There are two things you should know right off the bat, just to keep things fair. One: though some would say otherwise, Root Hashells wasn’t to blame for the beginning of the fight at Low Fishdrum’s Tavern and Tackle, only the end of it. And two: the spirits she killed didn’t really mind all that much, at least in the long run. It gave them time to cool down and reflect on their actions. Death is sort of like a time-out when you think about it.
Knowing that, I hope you’ll go a little easier on Root. She’s had a rough go of things lately, and it’s certainly not about to get any better. But before we get to her, let’s look a bit more at Low’s.
Whether Low’s got its name for the quality of the food or the price of it was a common source of speculation among first-time patrons. That speculation passed faster than the fare through an unprepared digestive tract as soon as the speculator made the acquaintance of the owner, Low Fishdrum, and found that though their previous theories were an unfortunate coincidence, the greater misfortune was being born to parents who, in addition to already passing along the unlucky surname “Fishdrum,” had the truly regrettable sense to slap the name “Low” before it.
The building itself did little to help matters, but that’s often how these things go. Some considered Low’s an eyesore. But then again, some considered those who considered Low’s an eyesore terribly haughty and bourgeois. So form your own opinion as we go.
The squat building sat like a toad on the bank of the Gob-ui River. In most cases, riverfront property didn’t come cheap in the city of Unn, despite there being quite a lot of it. This abundance was due in no small part to the river’s dramatic oxbows bending this way and that across the whole of the city as if the river itself knew the appeal of its banks and, in a cocky-albeit-generous move, furnished the city with as much waterfront as possible. Somehow, the wealthiest and greediest still managed to own around ninety-one percent of it.
Low’s, however, inhabited a remarkably affordable plot, owing thanks for the steep discount to the neighbors. A feral cat rehabilitation home neighbored the tavern on one side—charitable and quaint, perhaps, but only from upwind. Sandwiching it from the other side was a brothel with a penchant for double entendres, known abroad for its orgies and locally for its minestrone. (Now, neither building might sound like too troublesome a neighbor, but keep in mind: you’re out of earshot.) Together, the two crowded in on the tavern as if trying to squeeze every sour drop from the ale-soaked floorboards.
But Low’s kept the air of an unbothered old drunkard lying woozy in a recliner as it leaned—concerningly, some said—away from the street and out over the muddy riverbank, propped carefully against the algae-covered dock attached to its rear.
Standing at an even one and three-quarters stories, the building was clad in a carapace of warped and worm-eaten siding that seemed determined to escape the structure, judging by the amount of it that lay around the foundation like dozens of spindly legs. The tavern and what Low insisted passed for a tackle shop took up the ground floor, while the stunted attic housed a handful of rooms available for rent to particularly short lodgers, people with a love for crouching, and, of course, smaller spirits.
At the front of the building, hanging crooked from a beam above the cobbled street, was a sign bearing the tavern’s name in chipping daffodil-colored paint. It was this sign that caught Root’s attention as she passed it by in the golden light of the waning day. Though the voices of the change in her pocket provided more of a dialogue than a choir, they were unanimous in urging her to stop in for a drink. For some reason, coins always seem more persuasive in these matters when they have limited backup, and so with a sigh, Root stepped through the open door into the haze of tobacco smoke and the fresh memory of a grease fire.
The grease fire, as she would learn in about two hours, would only be the second worst thing to happen at Low’s that evening.
Root couldn’t shake the feeling that something watched her from the bottom of her mug.
She stared into the depths of her drink, a shoddy clay mug with a chipped handle filled near to the brim with dark, murky mead, cloudy with sediment and a thin layer of froth that encircled the edges. The bubbles blinked like eyes in the dim lantern light. The liquid had a color like the urine of a racehorse after a day in the desert with no water, but—thankfully—none of the taste.
That’s not to say it tasted good. It didn’t.
A sheen of streaks raked the sides of the mug, trails left by escaped drops on their way to paint circles on the wooden table. A film coated her fingers. She pressed and pried apart her sticky fingertips as entertainment—the only real service the drink had to offer. Besides the partial reprieve from the evening’s installment of dread and sorrow, of course, but only if she could choke down the whole drink. Perhaps the night would get worse and give her some help.
