowing I would be very soon, I finally remembered my childhood love of the stars – and one very specific flight of fancy. From the age of ten to the slightly wiser age of fifty-two, I had always wondered why none of the many flying creatures in the Echowood had ever tried to reach the stars… Or if they had, why I’d never heard about it.
The fantasy fizzled out after a few decades, but lying there – alone with no one to talk to and nothing else to think about – I felt it slowly rekindling in my mind. By the time I was able to wiggle my little toe and the poison began to leave my system, I was more obsessed than ever with the idea. Spider-hunting had definitely not worked out… But if there was one story that could ensure my place in history, it would be the tale of a sprite who reached the stars.
[Wind and insects in a barren forest, distant crows]
I spent the next three years in that crumbling observatory: foraging for food and water by day, studying the stars by night, and every once in a while making an ill-conceived attempt to reach them. My first came less than a week into my stay, almost as soon as I had recovered enough to stand. My wings still felt stiff, but after weeks of staring up at the night sky through that open ceiling, the stars felt closer than I’d ever seen them. Perhaps I wasn’t as fully recovered as I thought. Perhaps the poison was still in my blood, addling my mind.
[Wings, rising drone]
But one night, as I stared up at those glimmering points of light, I found myself flying towards them – higher than I’d ever flown, further than I’d ever traveled on my own small wings. It was a valiant display of endurance, if I do say so myself… but inevitably futile. We sprites might be able to fly, but we’re by no means flying creatures. Our wings are meant to carry us out of danger or into the tops of trees, not hoist our weight over great heights and distances. By the time I felt them start to ache and seize, I’d barely climbed higher than the nearby hills… But I was still more than a hundred feet above the ground. I pushed myself further than I thought I could, but eventually my body gave out, and I fell – plummeting towards the far off ground.
[Rushing wind and flapping fabric]
I just barely managed to get my wings moving enough to slow my fall, landing hard and fast in a tangle of branches and vines just outside the tower.
[Foliage rustling, impact of a fall]
It wasn’t too bad – a few bruises and a slight rope burn from one of the vines – but I nursed those injuries and my wounded pride like one dying.
[Sounds of a fireplace, writing and flipping paper]
So: reaching the stars under my own power was out of the question. Once I finally accepted that, I turned my attention to studying them instead: recording their positions, marking any changes I noticed, even trying to gauge their distance using the nearby landmarks and a bit of math. But numbers had never been my strong suit, and eventually I realized that however high the stars sat, it was well beyond the point where any earthly landmark would help measure it. I scratched out all my careful calculations the moment I realized the truth and just wrote “very very far away.”
My next attempt came soon after that realization. If I was going to make it anywhere close to the stars, I would need the help of another: a flying creature strong enough to make the climb.
Thankfully the great tree was not too far away, on the far side of the western wastes where witches still preserved the green.
[Sounds of a large number of owls]
I made myself and my mission known to the owls as soon as I arrived – the feathered folk are a proud, wise people with little patience for the usual tricks and diplomacy of the fae, and I knew my best approach was utter honesty. Few, if any, of the head owls thought my mission wise, or even possible, but I didn’t need to convince them. Over the months I stayed as a guest in the great tree, I spoke with many powerful birds: eagles, kestrels, even an albatross visiting from the sea. Within a day of my first audience, everyone knew of my mission: rumors, after all, spread very quickly in a place where everyone can fly. As I suspected, most of them thought my goal was foolhardy and impossible… But not all of them. A few shared dreams of reaching the stars, and one or two had even tried it before, but given up out of exhaustion or fear.
Once I’d whittled down my list to those both willing and (I believed) able to make the climb, I presented my offer: I would ride with them into the heavens, using my own magic to give them strength and restore them if they began to falter and fall. Most dismissed the offer – the feathered folk had little understanding or love of magic, as a rule. But eventually, I did find one owl willing to take the risk: Brownfeather, an old scout and veteran of the last war with the arachna. He was not the strongest owl I met in the tree, but he was one of the most daring… Despite his age, he’d never quite lost the impetuous streak that defined his early career. I smiled all the way as the old owl followed me back to the observatory. He would do just fine.
[Sounds of the western waste]
We made our attempt in the early morning hours of Elderdays, just as the chill of winter began to give way to spring.
