“I, for one, don’t trust him,” said Beel. “No more running about doing errands for sketchy folks who say things like ‘I’m only asking a fair price.’ Was Ophylla being fair? She wanted to eat us. I don’t think being eaten is fair.”

“She didn’t want to eat us,” said Root. “Just maybe kill us, and then maybe kill everyone else. Still not really sure what her deal was, we kind of did the killing part ourselves before we could ask too many questions.”

“Well, what about this Syrus guy? What if he wants to—”

“He’s not going to eat us.”

“He’s not going to eat us,” echoed Vit. “But he definitely seems a little… odd.”

“He was certainly odd,” said Root. “Or awkward, or kind of vaguely creepy, maybe. Not in an eating people way, Beel, don’t look at me like that. Just in a boundaries way.”

“A boundaries way?” asked Azriah.

“You’d just have to trust me.”

“Well, odd or awkward or creepy or not, that doesn’t change much. He seems to know something at least,” said Vit.

“How much do you think he knows?” asked Azriah.

“It’s so hard to tell. I mean, he was clearly alluding to…” Vit looked around, glancing up the street and over their shoulder as they walked. They’d left the crowd behind now, but it was still midday in a city, and there were people in plenty. “Y’know,” they finished. “I mean, ‘a set,’ and ‘collectors’? That language seemed clear enough to me.”

“Right,” said Azriah. “So he knows something. And maybe that’s good for us, or maybe it’s bad. I mean, I don’t think we have met a single person who ‘knew something’ about this stuff and wasn’t bad. Maybe Archin, the guy at the museum, but hard to tell—we only spoke with him briefly. People who know something have tried to kill us more often than not.”

“Stop it, Beel,” said Root. “I can see your expression.”

“It’s too convenient,” said Beel. “Admit it.”

“It’s definitely too convenient,” agreed Vit. “And in matters like these, convenient is always bad. We don’t want to be popping up on people’s maps. Maybe Syrus did just happen to overhear us at the restaurant and put two and two together, or maybe he has been following us. How can we be sure?”

“We can’t,” admitted Azriah. “But unless he’s got some serious power behind him, he’s not a threat.”

Root huffed. “Yeah, you mentioned. And that was real cocky of you, you know.”

“He’s one guy. He was unarmed.”

“Maybe he’s got some magic,” suggested Vit. “He could be a… what was that word? Pyrin?”


Root tightened her jaw. “Anyway, maybe you’re right. So we can take him in a fight, great.”

“So he’s no threat.”

“Limited threat,” said Vit.


“On the other hand,” started Vit, “We did run into him in a place notable to the history of the… things. I mean, the first time we ran into him. And a place like that, well, it’s like he said—it’s going to draw in people who know the history, who are interested in trying to track them down or learn about them. So is it really that weird?”

“That’s a good point,” said Azriah.

“Not to say I trust it.”

“No, certainly not.”

“Could be a trap,” said Beel.

“I’m not sure about trap, necessarily,” said Azriah. He pinched the hair under his lower lip. “I mean, maybe, don’t get me wrong. But I think the most likely scenario is that the information he’s promising is useless. If he knows something, he’s probably after them, right? That has generally been the case with the people we’ve crossed paths with so far. And so if he knows something—something about where one of these things is located—why would he disclose that to us? Why not go for it himself?”

“Probably because he knows he’d fail since he’s a weak baby man and no match for a macho guy like you,” suggested Root. That earned her a glare.

“Not interested? Or doesn’t trust the hands it’s in, perhaps?” said Vit.

“No reason to trust us more. He doesn’t know anything about us.”

“We don’t know that,” said Beel. “You already said he might be following us.” He was quiet for a second, then whipped around quick to look back down the street behind them. “He’s not there.” He narrowed his eyes. “Or he’s too good.”

“Does kind of remind me of Ophylla’s job,” said Root. “Asking us to do this errand. Knows something we don’t.”

“That’s just the nature of the business,” said Azriah. “Honestly, as far as these jobs go, this one is the least suspicious and most straightforward I’ve encountered in a while.”

“That’s not reassuring,” said Vit.

“Well, we thought Ophylla’s job wasn’t too suspicious,” said Root. “I can’t speak for you three, but I wouldn’t have taken it if I’d known she was intentionally keeping us in the dark to do her dirty work for her with full intent to pull the hood over our eyes at the final hour.”

“I didn’t want to take it at all,” muttered Beel.

“Maybe this Syrus guy is the same. Maybe he’s just trying to use us for this errand and then he’ll cross us the same way.”

“Well, he’s definitely trying to use us for this errand,” said Azriah, “because that’s how these things work. But Syrus isn’t asking us to find a… y’know. Just pick something up for him, and then he’ll tell us what he knows. The…” he whispered, “periapt… it remains outside of the exchange.”

“Unless that’s the thing he wants us to grab for him,” said Root.

“I don’t think anyone in their right mind would hire a couple of random people they met at lunch to run that kind of errand for them in exchange for some intel,” said Vit.

“… Yeah, okay, fair enough.”

“Think of it this way,” started Azriah. “What’s our next step?”

“Don’t have one,” said Root.

“At least not yet,” added Vit. “There’s nothing else that’s immediately useful in the book without getting some more info elsewhere to put some pieces together.”

Beel sighed. “Why do we always need a next step?”

“Would you prefer to sit around here and do nothing forever?” asked Root.

“Given the alternative that I feel we are rapidly hurtling towards, yes, most certainly.”

“We’re at a dead end here,” continued Azriah. “And maybe whatever Syrus has to offer is another dead end. But another dead end is at least another avenue we can check off, right? Another place we’ve tried and don’t need to concern ourselves with further.”

