Abia carefully watches Old Mossy as he separates two piles of human detritus: one for Shyan, the other for Fassn. He scoops the little Shyan mound of nail and hair into the palm of his hand. “Hold this one’s mouth open,” he says to Abia. She quickly wipes her hands on her robes and kneels beside her friend, prying open her lips. Shyan’s tongue darts in and out of her mouth like a snake’s tasting the air.
“Where are my wings?” Fassn asks the room at large.
“Three,” Old Mossy says.
“Three until what?” Cang asks.
“Two,” Old Mossy says.
Cang leans in to see what they’re doing. “Pardon me?”
“One!” Old Mossy jams the mound onto Shyan’s tongue and her eyes shoot open at once. Their wet rheum is quickly faded, and in its place, the gentle, phosphorescent glow of the mushrooms.
“Just trimmings and clippings,” he replies. “The usual.” With a flourish he produces a stubby knife, which, despite its short, triangular blade, appeared sharp. Cang is halfway to disarming him when Abia signals to let him work. Cang narrows his eyes but follows her instruction, every nerve fibre in his body tense.
Old Mossy bends to Shyan and cuts a lock of hair, then does the same to Fassn. He sniffs each sample, contemplating their qualities. “Hold their arms,” he says to Abia. She complies as Old Mossy takes a slice of fingernail from the third finger on each of their right hands. The sounds of jubilant celebration can still be heard around the bonfire outside.
“So it is witchery, after all?” Cang asks.
Old Mossy grins as he finely dices his samples with the knife. “Yes, yes! And it’s only just begun!”
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.