Hunting for toe of trout proved no easier or less humiliating than their search for dallywill-shembulgart cream. Realistically, it should have—at least in the sense that, as far as Root was concerned, she could conceptualize what toe of trout might be if truly it existed and didn’t hide behind a flowery and incongruous pseudonym. She knew without stretching her mind too far at all what the two words meant on their own, and the “of” left little to speculation on how the two might be related, even if common sense did try to butt in with its own two cents. That should’ve been a leg up on the dallywill-shembulgart hunt, at least.

Leaving Rette as just a ringing in their ears and bits of stickiness on parts of their bodies they could’ve sworn hadn’t touched any surfaces in the room, they started over from the top. Finding themselves once again in Lasting, the very site of their string of previous embarrassments, held them in a bit of a bind. They could not, they quickly and unanimously agreed, under any circumstances return to a venue where they’d previously asked after the cream, unless they wanted to pencil some time into their tight schedule for being forcibly removed from an establishment via a strong grip, chorus of laughter, or both.

Their first attempt brought them to a mellow fisher’s hut on the creek-facing edge of town. The rotting building looked out over the water like a bear peering into the ripples with a post-hibernation grogginess. Without any waterways larger than Root could wade across, Lasting had little in the way of a suitable fishing industry, but it did have Biller and Gulk, who personally considered themselves plenty suitable.

(To Biller, colloquially and locally known as “Naked Bill,” “suitable” meant “able to be dressed in a suit,” which he found described him perfectly. To Gulk, “suitable” meant “a very eligible bachelor,” which he found described him perfectly as well.)

Biller and Gulk sat on the creekside with their feet up and their bottles in that same position more often than not. They hardly remembered their fishing lines at all, and that was all well and good because nothing was biting, owing mostly to the dead fish on the hook of each that rode limply through the current after neglect had turned them from the catch of the day into—with any real luck—bait for the next thing that happened along.

“Morning,” said Azriah as the four of them approached the pair from behind.

Biller looked up and squinted. “Izit that time aredy? How long we bin out ‘ere Gulk?”

“Dunno,” said Gulk, taking a swig.

“Sorry to bother you both, we’re just searching for some fish… paraphernalia?”

“Weird way to put it,” said Root.

“What would you say, then?”

“Cut of meat?” asked Vit. “Maybe it’s like a filet.”

“No one is— anyway,” said Azriah, turning back to the pair of spirits. “We’re looking for toe of trout. Are you… familiar?”

“Toe o’ trout? You hear that, Gulk? This boy’s lookin’ fer fish wit toes on ‘em!”

“Well, we don’t need them to be on the fish anymore, actually,” said Vit.

“Toes,” slurred Gulk. “Toes on da fish.” He wiggled one stumpy leg around and then splashed it into the creek.

“Nah, we ain’t heard o’ no fish toes,” said Biller. “Say, you drunk there, boy?” He wobbled a bit as he craned his neck to look more closely at Azriah’s face.

“Ah, Bill! Look what’s comin’ out the creek!” Gulk pointed frantically. Two toes stuck up out of the mud just below the water’s surface.

“Got to be them trout toes!” said Biller, waving his arms about in feigned surprise.

“Ah!” said Gulk as he wrenched his leg free. His toes burst from the shallows with a shlunp!, dripping with mud. He and Biller pealed into drunken laughter.

“Thank you, gentlemen,” said Azriah. “Best of luck with the day’s catch. Or yesterday’s, if you care to reel it in.” He turned and the four of them stalked off.

“That guy wasn’t wearing anything,” said Beel as they hurried away, the sound of laughter still echoing off the trees.

“No? Neither are you,” said Root.

“It’s different for him,” said Beel with a shudder.

Drunk, crazy, pranksters, or flat-out stupid—that was the reputation they earned as the morning wore on. Root appreciated the variety if nothing else. One person even tried to point them back towards Rette, who seemed to have notoriety as the village’s… quirkiest inhabitant. But Rette knew nothing about toe of trout, as they’d already learned, and so they pressed on, driving their image further and further into utter disrepair.

True desperation came when Root, sitting on a park bench under the impending threat of lunch, turned to the child sitting next to her and asked the same question that had burned itself into her tongue.

The little girl looked up at Root with the startled expression of a small child being spoken to by any grown-up other than their own parents. She retreated in on herself, and Root thought she’d sit and stare and offer nothing more, but then she shook her head. Which was an answer, and an unsurprising one, and hardly disappointing because by that point Root hardly had a hope left at all, never mind one to prop up on some misguided optimism.

Grim knows everything,” said the girl after a wide-eyed moment.

Root paused. “Grim?”

