A common perception of primordial humans paints them as territorial to the point of savage violence, donning (even before they invented clothes) a cumbersome xenophobia of “us versus them” in which one tribe must triumph over the others or else the members risk starvation, displacement, or getting clobbered with a big rock. In actuality, early humans were remarkably amicable and collective, at least by modern standards, and the territoriality that has come to be ascribed to inherent human nature was actually an invention that cropped up very shortly after the invention of “owning things.”

Humans have always been some of the most social creatures in the worlds—more so than spirits, wolves, and fish—much to the dismay and denial of many humans. They do fall short against ants, but there’s never any competing against ants; they conduct their species with flawless discipline, order, and efficiency as if their only real goal in these worlds is to win as many superlative awards as possible. Most social, most populous, most painful sting, greatest lifting capacity by size…

Because, of course, that’s precisely their objective. Ants have a bit of a complex.

By any meaningful metric, and contrary to that same misconception, the age of savagery among humans swept in alongside that sudden incursion of concern for territory—of where mine ends and yours begins—and persists into the present. And thus we find the problem of neighbors.

For humans, and somewhat for spirits insofar as they have adopted some of the same cultural sticking points that humans have introduced to the worlds, having neighbors activates that knee-jerk territoriality that they pretend is some vestige of those “elder savage days” and which they “are trying to subdue.” That psychological wrestling of the primordial and civilized self is great spectacle but all for show; humans aren’t truly interested in deconstructing those perspectives—not when they find it feels so good to label someone an other. And who better to other than that bastard next door who keeps trimming back your forsythias claiming they’re his?

So it was only the routine movement of things for Mr. Peith Bell to stand in his open doorway as he listened to the tantrum of a child down the road and think to himself: “Damn neighbors. What’s that wack job up to now? Taking children hostage and letting them scream? Just unbelievable. Come on—some of us are trying to enjoy our evenings.”

Root and Azriah made their way up the steep path to the house neighboring Glabigal’s. From out in his yard, Glabigal couldn’t see his neighbors thanks to thick tree cover and the shadowy understory, but Root didn’t have to wonder long whether this was intentional or not; the spirit had been keeping, until moments prior, a child tied up in his living room. Certainly his culinary explorations were better done out of his neighbors’ line of sight—and smell. Plus, having met the guy, she couldn’t imagine his neighbors wanted to see him either.

But while out of sight, Glabigal obviously hadn’t settled far enough to keep the auditory atmosphere of his property private. Root could still hear Fundevogel’s wailing even as they arrived at the new cabin.

Unlike Glabigal’s shack, which had been dark and foreboding, this house looked warm and comfortable, with raised garden beds in neat lines along the path, a wide, covered porch, and golden light dripping from windows covered inside by sheer curtains embroidered with blue floral patterns. The front door stood open and the smells of a hot meal plumed from the opening and out the chimney. A young girl sat on the edge of the porch, her white, yellow, and pink dress bunched under her, a stuffed toy clutched in her lap. She stared off into the woods where fireflies circled.

“Hello there,” said Azriah, waving while he and Root were still across the yard. He approached casually. “My name is Azriah. What’s yours?”

The girl looked up. She threw a glance behind her at the open door, then turned her attention back to the approaching strangers. She hugged the toy tighter. “I’m Kiti Bell and I’m five.”

“Root,” said Root with a wave. (A bad way to introduce yourself when your name is, in most contexts, not a name.)

“I see you’ve got a toy there,” said Azriah, pointing. “Is that new?”

Kiti nodded.

They finished crossing the yard, stopping a few paces shy of the porch. “You’ve got some other cool toys too, I bet, yeah?”

Again, Kiti nodded.

“What’s your favorite?”

She considered this for a moment, picking absently at a splinter sticking out of the porch boards. “My wagon. My dad painted leaves on it. I put rocks in it.”

“Oh, yeah?” said Azriah. He took a seat on one of the low garden bed walls. “You help your folks move rocks for the garden I bet.”

Kiti nodded.

“I’m sure they appreciate the help. Moving rocks is a big job, you know. I used to move rocks for my mom. You know what’s really fun? You can take the rocks and use them to build towers or walls. Have you ever done that?”

Kiti shook her head.

“You should. It’s a lot of fun. Next time you’ve got some really good rocks, make a big tower, as tall as you are. The trick is to get some good big flat ones for the bottom, all right?”

Kiti just stared.

“So, listen. You really love that wagon, sounds like. So I’m sure you’d be really sad if it got lost or someone else had it, right?”


“Well, we know this little boy—his name is Fundevogel. He just lost his favorite toy in the whole worlds, and now he’s really sad.”

“You can hear how sad he is,” added Root.