Three weeks it’d been since she arrived on the docks of the city of Unn. Three weeks of searching for work with nothing but a “clean out my barn” here and a “scrape the barnacles off my fishing traps” there. The only real work she’d been offered was to apprentice with a logger, and she’d turned that one down faster than the opportunity to study with a mortician and learn the methods of clearing a corpse’s colon in order to prevent the body from shitting itself during the service. Some things she just couldn’t do no matter the pay or her own desperation.
But if she didn’t find something soon, her father would ask her to come back home, and what would she say then? “Sorry dad, I’d rather scoop out corpse colons than come back home to you and Malie and the worms”? She groaned.
“Mead no good?” asked Beel. Root met the eyes of the spirit sitting across from her. There were two, which was never a given with his kind. They had purple irises, and not the nice royal sort of purple you see in a well-tended flower garden or draped along the back wall of a silk mercer’s market stall that makes your coin purse cower, but a dull and dreary sort of purple like a cloudy evening that’s still debating whether or not it thinks you should be marginally more damp.
The eyes flanked a wide and bulbous nose that in turn hung down as if trying to conceal his lipless mouth, which seemed to be in the process of slicing his whole body in two the long way with how far it stretched from corner to corner. Root could never decide if he more resembled something trying to imitate a lizard or a horribly disfigured dog. He was pill shaped and neckless with four stubby limbs and three gold rings around his midsection that looked like manacles clamped too tightly around his soft flesh, though he insisted they were part of him and not related to the muzzle and binds he’d sported when she found him in a cage on the docks not three minutes after setting foot in the new city. The rest of him was red. Or, maybe more of a pinkish. A salmon color, or something like that.
And ugly. And a nuisance, more often than not. Sometimes she regretted taking off that damn muzzle.
But he was also the only friend she had made in her three weeks in Unn, and loneliness would take even the ugliest company.
“Mead’s fine,” answered Root, ignoring the peering bubbles.
“Well mine’s terrible.” Beel leaned forward and pushed his mug of lager across the table with both hands (hands?). It clinked against their discarded plates—Root’s spotless, Beel’s merely picked at.
“I didn’t have to buy it for you at all,” said Root through her hands as she lowered her head into them. “You don’t even need food.”
“No, but I certainly like it. Just because I won’t starve doesn’t mean I like feeling hungry. It’s so annoying.”
Root ignored the whine of her own stomach. It couldn’t compete with Beel even now, hardly sated by the one full meal she allotted herself daily. She parted her hands and jabbed a pinky towards the rest of his meal.
“Gonna finish that?”
“I was thinking I’d take it to go. You know those creatures that swim around in the inlet at the park we passed by? And there were people throwing food at them? It looked peaceful. Might like to try it.”
“What a shame, then,” muttered Root as she pulled the plate to her side of the table.
Unlike her mead, everything else in the room seemed entirely too ready to ignore the two of them. Plenty of other patrons filled the room, all of them more interesting than some displaced farm girl and sniveling spirit. Part of her had thought she’d be something of a curio as soon as she stepped off the boat—a girl from a tiny, nameless village across the sea, an intriguing mystery. She had never been in a city before, and hadn’t expected everyone to care so little about… well, everything. And there were hordes of other people with mud on their boots and a bleary-eyed, thinly-masked fright that took command of their faces each time they stepped into the current of a crowded street. As it turned out, the people of Unn regarded her in much the same way one regards the patternless and averagely comfortable, moderately threadbare pair of socks at the bottom of their wardrobe.
Apart from having questionable taste in their evening venue, the other patrons of the tavern had little in common, though most of them also shared an unrestrained desire to be louder than was absolutely necessary. One man across the room felt the need to order his drink refills in a singsong shout each time, and laughed like a rickety cart set loose on a downhill gravel road. One girl had somehow been persuaded to practice some horrid stringed instrument by the averse (and, frankly, panicked) expressions of her friends. No doubt a couple drinks left “averse” looking more like a request.
But not everyone needed to make their presence audibly known. Two men and half a dozen weapons shared a table and a level conversation by an open window looking out across the Gob-ui. A spirit woman sat alone in one corner, and though her upper half was distinctly humanoid (despite its green hue), her lower half curled around the table legs and spilled across the floor like jungle vegetation. A human girl who couldn’t be much older than Root sat two tables over, the second chair still cooling from the memory of a younger boy who had left minutes prior.
