The village of Lallslatt was nothing special by any stretch of the imagination; even the most reinforced imaginations usually snapped back to spawn a stinging welt before they could be pulled far enough to find anything noteworthy in a place like that.

There was one central street through the village, the very same that started somewhere in Midden and made its way through the woods with few crossings in between. Along that street, the buildings were almost close enough to touch, and almost tall enough to be called two-story. But they didn’t touch, mostly because the inhabitants were afraid of their neighbors listening through their walls and hearing the bedtime stories they told to their children and getting funny ideas about the next day’s itinerary. It was a real epidemic in Lallslatt—or had been before they’d cut all the buildings up into an array with clean individuality. But there was still ample paranoia of things in the walls, and it was justified, but that was a mostly different problem altogether.

The resulting narrow alleyways between buildings along the main road turned the village into the ideal habitat for folks of the shadier variety, which was, according to the locals, much preferred over the alternative. This was also considered a great boon for the village’s economy, since workers had to anticipate working twice as many hours to account for losing half their pay every night along the walk home. And those benefitting monetarily from these exchanges invested back in the village’s businesses, most notably Discount Cloaks and the iconic, family-owned for nine generations, Ted’s Knives. (It had been established only a few decades prior. Generations were short when your business was selling knives to a population of muggers.) However, that same crowd was typically picked out for their damp, ill-fitting clothing of mismatched style.

Beyond the one street, the village consisted of a loosely associated smattering of ivy-covered cottages and thatched huts, deteriorating in grandiosity as the buildings got closer to the village center—quite the opposite of the trend typically seen, with the reason being, of course, that those who lived closer to the buildings at the heart of the village also lived closer to the spaces between the buildings at the heart of the village, and so those folks tended to be notably poorer.

But the whole village was characterized by open windowsills of fresh-baked pies, frequently stolen, and clotheslines strung over the streets from upper windows, frequently emptied before their contents had fully dried. The air was colorful and festive and full of sounds that were cheerful approximately seventy-five percent of the time.

Root looked from side to side as the four of them ran the gauntlet of the main road, which stretched like a gully between the quaint half-timbered buildings on either side. It was an incredibly wise movement to be making, though she was fully unaware. There were no fewer than fifteen and a half eyes on her bag, and twice that many on the trio of gold rings around Beel’s midsection.

“Looks like something out of a storybook,” she said, catching a glimpse of a pie making its way around a corner and into an alley that it had no business being in.

“It’s cute,” said Vit.

Azriah cleared his throat. “Keep an eye on your coins.”

“What makes you say that?” asked Root as she turned back to face him. His eyes met hers, but between thumb and forefinger he held, without malice or force, the prying fingers of a wide-eyed little urchin boy as they hovered an inch from his backpack. Azriah gave the boy a questioning glance, then released his hand. He tossed the boy a radula; for the briefest of seconds, that quick glint in the air held the record for the most watched spot on the entire street. Beel was in second place. It was quite a good thing that he didn’t know this.

“Where are we headed?” asked Vit, slowing to fall into step beside Azriah.

He held Syrus’s directions out so they could look on. “We’re looking for… Scrum Street. Then it says to go four buildings down, take a right, the alley should lead into a small courtyard.”

“Then go down the alley with the lumber…?” said Vit, reading from the page. “What if someone has moved the lumber into a different alley?”

Azriah shrugged.

“Two doors down, turn one-eighty, three paces, knock where the wall is patched. That’s… weird.”

“Then there’s this asterisk by ‘knock,’” said Azriah. “And down here… I’m assuming this is the secret code.”

“What if this guy is a criminal?” asked Beel.

“Probably is,” said Azriah.

“Then what if he does criminal activities to us?”

“He won’t. At least not the kind you’re worried about.”

“How do you know?”

“Because we’re customers. Of a sort. Not a great way to do business.”

“That kid might’ve considered you to be a sort of customer.”

“Fair enough. Ah, Scrum.” Azriah indicated the street on their left and took the lead.

They passed four buildings and then entered the alley on the right. Two gentlemen were conducting a bit of business at the far end. The customer handed over a fistful of coins in return for the highly demanded service of not being stabbed. It didn’t even look to be all that expensive. It was quite the steal.

“‘Scuse us, thank you,” said Azriah, passing between the pair.

