Every map of Atnaterra had a blemish just to the east of the city of Midden. Cartographers never included the mark—never intentionally—but it always wound up there, somehow, shortly after the map was completed, if not earlier. Sometimes it even made sure to be the first mark on the page.

Most often it was a wayward flick of a quill that left a blot of ink on the parchment, the fibers lapping up the carnage like starved vultures circling a drop of blood in the sand and leaving a stain that split off in all directions like it was on the run.

Another common form for the mark was mold, dark and reaching in all directions like it was looking for something, but never all too committed; somehow it never spread farther than Midden and its sister city of Amiaburg to the southeast. On maps with a larger scale, it was practically imperceptible (and those ones rarely bothered to mark Midden besides), but on those with a more local focus, the mold found itself with a lot more room to spread out. But it always respected the ratios laid out for it in the legend.

(A few studies had been conducted on this mold, and the findings identified it as a completely unique species, found nowhere but the homey stretch of paper east of Midden, whenever the grounds were marked. How it knew to find those spots in particular, none have determined. But even more perplexing was how the ink—notably less intelligent—managed the same feat.)

Sometimes the blemish was neither ink nor mold. On one notable occasion, a wayward arrow fired by a village hunter pierced a freshly completed stack of maps. The tears perfectly aligned themselves in that same familiar spot, fringes spreading out to note a landmark all too familiar to locals.

One semi-local sculptor who worked under the moniker of Yamoe the Mole carved a map of the region into a great granite slab on the floor of the embassy in Jobog. No sooner had he gone off to do whatever it is that sculptors do when no one is paying them than a patch of lichen blossomed from a small crack in the stone and spread rapidly, stretching out its limbs like a sea star fresh from a marvelous night’s rest.

And it always took on that same shape—tendrils reaching out from the center like something spreading. Well, something was spreading, of course—beyond the mold or lichen or whatever the ink thought it was getting up to, that is. But those blemishes on the maps were simply the lackeys of something a whole lot bigger and with a whole lot more intention. They were not so much spoiling the maps as they were correcting them.

Humans—and to a lesser but still notable degree, spirits—had a tendency to, quite in opposition to a certain common idiom, miss the trees for the forest. “What makes this part of the woods any different than that part of the woods?” they have always said. This, of course, made the trees very, very upset; they had families, alliances, feuds, cultures. They liked attention, and they liked it quite a lot, and they liked it to be of the right sort in which they were being understood as the complex social beings that they were. And when a group of them felt that they were being passed over and lumped in with all the others around them… well, in at least one particularly relevant example, they got together and they started making things happen that would get them attention. Really put them on the map, so to speak.

And what better way to do that than to get people telling stories about you?

Root looked at the woods, but she didn’t really look at it properly. She saw woods before her, and woods off to the left and to the right; not so much behind her, because that way was the city, but back in that direction and around to the sides there was certainly more of it. But it was all just as flammable as the rest.

“Something about this part here does feel different, somehow,” said Vit. “Kind of looks slightly different too, if you know what you’re looking for. It’s here, just in front of us, and then goes off that way and over there, too. Like it has arms and it’s trying to give the city a hug or something.”

(The “or something” was a much closer estimation of what was going on.)

“Well, we’re headed into it,” said Azriah. “Straight along the… road.”

What had been a road when they’d first stepped onto it within the city limits, and had even continued to hold such a shape for a short while beyond, had deteriorated rapidly as they went. It looked as though it was trying very hard not to be there at all, yet people kept passing through anyhow.

They stood there silently for a moment.

“It feels…” started Vit.

“Yeah,” agreed Azriah.

“Huh. Well…?”

“After you,” said Azriah, and spread an arm towards the woods.

Vit took the lead; the others followed and were soon swallowed by the shadows.

It was an uneventful afternoon of walking, made duller by the number of consecutive afternoons that they had spent doing precisely the same, but counterbalanced—at least slightly—by the sights. The woods looked much the same as any other in Atnaterra, with odd top-heavy trees like umbrellas stuck in the damp ground and a wide array of fungal growth all around the understory, some of them glowing and casting deeper shadows amongst the hollows and knotted roots. The fauna, too, was something Root had come to expect little consistency or familiarity in. And yet, something about it all was different.

The shadows were deeper, and mushrooms more vibrant, both in color and radiance. On more than one occasion, Root caught a flash of something mostly human-shaped but much smaller than human-sized dancing around the mushrooms or flitting about the canopy, shrouded in glitter and glow and… giggling? There was much to be expected of the spirits in the Atnaterran wilderness, but mostly they grunted and grumbled and—and don’t admit this to Beel—sought out something to eat. Giggling was new.