[Heavy wings flapping, rushing wind, sparking and buzzing of magic]
[Low, rising drone]
The sun still sat just below the horizon when we took off, and the sky felt low and close behind a layer of thin clouds. I clung to Brownfeather’s back with all my strength as he rose higher and higher into the sky, cutting back and forth in wide circles that carried us towards the dimmed and faded stars. My teeth began to chatter with the windchill, but I desperately recited the spells of restoration and energy I’d prepared for the occasion. His wings cut through the air with a soft thrum as I watched the withered forest below grow smaller and smaller, before it vanished behind the clouds altogether. The air grew colder, and I began to notice a thin layer of frost forming on the old owl’s feathers. I tried to warn him, but either he didn’t hear me over the rushing wind or couldn’t understand. In the distance, I could see the white-tipped summits of the northern mountains and realized with a start that we were already higher than the tallest peak. The air was biting and frigid, and I felt myself begin to shiver – with all my magic focused on Brownfeather, I couldn’t even manage a warming spell for myself. Not that he seemed bothered by the chill. His wings just continued beating, even as the frost I’d noticed before turned to ice, and the brown of his coat began to fade beneath a lair of white until… We stopped climbing.
Brownfeather didn’t stop flapping, but our slow, circling assent stopped without warning as his plumage froze solid. I saw the look of panic in his eyes a moment before we fell – plummeting back towards the ground nearly a mile distant.
[Rushing air, chaotic drone]
Brownfeather pumped his wings, but somewhere in the chaos my concentration broke, and with it, the energizing spells I’d been weaving. Without them, the lethargy and exhaustion he should have felt before swept over him, and I watched as his still-frozen wings went limp, trailing behind us as we fell.
[Spark and buzz of magic, flapping wings]
Thankfully, I realized that fact before we hit the ground, and I resumed the invocation as well as I could between adrenaline and fear. The air grew warmer as we plummeted, thawing the ice still clinging to his feathers. Feeling the energy flowing back into his body, Brownfeather extended his wings against our fall, and we finally began to slow: gliding back towards the roof of the broken observatory with as much grace as he could manage.
[Sound of noisy impact]
He was still exhausted, and our landing ended in an undignified tumble across the old stones, but neither of us ended up with anything worse than a few scrapes… And a pair of bruised egos. That was enough to cure Brownfeather of his ambitions, however, and we parted ways on terms that were less than friendly a few days later.
[Sounds of a fireplace, writing and shuffling paper]
It was back to the drawing board, though now with slightly more knowledge of the conditions high above the Echowood. Cold air, icy wind, and a loss of flight for any feathered creature who flew too high. Valuable as that insight was, it left me with few other options. There were a handful of featherless flyers in the Echowood, though most of them were too small or too weak to make the climb. In eons past, there had been many beasts who clawed the air on leather wings and could have reached the stars easily – but all of these were extinct, buried far below the surface by the eternal shiftings of the Echowood. There was only one species I knew that fit all my criteria… And only one of their kind who could make the journey. And so it was that I set out for the distant lands of the southern Echowood, in search of dragons.
This search took far longer than my journey to the great tree, and it was several years before the tenuous leads and rumors I’d been chasing lead me to the floating mountains on the southwest border of the Echowood. If I’d been looking for just any old dragon, I could have found the dragons of fire and water easily enough: in the heart of the great sea or at the place in the mountains where the sun rose each morn. I might have found the dragon of earth if I’d risked a passage through the underworld… But no. Only the dragons of fire and air could truly fly, and the dragon of fire was still somewhat weakened from its brush with death many centuries ago. Besides, I knew for certain that the dragon of air could get me to the stars. In the course of my observations, I’d realized that the aurora snaking its way across the blackness was not just a ribbon of light or energy or magic, but the glow of a great serpentine creature, flying through the night: the dragon of air.
As I fluttered between the great cliffs and mountains uprooted and left floating above the cosmic emptiness beyond the Echowood, I kept a weather eye on my surroundings. Every rock and tree was thick with life, more like a jungle than a forest, and more than once I had a close call with some native predator looking to defend its territory. I was more than happy to let it, though the constant flying left my wings sore and sluggish after a while. There were a few human settlements in the area, and even one or two fae communities… But I kept my distance from those. Much as I didn’t belong amongst the mortal kin of my hometown, I knew I’d be even less welcome amongst my own kind. But I was at least able to rest in those treetop cities from time to time, telling stories in exchange for room, board, and gossip.
