There’s great debate about what tops the list of the most embarrassing things to shop for. Contraceptives are commonly cited, alongside the accouterments that make them necessary, or unnecessary, or at least more fun. Medications are another frontrunner, in particular the sort weaponized against things like rashes, constipation, or fungal growths. There are more: the sort of garments sought by the incontinent, treatments for hair loss…

And the common thread that links them all is that each one serves a medical purpose. Because there’s no experience more taboo than having a body.

So many folks are of the mind that they’d prefer to purchase these things by proxy, or by mail, or while wearing a thick coat with a high collar, tinted glasses, and a wide-brimmed hat, if at all, so as not to be embarrassed by the judgments of the stranger across the counter whose mind is locked in intense scrutiny and not at all paying attention to the crawling circumference of the clock on the wall. Because the worlds are worried about nothing if not you (yes, you), specifically.

What none of the people who think these examples represent the pinnacle of the conundrum have ever had to do, however, is walk into a store with a shopping list that looks like this:

– salacious sage

– dallywill-shembulgart cream

– toe of trout

– the smock as damp as tears

Even though the primary spring from which embarrassment flows is having a body, sometimes, on occasion, it’s also just the result of sounding like a complete moron.

The bell above the door of Puncture’s Herbs and Tinctures jingled as the four of them made their way inside. Azriah led the way straight to the counter at the back of the store where a log of a man manned the register and a floral apron apronned his front. He looked up at the sound of the bell and waved as they entered, putting on a smile that perfectly displayed all of the teeth he had as well as all of the teeth he didn’t.

“Welcome in to m’store!” he said in a voice that made the pots of merchandise rattle.

“You must be—um, Puncture, was it?” said Azriah.


“An interesting name.”

“S’my family name. I’m sure you’re f’miliar with their business here’n the village. But I din’t want ‘ny part ovit. My passion’s the plants.” He spread his arms and gestured to the store.

“Your family must be proud to have the name on a new venture, then,” said Vit.

“Nah, they wanted me to join the company. They don’t see the harm in plants. Begging their pardon, I said, but s’the point, that there isn’t one, a’least on most ovem.”

“Well, nice to meet you Mr. Puncture,” said Azriah.

“Please, call me Pierce.”

“We’re looking for an herb. Hoping you have some. It’s…” he consulted the back of the sheet of directions given to them by Syrus where he had scribbled out their shopping list on the walk back to the village. His brow furrowed and he paused, his lips working in such a way as if to stall his words rather than coax them along. He shuffled. “That is, well, I—we—aren’t really familiar with it at all, and now that I think about it, it almost seems like a prank—”

“I know jus’ what you’re after,” said Pierce with an odd wink. “Right over here.” He lumbered out from behind the counter and led the way along one of the side walls. As Root followed behind him, she couldn’t help but notice that the ties of his apron hardly met in the back, and after snaking around his huge form they had no slack left to knot, so he had jabbed a small boot knife through both to skewer them together instead.

“Here y’are,” said Pierce, holding out a bundle of some herb Root couldn’t place. He leaned in closer to Azriah. “A tea of this and there’ll be no worries of pregnancy for your lady.” He pointed the bushel at Root.




“M’s’sorry,” said Pierce, looking between them all.

“We’re looking for salacious sage,” said Azriah.

“Ah,” said Pierce, his expression returning from its falter much too quickly. “Other side the issue, then. Here’s what you’re after.” He handed Azriah a small vial of pills. “These are made from lompins root and ginger. One of these will keep you erect for—”




“Just salacious sage. Specifically. And we don’t need it—not like that. It’s for a potion…”

“Ah. M’pologies.”

“So do you have any?”


“Do you know where we could find some?” asked Vit.

Pierce scratched his chin. “Hard t’say. S’rare stuff. Crops up n’the oddest places, when y’c’n find it at all. But actually, folks’ve bin saying they seen some round lately, down by the gulch road just out’a the village, off on the way t’wards Midden.”

“We’ll look there,” said Azriah. “Thanks.”

They left the shop without another word.

The gulch road was overgrown but not too difficult to locate. It was no longer a road so much as a path; the jaws of the lining underbrush clamped in slowly but with finality, and undisturbed as they were it was clear no vehicle wider than a wheelbarrow had passed that way for two or three seasons. And yet the footpath that remained looked well-trodden—and recently, at that. A stampede of paw prints interspersed with footprints of pointed little shoes looked fresh in the mud along the downhill slope towards the gulch. There were few prints headed back up the hill.

All of this they noted and then ignored as they took to the brush in search of salacious sage.

“I thought this wasn’t meant to take long,” said Beel as he sat on a log and watched the rest of them sweep the woods with their backs stooped and necks craned.

“We only just got here,” said Vit.

“I meant this whole errand for Syrus.”

“It wasn’t,” said Azriah. He straightened up, rubbed the back of his neck, and then bent over again. “I really thought this would be a quick job. I never expected Betrum was going to want alternative payment. And such a strange one, at that.”

“Or that that payment was going to saddle us with some obscure shopping list,” said Root. “And it might go faster if you helped, you know.”

“I’m just taking my break. If it’s a job we’re doing, I get a break.” He kicked his stumpy little legs which hung over the side of the log, nowhere near touching the ground.

“At least we know this plant exists,” said Vit. “Or, probably. As far as Pierce can be trusted. I’d never heard of ‘salacious sage’ before today.”

“Me neither,” said Azriah. “And of the four, this is the one that sounded the most real. I mean, toe of trout? Dilly… uh, dallygulp…”

“The cream,” said Root without looking up.

“The cream. And a smock? What kind of person uses clothing in a potion recipe? It doesn’t make any sense. What, does she cut it all up, or do you have to take one really big swig?”

