The trees of Atnaterra made it clear that they considered themselves better than the trees of Setoterra. This complex stemmed (or rather, trunked) from their ability to survive in a landscape of more limited light, a resource just as necessary for Atnaterran trees as Setoterran trees.
Now, this belief that being willing to do the same amount of work for less is not an uncommon one, but is typically found more regularly among humans, especially those living in some of the provinces that have adopted a more… shall we say… malicious economic system. In any case, this attitude is like a beacon thrown up by a society alerting others that it has decided to put its priorities ass-backwards, value corporate greed over human life and needs, and pit its citizens against one another in order to more effectively divide and exploit them.
The trees of Atnaterra, in this regard, showed a distinct lack of class solidarity. They did, however, have a remarkable amount of both phylum and genus solidarity.
The low light was a constant in Atnaterra. Setoterra maintained an incredibly inconvenient cycle of blinding daylight for half the day followed—quite quickly—by a period of plunging, consuming darkness with little more than a candle flame to light the way. This left the less darkness-friendly Setoterrans—humans chiefest among them—with a rigid schedule for how they must structure their lives, rushing about in a frantic dance while their sun hung in the sky, and then lying inert in celestially-mandated sleep during the night. True madness in that; the only thing that could make the routine more ridiculous would be if someone periodically scrambled up the intervals of the timekeeping standard just for the hell of it.
The regular light of Atnaterra made a good deal more sense. Never waxing or waning, never too bright or too dim, all the day’s hours shared equally in the amount of light they showed the world. No one in Atnaterra ever complained of it being too dark to see, nor too bright to go out without shielding one’s eyes. It was a whole world suspended in the perpetual beauty and visibility of dusk; sensible, equal, and supportive of flexible scheduling. The only ones with any real complaints were the sunglasses merchants, and most had cut their losses long ago and moved their businesses to Setoterra.
You know what? While we’re here, let’s take a bit more time to look at Atnaterra. The world deserves a proper introduction, and you sure as hell aren’t going to get that from Root. She’s still trying to figure out where her thumb knuckles have gotten off to. And that’s… well, that’s a complicated question. Let’s move on.
Atnaterra was a world with bounds. In Setoterra, someone with nothing better to do than walk for a very long time might find that tourist traps have all lost their magic on the second go around, and they became downright dull on the third. They’d end up at those same locales a second time, thirty-eight pairs of shoes later, and a third if they were particularly bored. Setoterra went round and round as many times as you’d like. Perhaps Atnaterra did too, but no one had ever done it.
Rimming the bounds of Atnaterra was the Eddrealm mountain range. (Note: it’s unclear whether or not the name was meant to say “Endrealm” in some bygone age, as that name would be quite fitting, but these days the mountains are known universally as the Eddrealms.) The Eddrealms were no rolling grassy slopes, and they were no craggy stone hills. They weren’t dusted with snow like pastries, they weren’t speckled with patches of wild geraniums and bluebells, and they were not your local youth scout chapter’s idea of a weekend outing. The Eddrealms turned the word “alp” into a diminutive. No one had ever rounded a bend in an Eddrealm path and said “Oh wow, would ya look at that” except with sheer dread. “Eddrealm path” was practically an oxymoron. Nothing in its right mind ascended beyond the foothills of the Eddrealms.
And that was because beyond the Eddrealms—beyond the sides that were more cliff than slope, beyond the peaks taller than any Setoterran mountain twice over—was an endless wasteland of dry, dusty earth. There were no streams there, no trees or grass, no hills or dunes or caves. This was the Want, and in the Want there was nothing. To go beyond the Eddrealms was to depart the land of the living.
Not literally, of course, at least at first. But then very literally, if you were the sort of thing prone to dying of conditions like dehydration or malnourishment or good and proper boredom.
So within the bounds of the Eddrealms, beneath the elegant, alluring, basking light of Enyn, was the world of Atnaterra.
At the center was the lake Yg Balta. This was where spirits turned up after they were killed, reforming in the shallows of the sludge where they were expected to continue about their business as if some horrible thing hadn’t just closed its jaws around their neck. Dying can be quite traumatizing, really. But the lake was rimmed with tents housing pop-up private practice therapists advertising remarkably affordable rates.
