Root stood at the top of the hill. Midden didn’t sit on a particularly inclined plot of land—rather, it generally took an apathetic approach to most matters—but from the left-east edge of the city, one could look down across the rest, a gentle rolling sprawl that looked like it slid like a gob of mucus towards the woods to the east. But it wasn’t the city that was moving, of course. It was the woods.

But it wasn’t moving at a speed perceptible to things with only a single lifetime—at least, not currently.

Scum Square lay to the east, and Root could see it, straight down the street like a crater amidst the buildings teeming with ants. Cheers went up every so often, as well as rippling movements passing through the crowd; the bodies moved like the cilia of one monstrous organism. Clips of music—if music it could be called—rode the breeze and found her ears.

“Fascinating the way they all still want to listen to that cacophony,” said Vit, standing at Root’s side, watching the performance in the distance.

“It’s not even magic anymore,” said Azriah. “That’s a replica flute. They’ve got to be noticing something’s amiss.”

Root rubbed her head. It throbbed from its brief hookup with the table. “At the very least, they should be realizing that the music isn’t good.”

The little speck that was Hamlick on the stage paused his playing. People cheered. It reached them as a dull roar, like a ghastly exhale in Root’s ears.

Something changed the sway of the crowd then. A hush fell over them, and they turned as one. A single voice cried out, too far off to hear anything more than the faintest snippets of words.

“Hamlick… lying… leading, woods… death…”

“Is that… Syrus?” asked Beel.

“Must be,” said Root. “He saw Azriah and me holding Ajis back. Probably trying to pick up the slack and keep the plan mostly on track.”

The lone voice quieted after a moment. The crowd stood in silence.

“Think they’ll rush the stage?” asked Vit. “Throw Hamlick down?”

“Kill him?” added Azriah.

Root waved them to silence. “Maybe. Shh.”

A new sound filled the air.

“They’re booing,” said Beel.

“Hamlick?” asked Vit.

Root shook her head; it sent a new wave of pain through her skull. “No, look. Is Hamlick… bowing?”

“They’re booing Syrus?”

The four of them watched for another moment.

“Looks like it,” said Root eventually.

“But why? They’re not under his control anymore.”

Hamlick said some words that went unheard from their lookout so far off. Then he started to play again. The crowd roared with approval.

Root swallowed. “Did we fail? Did we make a mistake? Maybe… maybe he hid the real periapt somewhere—stuffed it down his tights or something. What if the one he put on the table was a decoy?”

Vit looked around, up the street and back down, and into the windows of the nearby shops. Root did the same. No one walked the street; no light or movement came from within the buildings. Vit shrugged off their bag and withdrew a long bundle of spider silk. Carefully, they unraveled it, until the contents fell out into the cloth they held in waiting.

“How do we tell?” they asked. The rest of them leaned in to look.

It was a wooden pipe, a foot in length and finished with a coat that gave it a glossy shine. Holes punctured the topside, and a mouthpiece molded one end. The opposite end flared slightly as it opened, and near the bottom, set in line with the row of holes, gleamed a round, red gemstone like a fiery marble, a globe aflame. It looked lodged in the body of the flute, but tilting her head, Root could see into the hollow interior where the gem swelled but did not block the airway. Up and down the sides, the flute had been painted with white jasmine blossoms.

And another detail that Root couldn’t help but notice, but certainly didn’t intend to give voice to, was that the way the mouthpiece had been carved… the tip and surrounding molding… it looked… well, it looked quite a bit like—

“It’s awfully phallic,” said Beel.

“You think?” asked Vit, looking it over anew.

“Without a doubt,” said Azriah. “I mean, just look at… uh, never mind.”

“It looks just like the replicas,” said Root. “Well, I never looked too closely at one… Here, check the bruises on my back, that should help.”

“Does it feel…?” asked Azriah, studying Vit.

“I think so.”

“I can feel it from here,” said Root.

“Here.” Vit held the cloth out to Azriah. He took it.