“And more than anything he wants to have his toy again. It’s a stuffed toy that he calls Hippo. He lost it… I don’t know, within the last few days sometime. And you just got that toy there. And, well, I think that’s the toy he’s looking for.”

Kiti looked down into the face of the toy, then back up.

“So, what do you say? We should probably get the toy back to him to make him happy, huh?”

Again, Kiti looked at the toy, then Azriah. She pushed it under her arm. “But it’s mine.”

“Well, sure, you have it right now—”

“But it was his first,” said Root. “And it was kind of taken from him by a big ogre spirit. How’d you get it, anyway?”

“It was in a box. Someone left it on our porch.”

“That’s pretty odd, don’t you think? Could be haunted. Or cursed. You don’t want that thing.”

“Yeah I do.”

Root shrugged. “Last kid to have it could’ve used a lucky break, that’s all I’m saying.”

“Kiti, it’s almost—” A man poked his head out the door. He jumped when he noticed Root and Azriah. “Oh! Hoo, you startled me. I didn’t realize there was anyone else out here. Can I help you folks with something?” He stepped over the threshold while drying his hands before putting the towel over his shoulder.

“My name is Azriah, and this is Root.”

“Peith,” said the man. “I’d shake your hand, but I’m afraid it’s just been inside a number of birds.”

“We were just at your neighbor’s house. There’s a boy there, and he is missing a toy of his. The owner of the place said he deposited it here with some other things.”

“Ah, yes, that toy there.” Peith pointed despite Kiti’s attempts to hide it behind herself. “Turned up on our porch last night.”

Azriah nodded. “Thing is, the kid really wants it back.”

“You might’ve heard,” said Root.

Peith scrunched up his face. “Oh, is that what that is? My, that boy has some lungs.” He crouched down next to Kiti. “You hear that, Kiti? It sounds like this is another boy’s toy, and he’d really like it back. Do you think we could give it to him?”

Kiti shook her head. “But it’s mine! I love it.”

“It’s that or we give him your wagon,” said Root.

Azriah hit her shoulder. “She’s kidding,” he said hurriedly and mostly to Peith.

“Can we buy it off you?” asked Root, also mostly to Peith, unless the girl turned out to be a promising and precocious young capitalist.

“Oh, we don’t need any money,” said Peith. “I’m afraid it’s up to Kiti what she would like to do.”

“Keep,” said Kiti.

“Come on, is there anything we can do for it?” asked Root.

Kiti looked at her. Then she looked up at her dad and waved him down to her level. She whispered something in his ear.

“Ah, always you and that sweater,” said Peith, chuckling and rolling his eyes. “There is something she wants. She’s always loved a certain sweater that our neighbor often wears. It has a print of teddy bears on it, and Kiti just adores it. She’d be willing to trade you the toy for the sweater, but you’d have to arrange that with Drumpendra.”

Root balked. “You’ve got to be f—” Azriah’s hand managed to move just fast enough to keep the conversation’s age rating suitable for all participants, despite the inclinations of Root’s mouth. Nevertheless, an unrestrained groan left his own.

“I’m sorry?” said Peith.

“No, no,” said Azriah. “Thank you for your help, it has nothing to do with you. It’s… well, you’d really just have to have been there.”

“And there, and there, and there, and there,” grumbled Root.

“We’ll see what we can do. Where…?”

Peith pointed them in the direction of Drumpendra’s house with his bird-smothered hand, and they hurried back down the path.

They knocked on Drumpendra’s door a minute later.

A small spirit answered, close to Beel’s size but bipedal and toothier with purple and grey skin and a coat of… well, it wasn’t fur, exactly. It looked like she’d drenched herself in syrup and then rolled around under a couch. She wore a sweater, black with rows of tiny teddy bears.

“Hi,” said Root. “We were sent over by your neighbors. They’d like to buy that sweater off you. Uh, literally.”

“Hello. Oh, this?” said Drumpendra. She looked down at it. “I—”

“We will pay you so much money.”

“But why?”

“Well…” started Azriah with a huff.

“We need it so a little girl will give us a stuffed toy,” said Root. “So we can bring it back to the kid it belongs to so he’ll come with us and go back to his mom.”

“Who we only agreed to help because we needed her smock,” said Azriah.

“Which we need for a potion,” continued Root. “Alongside three other things, two of which we found out in the wilds.”

“The other one was a cream we had to have made. Right in Lasting, actually, though we’ve gone in a big circle since.”

“Right, but she needed us to run an errand to get a material,” said Root. “So we went to a witch to get frosting, but before she would give it to us we had to fix her roof with cookies from this other guy.”

Azriah nodded. “He was a picky eater. We had to go to the grocery store for him.”

“They didn’t have what he wanted. The factory discontinued it. But we found a dragon who had a can.”