All the waterways of Atnaterra flowed eventually into Yg Balta, yet the shoreline never rose nor receded. On their way to feed the lake, they did the same duty as rivers in Setoterra: they brought water and life to the people, creatures, and plants. And in return, the people dumped shit into them.
(It is worth noting that spirits aren’t nearly as guilty of this behavior as humans. It’s easy to sell the future in the interest of a quick buck when you’ll cease to exist entirely within the cosmic equivalent of two beats of a bee’s wings. What the dollar is for in the face of such oblivion remains a mystery. Perhaps there’s a smoothie bar on the other side of annihilation.)
Right, Atnaterra. It didn’t look all that much different from Setoterra when you put your nose to the ground and looked. The soil was somewhat darker, and in most places it was tinged with a faint hue like a maroon or deep magenta. It was rich and smelled of dew and held moisture for a good long while given that there was less light and heat to dry it out. The flora loved this about Atnaterra. It made up for the lower light, magnificent and dazzling though it was.
The assortment of trees was an odd one, from a Setoterran’s perspective. Some species had made their way from Setoterra and adapted to the new world. Many of these held leaves that had turned darker green like the needles of fir trees, sometimes nearly black, while others had moved in the opposite direction and rustled with foliage as white as spring blossoms. Native Atnaterran species were even more bizarre; the foliage could be nearly any color, from green to red to silver regardless of the time of year, though no trees had blue leaves. Not sky blue, not indigo, not navy or cerulean. Best you’d get is turquoise.
The branches, too, could seem a little odd at first. Instead of round and full and lush like the trees of Setoterra, most Atnaterran trees threw all their branches upwards so that they looked like brooms with their handles stuck in the ground, flat or domed on top and sparse all the way up to the canopy. This allowed them to absorb the most light possible, and look irrationally theatric in the process. It was just low light; the undergrowth made do no problem. But trees have always been the most melodramatic personalities.
Speaking of the undergrowth, it was a fascinating world beneath the trees. Half of it was fungi, and the rest were ferns and a species of Atnaterran clover that glowed when damp. Which was most of the time. Atnaterra, in case the message wasn’t clear, was the home turf of dampness. Hence the fungi.
There is a saying: “All mushrooms are edible, but some only once.” In Atnaterra, there was a footnote consideration for the wor cup mushroom, which could be eaten exactly four times before causing death. Entire culinary cultures have emerged centered around the occasions and intervals at which the wor cup should be eaten. The Silrindranake tribe, a tribe of humans in northern Atnaterra, ate the wor cup on their wedding nights. Third marriages were notoriously lucky in Silrindranake society.
In any case, all of this focus on the forests and underbrush of southern Atnaterra is because Root, Vit, Azriah, Beel, and Orne Tyn were at this point somewhere in the thick of it. Yes, they were following the road. Then Vit announced that they could lead them all on a faster route to Obobo if they left the road and cut through the wilderness for a while. At the point where we’ll pick back up with them, they were headed in a halfway correct direction, over a patch of ground they’d trodden once already.
This is, of course, exactly the series of events that has happened immediately following the words “I think I know a shortcut” every time they’ve been uttered since the dawn of time, so it should come as no surprise. Meanwhile, Vit was still confident in their guide skills. Beel never had been, nor about anything. Azriah was busy looking over the page he got from Ophylla. Orne Tyn simply didn’t care. And Root… well, she was still thinking about those thumb knuckles.
“So it doesn’t get any brighter?” asked Root for either the third or fourth time.
“No,” answered Vit with all the patience of a first-time answer.
“So… that doesn’t go anywhere?” She gestured to the perfect silver orb in the sky.
“That’s Enyn. And no. Well, yes. It circles. That’s how you know what time it is.”
“So you have no sun and no moon and no stars, but you have an enyn,” said Azriah. “Why not just call it a moon?”
“Not an enyn. Enyn. That’s its name. And why don’t you call your moon ‘Enyn’?”
“That’s not its name.”
“Well… yeah, but I mean…”
“What time is it now?” asked Azriah.
“It’s the evening. Eight going on nine,” said Beel.
Root looked down at the spirit in alarm. “Nine? But when we came through the gate thing it wasn’t even midday! It can’t have been more than a few hours.”
“The worlds don’t line up,” said Beel. “An hour in Atnaterra is sixty-six minutes.”
