Root propped herself on her elbows to see over the top of the pile of bricks that hid them all from sight. Leftovers from the bridge construction most likely, they’d since been renovated into a condo complex for amphibians, bugs, and growth of all stripes. She swatted at a spider that scuttled over her hand and then looked sheepishly at Vit. They hadn’t noticed; their attention was locked on the commotion on the bridge.

“It looks like Ajis is trying to cross,” said Vit. “And the little guy, too. What was his name? Krug?”

“Kurg,” whispered Root. She’d killed the guy—least she could do was remember his name for next time they met.

They’d always known there would be a next time. They’d stolen Ajis’s book on mote periapts, and his (prior) possession of a tome on such subjects indicated that they were sort of like rival businesses, in a sense. Or something.

“That big guy isn’t letting them cross,” said Azriah, indicating the third spirit.

“Good news for us,” said Beel. “If he’s keeping them on the other side of the gully, he’s keeping them away from us.”

“Yeah, well, it might be a problem if he doesn’t want us to cross either.”

“Why would we want to cross when they are over there?”

“Hopefully it will be after they cross over to this side.”

Why would we want them to—”

“Can you guys shut up?” hissed Root. “I’m trying to hear.”

The spirit on the bridge was talking, which seemed to be a task requiring all of his focus. He was enormous, with huge arms that would’ve easily outweighed the rest of his body, thick with muscle and so long they nearly touched the bridge at his feet. His skin was phlegm green and pocked with brown sores and swollen warts. His head, looking much too small for the rest of him, bore two spiraling ram’s horns. Each sprouted from the top of his forehead, arched up and around and back past his ears, skirted his jaw, and then ended at razor points. Or, probably they ended at razor points. Root couldn’t tell for certain, because the tips were buried in his face just where his eyes should’ve been, like he’d failed to file them twenty too many times. How he hadn’t seen that coming was beyond her.

He wore only a loincloth—and not nearly one big enough, at that. But given the state of his eyes, Root couldn’t fault him for his lacking sense of fashion. Or decency.

“My bridge,” he said in a voice like the river below. He planted his bare, hairy feet more firmly at his position at the bridge’s center. “Pass only with per-mish-in.” Three syllables sounded like a reach for the big guy, but he managed them like a champ. It only took the better part of a minute.

Ajis took that minute to exchange a series of looks with Kurg. They stood just before the bridge’s threshold on the far side. Alongside the expressions, Ajis made a number of gestures, which progressed something like this:

Pointing at his own horn. Pointing at his eye. Closing his eyes and waving his hand in front of them. Pointing at Kurg (Kurg didn’t appear to like this one). Doing a little swishing motion with two of his clawed fingers like someone walking. Pointing at the troll spirit (Kurg liked this one even less). An “after you” gesture.

Kurg grabbed his big ears in his tiny little hands and made a face that displayed nothing short of sheer terror. But Ajis made it clear that he wasn’t going to gesture again.

Wrapping his cloak tighter around himself as if it might conceal him from the unseeing beast, Kurg crept forward onto the bridge. He got about halfway to the troll spirit.

The troll cocked his head, listening. He sniffed the air. Then with a growl, he leaned down with frightening reflexes and snatched up Kurg in one meaty fist.

“Pass only with… word I said last time!”

The troll raised his arm, and with a less-than-gentle overhand toss, sent Kurg flying back to the far bank. He landed out of sight beyond the tree line. He did not land out of earshot. Root winced.

He came waddling back out a moment later, limping and hopping on his oversized feet.

“Need riddle to cross.”

“We have to tell you a riddle?” asked Ajis.

“No. My riddle.”

Root shared a look with Azriah. “Obviously. What a fucking dumbass.”

Ajis snapped his fingers. “I’ve heard of this bridge, and your riddle. ‘What’s more useful when it’s broken?’ The answer is an egg. Now let us pass.” He didn’t wait for a response before stomping forward onto the bridge.

