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.
“Well we’ve come into this one ill-equipped,” Shyan says. She carefully climbs down to the floor of the cave and lies on her back, staring up into the popping, fizzy blackness.
Cang sighs and departs. A few hours later he returns with a lantern and a coil of rope.
Shyan and Fassn are both fast asleep on the cave’s stony floor. Abia feels a change in the cave’s air, and can smell Cang before she can see him, his smell that of charred leather and sweat. “What did you trade?” she asks.
“I had a small emerald sewn into my vest,” Cang says. It’s as though admitting the truth in the darkness is easier, somehow.
“Oh?” Abia says.
“Stashed away for some time now, in fact,” he replies. “I ask you do not tell our friends.”
Abia nods, then gently prods her sleeping companions awake to the gently pulsing light of the lantern.
The heat is stronger down the open passage. A heady warmth emanates past the cool rock. As the gang squints into the swirling blackness, Abia is first to spot a gentle greenish glow near the tunnel’s floor. She whispers, pointing out the light.
“The mushrooms glow,” Shyan says, and with one hand tracing her path on the wall, she moves toward it. The warmth grows as she nears it, and her quivering muscles seem to tremble with renewed fervour. “You feel that?” she asks Fassn, but all she gets back is a low, breathy exhalation, and assumes the answer is “yes.”
Soon the tunnel takes a downward turn, and the gang’s boots slide on the gravelly surface, struggling for purchase. Several meters down is a thick growth of glowing mushrooms with a thick, gooey warmth rushing off them.
The cave is eroded away from thick black limestone like gooey chocolate cake, Fassn thinks. He stops to lick a wall and finds its rough surface abrasive on his tongue and lacking severely in a sweet taste. Instead, the cave is suffused with a warm, wet animal smell, like the damp coat of a dog.
“Perhaps some creature calls this cavern home,” says Cang.
“Everything calls somewhere home,” Fassn replies with a sagely nod of his head.
The others ignore him. Shyan, scratching at the thin skin on the back of her hands — alternating, first the left, then the right, cyclically — feels at the walls where the late afternoon sun cannot reach. They’re gritty and stain her hands with a deep black. “There’s nothing here,” she says, unaware she’s slurring her words. She’s about to repeat herself when her hand moves past the solid rock and she finds a wide passageway. “There’s something here,” she says.
“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.”