The vines lashed at Root’s wrists, pinning them to the arms of the chair and then snaking around twice, three times, until her greatest tugs did nothing. Her heart pounded. What was this?

The others found their arms equally ensnared. Beel—with his shorter limbs too small to reach the legs or armrests of the couch he sat on—was caught in a harness of vegetation that wrapped all around the couch and pulled the cushion askew underneath him. He sat stock-still and whimpered.

A figure moved in Root’s peripherals. She tried to turn but the vines pulled her back. More movement shifted the shadows as the figure stalked the circumference of the room, until at last they moved into view.

Her viny tentacles crawled across the floor, pulling her forward like disgruntled underbrush in search of better sun. Green arms crossed over her chest, and her hair bobbed and writhed, but she smiled, though the cheer was not entirely convincing. She looked the four of them over.

Beel made a wavering little moan.

“Oh. Hi, Ophylla,” said Vit. “Uh, what are the odds?”

Ophylla looked at them. She uncrossed her arms, held them awkwardly at her sides for a moment, then recrossed them. She’d ditched her old coarse, baggy outfit—like a sack with holes cut for her head and arms—and traded it for a cut of fine black cloth, draped across one shoulder and half of her body like a toga, cinched at the waist and leaving lengths to dangle around her tentacles. To be precise, she had ditched it alongside her bag and other things in that dell in the Shundren Mountains. The four of them had left it in the dirt after they killed her.

But the new look was much more flattering, so really if anything they’d done her a tremendous favor.

“Can I put this down, actually?” asked Root. She did her best to indicate the bottle of alcohol in her hand. It dangled from her fingers off the edge of the armrest. “If you could just let go of my arm for like a second and a half…”

Ophylla moved one of her vine tentacles to wrap around the bottle and remove it casually from Root’s hand. She set it on the floor.

“Damn, you know, I was actually going to take the opportunity for another sip while I had the chance…”

“Did you really think you wouldn’t see me again?”

“A shame that that’s your opener,” said Root. “I, for one, definitely thought we’d see you again. What about you guys?”

The others didn’t say anything.

“First Ajis on our trail and now she’s here,” said Root, mostly to Azriah who sat in the chair next to her. “All this running back and forth across the woods must be making us easy to catch up to.”

Ophylla grinned wider. It made Root uneasy, like she was missing something.

The front door of the inn opened. Root looked up, hopeful to get some backup.

(The backup had arrived. Unfortunately, it wasn’t backup for her.)

Harnn stepped sideways through the door and then stopped just over the threshold. A groan came from behind him.

“Keep moving you lunk!”

Harnn took another three steps forward and then Ajis appeared at his side. Root’s heart dropped. Very few options could’ve been worse for who came through that door.

Out of sight, she heard the back door open. A moment later, more spirits came into view: Kurg, Spaghetti, and his twin, Not Spaghetti, who she had never defined by anything but the fact that he wasn’t the one of the pair who had gotten a piece of Low Fishdrum’s pasta all tangled up inside of him. A fourth spirit was with them, one she didn’t recognize. He was tall and grimy with skin a deep shade of purple and a body like missing punctuation. He wore a black uniform in the style of Ajis’s crew.

Ajis pointed. “Harnn, the front door, Golvy, the back door.”

“On it, boss,” said the purple spirit—Golvy. The words sounded like they were spoken through a mouthful of wet worms, like he moved his tongue too much when he spoke.

Root watched and waited. Surely she was about to witness the payback Ajis had in store for Ophylla. She’d given him the slip for them, knocked him off their scent so they could focus on the hunt for Affodell’s mirror. Now he’d caught up to her, and there would be hell to pay. Best case, the four of them could slip away in the commotion. Worst case, they’d only have to deal with the winner.

But Root kept waiting. Ajis hardly paid any attention to Ophylla and her underlings at all. Once Harnn had closed and blocked the front door, he moved to stand near Ophylla, his attention on the four of them.

