Root tried to use Rushela as leverage in her push for taking a bridge back across the gully, even if it came at the combined cost of a riddle and answer, matching or otherwise. She failed spectacularly in her argument when Rushela said swinging across sounded like “fun.” The girl shrieked with glee as Vit swung her across; Root used her own crossing to betray her efforts not to teach Eliondra’s kids any more swear words. By the time her feet were back on solid ground, Rushela had learned at least three.

Vit split away soon after—off towards Glabigal’s shack to make amends—leaving Root and Rushela to complete the walk south to Wunksfeld alone.

For the first five minutes or so, Root spent her time fishing around in her brain for anything worth making conversation about with a seven-year-old girl. The pressure mounted as the silence stretched on, until finally it shoved the best line she’d conjured off her tongue into a free fall to—hopefully—figure itself out as it went.

“So, do you have a favorite… color?”

“A favorite color?”

“Yeah, you know.”

Rushela didn’t make eye contact. “I like green.”


They walked in silence again for a few minutes, which Root spent thinking the words “Do you have a favorite color?” to herself over and over with different inflections and hating it even more each time.

“Your mom seems nice,” she said eventually, just so she could have a new line to pick apart and feel ridiculous over.

“Does she?”

“Well, I guess when we met her she mostly seemed sad, actually.”

Rushela didn’t say anything.

“Are you excited to have another sibling?”

That got the most reaction out of the girl of any question yet, though given the prior material, it really couldn’t come as much of a surprise. She looked over at Root with her face scrunched like she’d heard someone just behind her hacking something out of their throat. “No.”

“Oh, no?”

She shook her head and crossed her arms. “I already have to help take care of Fundevogel.”

“Oh. Yeah, I know what you mean. Younger siblings suck.”

Rushela looked at her. “How old are you?”

“Twenty. Why?”

“I don’t know. You’re old.”


They kept walking in silence.

“So I bet that’s why you want to do this apprenticeship, huh? Go off and do your own thing. Not have to worry about all the chores your mom wants you to do or take care of some little kids.”

Rushela nodded.

“Well, cool. I hope you enjoy, uh… making candy?”

“Ms. Grelga doesn’t make candy, she only finds it.”

“Right. Yeah, I guess she would, huh.”

Most of the rest of the walk back to the village passed in silence. Root made a few more attempts at conversation—all of them blunders. Relief filled her when the lights of Wunksfeld came into view; relief, but also lethargy. It had been a long day, and she hadn’t slept well the night before, her dreams haunted by the fears that Ajis and Ophylla might find them in the night.

Eliondra’s door hung slightly ajar. She gestured for Rushela to lead the way—not willing to say another word to the girl and add to the pile of regrettable sentences she’d use to keep herself awake that night—and followed her in.

“Oh, Rushela!” said Eliondra as the girl entered. The young mother sat at a table with Fundevogel asleep on her lap. Azriah and Beel sat on the other side of the table with empty mugs in front of them. Rushela went to her mother and greeted her with a hug and a kiss. “You had me worried sick, you know. Oh, I’m so glad you’re home. Are you all right? Are you hurt?”

“I’m okay.”

“Nothing too bad, this time?”

“No. He only kept Fundevogel this time. I went to see Ms. Grelga.”

Eliondra tutted as she smoothed her daughter’s hair and looked her up and down. “Rushela Lark, you know better than to wander out there, and what do I always tell you is going to happen? And then you go and get snatched up again…”

“Uh,” said Root, stepping closer to the table. “‘Again’?”

There came a knock on the door and then it opened. Vit entered, breathing heavy.

“Hey. Oh, glad everyone’s back.”

“Oh, these kids,” said Eliondra. “Always straying too far out of town and running into that Glabigal or one of the others. Grelga? She’s new.”

“She’s nice,” said Rushela, glazing right past her mother’s chiding and leaving Root to slowly assemble Eliondra’s words into something that made sense to her. “She offered me an apprenticeship.” She pulled out the rumpled envelope and handed it to her mother.

“Apprenticeship?” asked Azriah. He turned and looked up at Root and Vit.

“Oh. Oh my. That’s… exciting.” Eliondra looked over the letter.

“She’s very excited about it,” said Root. “Didn’t stop talking about it the whole walk back. Practically. We let Grelga know she could work something out with you.”

“Yes. Of course.” Eliondra’s words sounded distant as she kept her eyes on the letter. Suddenly, she looked up. “Oh, but thank you all. Thank you for going out to find my babies.”

“We were happy to,” said Azriah.

