The ground inside the cave made a lot of echoing crunches—not all on its own, but rather helped along by the soles of Root’s boots. She didn’t bother to look down because she wasn’t really interested in an answer. She was so uninterested in an answer, in fact, that she didn’t even bother to ask the question.

But oh, how it tried to be asked.

An investigation would hardly have done her any good, anyhow—the blackness swallowed the four of them as they stepped inside, and soon the silver light from the world outside had become so faint Root could hardly see her hand out in front of her.

“Should we light a candle?” she whispered. “Or make a torch?”

“I’ve got it,” said Vit, and a moment later the walls were awash in Vit’s green glow. Their four translucent spider arms hung over their shoulders like a gigantic monster’s claws; their eyes were like a constellation in the darkness.

Root kept going, fed by the sliver of confidence granted from the new certainty that there wasn’t a huge mouth two feet in front of her. There were no assurances about three.

I sound like Beel, she thought to herself.

“Lots more bones in here, huh?” said Vit.

“Could be,” said Root.

“Could? But—”

“I said could be.”

The light level wavered faintly like candlelight as Vit blinked.

Root took another dozen steps. Something emerged out of the darkness. She nearly shouted before identifying that thing as the wall, now close enough to be illuminated. It took a moment to calm her racing heart.

The great tunnel turned right and slanted deeper into the ground. But as it did so, it took on a new, somewhat more visible quality. Light came from around the bend.

They advanced deeper, going as silently as they could despite their cracking footfalls and Beel’s faint stream of whimpers. The new light grew brighter as they got closer, and soon Root blinked in the orange glow. A new sound reached their ears, and an accompanying breeze: the sound and feel of very large and very hot breaths.

Root reached the lip of the tunnel where it opened up into a huge space beyond. Her attention snapped immediately to the creature at the center of the floor.

A great dragon sat with its back to them, forty or more feet from beak to the tip of its feathered tail. Its body was glossy black that reflected gold in the fiery light like veins of ore. Five interlocking ram’s horns adorned the sides of its head and around the back of its neck, one each sprouting from either temple and the other three all oblong and self-contained, forming links like a chain between the two. Each reflected gold, then black, then gold again as the dragon moved; they shifted with a heavy, hollow rattling sound. Its beak, crow-like, matched the horns. Two gargantuan feathery wings rustled against its sides.

“Shit,” whispered Root. She felt the overwhelming urge to backpedal straight out of the cave. And she was in less danger than the others.

Beel stifled a horrified moan. He tried to back up behind Vit and tripped on whatever it was that littered the floor. Some unidentified item rolled the final few feet down the tunnel and then dropped over the ledge into the room beyond.

It hit the floor with an impossibly loud glonk! tli-lonk, tli-ti-tonk.

The dragon’s head swiveled like an owl’s. Two big eyes found them in an instant.

Beel was already running.

“Oh, visitors!” said the dragon. “Please, come in. I’ve just put some tea on. Can I get you anything else? I’m afraid the fresh bread I baked this morning got a bit burnt, or I would offer some. Oh, and I’ve got a nice new jar of apricot preserves! Where has that gone… oh, give me a moment…”

The three of them stood at the tunnel entrance, dumbfounded. Beel’s instincts had been quicker, and perhaps smarter, if in this instance also wrong.

With the alarm bells of danger subsiding to the healthy jingle of careful skepticism, Root took a moment to take her eyes off the huge spirit and give some attention to the things she hadn’t worried might kill her.

A high, domed ceiling topped the room, not cavernous stone as she’d thought (or assumed—she’d had more pressing things to keep an eye on), but rather painted scenes amidst the spokes of thick timber beams. A chandelier grand enough for a palace hung from the center, alight with a thousand candles. Shelves lined every wall of the circular room holding a collection of stuff that made the W. H. Shop of Wonders (or whatever it was called these days) look like a junk drawer. Even more stuff lay in towering heaps all across a floor dressed in fine rugs and plush furniture. Some of the furnishings were sized proportionally to a forty-foot-long dragon spirit, while others took the dimensions that Root found suitable for lounging upon or carrying through a front door. A wooden staircase made the descent from the tunnel to the floor, complete with balusters and a black, gold, and red runner.

