Root wiped spattered flecks of dead spirit grease off her hands in a way that felt disrespectfully unceremonious. Although, given the circumstances, she didn’t feel as though she was really the one in the wrong.
(Then again, no one ever does.)
Azriah’s breaths staggered and wheezed, and he knelt on the ground in a fuzzy stupor for several minutes. Being flooded with dual flashes of intense, controlling emotion and then having them eviscerated an instant later had left him with the emotional equivalent of whiplash.
On the ground before him, side by side, lay the mirror and Ophylla’s amulet. Cautiously, as if dealing with something a good bit more explosive, Root lifted both with the scrap of cloth and cradled them in her hands.
The amulet was just as she remembered it, though now she had the time and proximity to study it better without Ophylla suspecting her of some devious or otherwise indecent motives. The twin gold and silver snakes of the green gem’s trim stared up at her with their hungry, obsidian eyes as each tore with polished fangs into its companion’s scaly hide.
Though dampened by the cloth, holding both sent shivering sensations through her limbs, sometimes ebbing in harmony, other times clashing like continents wrestling at their rift. Root watched Azriah climb to his feet with a newfound understanding.
“Oh, she’s just going to come back here and finish the job,” whined Beel, still watching the space Ophylla had vacated in her last moments. “She’ll come back and eat us.”
“She will,” said Azriah. “At least the returning part. I don’t know about the eating part.”
“What is with you and being eaten?” asked Vit. “She surely might’ve killed us, but I never thought she was going to eat us.”
“There was something about her. I just suspected her of oral intents.”
“Nothing wrong with oral intents,” said Root.
“Of the masticating variety.”
“I mean, if you’re flexible enough, sure.”
“So what do we do now?” asked Vit.
“Well, Beel’s right, at least—we do have to get out of here.”
“Ophylla won’t be back for a while.”
“No? How long does… er… it take?”
“Oh, not long at all. But Yg Balta is weeks from here at her pace. There are some spirits she could hire to make the journey faster, but it’ll be a while regardless. We can be long gone before she gets back.”
“And Ajis?” asked Root. The list of people they didn’t want to see again was getting longer by the day.
“No way to know,” said Azriah. “But if Ophylla told the truth, I’d wager he’s miles from here.”
“So we don’t have to run, and we’re not getting chewed up—” started Vit.
“Nor swallowed, hopefully,” interrupted Beel.
“But what do we do? About, well…” they indicated the two trinkets in Root’s hands. They all stared down at them.
“Leaving them here in the crypt is definitely out of the question, huh?” said Azriah.
“She knows where it is,” said Vit.
“And we’d be leaving two periapts in one basket for whoever comes along next, Ophylla or otherwise,” said Root.
“And we can’t let her get them. I don’t care what she says, I don’t trust her.”
“Ajis is hunting them too,” said Azriah. “If he wasn’t, I doubt Ophylla would’ve cared so much. And his intentions can’t be any better.”
“These things are dangerous. I don’t like them.” Vit looked down at the pair with a troubled look. They winced as they moved and placed a hand over their wounded shoulder.
“Here, I’ll help you get that cleaned up and wrapped,” said Azriah. He waved Vit back towards the tree where their hastily discarded things lay scattered. Root bundled the periapts, took up Ophylla’s bag, and followed. It was considered a grievous transgression to take the belongings left behind by a slain spirit, but it seemed quite clear that they had bigger things to worry about. What harm was a bit of grave robbing on the side?
Or rather, a bit more grave robbing.
Vit sat on the ground with their legs crossed and their back against the tree trunk as Azriah poured water over their wound and wiped it with a cloth. “Whatever we do with the periapts, we have to make sure that they’re going into good hands… or none, ideally. Nor tentacles, or feet, or paws. But I can’t think of any permanent solution. No matter where they are, someday, somehow, someone will come across them again. Even if we dropped them into the middle of the ocean, there are spirits down there who would snap them right up—really terrifying spirits. All the worst of the worst go and live in the Setoterran seas, way down in the dark. Usually because it hides how ugly and horrifying they are.”
“So you’re saying that giving them a mirror would be pretty heartless anyway?” said Root.
“Well, let’s not make any really prideful sea spirits, or—or… what do you think the amulet does?”
Vit considered it. “No idea, I think that part of the book was gone, if there was one. I’d have to go back and look.”
“So we can’t sink ‘em,” said Azriah. “And we can’t leave them here, either. Especially with the guards gone. Maybe putting the mirror back where it was would start up all those protective measures again, but… who knows? And quite frankly, I’m not interested in being the one to go in there and then find my way back out while the tunnels are crawling with guards again.”
“They didn’t crawl, they flew,” said Beel. “With that horrid buzzing sound.”