The girl nodded.

“Who’s Grim?”

“Um, Grim is like maybe six feet tall probably is what my dad said. He also said that I could probably hold my breath the longest out of anyone so I could probably have a worlds record if I tried and I said maybe like… next week or something? Because I have to practice and get really more better at it first maybe.”

From experience watching her younger sister with new acquaintances, Root could tell she teetered dangerously on the dreaded precipice of sociability with this girl. She had mere seconds to plan an escape if she didn’t want to spend the afternoon on that bench. The dam was about to burst.

“That’s… pretty cool,” said Root. “Maybe you should practice right now?”

The girl sucked in a deep breath and then clamped her mouth shut. Her cheeks puffed out. Root watched enthusiastically for a second and a half.

“You know, that’s really good. Keep at it. I have to go, though, good luck!”

For all she knew, the girl really could hold her breath longer than anyone. It was certainly the last glimpse Root got of her. She hurried down the street until she found Beel waiting outside a shop. Azriah stepped out the door as she approached, followed by an escapee huff of laughter quickly snuffed by the abruptly closed door.

“Hey—has anyone mentioned Grim to you?”

“Did you run here?”



“I didn’t want her to follow me.”

Azriah’s hand strayed to the hilt of his sword.

“Not like that. Grim. Have you heard the name?”

“No. Who is Grim?”

“Maybe some girl’s imaginary friend,” said Root. “Or possibly someone with some answers.”

Root filled Azriah in as they located Vit—which didn’t take much, on either front. The girl had shared very little, and yet quite a lot. Finding Vit just meant following the sound of mockery. They made a quick inquiry at one of the dwindling number of establishments they hadn’t yet been laughed out of and confirmed Grim was real—or so people said. They lived in the deepest corner of the woods, and the rumors said they knew the answer to “nearly everything.” “Nearly” sounded good enough to them, so they left Lasting behind in search of a real lead and perhaps a more compassionate disposition.

Evening encroached by the time they located Grim’s home. The woods wove in dark and stifling all around them, the colors of the treetops rejecting some of their usual more convivial hues and skewing instead towards the somber—purple, black, silver, maroon, and turquoise. But still not blue, of course.

The ground sloped downward all around, too, leading them into a valley dense with trees, as if the woods around them was clawing its way out of a pit for a little more room to spread its boughs. The air grew colder, and fewer sounds chirped and chittered in the canopy—and the sounds that remained were not the sort Root liked to hear from somewhere out of sight, though seeing the things that made them would have surely been worse, and second only to the thing seeing her.

As soon as they arrived in the vicinity of Grim’s home, pinpointing its location was easy. Rising above the treetops reached a stump as thick around as a city block. It loomed over the trees four times over like a great tower, and then stopped as its form warped into the twisted, shattered shape of an old god hewn down by a power more ancient than its own. That, or a monstrously large axe.

They set a course straight for the old tree.

Around its base writhed a mass of gnarled roots like a mound of fallen trees contorting in agony before being set alight. They splayed in all directions as if trying to escape—reaching, breaching through the dirt like sea monsters in the surf. Deep within them, framed by their arches and shrouded almost into imperceptibility by the shadows, sat a simple wooden door.

Silence thundered in the woods around them. The four of them stopped just shy of the shadowed hollow and stared.

“Well,” said Root, “I’ve made about…” She did a quick tally on her fingers. “Seventeen? Eighteen? Inquiries. What are you all at?”

More silence filled a moment of collective counting.

“Fifteen, maybe?” said Vit.

“I think eleven,” said Azriah.


“What? Oh, I don’t know.”

“Sounds like you’re up.”

“I am not going alone to that door.”

Root shrugged.

“Are you scared?” he asked.

“Are you?”


“I’ll ask,” said Azriah. He approached the door, descending into the shadows. At the threshold, he paused. Then he knocked.

The spirit who answered was not six feet tall, but by the way they were built, they looked like they should have been. Gaunt and lithe, they looked like a blob of spilled ink stained into the wood grain of an old desk. They hunched—but, notably, not enough that straightening up would get them more than halfway past five—and held their insect-like arms awkwardly in front of them, elbows back and wrists forward, like it was their first day with the new appendages and they hadn’t yet gotten around to reading the user manual. Their whole body was pitch-black like the silhouette of a shadow but for two pinpoints of white light that Root interpreted as eyes.

“Hello,” said Azriah. “It’s Grim, is it?”

“The day? Yes, quite, for some.”

“Ah, no, I meant your name.”

“Oh. Yes. Excuse me, sometimes I forget about the little things.”

“We heard you know everything.”