Vit stepped onto the landing at the top of the stairs. “Hi! I’m Vit. This is Root, Azriah, Orne Tyn… uh, Beel seems to be somewhere else at the moment. And what’s your name?”


“…Ah, take your time then.”

“Please, make yourselves at home.” Urm waved one of her wings to the array of seating.

“I’ll go look for Beel,” said Root.

“I’ll go, I can see better,” said Vit. “You guys go ahead.”

Root and Azriah descended the staircase into the cave. Walking along the floor, the ceiling looked even higher, the shelves even taller. The mounds of stuff were like proper hills in the room, each one a pile of the most random assortment of items Root could imagine. With the rugs and the furniture, it felt like a giant, cozy living room in a rich family’s estate. The heaps of stuff made it look like they’d blown their fortune in pursuit of a life as hoarders instead.

The rows of shelves and warm atmosphere gave it the look of a library—that is, if the resident librarian wasn’t entirely sure what a book was but wanted to be sure they’d thoroughly checked all of the boxes.

“I thought dragons were supposed to collect gold or jewels, not… everything,” said Root to Azriah, keeping her voice hushed. She didn’t know how Urm’s hearing was and didn’t want to offend a host who would only need to forget to watch her footing in order to find herself a new, less-charred option for hors-d’oeuvres.

“Maybe some are just less picky,” said Azriah. He took a hesitant seat in a red velvet armchair. No sooner had he gotten settled than he stood back up, turned, and fished around alongside the cushion until he came back up holding a wrench.

Urm saw him withdraw the tool and came in closer. Azriah held up the wrench apologetically. “Sorry, just found this in the chair.”

Urm sniffed the wrench. “Ah. Ten millimeter. I’ve got tons of those. Just toss it over there.” She made a vague gesture with her wing that could’ve indicated any of a number of piles of stuff.

“Here we are,” said Vit walking across the floor, followed very closely by a very apprehensive-looking Beel. “Very apprehensive” was Beel’s usual state of being, which made him an annoyingly useless canary when his reaction was the same to a forty-foot dragon as it was to finding a slug too near where he was expected to sleep.

“Please, please, sit,” urged Urm. “Tea?” She held an oversized kettle in one forelimb. A trail of tea tags hung out the top.

“Uh, yeah, sure—thank you,” said Root. She poured her a cup.

“Is it hot enough?”

Root paused. She took a sip. “Yes. Um, thanks.”

Urm poured a cup for Vit. They thanked her and sipped it, then with a puzzled expression they looked up at the dragon.

“Uh, excuse me? Sorry, this is still lukewarm.”

“That’s what I meant,” said Root.

“Oh, drat—I can never tell.” Urm held up the kettle and opened her beak. A spurt of fire flared from her maw and enveloped it; the strings and tags clinging to the teabags crumbled to embers. “That should do it. Here…” She took Root’s cup and gave it the same treatment. The porcelain had a light dusting of soot when she returned it.

Root lifted the cup and sipped it again as Urm did the same to Vit’s. She set it on the coffee table in front of them. “Give those a moment—the ceramic will melt your fingers right off.”

Root set her cup back down on the saucer beside her.

“So,” said Vit, retracting their hand away from their cup. “Very nice place you have here. Plenty of… things. Are you a collector?”

“A collection? You could call it that.” Urm lowered herself onto all fours and paced between a few piles of stuff. “Most call it a hoard. Every dragon has a hoard.”

“Right,” said Vit. “I’ve heard about that. But—you’ll have to excuse me, perhaps I’ve picked up some misconceptions from old fairy tales. I thought dragons usually hoarded, uh, treasure.”

“Gold, they mean,” said Azriah hurriedly. “Treasure can take all sorts of forms.”

“Oh, some hoard riches. Others have their own specialties—swords, books, those little tabs they’re using to package bread these days. I just find that so boring.”

“Such a narrow focus,” said Vit with a nod.