The businessman’s quartet of eyes tracked Beel as he passed through, tailing Vit and followed by Root. He blinked asynchronously, and as his eyelids parted and his pupils refocused it was just nearly possible to see in each the curlicue and slash symbol that preceded all of his favorite numbers.

Before he could blink again—which would’ve taken some time as each of the four eyes took their turn—the tip of Orne Tyn was pointed just below his chin and another, somewhat fumier blade hung just beside it, held by Root.

“We’re not buying,” said Azriah. “But thanks. And for that matter, neither is he.” The businessman issued a quick refund and then scampered away up the side of the building. Azriah sheathed his sword and tutted. “Solicitors.”

“Here,” said the customer—another spirit with an amorphous shape. With a defeated look, he held out the fistful of coins that had just been returned to him.

Azriah blinked. “No, that’s all right.”


“Those are yours.”

“You’re not stealing them?”

“Er. No?”

The spirit looked confused. “You must not be from here.”

“Is that how things usually go?” asked Vit.

“Well, yes. Sometimes the muggings, um, well sometimes they sort of overlap, you know, and um, it cuts out whoever was in the middle of the exchange.”

Vit frowned. “Oh, I’m sorry. Well, we aren’t stealing from you. We have plenty of money.”

Azriah somehow managed to look simultaneously exhausted and ready to rip his hair out.

At the other end of the alley was, as promised, a courtyard. A small fountain stood in the middle filled with nothing more than dust and quiet but for the occasional wet cough. Some sort of lizard-looking thing slumped atop the central pillar, licking the mist from around the nozzle after each spurt. It eyed them with a look of territorial suspicion.

“The alley with the lumber now, right?” said Vit. They spun in place to look down each of the four additional alleyways.

“That’s what it says.” Azriah looked up from the paper.

“I’m not… hmm. Yeah, I’m not seeing lumber. There are those crates down that way. I guess those are technically made of lumber.”

“What if there’s lumber inside them?” asked Beel.

Azriah rubbed his chin. “People don’t usually put lumber in crates. Not crates that small, at least.”

“What if it’s really small lumber?”

“Hey guys?” said Root. The others turned.

Root pointed back down the alley from which they’d come. Halfway back towards the street were four or five warped two-by-fours pushed against one wall, the longest of which was no more than three and a half feet in length. They were hardly noticeable alongside the dead leaves and garbage, but Root could always pick out a fire hazard.

“But that’s the way we came,” said Azriah, looking back down at the piece of paper in his hand. “Why wouldn’t Syrus have just said…”

“Well, I mean now that I think about it…” started Vit. “Has Syrus… been here?”

Azriah considered this. “I’m not sure. Why would someone else give him directions like that? This can’t be right.”

“What was it? Two doors down, turn, five paces…?” asked Root, already going through the motions.


“Doors? Er—”


“Paces. Yeah. Uh, and I think there’re only two doors here. In this alley.”

“Maybe it is the crates…”

“Wall’s patched here. That’s what it said, right?”

Azriah sighed. “Yeah. Here, let me try the knock.” He consulted the paper again, then thumped his fist against the wall where the lower corner of the brick facade had crumbled away and a panel of plywood had been put up in its place.


From the other side came a quick thump and shatter as of a table being bumped and something on that table seizing the opportunity to be less stable than previously thought. There was a moment’s pause, and then some scuffling.

“What— uh, who are you?” said a shrill voice, muffled by the wood panel.

Root hadn’t actually considered this question, at least not in the moment’s trivial sense. Fortunately, Azriah had.

“We were sent by a contact of yours.”

There was some more scuffling, and then the sound of a whole host of latches sliding this way and that. The panel swung forward just a hair and out popped a snout and two beady black eyes.

“Which contact?”

“Wait, what did he say to call him again?” asked Vit. “‘Lethargic’…? No.”

“The Allegiant,” said Azriah.

“That was it.”

The spirit twitched his nose. “Very well. Come in, quickly. Watch your step. Watch your head. Watch most of your extremities.” He looked up and down the alley and then retreated back behind the wooden panel.

Behind the panel was a crawl space within the foundation of the building. Azriah went first, crouching and maneuvering carefully through the opening which was only just barely large enough to grant him entry. Orne Tyn scraped on the ground as he went.