“We’re looking for something—a potion ingredient for a witch—and we’re not sure where to find it. Could you help us?”

Grim looked at Azriah for a long moment, then shifted and looked at Vit, Beel, and Root. Something told her they saw more than her face and scars and muddy clothes.

“Possibly. Come in.”

The inside looked nothing like the outside, save the abundance of wood. Rounded wooden walls, wooden floor, and wooden ceiling encapsulated a room that looked to have been not so much hollowed out as grown around, like the ancient tree made space for them, wanted them there. Root didn’t love that thought.

It reminded her of Urm’s cave, but tidier, not because everything had a place and made its way back to that place in between uses, but because the range of things was pared down from “everything” to “every book” and generally didn’t seem to be collecting in piles that made Root fear to delve too deeply into them or else run the risk of unearthing a colony of nameless critters. Instead, towers of books rose up like pillars and overflowed from a mismatched maze of shelves. Along the far side of the room, a spiral staircase clung to the wall, beckoning onto its steps with a banister curling roguishly aside. It vanished through a gap in the ceiling. Even the steps were laden with a cascade of books.

A dead tree stuffed with old books; Root shoved her hands into her pockets and held her fingertips tight. The sooner they were out of that death trap, the better.

“A potion ingredient…” said Grim, shambling through the aisle between shelves and scratching their formless chin. As they followed along behind the spirit, Root became aware of an uneasy rustling sound… and something else—almost like an army of overlaid whispers.

“Yes,” said Azriah. “We were told to find ‘toe of trout.’”

“Hmm. Toe of trout…” Grim stopped in front of a shelf and pondered this for a moment. “Quiet, you,” they said suddenly, seemingly to no one in particular. “You know you don’t know what they’re asking.” One of the books on the shelf shuddered in its slot.

Grim looked up towards the top of the shelf, well out of reach. “Ah, maybe here.” Their inky black arm extended and slithered up to the shelf. It prodded at a book there but didn’t remove it. Then after a moment, their arm retracted.

“No, that’s not the one. Migration patterns. Toe-mungle River. No…” They continued down the row.

Grim surveyed a few more books before turning to them with a blank expression. “No trout are born with toes. Some might come to possess them.”

The four of them stared back at Grim, waiting for anything more. Grim didn’t offer any further information, nor did they seem put off by the lengthening silence.

“So trout don’t have toes,” said Root. “We knew that part.”

Beel sighed. “That last part sounds like it’s about that gross thing you Setoterrans do…”

“It’s not that gross usually,” said Root, “but I’ll admit, when people start including feet—”

“Including feet is usually the main event. What do you call it? Evolution?”


Azriah scratched his head. “So we’ve got some time to kill, then,” he said. “Anyone got a couple thousand years?”

“Maybe we can help them along,” suggested Vit. “You know, hold some treats just out of the water.”

“I don’t think it works like that.”

“That’s all you’ve got?” said Root turning back to Grim’s unblinking eyes and unwavering stare.

“That is the answer.”

Root’s gaze returned to the staircase. “What about upstairs? Anything else up there?”

Their face didn’t change, and they emitted no additional sound, but Root almost thought she could feel Grim grin and chuckle. “Oh. No. It doesn’t let me go up there.”

Beel looked uneasily at the staircase.

“Mind if we… look around?” asked Azriah.


“Ah. Okay.” Azriah turned to Root and the others. “What do you want to do now?” he asked in a quieter tone, as if that might keep Grim from knowing. Perhaps the “nearly” just meant “anything not said in a half-assed whisper.”

Root shrugged, hands still in her pockets. “Leave?”

“With nothing? We came all the way here.”

“We’ve been a lot of places.”


“Hey, Grim,” said Root. “What about the smock as damp as tears? Do you know anything about that?”

“You’re not looking for that one yet.”

“Well that’s not… necessarily true.”

“So we don’t get to hear about the smock at all?” asked Vit. Grim just stared at them.

“Fat lot of good knowing everything does when you don’t bother to share it,” grumbled Root.

“Nearly everything,” said Grim.

“Come on, guys.” Root led the way to the door, but stepped aside and let Azriah, with his free-roaming hands, open it for them.

The darkness cast by the denser tree cover made the usual dusk feel more like the hour it was, dark and blooming with the fruit of fruitlessness. Root kicked a rock. It was bigger than she expected, and mostly wedged underground, so it kicked her back. She stumbled. It didn’t help matters.

“That was stupid,” she said. “‘They might come to possess them’? That doesn’t help at all.”

“If this potion has been made before, that can’t be the only answer,” said Azriah. “Unless the recipe is more theoretical. Something filed away for posterity’s sake. Only.”