“I stupidly asked if she wanted us to deliver a package to her daughter.”

“She did.”

“So we did.”

“But then we got the cream.”


“And we only need the potion in order to trade for some top-secret info from a guy in Lallslatt.”

“Which was our original errand, believe it or not.”

“It’s been several days.”

“So, really, if we could just have the sweater…”

Please,” said Root and Azriah together.

Drumpendra’s eyes flicked between them, from Root to Azriah, then back, then back again, struggling to keep up as her face grew more and more confused. She looked at her sweater again, admiring the pattern on her sleeve.

“Well…” she said. They stared at her, hanging on the word. “If I gave it to you, what would I wear then?”

“We’ll pay you enough to overhaul your whole wardrobe,” said Root.

“But it’s chilly tonight.”

“Start a fire?”

Drumpendra looked up at them. “That’s a nice cloak you have,” she said, admiring the new one Azriah had bought in Wunksfeld. “You won’t have to be cold.”

Azriah lifted one side of the cloak. He looked down at it in pained contemplation for a moment. Then he sighed. “Here. The cloak for the sweater.”

“Really?” Drumpendra’s eyes widened.


“Deal.” She stripped off her sweater and donned the cloak. It collected in heaps on the ground around her; two-thirds of its length trailed on the floor as she walked.

Azriah took the sweater. “Thanks,” he said with a sad look. “Have a good night.”

“Here you are,” said Azriah to Kiti as they arrived back at her perch, still clutching the toy. He handed her the sweater; she took it with starry eyes.

“Oh, you’re back,” said Peith, stepping back through the doorway. “Did you manage—oh, wow. You have no idea how long Kiti has been admiring that sweater. Kiti, what do you say?”

“‘ank you.”

“And now you’re going to give them that new toy, right?” Kiti hugged it closer. She looked at the sweater, and then reluctantly she held out the toy.

“Thank you,” said Azriah as Root took it. She looked it over. It didn’t resemble a hippo—it didn’t resemble any animal, at least none she’d ever heard of. It had magenta fur and seven legs. Its beady eyes oversaw two mostly vertical mouths along the sides of its face, each stitched with rows of menacing teeth. A plume of rigid tentacles fanned from its lower back as if it had been stuffed with toothpicks.

“This is one ugly fuu… hippo,” muttered Root.

“Thank you, Kiti,” said Azriah. “I hope you love your new sweater. And remember what I told you about the rocks, yeah? Tall as you are.” He smiled. Kiti nodded.

“I washed it,” said Peith, putting his hand out for Azriah, then Root. “Take care. And get that boy to pipe down, all right? No toy is worth all this hollering.”

“Here’s hoping this will do the trick,” said Azriah. Peith and Kiti bid them goodbye and then Root and Azriah made their way down the hill and back towards Glabigal’s shack.

They reentered the shadows of the tree line, following the path. Root looked down at Hippo, then over at Azriah.

Hoarse wails still permeated the woods. What a relief that they’d gotten the dumb toy back. No thanks to her, of course—that had all been Azriah, and a little bit Peith. It reminded her of all those times she’d tried to ease Malie down out of a tantrum and only made it worse, all the times she’d tried to reason with the brain of a toddler and found herself only losing ground, all those times she’d tried to be there, be a mom to the girl who had never known hers, and only managed to be the short-tempered older sister. Those had been Eshra’s skills. And apparently Azriah wasn’t too shabby either.

“Did you have younger siblings growing up?” she asked as they walked.

“None. It was just my mom and me, mostly. Why?”

“Just wondering,” she said. She gazed up at the tree trunks, but her thoughts were on another continent, in another world.

Drumpendra turned this way and that in front of her mirror. The cloak grew more twisted around her feet, but she didn’t even notice.

What a nice cloak, she thought to herself. A good deal! Certainly a good deal.

She turned and looked around her small home. How nice it felt to be at home swaddled in a warm, fluffy cloak.

Although… Her eyes fell on the cold hearth. She hadn’t chopped firewood in ages—too difficult being so small and holding an axe. Perhaps she could have asked those nice strangers to do some chopping for her. Yes, that would’ve been a good payment as well.

Or the washing up, she thought to herself. Yes, the washing up—that hadn’t been done in ages either, and there was really so much of it, she just hated to touch wet food, or food that had ants crawling all over it. Those little things got everywhere—how were there so many of them? Or food with mold, and ants on that mold… Oh, maybe she should have asked them to do the washing up. Or both—there had been two of them. One for chopping and one for washing up.

Oh, but then what about the prescription she had to pick up from Pierce all the way over in Lallslatt? That would have been good payment as well.

Drumpendra hmphed as she looked around at all the things that needed to be done. An opportunity squandered, she thought to herself. Those two really seemed like they’d have been so helpful…