“Oh, no, my hoard has a focus. I hoard the things that people desire.” Urm spread her wings, indicating the shelves. “Everything in this room is something that someone wants.”

“Like, things people have lost?” asked Vit.

“Sometimes. Not always. Plenty gets lost that people don’t miss all that much. If they’re really on the hunt for it, I might bring it in.”

“Ah. So not the lost socks that are part of a boring pack, but the ones with funny patterns that only have the one match.”

“Something like that.”

“I’d expect gold to still meet the qualifications,” said Azriah looking around.

Urm rustled her feathers. “Sure. It does. But like I said, so boring. The desire for money is so nebulous, so superficial. People want money, sure, but they don’t even want a particular sum, they just want more, and it’s never the end of the matter—they want money as a crutch to carry them along to the true desire hiding behind that little golden veneer.” She huffed a laugh. It smelled like smoke. “People are so funny. Apricot preserves?”

Urm set out a crystal bowl of the chunky orange goo and several slices of bread—baked a few days ago, she apologized, on account of the morning’s baking mishaps. It must’ve been getting on towards lunch time—or had it passed? The hectic day left Root feeling like the hours had sped by and slogged all at once. Her stomach sounded like Orne Tyn. She dunked a slice of the bread inelegantly into the preserves and took a bite. A glob dripped down her chin.

“Do you have a napkin?”

“Ah, yes, here you are.” Urm handed her a piece of paper.

“…Is this someone’s diploma?”

“Not really—not yet, at least, and probably never will be. I have thousands—all those boxes on the top shelves over there, sorted alphabetically. I use the T’s as napkins. The H’s are for fire starters.”

“You need fire starters?” asked Vit.

“Doesn’t everyone?”

Vit didn’t push the matter further.

“So you hoard things that people want,” said Vit. “Makes sense that we ended up here, then.”

“Yes, many do.” Urm crawled a bit closer, cocked her head and lifted it higher to scrutinize Vit more clearly. “And what is it that brought you all here today?”

“We’re looking for a can of cocktail bratwurst and beans cocktail. We tried to buy some in Flagollet, but the clerk at Wurst Mart said they’d sold out this morning.”

“Ah, yes! I did go and buy the last can. An inkling drove me out on the errand and told me to buy it—I get a lot of those instincts, you know.” Urm looked around and scratched her chin. She picked through a couple of piles before she returned to where the four of them sat and placed a single can on the table.

“And what do we have to do to get it?” asked Azriah with an edge of miserable sarcasm. “Go deliver a package to your daughter in town?”

“Oh—well, I suppose if you’re offering, I wouldn’t turn down the favor. I was just going to give you the can.”

Azriah’s mouth hung open for a moment. He snapped it shut.

“Well, if the alternative is still on the table…”

“Oh, no, you all could be a huge help—thank you.” Urm moved away and began to do some more rummaging.

“Dammit,” Azriah said, quiet but forcefully and more to the rest of them than to Urm. He leaned back in his armchair and hung his head in one hand. The muscles in his arm were tense, the knuckles of his other hand turning white as they gripped the armrest. “What’s the favor, then?”

“You can deliver this package to my daughter in town.” Urm returned with a small, wrapped parcel. “Something I came by some time ago. I think it will help her.” She held it out for Azriah.

He snatched it up somewhat tersely. He looked down at the wrapping and sighed. His hand relaxed. “Yeah, we can do that.”

“You have a daughter?” asked Vit. “She must be a half-spirit, like me.”

“No, she is not my daughter by blood. I’ve collected many orphans over the years. They fit the criteria. Lots of people want children.”

“A real shame for the ones you don’t bring back,” muttered Root.

Azriah studied the address affixed to the parcel. “Right in Flagollet. That’s easy. We will bring this over and be right back,” he said.

It sounded like he believed it, for a change.

They found the house on the northern end of town. It was modest, with a weathered roof and chipping paint, but tucked near a stream and rimmed by a flowerbed speckled with blooms of pink, orange, and white. The white flowers glowed; the orange ones sounded like they were wheezing.

