Both Shyan and Fassn are sprawled on the floor, their eyes rheumy. Half-heartedly, Shyan waves Old Mossy away. “No need,” she says. “We’re good like this, aren’t we Fassn?”
“Old Ajralan,” he replies. His face and beard are soaked with sweat.
“Yes, very well put, Fassn,” Cang sneers. “Old Ajralan, verily!”
“I’m just gonna get some sleep,” Shyan says, making great efforts to roll onto her side.
“Nonsense. I traded a precious gem for your worthless lives, so this grey creature shall restore them, after which, they shall belong to me.”
Abia levels a stare at Cang until a tiny smirk appears on his lips. “What do you need?” she asks Old Mossy.
Old Mossy’s control of the mushrooms is smooth, precise, uncompromising. He bends his fingers to keep the knife blade at his knuckles, careful not to pierce his own grey flesh. The phosphorescent mushrooms peel away in thin strips but maintain their shape, now apart but still somehow whole. He signals to Abia to start a pot of boiling water, and as she does so, begins rummaging a small, sturdy cupboard that Cang would not be surprised to learn he built himself. Within, a number of small, canvas bags, from which he pinches a few coarse powders. He puts the powders into his cupped hand and stirs them with his finger as he moves. When the water is ready, he throws the powders into it and the rubbles erupt, roaring past the cauldron’s lip. Old Mossy slides the mushrooms into the water and it calms, landing at a simmer. Satisfied, he turns to Shyan and Fassn. “Now, it’s your turn.”
Old Mossy’s domain is a hovel woven of grass reeds, with a pat earthen floor that has clearly seen hundreds of feet over the years. His sleeping area, a thick pad of straw, occupies one corner, while a simple set of alembics and burners occupies another. Old Mossy bids the gang lay the afflicted down on the straw mattress while he tools around with the alchemical glassware.
“Where, praytell, did you acquire such expensive tools?” Cang asks.
“Trade with the tall ones,” Old Mossy replies, without taking his eyes off his work. Glasses clink and clunk together as he sorts them.
“Until they take princess?” Abia asks.
The grey creature with the long beard nods once, sadly. “There have been… clashes in the past.”
Cang holds his hands palms up. “Certainly not any of our concern, Abianarin. We’re inveighing on this poor fellow’s time enough as things stand, without dredging up painful memories.”
As Old Mossy begins to slice the phosphorescent mushrooms, he says, “Bad memories is right. Just you wait.”
Back in the grey creatures’ village, celebrations over the princess are still in full swing. The bedraggled party drags themselves into the ring of light thrown by the bonfire. One of the celebrants is gleefully showing off his new emerald.
Old Mossy, spotting them, comes over, looking sheepish. “You found the mushrooms?”
Wordless, Cang withdraws a handful. Their glow is diminished but still present.
Old Mossy nods. “Let’s go mix that antidote.”
“Permit me a question, sir, but in your forays into the caves, did you ever come upon a carved stone door?” Cang asks.
“Door?” asks Old Mossy.
“Door?” repeats Shyan.
“Rood?” asks Fassn.
Cang sighs, shares a look of exasperation with Abia, whose face remains eerily placid. “We shall discuss it another time. First, the antidote.”
Cang is first to descend, and he brings the lantern with him, clutched in one rough hand while he uses the other to rappel. His progress is jerky and shallow at first, and the others above, holding the rope, stagger and shift their positions to keep its tensile strength high. As Cang gets closer to the growth of mushrooms at the bottom, the warmth they give off grows. Soon his brow is soaked with sweat, despite his athleticism, and the fungi’s green glow washes across his face.
Planting his boots on the rocky ground, Cang kicks at a few of the mushrooms. “How many do we require?” he calls up.
Silence greets him.
Grumbling, he knocks a few caps off their stems, doing nothing to diminish their glow. He stashes a handful in his pockets, wishing instead he had the tiny emerald instead. As he prepares to ascend, he notices another tunnel, and holding his lantern aloft, the candle’s light falls upon a carved stone door, covered in the undisturbed dust of an age. His curiosity peaks, but the coughs of his companions at the top of the cave break the spell, and he grabs the rope. Shyan, Fassn and Abia strain to pull him back up.
“Well we’ve come into this one ill-equipped,” Shyan says. She carefully climbs down to the floor of the cave and lies on her back, staring up into the popping, fizzy blackness.
Cang sighs and departs. A few hours later he returns with a lantern and a coil of rope.
Shyan and Fassn are both fast asleep on the cave’s stony floor. Abia feels a change in the cave’s air, and can smell Cang before she can see him, his smell that of charred leather and sweat. “What did you trade?” she asks.
“I had a small emerald sewn into my vest,” Cang says. It’s as though admitting the truth in the darkness is easier, somehow.
“Oh?” Abia says.
“Stashed away for some time now, in fact,” he replies. “I ask you do not tell our friends.”
Abia nods, then gently prods her sleeping companions awake to the gently pulsing light of the lantern.
The heat is stronger down the open passage. A heady warmth emanates past the cool rock. As the gang squints into the swirling blackness, Abia is first to spot a gentle greenish glow near the tunnel’s floor. She whispers, pointing out the light.
“The mushrooms glow,” Shyan says, and with one hand tracing her path on the wall, she moves toward it. The warmth grows as she nears it, and her quivering muscles seem to tremble with renewed fervour. “You feel that?” she asks Fassn, but all she gets back is a low, breathy exhalation, and assumes the answer is “yes.”
Soon the tunnel takes a downward turn, and the gang’s boots slide on the gravelly surface, struggling for purchase. Several meters down is a thick growth of glowing mushrooms with a thick, gooey warmth rushing off them.