“That doesn’t make sense. And not telling us about the smock?”

“Maybe the order is important.”

“Syrus owes us a fuck ton. And I mean the lead on the mote periapt, and payment for our time. And dinner.”

Beel looked up at her. “What, like a date with him?”

“Ew, fuck no. Dinner without him. The without bit is part of the payment.”

“Uh, hold on just a sec,” said Vit. They’d been trailing behind and stopped on the path. The others turned. “I… think I left something behind, actually. You guys wait here, I’ll be right back.” They gestured for the three of them to stay put and then hurried back down the path towards the enormous stump.

Azriah sighed and heaved his bag off his shoulders. He took a drink of water and sat down. Root watched Vit go.

“So now what?” she asked once Vit vanished back within the shadowy mass of roots.

“Same as we’ve been doing all day,” said Azriah.

“Walking,” said Beel.

“We’ve been keeping too narrow a scope, I think. We need to cast a wider net. Literally.” He grinned, but exhaustion still swam in his eyes.

“What, you want to do this missing pet poster style? ‘Missing: fish with toes. If found, please return to—’”

“Get it? Wider net? Because it’s a fish.”

“Yeah I got it.”

Azriah nodded and took another sip of water. “I mean we go somewhere that’s more likely to have answers.”

“More likely than the person who knows everything?”

“Nearly everything. And, well, maybe.”


“I thought about it. But it’s a long walk back in the direction we’ve come. I doubt Beel would be too happy about that.”

“Beel wouldn’t be happy about any option,” said Root.

“It’s just because you all come up with horrible options.”

Azriah continued. “There’s another city on the southern edge of the woods. It’s a walk but it’s closer to here. Amiaburg.”

“We skirted it on our way from Jobog, right?”

“That’s the one.”

“What do you think we’ll find there?”

Azriah put up his hands. “I’m grasping at straws here. I’d hope we might find ‘toe of trout.’ Do I think we will? I’m not convinced we’ll find it anywhere, at least not in this eon.”

“If the trout evolve into something with toes, are they even still trout?” asked Beel.

“Probably not,” said Root. “You can name them when you find them, because we’ll all be dead.”

Beel thought for a second. “Blungo.”

“Okay, I’m ready,” said Vit suddenly from behind them.

“Damn it,” said Root, turning. “I meant to piss while you were gone. Give me a minute, I’ll be that way.”

Vit pushed open the door into Grim’s hollow. It creaked noiselessly—which is to say, it didn’t creak, but the way it opened made it abundantly clear that it wanted to despite what regular oilings had to say on the matter.

“Hello—excuse me? Grim?” said Vit, closing the door gently.

Grim shuffled into view around the end of a row of shelves. “Vit. I was expecting you.”

“Hi. Um, yes, sorry to barge in. Uh, thanks for your help on that fish matter. I’m sure we’ll find it.”

“You will.”

“Oh. Good. I’ll take your word for it. Since you know everything and all.”


“So, that’s true, then? You know nearly everything?”

“Essentially, yes. I knew you’d return. And I know why you’ve returned. I know what you want to know, and what you don’t, and that you told your friends that you forgot something. An interesting habit most creatures have. I never forget things. Except, once, my keys. Which was a shame, because I’d remembered to lock all of the windows.” Grim sighed. It sounded like the last wisp of sound in the universe. “But that’s ‘nearly’ for you.”

“Right.” Vit wrung their hands. “So, uh, you mentioned—”

“The human Syrus hasn’t lied to you and he isn’t planning to betray your trust.”

“Oh. Well that’s good. That’s not actually what I was going to ask—”

“No, it isn’t. But it’s important.”

“Well, yes, I can see that—good to know we aren’t going to get double-crossed… again. I’m sure the others will be glad to know.”

“It’s relevant to you, Vit. Your connection to Syrus is an important one. There are deep implications in the crossing of your paths. Syrus is the answer to the question you intended to ask.”


“He will make you an offer—a path to what you desire more than anything, a way to avoid the same fate as Bradan. But it will come at a price.”

Vit’s mouth had gotten impossibly dry. “Oh.” They glanced over their shoulder at the door. Perhaps this had been a mistake; it was a lot to process.

“Thank you, I should probably—”

“Know this,” said Grim in that haunting, unmoving way, as if the words were thought into being, nothing but a hum in the air. Suddenly, Vit wanted very much to leave. They took a couple of backwards steps. “If you turn down Syrus’s offer for the third time—”

Vit’s heart pounded at their ribcage. A shudder ripped across their back like their spider limbs were trying to claw their way out through bone and flesh. “That’s okay, I really should—”

“…Then your quest for the mote periapts will claim your human life.”