Some of the celebrants follow. The cave yawns a heavy, wet air, as though a swamp were inside over a set of hot coals. The grey creatures peer in, dart away. No light penetrates the depths of the cave, even as a brave few push torches past its lip.
“And the antidote’s in there?” Shyan asks the princess, who nods. “How’d you know?”
“Hm?” the princess says, cocking her head to look at Shyan.
“How do you know the antidote is in there?”
“Old Mossy told us. He goes in sometimes, collects the mushrooms.”
“Oh?” Cang says. “And where might this Mr. Old Mossy be at present?”
“Here,” croaks an older man, his grey skin closer to bleached than many of his companions.
“Ah, Old Mossy,” Cang cries with the ring of familiarity and long acquaintance. “Care to join us on our spelunking?”
Shyan blinks. Her hands ache. Waves of pain flow through her fingers. “What else is there?”
The princess has fear in her eyes. “Things live in the caves,” she says. Her friends and subjects gather around, staring daggers at Shyan. A few even ready blowpipes in case she makes a false move.
“What are they?”
“We do not know,” the princess replies sadly. “They are no worse than humans. Of the village,” she adds quickly, catching herself. She surveys the gang. All but Fassn watch her intently — he’s flat on his back, staring up at the dark sky, his eyes running over with viscous tears.
“And what’s the antidote made of?”
“Mushrooms,” says the princess. “They glow gently in the darkness. You won’t miss them.” The princess gives a gesture to some of her fellow creatures, who march over with a regularity that suggests military training. They guide the gang, including Fassn, who reluctantly gets up, to the mouth of a hot, humid cave.
Ruthless, her vision spinning, Shyan grabs the princess’ shoulder, whirls her around. Shyan’s eyes water as she blinks hard to focus. “Antidote,” she says. The princess’ eyes are sad, but she nods. The celebration around her mellows, as the cheering creatures fall quiet.
“There is an antidote,” the princess says. “But it is far away.”
“You don’t keep any on hand, in case you shoot yourselves?” Fassn asks, staring up at the sky.
“We are immune,” the princess replies. “The poison comes from within us.”
“Great,” Shyan says. She hiccoughs, bile rising in her throat. “How far away?”
“Deep underground,” says the princess. “And that’s not all.”
By true nightfall, when the sun has sunk low beyond the trees and their craggy shadows reach lengthening black hands to grab and drag and never let go, the party arrives in the grey creatures’ village. The creatures are awake, keeping a vigil with burning torches and lanterns strung up in the trees. The crunching ground underfoot gives the group away, so that when they reach the village proper, the creatures are arrayed about in anxious anticipation. Seeing the princess on her own two feet, plodding along in the company of humans — two of whom are obviously bearing signs of poisoning — they erupt in cheers. Someone produces a flute, and another a drum, and soon the village square, such that it is, between the trees, erupts with music and mirth.
The princess grins, happy to be taken into the celebration. Soon the gang loses sight of her among her companions. For humans, at a glance, these grey creatures are tough to distinguish.
Shyan clears her throat, speaks up over the noise and dancing. “So,” she says. “The antidote?”
They don’t seem to hear her.
“The elders of my village are the keepers of the antidote,” says the princess. “I cannot produce it on my own.”
“That’s fine,” Shyan says. She has to fight to keep her eyes from rolling back in her head. There’s a ton of pressure behind them, as though they want to shoot from her skull like billiard balls at the break. “Show us the way.”
The evening woods are dense with noise and movement. Creatures move about, barely glimpsed in the underbrush. As the gang treks, the sun begins to set.
“Have we light for our journey?” asks the princess. “A lantern, perhaps?”
Sheepily, the party looks at one another. “Most of our gear was stolen,” Shyan begins, a note of apology in her voice.
“Stolen? By village folk, perhaps?”
“Er, a lich?”
The princess shakes her head solemnly. “These are tough times,” she says.
Suppressing a cough, Shyan says, “It’s been better.”
“What do you mean?” Fassn asks, prodding at the skin of his forearm. “This tingling feeling, you don’t like it?”
“No, Fassn, I don’t like it,” Shyan says. “I can’t feel my toes and my tongue feels like it’s burning.”
“Aw, I didn’t get that,” he says. He sticks out his tongue and grabs it like his hand is a set of forceps.
“Humans are strange,” says the princess.
Cang nods, disgusted by his friends’ display. “Fortunately, daily life is not always like this.” Abia shifts her weight and Cang adds, “Well, not wholly often.”
“So, the antidote,” Shyan says, her face ashen. “Wait, one moment,” she adds, ducking into a bush to vomit. Wiping her lip with the back of her battered leather gauntlet, she says again, “So, the antidote.”
The princess’ round, grey face falls. Her bulbous black eyes are washed with pain. “Of course not,” she says. “The humans of the village would never dare assault my people again. Not with you find protectors at my side.”
Shyan and Fassn share a queasy look, sweating beading on the ends of their respective noses. “Maybe no more questions,” Shyan says.
“Yeah, maybe just the antidote,” adds Fassn. His teeth chatter. “What’s it like to be a princess?”
“Wonderful, most wonderful,” she says. Her wide lipless mouth turns up into a grin. “The sumptuous grace of my mother’s palace is one of the world’s great marvels.” Seeming to suddenly recall her manners, she adds, “And what is it like being, er,” she says, surveying the filthy group of grubby adventurers before her. “Um, one of you?”