“Perhaps a river should’ve been where we started this leg of the hunt,” said Vit as the sound of moving water came into earshot. They’d struck a path northleft-east after leaving Amiaburg in pursuit of the single morsel of information they’d gathered from their disastrous outing in the city: the direction of the Kindolunk River, said to be well populated with trout. The midafternoon Enyn hung in the sky as they picked their way down the hill towards the river.

“You really feel confident about this?” asked Root.

“I mean, it makes sense to just go to the source, right?”

“I think our rationale was reasonable,” said Azriah. “Sometimes these things aren’t so straightforward. I once heard about holly being referred to as… what was it… I think it was a bat’s hair or something… uh, pubic—?”

“That can’t be right,” said Azriah, cutting himself off as if suddenly aware of his own words. “My point is, things aren’t always what they appear.”

“And going to a river only solves half of the equation,” said Root. “Sure, it’s a great place to look for trout, but where do you look for toes?”

Vit considered this. “A shoe store?” they offered.

“Do you think toes are more common at a shoe store than a regular store?”

“Well, just because—”

“They’re right,” said Beel. “Not all spirits have feet, so theoretically you can expect a higher percentage of people to have feet in a shoe store.”

“Yeah,” said Vit, who looked poised to make exactly the same point and certainly not a different, much less logical point.

Root said, “Fine,” and then followed it up with an inaudible grumble about hating Atnaterra for making it harder to make fun of people.

They arrived at the bank of the river. Gravel and mud and boulders lounged by the riverside like spectators as the current hurried by, cascading out of the hills to the left-east and cutting due east through the woods. Some spots dribbled over gravel beds in sections so shallow Beel could’ve forded them without getting his nose wet; in other places, Root could’ve jumped into the current from the stone outcroppings that cleaved the waves into whirlpools without worrying she’d cut up her legs in the depths. The water was crystal blue and made her teeth chatter even from a dozen feet up the bank.

Azriah walked right into the shallows at the river’s edge and stopped. He leaned out and peered into the ripples. “I think I can see some fish. There.” He pointed.

Vit hopped across the dry backs of a few small stones and then onto a larger rock overlooking where Azriah pointed. They cupped something in their hands.

“Sorry little guy,” they said, and from their palm lifted a twitching fly between thumb and forefinger.

“Where did you get that?” asked Root.

“It was just flying around.”

“But like how did you—?”

“I don’t actually know, really. It just happens sometimes.”

“Dumb question, I guess.”

Vit cast a line of web into the water with the fly struggling against the sticky wrapping on the end. The line dropped into the water with a plunk. The four of them stood and watched the water expectantly.

“What are we really expecting to happen here?” asked Root after a minute. “That you’re just going to reel in a fish and it’ll have toes?”

“Doesn’t have to have multiple,” said Vit. “Just the one is fine. No sense in getting greedy about it, unless you know of other uses for the extras.”

“Not the point.”

Azriah shrugged off his pack and laid it in the gravel before sitting down. Root did the same.

“I think something’s biting,” said Vit. They shifted their grip. “I have to be careful here… don’t have a hook, so I’m relying on the stickiness… let’s see…” The glow of their eyes flashed brighter and they jerked the line around in a circular motion. “I think…” They tugged—carefully at first, but then more firmly. They unfurled their left arm into their teal-skinned spider limbs and swiped them down, deftly scooping up the fish just as it emerged from the water. They held it proudly aloft.

“It’s a trout!”

“Got any toes on it?” asked Root without hope or the simple method of looking for herself.


“Now what?”

“We keep checking?”

“This is ridiculous. You want to check every fish in the river?”

Vit looked around. “Do you have a better plan?” Azriah and Beel looked at her expectantly.

“No,” she mumbled.

“We should help,” said Azriah, standing back up. “Spread out. Cover more ground.”

“Looking in the water is going to be more fruitful, I think,” said Vit.


Azriah took off his gambeson and set it on top of his bag. He folded it carefully and in such a way that the embroidered pattern of the rose that adorned the front faced up. He removed his boots and socks and Orne Tyn next and then rolled up his pant legs. Root figured that was her cue to get up and get ready to go fishing as well.

“Do you want me to try making you a fishing rod?” asked Vit as Azriah stepped into the water.

“Ohhh. Wow. That’s frigid. Uh, maybe. I was going to try this first.” He pulled a stick free from where it was lodged between a few rocks in the current, then withdrew a knife and took to sharpening it.

