Root felt a mix of emotions at being left behind by Ajis, guarded only by a toddler-sized imp she was confident she could punt over a mid-sized family home and an oaf with enough free space inside his skull that the first guy could renovate it into a summer chalet and who thought a prerogative was a type of potato-filled dumpling.
On one hand, it was a great relief. This might—and she didn’t want to speak too soon in that overconfident fashion that gives fate a reason to rub its hands together—might not be too difficult. Of course, it’d be easier if they weren’t being held captive in an abandoned cellar by some cryptic asshole at all, but hey—gotta roll with the punches sometimes.
On another hand, Root felt a sort of conspiratorial slyness; they had concealed their competence, and Ajis felt comfortable leaving them in hands that would have a damn hard time holding onto them (hopefully). She felt giddy with the notion that they had tricked him, skirting under his gaze, like a prisoner who had successfully snuck a spoon back into their cell and was now casting knowing glances at the mortar in the corner.
On a third hand, she was quite offended.
They had a plan now, and it seemed—given the circumstances—like the best they were going to get. Vit climbed out of their hammock chair and stretched; their hands knocked against the low ceiling.
Root hauled herself up from her crouched position with one hand on the ropes of web. It was sticky in a particularly unpleasant way. She jerked her hand free and wiped it on her pants.
“I guess we should get going, then,” said Vit.
Kurg looked up. “Er, um, the master said to wait here. He will be back.”
Vit shrugged. “Listen, I’m kinda busy.” They turned to Root, Azriah, and Beel. “I’ll see you guys later.” The words had barely left their mouth before they started to shrink, folding in on themself and winding into the form of a spider. A second later, eight legs skittered on the dusty floor. All of them were running.
Vit made a beeline for the stairway—which was still blocked by Harnn, who watched Vit approaching with a scrunched-up expression, eyes narrowed and open-mouthed in confusion. He seemed to piece together the word “escape” just before Vit passed under him.
“Hey! Wait! No escape!” Harnn stomped all of his feet in jarring un-unison. The foundation shook. Wood creaked above them, sprinkling down a flurry of dust.
Vit darted sideways, leaping quickly onto the wall and then the ceiling where they sped left and right, circling Harnn, making clear attempts at the stairwell. Harnn watched them move up the wall with an expression that made it clear he was wondering if he, too, was capable of such a feat, and thinking back to any memories in which he might’ve attempted such a thing. Either he had never seen a spider or didn’t realize that was what Vit was. Several dots were not connecting in his mind; he did, of course, have to find the dots before moving on to that next step.
Kurg shrieked. “No! No! Get down!” He jumped off the crate and ran to the stairs, reaching helplessly for the ceiling. He was two and a half Kurgs too short.
Harnn and Kurg both swiped at Vit. It was an unfortunate display—Kurg’s tiny hands came nowhere close, and though Harnn could reach the ceiling, he had no neck, which made it quite hard for him to tilt his head back and look up, and so he scrabbled blind. Vit could have dodged them while standing still. Root almost felt bad—escaping was supposed to have a bit of a thrill in it. This just felt like taking advantage of the less vertically- and intellectually-fortunate.
After realizing that their efforts were useless, Kurg seized Harnn by the side and scampered up his body like a lemur up a tree. He planted one foot on Harnn’s brow and another on his shoulder and grabbed at Vit.
“Aar! Can’t see!” bellowed Harnn. But Kurg kept his footing.
Vit dodged Kurg’s first grab, but on the second Kurg managed to catch one of Vit’s forelegs in his nubby little hand. Vit tugged and wrenched to free their limb, but Kurg held fast.
“No! Just sit! He will be with you shortly!” shouted Kurg like a short-tempered secretary to a fuming client. Another yank from Vit nearly sent Kurg tumbling off Harnn’s face.
Vit snapped at Kurg’s fingers with their spider fangs; Kurg released Vit’s leg with a cry of “eeeah!”