Root eyed the girl between bites of Beel’s food. She was pretty, at least in the way the most realistic choice in a bar always is. And there was an empty seat across from her. Root could save on the cost of a night’s lodging for the low price of a drink and whatever energy she had left for fucking. Not a bad trade.
No—what was she thinking? She wasn’t that desperate. Not yet.
She groaned again.
“So, not the mead, then?” Root shot the spirit a heavy glare. He held up his stubby forelegs and wagged his fingers. “I’m just guessing!”
Root polished off the last few bites of Beel’s mush. She scraped her fork across the plate until the very idea of sauce had left the tavern in a psychological tizzy. Beel’s eyes tailed the fork’s path until Root laid it back on the table.
“But I’m still hungry.”
“Might want to make a note to remind yourself of that about ten minutes ago.”
Beel flopped his top half onto the table, arms splayed, and sighed. One of the rings around his midsection thumped against the wood with a dull ck!nk. With the way he already stood on his hind legs atop the chair just to reach the table, his new position made him look like a grub dug up and tortured by the prodding fingers of a curious child. He lay like that for a moment before hoisting himself back up.
“I’m going to go see if the bartender has any tangerine trout trulmbun tarts.” He hopped down from his chair and padded towards the bar on all fours, weaving between and under the legs of creatures and furniture alike.
Two heavyset spirits sat at the bar; each was propped up on three stools, apparently needing one for each buttock. The one on the left had grey-green-brown skin and horns, while his companion had skin that was more of a blue-green-blue as well as a higher than average number of fingers on the left hand and a lower than average number on the right. Whether this was the natural distribution for his build or a result of some other incident, Root couldn’t tell, but it gave him a clear disadvantage with the mugs before him. Both spirits seemed to have a right hand amount of intelligence.
The bartender slung another frothing cup towards the horned spirit as they worked with impressive efficiency behind the countertop, owing perhaps in part to their extra arms. Their right arm was human, (as was most of their body) but their left sprouted off into two rangy, insect-like appendages, teal in color and matching a swath of skin covering the left half of their face. Several additional eyes dotted the teal skin like a constellation. From the bartender’s shoulder blades worked another four insect arms, each one translucent and green and holding a mug or rag.
Beel wriggled his way up onto the empty stool beside the horned spirit and flagged down the bartender, who turned the attention of one of their arms to assist the new customer.
Root pulled her gaze back down into her lap. She traced the shapes of the coins in the pouch at her belt—three whorls, eight radulas, and eleven shells. She knew them well without even emptying the pouch to count them. They’d buy her a lumpy mattress for the night, bugs and a cold draft free of charge, and perhaps a piece of fruit for breakfast if she stretched the coins wisely, but she would start the day from there with nothing. If she didn’t find work tomorrow—
“You wanna try that again, little guy?”
Root looked back up. The horned spirit scowled down at Beel, who made the tilt of Low’s look like a slight slant with the way he leaned off the side of the stool. His face had turned from red to pink—or maybe from salmon to… a lighter shade of salmon—and he shook his head as if trying to free himself of the last of the coloring.
“I meant nothing by it!” he said in a rush. His voice hushed as he continued and added: “Just found you to be, uh, er, quite up in the way, that’s… all.”
Rage fit the horned spirit like water fits a riverbed, and it was suddenly impossible to picture any other emotion on his face. He slammed his skull into the countertop in front of Beel. The wood buckled and splintered.
Now, certainly this is not the way to remodel a building, especially one that creaked as much as Low’s, but there’s something to be said for the way the countertop was suddenly the perfect height for Beel. So perhaps the horned spirit was doing him a favor as a gesture of peace and a promise for strong relations to come. If he didn’t follow up that gesture by swiping at the legs of Beel’s stool with one foot and sending the seat and its occupant tumbling to the floor, it might have even been believable. But probably not.
Beel landed on his back, and every eye in the room landed on top of him. The horned spirit was already up, and the odd-handed spirit quickly followed. Beel shrieked and rolled, tucking his body into a ball and taking off with impressive speed into a densening forest of legs as patrons got to their feet. Root was among them.
