The first hurdle in the hunt for the second item on Pag’s list of potion ingredients—dallywill-shembulgart cream—was figuring out what, precisely, dallywill-shembulgart cream was. Knowing the name alone offered them little when the question remained of where to look for it. Was it something secreted by flora or fauna, an ingredient to forage? Was it some sort of lotion, something to buy from an herbalist—preferably one who didn’t know them—or apothecary? Or perhaps some kind of dessert? Maybe it was a sort of polish for shoes or wood or metal, or a lubricant for squeaky doors, or something akin to hair gel. All of those options, of course, assumed it wasn’t a misnomer to begin with.
And they only had one shot, assuming they didn’t want to do the equivalent of walking into a bakery and confidently asking for floor cleaner.
They agreed, as they walked somewhat aimlessly in a direction away from the odd parade they’d seen flouncing their way through the woods, that their best bet was to bypass Lallslatt and walk to a larger village nearby by the name of Lasting—for the increased chances of finding what they sought, they said, though silently there was an equal interest in going somewhere they hadn’t yet embarrassed themselves.
Of course, when asking around for dallywill-shembulgart cream, it was only a matter of time.
Long as the day had felt, it was hardly past the Atnaterran equivalent of noon, so they took a break for lunch and then continued on their path east. By the time the afternoon had begun to wane, they reached the village of Lasting.
In appearance, it bore a resemblance to Lallslatt, though the buildings touched—if, in some places, a bit too much and a bit too enthusiastically. The atmosphere carried a similar cheer and merriment and smell of fresh pastries, which had an easier time staying put and reaching the mouths of those who baked them. The major streets cut outwards from a central plaza, chopping the village into wedges like… well, like a pastry. Root put a hand on her stomach. Perhaps lunch hadn’t been all that fulfilling. She’d grown more accustomed to the usual slew of mushrooms over the weeks, but they just didn’t scratch the itch for something in a crust.
The four of them reached the plaza and stopped.
“What about the most general general store we can find? At least as a starting point,” said Vit, well-versed in their situation by this point.
“Probably the best we’re going to get,” conceded Azriah. “Unless we want to go find a library.”
“No,” said Root. She’d had enough of libraries; they’d spent far too long poking their noses into books after leaving Ophylla in the dust—literally. Libraries always smelled like smoke.
“Let’s try there,” said Vit, pointing, and led the way. They crossed the plaza, interrupting a heated game of “kicking things” as they crossed through, though not without apology, and entered the narrow shop.
Two spirits worked the store, one behind a counter and the other stocking shelves. The one restocking the merchandise was well equipped for the duty, moving things around in her six arms that stretched and retracted. The other spirit looked like sticks.
“Excuse me,” said Vit, approaching Stretchy Arms. She looked at them with an affronted glare; the cilia that lined her face and arms rippled.
“What-cha need?” said Sticks. She chewed nebulously.
“We’re looking for something. Uh, dallywill-shembulgart cream. Do you… have any?”
Stretchy Arms turned aside to throw a glance at Sticks, who met her eyes. She snorted in suppressed laughter.
“You’re looking for what?”
“Dallywill-shembulg— shembulgart cream…?”
The few other patrons in the store looked on in half-concealed amusement.
“Funny thing…” started Vit.
“We don’t sell it, whatever it is,” said Sticks. “Sounds potent, though.” She shared another look with her coworker and nearly stumbled into a second fit of giggles.
“So probably you don’t know where we could get some, then?”
Stretchy Arms looked up at them with just as much hospitality as before.
“Well, thank you,” said Azriah, and put a firm hand on Vit’s shoulder to steer them back towards the door. They returned to the street with muffled giggling at their backs.
“So that went exactly as anticipated,” said Root.
“Nothing to do but try somewhere else,” said Vit.
“Or we could all just go,” suggested Beel.
Azriah glanced back at the store. “What if it’s not even real?”
“The sage was,” said Vit. “Didn’t sound like it would be either.”
“It’s probably just some weird obscure witch thing,” said Root.
Vit perked up. “That’s true. Where would a witch shop?”
“I don’t think they have special witch shops. They’re just people. With a special… interest.”
“Let’s just see what’s around,” said Azriah.
They walked down a new street, scanning the shops and market stalls with nothing particular in mind. When Root spotted a store that looked to be crammed with knickknacks, they ventured in, but were met with more or less the same reaction—kinder, on the one hand, but also accompanied by a good bit more skeptical squinting and checking their eyes for signs of head injury. Root briefly considered playing along just to save face.