Root looked between them. Slowly, the pieces fell into place. She eyed Ophylla’s new black outfit with a look of disgust. Maybe the old sack had been a better choice.

“Are they…” Azriah started, leaning closer to Root.

“Looks like it.”


Another sound of a door opening filled the room. Root looked up as the innkeeper emerged from the door behind the bar.


The innkeeper—a big, hulking spirit with a torso like a keg of liquor and arms like timber beams—stood at the counter and surveyed the scene. She looked from the spirits blocking the doors, to Ajis and Ophylla, to her customers tied to her furniture. She blinked.

Ajis stared back at her with a hard, warning glare. The innkeeper looked between him and the four of them. After a minute, she shrugged.

“They’ve already paid. Don’t go breaking my stuff, you hear?”

“Understood,” said Ajis.

Root scoffed. “Hey!”

The innkeeper retreated back through the door into her quarters as Ajis returned his attention to the four of them.

“I trust that you’ve informed them as to why we’re here?” he asked.

“They know why we’re here,” said Ophylla.

“Good. No wasting time, certainly. You search that one for the mote periapts, I’ll do him.” Ajis pointed Ophylla towards Vit, then took a step towards Azriah.

“Hold on,” said Root. “‘That one’? ‘Him’? Do you… not remember our names?”

Ajis stopped. He had a sour look, but one also tainted by a twinge of… embarrassment?

“I forgot them after you ran off—”

“And Ophylla didn’t bother to tell you?”

Ophylla hesitated. She looked away and scratched her viny head.

“Do you not know our names either?”

“Listen, girl—”

“No wonder you’ve always called me that!”

“We never did proper introductions! I know I’ve heard your names—mostly. You threw them around a couple of times, I believe…”

“And you didn’t bother to remember them? While you were trying to send us to our deaths?”

Ophylla wagged a finger. “Not to your deaths—certainly not to your deaths. I told you, if you’d died, I wouldn’t have gotten my mirror. That’s true! I intended to send you only to your maimings. At most, it would’ve been fine if some of you had died, but not all.” She shook her head. “It doesn’t matter!”

“Hey, Rrr—” Azriah paused. He gave her a hard look, and then in a quiet but firm voice, added, “Maybe it’s not the worst thing if they don’t know much about us.”

“It’s just fucking rude, that’s all!”

“Fine,” said Ophylla. “Well, if you must know, I’m… pretty sure that his name is Azriah—you shouted that one enough times that I think I caught it. And your name was something silly like Boot.” She crossed her arms again. “But I have no idea what that one’s name is.” She jabbed a finger at Beel.

“That’s just fine by me,” said Beel. “I don’t really remember your name either, or anything you’ve done to us for that matter, so maybe it’s fine if I just go…?”

“In case none of you remember my name,” started Ajis, stepping forward and almost doing a subtle sort of pose. The whole performance made Root gag. “I am—”

“Ajis, yeah,” said Root.

Ajis looked surprised. “Our meeting was brief. You remembered that?”

“You kind of tried to kill us.”


“That’s Kurg,” said Root, seeing where this was going. “And that’s Harnn. And you just called that other guy Golvy. We never met him.”

Ajis growled in frustration and threw up his hands. “How nice that you’re so terrific with names. Enough of this. Ophylla, that one, I’ll search…”

Root watched Ajis flounder.

“What did you say his name was, again?”

“Azriah, I think.”

“I’ll search Azriahai.”

“You’re a little late, I’m afraid.”

Ajis hesitated as he sized up Azriah. Azriah held his gaze.

“If it’s the mote periapts you’re after, you’re too late,” said Azriah again.

“Someone else has taken them?” asked Ajis. He narrowed his eyes. “And they left you alive?”

“No one took them. We left them in Affodell’s crypt. Both of them—the mirror and the amulet.”

Ajis laughed. “After you unearthed it? For some fool to come along and snatch them up?”

Azriah gave the spirit a quizzical look. “You don’t know how the crypt operated, do you?”