“You want to do this by conducting a full sweep of the worlds?” asked Root. “Process of elimination our way through every hole in Atnaterra and beyond?”

Azriah shrugged. “No. But if there’s a hole in front of us…” he paused. “No, actually, I think I’m dropping the metaphor.”

“No no, go on.”

“We’re low on options. It’s going to take some time to find a new thread to pick up and follow. Maybe Syrus is offering it to us, or maybe not, maybe it’s useless—maybe it’s just something that points us back in the Affodell direction, even. But the job is simple, a quick errand into the woods. How long can that take, a day? If it’s a waste of our time, it’s just time we’d be taking to get our bearings and plan our next move anyway, stuff we can do in the meantime. What’s the worst that could—”

“Well definitely don’t say those words,” interrupted Root.

“If misfortune is going to befall us, it’ll happen whether I speak it or not.”

“Okay, what was that, a quote? Got a daily calendar or something?”

“I’m just saying.”

“So you think we should take the offer?” asked Vit.

“I think so. Can’t hurt.”

“Can hurt,” said Beel. “Can hurt a lot.”

Root let out a long exhale. “And if we’re wrong? If we’re getting in over our heads with this?”

“I don’t think we are. We’ve learned a lot in the past several weeks. We have a much better understanding of what we’re facing, generally speaking. I thought Ophylla’s job was a run-of-the-mill treasure hunting job, and maybe I let my guard down a bit. We know the stakes now, and we know not to do that. We can be more cautious, wary of anything suspicious. Against Ophylla, we had to come up with a plan to stop her too late; this time, we can keep that idea open, be ready to split or fight or cross Syrus if the need arises. But even still, this isn’t going to take us long. I imagine we will be rid of him by tomorrow night.”

Vit shrugged. “If you think it’s a good idea, I’m with you. You’ve got the most experience with these types of characters. I’m convinced.”

“You coming, Beel?” asked Root. “You could wait here in the city for us to come back.”

“Wait here? Alone?” said Beel. “Absolutely not.”

“Coming with, then?”

Beel made a noise like air squeaking and huffing out of a balloon. “Why can’t you all ever come up with good options?”

“Let’s head back to Syrus, then,” said Azriah, gesturing back over his shoulder in the direction they’d come.

“Okay,” said Vit. “How should we turn?”


“We can’t just turn around and walk in the other direction. We would look foolish. Maybe we pat our pockets and look confused, then act like we forgot something. Then turn.”

“What, all four of us at once?”

“I don’t have pockets,” said Beel.

“Maybe just one of us.”

“Ugh, we don’t need theatrics. No one pays that much attention to people on the street. Come on.” Root turned in place and started back the other way, the others following a pace behind her.

“Forget where you’re headed?” called a man sitting at a table under an awning on the side of the street. He had an expectant grin on his face, the mask of someone who found themself quite funny despite the lacking support of general consensus.

“Ah,” said Root once Vit caught up to her. “I shouldn’t’ve said ‘no one’—I forgot for a moment that middle-aged men exist.”

The expression on Syrus’s face when he spotted them approaching was unmistakably that of relief. Little else could’ve done more to convince Root that this guy was harmless in a somewhat pathetic sort of way.

“So you’ll take the deal, then?” he asked when they reached him.

“If you can assure us that the information you’re imparting in exchange is worth our time,” said Azriah, “then yes.”

“It is good, you have my word.”

“All right, then we will accept.”

“I really am thrilled to hear it. Here, hold on a moment, let me jot down some notes on how to get where you’re going.”

“An address will be fine.”

“Oh, the address won’t help much. If he were that simple, I’m sure it would. But it’s a tricky place to find without noting some landmarks, too.”

“I see. And where is this, exactly?”

“In a village called Lallslatt. Not too far east of Midden, just inside the woods.”

“Most of the land around the city is wooded, though,” said Vit.

“Yes, that’s true.” Syrus finished writing and handed Azriah the sheet of paper. “But the woods east of Midden are a little… different. You’ve heard the stories, I’m sure. Everyone has.”

“I don’t think so.”

“Oh, no, I wasn’t asking. You have. Perhaps you just haven’t attributed them properly.”


“You’re looking for a fellow called Betrum,” said Syrus, turning back to Azriah. “I wrote it right up here at the top. Yep. Oh, yes, that’s a U, sorry. Betrum. Excuse the penmanship. When you meet him, I’d appreciate a little, ah, discretion? If you could refrain from mentioning me by name… He and I have been corresponding, knows me as ‘the Allegiant.’ I wrote it there. Mhm.”

“Of course,” said Azriah.

“He will know what you’re there to pick up. And whatever price he is asking, pay it, and I will reimburse you in full. Here’s an advance, just to make sure you’ve got what you need. Shouldn’t be much more than this, if any.” He handed over a pouch that rattled with a widely popular tune as Azriah took it.

“Anything else?”

“Umm… no, I think that should be all. I wrote an address there at the bottom too, that’s in the city. A place to find me when you return.” Azriah looked where Syrus indicated.

“This says ‘remdezuous.’”

“No, that says ‘rendezvous.’”

“Hm. Well, a pleasure,” said Azriah, and put out his hand. Syrus shook it.

“See you all again soon!” he said with a bright smile.

“That guy was way too trusting,” said Root once they were well out of earshot. “We could take that money and never come back.”

“Good thing we’re trustworthy,” said Vit.

“He probably thinks the same of us,” said Azriah. “My guess? It’s probably only because he’s got a lot of money.”

Those four were way too trusting, thought Syrus once they were gone. Good thing I’m trustworthy.

He considered it for a moment, then added, They probably think the same of me. But it’s only because we have a lot of money.