As they fought, Beel and Root made their way inconspicuously to the window. With a forceful shove, Root lifted the pane. Beel jumped up onto an old cupboard laid on its side with a spryness Root had never seen from him, and then, with a great bound, wriggled up and through the narrow opening. The three rings around his midsection clunked against the rotting wood with a cakunk, cakunk, cakunk.
“No! No no! No!” shrieked Kurg. “Come back, oh come back!”
Kurg’s shouting alerted Harnn, who whirled. “No escapees!” he cried and rushed the window.
The sudden lurching of the ground (or, flesh) under his oversized feet sent Kurg tumbling to the floor. His head ricocheted off a legless chair as he landed in a heap. He sat up, dazed, rubbing his face.
Azriah stepped forward, sword raised, to meet the one-spirit stampede barreling towards them. Smoke erupted from Root’s palm and took the shape of her sword. Harnn, in defiance or stupidity, did not slow.
Just as Harnn made to flatten them, Azriah feinted and stepped to the side, grabbed Ajis’s chair in his free hand, and whirled, smashing the last functional furnishing into bits across the spirit’s back. Root dodged at the last second before Harnn faltered under the blow and staggered against the wall.
Azriah brandished his sword. “Just let us leave. We don’t want a fight.”
“You hit me witha chair!”
“Er, yes. That was sort of in response to you charging us.”
“We aren’t askin’ for no money!”
“Ah. Charging at us.”
Harnn whipped one boulder-sized fist around. Azriah’s eyes widened as he ducked. Root took hold of her weapon in both hands, extended it, and caught the spirit’s wrist against the handle of the polearm.
There was a moment in which none of them moved. Harnn looked confused at the wavering, translucent form of Root’s weapon.
With great speed, he flipped his hand around, seized her polearm by the shaft, and yanked. The weapon left Root’s hands. She let the smoke dissipate and formed a new one in the span of a breath.
Harnn looked on with an expression more of curiosity than fury. “Howd you do that?”
Root thought quickly. “I could… do you want me to teach you?”
“All right. Go over there and fetch one of those bits of wood. The ones waaay over there, in the corner. See?”
Harnn turned and shambled over to the bits Root indicated. Root turned to Azriah with an incredulous look. He just shrugged.
In the far corner, Vit was still locked in a dance with Kurg, who was making continued efforts to tackle them while shouting and waving his arms about. He was managing to do only two of those things in a productive manner. They kicked up a wake of papers in their strife.
Root scanned the floor. The papers. They couldn’t leave empty-handed. They didn’t have a lot of options left on the table—or floor, as it were—but it was better to leave with useless trash in hand than nothing. Right?
“Is this one good?” asked Harnn, holding up a bit of wood.
“No, no. Needs to be bigger. And, ah, wigglier. More personality.”
“All thees arr just little bits. ’n half eaten. Like toot-picks.”
“Yes, well. You’ll have to find something better.”
“Sorry, you know how it is with, uh, magic. Very particular.”
Harnn muttered something and stooped again to look over the selection.
Root scooped an armful of papers off the floor and hurried to straighten them into something semi-manageable. A good many of them fluttered back to the floor.
Her eyes fell on Ajis’s book where he’d left it under Kurg’s supervision atop the crate. A debate split her mind like a wedge. She was already a trespasser in Sundraw, a vandal and disruptor in Unn, and… well, whatever Archin Vulokus thought of her. What was “thief” on top of it all? The book was old and worn and—judging by the way the front cover pitched down at an incline—missing a good deal of its contents, but if nothing else this was an opportunity to get back at Ajis for being a colossal dick. I mean, holding them hostage in a dirty basement? The gall of that guy. Someone had to take him down a peg. If the book didn’t have anything to offer them, she’d just burn it later.
She added it to her stack of kindling. The binding wheezed a plume of dust like a smoker’s sigh.
“Aaa-yee-ha!” Root looked up just in time to see a lunging Kurg tackle spider Vit around the midsection, dragging them to the floor and pinning them in place despite the clicking and skittering of a bouquet of struggling legs.