“It has to be.”

“I watched him as closely as I could from up in the scaffolding around the awning. I swear, I had my eyes—all eight of them—glued to it from the moment it last left his lips until he set it down, and then I did the switcheroo with the fake as quick as I could, well before Syrus showed up. It never left my sight. It has to be the real one.”

Root looked back down at the crowd. “So how come…?” The people still packed the square, listening enraptured as Hamlick hit every note (in the assault way).

She watched Hamlick sway to and fro across the stage, walking this way and that. And then he crossed the stage, descended the stairs, and stepped into the waiting masses.

They lost sight of him for a minute, but by the sounds of shrieking excitement, there were few questions about his whereabouts. When he emerged from the crowd again, he stepped free of the throng near the easternmost edge, at the mouth of a street exiting the square.

He moved down the street in a familiar way, not dancing so much as writhing while something with pinchers and dozens of sharp little legs grazed up and down the inside of his tights. The crowd began to follow, surging out of the square and into the much narrower street; even from afar, Root could see the way the people pushed and shoved, dashing each other against the walls of the buildings or trampling over one another. Heads vanished beneath the flow of the parade and never reemerged. Hamlick led the congregation east.

“Where is he going?” asked Root.

“That’s the direction of the woods,” said Azriah. “Same road we saw him on outside of Lallslatt. The gulch road.”

Vit’s face paled. “He’s leading them all away.”

Root looked up and down the street again. Still not a soul in sight. “That’s gotta be everyone in the city.”

“We have to do something.”

“Do what?” asked Azriah.

“I don’t know… stop him.”

Azriah held up the periapt—Wrond’s Prurience. “They’re going of their own free will.”

“But that doesn’t mean—” Vit grasped for words. “We could…”

“Syrus told them the truth. They didn’t buy it. They’re hearing the music for what it is now, so to speak. What would you do? Go down there and force them all to turn back?”

“We could kill Hamlick,” said Beel.

The three of them looked down at him in surprise. It took him a moment to notice their expressions.

“Royal we. By which I mean you three. Obviously. I’m not doing it.”

“First time you’ve lumped yourself in with the rest of us,” said Vit.

“Might’ve bothered to do that a couple hours ago and help out,” muttered Root.

“Hey, you said you didn’t need help!”

“Yeah, as in, we didn’t need help, and I didn’t think you’d bother whether I asked or not—it still would’ve been nice. Maybe I wouldn’t’ve slammed my head into a table.”

“Regardless,” said Azriah. “Killing Hamlick doesn’t get rid of him—literally, because he’s a spirit, but also in the sense that he’s a movement. He’d be a martyr. The worst kind of martyr: the kind that comes right back.”

“Yeah, I don’t know about killing him anyway,” said Vit.

Root shrugged. “If it makes you feel any better, almost everyone down there is a spirit. Even if he kills them, they’ll come back. What’s the worst that can happen?”

“What about the humans?”

Root shrugged again. “It’s like Azriah said—they’re making a choice now.”

“I just don’t get it. How do they not see that he’s a fraud?” asked Vit, scratching their head.

Azriah pulled at the hair under his lower lip. “Maybe it didn’t really matter whether Hamlick had magical control over everyone’s emotions or not. I’m sure it helped him win them over, but…” he looked down at the crowd, now nearing the city’s edge, and sighed. “Propaganda will do the trick regardless. I guess the people were all just too ripe to being taken advantage of.”

“He told them what they wanted to hear,” said Vit.

They watched somberly as the procession left the city’s bounds and entered the woods.

“Well, anyway,” said Root, dusting off her hands for show and picking up a cheerier tone. “Where to next?”

“Out of the city,” said Azriah. He looked around uneasily. “Feels like a graveyard now. Plus, with everyone gone, it’s going to be a hell of a lot easier for Ajis to locate us—I doubt he’s skipping along in Hamlick’s little parade. Syrus, too. It’s only a matter of time until they both realize we pulled the wool over their eyes. Our plan worked, and we bought ourselves a head start—best not to squander it.” He wrapped the flute in the extra cloth and bound it tight, then handed it back to Vit. They stowed it in their bag.

