With a bow, Hamlick waddled backstage; Root and Azriah did the same, albeit with a little more movement in the knees and torso. They didn’t have eyes on Ajis, but for the moment, they didn’t need to—where Hamlick went, they would go, and Ajis would show up whether they wanted him to or not.

And it was the “or not” that they wanted. It was the “or not” that they’d been hoping to order, but it turned out the “or not” was sold out, so they’d have to settle. But that didn’t mean they wouldn’t do it with a sigh.

Root and Azriah moved deeper into the maze of backstage hubbub—tents for stylists and makeup artists (and one lone hairdresser who rearranged their setup dejectedly, no doubt wishing for a hairier candidate to step into the spotlight), tables of food and water, teetering stacks of boxes packed with merchandise, private quarters for Hamlick, and people coordinating the event’s goings ons at increasingly high volumes. No one gave the two of them a second look; no one had a first look to spare.

Hamlick took a smattering of stairs arthritically—perhaps he, too, found discomfort in the rigid adherence to namesake that his bottoms seemed to hold as a solemn duty. He deposited his cherry-red suit coat and flute on a table by the stairs, then advanced on his private tent looking quite in need of a bathroom break.

Root balked at the way he left the flute—the periapt—out in the open on a tabletop without a second thought. Either he thought very highly of his campaign staff, he was incredibly negligent and stupid, or he had no idea what he had in his possession—if not all three.

Syrus had told them as much about Hamlick’s habits—and it was a fact that they’d hinged their whole plan on—but seeing it play out firsthand made Root’s head spin. They kept the mirror and amulet within arm’s reach at all times, whether they ate, slept, took a shit. Root had nightmares about losing sight of them for mere moments. Hamlick cast his about like it was a toy, like it hardly mattered to him what happened to it at all.

Not that she was about to complain, of course. It worked out just fine for her.

Azriah fidgeted with the grip of Orne Tyn sheathed at his side. He and Root slowed their advance towards the unguarded periapt and turned in a slow circle, scanning their surroundings. The area had hit a lull in action after several of the aides pursued Hamlick into his tent. No doubt he needed some help getting out of those tights before he could use the bathroom.

Root looked for Ajis, but also Syrus. If he still followed his plan, he lurked back there somewhere. What would he say if he spotted the two of them, so far from their places with only minutes until their cue? They couldn’t afford to tip him off to the fact that they were up to something—not now.

“See him?” asked Azriah.

“No. Maybe he really was just here to watch.”

“Or maybe he didn’t know what he was getting into—didn’t have earplugs and got caught under Hamlick’s spell.”

“Doubt it, but we can hope.”

Root leaned against a stack of boxes. It swayed under her weight and the contents rattled. It sounded like a box of wind chimes, or perhaps just regular old sticks. Reluctantly, she stepped away from it with a wary glare and stuffed her hands into her pockets.

“There,” said Azriah after a minute, and Root’s heart seized. She looked where he pointed as a mass of greenery snaked around a barricade.

“…That if I tell someone to move out of the way, they best do it,” said Ajis as he jogged around the corner. Next to him slithered Ophylla, caught in the middle of rolling her eyes. As they came into view, Root re-angled herself so her back was to the pair, then took two tiny, hesitant steps towards the stage.

“Root!” said Azriah. He put a hand on her shoulder and spun her around—a little too forcefully, if Root was being honest. She rubbed her shoulder as she turned and looked wide-eyed toward Ajis and Ophylla. They’d spotted the two of them and sent the stare bounding straight back.

Root looked between Ophylla and Ajis, then up at Azriah, and then shot a casual, subtle glance towards the flute on the table.

“Oh no!” said Root.

“Ah,” said Ajis. “I wondered how long it would take you all to show up. Of course this is no surprise.”

“Looks like we showed up before you, actually,” said Root. “Since we’re closer to the… uhhhhhhh… um, the stage! Yeah, the stage. Right, Azriah?”