“No!” bellowed the troll. He stomped one foot; the shuddering of the bridge made Ajis stumble back. “That my old riddle. I have new one now.” He beamed.

“Fine, what is it?” Ajis snapped.

The troll took a deep breath and began to recite the riddle. His words came out quicker than they had previously—Root suspected he had memorized the thing and was more just making sounds from memory than anything. (Of course, he still didn’t speak all that quickly in the grand scheme of things.)

“A goatherd has twenty pairs of goats. Two pairs of kids are born for each original goat, then I eat forty-nine. How many goats are left for second dinner?”

“That’s not a riddle, that’s just math!”

“Is a riddle. My new riddle. Got it from the u-nion.”

“This is stupid, you will let us pass this instant!”

“Riddle,” said the troll.

Ajis balled his fists. His face turned a deeper shade of red-orange. “You… If you don’t let us pass, I will cast you into the river below and reduce your bridge to rubble!”

The troll thought for a moment. He did this often, but this moment was somewhat longer than his normal moments, which made it notable. “Then how would you cross?”

“I would destroy it after I cross! Obviously.”

“Why? Good bridge.”

“Because of your defiance!”

The troll looked confused. “No, my money fine.”


“I don’t know ‘bout that. I know ‘bout riddles.” The troll took a heavy seat on the bridge and started trying to fish something out of his ear.

Ajis looked about ready to boil over. “Fine. Fine. Kurg, help me count.” He put out his fingers and started muttering to himself, raising and lowering fingers as he went. “Twenty… twenty pairs. Twenty times two? Forty goats, and then…” Kurg followed along. It mostly looked like he was moving his fingers at random, trying to look busy and also avoid a boot in the gut. Poor guy.

Ajis leaned against the bridge wall. The troll perked up and sniffed the air again.

“Don’t touch bridge.”

Ajis paused his counting to look back up at the troll. “How can you even tell I’m touching your bridge?”

“Smells like you now. Smells bad.”

Ajis spat, and something hard bounced across the stones. He also stopped leaning on the bridge.

“Sixty, and then…” Ajis clacked his claws. He put a hand to his forehead, and then drummed them on one horn. “Kurg, what are you at?”

“Um, eighty-two, master.”

“Eighty-two. Eighty-two what?”

“Um, goats I think.”

“Of course they’re goats you fool, which generation?”

“Um, third?”

“There are only two!”

“Second, I meant.”

“Second,” Ajis muttered. “How many do you eat?”

“How many what?” asked the troll.


“Mmm. Goats. I eat as many I have.”

“In the riddle! How many goats did you say you eat in the riddle?”

The troll sat there for a moment. Then he stood, took a deep breath, and began to recite the words from the start.

“A goatherd has twenty pairs of goats. Two pairs—”

“I don’t need to hear it all, just the number!”

The troll continued unfazed. “…of kids are born for each original goat, then I eat forty-nine.”

“Forty-nine. That’s all I needed.”

“How many goats are left for second dinner?”

“Eighty-two, you said?” Ajis asked Kurg. “Was that including the original goats or not?”

“Uh, not, master.”

“Eighty-two. How many were in the first batch?”

The troll opened his mouth.

“Don’t speak!”

The troll shut his mouth.

“Twenty? Yes, twenty. Eighty-two plus twenty. Uh, is that a hundred?” He took another moment on his hands. “One hundred. And two. Minus forty-nine. That leaves…”

The worst part about his finger counting was the clicking noise his claws made.

“How many does that leave, Kurg?”


“One hundred minus forty. Sixty. But it’s forty-nine. Is that sixty-one? Yes, sixty-one plus forty-nine is one hundred.”

“Plus two, master.”


“You have to add the two back in, master.”

“Where have they gotten off to? Was this in the riddle? I wasn’t listening that second time.”

“No, master, they’re with the others, but the total was one hundred and two. Master.”

“Sixty-three, then.”