The question struck a damaging blow to Ajis’s ego and face. His expression deflated, growing hard, skeptical, and not unnoticeably worried.

With the answer to his question on clear display, Azriah continued. “The mirror powered the defenses. It was nearly impossible to get in the first time; now that we’ve added the amulet, that power has been increased twofold. Nothing’s getting in there without blasting the mountain to rubble.”

Ajis scanned Azriah’s face; Azriah’s features held their ground. He was a frighteningly good liar.

“Don’t be a sucker,” said Ophylla to Ajis with no small dose of venom. “They’re bluffing, but obviously we’re going to search them anyway.”

Ajis sneered at Azriah, but it was Ophylla he addressed. “Do not talk to me like that,” he said in a hushed tone. He turned aside and knelt by Azriah’s bag.

Ophylla rolled her eyes and lifted Vit’s.

A tense moment ran like a hog escaping from its pen as Root tried to pick the words that were simultaneously the most likely to get them out of the situation and the least likely to do that by getting them all killed. Ajis didn’t seem like the most patient person in the worlds, and she couldn’t forget the way he’d blown a hole in the side of Affodell’s mansion so big that Harnn wouldn’t even have to think about crab walking through it. Of course, “things Harnn wouldn’t think about” made for a long, long list indeed.

Root watched helplessly as Ophylla lifted first the old book, and then an oblong bundle of cloth from Vit’s bag. She dropped the rest back to the floor.

Ajis, rifling furiously, came up empty-handed. He turned the bag over and let the contents tumble to the floor, then did the same with Vit’s. Spotting something that caught his eye, he snatched up a small item wrapped in cloth.

“Ah-ha!” He lifted the wad triumphantly. Peeling back the cloth, he watched intently until the final layer slipped away and revealed the item within.

Ajis stared at it. “What…?” he started. Then his brain seemed to catch up. “Is this some creature’s… appendage?” With a disgusted grunt, he cast it down into the pile of other belongings. Then he looked back up.

His greedy eyes met the swaddled lump in Ophylla’s hand.

With one frantic tug, Ophylla snapped the twine encircling the parcel. The edges of the cloth fell away until just the end of the mirror’s golden handle poked out with all the pomp of a grand entrance.

It was odd, the feeling Root got from seeing it again. She hadn’t laid eyes on the mirror since the morning they’d taken it from the crypt and liberated it from Ophylla’s temporary clutches. A few times during her shifts carrying it—usually those that came around in the dead of night while she lay awake on watch as the others slept—she’d considered taking it out and looking at it, but always she had cast the urge aside. It frightened her, once she tamped out the voice that whispered the idea in her ear and called it out for what it was. But now she saw the mirror again at last, only a few feet away from her and in someone else’s grasp.

She wanted it back.

“Ah, looks like the old crypt isn’t working overtime after all, hm?” said Ajis. He put out a hand and looked to Ophylla. “Give it here.”

Ophylla gave Ajis a sour, disapproving look that reminded Root of the girls she went to school with. “I’m quite capable of handling this one.”

The pair held each other’s stares for a long, heated moment—or perhaps Root just needed to watch her proximity to the upholstery. Whatever circumstances had led the two of them into this partnership, it didn’t seem to be for the best. They butted heads more frequently than baby goats competing for who could generate a more debilitating migraine—and they were doing wonders at roping the spectators into the fray.

“I’m in charge here,” said Ajis sternly, seemingly more to Harnn, Kurg, and the others than to Ophylla directly. “Hand it over.”

“This one’s mine. I paid quite a lot of money for it, and I’m only now getting the chance to cash in.”

Vit cleared their throat. “Technically you did have it for about ten seconds before.”

“The book, then,” said Ajis.

Ophylla uttered a frustrated sigh. “Can’t we just finish up here and then handle these matters?”

Another bout of staring into each other’s eyes ensued while the rest of them had to sit and watch. Ajis clenched a fist; Ophylla lowered the mirror and moved it away from him.