The horned spirit swiped one barrel of an arm into the thicket but missed Beel by at least twice the breadth of his companion’s hand—and not the smaller one. Instead, his fist crashed against the corner of a table, sending it scooting across the floor and into the gut of a man seated at the other end, who announced this blow with a sound that would probably be spelled “ooh-huauh-h.” Mugs sloshed and toppled; their contents dribbled into laps and mixed with the dust on the floor into a gritty sludge. Beel kept rolling, skidding in the muck.
“Grab that damn bug!” grunted the horned spirit as he elbowed his way through the room in pursuit of a rapidly fleeing Beel. His companion leapt with the agility of an antelope with a death wish. He landed on the edge of the table before him, which sent a volley of dishes cannoning into the far wall. Several cracked against the back of his head, but if he even noticed, he showed no sign of it; every single one of his two dozen brain cells were locked into the hunt.
The spirit lunged at Beel. In blind fear, Beel managed another dodge as he backtracked, circled right, and then raced under another table. The odd-handed spirit slammed into the table legs, and as he stood, he uprooted yet another perfectly good piece of carpentry. It hung like a backpack across his hulking, bear-sized form as he straightened up.
By this point Root was craning her neck and scanning the floor wildly for Beel, but there was movement everywhere as other patrons rushed to move out of the way of the horned spirit, who trudged through the room’s obstacles with little regard for whether they could move out of his way or not.
A man emerged from a door behind the counter, red in the face (but in a human way), patches of greying hair clinging for dear life to his scalp and jaw—Low Fishdrum himself. He surveyed the damage strewn about the room with an expression that could not have better conveyed his thoughts on the matter, and then joined in the ruckus-making.
“Hey! Hey, you there! Get over here this instant so I can—”
The best part of his threat got caught in the web of fresh cries filling the tavern as Beel came into view again, now on all fours and running out from behind a crate in the corner of the room that made up the tackle shop. The horned spirit wasted no time jumping into action—“action,” as it turned out, apparently being another term for “merchandise.” Just as Beel vanished again into the chaos of the room, the horned spirit slammed face-first into the racks of fishing supplies where Beel had been half a second prior. Fishing rods snapped, hundreds of tiny hooks rained down across the floor, and fake wooden fish—cross-eyed and painted in a myriad of unnatural colors—clattered and rolled across the floorboards as if in search of water, but found only puddles of spirits (the alcoholic kind) and fouler things (the urine kind, probably).
Beel leapt onto a table, ran a couple of bounds, jumped to a second table, and then landed on the floor just beside the threshold of the open door out onto the street. Without pause, he took a hard right and sped into the dusk.
The horned spirit and the odd-handed spirit were only a few steps behind, leaving an assortment of expensive sounds in their wake. As the odd-handed spirit passed through the door behind his companion, the table that still clung to his back struck the doorframe, cracked, and stuck there with a shudder as its mount moved down the street with a gait like that of a jungle ape.
Root ran for the door, but she was beaten to the blockade by one of the two men who had been sitting by the window, now carrying one of the swords that had leaned against his table. One powerful kick knocked the “jam” out of “door jamb.” The man took off through the open door b.
Still behind the counter, Low howled in frustration. “Vit! Get them all back here! They haven’t even paid!” He waved frantically at the bartender and the rowdy parade of patrons exiting his tavern.
“Right! On it!” said the bartender. They tossed a rag into a bucket and set the mugs they held in their many arms down gently atop the counter. As one, their four translucent insect arms retracted and disappeared. The similar teal limbs curled together like strands of licorice until, suddenly, the bartender had two human arms. They used these to push themself up and over the countertop, knocking several of the mugs they had just set down onto the floor where they shattered in a chorus that had become all too familiar to Root’s ears in the past several moments. “Sorry!” shouted the bartender over their shoulder. “Be right back!”
Root stepped into the street just ahead of the bartender. She caught a flash of red and gold as Beel turned down an alleyway, followed by Horns, then Odd-hands, and finally the swordsman.
“There!” she pointed and started into a run. A strong hand fell onto her shoulder.
“Actually, I think I’m supposed to send you back inside,” said the bartender. “Uh, if that’s okay.”
Root looked up into the bartender’s eyes in annoyance and surprise, and the moment’s pause as she tried to string together her words gave her the perfect opportunity to count them. Five. There were five eyes.