“Maybe that’s why it has to be damp,” suggested Beel. “Helps it slide down easy.”

Root straightened up and stretched her back. “So, just out of curiosity, what are you guys looking for?”

“They’re looking for salacious sage,” said Beel.

“Do you know what that looks like?”


Vit glanced up. “I’m just looking for something that resembles regular sage. Like the innocuous kind.”

Beel perked up and looked around. “Do you hear that?”

Root paused to listen but heard nothing. “Hear what?”

“It sounds sort of like music.”

The three of them gathered closer to Beel and then stood still and unmoving to listen. A few seconds passed, and then Root heard it.

It did sound sort of like music. Having a younger sister, Root had an alternative way to characterize the sound: it sounded sort of like someone blowing way too hard into an instrument without any real idea of how to play it, or even how to form a note that couldn’t be used to chisel stone. Yet it had an underlying allure. It was also getting louder, and given the strained nature of the playing, that could only mean one thing.

“Quick, up here,” said Azriah and waved them up the hill away from the path. He ducked behind a stone and the others followed. They peered down through the brush at the path.

The song (if a song it was) came to a crescendo as the musician (if a musician they were) rounded the bend and came into sight.

“Isn’t that the guy from Midden?” asked Vit in a whisper.

“The politician from that rally, yeah. I think so.”

“Hamlick,” said Beel.

“That was it.”

Hamlick progressed along the path at a slow pace, gyrating in a way that could be called gyrating, or even simply “moving,” but not dancing. He clutched the flute Root had seen him with back in the city, his lips pressed to one end, cheeks puffed, eyes bulged. He slid his fingers along it in a seemingly random pattern of movements.

Behind him followed half a dozen other spirits, all similar in shape and stature. They stood around four feet tall and bristled with wiry fur in various hues and patterns of grey, white, black, and brown, with one odd one out sporting a pink coat. Each had beady eyes, pink noses at the crux of pointed snouts, and whiskers. They all wore neckties; two wore blazers. All of them danced along behind Hamlick, though their style was characterized by less gyrating and more thrashing. Bony, hairless tails whipped around behind them, often striking their fellow paraders.

“They look like huge rats,” said Root.

“Wonder what they eat,” said Vit. Root looked at them. “What? I’m just curious.”

“They’re spirits,” said Beel.

“Yeah, obviously.”

“They don’t even know how to wear a jacket,” said Azriah. “Look at that. All the buttons buttoned.”

Hamlick continued to lead them onwards down the path, heading downhill towards the gulch. His own red suit jacket flapped behind him as he grooved; his tights stretched in a way that kept Root ready to avert her eyes at the first sound of tearing. The four of them lay in hiding until the ruckus started to fade. Azriah stood back up and watched them go.

“They’re around the corner now. Come on.” He started back down the hill.

“Shame they’re headed that way,” said Root. “We haven’t looked down there yet. And I don’t want any more part in whatever weird stuff they’re getting up to out here.”

“That’s okay,” said Beel. “Here’s some.”

They all stopped and turned. Beel pointed to a sprig of frosty-green leaves growing in the dirt.

“Wait,” said Vit, stepping in closer. “I looked here!”

“Not well enough, then,” said Root.

“No, I swear I looked right here! I remember it, because I was looking at that rock right there and thinking about salamanders, and then I moved this way.”

“Maybe you just missed it.”

“No, honestly. That wasn’t there before.”

“It’s pretty big,” said Azriah. “It didn’t just sprout.”

Vit looked around to the right, then the left, then up at the trees on either side, one with dark golden needles and the other a haughty violet. “I know I was right here. Maybe it… maybe it moves?”

“It’s cool if you missed it,” said Azriah, taking out a knife and stooping down. He paused. “Someone else want to do this? I… don’t like the way it’s looking at me.”

Root looked over his shoulder. There was a suggestive bend in the stem, one leaf cocked down and poised just so, another held up, almost like a wave…

Root grabbed the base of the sprig and plucked it from the ground. The stem snapped with a pop.


Azriah tucked it into a fabric pouch and handed it to Vit, who stowed it in their bag. They still eyed the patch of ground with a troubled look.

“One down,” said Azriah, making a mark on the list. “I guess we keep going in order, then. Next stop: dally… will-shembulgart cream. Or was it ‘shembulgart?”

Hamlick! thought Councilman Durt as he sashayed along behind the mayoral candidate. He is so great! He is so perfect! He will do great things for the city!

He scampered along on clawed feet, kicking and shimmying. He flicked his tail, curled it around, made it do a sort of wiggling motion like it was a worm hovering in the air. It lashed at the legs of Councilwoman Grhyme behind him, but she didn’t even break from her elaborate step dance; she’d been estranged from her biological dance for years, but it was like she had been given new life, new family, new love. How enamored she looked, completely succumbing to her adoration. Her head tilted back; her fingers trembled, grasping at the air as she splayed her arms and gasped in the heat of the music.

Councilman Durt closed his eyes as he let a shudder pass through his body, twitching his whiskers and making his hair stand on end. He clutched his necktie for support. “Hamlick,” he whispered to himself.

He couldn’t even say what it was about the guy, but there was something—oh there was something. The way he spoke, the promises he made for Midden and the people, the way he played… the way he played. That music made Councilman Durt feel things, it made him… want things. There was a divinity in Hamlick, the likes of which Atnaterra had never seen. He was going to change the worlds. And Councilman Durt would be there, right by his side, ready to do anything for him.

He leaped and swayed and let himself follow along by the sound of the music. When he opened his eyes again, the walls of the gulch were there, embracing him, drawing him closer to Hamlick—Hamlick!—and to the few of his fellow councilors lucky enough to be alone in this moment with their soon-to-be mayor.

He danced at Hamlick’s heels as the great walls of stone closed in tighter around him.