Three years into my search, however, I was just about ready to give up. The endless days of rumor chasing, narrow escapes, and merciless sunlight had worn down my resolve, and I was just about ready to turn back and find another way to the stars, when I finally got lucky.
[Sounds of wind and life in a jungle]
[Distant impacts and crumbling stone]
[Footsteps over loose stones and dirt]
It was nearly sundown, and I’d become hopelessly lost in a narrow canyon formed by the collision of two floating mountains many centuries ago. I’d been hoping to find water at the bottom, but of course there was none — the canyon was open to the empty sky at one end, and there’s no such thing as “groundwater” when there is no ground, so whatever there might have been had drained away long ago. Ordinarily, I would have just flown out and started my search somewhere else, but I’d strained one of my wings on the way down and was forced to climb out on foot.
[Rising wind, blowing dust]
As I edged my way along a narrow game trail running up the side of the canyon, I felt a strong breeze begin to kick up, almost driving me from the ledge. I held on, hoping that it would fade after a moment – but if anything, it only grew stronger and stronger until it felt like a typhoon was tearing through the canyon.
[Wooden creaking, low drone]
Glancing up against the blowing sand and dust, I saw the trees at the edge of the chasm bending and shaking as something passed through, impossibly huge and almost-invisible. I blinked, not quite sure what I was seeing. It was like the wind was blowing hard enough that I could see the currents in the air, compressing and pushing it aside like waves. Then I realized the shape they made was solid and consistent: a long, curving body, almost a quarter-mile across and stretching off into the distance towards a barely-visible head. It had no wings, but I could see the vague outlines of limbs beneath it – small compared to the creature’s length, but still large enough to tear down a fortress wall or crush an army underfoot.
I didn’t know quite what I’d been looking for, but once I saw it there was no mistaking the dragon of air.
I didn’t hesitate, not even with my injured wing: I leapt from the wall of the canyon and let the currents of the dragon’s passage carry me along until I was level with its body, then grabbed hold.
Despite its appearance and a more literal interpretation of its name, the dragon of air was not made of wind or wisps of cloud – at least, I don’t think so. While I wasn’t paying as much attention to the creature as I would have liked, I did catch glimpses of deep blue skin beneath its cold, hard scales, so dark it was almost black. Looking back on it, I believe they reflected light around the dragon’s body, rendering it mostly invisible unless you were lucky enough – or unlucky enough – to get as close as I had without it seeing you.
My mind was less concerned with the creature I was riding than where it was taking me, and as I held on with all the strength I had left, I saw the floating mountains vanish into the distance behind us, the Echowood shrinking away until it was lost in cloud and shadow. I felt the air grow cold again and shivered, tucking my wings in close to my body to make sure they didn’t freeze. The dragon was unfazed by the cold, just like I thought it would be.
As the sun set fully behind the edge of the world, I found myself surrounded by a soft blue light, emanating from the dragon as it began to twist its way across the inky sky. The transparent scales began to glow in shimmering, pulsating patterns, and I found myself staring at them far more than the stars I was trying to reach. I shook my eyes from them several times, watching as the dragon flew steadily higher, the already-dark sky getting darker still as the air began to grow thin… And yet the stars seemed just as distant as they’d ever been.
We were still climbing, but I was alarmed to see that even at this altitude, far beyond the heights I’d reached with Brownfeather, the stars were still impossibly small and distant, utterly out of reach. Worse still, I found my eyes falling back to the shimmering lights and patterns of the dragon’s scales more and more often, watching them pulse and flow over the leagues of its body. It was beautiful… intoxicating… hypnotic…
Had I been thinking clearly, I would have recognized it as the behavior of a dark-environment predator: the flickering patterns of bioluminescence meant to draw in prey and lower their defenses. Of course I wasn’t the intended target… But that doesn’t mean I was unaffected. By the end, I was so entranced that I didn’t notice my grip on the dragon’s scales slipping, nor the feeling of unconsciousness tugging at my mind as the air grew too thin to breathe. All I remember is a faint feeling of distress as the patterns of shimmering blue grew dimmer… And then the rush of wind as I awoke to find myself falling back towards the Echowood faster than I thought possible.
