Of Monsters and Mushrooms
by Lesley Herron
Chapter 7, Clorophyllum
It’s not every day you get to be seduced by a giant skeleton. And Attila would give his right eye for that to not be this day. He heard the door click shut behind him and the realization sank in that he was completely and utterly alone in the one place he really did not want to be alone in.
Madam Whisper’s chamber room was huge, lavishly decorated, and completely dominated by a large canopy bed. Next to it was an ornate vanity, on which were piles of gems and jewelry large enough to satisfy even the hungriest thief. There were also mirrors. So, so many mirrors. There were standing floor length mirrors taller than Attila, ones that hung across the length of one wall, on the ceiling, and even several on the varied surfaces about the room. Why would a woman made of bones need this many mirrors? It wasn’t like she had to worry about having a bad hair day.
Attila swallowed hard. After agreeing to Madam Whisper’s offer, he had suffered instant regret. More like severe buyer’s remorse, really. Despite all his pleading with the others, neither of them was willing to don his hat and poncho and accept his mantle for a night. Worst of all was Frankie, who laughed the entire way up the countless flights of stairs, along more long and empty corridors, and all the way to the giant golden door that lead to the Madam’s room.
Attila wandered around the room, trying to find possible escape routes. But, other than the door he was just sealed in by, the only other exit was a large open window with a great view of the city and a sheer drop. There were filled book cases, a crackling fireplace, and an unfinished chess game surrounded by two large plump armchairs. Attila picked up one of pieces; they were all carved into skeletons. Big surprise.
“Shall we begin, Slayer?” Madam Whisper’s voice echoed throughout the room.
Startled, Attila dropped the figure and toppled the game off the table top. He scrambled to pick up all the piece currently trying to make their escape. He set them back on the chess board, haphazardly and in complete disarray. He straightened himself up, and brushed his hands against his pants, as if nothing had happened. Madam Whisper stood in the doorway, observing him. You would think a giant skeleton would have the courtesy of rattling or something to announce it was coming down the hall. “H-Hello.,” was all Attila managed to choke out.
Madam Whisper waved a hand, unconcerned for the game. “ Do not worry about the game. My opponent will not be returning.” She pulled the door shut behind her with a resonating -click- of finality.
“Oh?,” Attila asked, bending down to pick up the knight that rolled against his boot. Madam Whisper smiled, or at least he thought it was a smile.
“I caught him cheating and had him removed my from chambers.,” she replied, airily as she gestured to the open window with a bony hand.
Attila sidestepped her, as she crossed the room towards the bed, and reached for the door handle. Locked. Of course.
She turned to stare at him with those empty eye sockets of her. “Do you mind if I get comfortable? This outfit is ever so stuffy.” She sat down on the edge of the bed.
Attila took a shaky breath. This was it. Doin’ it for Errik. Dammit! Screw Errik. Attila tried the door again, and felt his heart dip into the bottom of his shoe when it was still locked. Dammit, doin’ it for Brig then. “Heh. Of course! It’s your room!” He might as well get this over with as quick as possible, he thought. He removed his hat, and began tugging the poncho over his head.
Madam Whisper removed her headdress, set it down among the jewels on her nightstand, and crawled onto the bed. Her bones creaked and snapped as she laid down on her back, and folded her arms over her chest like, well like she was dead. Attila stopped halfway through taking off his left boot, noticing a dancing blue light emanating from her body. A great rush of air filled the chambers, threatening to snuff the life from the fireplace and whipped the curtains around the window like tattered sails in a tempest. Attila stood their helpless, his hands still cupping the bottom of his shoe.
And as quick as it had begun, the event was over. Attila blinked away the blinding spots in his eyes to see the glowing and pulsating semi-translucent form of a woman. With the kind of curves you could race around all night, she seemed comprised of blue mist that swirled in the storm contained within her body. Her clothing consisted of the same ethereal vapor as her body, floating on a breeze that could not be felt. Her body flickered and shimmered in and out of focus, like a bad projection.
The only part of her that remained constant were her eyes, ancient, powerful and the color of sharpened diamonds, set deep in her calculating heart shaped face. She stretched, and Attila failed to keep his mouth from falling open.