As Enyn drifted around on the circular celestial course above and the twilight of afternoon turned to the twilight of evening, they passed the first and only other travelers along the narrow road. It was a carriage, at least insofar as a carriage has four wheels and doors on either side and is pulled by something and this contraption also had four wheels and doors on either side and was pulled by something. Typically that something one was pulled by was, in Setoterra, a pair or quartet of horses, or, in Atnaterra, a spirit with much the same look about it but often generally pointier or with more mouths or, in the more frightening of cases, with humanoid hands and feet. The steeds, being at the fore of the thing, were what came into view first around a bend in the path. They were of the Setoterran variety, mostly, with clean white coats and flowing manes and regal stances. There were not two, nor four, nor even a mighty team of six, but a whole stampede. And each one was no bigger than a mouse.

The carriage itself—if that was what it should properly be called—was bulbous and warty, a humongous gourd of the sort with a round body and long, skinny neck curled up and around like a hacking goose, but tipped on its side so that the swarm of steeds were all harnessed to the hook of the vegetable’s neck. A door had been sawed into either side as well as a window on the upper half of each of those. The interior curtains were drawn, and it was no great wonder why; who would want to be seen making their commute in the belly of the worlds’ largest feast table centerpiece? Not that they’d need to be seen—surely the smell would be telling enough.

No one seemed to be driving, but it kept to the road just fine.

The carriage creaked by and then disappeared slowly down the road as the team of tiny horses yanked and leaped and ground in the mud, growing ever more tangled in the harnesses and reins. And then it was gone.

“Odd,” said Vit, turning back to the path ahead.

“And yet almost familiar, in a weird way,” said Azriah.

They continued on, and passed no one else along the road.

Night fell across the woods like a curtain of sheer fabric that doesn’t affect the light level in the slightest. It had been a long day, and not a particularly great one, with more close calls than was easy on the mind, so as they came to the crumbling foundation of something old and abandoned just off the road, they decided to unabandon it for the night.

At the center, most of four walls remained, with some extra bits jutting off to hint at other rooms here and there. The idea of a large upper-story chimney or small turret clung with surprising tenacity to one of the more complete walls, rising up higher towards the canopy before bending into a shape like a crescent moon. It might’ve once been a full circular window, but beyond that Root had no guesses at its purpose.

As they got settled and made camp in the center of the ruins, Vit, who apparently was of the opinion that they hadn’t nearly fallen off of enough things for the day, slung a strand of web into the treetops and used it to hoist themself effortlessly up to lounge along the inner edge of the crescent of crumbling brick. Root held her breath as she waited for the whole wall to collapse, but the skin of moss and vines and lichen kept it upright.

Root found a corner and dropped her things and her body (which was, ultimately, just the foremost example of the former) onto the damp ground there. Enough dirt and a carpet of some species of orange-colored moss that looked like little lollipops stuck in the ground had built up a cushion over the rubble to make it almost comfortable.

“It’s about time to rotate,” said Azriah as he settled into his own spot near a hearth at the center of the floor, now with the infant flickers of fire coming to light amongst the sticks.

Root twisted around to dig in her pack and withdrew a small bundle of cloth about the size of her fist, wrapped half a dozen times and bound tightly with twine. Vit produced a bundle from their own bag, much the same but larger and oblong.

Root held hers up above her head. Vit thrust out one arm; a length of web snatched it from her grip and flung it up and into their waiting spider limbs. They tossed their own bundle down to Azriah, who caught it easily and stowed it with the rest of his things.

They’d been performing the same ritual ever since they’d inherited the two mote periapts from the late (but not nearly late enough) Ophylla. They kept them wrapped and bound—or gagged, as Vit called it—dulling their influence to a low thrum of energy, and passed them around every couple of hours: Root to Vit, Vit to Azriah, Azriah to Root. That way, no one ever had both at once, and no one was under the influence of one periapt for more than the time between meals. Beel didn’t contribute, in part because he didn’t have pockets or a bag to carry it in (or to carry any of his own things, for that matter—a constant sticking point), and in part because he just didn’t want to. Root threatened him with saddlebags on the daily.

Root stretched out on the ground. Her mind huffed a sigh like it was deflating. She blinked away a nagging notion of directionlessness and unproductivity as her thoughts crashed back in to fill a hollow left by something swollen, like the vacated cavity of an engorged parasite that had suddenly shriveled within her. She glanced up at Vit’s bag, hanging from a broken outcropping of stone near where they lounged.