Azriah closed one eye and extended his arm, holding up his thumb and finger, then turned one-eighty to look towards the stage in the same manner. He licked a finger and held it up in the wind. “Yeah, it does look like we’re closer, I think,” he said, turning back to look at the pair of spirits. As far as positioning went, if together the two teams and the stage were locked in the throes of a game of monkey in the middle, Azriah and Root would be the monkey. Unfortunately for Ajis and Ophylla, Root doubted that the stage had the right anatomical build to throw, catch, or gracefully accept a shameful but justified round as the monkey.

“Out of our way,” said Ophylla.

“Uh, I don’t think you can be back here, actually,” said Root. “Pretty sure I saw a sign that said ‘staff only.’”

Ajis bared his teeth. “And I suppose you two are staff?”

“Uh, no,” said Root. “We just came back here because, well, we saw the sign and wanted to make sure people were following the rules, you know? And it’s a good thing we checked, too, because we found some rule-breakers.”

Ajis looked around.

“She’s talking about us,” said Ophylla, swatting his shoulder. Ajis looked up at her and sizzled. She didn’t even bother to look at him.

“Anyway, uh,” started Root. “What brings you guys here?”

“Oh, please,” said Ajis. “We’re here for the mote periapt, same as you. And look at this—it seems I will be walking out of here with three more instead of just the one. I appreciate you consolidating for me—it really saves me the trip.”

Root stared back at Ajis, eyes wide and jaw hanging low. “There’s a mote periapt? Here?” Root looked around, then picked up a copper megaphone from a nearby chair. “Is this it?”

Azriah nodded. “Oh, yes, I think we heard about that one, don’t you remember? The mote periapt of loudness.”

“There’s no—! That’s not—!” sputtered Ajis. “You’re both fools!”

“You don’t want it, then?” asked Root, holding up the megaphone.

“No I don’t want a piece of junk with some moron’s spit all over it!”

Root shrugged. “Suit yourself. Check it out, Azriah, we just got another periapt.”

Azriah took the horn and flipped it around in one hand. He held it to his mouth. “Fantastic.” The word blared straight at Ophylla and Ajis. Ophylla flinched.

Ophylla advanced, followed closely and then quickly eclipsed by Ajis.

“Uh-oh, Azriah, what do we do?” said Root.

Azriah stepped towards the advancing pair. “Stop there—you’re ruining our plans.”

Ajis sneered, but he also stalled. “Your plans—ha!”

“Any moment now, we could all be caught,” said Azriah. “You wouldn’t want that, would you?”

“If you fear a couple of event volunteers, you really are just as pitiful as I thought.”

Motion in Root’s periphery drew her attention. She shot a furtive glance over her shoulder as a stout figure in a staff shirt emerged from the wings with a clipboard and went about his checks, scribbling on the paper with his nose to the clipboard. He paused by the table with Hamlick’s coat and the flute.

“Azriah, no!” said Root quickly. “Don’t draw your sword—we can’t take them both all alone, and you’ll make a scene!”

Azriah looked at her—then past her—then put his hand on his sword. “Ah, but I can try,” he said, drawing out the blade an inch and letting the metal flash. Ajis watched him, all too ready for a fight. Ophylla’s barbed whip grew into her hand, and she let it swing.

The man with the clipboard shuffled the table’s contents into neat piles, then knocked them all askew as he stumbled inexplicably against it. A second flute rolled off the clipboard, and there it remained as the original was hurriedly seized in its place. Syrus looked up. His eyes went to Ajis and Ophylla, then they locked on Root’s. He stared at her for a second, then gave her a nod and hurried back onto the stairs where he crashed headlong into another volunteer.

The second volunteer gave Syrus a confused and curious look. She looked down at the clipboard—and the flute—then back up at Syrus’s face. She said something Root couldn’t hear, and he said something back, red in the face and all but dripping with sweat.

“Azriah, look out,” Root whispered loud and sarcastically. “Event staff!”