“We don’t want to kill them,” said Vit, eyeing the end of the stick as it got pointier and pointier.

“If they don’t have toes, they’ll just be dinner instead.”

Vit shrugged. “Sure.” They attached another fly to their web and tossed it back into the river. “Root?”

“I’ll figure something out. Thanks.”

“Suit yourselves.”

Something buzzed loudly as it swooped past Root’s ear, causing her to jump. A golden hoop splashed into the river, then emerged a second later clamped around the midsection of a toeless fish, rolling over the gravel back toward Beel like a grounded boomerang. Beel sat slumped on a rock looking dejectedly at the trout. His other rings slid off his body and he flung them over Root’s head toward the river, leaving him looking strikingly, uninterruptedly red.

“Stop looking at me like that,” he said after Root spent several seconds too long staring at him.

“You just look… naked.”

“Stop! I’m self-conscious!”

Root deposited her boots and socks and cuffed her pant legs up over her knees. She stuck a thumb in the downstream direction. “I’m going to check over there by that log.”

“Good luck,” said Vit, reeling in another trout. It flapped its normal, fishy tail as if to insist on a speedy release.

Root picked her way down the bank and then up onto the log spanning the distance between the gravel bed on her side of the river and a small, almond-shaped island sporting three trees and a cluster of very large, very yellow, very territorial-looking mushrooms. She stood at the center of the natural bridge and looked down at the churning water below her.

With both hands out before her, she channeled her energy into her gut, compacting it like an overstuffed bag as the tenseness turned to heat. She stopped pushing and let the sensation flow into her limbs. Smoke pooled in her palms.

Don’t want to kill them, she thought in Vit’s voice, right. She spread her arms and tried to concentrate on the shape.

Normally the hardest part was the blade’s edge; it wasn’t too hard to make a grip or polearm shaft, and it didn’t matter too much if it bent oddly or missed a sliver here or there, just as long as the sharp bits were where she wanted them. Refining the blade segment to an edge took the most concentration, and though she’d practiced it quite a bit, smoke had a sort of natural predisposition to thin itself out, to take on a look like a strand of tissue paper halved the flat way, like the trail of an extinguished candle. All that was left for her to do from there was pack as much smoke into the shape as possible—keep the cloud dense enough that it took on a heft. That shape hardly took any thought anymore, mostly because it was one of the only shapes she bothered to make.

She tried to spread the smoke out—no, no, keeping the density—there, okay. Spread it out… so that it resembled a wide, flat sheet. Then if she pinched it in every so often, left some holes…

It took several more minutes of concentration, during which even the cool mist of the river couldn’t quench the heat that lanced across her skin. The damp log steamed under her bare feet. Finally, she had something before her that mostly resembled a net woven from pure smoke.

Carefully, she lowered it into the water, one corner at a time. The first length of the hazy rope met the ripples and dissipated in an instant, a smudge in the otherwise pristine water. Root pulled the net back up. Perhaps she should’ve considered whether or not smoke was waterproof.

She glanced up to watch as all three of Beel’s rings dove back into the water, then each emerge with a fish in their grasp. Beel released all three fish, and then sent the rings splashing back into the river for another go. Vit reeled in another fish. Azriah jabbed at the water with his makeshift spear, not catching anything but doing a lot regardless.

This is so fucking stupid, she thought, but she couldn’t be the only one standing around without prodding at the anatomy of a whole colony of poor, unsuspecting trout.

She forced more smoke out of her hands and into the net, weaving in tighter and denser through the coils of inky rope. She fed the net until it made her head spin, and then she tried dipping the very edge of one corner again.

She got the same result, but slower—the corner of the net dissolved, but not all at once as before, rather it held for several seconds as the water ate at the fibers and wiped all of Root’s hard work clean. It wasn’t perfect, but it worked… sort of. And as far as she saw it, it was now or never.

She plunged the net into the river and wrapped the sides in, pulling them to a point and hoisting the net back up into the air.

Her net looked ragged, like it’d been dropped out of a fishing boat and then ripped away by a crashing storm, only to be rediscovered a season later. Several links had broken—or dissolved, or dissipated, or whatever the proper descriptor for their smoky unraveling might be—and others looked so thin and threadbare they might’ve been spun from the thinnest of Vit’s spider silk. But the net held together, mostly, and inside it proudly contained…

Two whole trout.

