“Well that’s not good at all,” continued Syrus. His words had an edge of concern, but alongside it swam the casual sarcasm of someone not terribly worried about the bloodthirsty spirit doing all manner of shoving and elbowing just to get at them without so much as a “sorry” or “pardon me” or “just going to squeeze behind you…”

“Come on,” said Vit, inviting Syrus to tag along in their flight.

“Oh, no, this would be better—uh, if you’d like…?” Syrus stepped back and opened an unmarked door in the alley—presumably the same he’d come out through.

Root made a split-second decision. She hurried through the door and into the musty room beyond. The others followed.

Syrus closed the door and slid the single lock into place. Root eyed it warily.

“I doubt that’s going to hold him long,” said Azriah.

“Oh, no, it will.”

“He’ll go and get… help,” said Root. “He’ll be back.”

“Ajis won’t be coming here either.”

“You know Ajis?” asked Vit.

“He probably doesn’t know you, just so you know,” said Root.

Azriah shook his head. “I wouldn’t be so sure he’ll stay away. He—”

“He’s rash, but he’s also a coward in the face of any fight he isn’t certain he can win.”

“I think he can win against a lock,” said Beel. “Or me.”

“Maybe he’s got a phobia,” said Vit.

“Of me?”

“No, of locks.”

Syrus shrugged. “He’ll prowl the premises, but he’s no threat. Please, sit, take a moment to breathe. You’re safe here.” He waved them to an old wooden table, long and simple and surrounded by benches. Two lanterns lit the room, hung from the low ceiling toward either end of the table like poor chandeliers. The rest of the room looked like some sort of underused kitchen, with a scuffed tile floor, countertops and cabinetry, crates of storage, and a dusty wash basin that looked like it hadn’t seen water since before Root was born. An open door led into a dark hallway delving deeper into the building.

They all took up seats along the benches.

Syrus drummed his fingers for a moment. “So, uh, how was the trip?”

“Long,” said Root.

“You were gone a while.”

Root nodded but no one said anything more. Syrus tapped through the silence until he’d found something else to say.

“You’re all doing…? Are you all doing… well?”

“Here,” said Azriah, taking out the folder of documents and saving Syrus from further attempts at conversation. He dropped it onto the tabletop.

“Ah, good.” Syrus pulled the folder towards him and flipped it open. He leafed through the papers, reading a bit here and there and nodding to himself. After a few minutes, he shuffled everything back together and closed the folder. “Very good. Thank you all for fetching this for me. What price was Betrum asking? Was the advance sufficient?”

“A bit of a complicated question,” said Azriah.

“No,” said Root.

“Of course. How much more do I owe you?” Syrus took a pouch from his belt and tugged it open.

“Betrum asked for a potion,” said Azriah. “The potion cost eight mantles.”

“Plus six days of our time to find the damn ingredients,” added Root. “So we expect full wages for those days on top of the cost for the potion.”

“Oh, certainly. That sounds fair. Here’s the difference for the potion…” He passed a handful of change to Azriah. “And, shall we say, a helix apiece? For the trouble?”

Root’s eyes bulged. She hadn’t met anyone so casual about ceding money since Ophylla.

“Root also wanted dinner,” said Vit.

“A helix is fine,” said Root quietly.

“Plus dinner, on me. Uh, I’ll get you the payment shortly—I don’t carry that kind of money in my pockets.”

“Of course,” said Azriah. “Now, you promised information as well.”

Syrus smirked. “Yes, that I did. Information about the mote periapts. Well, about one of them.”

“A lead on where to find one.”

“Yes.” Syrus eyed Azriah curiously. “Now, what makes you want to find such a thing?”

“Not part of the deal,” said Azriah, his voice firm. “Tell us what you know.”

“Fine, fine, sorry—just wondering, that’s all. I didn’t mean any offense. If you want to go about it so impersonally, fine. Well, I’ll tell you this: you’re in luck. There’s a mote periapt right here in the city.”

Well, several, then, thought Root, but she wasn’t about to say such a thing.

“What else do you know about it?” asked Azriah. He kept a very deadpan tone and countenance.

“Oh, a good deal.”

“Go on, then.”

Syrus folded his hands and shifted to lean on the table. “You four aren’t from around here, no?”

“No, just found ourselves passing through.”

“So I take it you don’t know much about what has been going on in the city for the past several centuries? Uh, politically?”

“Is this relevant?” asked Root.


“We’re unfamiliar,” said Azriah.

Syrus nodded. “The sitting city council and mayor have been in charge for a very long time. They have, uh, sort of accumulated power over the years. The people of Midden don’t like them much, though. It’s all coming to a head, you might say, with this current election, and there’s a new face on the ballot. Did you pay much attention to Hamlick? He was speaking in Scum Square when I first ran into you all. Er, when I second ran into you all, I suppose.”

The four of them shared a look. “We remember Hamlick,” said Azriah. “Didn’t pay much attention to him. You work with his campaign for mayor, right?”