“Right, my mistake,” said Azriah tersely.
“The crypt isn’t safe,” said Vit. “Ophylla will come right back here for sure, even if it’s just to pick up our trail. I bet she’d take a look inside while she’s in the neighborhood.”
“Well, to be honest, I’m not feeling so inclined to get even more tangled up in all this. I’d bet we’ve witnessed only a shadow of the real scope here. It’s too big for us. I’m not trying to get involved.”
“I couldn’t agree more,” said Beel. “Let’s bury the things and get as far from here as we can. I know a great desert.”
“Not so fast. I’d still like to see them somewhere safe—somewhere no one can use them for… well, anything.” There was a hard look in his eyes. Root didn’t have to wonder what thoughts dwelled there in his mind. “Maybe we can hand them off to that Vulokus guy back at the archives… Archin. He might pay a nice sum for the mirror, at least. Well, if he can get the funding, that is.” He sighed.
“Do you trust him?” asked Vit.
Azriah shrugged. “Enough. More than Ophylla. More than Ajis.”
“Just because he hasn’t tried to kill you doesn’t make him trustworthy.”
“Hasn’t tried yet,” corrected Beel.
“That’s usually my chief qualification.”
“Not a very high bar.”
“Who would you give them to, then? If you have suggestions, I’m all ears.”
Vit thought for a long time as Azriah finished bandaging their arm. Their expression grew more and more troubled as the minutes wore on.
“I don’t know who I’d give them to,” they said at last. “I don’t know who I’d trust. The only people I can think of are you guys.”
“Well that’s very sentimental of you, but it doesn’t help us now,” said Azriah.
“There’s no secret solution to this. It’s not that there’s no one else out there that I feel I can trust in a pinch to do my laundry or settle a tab. But by the nature of these things… they’re too powerful. Making the wrong choice won’t just cost you your underwear, it could be disastrous.”
“So we just give them to someone who isn’t genocidal or power-hungry.”
“But it’s not that simple, is it? I mean, yeah, ideally we don’t make a wild misjudgment of character and place them in the hands of someone genocidal or power-hungry, but it’s not as though we hand them off to someone well-meaning and that’s that. People hunt these things. Ajis is after them, Ophylla is after them, and I’m sure they’re not even the worst of the bunch. Wherever these periapts go, the people who want them will follow. And they’re not going to shrug and turn back when they see it’s around someone else’s neck or locked in a display case. They’ll slit the neck, shatter the glass, they’ll take these things if they want them. Whoever is trusted to guard them has to be both of good intent and powerful enough to protect them no matter who or what comes kicking down the door. Otherwise it makes little difference what their intentions were.”
“Mm, I see your point. And those with power are rarely good.”
“You don’t get power by being good. Power comes from two sources: magic, and gross sums of money. Money’s out; good people can’t get rich. You’d have to take a bet on magic, then, but magic is… unpredictable.”
They sat in silence in the wake of Azriah’s words. Root turned the cloth-wrapped bundle containing the mirror and amulet over in her hands a few times. There really was no permanent solution, was there? No matter what they did, in ten years—twenty, fifty, a hundred, one thousand or ten—the winds would change. Even the darkest tomb would come to light, the deepest ocean would dry up to a desert, the purest heart would be corrupted by the powers whispering to it from under the bed every night. And none of the four of them would be around to see it, save Beel. Maybe Vit; she still didn’t know how that worked.
She turned the bundle over again. They’d found one, won another. That was pretty good, right?
I don’t know who I’d trust. The only people I can think of are you guys.
“So let’s keep them,” said Root. Her mouth moved before she thought the words, and her mind raced to make sense of them as she heard them. She looked up from the bundle. “Let’s keep them, and let’s go find the others.”
Azriah’s face was one of hard, calculating thought. Vit looked taken aback. Beel was already slumping onto his side and sticking his legs out dramatically.
“Oh no, no no,” he moaned. “Absolutely not.”
“We can’t…” started Azriah, but his voice trailed off.
Vit let out a tense sigh. “What are you thinking?”
“I’m thinking we know our own intentions,” said Root. Her thoughts had caught up with her tongue, and though part of her still felt split on the matter, beneath it she felt a begrudging conviction in her words, a resignation to a truth she knew deep down, and which, if she was being entirely honest, didn’t sound all that regrettable anyway. Except, of course, she was still split on the matter, and the part that disagreed was split as well. All of that to say that her feelings on the matter were sufficiently complicated.
“We do,” said Vit slowly.
