Mr. Jashenzizok, the mushroom man, struggles in his fungoid form, but most of his body is still enveloped by spongy puffball. He clears his throat and adopts a moderately more conciliatory tone. “Let’s just take a look at what you’ve brought me, hmm?”
“Not so fast,” Shyan says. She steps up to Mr. Jashenzizok to square her eyes with his.
“Have you goods or coin to exchange for these wares?” Cang asks. “We do not accept spores.”
The mushroom man laughs. “Fear not, foolish child. I possess many riches.”
“Do not call me child, mushrump.”
Fassn lays at the base of the puffball, idly poking his pitted, yellow teeth. “Not feeling so great, you guys,” he says.
“Enough. We have chemicals and compounds such that surely a cure for your condition can be found,” Shyan says. “Show us the loot.”
Burbaloo, the alchemist, looks at Shyan in awe. “We’re splitting it five ways, right?”
“A debt!” the mushroom man exclaims. “Burbaloo, explain yourself!”
“You see, Mr. Jashenzizok, these four wei–” here the alchemist, Burbaloo, catches herself. She takes in the glares of the gang and continues. “These four people were transporting crates of tonics and tinctures, which I bought for a fair price.”
Groans of protest go up from all but Abia, who watches impassively.
“Then these hoodlums caught up to me, tied me up, and forced me to bring them here.”
Mr. Jashenzizok the mushroom wizard blinks his freshly-cut eyes. “You, there, winged one. Consumed you one of the tinctures?”
Fassn slumps to the ground at the base of the mushroom, patting his swollen belly. “Yeah,” he says.
“And there are yet more crates in your wagon?”
“Perhaps so,” Cang says. “If you have money to buy.”
“Look at me, peasant!” Mr. Jashenzizok shouts. “I’m a forsaken fungus. Bring me the antidote and you’ll have your reward.”
“Heard that one before,” Burbaloo mutters.
“Now this I’ve gotta try,” says Fassn. He catches the mushroom shavings on his tongue. Between gulps, he cries, “Old Ajralan, may you have your fill!”
“That’s probably not good for you,” Shyan says.
“Mushroom man,” Abia says.
The alchemist shoots her a glare, then continues delicately carving away the mushroom man’s mouth.
“I’m not a mushroom,” he says, sputtering through the last of the spongy puffball. “I’m a wizard. What have you brought me, Burbaloo?”
“Her name’s Burbaloo?” Fassn asks.
“What happened to you, wizard?” Shyan asks. She touches the mushroom. “Can you feel this?”
“Go you by the moniker Eric Wagon?” Cang asks.
“Enough questions,” shouts the mushroom man. “Burbaloo, what have you brought me?”
“A great debt,” Shyan says.
The alchemist gestures frantically at it, such that Shyan removes her gag. “Here he is,” she says. “This is Eric.”
“This mushroom is Eric?” Cang asks. “And he’s your buyer of valuable tinctures and tonics?”
“Yeah,” the alchemist says. “But I haven’t been here in a while, looks like he’s mostly grown over again. Loosen my bonds, and I’ll show you.”
Shyan and Cang share a skeptical look, but she stands close, weapon drawn, as Cang removes the alchemist’s bonds.
She flexes her joints and lets out a prodigious grunt. “It’s good to be free.” Approaching the enormous mushroom, the alchemist produces a dagger and begins flaking away some of the fibrous flesh. “Come on, Eric, where are you?”
The gang crowds in to observe the alchemist’s work. Soon, her cutting and carving reveals a humanoid face, its eyeline a few centimetres above the alchemist’s own.
The eyes blink.
Sure enough, the gang follows the horse. The alchemist, bound and sullen, rides along with them in the back of the wagon. Cang drives it. For eight days they follow the gutted road, eating nothing but dried mussberry and the occasional gikken Shyan manages to bag.
Abia, by turns, holds long conversations with the horse, totally unintelligible to her friends and the alchemist, and passes long silences in steady, unassailable contemplation. Sometimes she speaks with their other mounts, as well, though none are so loquacious as the alchemist’s. Abia keeps the contents of their talks private, other than to share the horse’s name: Larry.
Larry has never heard of Eric Wagon, but he agrees to show Abia where the alchemist was headed.
As they travel, the broad plains to either side of the road grow dense with applebaum trees and neenwood, and by the ninth day, they find themselves in deep forest. Larry halts at the edge of a ragged clearing. At the centre stands a gargantuan puffball mushroom.
The alchemist’s voluminous robes shift and swirl as Fassn searches them. He comes up empty handed. He’s certain foul magic is at work but the alchemist wears an expression of utmost innocence.
“You bumbler,” Cang says, pushing his friend out of the way. “This is how you frisk someone.” His hands and stubby fingers are a blur; the layered robes are no hindrance. A moment later he withdraws his hand, clutching a leather pouch heavy with clinking coins. “Ah ha,” he says, showing off his find.
“With this we can repay the innkeeper, at least,” Shyan says. Cang rolls his eyes.
“I’ll bet this Eric Wagon has even more,” Fassn says.
“You say this as though he even exists,” Cang says.
The alchemist gulps, nervously. Her horses stir as Abia whispers to them.
“So,” Shyan says. She casually tosses her weapon into the air, catches it like a juggler. Somehow this is more frightening to the alchemist than when she was being actively threatened. “Do we trust her?”
“Yes,” Abia says, in a clear, loud voice, surprising everyone present. She gently pats the neck of the alchemist’s horse. “Follow horse. Find buyer.”
Cang’s face breaks into an irrepressible grin.
Fassn rummages the crates. His wings have become translucent and wilty, like a snake’s shed skin. “Anything in here to improve these things?”
“Eric will know,” the alchemist says. “Please, let’s just get moving, okay? He hates when I’m late.”
“And where does he live?” Shyan asks. Cang rummages his bag for a scrap of vellum and a quill. Withdrawing them, he looks up at the alchemist expectantly, waiting to take notes.
“He, uh, lives in the treetops,” the alchemist replies. “He’s got this wooden fortress of branches and brambles.” The scratching of Cang’s quill underscores her words.
“And he wants these crates because…?”
The alchemist steals a nervous glance at Abianarin, still in gentle communication with the beasts of burden pulling the wagon. “They’re valuable, you see. Expensive!”
Shyan barks at Fassn. “Worry about your wings later. Find our silver, first.” She threatens the alchemist with her pommel as Fassn searches her layered robes for their purses.