The third place they inquired was a market stall selling spices. They hadn’t heard of dallywill-shembulgart cream either, but they were running a sale on cardamom and something called “fmynscht” and rationed that the two together would probably be just as good for whatever it was they needed the cream for. Root didn’t trust anything that steered that clear of vowels.
Their fourth attempt threatened to call the village guard (singular). They left.
“This is stupid,” said Root. “I say we just go back to Pag. Maybe if she’d just give us fucking directions—”
“Someone has to know,” said Vit.
“Yeah, maybe someone does—you wanna ask every person on the damn street until you find them?”
Vit looked up and down the road. They pursed their lips.
“I might be with Root,” said Azriah. “We’re looking for a needle in a haystack. The least Pag can do is tell us what it is, or where she finds it.”
“The least Pag can do is a lot more damage to her cooking utensils,” corrected Beel. “And my ears.”
“Do you have ears?” asked Root.
“Sometimes I wish not.”
“Excuse me,” said Vit as a huge spirit shambled by.
“Here we go,” grumbled Root.
“Hur?” The great furry mass turned and looked down at Vit.
“I’m sorry, we’re looking for something, but we don’t really know where to find it. Have you heard of dallywill-shembulgart cream?”
The spirit rolled their eyes, which included some very graphic and literal rotating. “No,” they grunted.
“Okay, thanks anyway. Sorry to bother you.”
“But sounds like Rette.”
Vit paused. “Rette?”
“Healer. Whundle Street.”
“Oh—thank you! And that’s here in Lasting?”
Vit turned back to the others. “See? That wasn’t so hard at all.”
They found Whundle Street with ease, which was a welcome change of pace. It was a back alley, backwater, backwash little strip near the village’s north end with fewer people on the street but plenty of other junk to make up for it. Old furniture, unattended shop tables with scant goods, and stacked boxes containing a wide collection of belongings lined the way, giving it a look like everyone on the block had picked the same moving day—like they were playing a game of musical real estate. It was as if all of the buildings had vomited their contents into the road.
Many of the shops had no sign—some even had no door or alternative hole of entry—but only one building was adorned with a garland of gauze bandages, and so taking that as a good sign (but not as good as, say, the name of the establishment), they ventured inside.
The inside looked much the same as the street in that it was cluttered and relatively uninhabited, but it smelled less of urine and more of sugar. As the door thudded shut, a spirit peeked out from behind a curtain into a back room.
“Oh!” she said and hurried out. “Hiii!”
Built like a gourd, the little spirit didn’t walk so much as tumble around as if perpetually in the middle stage of tripping. Her wings beat the air once as she approached, and the single flap lifted her up and onto a long, stained table that Root could tell by sight alone was sticky enough to rival her little sister after pancake morning. The spirit swiveled her eyestalk and perked up her… wings? Which on second glance and in their new position might have been ears. Or both.
“Hi,” said Azriah. “We’re looking for Rette?”
“Azriah. Nice to meet you.” Azriah put out a hand. Rette put her eyestalk in his palm and shook, much to the blatant startlement of Azriah.
“Soooo, which one of you is dying?” asked Rette, looking over each of them. “Is it youuu?” she asked, eye pointed at Beel.
“Why? Does it look like I am? Where?”
“We are looking to buy something, actually,” said Azriah. He took a deep breath and a moment to steel himself. “Dallywill-shembulgart cream.”
He breathed a sigh of relief. “You know what it is?”
“Yes! A painkiller! Poootent stuff!”
“And… do you sell it?”
Vit patted Azriah on the back with a grin. “We’d like to buy some.”
“Okaay!” Rette waddled to the edge of the table; the skin of her soles peeled free from the surface with each tiny step. She hopped to the floor and hurried into the back room.
“That’s two down, then,” said Vit. “Toe of trout next, and then the smock. We’re halfway there, and it hasn’t even taken a full day.”
“Maybe a nearby pond for the trout,” said Root. “Or a river. Or, if they have toes, are we looking for some sort of land variety…?”
“I have bad news!” said Rette, reemerging.
Their collective sigh was audible and loud enough to rival the volume of Rette’s dialogue.
“I am aaaaalmost out!”
All four of them paused. One of the words in particular was not bad news, but no one wanted to address it for fear of shattering the illusion and finding bad news underneath. But one of them had to bite, and it was Beel—ever skeptical of potential good news—who did the honors.
“Yes! I have only a tiiiiiny little bit!”