“Yeah,” said Root. “But we won’t be around next time, so if this is a regular occurrence… you know, I’m not usually one to recommend such methods, but there’s a type of ter spirit—”

“Ah, you know how kids are,” said Eliondra.

“Always getting kidnapped?” asked Beel.

“Exactly. At least around here.”

Vit cocked their head. “Really?”

“Oh yes. Or chased by something. Or cursed. Or wagered by their parents. Happens quite a lot, and there are only so many human families—only so many children—in the area, so there’s a bit of a scarcity of entrants into that lottery, if you follow.”

“I follow,” said Beel glumly.

“Well, it’s late,” said Azriah, pushing away from the table.

Root nodded. “We should go find some patch of dirt to lie down on before I fall asleep standing here.”

“Oh, travelers?” said Eliondra. “You are more than welcome to sleep here. Please, consider it a repayment for your help.”

“That’s quite all right, you already gave us your smock,” said Azriah, dismissing her.

“Hardly a proper thanks. I insist. The fire is warm, and I can have more tea on just as soon as I can get up…” Fundevogel still slumped against his mother in open-mouthed sleep, drooling on her shirt and cradling Hippo.

They agreed to spend the night, if for no other reason than it hid them away from their expected pursuers (which was their only argument against finding an inn for the night) while also allowing them the warmth of a fire and the rare luxury these days of not needing to post a watch. Eliondra hauled out a stack of rugs and extra blankets to pile on the floor around the kitchen hearth before tucking her children to sleep in the single bedroom. Azriah cooked dinner over Eliondra’s fire and doled out the portions; Root barely managed to spoon it into her mouth as she fought against her eyelids.

“Is there anything else I can get for you all?” asked Eliondra. She’d changed into a simple nightgown but still floated in and out of the kitchen doing little in particular.

A round of head shakes passed through the group. Vit said, “We have everything we need, thank you. Your home is lovely, by the way.”

Eliondra thanked them. “So,” she started. “A potion, you said? That was why you needed the smock?”

Azriah chuckled. “Yes. Sorry about that, we’re as confused as you were.”

“Oh, I’ve seen much stranger things out here. It’s a nice village, but an odd one. They all are around here. The smock—that’s what brought you here?”

“Generally searching for it, yes,” said Vit. “But we ran into you as a complete fluke.”

“A fluke of mine, I’d say.” Eliondra eased herself down to sit on the layers of rugs with her legs crossed. “If you don’t mind my prying, what good is a smock in a potion? And what does the potion do? Heal a sickness? Turn you into an owl? Cure infertility? Bring someone back to life?”

“No fucking clue, on either account,” said Root.

“We just have a list of ingredients,” said Azriah. “And the potion is payment to someone else for something we agreed to get them. Should’ve been a quick errand.” He laughed again. “It’s a long story.”

“I like a story. Oh—oh, but I’m sure you’re all very tired.”

Azriah gave her the quick recap, omitting the stuff about mote periapts, the deadly duo and their crew of useless oafs, and speeding over the most embarrassing of the details.

“Oh, wow. Well, if you’ve got all four of your ingredients now, that has to mean you’re in the home stretch. No more chasing mysterious items all across Atnaterra for you four.” She smiled, but the rest of them just muttered halfheartedly as they let those words settle in and curl up to head to bed with them. They hit a little too close to the mark.

“If you don’t mind my prying,” said Vit, “it seems like you’ve got your hands full here. Mr. Lark—is he away, or…?”

Eliondra shook her head. “He passed away several months ago. It was so sudden—he wasn’t old or anything, only a few years older than me. One week he was the picture of health, then every day he woke up in worse and worse condition. I don’t know what happened. It was before I even knew I was pregnant again.”

“I’m so sorry to hear that,” said Vit.

Eliondra nodded, but she pushed a smile. “I have Rushela and Fundevogel. And I’ll have the new baby, so… it will almost be like I get a part of him back, in a sense. A part I haven’t gotten to know yet. It’s been hard, but Rushela has really stepped up to help out since his passing. I don’t know what I’d do without her.”

“You should let her go,” said Root.

“Oh. For this apprenticeship, you mean?”

“Yes. You should let her do it.”

“I know, it’s just—”

“It’s what she wants. And hey, you’ll never have to worry about whether or not she’s got food to put in her belly.” Eliondra blinked at her. “It’s—uh, Grelga’s house. It’s made of gingerbread. And there’s candy, like… everywhere. Growing.”


“Yeah. What I mean is, it’ll be a good opportunity for her.”

