“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.
The cave is eroded away from thick black limestone like gooey chocolate cake, Fassn thinks. He stops to lick a wall and finds its rough surface abrasive on his tongue and lacking severely in a sweet taste. Instead, the cave is suffused with a warm, wet animal smell, like the damp coat of a dog.
“Perhaps some creature calls this cavern home,” says Cang.
“Everything calls somewhere home,” Fassn replies with a sagely nod of his head.
The others ignore him. Shyan, scratching at the thin skin on the back of her hands — alternating, first the left, then the right, cyclically — feels at the walls where the late afternoon sun cannot reach. They’re gritty and stain her hands with a deep black. “There’s nothing here,” she says, unaware she’s slurring her words. She’s about to repeat herself when her hand moves past the solid rock and she finds a wide passageway. “There’s something here,” she says.
“Tell us,” Abia says, a gentle hand on Old Mossy’s shoulder. He doesn’t seem calmed, though — almost more animated.
“There’s traps and beasties both in the depths,” he says. “Dunno who built ’em, dunno why, but they’re down there.” Old Mossy holds up a hand, from which he’s missing two of his four fingers. “This one got bit by a steel trap, teeth like wild. Tried to grab a gem, y’know,” he says, letting the rest trail off.
“A gem? We’re after,” Shyan takes a deep breath as her vision swims. “Mushrooms?”
“Mr. Jashenzizok?” Fassn asks no one in particular.
“Mushrooms, yeah,” Old Mossy says. “For the antidote. Looks like you and yours got quite the dose.”
“Most unfortunate,” Cang drawls.
“They’s down there too. Shouldn’t be hard to find them glowing caps.”
“All right,” Shyan says. “Thanks for your help,” she continues, as she stumbles off into the cave.
Old Mossy’s craggy face crinkles into a frown. “Gosh, no,” he says, his voice like fingertips on birch bark. “Gosh, I went down there last, what, four seasons ago? Wasn’t nothing down there but death and danger, y’hear?”
“And mushrooms?” Shyan asks, panting now. The exhaustion of standing upright is beginning to weigh on her. All she wants is to lay down, rest and relax, fall off to a solid night’s sleep and not wake with the dawn…
The princess just smiles.
“I’d better be getting back to the celebrating,” says Old Mossy, making gestures to depart.
“Hold a moment, sir,” says Cang in his best tone of placating respect. “Tell us what we may find down there.”
“‘Sides danger and death,” Fassn says as he idly strokes his beard.
“Oh,” Old Mossy says, his eyes filled with regret. “Danger and death is the least of it.”
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?”