“We know our own intentions, and we know that they’re good. I don’t know about you all, but I’m rarely genocidal and scarcely power-hungry at all, save for the twenty minutes I allot myself daily. Don’t look at me like that, I’m kidding. For fuck’s sake. Anyways. It sounds like we don’t have any great alternatives—no one else we can give these things to. So let’s keep them, and let’s make sure no one else gets them, and let’s do the same for the rest of the bunch, yeah? Take them into custody, keep them out of the hands of people who are power-hungry for thirty-five minutes or more every day, ‘cause that’s the danger threshold.”
“And then what?” asked Azriah. “We walk around with these two for a while—maybe we find a third—but eventually, someone’s gonna come along who’s more powerful. They’ll take them from us, and just like that they’ll have two, or three, or more, and we’ll have done the dirty work for them, getting them all in one place. I’m not discounting our own capabilities, but against a group three times our size, we’re in trouble. And what if we’re facing an army? Or an immensely powerful spirit? We’re only four.”
“So we be careful.”
“Right, because everyone who has ever had their skull bashed open has just been a little too reckless, that’s all.”
“I’m not suggesting we run around waving these things high and challenging anyone who looks at us funny to come and take them. No, we keep quiet, we keep them out of sight, we keep our heads down, and calculate our moves.”
“That didn’t keep us clear of Ajis. We already have two factions hunting us, his group and Ophylla.”
“We didn’t know what we were doing then. We do now. We would’ve been way more cautious around the manor if we’d known that it was a hot destination for people in search of…” she gestured to the bundle, “y’know.”
“That’s true, I’ll grant you that. But what do you expect your end goal to be? One day you’ll get too old for this—if, I’d like to add, you even make it that long—and you’ll have to name a successor. So in the end it’s all the same, isn’t it?”
“No. We find all of the mote periapts, that’s the end goal. With all of them, there has to be something we could do. Just think about it—the protections on the crypt kept the mirror safe for this long, and we barely scraped our way through; others before us didn’t get so lucky. The mirror powered all of that alone. With all of them, imagine what they’d be able to do. We could construct a safe that no one would ever manage to break through.”
“That’s a really good point,” said Vit, leaning closer. Their eyes were alight (figuratively) in thought.
“Maybe,” said Azriah. He sat in silence for a moment. “But all of this leans heavily on speculation and certainly an exaggerated degree of confidence. This is miles beyond us. This is big. I mean, collecting all of these things? Supposedly that’s exactly what Ophylla has been trying to do for who knows how long, and Ajis too. They’re spirits, they could’ve been pursuing this goal for thousands of years before us. What makes you think we are in some unique position now?”
Root shrugged. “We’ve got two. Wasn’t too hard.”
Beel whimpered by way of disagreement.
“And what do you actually expect to do with them if you can get them? ‘Make an impenetrable safe,’ sure, but that’s hardly a concrete plan. How do you know that that’s even a possibility? How do you know—”
“I don’t,” said Root. “I don’t. And do you think this idea doesn’t scare the shit out of me? Do you think I don’t want to go do something halfway normal? We have money now, I could go settle down and forget about this, but where does that leave these? We have them, and we don’t get to just chuck them down a hole and let what happens happen. Even if I’d like to.”
“I’m with Root,” said Vit. “We have them, and we have to do our best now. At the very least, we can try.”
“A lot of faith you seem to have,” said Azriah.
“Do you want to hand these over to the next asshole who walks by?” asked Root. “Or if it’s so inevitable, why don’t we go right to the top—find the most power-hungry dictator out there and give him our blessing?”
Azriah scoffed. “That’s not what I’m suggesting.”
“No? Well your little sermon about money and power is missing something—that we have two crazy-fucking-powerful magic knickknacks in our hands right now, and that gives us at least a needle in the knife fight. Maybe we aren’t dripping with power but we have the ability right here, right now, to throw our hat in the ring and try our best to make sure everyone else doesn’t get completely fucked over.”
Azriah nodded but didn’t respond.
“If you don’t want any part in this, that’s fine,” she continued, softer now. “I don’t blame you, really, because I feel the same. But it’s fine. Vit and I will do it alone.” Vit gave a firm nod.
“You don’t have to. I’m coming too.”
“Ohhhhhhhh,” whined Beel.
“You don’t have to keep getting dragged along just because we decide to do something,” said Root.
“But what else am I supposed to do?”
“Go back to the desert?”
“Ah, the desert.” Beel’s wide mouth turned up in a rare smile. “Will you carry me there?”
Root sat back and chewed her lip. She didn’t love this plan—nor did she like it, nor did she feel amorous towards it in a quantity to fuel a passionless one-night affair. It was, by all accounts, something she certainly did not want to do, especially mere hours after being locked in a room hardly bigger than a breadbox and forced to take a long hard look at her own mortality and the inevitability of her death, which at the time looked to be racing towards her like a jungle cat at the other end of the trail, and in this moment looked hardly much farther away. But an image kept flashing through her mind every time she considered the strange and frightening bundle in her lap: Eshra, charging at a rampaging spirit taller than their house, with only a rickety old spear in her hands and not the faintest clue how to use it.