“Should we throw in some extras? Sixty-five? A tip. So he has more to eat. Might make him happy, more likely to let us pass.”

“You are an idiot, Kurg. We aren’t actually giving him goats.”

“Sorry, master.”

“What number did I say? Sixty-five?”


“Sixty-five goats!” Ajis called to the troll. “It’s sixty-five. Now let us pass!”

The troll grinned. “Ah-ha! You are wrong!”


“Sixty-five is wrong answer. Did not pass the riddle.”

“Well then what’s the right answer?”

The troll thought for a moment. His face fell from glee to concern. He scratched himself in multiple locations as he worked out his next words.

“I don’t remember.”

“You don’t remember the answer to your own riddle?”

“No. Uh, do you know it?”

“You complete and utter—”

Just then, the air in front of Ajis shimmered and split. Wisps of golden glitter pulled at the emptiness like claws ripping open a carcass. The split widened until it was roughly Ajis’s dimensions, or the size of a short, small doorway.

This development took far too long,” he said, his harsh words fading as he entered the portal. As he passed through it, the gap zipped back into oblivion. Kurg, scampering on at Ajis’s heels, passed through the dissipating glitter but did not vanish with his boss. He blinked, wide-eyed.

A second later there was movement in the air and then a second portal opened on the far side of the bridge. Ajis stepped out and stalked off down the path, shaking his head angrily. The portal vanished.

Root pushed herself lower behind the wall of bricks, now only a dozen paces from Ajis. Azriah quickly adjusted his own position to remain out of sight. Beel whimpered quietly.

Kurg danced in panic on the far side of the gully, watching Ajis and the hulking mass of troll between the two of them. He started to let out a shrill cry.


Suddenly, another portal opened up in the ground just below his feet, sucking him down. Another appeared just beside Ajis’s shoulder, spitting Kurg out into the dirt.

“…eeeEEEOof!” He pulled a leaf from his mouth, then scrambled to his feet and hurried off after Ajis.

Root and the others lay hiding in silence for several minutes following the last sign of Ajis. When they were sure he was gone, they emerged and approached the bridge.

The troll sat glumly with his elbows on his knees and his head propped on his hands. He frowned as he mouthed words to himself, slowly. As the four of them approached, he turned his head slightly, then stood up.

“Who comes to the bridge?”

“It’s… us,” said Root.

“Hi, Us. To pass, a riddle.” He put on the same theatrics, but it was clear his heart just wasn’t in it.

“All right, let’s hear the riddle.”

“A goatherd has twenty pairs of goats. Two pairs of kids are born for each original goat, then I eat forty-nine. How many goats are left for second dinner?”

“Just enough to fill your belly,” said Root.

The troll digested this for a minute (a full minute).


“We are correct,” said Root.

“Oh. Okay. Good. Go ahead.” He stepped to one side of the bridge and waved them past. The four of them crossed over the river gully and then set off down the path on the opposite side.

A goatherd has twenty pairs of goats. Two pairs of kids are born for each original goat, then I eat forty-nine. How many goats are left for second dinner? thought the troll as he sat atop the wall of the bridge, his feet dangling off the edge over the river below. He wasn’t bothered by heights, being a bridge troll spirit and all. Also because he was blind, so heights he couldn’t see didn’t bother him. Only the ones he could smell.

Twenty goats, he thought. Mm. Goats. Wait. How many?

Twenty. Twenty pairs. Two twenties. Forty. Right? Yes. Forty goats.

Mmm—goats! he thought. So juicy, full of meat. Roasted over fire. Crispy skin. Mmmm.

Wait—how many had there been? What had he gotten up to?

Twenty pairs. Forty. Two pairs of kids—

Mmm. Goat kids. So tender! Small, little special bites. De-ssert.

No, no! He had gotten distracted again. He had to focus and figure out the answer to the riddle.

Twenty pairs of goats. Goats! Mmmmm.

No, focus!

Hmm. What I eat for dinner?