Root shuffled her armful to one side and seized her weapon from where she’d hung it in the air beside her. She leveled it at Kurg but got no more than two strides towards him before something hummed through the air.
It whizzed in through the open window, a glowing halo of burning gold, spinning and shrinking as it closed in on Kurg. It snapped around his ankles with a zzk!tch. He looked down.
Despite his every effort to kick away the binds, the golden ring held fast, causing him to inch across the floor like a fish. But he never loosened his grip on Vit.
Up in the window, Beel peered into the cellar, a second ring glowing and gently vibrating between his teeth. His posture was one coiled (in the way his stunted and neckless body could appear “coiled”) and ready to send the second ring through the opening like a frisbee for an energized hound. The vibrations of the ring made his teeth chatter.
“Since when can you do that?” said Root with a pshaw of disbelief.
“Ssiinnccee aallwwaayyss. Yyoouu nneevveerr aasskkeedd.”
“Oh, right, sorry. Hey Beel, can you make fucking… magic gold ring shackle things?”
“Good to know!”
Beel released the second ring. It flew past Root and caught Kurg around the wrists, ripping one and then the other from around Vit’s body as it flew. The force pushed Kurg to the floor where he lay bound and panicking.
As soon as Vit lost their clingy, unwelcome backpack, they sped across the floor, onto the wall, and out the window to join Beel crouching in the weeds. Root let her weapon evaporate. Time for them to go.
Azriah was closer to the window, and hauled himself gracefully up and through, tossing his sword into the dirt ahead of him and then hoisting himself out with one arm. He knelt and extended a hand back down to Root.
“Is this one oh-kay?” asked Harnn as he held up a bit of wood. His eyes fell on Root as she put one foot up on the cupboard by the window, and then looked to the other three already outside. Realization didn’t dawn on his face—instead it mid-afternooned, which is to say it had plenty of time to read the morning paper, mill about, eat two meals, and take a quick trip round the block to the store by the time he put all the pieces together and made sense of the image before him.
“Where you’s going?”
“I think it’s more a matter of where we aren’t staying,” said Root.
He pinched his face together in concentration. “Dint I ardy catch you tryin’ to scape?”
“Yes, I think I recall you saying something ridiculous on the matter. ‘No escapies,’ was it?”
“Escapees,” said Kurg. He seethed as he twitched against his bonds in a way that made him look less cute and a good deal more rabid. Root hoped Beel’s magic bondage was sturdy.
“How do you know how I spelled it?”
“How do you know how I spelled it?”
“Fair enough. Well, uh, anyway. Best of luck to you both.” Why would you say that? Idiot. Root turned back to the window.
She could already hear Harnn rushing forward; his scuttling, uneven gait crunched in the room’s carpet of detritus. She didn’t dare turn around, but the sound made her gut seize. She quickened her movements as she clambered onto the cupboard.
The trouble with climbing with your hands full is that there’s little you can do to steady yourself should you begin to lose your balance. Now, Root wasn’t particularly high off the ground, but from its safe little spot swaddled in the abdomen, the stomach can’t see much, and so the slightest whiff of vertigo kicks off that frightful little leap it loves to do, which in turn sends a wave of panic through the rest of the body. Root was not losing her balance—not really—but she thought she was, and in most cases that can be just as disastrous.
Many things happened then. Eyes wide, Root made a bid for her balance, but the rational (or irrational, depending on how you look at it) part of her mind that hadn’t been tossed to chaos was unwilling to throw out her arms and release a cascade of mildewed papers back to the floor, and so she simply stuck out her elbows in an awkward stance closer to an imitation of a chicken during a game of charades than the posture of someone interested in remaining upright. Azriah acted fast; it was a proficiency of his. He reached for Root’s arm to catch her, but from his position crouched in the garden, he would never have been able to grab her in time. Beel, too, acted fast; it was not a proficiency of his, but hey—sometimes people are capable of surprises. In an instant, there was a wide golden ring that wrapped from Azriah’s outstretched hand to encircle Root’s waist, making up the difference and keeping Root firmly atop the wobbling cupboard.