“So… we’re decided, then?” asked Root.
“We find the rest of the mote periapts,” said Vit.
“And then we dispose of them however we can,” said Azriah.
“And we don’t die, please,” added Beel.
Root nodded. “Sounds like a plan to me.”
“One question, though,” said Azriah, turning to Vit. “How many of these things are there?”
Vit took the old book from Ophylla’s bag and held it up, letting Azriah consider all of the missing pages.
“I don’t have the slightest clue.”
Sludge slicked out of Ophylla’s hair as she breached the surface of the lake Yg Balta. Immediately she crashed back down on her hands and… well, her lower half was still figuring itself out, and she didn’t have knees besides. She ground her fingers through the sand and gravel beneath the surface, her breathing heavy, her mind seething.
Those damn insolent kids. How could they do this to her? She had made them a deal—a good deal, one that had made them rich, and what had they done in return? Conned her, stabbed her in the back. They had robbed her of everything.
It was anger that coursed through her in those first moments of her new life, pure fury, but it quickly dripped away like the muck of the lake and let breathe what suffocated underneath: raw, gripping sorrow.
She lay in the shallows and cried for as many minutes as she was willing to allow herself. Which was three and a half. Then she climbed to her tentacles and left the lake.
She wore nothing, having left her simple garments behind after the rude mistreatment of her body, but that was hardly worth her concern at the moment; few spirits wore clothing at all, and those who did often did so more as a means to assuage the discomfort expressed by humans, or else to express some familial or political ties. But she would concern herself with those trivial details later.
She hurried past the activity of the grassy area just over the dunes—clothing shops and loan peddlers and transportation services and a veritable army of psychiatric professionals. It was not uncommon to see a spirit rushing away from the shore, wiping at tears and keeping their eyes low, but at the same time it was considered horribly insensitive to try to sell them something without giving them at least a five-second running head start. She ignored them all as she headed up the road.
There was an inn and tavern there, well-known among the regularly deceased, called The Fresh Star. Once, it had operated under the name The Fresh Start until a particularly inconsolable spirit had gone charging down the street and ripped the T from ‘Start’ as they went—the first T, that is. Rather than leave up a sign advertising the business as The Fresh Sart, which the employees unanimously agreed was not all that welcoming, they moved the remaining T, deciding The Fresh Star was a much more favorable name in the interim than The Fresh Sart. But before the second T had even been commissioned, the locals took a liking to the new name, and it had been The Fresh Star ever since. Ophylla stepped inside, neither knowing the colorful venue lore nor caring in the slightest.
She soon found herself seated at the bar with a drink in her hand—deep red wine, dark and earthy, with more to tell about the soil its grapes were grown in than the fruits themselves. That was the way she liked it.
She made her way solemnly through one glass, and halfway through a second, her gaze fixed on the polished countertop and her thoughts in a dell halfway across Atnaterra in the shadow of Mt. Fovevjellvjell.
They’ll be far from there before long—if they aren’t already. Those crafty bastards.
Few other patrons sat about in the corners of the dining room, all of them more than content to keep to themselves. And so it came as a surprise when someone cleared their throat just behind her.
“Excuse me—Ophylla, is it?”
Ophylla turned just in time to see a sizzling golden portal sputter to nothing behind the newcomer’s back. He was a grumpy-looking fellow, a spirit with dull orange skin and horns. He was shorter than she’d been expecting when she turned, and had to readjust her gaze.
“Have we met?” she asked.
“Not formally. May I sit?”
“I’d really—” The rest of the statement didn’t seem to matter, least of all to the spirit man. He slid onto the stool to her right with an awkward little hop.
“I must say, that trick you pulled with those life-sized dolls was sly. My people got halfway to Stilk before they got hold of one of them—the red one—and realized the trap. They tore the doll to scraps.”
“Oh. You must be Ajis.”
“So you’ve heard of me?” he said and broke into a crooked smile like a crust of stone cracking to reveal a molten core.
“I have. I’m sorry for the trick, I—”
Ajis waved a hand to cut her off. “It’s all part of our line of work. A well-planned move, and for that I commend you. I should have expected such deception—perhaps I need to hire some better brains onto my team.”
Ophylla took another pull from her wine.
“Did you just come here to save face? Laugh it off and then move on?”
“Oh, Ophylla—I’m wounded that you think so little of me.”
“What is it, then?”
“I just told you, did I not?”
Ophylla stared blankly. “Forgive me, it’s been a long day.”
He studied her for a long moment, looking her up and down. He cocked his head.
“I’d like to propose a partnership.”
End of Arc 1