As the grey creatures retreat, their wide mouths turned down into frowns, dragging their wounded princess, Shyan’s power wavers. Her fists aloft in a pugilistic stance, she stares them down, but the tight balls of flesh are quaking.
Fassn and Cang move before her and she falls back beside Abia. With open palms she brushes away the pins sticking out of her skin and the little bone needles leave welts from where they leave her. With a stagger, she sits, her eyes glassy. The pins’ poison rushes through her, and with a grunt, she lays back on the ground, closing her eyes.
Shyan senses the poison is the same one she’d been hit with before. Its changes to her nerve endings are almost familiar, tickling as they do the painful memories and regrets centre of the brain. The darts themselves are mere pricks, like the bites of mosquitos. With an open palm she brushes many from her skin and they fall with soft clicks to the ground. She glares at the princess and her many retainers, each of whom is frantically trying to load another bone dart into its blowpipe. Shyan launches at them like a cat sprung from hiding. Her superior height and weight advantage bowls several over, eliciting cries of surprise. Old Mossy and the princess bark orders and fall back as Shyan starts swinging.
Facing off outside the caves, a dozen short grey humanoids, wide mouths full of sharp teeth, and bright, staring eyes, vs our four intrepid travellers, staggering from their painful memories and crude illusions. Shyan, in front, has her fists up and jaw set. Fassn flanks her, with Cang and Abia behind. “Well?” she asks.
The princess smirks. “Would Davit have approved of your haste?”
“Master Davit is dead,” Shyan says, her voice flat. “It was I who killed him. If you wish to kill me, know you won’t be the first to try.”
“Certainly not,” says the princess. “But we shall be the last.” She flicks her wrist and her retainers draw blowpipes and loose a wave of darts cut of splintered bone. Many reach Shyan’s skin, and she soon feels their poison coursing through her blood.
“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?”