Guilt and helplessness choked her, and then subsided, washing the other feelings down with it. She pressed her palms to her eyes.

“All right over there?” asked Azriah.

“Yeah. It’s passing.”

“Fight it.”

“Shut the fuck up.”

“So we finish up this errand,” said Vit from above, snacking on a pouch of nuts. “Then head back to Midden. Then seek out Wirlem’s contact and exchange this ‘crypt currency’ or whatever.”

“We have the other stuff you all stole from the crypt, too,” said Beel.

“Trinkets and whatnot,” said Azriah with a nod. “Quite a few.”

“What are we going to do with those? They look heavy.”

Root glared at Beel where he sat across the hearth from Azriah. His back was to her, but she put fire in her gaze regardless.

“I think we should head back to Obobo,” said Vit. “I bet we could get a good price for this stuff from the museum where Archin works. It’s probably the most ethical thing to do, too.”

“Right, because that’s the main consideration in grave robbing,” said Root.

“We weren’t grave robbing, really…”

“No, we were,” said Azriah.

“I was a reluctant participant,” said Beel.

Vit furrowed their brow. “Well, most ethical thing given the circumstances, then. We can tell Archin where the crypt is, too. He did say he wanted to find it.”

“I believe he said he didn’t want it found.”

“Well, yes, but mostly by us I think. Before we brought up the mirror, he was more receptive to the idea.”

“Man, we really were just walking around talking about this stuff out in the open, huh?” said Root.

Azriah gave a grim nod. “We know better now. And good thing we learned before it cost us our heads.”

“Nearly did,” muttered Beel.


“Well, I for one don’t want to be the one to tell Dr. Archin Vulokus that Azriah tried to use one of Ybris Affodell’s pedestals as a battering ram.”

“Or that you punched and shattered a mirror.”

“Okay, so maybe we write him a note and slip it under his door, then,” said Vit.

“He knew something about the mote periapts,” said Azriah. “Or at the very least, he knew the mirror was something of power and significance, way beyond Affodell. Do we really want him to know we have it, even if it’s just a suspicion?”

“What, think you can take Syrus but not some old man?”

Azriah glanced up at Root from the slop he stirred in a pot above the fire. That was the extent of his acknowledgment.

Vit crunched another nut. “If he knows something, he might have an idea of what we could do with them. Maybe a way to destroy them.”

Root snorted. “As if we haven’t tried. Azriah smashed the shit out of the amulet and couldn’t even snap the chain.”

“Maybe there’s a way it has to be done.”

“I wouldn’t get your hopes up,” said Azriah. “There’s incredibly powerful magic in them, and somehow it keeps them from getting damaged. It’s sort of like Orne Tyn, in a way—no matter how many fights I use the blade in, he never gets dulled or dented.”

Rrrrrr. Rr.

“Hm. Well, we’ll figure something out.”

Azriah spent another few minutes tending to his mush before doling it out into four mismatched bowls and passing them around.

“It’s no renowned ‘three-meats’ burger,” he said, handing Root a dented tin bowl and a spoon. Inside was a thick concoction of rice, beans, mushrooms, and herbs.

“No mammals?”

“Afraid not.”

Root shoveled several heaping spoonfuls into her mouth while Vit hoisted a cradle of spider silk up to their perch with their bowl held snugly inside. They picked up their spoon and took a small bite.

“Ooh, ah, ith hod.” They spit the food back into the bowl.

Root slowed her own intake and made an effort to blow on each subsequent bite.

“So, we’re kind of, like, an official group now, right?” said Vit in a voice lightly burned.

Root looked up. “What?”

“You know, like an adventuring party. A group.”

“I guess,” said Azriah.

“So we need a group name.”

Root took a bite. “Do we?”

“I’ve been giving it some thought. What about something like… Bravo? Bravo Team?”


“The Bravo Five? Bravo Group?”

“I wasn’t asking about the ‘team’ part.”

“Bravo. It’s from all of our initials. Beel, Root, Azriah, Vit, Orne Tyn.”

Griii. Leave me out of this.”

“I… think it could use some more work,” said Azriah.

“Hmm. I can switch them around. Vorab?”

“Keep working on it.”

Vit leaned back. “Borva. B… Varbo. Voarb. Robav. Borvar—wait…”

“Doesn’t have to use our initials.”

“There are only so many combinations. I guess I could use O and T for Orne Tyn. Hmm. Root, what’s your real name?”

“Excuse me?”

“Like, is Root short for something, or just a nickname?”

“What would it be short for, ‘rutabaga’?”

“I don’t know, maybe. You lived on a farm, right?”