[Rushing air, flapping cloth]
[Flash of magic, wings fluttering]
Thankfully I had just enough wherewithal to realize what was happening before I hit the ground, and enough knowledge of magic to slow my fall. My wings still ached and I’d definitely hurt them worse getting onto the dragon’s back, but I was able to restore enough of my energy to extend them and glide to safety.
[Foliage, a hard landing]
[Sounds of a quiet forest]
It was a slightly smoother landing than Brownfeather managed, but it still left me just as bruised, battered, and discouraged as ever as I took in the unfamiliar place I’d fallen.
The dragon of air had been my best, last chance of reaching the stars, and as I brushed myself off and began looking for the nearest inn, I started to wonder if I hadn’t spent six years of my life on a doomed quest… and how many more I could waste before I gave up.
[Footsteps through leaves]
Such thoughts haunted me all through my stay in that lonely inn, and all the way back to the observatory tower. At first, I tried to convince myself that it didn’t matter: I was immortal, and the years of my life were practically endless. I could waste any number of them on all kinds of misadventures and still have youth to spare. But young as I was, I knew that was a lie. Immortality didn’t mean invulnerability, and all lives end, even if old age never touches them. I’d been lucky so far, surviving three failed attempts to reach the stars. But even if I continued to be lucky, probability meant that – sooner or later – one of my attempts would end in more than bumps and scratches. What else was I supposed to do, though? Forget the tower and my quest, admit those six years had all been for naught, and move on to something else? Try to forget I’d failed so spectacularly? I knew I wouldn’t be able to do that even if I tried, and the memory of my failure would taint everything I touched, everything I tried to do for the rest of my life. I couldn’t accept that – but I couldn’t keep putting myself in danger for the sake of something that might be impossible. For the first time in my life… I was stuck.
I don’t know if you can understand just how awful that feeling is for one of the fae. Of all the creatures in the Echowood, we reflect its ever-changing nature more than any other. Our bodies shift and warp in size and shape more often than we change our clothes, and any form we desire, we take. We are never trapped by place or time: our wings carry us wherever we wish to be, and if they can’t, then our magic twists the world around us in whatever ways we desire. But the stars… The stars were too far above, too far away, and even if I trained and learned and practiced spells more ancient and powerful than any I’d tried before, I could not warp the Echowood in such a drastic way – not without breaking it. I was trapped between admitting my own failure and a course of action that would either kill me or destroy my world.
[Sounds of a fireplace, barren forest, crows]
And as I passed through the western waste once again and saw the top of the observatory appear over the treetops, I was no closer to reaching a decision than I’d been at the start. So I made the only choice I could: I waited. For more than a year, I sat in that observatory, watching and charting the stars outside, but otherwise doing nothing. My plans thus far had all been rash and drastic actions born from desperation and impatience, and while it seemed like they would work at the time… Well, it’s pretty clear they hadn’t. So I waited – watching, contemplating, learning what I could from the books and scrolls forgotten by the scholars who first abandoned the tower. It wasn’t much, but I still poured over them. I suppose I could have gone to one of the nearby villages and purchased some more up-to-date materials, but… Truth be told, I wasn’t just waiting because I was unsure. I was tired – a bone-deep exhaustion that I’d never felt before and didn’t know how to handle. After more than six years of seeking the stars, I had nothing to show for it besides a few new scars and a persistent set of dark bags beneath my eyes. I could have changed my appearance and erased all those signs of course, but… Even that felt like more than I could handle at that point. My dreams of fame and glory had fed the flame for a while, but now… Now it was guttering, and all I could do was cradle it between my hands and pray it didn’t go out.
That wasn’t as easy as it might sound. You might have noticed I’m not one for sitting still, and more than once I had to convince myself not to go searching for the great stairway of myth, to climb the peak of Mount Morgan, to attempt a ritual of translocation and warp myself up to the stars. I didn’t always succeed at stopping myself, and those attempts invariably ended with more injuries and a greater sense of emptiness than before. But even so, as the weeks turned into months of rest and recuperation, I began to feel more restored than I had in years… Even before I began my futile quest for the stars.