“Could we… buy it?”
Rette shook her eyestalk. There was a lot of shoulder-slumping. “I might need it! For a patient!”
“And you’ll have more…?” asked Vit.
“Oh, I don’t know! I don’t have allllll the ingredients! But I’’’ll make you a deal—if you run an errand for me, I’ll make a fresh batch and give you some! Freeee of charge!”
“It’s… a little urgent,” said Azriah. “I don’t suppose you know of anywhere else that has some in stock?”
“Nope! It’s my owwwn recipe!”
“Of course it is.”
The four of them shared a look. It was not a happy look, nor a patient one. Vit shrugged.
“What’s the errand?” they asked. “Are the ingredients here in Lasting?”
“I only need one ingredient—frosting! Grelga has some, she lives to the northeast!”
“I can make some frosting,” offered Vit.
“It must be from Grelga, I only use the beeeest ingredients!”
Root wanted to rip her hair out. “Fine. But you’re telling us exactly where to go.”
“Certainly!” She picked up a pencil. Azriah laid out the paper with Syrus’s directions on the front and Pag’s ingredient list on the back. They waited while Rette added a map to one corner. She peeled it stickily from the table and passed it back.
“We’ll be back tomorrow,” said Azriah.
“Thank you! Have fun!”
Noting the hour, they bought dinner in Lasting and packed it for the road. They cut through the woods, keeping their path as direct as they could manage. They walked until they grew hungry, paused for dinner, and then walked another hour. Just as they were preparing to stop for the night, they came to a deep gully.
Rapids crashed over rocks below, stirring up a great surge of foam. Fifty feet away loomed the opposite bank which was, unfortunately, the side that they wanted to be on at the moment.
“I can swing us all across with my webs,” suggested Vit.
“No, I’m all right, thank you,” said Beel. Vit opened their mouth. “And don’t propose throwing me again. I didn’t like it the last time. You weren’t gentle.” Vit closed their mouth.
“I don’t know,” said Azriah, peering over the edge.
“What about a bridge?” they said.
“… Made from webs?”
“And other stuff, probably. Forest debris.”
“You’re not inspiring confidence,” said Root.
“It’s late anyway,” said Azriah. “We can figure it out in the morning.”
“I’ll take watch,” said Vit.
They made camp and Root curled up beneath a tree. She fell asleep to the sounds of the river and Vit muttering to themself nearby.
She dreamed that she was back on the farm and her older sister Eshra kept telling her to do things. “Go get the shovel,” “Go water the worms,” “Bake Malie a pie.” It was one of her least favorite Atnaterra dreams yet. And apparently she was still caught up on pastries.
When they were all up again the next morning, they reassessed the gully problem.
“You know, I was thinking,” said Azriah, “we passed a path not too long ago, looked like it was running north. If it crosses the gully, there might be a bridge somewhere up ahead.”
“There could be a bridge right here,” said Vit with the undertones of an offer.
“I’m with Azriah,” said Beel.
“We’ll keep it as a backup,” said Azriah to Vit. “First, let’s see what’s ahead.”
There was a bridge ahead—a leaping arch of stone adorned with a curtain of moss. They reached it before too long, much to the disappointment of Vit and the relief of the others. Their relief was short-lived as they got closer. Voices on the air gave them pause, hardly audible above the sound of the river below. They crept forward slower, moving up the hill, until they could see over the bridge wall and past the thick foliage of the woods.
Three figures were locked in heated conversation on the bridge—or rather, one of them was on the bridge, and the other two were not on the bridge but looked like they quite wanted to be on the bridge, and that that might be the source of some strife. But more concerning than the territorial dispute unfolding before them was the familiarity of the two unbridged spirits, one of whom Root had killed, albeit not by her intentions, and the other she hadn’t killed in much the same circumstances.
“What’s up there?” asked Beel, who was too short to see.
Azriah put a finger to his lips as he waved them behind a mound of old bricks. Root leaned down closer to Beel.
“Vrabo,” Vit muttered to themself as they paced along the length of the gully while the others slept. “Robva. Orbav. O… O… Borva. Nope, did that one already. Avorb. Ovarb. B… Br… Borab. No. Vobra. That’s pretty cool, kinda like ‘cobra.’ Cobra Team. Hm. I could change my name to Cit. Hmm. B… Brova. No. Sounds like I’m saying ‘brother’ in a silly way. Borva. Damn it, why do I keep doing that one? R… R… Roabv. R…”