The four of them turned their backs on Scum Square and the woods and made their way out of the city—Vit carrying the flute, Azriah the amulet, and Root the mirror.

“Three mote periapts,” said Root as they traded dilapidated buildings for the warm embrace of kaleidoscopic trees and hunched fungal spires. “That wasn’t so hard at all.”

Azriah rolled his eyes. “Are you forgetting about Gropply? Fundevogel?”

Root sighed. “Rette,” she added, with a ringing in her ears—from memory or a result of her recent head injury, she couldn’t be sure.

“Urm,” said Beel with a shudder.

Vit looked at Beel, then looked around, then looked back at Beel, confused. “What?”

“Vit, you didn’t even have to meet Drumpendra,” said Azriah.

“The trout,” said Vit.

“Nara,” said Root, but without the edge of annoyance (or, in Beel’s case, fear) that had accompanied the others.

“Who is Nara?” asked Vit.

“The girl we delivered the package to.”

“Oh. You remembered her name?”

“Shut up.”

“All of Flagollet,” said Azriah. “Betrum.”

“Betrum,” agreed Root. “Really, he was the whole problem. And Pag. Ugh.”

“Grim,” said Vit, quieter.

“So, easy?” asked Azriah, giving Root a skeptical look.

“Fine, you’re right.”

Azriah thought for a moment. “But I take your sentiment, at least. Three mote periapts. That’s pretty good, I think.”

“And we know where to find another.”

They let the statement settle amongst them—take up residence, build a nest, raise a family. Vit broke the silence.

“We’ll see Syrus again, then.”

Azriah nodded. “I’m sure we will.”

The Children of Endkiu, thought Syrus. Holders of not one, but two mote periapts. Thanks to him.

He stood alone on a street corner, shrouded in the heavy cloak from his discarded bag, tucked away from the hustle and bustle of the Midden city streets. Though the streets looked to be quite lacking in hustle and bustle.

Everyone had taken off in pursuit of Hamlick. Syrus had tried to stop them—he’d told them the truth, he’d freed their minds. Still they found some reason to run off at the guy’s heels. Oh well, hardly worth dwelling on. He’d done his best—even more than he’d intended, in fact. He wasn’t meant to be an announcer, to address the crowds the way he had. His role had been the most important one: liberate the mote periapt from Hamlick’s clammy clutches, then put distance between himself and the false icon. Safety of the mote periapt was second to none, of course. So putting his neck on the line like that—it was more than he’d had to do. But he’d seen the plan coming unraveled. Ajis—oh, Ajis—had intervened. Fortunately, Root and Azriah had stepped in to protect his own vital role. Clever, courageous—they were unmatched in competence. Oh, he so hoped they would accept his offer to join the Order of Seekers.

As for the citizens of Midden—he’d done what he could. It would’ve been for the best, certainly, had they shed their heretical ways and left an opening in their hearts for the teachings of the church. Perhaps they were not yet beyond hope—perhaps they’d come to the truth yet. He would have loved nothing more than to be the one to guide them there in the wake of Hamlick’s deceit, but he’d had to make a choice, and without a doubt, he’d chosen correctly.

He sequestered himself deeper into the shadows of the rendezvous point. Azriah, Root, Vit, and Beel—they should be arriving any moment now. He couldn’t lie, he was worried—he hadn’t seen them since their scuffle with Ajis. Had he killed them? Maybe he should backtrack and go check…?

No, he had to stay at the rendezvous—otherwise they could chase each other all around the city endlessly. Vit and Beel, at least, would turn up, right? Unless Ajis had gotten them, too…

He dabbed sweat from his brow with the edge of his sleeve and tried to calm his racing heart.

In the meantime, it certainly couldn’t hurt…

Syrus glanced around. Still no one, of course.

