iv) A hiss of voices

A hiss of voices, collectively excited and trying to keep hushed, rises up from the spot where the man fell down. Shyan and Abia watch, their wagon slowed to a pace, as the man’s unconscious form is dragged back into the bush by his ankles.

“Mercy,” comes a scrabbly man’s voice. “Gods, that was a hell of a toss.”

“Thank you,” Shyan calls back. “If you be bandits, we’ll ride on.”

“No, not bandits, exactly,” replies the man. The rustling of branches precedes his emergence onto the road. He’s stocky but malnourished, holding a cloth cap in his dirty hands. A moment later, a woman joins him, in much the same state, bearing a bonnet instead of a cap. “We thought about robbin’ ye, sure, but then ye killed my boy with a rock.”

“I don’t think I killed him.”

“Well the least ye can do is share some of your heavenly-smellin’ vittles,” the man says, making a move toward the wagon.

Shyan gives a subtle signal to Abia, who readies the reins. “Nothing in here worth eating, I’m afraid,” she says to the man. “Back off, unless you and your wife want to join your son in dream land.”

The man’s face darkens. His hand drifts slowly to the scabbard at his belt.

iii) Abia drives the wagon

Abia drives the wagon. She doesn’t speak with Larry, though they seem to have an ongoing understanding. She nods, murmurs, rests a gentle hand on his neck. Shyan sits up front with her, scanning the forested landscape for threats. Fassn rides in the back, keeping an eye on their rear and smacking his gums together. Cang sits in the body of the wagon proper, with an improvised bellows, pumping away to ensure their cookfire isn’t extinguished. This is exhausting, and by the time evening draws on, and the gang has left the mushroom grove of Mr. Jashenzizok and the alchemist Burbaloo far behind, his muscles ache.

Shyan spots movement in the underbrush, signals Abia for a halt. The wagon creaks to a stop and Cang complains. “Best to keep moving, friends, no?”

Shyan doesn’t reply. Squinting at the brush, she throws a stone. A man’s surprise grunt precedes his prone form stumbling out of the bushes and collapsing in the road, his eyes agape and vacant.

ii) Shyan wheels on the alchemist

Shyan wheels on the alchemist, anger clouding her face. “Listen,” she says, in a sharp voice. She pauses to see everyone watching them, takes a breath. “We’re not paying you for some stupid horse.”

“Larry,” Abia says.

“For some stupid Larry,” Shyan says.

Burbaloo blanches. Mr. Jashenzizok wears a peculiar, appraising look. Burbaloo puts a protective hand on Larry’s neck, who stares ahead impassively. “But he’s worth a fortune, and–“

“You don’t remember when you stole from us? Every copper penny?”

Cang, on his toes to look over the edge of the cookpot, between steady stirs, calls out, “Time to go. This soup certainly is not becoming any hotter.”

“Remember to keep a reasonable temperature, and stir frequently,” Mr. Jashenzizok says. “You don’t want any of that to burn and stick to the bottom of the pot.”

i) Abia chooses Larry as their beast of burden

Abia chooses Larry as their beast of burden. Burbaloo gives them the go-ahead, though she’s disappointed to lose one of her animals. The horses confer amongst themselves and seem to bid Larry adieu.

Shyan and Cang work at re-fitting Burbaloo’s wagon. They rip out the floor and build in a fairly stable platform for the cookfire to sit upon, and put a circle of large rocks around it to discourage errant embers. Fassn gathers firewood for the journey.

It’s near dark when the wagon is complete. Mr. Jashenzizok watches on with a look of enigmatic sadness upon his mushroomy face. He says, “Well, then, I suppose you must be off.”

“‘Tis about time,” Cang says.

Shyan shakes Mr. Jashenzizok’s hand, confers briefly about directions to a nearby town where they might unload their metal soup.

As the team’s getting ready to climb onto the wagon, Burbaloo clears her throat, speaks up. “So who’s going to pay me for my horse?”

v) A cookpot full of liquid gold bubbles and churns, wafting harsh, metallic vapours up through the vale.