Azriah knocked, and they waited a long moment until the pale face of a human girl answered. She looked like she’d just woken up. Her long hair was noticeably unbrushed, locks of that ambiguous shade that some people lumped into red, others into blonde, and some called brown, with plenty still who would try to string together some random assortment of hue and fruit words into a description much too haughty a descriptor for light brown. She wore an oversized shirt and pants like she had woken up inexplicably smaller than when she went to bed. She blinked out at the four of them as if the afternoon twilight was brighter than she’d been exposed to in several days.

Despite the girl’s disheveled appearance, Root couldn’t help but be suddenly aware of her own, surely equally disheveled, wilderness-tromping, acutely-unwashed appearance. It occurred to her that she hadn’t bathed since before their trip through the Midden sewers.

“Can I help you?” asked the girl.

“Are you…” Azriah read. “Nara Merry?”


“This is from your mom.”

“My mom is in her room…”

“Your, uh, dragon mom?”

“Oh, Urm.” Nara took the package and looked at the neat writing on the card. Her shoulders relaxed and the idea of a smile acquainted itself with her lips. “Thanks.”

“No problem,” said Azriah with a wave, already turning his feet back in the direction of Urm’s cave. Nara shut the door.

“That was easy,” said Vit.

“And it’s done,” said Azriah with a fresh batch of agitated hardness in his voice. “Let’s go get the beans.”

“Oh, welcome back!” said Urm, looking up as the four of them descended the stairs back to the cavern floor. “How was Nara?”

“Looked sleepy,” said Beel.

“Yes, I’m sure she did. Here you are.” Urm passed the can of beans to Azriah as he reached her.

“Thank you. Uh, now, it also occurred to me on the walk back over here… You wouldn’t happen to have a box of vanilla wafer cookies, would you?”

Urm looked around. “Oh, hm, no, I’m afraid not.”



“Made by the spirit Grelga?” added Vit.

“Oh, no.”

“Dallywill-shembulgart cream?”

“I’m not familiar. Sounds potent.”

“A quostress potion?”

“I’d never cross the union.”

“Yeah, I figured,” said Azriah, rubbing the back of his neck. “Just had to check.”

“What about a trout’s toe?” asked Root.

“Do they have any? I suppose it has been a few millennia since I did a proper check.”

“Do you have a smock? That’s, uh, damp? And possibly salty?”

“None that are damp. Or were. I don’t have a great record when it comes to drying clothes, I’m afraid.”

“Well, this will do,” said Azriah. “Thank you. And for the snacks as well.”

“Oh you are all very welcome, I do love company. Folks come around, sure, but not nearly as often as I’d like.”

“Maybe see if you can get your address changed,” offered Vit.

“Or tidy up your yard and entryway,” suggested Root.

“Yes, perhaps.”

“And, now, what was your name again?” added Vit.


“Still thinking then, not a problem.”

Root took a step towards the stairs and her foot collided with something that clinked as it rolled across the floor. She looked down just in time to see a bottle of rum stash itself beneath a couch.

“Oh, excuse all of those bottles,” said Urm. “Far too much alcohol in here.”

Urm saw them off at the entrance with a bundle of snacks for the road which included, much to Root’s glee, three bottles that Urm had managed to coax out from under the furnishings. She waved to them as they set off, and then retreated back into the darkness.

“She was nice,” said Vit.

“Shouldn’t’ve offered to be her private postal worker,” said Root.

“It’s fine,” said Azriah with a huff. “Let’s just get this back to Gropply. We have what we need to get the cream now, so that’s two ingredients done—for real this time.”

“Fingers crossed,” said Vit. The four of them walked for a minute, and then, looking back, they added, “It’s just a shame she never did recall her name.”

Nara retreated into the stale and stuffy air of her bedroom, lit only by the light that filtered in through the gaps in the curtains. She thumbed the card from Urm as she unwrapped the package to reveal a simple wooden box, slightly splintery and slightly charred. She cracked the lid, but in the low light, she couldn’t see within. She prodded two fingers curiously into the shadows.

As her fingers found the item inside, she sighed, and then she smiled. Maybe it was a good day to crack the window for some air.