Two unfortunate details. Number one: Root wasn’t actually falling after all. She caught her balance with a gentle tap against the ring. Number two came in the form of a new set of footsteps tearing across the room at great speed.
This, Root turned to investigate. Kurg was up and running, freed of the bond that ringed his ankles, though still constrained by the one at his wrists, which made him shimmy to and fro as he ran with a motion reminiscent of the penguins far to the Setoterran south. Harnn, too, was closing in.
“Beel!” Root shouted as she pushed her burden into the crook of one elbow and grabbed at the windowsill. “You couldn’t have used a different ring?”
“I panicked!” He let his head fall into the dirt and pressed his hands to his temples. “Oh, what’s the point?”
There was a sound like a hand made of wind snapping its fingers. The ring in Azriah’s hand—and, more importantly, the one around Kurg’s wrists—vanished.
Root maneuvered her upper half up and out the window. She twisted into a better position to pull her legs up just as Kurg leaped with a ferocity fueled by determination and fright. He grabbed her around the shin and dug his tiny little fingers into her flesh with a grip that was sure to leave matching tiny little bruises.
“Ow—hey!” Root kicked her leg, but Kurg held fast.
A sudden glow burst through the dim basement beyond as a glittering tear split the air. Root’s breath caught in her throat.
“Go, go. Run!” she cried to the others around her. She gave her leg another forceful kick, but still Kurg kept his hold. She stomped against his fingers and face with her other boot.
“No—ouch! No! Please!” There were tears in his perfectly white eyes.
Ajis stepped through the portal. Root gathered a fistful of smoke.
“Sorry!” she yelled above the commotion as she willed the smoke into a vague shape and thrust it downwards. It flew into Kurg’s face, taking not the blunted shape she at first intended but instead refining into an edge. Kurg’s hold on her leg released as he fell back. He burst apart before he even hit the floor. The familiar smell of seaweed and warm milk filled the air as he died.
Freed of his weight, Root pulled her legs through the window and gained her footing just in time to catch Ajis’s furious expression. She glimpsed it for only an instant; Harnn beat him to the window, blocking his view, and pushed one meaty arm through the opening, but Root was already out of reach.
“Harnn! Harnn! Move,damn it!”
Root was already running. Ahead of her, Azriah had reached the fence with Beel just behind him. Halfway across the grounds, Vit ran backwards at a slower pace, eyes on Root.
Azriah scaled the fence easily and landed amongst the trees at the edge of the woods on the other side. Beel had only just reached it when a blast filled the air.
The ground underfoot shook with a shockwave that very nearly threw Root off her feet. Bits of rubble came down like hail all around her. Pebbles pelted her back. The sound was like a hundred trees falling at once and grinding to splinters as they hit the earth. Her ears rang, her eyes swam. She glanced back over her shoulder.
A crater the size of a small barn marred the side of the manor; floorboards from the first and second stories hung at angles that made the hole look like the manor had pried open a long-dormant mouth in a primordial yawn that preceded by mere seconds the gnashing of teeth that would tear them all limb from limb. The floors sagged in; the integrity of the structure held on by a thread. And amongst it all stood Ajis, stepping free of the rubble, unharmed and unrestrainedly enraged.
Somewhere back in Obobo, a chill ran down Archin Vulokus’s spine. That was some pretty substantial disrespecting.
“Do not throw me!” shrieked Beel as Vit picked him up around his midsection.
“Should I leave you on this side of the fence, then?”
“Fine, okay, throw me, but gently!”
Vit threw Beel in the normal manner of throwing things. Which is to say, not gently.
Ajis leveled a finger at Root. She was nearly at the edge of the grounds. She just had to get over the fence and into the tree cover and then—
A wave of energy flared from Ajis’s finger and lashed across the grounds like a horrible serpent, snapping across Root’s back like a whip. Her footsteps stalled.