A full year of rest was almost complete when I finally saw it: a small blue star, glimmering in the northwest quadrant of the night sky and growing brighter than I’d ever seen it shine.
[Wings fluttering, ringing sound]
Leaping from my chair, I fluttered up to the roof and over to the telescope, trying to focus on it. As I struggled to align the glass, I realized that it was moving – falling towards the forest below, getting closer and closer. I’d heard of falling stars, even seen one or two in the far distance as a child, but now… The star was falling towards me. Not towards the observatory tower, but definitely towards the western waste. It’s brightness was almost blinding through the focusing glass of the telescope… but at the heart of the glow I almost thought I could make out some kind of figure – and then it vanished behind the ruined trees of the waste, landing in a patch of brambles I knew all-too-well. I felt my blood go cold. The arachna infested this entire land, but that… That was their nest.
The fire I’d been nursing in my soul suddenly roared into flame, and I was out the door before I even realized it, wings buzzing and smallsword strapped to my belt. Some part of my mind pulsed faintly with the thought that if I’d kept up my attempts to reach the stars or given up and gone home, then I would never have seen the star fall… But I ignored it. A star had landed less than a league from the tower, and I would be damned if I let the spiders take it from me.
[Flash of magic]
The forest was pitch black, the light of the moon choked out by the thick, rotten canopy of leaves and ancient cobwebs, but with a few words I kindled a ghost-light to show the way: not a complicated bit of magic, but one that’s hard to maintain. As it was, I felt the drain on my energy, but the faint grey luminance still broke the darkness as I approached the gnarled and twisted mess of churned earth and shattered trees that marked the Arachna’s home… And there, right in the center of it, surrounded on all sides by the monstrous spiders, stood the star.
[Sounds of spiders purring]
He was far more humanoid than I’d expected – through truth be told, even with all my long nights at the telescope, I had no idea what to expect when I finally saw a star up close. He was tall and lanky, almost gangly in his proportions, and the hair on his head shone out in blinding strands of white-hot fire. It glowed only slightly brighter than his skin, which looked to be lit from within by a cold blue light. He wore a long grey tunic with a dark belt, but the light he emitted seemed to shine straight through it… And as I watched, his glow grew even brighter as he took a fearful, threatened step back from one of the approaching spiders. I was surprised to see them keeping their distance, then realized that the blazing starlight was probably painful to their eyes, meant for life underground or beneath the trees. Even so, that pain would not hold them off forever, and even as I watched I saw a lone spider stalking through the underbrush behind the star, readying to lunge at his unprotected back.
[Sounds of slashing and stabbing sword]
I was on it the moment before it could leap, slashing and stabbing with my blade in a frenzy of steel and screams. The star turned to see me, confusion clear even through the glare surrounding his face. “Run!” I yelled, shooting back into the air in the direction of the tower, “This way!”
[Wings, hissing spiders]
The star only hesitated for a moment at the sight of a wild-eyed, sword wielding faerie covered in ichor and blood before he turned and followed, leaping into the air and floating away from the spider’s nest behind me. I heard the arachna hiss in dismay, a few of them spitting venom after us as we flew… But we were already out of their territory and moving faster than they could scurry.
[Sounds of the forest at night, ravens]
The star, despite having no visible wings, seemed a more capable flier than I was, and he landed on the wide, stone roof a few seconds before I did. As I began to recover, I noticed the look of curiosity and wonder on his face as he stared at the small copper lantern hanging over the stairs. He turned back to me after a long moment, pointing at the lamp as he asked: “Where does the light come from?”
Strange as the question seemed, I did my best to explain the mechanism of the lantern: the wick, the oil, and the flame contained behind the glass. He looked confused, but tried to shake it off as he asked, “And do all the stars burn like this?” Needless to say, that took me a bit further back, and this time I couldn’t hide it. I frowned, fumbled a bit, then told him no – that wasn’t a star… He was a star. I pointed at the sky as I said this, and he looked up to see the vast canopy of speckled night stretching out to the horizon… Before he laughed, as though he was talking to a child. “No,” he said, shaking his head, “those aren’t stars – this is a star.” He pointed at the lantern. “Those are stars,” he continued, pointing towards the lights of the nearest town, just barely visible over the trees. “And that’s the constellation of the great chain – I’d know it anywhere.” He gestured across the distant peaks of the blue mountains, and I noticed for the first time the faintly glittering lights of the dwarven villages lining the summits. “Those are just… People,” he finished, pointing at the night sky, “My people. My home. I’ve spent years trying to reach the stars, but now… I’ve finally made it. So tell me.. how do they work?”