A cookpot full of liquid gold bubbles and churns, wafting harsh, metallic vapours up through the vale. It simmers like a pot of viscous soup. Its roiling contents are the hue of a late summer sunset in one’s home village.

“Can we have it now?” Fassn asks. “I can’t chew so soup is perfect.” He winces and rubs at his gums. He feels a small, hard point, emerging from the soft tissue. “There’s something in here.”

“Is it done?” Shyan looks to Abia first, who nods once, nearly imperceptible.

Mr. Jashenzizok bobs his mushroom head with obvious glee. “The transmogrification is complete! Friends, this has been an utmost joy. For too long was I trapped in that detestable mushroomy body, away from my spells and alembics. Working on this project — what a treat. Give yourselves a hand.” He claps, and Burbaloo joins in a minute later.

Blood flushes Shyan’s face. “Listen, she robbed us, remember? This pot of gold is the least you can do.”

“When can we move it?” Cang asks. He licks his lips.

Fassn kicks the shredded remains of the ugobok tear duct. “Can I eat this, at least?”

“Move it? Where do you want to move it?” Burbaloo asks, her confusion evident.

Cang blinks. “To a town? To sell? So we can retire and be done with this nonsense?”

Fassn’s boot has become stuck in the duct. He struggles to remove it. “One is never done with nonsense!”

“Well of course you’re free to move it,” Burbaloo says. “But how will you move the fire?”

Shyan stares daggers at Burbaloo from behind purposefully calm, half-lidded eyes. “What?”

“The fire. The transmogrification will reverse if the soup gets cold.”

Fassn perks up. “So it’ll be mushroom again?”

iv) Mr. Jashenzizok proves useless at gathering kindling.

Mr. Jashenzizok proves useless at gathering kindling. For a while the gang watches him and Burbaloo, just beyond the treeline, bent and muttering. Eventually Shyan begins to pity them, and joins in. Abia gently stirs the soup, as Cang re-packs his oversized backpack, and Fassn communes with Old Ajralan.

Deep, indigo night creeps over the vale. By the time the mushroom man declares they’ve enough kindling, the moon rises from the trees. He and Shyan stoke a might blaze. Burbaloo describes the alchemical process to Cang as he makes furious notes on a scrap of vellum. Abia listens.

The mushroom soup boils. Its earthy aroma floats up and out of the vale, sending the stomachs of our heroes to grumbling.

“Now,” Mr. Jashenzizok says. “Now is the time for alchemical mayhem.”

“Mayhem?” Fassn says. “You can’t eat mayhem.”

Mr. Jashenzizok works his hands in an obscure pattern, likely derived from some old book. He wiggles his fingers and swirls his arms over the cookpot, says some magic words. Abia hears a note of power in his voice, a peculiar doubling effect to the sound of the spell. Burbaloo mouths along with him, trying her best to replicate the gestures.

Sure enough, the brown mushroom soup begins to shift its hue and turn gold.

iii) “The many magical properties or urine notwithstanding, no, my toothless friend.”

“The many magical properties of urine notwithstanding, no, my toothless friend. With the reagents you have brought me, together, we shall make this pot of soup a pot of gold.”

Fassn, despite his joy, winces at the pain in his gums. The short stalks on his shoulder blades — all that’s left of his gauzy wings — twitch involuntarily.

“Well get too it already,” Shyan says.

“Yes,” Cang adds. “I have many debts.”

Mr. Jashenzizok signals Burbaloo, who with a start scoops a spoonful of simmering liquid from the cookpot and holds it to his lips. Eyes closed, he tastes it, tongue smacking. “Alas, new friends,” he says. “The soup is not yet hot enough! Quickly, to the underbrush. Gather up kindling, go!”

Burbaloo shoots Mr. Jashenzizok a questioning glance. Shyan, Cang, Abia, and Fassn all stare daggers at him. Shyan conspicuously folds her arms.

“Or, er, perhaps I can do it,” he continues, chest deflated.