She’d stolen his book. It wasn’t much, but it was his. What are you thinking? She didn’t have any use for the old thing. All he wanted was his book back.
All he wanted was his book back.
The words sat like a weight in her gut, gnawing at her, wriggling up her insides into her throat. She choked on the lump that formed there, a mass hungry and growing to tear at her entrails from the inside. She was no thief. Why had she stolen it?
Her father would chide her for such a thing. She hung her head and turned, pulling the book free of the loose papers and holding it out before her.
She took one step back towards the manor.
One strong arm grabbed her around the waist, and then there was a shoulder pressing hard against her hips. The world hung upside down.
“No! Wait!” she cried. “I have to—”
Vit jumped high over the fence with the aid of two strands of web. Root lost all sense of which way was which—at least until they came to the top of their arc, at which point she managed a confident guess towards “down.”
The landing knocked some sense back into her mind. Vit dumped her on her feet. She kept a firm grip on the book, now tucked back into her arms.
“Ready to run?” asked Vit, looking her up and down. She managed a nod. “Good. And, uh, away from the guy blasting walls apart, please.”
Root responded the only way she knew how when under stress.
“You don’t think he’s doing a good job with the renovations, then?”
“Not one for open-concept?”
“Sorry. Running sounds good.”
By the end of their first twenty minutes of running, the sounds of furious pursuit were left in the dust, presumably alongside their sources. And this was quite a good and welcome development, because the thing about running is that doing it for more than twenty minutes is terribly exhausting, especially with horrid things you’d rather not face making frightening noises at your back. Root considered herself to be in good shape, but even the best shape (which is, by the way, objectively, the rhombus) would be breathing heavy after spending all that time in a panicked sprint through dim woodland. If, that is, rhombuses had the biological prerequisites required for drawing breath.
But Root did, and they were quite sore. So when Beel wheezed out a plea to pause, she was not altogether opposed. They sipped their water, standing together in silence but for the sound of huffing, which eased as the minutes wore on.
“Let’s see the papers,” said Vit. They sidled up next to Root and peered over her shoulder.
The first scrap of paper was blank. The second was also blank. The third, unsurprisingly, was blank. The fourth depicted a charcoal doodle of a phallus, and the fifth was blank, which was a welcome change of pace.
In total, six of the papers had faded words, all but one torn from random and useless novels, and the odd one out was a clipping from a newspaper. The rest were blank, or might as well have been. Root handed the stack over to Vit, who filed them away under “tinder.”
Her expectations were low as she turned her attention to the old book. She thumbed through the remaining pages with care not to lose any more of them. Some held on only by the mold that grew around the tears like bandages. Others were not so lucky, with entire sections ripped out in what looked like one fell tear.
There were sketches and scrawlings and haphazard notes around the margins. Much of it was written by hand, not printed or stamped into it by the vicious legs of a typewriter. Whole pages were written in the glyphic runes of the spirit script.
“Can you read this?” Root asked in the direction of Vit and Beel. Vit looked closer.
“Yes. Here, let me see…” Root handed it over.
Vit flipped through the remainder of the book for several minutes. All the while their face took on a more and more scrunched quality.
“Can I see the page from Ophylla?” They held out a hand towards Azriah.
“Did you find something?” Azriah asked as he took out the page and handed it over.
Vit expanded their number of hands and poked at the torn remnants near the binding.
“There’s no fucking way,” said Root aloud.
“Er, hmm,” muttered Vit. “Yes. Here.” They slid the page into the book, aligning it with the torn edge.
“No,” Azriah said, breathing out the word on the back of a whisper.
“You’re shitting me.”
Vit cleared their throat. “It was committed to the earth alongside its bearer, Ybris Affodell, in her tomb deep within a cave in the northeastern Shundrens due south of the meadow of flowers where her monument stands.”
No one spoke. Root broke the silence with another expletive.
“It can’t be.” Azriah pulled the book from Vit’s arms. His eyes swam over every inch of the now-whole page. “Just like that?”