There was a long moment of silent stillness… Eventually shattered by a bubbling, uncontrollable laugh escaping my lips. I couldn’t help it – the whole thing was just so beautifully absurd. The star looked incredibly confused, but eventually, I managed to get it all out: my own quest, my own frustrated desire to reach the stars, and the superstitions of my own people, who believed that what we called stars decided our fate. The fallen star finally joined me in laughing when he heard that. Many of his own people believed the same thing about the lights in the Echowood, and he’d been trying to disprove such nonsense for years. The idea that the mysterious sky he saw stretching above his world was simply the darkened forest far below… Above… Opposite his home was almost too much to believe, and we both spent much of the night laughing, caught up in a mixture of elation, confusion, and relief.
Once we’d recovered, I offered him a cup of tea down in the observatory kitchen, and he accepted wholeheartedly. The star stayed in that observatory tower for several years, though as time went on I began to leave it more and more often. Though I hadn’t reached the stars, the stars had reached me, and that was more than enough. Besides, the months of rest and contemplation had done me a world of good, and while I wasn’t chasing quite so many vainglorious quests as before, I did begin to wander again – helping those who needed aid and righting wrongs where I could. And for the first time in decades, I had somewhere to return to at the end of my journeys… Somewhere to call home.
The star was always there, waiting for me. He was able to glean far more about my world from the dusty tomes in the tower than I’d been able to learn about his, and every time I returned he hounded me for stories about the Echowood – how it worked, who lived where, and what forces shaped and moved it year by ever-changing year. As you might have guessed, I was happy to share those stories, and more than happy to finally have an attentive audience. He in turn told me stories of his world: the land which was the sky far above the Blue Mountains, where the shining folk lived lives not so different from the ones I knew – often simple, boring, and monotonous, but sometimes daring, passionate, and daft. As we traded stories and learned more and more about one another, a fondness began to grow between us – a friendship, then a partnership, then perhaps what you might even call a relationship. I treasured those nights we spent together, and despite my own longing to roam, I found myself spending more and more of my time in the tower than I planned.
But we both knew it wouldn’t last forever. He’d come to the Echowood in search of knowledge, and that knowledge would mean little if he didn’t return to his people. It had been just as difficult for him to reach my world as it had been for me to try and reach his, and he didn’t know if he’d ever be able to do it again… But as he stood on the edge of the tower’s roof, rested and ready for the return trip, he looked me in the eyes and swore that he would try.
I won’t shield my pride and say I wasn’t crying, for that would be a lie… But I took solace in that promise, and in the one who gave it. I felt a brief tingle of static against my skin as he leant down and kissed my forehead, ruffling my hair. “I made it here before, without knowing what I’d find,” he said, eyes shining with tears like moonlight and silver, “and I’ll find my way back, now I know who I’m looking for.”
[Sounds of the forest at night]
And with that, he turned, stepped from the tower, and rose into the night sky once again. I followed him with my telescope as he grew smaller and fainter in the sky until eventually, he was just another star shining in the darkness. Even then — I stayed on the roof of that tower until the sun rose and hid the stars from view, watching my love flicker in the endless field of night.
[Movement as Grael stretches, wings fluttering]
Blimey, it’s gotten cold all of a sudden. Best come inside before it gets much later.
[The Traveler turns, gesturing for Grael’s attention]
Hm? Oh… No, he’s not come back. Not yet. But I do still keep my eyes on the northern sky. Maybe someday, he’ll find me… Or I’ll find him. Who knows. If I’ve learned one thing about the stars… it’s that whatever fate we have is ours to choose.
Tales of the Echowood. Episode Seven: Night of the Echowood. Starring Sam Taylor as Grael and Tal Minear as the Traveler, 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.