As they engaged in their petty dispute, Root felt the tightness of Ophylla’s vines slacken by a fraction. She shifted in her seat, trying to hold the sliver of wiggle room she’d acquired.

“Search the little guy’s bag, I’ll check the girl’s,” said Ophylla.

“I don’t have a bag,” said Beel quickly. “I don’t have anything, actually. But if I did, you’d be more than welcome to have any of it.”

Ajis scanned the floor around Beel’s seat to confirm that this was indeed true before turning his eyes on Root’s bag.

Root leaned forward. “You’re just gonna let her call the shots like that?” she said to Ajis. “And I thought you were the one in charge.”

Fury made quick work of turning Ajis’s face from ugly to uglier, from orange to… well, not red, but a redder shade of orange.

He rounded on Ophylla, who turned aside to face him. “I am the one in charge! This is my crew! I’ll search her bag.” The vines slackened another hair.

Ajis reached for Root’s bag. Root watched with eyes wide; her bonds were still too tight. She’d hoped to buy another moment, another inch of slack. She had one other option left on the table, but could she really—

The vine binding Root’s right ankle uncoiled and swatted the bag aside just as Ajis grabbed for it. It slid out of his reach and struck the wall of the hearth.

“You insolent fool, what is the meaning of this? You work for me—I own you!”

“This is a partnership!” said Ophylla.

“Yes, and I’m the partner who’s in charge, and you’re the partner who does what I say!”

Root shifted her freed ankle. Her other three limbs were still held fast. She looked to the others.

Azriah had shimmied a small knife into one hand. Beel cowered in fright. Vit watched the back and forth unfolding before them. Ajis and Ophylla were distracted; it was as good a time to act as any.

Root moved her head in the best approximation of an arms-bound wave she could manage. It took a second go before Vit looked over.

With three limbs sidelined and the fourth limited in its abilities for fear of revealing its freedom to Ophylla and Ajis, Root undertook the most difficult game of charades she’d ever played. She curled her head down, wiggled her fingers, nodded her head, and used her eyes to indicate the mirror and her bag. She felt like she did a pretty good job of miming the words “Take spider form, free yourself from the vines, get the mirror and my bag, get out of here or maybe, ideally, fight off all these guys and free the rest of us.” It deserved at least half points for effort and difficulty.

Vit stared blankly.

A creak entered the room, barely noticeable in the commotion. Root tracked it as it rippled through the inn’s common space. It reached Ajis and tugged at his sleeve until he stopped arguing with Ophylla long enough to hear it.

“What was that?”

Ajis and Ophylla and most of the other things with heads and eyes in the room turned them towards Harnn at the door. He stood blocking the entrance just as he had previously. Behind him, the door was opening and closing, pushing against him as something struggled on the other side. Harnn appeared to be completely unaware of this.

“Just gonna… urf. Sneak past ya…”

A lanky little spirit with a face like a crumpled drawing entered the room, his attention on Harnn. He dusted himself off and righted his outfit. “Sorry ‘bout that, big fella.” The spirit turned toward the common room and froze.

Everyone watched him, and he watched everyone in return. It didn’t seem lost on him that several of the room’s occupants were tied up and the others looked quite angry. The spirit swallowed dramatically.

“Oh, er, I was just on my way out, see.” With his eyes on Ajis and Ophylla, the spirit reached for the doorknob and tugged. It bumped against Harnn. “Just gonna… huuh-huh. Squeeeze by ya here…”

“Harnn,” said Ajis when the spirit had mostly made it out. “Be a better wall.”

“Sorry, boss.” Harnn leaned back. The spirit was a hair’s breadth from leaving his head behind as the door latched closed with a loud thund-click.

Multiple people came to realizations while Ajis had his attention turned to Harnn. The first was Ophylla, who noticed her opportunity and lunged for it. She darted forward, reaching for Root’s bag.

The second was Vit. “Ohh!” They said, looking at Root. Then they began to fold in on themself as they shrank.

Ajis turned back around. “Hey!” he shouted, but the “to whom” was unclear. He had a couple of good options.

