“I knew the moment I saw you fight in the square,” the princess says. “A village full of tall folk, and you, a young woman, striking with the Silent Mantis. Sliding into Hooking Crow. Techniques only Davit knew.”
Shyan perks up at the name. She stands steadily, rising from the floor, silent and intense.
“Of all people,” Old Mossy says. “I’m glad we finally found you.”
“The killer of Davit,” the princess says, a note of wonder in her voice.
“You are some of many,” Shyan replies. She pivots a foot into a defensive stance as her compatriots gather around her. Her eyes blaze. “Come,” she says, raising her fists. “You may have it.”
Heads swivel toward the noise. Timid in the light of the fire, several grey faces, low to the ground. At the centre of the clutch of humanoids, the princess the gang had rescued, and with her, Old Mossy, explorer extraordinaire. When the gang recognizes them, they let their guards down — just a fraction.
“Any luck in there?” Old Mossy says.
Sardonically, Cang says, “I found some gems.”
Old Mossy gives a start of surprise. “Really?”
“No, not really,” Cang replies with a huff.
“What brings you?” Abia asks the group.
A creepy grin worms its way across Old Mossy’s face.
“I don’t think we never heard no knocking, did we?” Fassn asks.
“Not as such,” Cang replies.
“And that name, ‘Asmosius.’ Would’ve picked up on that one.”
“What is it you need?” Shyan asks.
“Well,” Old Mossy begins, faltering. In a soft voice, the princess urges him on. He keeps his eyes on the ground. “I’d like to know who, or what, knows me well enough to call to me from beyond a massive door deep under the earth,” he says, before looking hopefully up at the gang.
Fassn and Abia share a look suggesting that whatever it is, it’s nothing good.
“In exchange for the antidote?” Shyan asks.
A look of horror crosses Old Mossy’s features. “No, no, certainly not! You rescued our fair princess, after all.” He dodders to a cabinet, and, his back turned to the gang, fiddles with a switch or latch and a hidden panel slides open. He withdraws a small palmful of colourful gems. “In exchange for these!”
“A grand, old, audacious thing, built right into the side of the cave?” asks Cang, to which Old Mossy nods readily. “We have had occasion to encounter it,” he continues.
“Did you hear a knocking?”
“A knocking, like this,” says Old Mossy, rapping his fingers on the flat of his palm to make a soft slapping noise. “Well, sort of like this.”
“I don’t think we heard any knocking,” Shyan says.
Old Mossy’s eyes take on a haunted look. “Strange, that,” he says. “Last I was down, I heard a knocking, as though from the other side.”
The princess squeezes his hand reassuringly.
“A knocking, and a deep voice, calling my name: ‘Asmosius…'”
The gang rests up in Old Mossy’s hut for the rest of the night. He stays away at the celebration, but the grey creature and his kin never seek to rope them in for feasting and dancing, despite their status as rescuers of the princess. Only Cang is still awake when Old Mossy returns, with a retinue of guards with their mouths set firm and the princess herself. Cang’s quick to wake the others, who reluctantly drag themselves from their pleasant sleep.
“I trust you’re feeling better?” the princess asks.
Shyan’s eyes are teary still, but clear. “Yes. Though the antidote may be worse than the disease.”
“Bad dreams, only,” says Old Mossay. He waves the whole notion away. “Listen. When you were fetching the mushrooms needed for the antidote, you climbed down into a cave.”
Shyan lets a beat pass before she says, “Right.”
“Then let me ask you: when you were down there, did you find a door?”
By true nightfall, when the sun has sunk low beyond the trees and their craggy shadows reach lengthening black hands to grab and drag and never let go, the party arrives in the grey creatures’ village. The creatures are awake, keeping a vigil with burning torches and lanterns strung up in the trees. The crunching ground underfoot gives the group away, so that when they reach the village proper, the creatures are arrayed about in anxious anticipation. Seeing the princess on her own two feet, plodding along in the company of humans — two of whom are obviously bearing signs of poisoning — they erupt in cheers. Someone produces a flute, and another a drum, and soon the village square, such that it is, between the trees, erupts with music and mirth.
The princess grins, happy to be taken into the celebration. Soon the gang loses sight of her among her companions. For humans, at a glance, these grey creatures are tough to distinguish.
Shyan clears her throat, speaks up over the noise and dancing. “So,” she says. “The antidote?”
They don’t seem to hear her.