Leaving the woods felt like leaving a house you hadn’t felt all that welcome in to begin with—whether the home of a friend of a friend, an acquaintance from work, or some starchy in-laws. Stepping outside its suffocating bounds felt like the first breath of cool night air over the threshold, like the relaxation of at last being free to let your face hold whatever normal shape it pleased. It felt like being released from the horrors of a bathroom with soap that smelled too sweet, a towel that just didn’t feel or dry the way you would’ve liked, and a weird masking aroma that wasn’t necessarily unpleasant but certainly didn’t rank among your top choices.

Of course, even after several weeks, Root couldn’t say that Atnaterra in general felt anything less than alien and hostile even if that feeling had dulled to a background thrumming, and cities in general certainly still made her head spin and her ears ring and they always smelled too much like shit, and not the familiar farm kind. But stepping away from the woods was like looking back through the window of the house and seeing the other guests still mingling inside with forced smiles, and even though you weren’t home, at least you could scowl to yourself in peace.

It was interesting, too, Root noted as they entered the city, that she’d experienced more Atnaterran cities than Setoterran cities. Cities in general were still a blindingly new concept—prior to Unn, a bustling street to her had meant that enough other folks walked down it that you couldn’t reasonably be expected to greet all of them, only the half that you knew personally. Unn had been her first city, and only city of Setoterra to date, but now she was up to four, including Obobo, Midden, and now Amiaburg, all three of them standing firm in the culture and hubbub of Atnaterra. There’d been Jobog, too, but that hadn’t been a city so much as a loud, large town with aspirations bigger than its infrastructure budget and too many potato fields to make room for anything over three stories.

They never failed to captivate her, with their reaching towers and crowds of strange people. As they walked one street, a white spire rose up on their left with a blazing insignia of gold on its front—a cluster of spokes, half of them thickening into triangles at the tips. It looked familiar, but she couldn’t place it.

In a park, a vendor hawked meat-on-a-stick from a cart. They purchased a kebab each and took them to lunch on as they walked. The spirit saleswoman clicked her beak and screeched after them in thanks.

“Where to?” asked Root through a mouthful of meat. She wasn’t sure what kind it was under the crust of seasoning, but it tasted good.

“Anything’s going to be better than Grim’s little library last night,” said Vit. They hadn’t said much since the previous evening’s stop, and most of it had been to complain about the lacking substance from Grim’s so-called answer to their question. Usually complaining was Beel’s job. Now Beel’s job was complaining about Vit doing his job. Root had started to develop a better understanding of why her parents had seldom taken her and her older sister out on family outings when they were small.

“We could try there,” said Azriah, pointing with his meat. Across the park stood a low building with a mask of dilapidated sea-foam green paint and a big sign depicting a leaping dolphin with a fish in its mouth. Words washed up and around the logo like a wave, declaring the building the Amiaburg Aquarium.

“You think they’ll know about trout in there?” asked Root.

Vit looked between Root and the building. They pinched their eyebrows in. “It’s an aquarium.”

“Yeah, so they know about, I don’t know, cool stuff. Lobsters and jellyfish and mer-bats.”

“Mer-bats are a myth,” said Azriah.

“I think lobsters are, too,” said Vit.

“My point is, who would go to an aquarium to learn about trout?”

“I don’t know. Someone who’s hungry, maybe?”

“What do you think an aquarium is, Vit?”

“You guys can stay out here and chat, then,” said Azriah. “I’m going to go look around.”

As they entered the building, Root made sure to inform Vit of the emphasis on “looking” that aquariums liked their visitors to have. Unfortunately, just inside and to the left of the lobby was an archway leading into a connected seafood restaurant basked in the blue light of a floor-to-ceiling viewing wall. It didn’t help Root’s argument.

They entered a long hall that snaked past tank after tank of increasingly strange creatures. Many hailed from Setoterra—fish of all colors, octopi, massive rays, a mangled looking species of duck. Even more were lesser spirits, all manner of thing Root couldn’t name—if names they had. Plenty of the creatures left Root dumbfounded, with only the vaguest guess as to whether they were spirits or not. Usually it wasn’t too hard to figure out; spirits always had a bizarre and somewhat cobbled-together look about them (by a Setoterran’s eye), and in many cases an odd coloring. Things from the Setoterran oceans, it turned out, might have been better at looking like spirits than actual spirits.