“Much better.,” she sighed, her voice still ethereal but now it was more like a lofty summer breeze than a winter gale. “I don’t know how you creatures can stand being in a physical form for so long. I-,” her voice trailed off as she caught sight of Attila who was still halfway through tugging his shoe off. “Why are you disrobing?”
“Oh…” Think fast! What would Errik say? “There was…something in my shoe?” Brilliant! He set his foot down, trying to ignore the lopsided bunching of his sock within. His mouth formed a straight line, his eyes avoiding hers, as he sidled over to his poncho and snatched it off the ground.
Madam Whisper shrugged, turning to the window to face the city outside. “I asked you here to discuss a delicate matter. Something that threatens my -great city- and it is in need of a champion.” She placed a hand against the window, as if to pluck the city like a fruit. “Ancient beasts, at the edge of the Under Well, threaten a…certain trade route that is the lifeblood of my people.”
“The great up heavers of our land.,” she said, pausing to look back at Attila. “Borer worms.”
“Okay. Worms bad, trade route good. Got it.” Attila struggled to keep his eyes trained on the conversation, but couldn’t keep them from wandering.
Madam Whisper gave him a smile as she placed her hand on his cheek. It bit like frost covered steel. “I knew I could count on you. Lady Lola did not lie about your bravery.”
Attila mumbled something incoherently over a toothy grin.
Madam Whisper moved to her vanity and opened a drawer. “You will find an entrance to the Sewers being guarded by one of my finest. Hand him this note, and he will let you through. You may also use it acquisition weapons and supplies for your journey. The Sewers lead to the old city, the original Under Well, where you will deal with these worms as you see fit.” Madam Whisper moved before Attila, her form gliding through the air. She handed him a piece of paper, the size of a playing card, devoid of any writing but with a single wax seal.
“And if you fail to do so, or decide to abandon your task, it will be the last thing that you or your servants ever do.” Her voice lost it’s airy tone, and for a brief moment it took on the cold chill it carried before. Her body seemed to sharpen with every word, becoming jagged and angular.
Attila took the slip of paper, examining the crowned skull stamped in a pool of blue wax before pocketing it. He nodded a little, his eyes drifting elsewhere again, agreeing to her previous statement without really taking it in. They could handle a few worms, right? “So my friends…I mean, my servants are free to join me in this journey, right?”
Madam Whisper gave a curt nod, her thin smile returning. “Of course, Slayer. Every hero needs followers. Those who shall carry his burdens into battle so that he remains fresh for the fight.”
“O…Okay then.” Attila wasn’t exactly sure what she meant by that. He rocked back on his heels a little, trying to once again stall for time. Any moment now she would send him away to collect his friends, and he would never see her again.
“Now that the formalities are out of the way, shall we continue with our evening?,” Madam Whisper asked, grinning gently.
Attila tried to say something clever, but somewhere between his brain and his mouth it came out “Bwwaahehguh-yeahokay…!”
Madam Whisper gently pushed him down into one of the plump arm chairs, a hungry look in those cold eyes.
Frankie set down a small ream of papers, another round of book edits for Bob, for the seventh time. He grunted as he got to his feet, tired of breaking up the arguments. But Errik and Vel were yelling at each other louder than usual. His hands fell to his sides as he rounded the corner. His brow shot up in surprise. Somehow Vel had smashed a sizable hole in the wall between their cells and was in the process of strangling his brother. Errik was struggling against the cybernetic grip of Vel’s hand, slapping uselessly at his mechanical arm as he began turning an alarming shade of blue.
“Knock it off you two!,” Frankie barked, moving towards Vel’s door.
Vel relinquished his brother, reluctantly, and was still bristling form his argument. “Figures he’d take your side.,” he shot at the wall. They’d been in their cells so long he was sure the witless wonder had screwed things up with Madam Whisper and they would inevitably be killed. So he turned to face Frankie, looking for anyone to take out his frustrations on. “So, since you’re clearly not a cat person, how -did- you enjoy your dessert, Franklin?,” Vel sneered.
Frankie’s lips curled into an unmistakable growl. He reached through the bars, grabbed Vel by his coat, and yanked. Hard.
