“I do, as you say, have the power to grant your request,” said the Empress. “But what, then, will I do for the other seekers that will come here, just as worthy as yourself, seeking just such a boon?”

I bowed as politely as I was able. “That would be up to your majesty to decide,” I said.

“Would it, though?” said the Empress. “In making the decision to grant such a favor to one such as yourself, am I not stating that the palace is open for business, and that anyone who thinks themselves worthy of such a gift needs but to tickle my ear with it? When, then, would I have time for affairs of state, besieged as I would surely be by those seeking royal favor?”

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Through the slits of the fence, he could see the thing shambling out of the darkness, illuminated by the streetlamps’ pools of sickly light. It stumbled about on digitigrade paws, leaving definite footprints in the softer asphalt it trod across in an acrid cloud of vapors. There were no arms, at least none that he could see, only a long beck with a ruff of bristly black hair that stood out against the velvety brown hue that made up the rest of the creature.

But it was the end of its neck that truly made his stomach turn, even from his hidden vantage point. No face, no eyes, nothing recognizable as an analog of any terrestrial life. Just a gaping black hole, brimming with milky fluid and undulating with a cruel parody of respiration. Every few steps, a tendril of whatever roiled within that lipless maw would trickle down in mucous strands, with the same effect that the being’s path had on soft and exposed asphalt: any surface, even hardened concrete or the cast iron bases of streetlamps, began to liquify and slough away wherever the horror’s noisome secretions touched it.

Each streetlamp would subtly change its hue as the thing passed beneath it, loudly snuffling and pacing as if looking for something. The spectrum would dim, grow strange, almost like a blacklight, before gradually returning to normal once the creature had passed.

He looked up. The streetlamp closest to him, the one that showed his shadow clearly to anything with eyes that might seek it, was beginning to grow ever more pallid and uncanny with each passing moment.

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“THE TREE THAT OWNS ITSELF FEARS US,” the yellow aspen said, projecting the words into the minds of the adventuring party. “THAT IS WHY IT HAS SENT YOU HERE TO FELL US.”

“No need to flip your wisk there!” said O’Reilly. “I don’t even know if that tree is anything but a normal tree, its gold and McScroggins’s insistences aside.”

“Is that why you brought in the gnolls?” said Runthorn. “To protect yourself?”

“NO. THEY ARE AN IRRITATION IN THEIR CONSTANT WORSHIP. GOOD RIDDANCE.”

“What could one beautiful, natural tree have to fear from any other beautiful, natural tree?” said Willow.

“ASPEN ARE DIFFERENT. WHERE ONE TREE GROWS FROM ONE ROOT, WE GROW A FOREST. IN TIME YET TO COME WE WILL SPREAD OVER THE OTHER TREE’S ROOTS AND DESTROY THEM. IT KNOWS THIS.”

“Or! Or, maybe, it’s just a tree that tourists like,” Ellie said. “And they don’t want a new tree taking all the tourist money.”

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O’Reilly wiped blood from his eyes. “Well now,” he said. “That was somewhat more gnoll cultists than I expected to slaughter in order to get to the Golden Aspen.”

Ellie jiggled her ivory handled knives, Smashbash and The Bard, and the corpse of a gnoll shaman, still wreathed in dissipating arcane energy, slid to the forest floor. “Just one gnoll cultist is too many. Unless they’re worshiping me like in Middlesept.”

“That was less of a worshiping than a fattening of a sacrificial cow,” said Runthorn. Quickly realizing his mistake, he muttered a shield spell just in time for Smashbash and The Bard to come flying at him. “In a strictly metaphorical sense, of course.”

“Right,” said Ellie gruffly. She snapped and the enscorclled stabbyblades jumped back into her twin small-of-the-back sheathes. “Next time you call me a fat cow, you’d better expect one in your sleep.”

“Duly and magnanimously noted,” said Runthorn, sweating. “Willow, come over here, will you? I need you to speak for the trees, for these trees have no tongues.”

“Unlike those carnivorous trees from Murdermarsh last year,” said O’Reilly. “I have never been so happy to put vampire lumberjacks out of business forever.”

Willow was going to each of the many, many gnoll corpses and saying an absolution over them and knitting together their various extremely fatal wounds to make them more aesthetically pleasing. “Oh,” she said airily. “You don’t need me, this tree can talk on its own.”

“How can a tree make a noise without a mouth?” O’Reilly cried.

“Trees have bark,” shrugged Ellie.

“I SPEAK IN THE MINDS OF THE WALKERS ON BEHALF OF THE ROOTS BELOW.” The deepness, suddenness, and violence of the splintery voice in their heads sent every member of the party save Willow into a fetal position.

“Told you,” she said.

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“We were promised work,” said Runthorn Dribblesoup in his usual tone of irritation, which sounded more like petulance coming from a halfling. “You led us to a tree.”

“Oy!” barked McScruggins, turning on Runthorn. “Keep a civil tongue in your mouth, short stuff! There’s work here, and no mistake. This here’s the tree what owns itself, yeah? And it has a job for ya.”

Willowbirch Billowthorn, the group’s elven healer and mystic, looked over the–admittedly rather large and impressive–tree. “I don’t sense any unusual life force from this,” she said.

“Cor blimey, can you not hear a bleedin’ word I’m saying?” cried McScruggins. “Look. Two hundred years ago, the lord of this land died with no heirs, right? But he remembers on his deathbed, he does, how he used to enjoy long evenings under this here tree with his mates and ladyfriend. So he leaves the tree, and everything its roots touch, to itself. And cor but the thing doesn’t have roots that go for miles! So the tree what owns itself is technically our feudal lord, it is.”