“Look at this thing,” said Vit, their face pressed close to a glass window. Inside, something spun about on two dozen tentacles, zipping one way and then the other, pulling itself along with the help of its many limbs. It swam up close to Vit and peered at them with one large, orange eye. Then just as fast, it propelled itself away.

“The Sygion Yellow Corpsewatcher,” said Azriah, reading the info panel next to the tank. “Bottom feeders. Says they’re one of the few types of spirits that can sometimes be found living in Yg Balta. Interesting.”

“Anyway,” said Vit, turning abruptly away from the glass. “See any trout?”

“I’m seeing a lot of fish,” said Root. “And honestly, I’m not entirely sure what a trout looks like.”

“Mostly just like a fish.”

“Right. Any defining characteristics?”

“Not really.”


They continued through the exhibits until the hall opened up into a wider room with a long basin through the middle. Spirits and a couple of human children stood at its edge with their hands or other appendages in the water, petting a scattered few creatures with nowhere to flee in the shallow pool and looking quite disgruntled about that. Two spirits in sea-foam green shirts and name tags stood on the far side of the tank with tired expressions.

One of the aquarium employees said, “Don’t take that out of the water, please.”

The other employee said, “Don’t take that out of the water, please,” directing their identical comment to a different patron.

The first employee took another turn. “Please leave him in the water. Thanks.”

“Don’t pull his tail.”

“Please don’t spit in the tank.”

“Hands and the equivalent only, sir. No feet. Yep. Thanks.”

Vit stepped up to the artificial tidal pool. “Excuse me?”

One of the aquarium employees turned her attention away from a spirit whose mouth seemed to be inching dangerously close to the surface of the water. She directed an “Mmhmm?” in Vit’s direction while her attention flitted back and forth between Vit and the thirsty spirit. Her name tag said: “Berghia (she/her).”

“I was just wondering if you know anything about trout.”

“Sure, what about ‘em? Please don’t drink that.”

“Well, I guess—”

“Oh, no, please don’t spit it back in either. I’m sorry, what did you say?”

“No, that’s all right. I was just wondering about—”

“Sorry—excuse me, ma’am? Ma’am? Yes, hi, please put that guy back in the tank. There you go. Thanks.”

“So we’re on this quest from a witch and—”

“Please try to keep the water in the tank,” said Berghia, following a loud sloshing sound. She put out a hand apologetically towards Vit. “I’m sorry, give me one second, please.” She hurried over to the corner and slid a yellow wooden folding sign from behind a huge cutout of a crab and made her way around the tank to the sizable puddle in the middle of the floor.

Root scratched a scar on her wrist absentmindedly as she looked up and down the row of aquarium patrons. One spirit woman stood directly at the center of the fresh floor puddle and scowled at the water and then at Berghia as she tried to usher the woman aside to prop up her sign. Another thing with a stature like a question mark watched Berghia’s preoccupied form, and when her coworker turned aside to equal distraction he stooped even more (which nearly brought him all the way around into a circular shape), scooped something from the pool, and popped it into his mouth alongside a gulp of seawater. He looked around sneakily as if he might have gone unnoticed despite being the tallest thing in the room, not excluding the ceiling. A third spirit leaned dangerously over the tank, propped on two thick arms of light blue skin and with two of his four stumpy legs off the ground, with the other two looking all too ready to join in liftoff. Of his four boots, not a single two matched, and Root was pretty sure at least three of them were right-foot boots.


Something swam slowly through Root’s mind, unlike the ray that currently made a beeline away from the guy as he pursued it with one sausage of a finger. The spirit swayed, nearly losing his balance, but caught himself with his tail. He leaned back and looked from side to side, embarrassed.

“So sorry about that,” said Berghia, returning to her spot across the tank from Vit. “You were asking about trout. They’re very common in the woods just northleft-east of here in the Kindolunk River. Please don’t take that guy out of the water. What was it you wanted to know?”