Ajis lunged forward towards Root’s bag. His foot caught on a vine as he moved—whether by the fault of his foot or the vine, Root couldn’t be sure. He hit the floor hard and the room shook.

(But it didn’t really shake all that much, because Ajis wasn’t a particularly large guy. Despite his arguments on the contrary, horns didn’t count when measuring one’s height.)

Root, now with just enough slack to do so, rotated her arms around so her hands were palm-up, then channeled smoke into them. She formed the best approximation of twin blades she could manage with the limited mobility stunting her efforts to help coax the smoke along with the movements of her fingers and hands. She yanked her hands back. To her relief, the blades took care of the vines—though, being jagged and dull, they didn’t sever them completely. Ophylla yelped in pain. Root leaned out with one ankle still bound and thrust her hand into her backpack.

She came up with the wrapped amulet in her hand just as Vit landed on the couch in full spider form. The vines that had bound them sagged uselessly like the shed skin of a snake suddenly realizing its emptiness.

Root held up the amulet in a way that immediately called to mind memories of trying to hold toys in the air out of her older sister’s reach in the heat of a dispute about who should get a turn with it. It had never worked, since Eshra had been older, and bigger, and stronger…

…And smarter, and prettier, and better around the house and farm…

Root tried to make herself look tough. She tried to make it look like she wielded a powerful artifact and knew how to use it. One of those was true, at least, though also muffled by the way that artifact was still wrapped tight in an old, discarded scrap of fabric and bound with twine like some shitty holiday present wrapped in used bandages.

She pulled at the twine and snapped it; the bandages fell away. They weren’t used, but they were bandages. Or they’d been intended to be before finding a different purpose. With any luck, they wouldn’t need to revert to the original use anytime soon, but things weren’t looking good.

“Let my friends go,” said Root. It didn’t make a lot of sense; Vit had managed their situation on their own, Azriah already had both arms back, though more vines snaked towards them, and Beel wouldn’t make use of his freedom if it was granted to him or not. There always remained the issue of her still-bound ankle. Perhaps that might’ve been a better place to start.

Ophylla cast aside the cloth and pulled out the mirror in earnest. It gleamed alongside her muddy brown eyes which lay fixed on the amulet.

Ajis looked between them, eyeing one periapt and then the other.

“Leave us,” said Root, raising the amulet higher like she might do something with it. She couldn’t even convince herself; it felt wrong. It might’ve made her cringe if her heart wasn’t beating so fast. “But, uh, leave the mirror too.” Ophylla snickered.

“Better we take it off your hands before someone else does—at the wrists,” said Ajis. “If this is the best you can do with two, it’s a wonder you haven’t turned up dead in a gully.”

“Better for who?”

Ajis stepped towards her. “Us.”

As Ajis advanced, Ophylla’s vines began to roil. A thick tentacle came up and lashed around Root’s forearm, reaching for the amulet.

Root’s heart seized. She closed her fist around the amulet; her fingers clamped down on the cool, lime-colored jewel and a jolt arced through her—through her hand and arm and up into her mind. Without thinking, she thrust her arm out, reached for Ophylla with her mind, and a ray of green struck her with a blinding radiance.

All at once, the vines slunk away from Root, uncoiling from her arm and ankle. They ebbed away from Vit, now perched on the back of the couch, and Azriah, and Beel, who made no movements despite it. Then, like a rampaging wave of untamed overgrowth, they surged towards Ajis.

Ajis, in the face of overwhelming vegetation, managed to level one taloned finger at Root. Really, given the circumstances, she didn’t feel like she deserved to be his number-one priority, and she had really been counting on him feeling the same way. Getting the pair to distract each other for a moment had been her entire game plan since they arrived, and she’d gotten frustratingly mixed results. No sooner had Root found herself staring down the razor point of Ajis’s fingernail than he was struck by a thick wall of greenery.