Vit’s eyes glowed, and then they were in spider form—a foot and a half long and small enough to enter the space beyond with ease.

Beel went next. He encountered no more trouble than Vit.

And then it was Root’s turn, crouching just the same as Azriah. But compacting her body was a well-practiced skill. Once inside, she did an awkward waddle-turn and pulled the panel shut behind her.

The space inside was a maze of interconnected crawl spaces, dirt pits, a cistern, old well, and narrow gaps within the building’s walls, too thin for Root to have even a hope of traversing them. The spirit led them into what looked to be an old forgotten cellar hardly bigger than the footprint of a narrow bed and tall enough that Root and Azriah were just barely unable to stand at full height. They crowded in around a table made from a haphazard sheet of metal laid across four roughly-even stacks of bricks. The only other furniture in the room was a mound of straw and dust and sheddings (if furniture it was; that may have been an exaggeration of about two syllables), and an enormous chest of drawers that filled the whole space floor to ceiling and which, upon a glance around at the nearby foundation, appeared to be load-bearing.

Vit returned to their usual form, packing the small space in tighter and jostling Root a step closer to the table’s edge, which eyed her knees with jagged, bloodthirsty intent.

Their host hopped onto a chair at the table. He had the look of a weasel, if that weasel hadn’t slept in four or five days and had also recently fended off a raptor or three. He chewed the insides of his cheeks like it was all he had for nourishment—and looking around, that might’ve been the case, though the corners and knobs of the drawers appeared to be acquainted with his teeth as well. He was smaller than Beel and shaped like a chiropractor’s paycheck.

“You’re Betram, then?” said Azriah.


Azriah referred back to the paper. “Oh. Yes, excuse me, Betrum.”

Betrum sized them up. “So you’re with the Allegiant, then?” He talked in a way that made it sound like the words were being forcibly squeezed from him via a vise around his abdomen.

“In a sense. We’re just here to pick something up. He said you’d know the details.”

“Oh, I know them.” Betrum climbed onto the table and paced a slinking circle. His claws echoed on the metal tabletop. “Yes, I have what he’s after. Information. But it’s sensitive stuff. Sensitive. Some people would pay good money to keep it under wraps, you know? Have, I should say—have. But it’s all a bidding world, a big game of who has more cash to burn, you know?”

“I’m familiar,” said Azriah.

“They’ve been sending letters. I said they’d have to send a party in person. I thought it would be the Allegiant, but, well, if you’re his arm for the day…” Betrum paced a figure-eight.

“We have the money. Name your price.”

“Ah, money. Money’s been offered—money’s been given. Given to withhold what I have. They really are so brutish about these things, still trying to flaunt their coffers.”

Azriah looked to Root, then back to Betrum. “You said yourself it’s a bidding world.”

“Bids don’t have to come in gold. I’ll give you what you want, sure, but I’m in a very… comfortable spot.” Root surveyed the room again, just to be sure she’d seen everything properly.

Vit leaned closer to Azriah. “S— the Allegiant did say to pay whatever price was asked and he’d reimburse us.”

“What are you after?” Azriah asked Betrum.

Betrum grinned. “There’s a spirit who lives on the outskirts of Lallslatt—Pag is her name. She’s a potion brewer. She makes a quostress potion. Go get me one and I’ll give you what the Allegiant wants.”

The four of them exchanged a look. Azriah shrugged. “Okay. Sure.”

Betrum made a chittering sound that Root assumed was an expression of excitement. “Return when you have it and we will make the exchange.”

“Quick question, since it sounds like we’re leaving,” said Root. “Do you happen to have a back door?”


“Villy, you’re supposed to be taking your nap,” said Mennsha, setting down her book and rubbing her tired eyes.

“I’m scared.”

“And what are you scared of, baby?”

“I can hear them again.”

“For the last time, there are no monsters in the walls, or under the floor, or in the attic, or anywhere else.”

“But I can hear them. They’re doing scary things.”

“And what’s that? Are they howling?” Mennsha stuck a playful finger in the young girl’s ribs. A halfhearted giggle escaped against her will.


“Are they eating your toes?”

“No, muma.”

“Are they digging their way out?”


“Then what are they doing?”

“Making a business transaction.”