Root reached out with both hands and grabbed a fish in each. They were slimy and flailed in her hands, but she held them tight as she looked at their tails. Predictably, neither had toes. Or, a toe. She wasn’t trying to be greedy, after all.

She blinked at the pair of fish and held them a bit tighter. She was glad to have them to hold onto—forming that net had really…

She didn’t really remember falling, but that’s not to say it didn’t happen. She also didn’t remember letting go of the trout, but that moment on the log was the last she remembered holding them, so somewhere in amongst it all that had likely happened as well. She rather liked this line of reasoning, though it didn’t properly pass through her mind in the moment, but some voice she only recalled later did pipe up and try to make the best of it. It pointed out that she also didn’t remember snatching up a pouch of a hundred helixes at the bottom of the river, or a lost mote periapt glittering in the silt, or spotting a very beautiful and chronically giggling trout lady in the depths. But not remembering the details meant very little at the moment, so…?

She resurfaced with a cough and a sharpness to her vision rivaled only by the sharpness of the bitingly cold water that nipped at her flesh. She scrambled unsteadily to her feet over the slimy rocks. The water level only came to her chest.

“Holy… fuck!

“You okay?” called Vit. They were several stones closer than they had been when last she’d checked.

“It’s fucking cold!”

“But are you okay?”

“I’m freezing!”

“But like in terms of bones and blood and stuff?”

“It’s all cold!”

“As long as it’s all cold and where it’s supposed to be.”

Root shook the water out of her hair and slicked the droplets from around her eyes. She looked around. “Yeah, I think I missed that big rock there. Doesn’t feel like I hit my head.”

Vit nodded. “Good. Do you need help?”

A queasiness roiled in Root’s gut, but the dizziness had faded. The cold, too, was screaming less ferociously in her ears. It reminded her of hot days in the early summer months back home when she and Eshra and some of the neighbors would go down to the river to swim. When it had rained recently and the mountains were still thawing, the river ran with an icy chill, but they always coaxed and dared one another to jump. It made it easier to go all at once.

“No, I’m in it now,” said Root. She started to peel off her soaked shirt. “Might as well try something else. Unless Azriah hits the jackpot with his methods. Or, hits anything, really.”

“He’s hitting the water,” said Vit.

“What are you guys saying?” called Azriah.

Over their shoulder, Vit shouted back, “Nothing.” Azriah shrugged and continued about his business.

Root struggled the rest of the way out of her overclothes and tossed them over the log. She took a deep breath and dipped beneath the water.

It was hard to see around all of the stones, but downstream she spotted a few trout treading water in the current. She paddled forward until she could better make out the shape of their backsides. Toeless, as nature intended.

She continued on like this for close to twenty minutes until the chill started to get to her, at which point, with all the toes she’d come with (despite the fact that she couldn’t feel them) and none that she hadn’t, she pulled herself out of the water.

None of the others had had any better luck, and only in Azriah’s case had any of them had worse luck, evidenced by his pristine albeit cracked and certainly damp spear. If there had been any competition about it, the award for most trout checked for toes went easily and somewhat surprisingly to Beel.

Vit had started a fire and retrieved Root’s clothes to lay them out to dry. She donned a dry but not entirely fresh pair from her bag, identical in every regard save color. If nothing else, at least this outing and subsequent mishap had provided a much-needed opportunity for a bath, expected or otherwise. She sat by the fire to warm up while Azriah tended it with his fractured spear, trying to look as though they all weren’t well aware that he had contributed very little so far that afternoon. Vit sat closer to the water, occasionally casting their web line into the river, reeling in a fish, checking it, and tossing it back with a sigh. Beel sat apart as he continued to fish, though even he had slowed down and continued somewhat dejectedly—at least, more so than usual.

“I really don’t know what we’re supposed to do from here,” said Root. “I mean, what haven’t we tried? Aside from looking into the thing about the bats’—”

“Maybe,” started Azriah abruptly, “we’re just supposed to take a trout’s tail fin.”

“But why would Pag say toe, then?” asked Vit. They cast their line again.

“To fuck with us,” suggested Root.

“We’ve only been hunting the toe of trout for two days. I’m sure we’ll figure it out.”

“Two days is a long time when we were just supposed to be running a quick errand into the woods and back.”

Vit pulled in another trout and looked it over. They tossed it back into the river. “Fair enough.”