Azriah ducked behind a rack of campaign shirts, and Root followed.

Root had never been one for theatrics—truly, she’d have preferred a shouting match or a back-and-forth of sardonic quips that left her opponents feeling insecure and locked in that same conversation for the rest of the week as they grasped for a better theoretical imaginary outcome. Even a regular old brawl would’ve been fine, as long as it didn’t leave her with any wounds too inclined to scar. But this performance was getting dry, and she blamed that for her actions.

After a moment spent in mock-fright behind the shirts, Root planted her boot on the side of the rack and kicked it hard. The wheels skittered over the uneven cobbles as the cart careened creakishly into Ajis’s side.

It was an impotent gesture; she hadn’t really intended for it to injure him, and maybe it would’ve been smart not to prod the bear at all, but when last she saw Ajis he’d spat in her face—literally—and she figured that warranted the counter insult of being struck by a rack of shirts that read: ‘Lick Those Rats!

“Damn it!” said Ajis, a little too loud. A second later, a barrage of vine tentacles arced around the boxes of merch and grabbed at the two of them. One lashed around Root’s ankle and pulled her to the ground.

As she rolled out from behind the merchandise, she cast a glance not at the spirit who had her ensnared, as might have deserved the focus of her attention, but instead at the stairs where Syrus and the other volunteer had been conversing. They were gone. Oh well—Syrus could take care of himself. He’d sweat about it, but he could.

And if Syrus had passed through, that meant the intermission was nearly over. It also meant they didn’t need to entertain Ajis and Ophylla any longer. Hopefully.

Ophylla yanked Root closer; she bumped over the ground, scraping her elbow. She winced.

Azriah rushed up behind Root and swung his sword in a clean arc, severing Ophylla’s tentacle and freeing Root’s ankle. Ajis moved to intercept Azriah, but Ophylla beat him to it.

She swung her whip around and flung the bur tip towards Azriah. He ducked. It crashed into the boxes of merch, sending them toppling…

The boxes hit the ground with a CRU-shri-tlililinknknk as hundreds of replica flutes rolled in every direction. Root stepped on one as she climbed to her feet; it threw her back to the ground the hard way, launching the flute she’d stepped on straight into Ajis’s nose. Half a dozen other flutes cracked as Root landed hard on top of them.

“Hey, what are you doing back here?” came a voice. Root looked up through the stars wheeling in her vision. A spirit with very long and very wiggly limbs was… well, not walking towards them, exactly, but something better described as clumbling.

The spirit clumbled closer. “You can’t be back here,” he said with his arms crossed (and crossed, and crossed, and crossed… you know, perhaps a better word would have been “braided”).

Root sat up. “That’s what I was just telling them, but they didn’t want to listen.”

“Out of my way,” said Ajis, who pushed past Ophylla and marched straight towards the table with the flute.

He hit the mess of scattered replica flutes, and then hit the ground soon after.

“Sir—” said Clumble.

More staff started hurrying about, getting ready for the next leg of the performance. A few cast curious looks towards the commotion.

Root looked up at Azriah. Azriah looked back at her. He gave her a faint smile and an even fainter nod.

“You hold them back—I’ll get it!” she said, and then she jumped up and ran.

“Hey!” shouted Ajis.

Azriah raised his sword.

“Excuse me, sir—” said Clumble, now focused on Azriah.

Root kicked as many of the fake flutes around as she could without tripping again. They clattered across the stones in a symphony of breakage. She closed on the table—three more bounds, two—

Something hit her. She’d come to know the power of a periapt when she felt it, but this feeling was new. It bored into her chest like a piton of titanium, shredded her skin and muscles and bones. Her eyes widened; her teeth clenched. She loomed over everyone around her—everything around her. Her body went rigid. She wanted to blast it to dust from the inside out, a detonation in her core. She felt… mad. She felt… she felt…

She felt hot.

