The city of Midden was home to some of the least controversial political figures in the worlds.

Atnaterra and Setoterra alike were rife with political turmoil. Take Zhaen-or-Daijia for instance—a Setoterran country named by those who were tired of making and distributing new maps every time they returned from a smoke break. The politicians there spent their lengthy and tiresome days devising new ways to seize power from their rival clan, putting those conspiracies into action, and then planning against the plots of their recently disenfranchised predecessors and soon-to-be successors, all while trying to pass as much new legislation as possible and overturning the most recent laws passed by their ousted opposition. They had to work fast to do so, but there was never much to do. An administration can only get so much done in (on average) a couple of hours, but the revolving door of regimes kept the momentum going.

Then there was the southleft-eastern Atnaterran coalition of cities known as Numb Leedil. The politicians there riled up their respective bases into a silently seething cold war over contrived or overblown issues, made ample requests for donations so they could, in their own words, “finally do away with the corruption” of the other parties, then retreated behind the closed doors of the legislative chamber, cash in hand (or paw or hoof or tentacle), where they all sat around getting high and having orgies while the tensions of the populace rose out in the streets. Tensions were high in the chambers as well, they told the people. They simply declined to specify what sort of tension.

And then there was Glank, a town in northern Atnaterra in the foothills of the Eddrealm mountains. The people of Glank had a saying: always invite a canvasser in for tea. It’s worth noting that Glankian tea is made from treapori root. It’s also worth noting that treapori root is poisonous.

But in Midden, the politicians enjoyed a unified public opinion. The city’s populace all hated them quite equally.

In a simpler and more naive time, the people of Midden had voted in their current body of city councilors one by one. Slowly, as more of them were sworn in, they’d degraded the laws keeping them in check. Removing term limits and suppressing voters had secured them a nice foothold, but the nail in the coffin was an extremely convoluted map of voting districts in which, by some unknown means, they had gerrymandered the city to the point where their own votes were enough to outweigh those of their entire constituency. The unfortunate fact of the matter is that you can vote to elect a politician, but you can’t vote to get rid of them unless they say it’s okay. That part is usually done with a guillotine or some rope.

Midden still held regular elections, mind you. The spirits in charge were nothing if not fair. They just always made sure to vote for themselves.

And election season was afoot, or something like it. There was just one problem this time around: the politicians quite liked the new upstart running for mayor. Some of them were even considering voting for the guy—including the incumbent—though when asked, they hadn’t the faintest idea why.

“This city is run by rats!” said the spirit on the stage. Root ignored him, as she was having enough trouble keeping her feet from getting stepped on while looking at them, and the guy was hardly worth another glance besides. He looked like he was melting; his head was like a deflating ball placed atop his neck, still mostly rounded at the top but concave underneath like it was dripping off him on all sides. His body was the off-white color of a spoiled banana cream pie, and apelike in shape, though he stood on two legs and only hunched enough to arrange one place setting across his back but certainly not two. Most of him—but not enough that Root wanted a second look—was crammed into tights, pointed shoes, and a red suit coat that was well tailored, just not for him. He gripped some sort of flute in one meaty hand like he was strangling a goose. Based on the way he held it, Root was absolutely certain he had no idea how to play it, and even more certain she didn’t want to be around to hear him try.

She elbowed her way through more of the audience members crowding the square, enraptured by some combination of a political rally and concert all in one. Azriah, Vit, and Beel followed as they made their way slowly through the packed square in single file.

“And as mayor I will get rid of all those rats in the city council!”

The crowd cheered and clapped.

“Except for the ones I think are funny or who agree with me or say nice things about me!”

The crowd cheered some more. Root cast an incredulous look behind her at Azriah, who looked equally puzzled. He shrugged.

After yelling “Excuse me!” to be heard above the noise no fewer than two dozen times, they broke free of the dense crowd and moved into the outskirts where they could progress at a normal pace, albeit with plenty of weaving. Chants of “Hamlick! Hamlick!” dulled from a thunder as they moved out of the square and onto a new street, though still the far reaches of the throng mingled around them.

“What a phony,” said Azriah, looking back at the crowd.

“The people seem to like him. A lot,” said Vit.

“They usually do.”

“I got stepped on,” said Beel.

“We all got stepped on,” said Root.

“Yeah, but at least you’re big enough to get an apology.”

“Everyone still have… uh, everything important?” asked Vit.

Root patted her pockets and took a peek inside her backpack. There was still a wad of cloth tucked in along the side, and there was little of more importance than that. Azriah checked his own bag as well.

“All set.”

“Same here.”

They continued along their path down the street.

“Uh, excuse me! Hey!” said a voice. Root turned.

There was a man there, dressed in a shirt and wearing a badge around his neck that marked him as volunteer staff for the event. He stood at the intersection of the street and square, and he was looking at her directly.

“Can we help you?” asked Azriah as the four of them paused. Root sized up the man, and a memory clicked.

“You were at the restaurant,” she said. “Oubliette Steakhouse, at lunch. You interrupted the story about the dungeon.”

“Oh, er, yes, that was me,” he said. “I recognized you all as well.”

Root looked him up and down. He had changed since lunch, but he looked much the same. He must’ve been in his late thirties, though he was shorter than she would’ve guessed when she’d seen him sitting at the table. Watery eyes bulged behind glasses that made him look somewhat bug-like. His hair was damp in that ambiguous way that made it impossible to tell whether there’d been a bath in his recent past or quite the opposite. The smell emanating off him gave no clear indicator one way or the other. The top too-many buttons of his shirt were undone, putting on full display a whole lot of chest hair and a gold pendant of spokes, half of them topped with triangles.