“Something of the sort. Well, Hamlick has been shaking things up in a system that hasn’t been shaken for centuries. He weaseled his way in and, somehow, shot right up to frontrunner. He’s practically running unopposed, now. Well, I shouldn’t say somehow. I’m sure you’ve put the pieces together. He’s the one with the mote periapt.”

“Hamlick?” said Root. “That creepy spirit in the tights? He has a periapt?”

“He hasn’t had it long, and it’s unclear how and where he procured it—”

“But now he’s using it to take over the city,” said Azriah.

“Precisely. Though he’s doing it strategically, and very gently. The people adore him, and the city’s other politicians hardly realize they’re being usurped.”

“Because he’s controlling them,” said Vit. “What emotion does his periapt have jurisdiction over?”

Syrus narrowed his eyes and gave Vit a sly smile. Azriah gave them a not-quite-as-subtle-or-gentle-as-intended elbow in the ribs.

“We appreciate the information,” said Azriah. He stood and put out a parting hand towards Syrus.

Syrus shook his hand but remained sitting. “Oh, uh, you’re welcome. I’m happy to grab your payment and let you go if you’re in a rush, but I wasn’t finished.”

“What else do you have for us?”

“A proposition.”

“All right.” Azriah didn’t sit back down.

“I can’t say I’m exultant over Hamlick’s methods. It’s cheap and dirty, the game he’s playing. I’d like to see that he doesn’t come into more power than he’s already got—and, for that matter, cut down the power he has already. That is, I’d like to liberate the mote periapt from his possession and dash his chances of winning this election. And if Ajis and his little team are in the city, we will have to keep the mote periapt from ending up in his hands as well.”

“So you want our help,” said Root.

“Yes. Uh, you all seem like a smart group. I think you could really make a difference here.”

Azriah tugged his scruff. “I see. Can we have a few minutes to discuss?”

“Oh—sure, sure. You can—oh, sorry, I was going to invite you to step back out into the street. I suppose that might not be a quiet place to talk if Golvy is still snooping around. Um, here, I’ll just head down that way for a bit, if that works.” Syrus jabbed one thick thumb towards the hall. They all nodded, so he scooped up his folder, pushed up his glasses, and hurried out.

“That was interesting,” said Root when they could no longer hear his footsteps echoing in the hall.

Azriah retook his seat. “And informative.”

“Another periapt right here in Midden,” said Vit. “Looks like his information was good after all. I’d say that’s worth all the trouble.”

“We’re not out of the woods yet,” said Azriah.

“Yes we are.”

“Ah, no, I just mean—yeah, okay, in the physical sense, sure. But now the question is what to do with the information he gave us.”

“Well, we have to get the periapt,” said Root.

Beel sighed. “We don’t have to.”

“We should. If we are serious about keeping these things out of the hands of people who want to use them for evil, this is a textbook case. This guy is using one to manipulate a whole city into doing what he wants. We have to put an end to it.”

“You and ‘have to.’”

“Sure,” said Vit. “So we go and take it from Hamlick. Do we even need Syrus for that?”

“Need?” said Azriah. “No.”

Root nodded. “Right, because he’s weaker than you.”

“But he seems to know a lot. And he doesn’t strike me as another Ajis, or even an Ophylla. I don’t know what his motives are, but I think I’d like to. We aren’t going to find out by cutting him loose.”

“He does know a lot,” agreed Vit. “He might know more, too—about the periapts in general. It could be good to finally get some solid answers.”

“Agreed,” said Root. “And we’re sure he’s telling the truth about all of this?”

“It would explain the weird stuff we saw in the woods, down on the gulch road where we found the sage,” said Vit.

Root shuddered as the images returned to her—Hamlick, his tights, those rat spirits, his tights. If any garment had earned the right to the name, it was his. “So we’re taking Syrus up on his offer? Working with him to take down Hamlick and get his periapt?”

“It seems like it could work in our favor,” said Azriah. “We’ll find out what he knows and be sparing with our own info.” He raised an eyebrow at Vit. “Not to mention, he knows about Hamlick’s periapt just the same as we do—he probably knows more. If we leave and try to get it—who knows, maybe his primary goal is to keep Hamlick from crowning himself dictator of Midden, or maybe he really does want the periapt for himself. But he’d know we would go after it, and he might be ready to beat us there. At least if we’re working with him, we’ll be able to keep our eyes on him and make sure the periapt ends up in our hands.”

The others all agreed with that sentiment. The firmness of Azriah’s “our” hung in Root’s ears. She did a quick assessment; she had the mirror in her pack. Azriah had the amulet.

They sat for a few minutes until Syrus reentered the room. He knocked on the doorframe and poked his ambiguously greasy head around the corner.

“All set in here?”

“Yeah. We’ve agreed to accept your partnership,” said Azriah.

“Oh, excellent! Well, no need to sit around in this stuffy basement any longer than we need to; come with me upstairs.”