Vel slammed, face first, into the metal door. Even though his forehead took the brunt of the impact, his ears were ringing. He blinked away the stars from his good eye before grunting against Frankie’s continued grip. “Point. Taken.”
Frankie kept his fat fingers clasped tightly around the handful of fabric, keeping Vel pinned tight against the bars. He had opened his mouth to retort when he head the main door open somewhere behind him. He released Vel from his grasp, and swiveled around to see who was barging in.
Attila threw his hand up to offer a hearty wave at Frankie, but stopped at the sight of so much chaos in such a small space. Errik was on his knees, coughing, with one hand on his throat the other supporting himself against the wall. Vel wore his usual hateful scowl but there was a trickle of blood dripping down his face form his forehead. Frankie stood in front of Vel’s door with a slightly flustered look, and there was a hole in the stone wall between the two cells.
“Uh. Did…Did I come at a bad time?,” Attila asked, the silence punctuated only by Errik’s sporadic coughing. Attila cleared his throat, awkwardly, before he approached Frankie. “Well, I got the go ahead from Madam Whisper to have you release them.”
Frankie started to object until Attila flourished a small piece of paper with a wax seal. He sighed, and reluctantly began to fumble with the keys on his ring.
“Oh. And we’re going to need some supplies. Do you happen to have a sixteen barrel flame thrower?,” Attila asked, his expression dead serious.
The rounded a corner to face a large grate. They were far beyond the reach of the city sight, and the passersby were few and far between. There was a single angry looking guard standing sentry in front of an ornate exit to the city. He bristled with weapons and carried himself like the kind of man that knew how to use every single one of them. “This area is off limits.,” he snapped, barely having to move his gator like mouth.
Attila stepped forward with a swagger of self importance. “It’s okay. I’m the Great Slayer of the Forty! You may have heard of me.”
The guard hefted a spike edged cudgel. “Nope.”
“Are you -sure-? Perhaps you’ve heard about my razor bear?”
The cudgel made a satisfying sound as it smacked into the guards palm. “Can’t say as I have. Now, shove off.”
Errik nudged Attila with his elbow. “Just show him the seal.”
“Oh right.” Attila’s hands dug into his pockets. A wave of panic struck through him as he patted down several other pockets. And then a brief memory clicked into place, of the seal sitting on the store room table by the ammo cases. “Oh…crap.,” Attila murmured, his face crestfallen.
The guard did not look amused. He began to advance on the group, murder in his eyes.
Vel looked up at the cavern ceiling, as if he was squinting at something the others couldn’t see. “Wow, the moon sure is bright tonight. Isn’t it.”
Errik gave his brother a deeply concerned look. “How hard did Frankie hit you?,” he said, pausing to flash his hand around Vel’s face. “How many fingers am I holding up.”
Vel swatted his brother’s hands away. “It’s the password, you moron.”
The guard dropped his cudgel, all pretense of aggression evaporating. “Took you long enough to show up, didn’t yeh? I’ve been taking extra shifts all week trying to catch you lot.” He walked over to the other side of the grate, and heaved on a heavy latch. “Sadi’s paid me extra to make sure you blokes don’t run into any trouble. I would’a refused if I’d known it’d take you a bloody week to get here though.” The metal door creaked slowly open, letting the smell of boiled cabbage wash over them. “Wouldn’t mind hurrying it up, would yah? Only, I have a week stomach, see.” The guard pushed a couple of fingers against his snout.
The three made their way through the doorway, all a bit dazed by the guards cheery transformation. Vel made to address the guard once more, but turned around only to face the metal door. It latched shut behind them, sealing them inside.
“What a friendly guy!,” Attila pointed out, his face forming a wide grin, as he placed his hands on his hips.
Vel gave him a stare that could burn a hole through rock. They’d been lucky that it was the right guard, one shift different and they would have been a smear of paste on the end of a cudgel.
This storm drain, that led out of town, was similar to the one they took down into the city. It was a huge circular pipe, with brickwork walls and caked with years of dust, dirt and grim. Except this one wasn’t as dry.