“You saying that was too easy?” asked Root.
“That guy was going to kill us.”
“But he found us. This book found us. How?”
Root didn’t know, and she was making an effort not to worry about it at the moment. There were more pressing things to worry about, such as how he might find them a second time.
“What’s the rest of it say?”
Azriah handed it back to Vit, who flipped a few pages and then closed it, Ophylla’s page tucked carefully into its spot. “A lot that doesn’t make sense. It keeps talking about ‘mote periapts,’ but I’ve never heard that term before.”
Neither had Root, and judging by the vacant expressions of the others, they hadn’t either.
“Well, it probably doesn’t matter. We have what we need: a direction.”
Azriah nodded. “The northeastern Shundrens. Vit, you know which way to walk?”
Vit checked the position of Enyn in the sky, thought for a moment, and pointed. “Southeast. I don’t know where the meadow is, we’ll have to find it.”
“Good enough for me,” said Azriah. “As long as we are putting distance between ourselves and the manor. Now let’s keep moving—it’s not yet midnight.”
Kurg’s eyes broke the surface first as his below-the-neck parts worked themselves out. It had been a while since he’d last died.
The slop of Yg Balta slid off his naked form as he trudged out of the shallows. He had legs and feet now, and the first thing they did was begin to pace.
Up and down the shoreline he walked, fretful and jittery. He had nothing in his stomach. (Yg Balta could work many miracles for a broken body, but it would not refill a grumbling stomach. The last snackings of a slain spirit didn’t join them in the beginning of their reformed life. This was balanced out by the equal emptying of the bladder.) If he had been in the process of digesting, it would surely be all mixed up and hastened in the tense anxiety churning his gut. Somehow, despite it, he still felt the call of his bowels.
Any minute—any minute, the master would be there. He would be displeased. Oh, he would be terribly displeased.
A tear split the air before Kurg. He lowered his eyes and halted his footsteps, but his nervous trembling moved him just as much—if not more—in place.
Boots crunched the sand. The master loomed before him, silently, completely still. Kurg squeezed his eyes shut.
“Never in my life have I been so utterly livid at a member of my crew.”
Kurg kept his silence. He might only enrage the master further.
“Yes master, sorry master,” Kurg squeaked. “I tried, sir, I fought back against them, but they were so sneaky—so sneaky! And so powerful.”
“You little imp!” shouted the master. He slammed one heavy boot into Kurg’s chest. Kurg crumpled into the sand. Tears fell from his eyes.
“I’m sorry! I’m sorry!”
“You had better be, you worthless, stupid—”
The master paused. Kurg braced for another blow. Once the master had gotten all his anger out it would be okay. He just had to take it.
A wave gripped Kurg’s heart. He had failed. He had failed. He had failed. The prisoners got away and it was all his fault! His! He was worthless, he was useless. He failed he failed he failed!
Tears streamed down his face and landed in the dark sand. Snot bubbled from his nose. This was his mess—all his fault. He let his master down. He should be dead forever, dead like a human. Less. Dead like a bug, a gnat, a fly—a maggot, squirming in the pocked flesh of a diseased rodent dead on the side of a busy street. That was what he should die as, yes. He was nothing. He had failed.
“I’m sorry,” he said again, but the words came out like a choked final breath, too guttural to decipher. The guilt in his chest swelled again and he retched, but nothing came up.
He drew a shaky breath and shifted a quick glance at the master. He stood tall above him with a face of fire and malice.
Something pulsed. The master clenched his fist, and a force slammed through Kurg’s body with the power of a meteor blasting through solid stone. Kurg felt it rip him apart, and then there was nothing.
He broke the surface again. The master stood waiting on the shore.
When Kurg reached the sand he crouched, breathless. There would be more. This wasn’t over yet.
“You will find those kids…” said the master, his voice low but with the heat of frost-covered iron.
Kurg nodded and cowered.
“You will reclaim my book…”
“Yes master, yes.”
“And you will get me that damn mirror.”