Something struck her as well, like a debilitating cloud of heavy fumes that shut down her brain and left her unsteady on her feet. How could she have done that—how could she have used the mote periapt on Ophylla? She’d seen what it did to Azriah when Ophylla used it, and no one deserved that. No one deserved to have their mind so utterly corrupted, their will hijacked and puppetted to act on the violent directions of someone else. How could she say she was the one acting justly when she stooped to all the same measures as the ones she claimed to oppose? She didn’t deserve to carry a mote periapt. She should cast it to the ground.

Wait… what the fuck? Absolutely not.

She blinked away the stupor. It felt like clawing up a cliff face while buffeted by a heavy, muddy waterfall, but she pushed the thoughts to the side, struggling to act around them. It was like wearing a jacket of stone.

Soft, refreshing nectar flowed down her right arm, rivulets seeping out of the amulet and into her muscles, washing away the mud and stone. She drank it in; it gave her mind a cold, much-needed rinse. It also reminded her of where she was and what she’d been up to, which seemed quite important again. It drew her eyes as if by the firm, steering hand of a parent cupping her chin, refocusing her gaze on the perfect golden orb and shimmering handle of the mirror in Ophylla’s hand. She had it held high, leveled at Ajis who still reeled from her strike. An uncontested heat started to swell in Root’s gut, hotter than any she had ever felt.

A silver ray broke from the mirror. No, a silver ray intercepted the mirror. A thick strand of web ensnared the open face and yanked it from Ophylla’s unsuspecting grasp. Root’s eyes trailed it as it flew through the air towards Vit, still in spider form on the back of the couch.

Vit caught the mirror in a net of web, keeping it stuck suspended between four of their limbs. With the grace and efficiency and a dash of that unique sticky horror of a spider spinning up their catch, Vit wove the mirror into a glob of web until no part of it remained visible. They slung two strands of web towards the hearth and jumped, dodging one, then two of Ophylla’s vines as she tried wildly to catch them, but they were small and agile and moving quick. They launched themself into the fireplace, but before they even touched the flames, they’d woven a parachute of spider silk. As they hit the heavy updraft off the fire, they shot upwards with the smoke, and then they were gone.

The fire in Root’s stomach subsided. She stared silently at the fireplace until she remembered—for the second time—where she was, and who she was with, and what, exactly, she was still holding.

With Ophylla dazed as she shook off the lingering effects of Root’s attack, Ajis shoved off the vines that hung halfheartedly around his limbs and set one hand on the hilt of a dagger on his belt. He stretched out the other hand towards the chimney. A sensation washed over the room—or lack thereof. Like a syrup of lethargy, the energy that had coursed with such vigor and speed through the room dampened as it streaked inwards towards Ajis’s hand, condensing there and growing like a tumor. It was as if all color and care drained from the room as Ajis collected it, hot and raging.

“Heh-hem.” Behind the bar, the innkeeper stood with her arms crossed, eyebrow raised. She watched Ajis with hard disapproval. Ajis faltered, and some of the energy snapped back into the room.

“You have no idea what—”

“Listen, I said don’t break my stuff and we weren’t gonna have a problem. You break my chimney, we’re gonna have a problem.”

Ajis hesitated. A moment passed, and then he lowered his hand. The room returned to its proper color and tense fierceness.

“Sweep the woods!” he bellowed. Harnn flung open the front door and hurried out with as much speed as one can muster while crab walking sideways through a door. Golvy and Kurg exited through the back door. Spaghetti and Not joined Harnn before he had even cleared the threshold.

Only Root, Azriah, Beel, Ajis, Ophylla, and the innkeeper remained in the room, and the innkeeper didn’t look like she had any intention of sticking around or helping, only watching from a safe distance to make sure she didn’t end up with any nicks in her tables, tears in her armchairs, or gaping holes blasted through her chimney and roof. Similarly, Beel didn’t look like he was interested in having anything to do with the things (or, in this case, people) who seemed intent on having something to do with him, likely of the harmful sort, which was his least favorite category. He pushed himself down lower into the couch cushions.