“How about we both go get the others and then we all go back?” she offered.
The bartender shrugged. “Sounds good. Keep up, then!” They cracked a huge grin and then ran for the alley.
As the two of them rounded the corner and entered the alley, Root was struck by a brief wave of excitement. A tavern brawl! Wasn’t this the sort of thing she dreamt of seeing beyond the edges of her tiny village—a village that hardly even had a tavern of its own? Perhaps meeting Beel had been a stroke of luck, if for no other reason than to facilitate a bit of excitement at times like this. The spirit had few virtues, but pissing people off was certainly one of them.
A rusted sheet of metal sliced through the air just above her head. Root’s thoughts rushed back to her in alarm. Right—there was a fight going on.
Beel stood at the far end of the alley, pressed up against the comically inopportune wall that marked the dead end. The other two spirits closed in on him—dense in both muscle and mind, an especially dangerous combination—but they split their attention between Beel and the swordsman who advanced behind them, sword low but held in a firm grip, one hand raised as he tried to quell the situation. Which could not be going well, if the flying metal that had nearly given Root the worst haircut of her life was any indicator.
“Let’s all just head back to the tavern,” said the swordsman in a calm voice. “I’ll buy you both a drink. What do you say?”
“I say? I say: drink after we crush the little guy,’” grunted Horns.
“I’d honestly prefer you not,” muttered Beel.
“You’wud prefer we not drink?” said Odd-hands in his nasally pitch. He furrowed the ridges of muscle that crossed his forehead. “Why do you care? You’wud be in Yg Balta. How’wud you know?”
“He means he’d prefer you not crush him,” said the swordsman.
“Yah,” said Horns.
“Yeah, actually, no crushing is a good idea,” said the bartender, bringing the attention of the others down to their end of the alley for the first time. “Maybe we could all calm down with a joke? Two spirits walk into a bar…”
“Huh? Whadja say?” asked Odd-hands looking up, slower than the others to figure out who was speaking.
“Well, yes, I’m getting to that part.”
“Busy,” huffed Horns. He jabbed a thumb towards Beel.
“Yes, uh, well,” started the bartender, “you all have to come back and pay for your drinks and food and stuff. Boss’s orders.”
Horns scowled. “Pay? Pay for drink when little bug guy spilled it all?”
“Hold on, I didn’t spill anything—”
Horns roared and swiped one clawed hand at Beel. Beel cowered and pressed his eyes shut; Root grimaced and turned aside. But no sound came from Beel, and Root was quite sure he would never miss an opportunity to scream.
“All right, really, I’m just doing my job here,” said the bartender. Root raised her eyes.
A thick web wrapped around Horns’s arm, stalling it mid-strike. The bartender held the other end. Their eyes glowed green.
It took Horns only a second and a half to remember that he was angry, and he didn’t seem to care about the “at who” part. He turned to face the bartender and whipped his arm around behind him, tugging hard on the web.
“Oops,” uttered the bartender and then they tumbled forward, end-over-end across the cobbles. The swordsman reacted next, and with one swift swing of his sword he cut through the strands of webbing.
Odd-hands hadn’t turned his attention away from Beel, and with ample distraction, he took two hulking steps towards the still-cowering spirit.
Root raced down the alley. She danced past the bartender, then the swordsman’s blade, and finally Horns, whose attention was still locked on the bartender as he swatted at the shreds of web dangling from his forearm. She took another three bounding strides towards Odd-hands. Heat rose in her gut. She hated this part.
Smoke exploded from her fingertips, shooting outwards in a column several feet long, and then spun together, taking shape, condensing and swirling like silt in a creek bed until in her right hand she held a single-edged sword. A few wayward wisps trailed her. Odd-hands opened his razor-toothed maw and readied to lunge. Root raised her blade.
Few had ever looked upon Root’s sword of smoke, and none of them had decided the thing looked even remotely intimidating—perhaps because they could see the frightened expression of the wielder straight through the surface of the blade, or perhaps because it looked like it could be parried by a gentle breeze. She had drawn the weapon once on a man who tried to attack her along the jungle paths near her village. Another time she pulled it on a neighbor who had been lurking around the farm one night, though she had only been in search of her escaped parakeet. And once more, she used the weapon to bushwhack while working alongside her sisters to clear space for a new plot of farmland. All of them had the same reaction to the blade: a raised eyebrow, laughter, an eye roll. And it was no surprise, really—the weapon looked like its most dangerous edge was lung cancer in twenty years’ time.