Root and the blue spirit locked eyes. Mostly he looked embarrassed, but there was something else as well: the faintest touch of eye-narrowing confusion. Root felt it too, but only for an instant. That didn’t surprise her; from what she recalled, her brain worked quite a bit faster than whatever slab of underused organ twaddled away in the skull of the other guy.

“We are looking for, uh, trout… toes. Toe of trout. For a potion. Do you know anything…?”

Berghia managed to half-suppress a seemingly much-needed giggle. “I’m afraid I don’t know of any trout with toes… sorry.” Another giggle.

“What about—” started Vit. Root interrupted by grabbing the back of their shirt and yanking them away.

“We’ve got to go,” she said in their ear when their feet didn’t seem to comply with her prior wordless command. Vit turned quickly and looked around, one foot landing squarely in the puddle—

They caught themself with a web slung toward the ceiling. That drew even more attention.

Root already herded Azriah and Beel out of the room and around the corner.

“What is it?” asked Azriah, his hand resting on Orne Tyn’s pommel.

“Just move,” hissed Root. She kept going, pushing the others as need be, and didn’t stop until they’d all ducked into the aquarium gift shop and taken cover behind a rack of souvenir shirts.

“What are we running from?” asked Azriah, his tone stern and short.


“Harm?” said Beel with widening eyes and a quiver in his voice.

Azriah paused to think. “Ajis’s guy? From the manor?”

“That’s the one,” said Root. “Unless he has a twin equally lacking in fashion sense.”

“He was back there?” asked Vit.

“Did he see us?” asked Azriah.

“Yeah. But I don’t know if he recognized us. We should get out of here.”

“But I wasn’t done talking to Berghia. I didn’t get a chance to ask about modern hypotheses for the trajectory of trout evolution.”

“Hi there, welcome to the Treasure Chest,” said a spirit, poking her head around the rack of shirts and making Root jump. She was short and green with fishy-looking eyes. It seemed she hadn’t finished filling out her name tag after bumbling into an unfortunate mis-stroke; it hung lopsided off of her stretched out shirt and read: “she (   /   ).”

“Hi. Thanks,” said Vit.

“Just so you know, we’re having a sale this week on seashells from our bulk bin over there. One pouch for eight radulas—on sale from ten—or one of our locally-made shell garlands for only two whorls.”

“Thank you. Good to know,” said Azriah.

With a nod, “She” waddled away.

“I don’t see him following us,” said Root. “We should move while the coast is clear.”

“But—” started Vit.

“She didn’t know anything about trout toes.”

Vit furrowed their brow. “We didn’t ask She, I was talking about Berghia.”

I was talking about Berghia. Who’s She?”

“She,” said Vit, pointing after the gift shop worker. “The one selling seashells.”

“That’s not her name, she just messed up her tag.”

“How do you know?”

“It doesn’t matter,” said Azriah. “You guys lead, I’ll follow and make sure Harnn isn’t behind us.”

They crept out of the gift shop and back into the exhibit hall. As she moved, Root cast a glance behind her and spotted Harnn emerging from the don’t-take-that-out-of-the-water room.

Shit, there he is.” They paused amidst the crowd and watched Harnn’s back as he retreated slowly away down the opposite hall of tanks.

“He doesn’t look like he’s chasing us,” said Azriah.

“Or anything,” said Vit. “At least nothing fast. There were some snails in that tank.”

“Maybe his train of thought is getting away,” said Root.

“You’re sure he saw us?”


“It looks to me like we’re in the clear,” said Azriah.

Beel poked his head out from behind Root’s legs. “Maybe we should get out of the city just in case. What if Ajis is nearby?”

Root raised an eyebrow. “More walking?”

He sighed. “At least if my feet hurt, I know they’re still attached to the rest of me.”

They all turned for the exit.

“You know, not necessarily,” said Vit. “It would probably hurt a lot if they became unattached.”

“But the feet wouldn’t hurt. My blisters wouldn’t hurt.”

“We’ll keep it in mind next time you complain about your blisters, then,” said Root.