From under his shirt, tucked in his waistband and damp with sweat, he withdrew the mote periapt and gazed upon it in reverence.

Two—two in the hands of the mighty, the holy, the righteous.

He’d never had the honor of holding one—such a thing was reserved for only the most elevated and adulated of the church. He’d never gotten to know what it felt like, but he’d heard stories. Those who had held one of the fabled artifacts described a feeling of overwhelming power. Did he feel it now? Yes, yes, he thought so. Yes, this was it.

He tucked the flute away and peered back out at the street. Still empty, still no sign of the others, his friends; no matter, he could be patient. He retreated again.

What would the celebration be when he returned victorious, a mote periapt in hand? In all the church’s hundreds of years, they’d never had more than the one mote periapt. Two—there would be a feast. He would be a saint—maybe higher. His renown would be all but unequaled, second only to the great Endkiu. Now—no, he couldn’t go placing himself too high. How high would be sacrilegious? He couldn’t be above the Grand Priest. So third only, then. Or, perhaps fourth…

Needless to say, he would be considered a saint at least. He’d just have to wait and see how high he rose.

He brought out the flute again. Adrenaline still coursed high. He looked it up and down, bathing in the power of it, gently thumbing the red gem. He looked at the mouthpiece. Now that he thought about it, it looked awfully phallic, didn’t it?

He hid it again. He checked the street. Still no one.

He paced as his heart returned to a normal rate and his sweating returned to a normal flow (by personal standards). He’d had to do quite the talking to get out of hot water with Sengri, the other volunteer who had caught him swiping the mote periapt and replacing it with the fake. She’d been suspicious. If he hadn’t been so quick on his feet, he might not have thought to tell her that Hamlick had been looking for her by name. He’d expected that she’d go hurrying off to help, of course. He hadn’t expected her to faint halfway there from excitement. Regardless, it did the trick.

He took out the mote periapt again. What a beautiful piece of craftsmanship—so smooth, intricately carved. One of the jasmine blossoms looked like it had been picked apart by a lovesick youth, which seemed odd, but even the most expert crafters had their areas of struggle. Perhaps flowers had been a reach.

As his adrenaline subsided, so too did the overflowing power of the flute, it seemed. Odd. Syrus looked at it some more.

He’d picked it up swiftly from where Hamlick discarded it, and even with his earplugs and careful safety measures, he’d felt the power radiating from the artifact. He knew what Hamlick had. He knew what he had. Perhaps the accounts of wielding its kin were overblown somewhat.

He thumbed the gem as he watched anxiously for the others. Surely it shouldn’t be taking all of them this long to arrive, what with the empty streets and such. Unless… they’d gotten swept up in the masses, carried from the city…

Syrus rubbed harder on the gem as his worries mounted. Suddenly there came a tlunk!

He looked down in surprise just as the bright red gemstone hit the cobblestones. It bounced—ink, tink, glink—out towards the street. Syrus looked down at the new hole in the flute.

Surprise gave way to fear, which lived a short lifespan. He couldn’t simply break a mote periapt…

He turned the flute around in his hands, inspecting it closer now. A mark presented itself to him; he held it up in the low light and read the tiny scrawl etched on the underside near the mouthpiece: Made in Gloombanclus.

A fake. A replica. He didn’t have the original, he had one of the cheap knockoffs.

Horrible, overwhelming dread swept through him. Had he accidentally picked the fake back up in his attempt at swapping it out for the original? Was that why Hamlick’s song had still had such sway, luring all of the people out into the woods?

No, he hadn’t bothered with his earplugs after the theft. The songs hadn’t had the power behind them. Hamlick did have a fake.

So who had the original?

Slowly, Syrus came to a deep understanding. He looked back out into the street. No one.

He looked down at the broken flute in his hands, turning it this way and that. Then he smiled.

“Clever and courageous indeed,” he muttered to himself. “Very well. Wrond’s Prurience is in good hands. And this may yet work out quite well.”

End of Arc 2