“We could always skip the trout for now,” said Azriah. “Move on to the fourth ingredient. Maybe we’ll think of something while we’re getting that one, or maybe we’ll learn something that will make it make sense.”

“Sure,” said Root flatly. “So where do you want to start looking for ‘the smock as damp as tears’?”

“Hey you guys?” said Beel.

“If I go find you a smock, maybe you could wear it while we keep fishing. Seems like you could handle the rest.”

“You mean while Vit and Beel keep fishing?”

“Some Atnaterran towns and cities are underwater,” said Vit. “Do you think they have clothing stores?”


“I feel like the dampness has to be more notable,” said Azriah. “Why compare it to tears?”

“Salt water?”

“Is anyone listening to me?”

“No,” said Root instinctively without looking up.

“The nearest body of salt water in Atnaterra…” Vit thought for a second. “I’m not sure. Closest I know for sure is a long way. Weeks.”

Azriah shook his head. “We’ll table that, then. What if we just dampen it with tears?”

“Beel would be good at that,” said Root.

Vit furrowed their brow. “Speaking of… Did Beel say something?”

“Beel has been saying something!” said Beel. They all turned.

In his little hands, Beel held one of his rings. It clamped tight around the middle of a trout, shimmering and brown-green and speckled. It didn’t have toes or any of the prerequisite anatomy, like feet or ankles or legs.

“What, Beel?” asked Root.


“It’s a trout.”

“It has a toe!

Root stared at the fish, and then at Beel. “It doesn’t.”

Beel came closer and foisted the slimy critter on her. Root took the ring; it hummed in her hands. She couldn’t imagine the trout was enjoying the sudden unwelcome massage. That, or the inability to breathe.

She flipped it around and looked at its underside.

“No, there, in its mouth!”

Hesitantly, Root turned the fish back over so she was face-to-beady-eyed-face with it. It stared back at her blankly. Something poked ever so slightly from behind its lips.

She applied pressure to the sides of its face and its lips parted, revealing a toenail and a surprisingly thick patch of hair.

“Oh, ew, what the hell.” She dropped the fish—ring, toe, and all—onto the gravel where it flapped a couple of times and then lay heaving.

“That can’t be what Pag meant… right?” said Vit.

“How could it be? How often does that happen! Where did it even get that?” They all took a silent moment to look down and count their own toes. Root counted twice, on account of her fading yet still lingering inability to feel them. Ten each, thirty total.

“There’s no way,” said Azriah. “This is too stupid of an answer.”

Vit scratched their head. “Well… what do you want to do, then? Just leave it?”

In most circumstances, Root felt that “just leave it” was a perfectly reasonable answer to the question of what to do with a severed toe found in a river. In fact, it seemed like the only sane answer, and the only one that she even wanted to consider. But at the same time, the idea of leaving the thing that might, maybe, possibly have been the thing they’d been seeking for several days just sitting in the mouth of a dying fish on a riverbank in the woods made her feel overwhelmingly frustrated. But surely that couldn’t be reason enough to touch the thing, let alone wrap it up and carry it with them. Right?

In a way, it almost seemed foolish not to take it. Which, to Root, also sounded insane.

They all stared at the fish for several long moments. Vit broke the silence.

“If it’s wrong, at least we can get Pag to steer us back in the proper direction, right?”

Azriah shrugged. “I wouldn’t stake anything on it, but I’m willing to run with it if it means we get to move on.”

“You guys seriously want to take a severed toe with us?” asked Root.

“Better than finding out it was right all along and coming all the way back here,” said Vit.

“One of you can carry it, then.”

“Yeah, I’ll call dibs.” Vit picked up the fish and held it by the tail to dump the toe into a bundle of hefty cloth.

“You don’t call dibs on who gets to carry the severed toe.”

“I’m going to go wash my ring,” said Beel, sliding it free of the trout.

“Here, set this guy loose, too.” Vit handed Beel the fish. “He’s been through enough.”

They hiked along the river and into the hills as Enyn circled around to mark the descent of night. There they found a village, which either went by the name of Uppon or Sulp—different townspeople had given different answers with equal conviction and states of sobriety. It was a small village that had staked its identity on the only two local features: the hills and the Kindolunk River, which along this stretch took the form of a series of cascading waterfalls. Thus it came as no surprise to learn that the sole inn in the village was named The Waterhills Inn.