“Does it want someone to put it out of its misery?” said Sir Kneecapper O’Reilly, the doughty gnome fighter and enforcer of the group. “I can axe it a thing or two in that case,” he added, hefting an impressive war axe (for its size).

“Oy, that’s not to be ribbed about, eh?” snapped McScruggins. “Suffice it to say I owe me fealty to the tree what owns itself. And it’s got gold aplenty for those what do its bidding. As interpreted through those what’s close to the living bark, that is.”

“And what ‘bidding’ is that?” said Eleutheria Gromash, who was both half-orc and half-rogue and master of neither. “We’ll do it as long as Lord Tree pays us in advance.”

“Hmph,” said McScruggins. “Right then. The tree wants you to chop down another, rival, tree out in the woodlands. The only golden-colored aspen tree for miles around. It wants you to come back with the crown and root cap of the tree as proof of the deed. And it won’t pay you in advance, but it’ll give you a taste. Mind, it expects results if you take of its gold, though.”

McScruggins tossed a small bag of gold into the hands of each party member. “Best you don’t come back without the golden tree bits, yeah?” he added. “Folks’ve been known to hang from the tree what owns itself when they run afoul of it.”

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The Gene Project, a multinational cooperative dedicated to sequencing the genome of every animal, living or dead, that has ever existed, has announced the results of its first genetic analysis of Himalayan yeti fur. After arefully comparing and cross-referencing the DNA with other genomes in their collection, The Gene Project released a press statement claiming that the fearsome yeti is actually a high-altitude giant sloth, closely related both to the extinct giant ground sloths and the extant two-toed, three-toed, and recently discovered seven-toed sloths of South America.

“I’ve heard people in the news media saying that this discovery means that yetis are giant sloths,” says Dr. Nate Lamonda, chief sequencer for The Gene Project. “Frankly, though, it makes more biological sense to say that sloths are tiny yetis. The yeti is taxonomically senior in every way. It’s the same thing you see with dinosaurs: it makes no sense to call a tyrannosaurus and a bird different things. A bird is a small dinosaur just as a sloth is a small yeti.”

This discovery has sent shock waves through the pop culture fandom for the yeti and its American cousin, the bigfoot. “My yeti is a fast, dangerous, voracious predator with cunning intelligence and the soul of a poet,” says Lada Montane, one of the lead administrators of the cryptid fan website cryptids.co.nt. “This is just the sort of thing we saw when those eggheads decided dinosaurs had feathers or that Pluto wasn’t a planet. They are pedants acting out power trips, and these poor, unfortunate creatures are to blame.” Another member of cryptids.co.nt, posting anonymously on the site’s message board, is more succinct: “They can take my Gigantopithecus when they pry it out of my cold, dead hands,” they say, referring to the fragmentary giant orangutang that is often considered a likely suspect for the true species behind yeti sightings.

Dr. Lamonda dismisses such concerns. “Of course people are going to be disappointed,” he says, “but fantasy often simply cannot hold up to the cold, hard light of fact. We didn’t set out to ruin anyone’s day, and yetis are still as majestic, elusive, and possibly mythical as they’ve always been.” He compares the current furor to the times people proved that geese do not grow from goose barnacles, and the outdated idea that mice are born from dirt. “The idea that a hominid of that size could survive in such a harsh climate is ludicrous–only the slow, deliberate lifestyle of the sloth makes sense.”

Despite Dr. Lamonda’s self-assurance and the unambiguity of The Gene Project’s results, many remain unconvinced. “You’ll see, this is just more foolishness that they’ll go back on in five years,” another anonymous commenter on cryptids.co.nt says. “Why, I remember when my old high school textbook said that giant pandas were really big old raccoons. Haven’t heard that one in a while, have you?”

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When she swept into the city’s social calendar, Mercedes Ryann was an explosion in furs. Cultured and intelligent but with a flair for the wild and flamboyant, many of the social register scions found themselves inexorably drawn into her orbit. The Ryann clan had been on the outs for decades, since Mayor Ryann had ended his life in a bathtub with his mistress, and the titular head of the family, Mercedes’ uncle Wilhelm, was all to happy to let his niece rebuild the family. There may have been the occasional dolorous whiff of scandal in the way Mercedes comported herself, but her wealthy suitors and the sudden, volcanic reemergence of the Ryanns into the discourse meant it was a net gain.

Naturally, there was more to the story than that.

When a young woman had managed to make it up to his permanent suite in the Royale Hotel without being noticed by porters or stopped by his own bodyguards, Wilhelm Ryann had taken notice. She had proposed a simple idea: pose as his niece in order to help bring the Ryann family back to local prominence. She asked for no money, no furs, no jewels, only pemission–and made it quite clear that she would proceed with the scheme whether or not it was granted. Wilhelm was the most sober-headed of the five Ryann brothers; that was the reason he alone was still alive with what dregs were left of the family fortune. But something in that mysterious woman’s eyes had convinced him, and when she turned up at the Society Ball in an appropriate outfit brandishing cards of introduction with the Ryann name, Wilhelm knew he had made the right choice.

Their agreement was thus: in exchange for use of the Ryann name and some of their assets, she would bring the family back into the fold and share half of what she earned.

And, were it not for Liliane Harkness, the plan might have proceeded without a hitch.

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