Azriah drew Orne Tyn and took up a stance where he was least impeded by the furniture. Root had never agreed to any oath taking the coffee table as her most sacred ward, and she intended to make that clear if confronted with that discussion. She secured the amulet around her wrist, doubling and tripling the chain, and then reached into the fireplace to summon her own sword.

Ajis looked from one sword to the other. He scoffed. “You could’ve just handed them over and never had to go to all this trouble. We even would’ve let you go. You think you’d find that same kindness from others? We’re the good ones. We could’ve even worked together.”

“Because we’ve seen how well you work with others,” said Root, gesturing to Ophylla, who still staggered and clutched her head as she struggled to regain her bearings.

“Oh, please. You’ve inflicted far more pain upon her than I have. And she knows it.” He stepped forward. “She’s only after what is owed to her, and I have so generously agreed to help her get it.”

“Super generous of you,” agreed Root. “Especially the part when you said you own her.”

Ajis’s nostrils flared. He thrust out a hand and again began to channel the energy of the room into his palm.

Azriah rushed him with his sword up. He struck Ajis’s wrist with the flat of his sword. With a grunt of pain, Ajis clutched his hand in close, but Azriah already had the tip of his blade leveled at Ajis’s throat.

Ophylla, in a sudden moment of clarity, whipped at Azriah’s legs with her tentacles.

“Azriah, look out!” called Root, but it didn’t matter. The vines wrapped Azriah’s shins and pulled him off balance. He took a desperate swing toward Ajis before landing hard on his butt. Ajis stepped backwards out of range with ease, but behind him was Ophylla, who took up a lot of space where she met the floor on account of her lower half looking like a heap of frayed rope. He tripped over one of her viny tentacles and landed much the same as Azriah.

Ophylla’s next attack flew at Root, a trio of coiled vines aimed at the pendant dangling from her wrist. Root swung her sword and lopped off the end of the tentacle, but it only fazed Ophylla’s strike; the appendage kept coming.

Azriah got back to his feet and cleaved at the tentacle closer to its source, giving Root some reprieve from her hasty and repetitive hedge trimming. The sludgy remains spattered her boots.

“We don’t want to kill you again,” said Azriah, brandishing his sword. “Let us leave with what we came with. We aren’t after you. Either of you.”

“How cute that you think that’s how it works,” said Ajis. He flexed his talons and swiped at Azriah.

His claws raked the sleeve of Azriah’s gambeson, which absorbed the blow as Azriah stepped to the side and swung his sword. Ajis spun with blinding speed so that the blade connected with his left horn. He channeled the momentum around as he turned, crouching lower, and then with a pulse of some murky energy and a grunt through gritted teeth he delivered a swift kick to Azriah’s stomach. Azriah flew off his feet and sailed past the furniture. He slammed against Root and the two of them careened to the floor. Root’s head struck the stone wall of the hearth and stars erupted in her vision like the slain remains of a spirit dancing on the tip of her nose.

Azriah rolled back to his feet with surprising speed. He’d taken the full force of the kick, but he’d had an easier fall. Root groaned and clutched her scalp as she pulled herself back up to stand.

Three swift strikes parrying and severing Ophylla’s tentacles put Azriah right in front of her. She backed into the bar counter and froze as the tip of Azriah’s sword came to rest on her bare sternum just beside the embroidered fringe of her silk toga.

“Don’t think I’ve forgotten what you did to me back in the mountains,” he said through heavy breaths. “My offer before was a courtesy. I’m not opposed to ending this the easy way.”

“Don’t you mean—” she started.

Azriah pressed his sword closer to whatever part of Ophylla’s anatomy lay within her chest area. “No, I don’t. Now give me the book.”

Ajis didn’t care to watch this exchange unfold. He saw Root climbing, disoriented, to her feet, amulet hanging freely at her wrist, and lunged.