Heavy plush chairs and couches rimmed a central fireplace in the warm common room. Root all but fell into a well-worn armchair as soon as she had her bowl of food in hand, which had been the only thing demanding an audience with her more desperately than the upholstery.

At the bar counter, the inn’s owner ladled out the last of four heaping bowls of chowder from a simmering pot and handed it to Vit, who joined the others by the fire. The innkeeper vanished through a door into her quarters, leaving the four of them alone in the room.

Root spooned the thick, steaming chowder into her mouth. Vit sat down and lifted a spoonful from the bowl to blow on.

“It’ll be nice to sleep in a real bed,” they said while they waited for their bite to cool. “Haven’t slept in a bed since Midden.”

“We’ve gone longer with less,” said Azriah. “Even the ground is better than the floor of the crypt.”

“That wasn’t really a whole night, though, more just a nap.” They glanced at the door the owner had gone through and then around at the empty room. “Do we want to rotate now? Or wait until we get to our room?”

“Wait. Can’t be too cautious.”

“We keep ‘em gagged. Even if there were people here, no one would know what we had.”

“Still. I don’t like it.”

Vit took a bite, chewed thoughtfully, then swallowed. “It is quiet.”

“Small village, pretty out of the way. Not a lot of traffic, I bet. And it’s late. I’m just glad the owner had a pot of something on. It’s not bad.”

“Yeah, well, the chunks of fish just keep making me think of…” Root blanched. “Hope they check them for any stowaways.”

“You know what I keep thinking?” said Vit. “Should we have checked to see if the dragon had any…” They paused, then finished in a lower voice. “Periapts?”

“I thought about it while we were inquiring about the rest of our grocery list,” said Azriah. “But only briefly. Seems they’re pretty sought after, so I’m sure they fit the bill, but I wasn’t about to toss the idea in her face. No way to know how she’d react, and I’m not fireproof enough to poke around and find out. Like I said, we can’t be too cautious. It wasn’t worth it.”

Vit nodded. They took another bite. “She seemed nice. But you’re right.”

Root scraped the last of the chowder out of her bowl and set it down on the hearth ledge. She leaned back. “Probably wouldn’t have gotten us anywhere, anyway. Didn’t seem like she had anything high-profile. I bet tons of people want famous art and private ships and stuff. But she had a lot of the little stuff. Speaking of…” She reached into her bag and pulled out a bottle of something labeled “Dolschnipp,” one of the bunch from Urm’s supply. She didn’t know what it was, but it got her drunk quick. She uncorked it and took a swig.

“Maybe she ran out of art and had to switch to regular one-ply,” offered Beel.

“Or maybe—” Root paused as she felt something run across her ankle. It wouldn’t be her first night sleeping side-by-side with rats—not by a long shot, and rats didn’t even top the list of the worst creatures she’d had as bedmates, since she’d spent a handful of nights in the company of men—but she liked to get a sense of the size and scrappiness of them before she shut her eyes. She tried to lean forward.

Tried. Her ankle was stuck.

“What—?” She kicked her foot, but it didn’t budge. She tried the other and got the same result.

Azriah tried to move, but he, too, found his legs restrained. Root looked at his feet.

Vines wrapped around his ankles and the legs of his chair, binding him in place. Vit and Beel were bound in the same manner. She looked down at her own ankles as vines tightened around them, slithering like snakes all across the floor.

With the four of them immobilized, the vines moved to bind their wrists.

From the brush outside, Ajis watched through the window of The Waterhills Inn as his prey became unsuspectingly ensnared. They were weak—fools. They’d hit a stroke of luck, but they’d never survive in this game, not with instincts as lacking as these. It was almost pathetic how easy it had been.

Kurg stood on his right, too short to see through the window so he stared instead at the wall with the unwavering pretense of dutiful purpose expressed in the most timid way possible. Golvy stood on Ajis’s left, less lacking in height, confidence, malice, and virtually every other attribute Kurg didn’t have. He grinned his wide, sharp grin.

“Unlike you to let someone else have the spotlight, boss,” said Golvy.

Ajis clicked his tongue and shook his head with a sneer. “She’s got a stake in this one. You’ll learn in time, Golvy. Let the emotions of others do the dirty work for you. It makes her stupid—willing to put herself in harm’s way all alone like that. But it also makes her vicious. How could I say no? It clears the way for us, and I don’t have to risk myself or one of you. Works out well for everyone. Well, except for them.”