“Yeah, a worm farm.”

“Could be short for rootworm, then,” said Beel.

“Hmm. Worm Team. Worm Guys… So it’s a nickname, then?”

“It’s just my name.”


“Yes really. What’s Vit short for, ‘vitriolic’?”

“Dunno. Could be.” They were silent for a moment. “Or ‘vitalization.’”

“Vitamin,” said Beel.

“Let’s do Azriah now.”

“No thanks.”

Vit tapped their spoon against the rim of their bowl. “Broav… V… Vvv… Vorba. Did I say that one already?”

“I’m going to sleep,” said Beel.

“That’s a good idea,” said Azriah.

“I can take first watch,” offered Vit. “I’m going to keep working on this. First, though, here—could you catch this?”

Their wooden bowl and spoon hit the ground several feet to Azriah’s left.

“Oops, sorry.”

Root readied for bed and wrapped herself tight in a blanket. She lay down atop the moss and closed her eyes.

Her mind drifted like a rowboat down a gentle river in the hot afternoon sun, her thoughts easing more freely towards dreams; more nights than not, she didn’t have the luxury of being on her off-shift with their cargo, and sleeping with one of them right beside your head was like a whirlpool sucking you rapidly into careening unconsciousness and made your dreams feel like hurtling downhill on a runaway cart. The soft bed of moss lulled Root into that nice, peaceful—

“Wait, moose? M-O-O-S-E?”

“Goodnight, Vit,” grumbled Root.

A tiny mouse scuttled through the understory. It thought only tiny mouse thoughts, such as those about berries and bugs and other tiny things of the right size and shape and other properties generally preferred of a thing before it went into their tiny mouths. It also thought a handful of much bigger thoughts, such as those about things for which mouse-shaped was the preference for their own mouths.

It did not think horse thoughts. It might have seen a horse, once—it was entirely possible—but like a human looking at a forest, it would have only perceived it as a vague sort of big-ness. A horse is unfathomable to a mouse. A forest is unfathomable to a human.

Another thing that’s unfathomable to a mouse: being lifted suddenly from out of the brush as if on a cushion of wind. For mice as a species, being lifted suddenly from the ground is nothing new; to an individual mouse, being lifted is always quite new, and quite difficult to process, since seeing the ground from eight stories is, certainly, unfathomable, though they never spend too long making sense of it all. But in those sorts of instances, it’s never so gentle—usually there’s a talon through their abdomen—so this was an experience somewhat unique to mousekind, although it had happened about thirty-one other times, give or take.

Strong, wide, wrinkled hands cupped the mouse. A voice somewhere above spoke words, but the mouse didn’t understand them. If it did, they would’ve sounded like: “This time I’ve got it!”

Suddenly the mouse was thinking horse thoughts. It was thinking horse thoughts in just the way a horse does. The food-shaped thoughts were of things like hay, but only very, very small stalks for some reason.

A new voice that the mouse—horse—couldn’t comprehend said, “It’s just the same size as the last ones!”

The first voice was back, and now it was saying, “None of that whining, dear, you just hold your horses. I’ll get it right one of these times!”

“But I’m holding…” There was a pause. It didn’t make much difference to the m… horse. “Too many horses already! They’re getting tiny hoof prints on my dress! And that one is running off now!”

“I will fix your dress, dear.” The horse was passed off from one set of hands to another. Suddenly it was thinking even more horse thoughts. A whole writhing pile of horse thoughts. One horse thought clobbered it in the head.

“I’m going to be late!”

“My dear, do you have any idea how hard it is to change mice into horses?”

“Can’t you just… make them bigger now?”

Hmph. And go about it all patchwork-like? I’ve got the shape down pat now after those first couple.”

“You didn’t manage to magic the gourd into a carriage after all was said and done.”

“Yes I did. Look at it.”

“You only made the gourd bigger.”

“And now it’s a carriage.”

“But you used a saw and hollowed it out with a big gardening shovel!”

“It all got how it needed to get in the end, dear.”

“Then it’s all the same if you just make these horses big.”

“That’s different.”

“This isn’t going to work.”

As this gibberish was flying through the air over the horse’s head, all the while new horses were being added to the mess, now contained in a dirty old wheelbarrow.

“How about I just hitch them all up then? Yes, they’ll all pull it fine if they work together.”

There was the sound of a whine and stomping—these noises the horse understood very well.

“Don’t be stomping about, dear, unless you want to shred your feet into confetti. Now, let me get these horses hitched and off you go. Do you have a large number of very small harnesses, dear? No? Here, let me just make some…”