“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?”
Shyan blinks. Her hands ache. Waves of pain flow through her fingers. “What else is there?”
The princess has fear in her eyes. “Things live in the caves,” she says. Her friends and subjects gather around, staring daggers at Shyan. A few even ready blowpipes in case she makes a false move.
“What are they?”
“We do not know,” the princess replies sadly. “They are no worse than humans. Of the village,” she adds quickly, catching herself. She surveys the gang. All but Fassn watch her intently — he’s flat on his back, staring up at the dark sky, his eyes running over with viscous tears.
“And what’s the antidote made of?”
“Mushrooms,” says the princess. “They glow gently in the darkness. You won’t miss them.” The princess gives a gesture to some of her fellow creatures, who march over with a regularity that suggests military training. They guide the gang, including Fassn, who reluctantly gets up, to the mouth of a hot, humid cave.
Ruthless, her vision spinning, Shyan grabs the princess’ shoulder, whirls her around. Shyan’s eyes water as she blinks hard to focus. “Antidote,” she says. The princess’ eyes are sad, but she nods. The celebration around her mellows, as the cheering creatures fall quiet.
“There is an antidote,” the princess says. “But it is far away.”
“You don’t keep any on hand, in case you shoot yourselves?” Fassn asks, staring up at the sky.
“We are immune,” the princess replies. “The poison comes from within us.”
“Great,” Shyan says. She hiccoughs, bile rising in her throat. “How far away?”
“Deep underground,” says the princess. “And that’s not all.”
checking specks for flecks of movement
get those guys with poison in
can’t admit my fault too freely
no wonder I’m so maudlin!
giant change of pace is coming
but not quick enough
booze through the pores
hammer it out just for fun
availing of poisons
another recovered but soon to become putrid chum