“Sixty-five and three quarters, technically,” corrected Vit.
Root looked up at Enyn. Was it even moving, truly? Only when she stopped and stood in one spot and watched its position relative to the tree branches above her could she see it inching along, unless that was just her swaying on her feet; she still felt shaky from the travel, but she’d already called two vomit breaks, and didn’t want to be the one to request a third. If Enyn was moving, she had no way to tell one hour from the last.
“Which way is it even going?” she asked.
“At least the directions are the same here.”
Vit and Beel shared a look that made Root groan.
“What is it?”
“Well,” said Vit. “We’re currently traveling left-east.”
“What is that supposed to mean?”
“It’s the opposite of east,” said Beel.
“You’re fucking joking.”
“Some Atnaterrans use ‘west’ as a slang term.”
“Consider me among them.”
“Oh, not for left-east,” said Vit. “It’s a slang term for…”
“Having sex on top of a barn while still clothed from the waist up,” finished Beel.
“Seems oddly specific,” said Azriah.
“It’s a little more involved for spirits,” said Beel. “A lot of us don’t wear much for clothes, if anything. So those who are into that have garments special for the occasion.”
“You seem to know a lot about this.”
Beel’s face soured. “I’m not interested in west.”
“Hey, no judgment.”
Root didn’t realize it when nighttime rolled around—rather it crept up on her, masking itself in the same light as always, and so when Vit announced that they had come to a good spot to make camp, it hit her with the same dose of surprise that her younger sister always got as soon as her father or older sister announced that it was bedtime. But in Root’s case, her feet were so sore that she offered no protest.
Vit left to gather wood for a fire and forage for something edible (edible more than once, that is), and by the time they returned, Root and Azriah had laid out their bedding. Once they had a fire burning, Vit cut several slabs from some strange variety of mushroom and laid them by the fire to cook. Root decided to refrain from looking at them a second time after finding that her first glimpse left much to be desired. It looked like something that had been digested once or twice already. The roasting, spongy flesh smelled edible in the least reassuring way possible.
While they waited for their meal to cook, Azriah took out the page given to them by Ophylla.
“Find any good clues?” asked Vit.
“It’s sparse.” Azriah’s tone was resigned; he had taken it out and looked it over no fewer than a dozen times throughout their day’s walk. Root would be surprised if he couldn’t recite the whole thing from memory. “It doesn’t help that the tear isn’t clean. It tapers down here near the bottom, too, which is where it talks about the crypt’s location.”
Azriah shrugged. “Not all that surprising. If it gave us the exact location of the place, the payout would be less. Or we wouldn’t have the gig at all. Much easier to just follow directions to an address than to chase some scavenger hunt across two dimensions.”
“Well, how much can you read?” asked Root.
Azriah cleared his throat and held the page up in front of his face. “It was committed to — th alongside its bearer, — fodell, in her tomb deep — ve in the northeastern — ue south of the meadow — e her monument — ”
Silence followed the words as if it hadn’t taken up enough real estate between them. Then Vit spoke.
“It doesn’t say anything else?”
“Nothing else of use. That’s all regarding the whereabouts. The rest is just a description of the mirror, dates of Affodell’s life, and a drawing of the thing. Anything else is on the other side of this tear.”
“So we’ve basically got jack shit to go off of,” said Root. “Northeastern, meadow, monument. Those are our clues. That could be anywhere.”
“We still have the archives in Obobo,” said Vit. “Those terms may mean nothing to us, but they might be enough with a bit more context. If we can find the monument—”
“Then we will have something neat to look at while we wonder where to go next. While we try to find some random meadow and go south.”
“She’s got a point,” said Azriah. “We’re going to need something solid. This page isn’t a clue, it’s a piece of a clue.”
“Let’s hope these historians give us some real direction tomorrow, then,” said Vit. They prodded the chunks of mushroom with a stick. “Food’s ready. Here, take one.”
The slab of mushroom gushed with red and purple juices that streamed down Root’s arms and dripped from her elbows. She took her first bite in good faith, reassuring herself that it couldn’t taste as bad as it looked. She chewed her second bite only twice and swallowed it quickly alongside the remorse of someone who has been proven very, very wrong.
When Root awoke from her night on the cold forest ground, she was absolutely certain that the mushroom had been a psychedelic.