“You think? She’s just so young—”

“Too young to help out there, but not too young to help out here?”

“Root…” said Azriah.

“No, no, she’s right. You’re right. I’ll work out something with Grelga. As long as… as long as she comes back around every now and then. As long as she isn’t running away from us.”

“She’s not…” Root’s voice petered out. “She’s not,” she said, firmer. Eliondra nodded.

Root lay back and listened as Vit and Eliondra delved into a conversation about her tea supplies. Vit always seemed to have endless energy left at the end of even their longest and most strenuous days. She wondered if it was a spirit thing; spirits still slept, but maybe it was like the way they ate and drank and breathed. They didn’t need any of those things, but they said it got exponentially more uncomfortable to go without, which some said was worse—increasing, rampant pain without the bookend of death ready to cap it off at a certain point and keep it in check. But Vit was human, too, and they did need food, water, and air. Maybe they existed somewhere in the middle. Or maybe it was just the way they always acted so upbeat and gung-ho about everything.

The conversation drifted back to their quest for the potion ingredients, though Root didn’t cling to enough lucidity to participate. Eliondra said she hoped it all turned out to be worth it, which got Vit and Azriah talking about something or other—some of the sticking points, some of the hurdles. Root watched Eliondra—the way she sat so close to Azriah that their legs touched, the way she kept fidgeting with her hair and pushing it back behind her ear. She watched the way she kept looking at Azriah every time he turned back to say something to Vit.

She also watched the way Azriah didn’t give Eliondra a second glance.

Eventually, she stopped watching anything at all, except for the insides of her eyelids, though the moment came and went without her noticing in the usual forgettable manner that eyelids above all have mastered. She awoke by the embers of the kitchen fire with the others stirring beside her.

Eliondra prepared breakfast with help from Azriah as the kids swept like a whirlwind through the house, out into the yard, back and through and around again. Rushela took not one but two trips down the street for ingredients at the request of her mother. They ate, and then the four of them set off with the waves of the Lark family at their backs.

They cut northleft-east through the woods, bypassing Lasting as they made their approach at last back to Lallslatt. By midmorning they’d reached the far end of the village, and shortly after they’d crossed through it and arrived at Pag’s squat little home in the woods. Root narrowed her eyes at the tiny front door in silent condemnation; the door eyed her neck in much the same way.

Azriah knocked, and Pag answered.

“Whad you want?”

“As enunciative as always,” muttered Root.

“We’re back,” said Azriah. Pag stared at him until he continued. “With the four ingredients you sent us to get. For the potion.”

“Hmm. Potion group. Yes, all right. Come in. Let’s get to brewing.”

Have you wondered yet about what happens to the dead of the two worlds?

Not spirits—not the things that experience death like a period on a page. Death in the absolute sense, those big, bold words: “THE END.” Death with some punch, with some meaning, with some appeal.

Well, no one knows for sure. That’s sort of the way of it, right? What’s on the other side of a one-way door? What denizens lurk in the folds of tomorrow? What will be left at the end of all time? No one knows except for the ones who go there. If you can find it nowhere else, take comfort, at least, to know that we are all going there together. We’ll join hands, if you like, in the face of the unknown.

Oh, but watch yourself—the pickpockets are ruthless right up until the very end. Some people just never get it through their skulls that they can’t take their fortune into oblivion. The inverse, of course, is that you won’t need whatever’s in your pockets, but best to see the bastards lose one last time, no?

Every culture that has ever been and every culture that will ever be has some idea about what happens to the dead. Culture, in this instance, can be described in the traditional, umbrellaic sense of a community and their beliefs, or it can be pushed to its more personal degree. Every person is a culture in themself, insofar as their beliefs about death are concerned. So to list every way that the humans of Setoterra and Atnaterra nurse their hopes and fears about the world beyond the worlds would take an infinite amount of time, an infinite amount of words, an infinite amount of feelings, and an infinite amount of expressions. Well, probably not—probably just a very long time, really. Too much hassle to get into it all.

What’s important is not so much a list of every notion that has ever been noted about the “after” part of “the end,” but rather the threads that run between them all: comfort, warmth, serenity, extreme violence inflicted upon those who have wronged you, pleasure in an endlessly flowing stream that could certainly never get boring or numb. The common threads are the closest we can hope to get to an answer. Unless everyone who has ever stopped to ponder the question has been horribly, optimistically wrong.

But we can hope that’s not the case. And that’s really what’s at the heart of it, eh? Hope.

(Just strike the bit about vengeance.)