Azriah huffed. “Give it five minutes.”

They stepped out into the street and picked a path north through the city. But even as the minutes passed and they got farther and farther away from the aquarium, Root just couldn’t quell the urge to keep glancing behind her.

Harnn sat across the table from Ajis. The boss looked upset, but Harnn just didn’t understand why.

“So your patrol went well, I presume?” asked Ajis curtly.


“And you did a thorough sweep of the northeastern quadrant of the city, as instructed?”


“You must have been extra efficient.”

Harnn started to sweat. What was that word? E-fish-ant? Was the boss onto him? He’d just popped into the aquarium for a minute. How could he not? The sign had such a cute fish creature on it…

“Uh, no,” said Harnn. “No fish evolved.”

“Efficient. It means you did your work well.”

“Oh. Ya.”

“You did you work well, Harnn?”


“And you didn’t make any useless stops?”

“No, boss.”

“Where’d this come from, then?” Ajis leveled one clawed finger at Harnn’s wide chest. Harnn looked down at his new shirt, stretched tight across his frame. It was dark blue and very soft and had that same cute fish thing on it with the words “Ask me what I saw at the Amiaburg Aquarium!” printed across the front. He knew that’s what it said; he’d spent twenty minutes making sure of it.


“‘Um,’” said Ajis with one tap of his nail on the tabletop. “We’re a long way from Um, Harnn. That’s not an afternoon trip. And I haven’t authorized you any portal usage.”

“Jus stopped by after my shift, boss.”

“You’re still on your shift.”

“I meant bufore my shift.”

“You’re always on shift.”

“Oh ya.”

Ajis’s face grew tighter and tighter with pent up energy like a coiled spring hard with potential. “Listen to me, Harnn. The last word we have from Ophylla’s team is that those four thieves were headed this way. Now, I don’t know what they’re after, but they’re not going to keep evading us. So it’s of the utmost importance that I have all hands on deck and all eyes on these streets and woods, do you understand? Now, did you patrol the places I asked you to, Harnn?”

“Uh, ya.”

“And did you find anything?”

“I dinnot find anything in the places you assed me to look.”

Ajis stared across the table. “Now why would you phrase it like that?”

“I dinnot find anything.”

“You didn’t hear or see any mention of the four you let escape from the manor?”





“Well, doesn’t count cuz I was…” Harnn looked down ashamedly at his new shirt.

“Let me ask you this, then, Harnn—and know that I am utterly revolted by these words. What did you see at the Amiaburg Aquarium?”

Harnn beamed. “All sortsa cute fishies and—”

“I don’t care about the fishi—the fish, Harnn!”

Harnn slumped back in his chair. “Oh.”

“Did you see anything important?”

This was a difficult question for Harnn; he’d been struggling through the memories for the past several hours just trying to make sense of them. He wasn’t so good with faces, and even worse with names. And when there were cute fish involved to keep him distracted? Well, it became all but impossible to focus on anything else.

“Well, I was at a tank for touchin’ the fish and stuff…”

Ajis’s face soured; his lips took on an expression like a disgruntled snarl. Through his parted lips came a faint sizzle. Harnn quickened his words, which was not a natural inclination and led to the vocabular equivalent of running up a flight of stairs with inconsistent heights.

“Was petting a ray ’n then sum hubrans came over ’n asked about grout ’n the lady said they in tha Kinda Luck River.”

“Hubrans? You mean humans?”


“How many humans?”

“Um… well there was others too… maybe same group… they all look the same… dunno.”

“Did you see that little red guy?”

“Ummm… maybe.”

“And the girl with the smoke tricks?”

“No smoke, just water. Did kinda smell like—”

“What about my book? Did you see my book? Or the mote periapts? Do they still have them?”


“Did you see anything to confirm that these are the same four we’re looking for?”

“Um, no. I din’t recognize dem.”

Ajis sat back. “You didn’t recognize them? So you haven’t seen them before?”

“I don’t think so, boss.”

A hot exhale whistled through Ajis’s nostrils like the sigh of a bull.

“But it was weird cuz… when they saw me, they ran way.”