The remnants of her dreams still throbbed in her mind; vivid, kaleidoscopic dreams with such enormous weight that they kept her lying there, pinned in place for many long minutes after her eyes fluttered open. The dreams had been so lifelike that coming back to the waking world felt like her perceptions had lost some element of reason and logic; it felt like she’d fallen asleep and left reality behind. Her senses seemed duller. Looking up at the forest canopy above was like peering out from the curved, distorted walls of a jar.
Already the details began to fade. There had been something about a wall talking to her… some vines she got tangled in… was there a ship? No. Perhaps it had been at first, but it was actually her aunt’s toolshed, just very large and across the sea in some polluted corner of Unn. At least that was what it represented. And she had eaten another of those horrid mushrooms. Oh! But also a plate of hash browns. Beautifully fried, golden hash browns…
“Morning,” said Vit when Root lifted her head. They were stuffing their things back into their bag, readying for another day of pretending to know exactly where they were going. Root propped herself onto her elbows.
“That mushroom…” she started.
“Oh. Didn’t sit well with Azriah either, I hear.”
“No, no. Well, yes, actually, my digestive system has processed quieter meals—”
“Is that what that was?” asked Azriah. He sat near their low fire. “I thought that was some weird spirit bug.”
“New nickname for your so-called guide over there?” croaked Orne Tyn.
“That’s not even clever,” said Azriah with a frown.
“—but I meant my dreams,” continued Root. “They… I don’t know, I think the mushroom—”
Vit looked relieved. “Oh, no, that’s just Atnaterra.”
“I had some strange dreams as well,” said Azriah.
“Yes, it’s something that happens here. Dreams are more vivid in this world. Supposedly more meaningful, too. It’s a whole big thing, actually. Some people travel to Atnaterra for a night just to see what sort of dreams they’ll have. It’s like a divination thing I guess.”
“They can’t just make a cup of tea or something?” asked Azriah.
“This world is just overcompensating for the fact that it doesn’t have stars,” said Root.
Vit shrugged. “There are entire inns built right near several of the doorways that serve customers coming over from Setoterra for a night.”
“So these dreams are going to happen every night?” asked Root. She asked the question with dread; her body ached from the restless night’s sleep. The damp Atnaterran ground didn’t even place within the top five worst places she’d slept. There was simply no beating “crunched into a ball in Aunt Gundis’s pantry alongside a family of mice busily repopulating since the last round of poisonings” or “curled up naked on the precipice of the village shoemaker’s son’s bed shortly after coming to the conclusion that maybe she really wasn’t that interested in men at all.” Still, the way her eyes burned and insisted on fluttering closed helped hoist the prior night’s sleep into the top fifteen worst nights she’d had. Perhaps top twelve.
“You’ll get used to it,” said Vit.
“Some people try drugs,” offered Beel.
Root rubbed her eyes. “I’ll consider it.”
By midafternoon they were beginning to pass signs of civilization again—nothing particularly urban, but Root wasn’t much used to urban anyhow. The first dwelling they passed was little more than a cave. A cloth tarp hung from rusting pitons over the opening, but was tied back by a sash made from dried flowers with their stems woven together. Flowerbeds dotted the forest around the squat entryway, which led into a dim interior of crude wooden furniture and, at the very center, an enormous tub filled with stale water that buzzed with activity. All across the ground both inside and out were bones and bloodstains. Unanimously, the group determined those final features to be of the concerning variety, and they hurried along, but not before coming to a pen of livestock packed fence to fence around the side of the dwelling. All of the animals, Root noted, were native to Setoterra.
She shook her head. Imported meat. Some stuffy bourgeois family, then.
The next residence they came to looked much more familiar. It was a simple, single-story bungalow nestled between two grassy hills. Lamplight fell from the windows and bathed the sight in the aura of a mirage. It might’ve been a building picked up from the outskirts of Unn and dropped into the Atnaterran wilderness if not for the immense door, which was twice as tall and wide as it should’ve been and made the whole structure look like some overpriced carnival attraction, or the half-dozen mismatched chimneys sprouting from the roof like some crafty child’s ploy to trick the holiday gremlin into leaving extra gifts.