Moving fast made Root feel like she was going to throw up, but she preferred losing the contents of her stomach out her mouth the good old-fashioned way over letting them make a quicker escape through whatever new gory hole she ended up earning with Ajis’s help. She didn’t get out of his way, but she did get her weapon—now a polearm—raised in time to catch him against the shaft. He grabbed the weapon and pushed her down against the hearth wall so her head landed just shy of the burning logs in the fireplace.

He looked down at her there, pinned below him. The amulet glistened in the firelight. He reached for it.

Root shrunk her weapon back down into a sword and made a wild swing. The blade cut a gash in Ajis’s outstretched forearm. He recoiled and seethed.

“I’ve entertained this long enough. Goodbye,” he said. His chest swelled as he sucked in a deep breath. She watched in disgust as his tongue prodded his cheeks. And then he spat.

A blob of thick molten magma left his mouth, careening off his tongue and glowing orange and hot as it shot towards her face. Root winced and turned aside as the magma splattered across her cheek, sharp with the rapidly cooling edges of razor stone. She used her free hand to wipe the gritty goo off her face and slick it onto the hearth. Ajis watched her in surprise.

“Um, what the hell? Did you just spit on me?”

He didn’t respond; a golden ring had wrapped his midsection, pinning his arms to his sides. He struggled against the bond as a second clicked around his ankles, knocking him off balance. He hit the floor next to Root just in time for a third ring to join the fray, binding him up near the shoulders.

Ajis writhed on the floor, sputtering and cursing, but the rings held tight. Root pushed herself back up and looked down at him.

Her eyes fell on his hand, stuck near his hip despite his efforts to pry it out of the wide golden manacle. His ring clinked against the metal, the same one she’d noticed he wore before, a band of rough obsidian holding a round, teal gem as if set behind a row of sharp teeth. She reached for it.

Still struggling, Ajis followed Root’s gaze, watched as she put out a hand. His eyes widened, and for a second there was a look on his face that Root had never seen there: fear. He pressed his eyes shut.

Just as Root’s fingers were about to brush the ring, the floor beneath Ajis shifted and split apart. Glittering fringe opened like a zipper and then the floor moved. There was more floor below it, but it was quite a bit farther away, like looking off a balcony to the story below. Ajis, continually affected by gravity in the way of most things, fell through the opening towards the new floor, and then just as fast as it appeared, the portal was gone, and Ajis with it.

Beel’s rings snapped back to where he sat in abject terror on the couch.

“I thought you were dead!” he said.

“You could’ve done that earlier and maybe we wouldn’t have come close.”

Beel looked Root over, paying extra attention to her face. Root swiped a few lingering grains of coarse black stone out of her eyelashes and from around her nose. Was magma good for the pores? She hoped so.

“Are you both all right?” asked Azriah. He held Orne Tyn in one hand, the book in the other. Ophylla was nowhere to be seen.

“Fine,” said Root, rubbing her head.

“No!” said Beel.


Beel quivered as he let out a shaky breath. “Well… yes, but—”

“Good. Come on, let’s find Vit. They’ve got five spirits after them. Maybe more.”

Ajis felt the floor beneath him, and then he didn’t. In most cases, that would not be a welcome development, but in this case, it was a relief. He would’ve sighed, but he was falling.

He landed with his face in the plush cushions of a fine couch—not the dirty old stuff of a common room in an inn, something nicer and less inhabited by bugs and crumbs. It took him a moment to realize that his limbs were free and he could move them as he wished.

“Well, I’d say it doesn’t look like your outing was quite as fruitful as hoped.”

Ajis grumbled. “We were surprised.”

“Were you? I thought the plan had things going the other way around.”

“There were some things we didn’t account for.”

“I’ll say. I’ve never heard you sound so frantic.”

“I wasn’t frantic!” shouted Ajis. He pushed himself up, still trying to right himself on the couch in a manner that looked dignified. “Maybe if you weren’t so selective in your responses to my orders—”

“Oh, please. I could’ve had you land somewhere else, you know. Like here on the floor.”

Ajis growled.

“Or out in the thicket. Yes, maybe next time it’ll be the thicket.”