They rose and followed Syrus down the dark hall to another door, which Syrus unlocked with two keys. It creaked open, heavy and thick, like a vault door of massive timber beams. It deposited them onto a staircase, which they ascended while Syrus relocked the door.

They traversed another hall and opened another simple door which led them into an entryway with tall double doors, curved at the top and sporting muntin-laced windows of frosted, multicolored glass—the doors out onto the main street, Root assumed. From the entryway, Syrus led them into a main chamber.

“Are we in some kind of church?” asked Vit when they entered the room. Tall ceilings hung high above them, dark with shadows and stained wooden beams but cut through by kaleidoscopic rays of the silver Atnaterran light filtering in through more colorful windows and catching on chandeliers high above. Rows of wooden pews lined a carpeted aisle leading straight up to a raised altar and curtained wings.

“Yes,” was all Syrus said. He led them down the aisle and up past the altar to another locked door and a spiral staircase beyond that ascended and descended out of sight.

Up and up they went until they reached a landing and yet another door. With any luck, Vit had been right, and Ajis did have a phobia of locks. If that was the case, they’d be well out of his psychological reach. If nothing else, Root laughed to imagine Harnn trying to squeeze his way around the coils of the tight spiral staircase. It’d be like watching a bull climb through the neck of a bottle.

“Welcome to my safe house,” said Syrus as he waved them in.

They entered the new room. It resembled what Root expected a deluxe city apartment might look like, though she’d never been in one. The high, slanted ceiling told her they were in an attic of sorts. Tall windows set in the alcoves of gables lined the left wall, each enclosing a plush bench seat and shelves of books. There was a kitchen against the far wall, and along their right, an arched door led into a hallway; Root could see a few wooden doors in the hall, presumably other rooms that occupied the second half of the floor. A long dining room table filled the section of floor between where they stood and the kitchen. A ring of chairs and couches huddled conspiratorially near the archway. The whole room swam with warm light from the tinted windows and the smell of candles, as well as no small army of dust motes curling in the slanting light. Tapestries lined the walls, big emblems embroidered in gold, a symbol like the spokes of a wheel relieved of their post. Syrus wore the same symbol as a pendant, she recalled; something for keeping up the image of hiding out in a church, most likely.

“Here, follow me,” said Syrus, leading them towards the hallway. “There are plenty of empty bedrooms, so you’re welcome to lodge here if it suits you. You can each have your own. Mine is that one there on the end, so not that one, of course. Uh… er, yeah.”

The four of them shared a look; Azriah gauged their expressions before answering.

“Yes, we’d be happy to take the offer, if you’re sure it’s safe. Thank you.”

“It’s safe, that I can promise,” said Syrus, and he seemed sincere. He’d welcomed them into his safe house with few questions asked; sure, no fewer than half a dozen locks lay behind them, but Root, at least, had no phobia, and locks didn’t often deter things like axes or fire, so if he trusted them—and it meant she got to sleep in a real bed—she’d take it.

Syrus cleared his throat and then turned back for the common area. “It’s been a long day—long road—I’m sure. You all take some time to yourselves. I’ll fetch the rest of your payment, and then I’ll just, uh, be around.”

They thanked him again and selected their bedrooms.

The rooms were small, with Root’s containing only a bed, window, and an empty chest of drawers, without any excess of free space beyond it all, though it didn’t feel cramped or stifling. She dropped her bag on the bed and flopped down onto it. She’d hardly done so when there came a knock on her door.


“Can we switch rooms?” said Beel from the other side.


“There’s a spider in mine.”

“That’s Vit.”

“No, Vit is on the other side.”

“Then have them switch with you.”


“I’m already lying down.”

“You could come get the spider out, maybe.”

“But I’m lying down.”

“You could get back up.”

“You’re right, I could.” Root remained on the bed. Beel was silent for a moment, then she heard his footsteps pad off down the hall, old floorboards creaking as he went.

She stared at the ceiling of her room for a long, long time, even through the muffled sounds of Beel frightfully coaxing a spider from his room on the other side of her wall.

Golvy knocked on the door. He didn’t like knocking, but the boss got mad if he didn’t. Some days that was funny. Today it wasn’t going to be.

“Come in.”

Golvy entered the office. Ajis sat behind his desk; he looked up as Golvy entered.

“What is it?”

“Finished my sweep of Midden, boss. I found them.”

Ajis got to his feet. “You found them? Where?”

“Midden, boss.”

“Yes, I heard that part. Where are they? Did you apprehend them?”

“I tried, boss.”

Tried isn’t good enough, Golvy! They got away, then?”

“Unfortunately, boss.”

“Where are they now? Why aren’t you following them?”

“That’s sort of the thing…”

“Where are they, Golvy?”

“You’re not gonna like it…”

Ajis paled. “No…”

“‘Fraid so, boss.”

Ajis was silent for a long, deadly moment. Then he slammed a fist down on the desk. The room shook, but not really that much. “Damn it! Humans… I should’ve known they’d end up there sooner or later. Get Uvuh and Ophylla, I want everyone in Midden now!”