Her foot found something, like a child finding a colorfully painted goose egg in the garden during a springtime festival, overflowing with glee and excited to show the rest of her what it was. The something was a flute, and it rolled, taking her leg with it.

She hit her head on the table, hard. The collision knocked the connection from her mind, the bubbling heat from her chest, and the flute from the table. Root nearly blacked out as she hit the ground. When she looked back up, she saw a splintered dent in the table’s corner like a beaver’s midnight snack. It smoldered, singed with soot, like something had detonated on its surface.

The flute, let loose from the table, rolled across the ground. Root reached for it, but her arms felt like they were clamped in lead manacles. It was well out of reach, and only further fleeing her seeking fingers.

A vine emerged from nowhere and wrapped the flute, whisking it out of view.

“Oh no!” said Root sarcastically. The words made her head throb.

“Hey!” shouted someone. Clumble?

A hand landed on her shoulder. Azriah looked down at her. “You all right?” he asked, genuinely. She nodded and he helped her up.

“We’ve got to go, she’s going to realize—”

“Yep. Come on.”

“Ha ha!” shouted Ajis. He grabbed for the flute as Ophylla reeled it in close. She moved it up out of his reach, which was not all that high. He growled, but pointed at it as if to preserve his point.

“You win this time,” said Azriah. He pulled Root towards the exit.

“Um, excuse me—you can’t leave!” said Clumble. “Hey! Security!”

“We’re not done with you,” said Ajis, starting towards them after another swipe at the flute, complete with an embarrassing little hop. “You’re not leaving with the mirror and amulet!”

Ajis started to run towards them. Root didn’t even bother to pick up her pace. She turned away, and from behind her, she heard the sound of many wooden flutes skittering over the ground and then the sound of something falling with an “Oof!” sound. Staff started to flood the area as Root and Azriah ducked under a rope and pushed into the waiting crowd, vanishing into the sea of bodies.

Ajis raised his hand, but in an instant, what’s-his-face and the girl were gone behind the barricades and mass of spirits. Pathetic—they’d hardly even put up a fight for the periapt, and then fled like cowards. Perhaps they were finally learning their place in these matters.

“Stop right there!” said one of the event staff.

“I’m not moving, you loon!” said Ajis as he struggled back to his feet unflatteringly.

“Well, continue to be stopped, then!”

Ajis growled. “We’re leaving. Ophylla, the mote periapt.” He held out one demanding palm.

Ophylla looked between the growing cluster of staff and security—many large spirits with teeth, claws, and fists the size of her head. She looked at the periapt. Appearing to come to some conclusion, she handed it to Ajis, who grinned.

“What’s all this?” asked a newcomer—Hamlick, Ajis realized. He waddled up to the group.

“Sir, be careful,” warned an aide. She stepped in front of him and pointed to a replica flute on the ground where he was about to step. “Please—allow me to test the ground for you.” She stepped directly onto the flute and fell onto the cobbles.

“Ah,” said Hamlick.

“It was an honor to serve you,” said the spirit weakly from the ground.

“Sir, these two are trespassing back here and damaging campaign merchandise. And they’ve just taken your pipe.” A staff member pointed to the instrument in Ajis’s hand.

One of the security guards cracked his exceptional number of knuckles. “Givit back.”

Ajis looked down. He looked back up with a smile. “Of course.” He stooped and picked up one of the flutes from the ground. “Here you are.”

Hamlick took the instrument. “Thank you.”


“Now, you’ll have to leave.”

“Oh, terribly sorry,” said Ajis. “See, we are just… such enormous fans of yours. And we wanted to come back here to help. You know, fetch your mote— your pipe, and maybe a glass of water. That sort of thing.”

Hamlick narrowed his eyes. He stared at them. He stared at them longer. Ajis looked between him and Ophylla. They had what they’d come for. Perhaps it would be easier to just kill these morons and hurry after… those guys.

Hamlick stopped staring and eye-narrowing. He shrugged. “I see. Very well,” he said. “Now begone. It’s time for my next act. And this one is going to be something.”