“Uh,” said the man, perspiring at a perceptible rate, though in a way that led Root to conclude this was his natural state and not a result of nerves or the weather, which was actually nice and cool. “How was your lunch?”

“Excuse?” said Azriah. “It was fine.”

“That’s good, that’s good. Um, good spot for it.”

“Yes, it was all right.”

There was a lull in the conversation, just nearly long enough that it was appropriate to pivot to a “Best be going,” but the man reached for another thread with clammy hands.

“Nice weather today, yes?”

“What?” said Root, more bluntly than Azriah had it in him to be.


“Can we help you with something?” asked Azriah again.

“Um. No, just saw you all—recognized you from lunch—uh, were you here to see Hamlick?”

“No,” said Root.

“Just passing through,” said Azriah. “But best of luck with the event.” He waved and started to turn.


So close.

“Um—I’m sorry,” said the man, “maybe I should introduce myself? I’m Syrus. Bortoot.”

“Nice to meet you, Syrus,” said Vit. “What was that last bit you said about?”

“Bortoot. Oh, my name. Syrus Bortoot.”

“Vit,” said Vit. “Thanks for saying hello.”

Root again started to inch one foot in the direction of away, wary of being too hopeful but ready to seize any opportunity nonetheless.

“I—” Syrus scratched his damp or greasy hair. “All right, listen,” he said quieter, a sudden change in his voice that took Root by surprise. “I overheard you all back at the restaurant is all—asking about the history of the dungeon. You were looking for something, right?”


“Don’t worry, but I’d advise more discretion going forward. You never know who is listening.”


“Oh, I won’t hurt you or anything.”

Azriah looked Syrus up and down. “I managed that conclusion on my own.”

Root rolled her eyes.

“We weren’t looking for anything,” said Azriah after a moment’s hesitation. “Anything more than lunch, that is. We were curious about the story, that’s all.”

“If you happened to know more of the story,” said Vit. “I’m sure we would continue to be curious. About that.”

“No one knows more of the story, I’m afraid,” said Syrus. “What happened to the treasure after it left the Vault of the Sodden Fervor is lost to time.”

“Ah. Well, in that case—”

“But there are some who know more about the… well, the lore of the vault itself, perhaps. What it used to hold.”

“Is that so?” asked Azriah. “A lot of gold, I’d guess.”

Syrus smirked. “No. And the venue has never drawn interest by those looking for a bit of gold.”

“Some sort of potion, perhaps?”

Syrus put up his hands and rocked back on his heels. “I won’t pretend to know exactly what was in the vault. There are mixed accounts even on that detail. So if you really were just after a story, I’m afraid I’ve got nothing else to offer. But say you were of the same sort who get drawn to the old dungeon even still. There could only be one thing you’d be looking for.”

“Yeah, the old treasure,” said Root with a snort. “But you said yourself no one knows what it was. Well, maybe we wanted to find out what it was.”

“I said no one knows exactly what it was. But, well, it was part of a set, let’s say. That is certain. And some… collectors come poking around the vault now—checking under the tables and such—looking for any clues.”

Syrus paused, and for a moment the four of them stared at each other.

(Four because Beel was not interested and had waddled his way off to the side to sit against the wall of a nearby building.)

“So again, if you’re after a story, I’ve got nothing,” said Syrus. “But if you were collectors yourself, I might be able to help you.”

“But you don’t know where the treasure is, because no one does,” said Root. “Are you running some kind of shitty scam? You’re doing a lousy job of it.”

“No, you’re right,” said Syrus. “I don’t know about the treasure from the vault. But I have some information about another, you know, piece of the set. So if you find anyone lurking around Oubliette Steakhouse and you think they might be interested, by all means, point them my way. In exchange for that knowledge, I’m only asking a fair price.”

“What’s the price?” asked Azriah.

“Oh, nothing excessive. I have an errand I need run, something picked up from a friend out in the woods beyond the city. I’m a bit caught up here, is all. Hoping I can get it taken care of and not have to get all dusty from the walk.”

“Because then you’d have to bathe,” said Root with a nod. “The thought of that sound… exciting? Annoying?”

“So a simple exchange,” said Syrus with a shrug.

“We might be interested,” said Azriah. “Not as ‘collectors,’ or what have you, but I’m always open to a job, and we have done a bit of treasure hunting on the side. Uh, hence our choice of entry at the restaurant. Got to keep our skills sharp.”

Syrus winked. It was a gesture reminiscent of a tree frog. “Of course.”

“Mm. We’ll talk it over.”

“You know where to find me.”

“Yes. All right, well, best be going.” The words had never sounded so enticing.

Syrus watched the four of them go until they rounded a bend in the street. He sighed and shook his head. Ugh, what a fool. “How was lunch?” “How’s the weather?” He was a complete moron. But you couldn’t just jump right into conversations like that. You had to start with some small talk; that was just the proper thing to do. People didn’t like when you propositioned them too quickly, he had learned. Or, in his case, they didn’t seem to like being propositioned very much at all.

Well, he was looking forward to replaying that interaction in his head every day for the rest of his life.

To be completely honest, after making such an utter fool of himself, he almost couldn’t find it in him to care if those four never returned. Although it would be helpful if they did. He wouldn’t be making that trek himself—no way. If for no other reason, he really would get all mucky, and then he’d have to bathe. What a bother that would be.