A barn loomed nearby. Just as Root sized up the second structure, a figure emerged from within. At first she thought it was some kind of animal shambling from the shadows on all fours. Then she realized that “four” could not be preceded by “all.” Four limbs padded the ground, while another two carried huge sacks, one on each of the spirit’s shoulders. It was a man, she decided (though it certainly wasn’t for her to decide). Forest-green scales covered the lower part of his body, then faded into smooth, dusky-green colored skin as it climbed up his torso. He had no neck and pointed ears that flopped over as if he’d forgotten to prop them up with cartilage frames.
When his lopsided eyes fell on the group trekking across the corner of his land, Root very nearly reached for a shield of smoke to spin into her weapon, fearing the ire of a man who was watching a troupe of kids trod on his lawn. Before Root even had the chance to produce a smolder, the spirit man lifted one of his forelimbs and threw them a wave. Vit waved back.
“I thought that guy was going to eat us or something,” said Root once they were out of what she hoped was the spirit’s earshot.
“Now you just sound like me,” said Beel.
Root scowled. “Well, we were on his land.”
“Atnaterrans are friendly—they won’t attack you just because you’re passing through their land. Most spirits aren’t beasts,” said Vit.
“Well, yes. Some are. But some humans are the same. I heard a story once of someone who got stuck through with arrows when they strayed too far onto a human’s property.”
“And it was really that unrealistic to think we might be eaten?”
“Are you often eaten when you’re on someone else’s land?”
“Am I often eaten?”
“Really?” asked Vit with some surprise.
“Right,” they said with a nod. “That wouldn’t make sense. Because you can die, since you’re a human.”
“I’ve been eaten,” said Beel. His voice quivered.
“How was it?” asked Azriah.
“Slimy.” Beel pressed his eyes shut. “So, so slimy. And damp. And it smelled like caramelized shallots.”
“Were you being eaten with caramelized shallots?”
“I’m very sorry. That sounds terrible.”
“It was.” Beel shuddered. “I used to love caramelized shallots.”
By late afternoon on their second day of walking, Obobo came into view ahead. They were back on the road and standing at the crest of a hill; the winding path ahead cut through fields of crops and rolling fence-rimmed meadows where creatures familiar and bizarre roamed together, chewing at the turf and producing odors. Obobo sprouted from the ground like a thorn bush, maze-like and scraggly and jutting out at all angles, ready to ensnare anything that walked too close, jab them a few times until they bled, cut their coin pouch, and then go back to feigning lush green innocence.
The four of them closed the last of the distance to the city, road-weary but drawn in by the smell of hot food and the promise of warm beds and the pursuit of a clue that might make sense of the minced words that still sat at the forefront of each of their minds:
It was committed to — th alongside its bearer, — fodell, in her tomb deep — ve in the northeastern — ue south of the meadow — e her monument —
Iico peered out through a crack in the wood slat siding. They certainly looked tasty. But there were so many of them—a whole pack. He couldn’t bring them all down—couldn’t even get one without provoking the others, most likely. Maybe if he lured them in—invited them around for a meal. Yes! He didn’t have to tell them what he was making. It was a classic trick.
He heaved up two sacks of rice. Yes—that way it would look like he was already preparing a feast. He moved for the door.
The pack spotted him as he walked casually across the grass; not too suspicious—yes, that’s it.
He needed to make some friendly gesture, right? Wasn’t that what good hosts were meant to do? Friendly, a greeting, er…
In a panic, Iico raised one of his forelegs in a wave. His arms were unable to perform the motion, still balancing the sacks of rice atop his shoulders. One of the creatures waved back. Yes, good. They were falling for his ruse. Soon he would have them stewing in a pot. Oh, they would taste so delicious.
They kept moving ahead. Where were they off to? Should he call out to them? Oh, beans—he was about to lose them altogether, a few more steps and they’d be back in the woods. Oh, what to say…
Iico had never been particularly good at making friends. It was part of why he’d built himself a house alone in the woods. And it was terribly hard to make food as well.
Not to cook it, no, he could cook fine, to make it… make it, like… make frien— oh, forget it.
Iico’s lip trembled as he watched, rejected, as the four wild things wandered off in the other direction. Perhaps if he hadn’t burdened himself with so much rice…
His stomach growled in disappointment. Oh, they had smelled so good, too—divine, like they would pair perfectly with a smothering of caramelized shallots…