Attila groaned as his foot sank deep into a hole in the tunnel ground. Ice cold water flooded the inside of his boot and soaked up his pant leg almost to his waist. “Oh, man.” He yanked his leg free and pulled a face at the slime that came up with it. “Gross.” He scraped his boot on the side of the wall, releasing more of the pungent odor of cabbage.
Errik pulled up next to Attila, conspiratorially, bathing him in the light of his torch. “So, how bad was it?”
Attila shrugged. “Wet and slime-y. Kind of smelled bad.”
Errik pulled a face. “Really? That’s…unexpected.”
Attila raised an eyebrow at Errik, a little confused. “It’s a sinkhole in the middle of a sewer. What did you expect it to be like?”
“I think he was referring to Madam Whisper.,” Vel answered for his brother. “And I’m sure what he wants to know …is did you guys bone?” Vel chuckled a little.
Unable to keep his surprise tempered, Errik tried to place a hand to his brother’s forehead. “Are you feeling alright? You just made a pun.”
Vel shrugged, in the dark, as he pushed Errik’s hand away, fairly certain he was at least mildly concussed but unwilling to admit it. “So. Did you?”
“Oh man, I wish.,” Attila responded, his eyes glazing over. The others stopped, and he collided into Errik.
“That’s…that’s just -nasty-. Not to mention, illegal.” Errik shuddered.
Vel started walking again. “You wish? As in…it didn’t happen? Well, I guess there’s that. But…what the hell were you doing that entire time?”
“Oh. That.,” Attila said sheepishly, thankful the others couldn’t see him blush in the dark. “Turns out she really likes to play chess.”
The tunnel suddenly curved off to the left, but there was a corroded hole in the pipe before them. They squeezed through, one by one, only struggling to free the duffel bags. “Do we really need all this crap?,” Vel grunted, as he gave the bag a final tug.
“Well, you never know what we might need…,” Attila began, his voice trialing off as he turned around. They had stepped out into an enormous cavern, large enough to fit several Under Wells in. The ceiling disappeared somewhere above them, giving the illusion of a star studded sky as light twinkled off the stalactites. There was a small slow moving river that cut a path through the rock, it’s water glistening and bubbling. The enormity of the cavern was dwarfed only the source of light. Towering mushrooms, bunched together like a forest, gave off an illuminating soft green glow.
Stark realization set in, and Attila quickly covered his mouth and nose. He made a muffled noise of desperation to get Errik’s attention.
Errik chuckled. “It’s alright. I can’t figure out why, but these mushrooms are benign. I’ve yet to see any ill effects from the subterranean species’. You’re safe.”
Attila dropped his hands, breathing a sigh of relief.
“Other than, you know, the fact that they’re hallucinogenic.”
Vel turned around to face the source of a tiny but demanding voice. He seemed to be the only one to notice the small noise, as Attila was busy absorbing all the information that Errik was feeding him. At first there didn’t seem to be anyone else in the cavern, save for them. But a rustle near the exit of the tunnel gave it away. A small child stepped out of the shadows and into the glow light. No, not a child, but not an adult either. Like Sadi, the small teen only came up to Vel’s knees. He had tiny pointed ears, a mop of blond hair, and glacier blue eyes. Vel smiled a little as he knelt down. “Ah, so you didn’t run. Good.”
The kid grabbed Vel by the collar of his coat and yanked him further down. “So, you’re the one that said you’d break my leg? Well, if you so much as -think- about trying it…” He gave another tug, pulling him down until their noses were touching. Vel had to put his hand on the ground to keep from toppling over. “I. Will. End. You.”
Vel grinned, finally someone he could relate to. “And you are?”
The adolescent dwarf released Vel. “Name’s Evan.” He drew himself up in pride, one hand on his hip, the other proudly gesturing to himself. “And if you mess with me, I’ll slice your kneecaps off.”
Vel believed him, his face revealing how impressed he was. “Gentlemen, we have our rat!” He called out to the others, but remained facing Evan.
Errik and Attila broke off their conversation to turn their attention to the newcomer. Attila practically squealed in delight as he got down on his knees. “Oh my goodness, you’re so cute!” Attila picked the little guy up, gushing over his tiny weapons and combat boots. “You’re like a pocket sized mercenary!”