Odd-hands didn’t even get a chance to see it, given that his back was turned, but if he had he certainly would’ve reacted in much the same manner. At least until the blade pierced his side.
Root swung hard, and the edge of her weapon cut deep just above the spirit’s hip. His lunge faltered; his footing slipped. He craned his neck and met Root’s gaze with wide eyes, and held it for only a moment before the life left his body.
With a sound like a boot sliding free from thick mud, Odd-hands’s body exploded. A gale whipped Root’s face, and sure enough the shape of her sword did waver, though it held. A smell like soured milk and seaweed flooded the alleyway, and then all that remained of Odd-hands was a mound of sludge and a tiny tornado of wind, blue-green-blue dust glittering in its current. It rose fast into the darkening sky and then zipped away to the south.
Silence took the alley, and then a wail. Horns stared in disbelief at the place where his companion had stood. “You… you wen’en killed him!”
Root might’ve stopped to act a bit more apologetic, but it took all of her concentration to control her gagging. The whole alley smelled terrible. It didn’t help that she’d just polished off two plates of Low Fishdrum’s finest cooking.
“Well, he was about to kill that guy,” said the bartender.
Horns began to shake. “I’m gonna rip you all apart!” He took one reckless swing towards the bartender, who dodged it easily by going in the least easy direction: up, aided by a web shot at either wall. The bartender’s absence left Horns’s fist perfectly aligned with the swordsman standing nearby.
“Oof.” The swordsman staggered back. His gambeson had protected him from the spirit’s claws, but the force still left him winded.
“Sorry!” called the bartender as they landed back on the ground. They threw two quick punches against the spirit’s side; Horns fell back a step, then ground his teeth and launched forward, swinging with both arms.
The swordsman moved, one hand pressed against his chest as he wheezed, the other bringing his sword up. It caught Horns in the side, just below his armpit. The spirit slowed, choked out a breath, then swatted at the bartender. The force threw them against the wall, and they slumped.
Root hurried forward now, her sword raised high in both hands. As she swung, she channeled more smoke into her hands and let in funnel into the blade’s grip, extending it, until by mid-swing she held a polearm. The blade sliced through Horns’s hide with little resistance. Another shlup, another sudden burst of air, and a fresh batch of the same odor, and then the four of them stood alone in the dark of the alley as the remnants of the second spirit rose up and sped off in the same direction as his companion’s. In the spots where each of the two had fallen lay a few small material belongings amidst twin greasy splotches. Muck ran through the grooves between paving stones.
Root let her weapon dissipate; the strong smell of the smoke helped clear her nostrils of the stink from the two spirits.
“You couldn’t have done that a bit sooner?” moaned Beel, picking his way over to the others around the stains left on the cobblestones. “That could’ve been me.”
“I’m so sorry if our work wasn’t up to your standards,” said Root with a sideways glare.
The bartender looked up and down the alleyway and then scratched at their closely shaven scalp. “I think… I think probably I was supposed to bring them back alive.”
“Probably,” said Root. “Corpses aren’t known for leaving great tips.” The bartender frowned.
“Well, you guys still have to—”
“Yeah, yeah. I’m gonna pay for my shit.”
“Cool, okay.” The bartender’s face brightened. “And your drinks too, please.”
From beneath the shadow cast by a rack of small rowboats on the opposite side of the street, several eyes watched as the bartender of Low Fishdrum’s Tavern and Tackle led a party back in the direction of the wrecked tavern—some kind of mercenary or hired guard, a minor spirit, and a pyvrin girl. Yes, they would do perfectly.
The tallest of the three shadowed figures looked down to where two smaller spirits sat amongst the coils of her tail. Each looked like a dark green tumbleweed, indistinguishable from a patch of brambles but for the snake head poking through the jumbled, tangled mess of a body. Their digestive systems must’ve been a living hell.
“Go and fetch those four. Send them to me. I will be waiting.”
“Yes missus,” hissed the two in unison. Then they gathered up their bodies and slipped off into the dusk-dark streets of the great city of Unn.