Of Monsters and Mushrooms
By Lesley Herron
Chapter 6, Pholiota
“Okay, okay! Would you rather…,” Attila paused, pressing his face against the cold bars of his cell door. “…have a turnip for a head or potatoes for feet?”
The three of them had been separated into different cells, and spent their days, and nights, whittling away their boredom with silly games. The first couple of nights the questions were sane and logical, things that could happen in normal circumstances. Like ‘would you rather lose your right hand or your left foot?’ Vel didn’t find that one amusing. But now, after many nights, it had become a sort of competition to see who could ask the dumbest questions.
Errik leaned his head back against the stone wall of his cell. After a moment, deep in thought, he let out a soft chuckle and replied, “ Potatoes for feet. Because if they got dirty, I could call them ‘mud spuds’!” His chuckle turned into outright barks of laughter at his own, terrible, joke.
Vel, locked in the middle cell, dragged his mechanical hand down his face in anguish. He had not joined them in playing the game. Not once had he answered their absurd questions. Yet despite that, any minute now they would repeat the question to him as if he hadn’t heard it the first time or that he had shown -any- interest in this game whatsoever. Perhaps if all the cities out there used this tactic of torture, no one would commit another crime, anywhere, ever again.
“Vel…Vel! Turnip or potatoes?,” Attila called out, tapping the front of his boots against the metal bars to get his friend’s attention.
Vel rolled his eyes. “I’ve told you, I don’t even know -how- many times -today-, that I am. NOT playing!” If he had known this was how it was going to be, he would have left his brother and the idiot in the forest to be eaten by that Quarranthium.
“Turnip.,” Errik muttered.
Vel couldn’t decide if his brother was answering the question for him or if it was an insult. He rolled his eyes, unable to keep his temper any longer. “Sure! Because then I wouldn’t have ears and I wouldn’t have to listen to you two and your dumb game of questions!,” he snapped.
Attila, who was busy thinking of his next riddle, didn’t seem to notice Vel’s response. He stifled a chuckle when he finally piped up. “Would you rather. . . be insanely popular with the ladies, but constantly grumpy or single and always happy?”
“Ew.” Errik pulled a face that the question as he shook his head. “Single.”
Vel gripped the bars of his cell with both hands and could feel the metal crunch gently against the pressure of his mechanical one. These questions, in all their unfathomable stupidity, were not good for his head. His migraine flourished into a constant dull ache, throbbing against his skull. Perhaps if he escaped, the guards would do the humane thing and put him out of his misery.
“Alright. I got one. Would you rather have…cave fish for breakfast every day for the rest of your life, or just one more jar of gummies?,” Errik asked, unable to wipe the smile from his face.
Attila responded with a long drawn out groan.
“Ugh.,” Vel began, moving to the other side of his cell. “Don’t bring up the damn gummies.” He wrinkled his nose before using the back of his hand to cover his face. “It -still- smells like fruit punch in here.”
“I don’t wanna play this game anymore.,” Attila whined. After consuming several pounds of gummy fruits just prior to getting locked up, he had experienced the unforeseen consequences of a high fiber diet. The single bucket in the corner had been nowhere near adequate.
The sound of Errik’s laughter was not loud enough to mask the sound of Attila dry heaving in the corner of his cell. Vel looked down at his mechanical hand. His brain began to calculate the exact force needed to drive one of his fingers through his skull.
“Step away from your doors! ” boomed a voice from the doorway.
Errik looked over to see Frankie lumbering in, his fat fingers fiddling with his ring of keys. “Hey, Frankie! How’s it goin’ ?”
Frankie ignored the question as he jammed a key into Attila’s door first, unlocking it. He then did the same for the other two. “Keep your mouths shut and follow me.,” he snarled, as he led the way down a different corridor.
“Where are we going?,” Errik asked, keeping his distance.
“I said keep your mouth shut!”
The air steadily grew colder, as Frankie led them further down into the very bowels of the world pillar. They passed empty hallways with faded portraits, locked and barred doors, several spiraling stairwells that seemed to lead to nowhere, and through an amphitheater sized room filled with an army of jewel encrusted skeleton statues. They continued down several flights of stairs and passed several heavily guarded rooms before Frankie finally stopped at an extremely old and ornate door. Judging by the grin on his face, this was probably the gallows. He pushed against the door and shoved the others inside.
It was not, in fact, the gallows. Or even a dungeon. They stepped out into an indoor forest, a landscape cleverly fashioned to hide the edges of the room from view and give it an illusion of never ending. The ceiling disappeared above them, and the darkness there was broken only by tiny pin pricks of light. Leafless trees towered over them, each branch draping long thorn filled vines across the ground, which was covered with a colorless grass. The landscape was dotted with various species of shrubberies, each one similarly lacking pigment save for their glittering iridescent berries. It was like a charcoal drawing brought to life. There was even a pair of featherless albino birds. They strutted by, their heads and tails held high, as if they were insulted by the presence of commoners in their forests.
The reason for their sudden impromptu walk in the woods became apparent. Sitting in a dainty metal chair, at an even daintier table, was Lola. Her red velvet suit was a vibrant display of color among the monochrome tones of the forest. At the sight of them, she got to her feet and approached Frankie. “Ah! Franklin! You have arrived. I was beginning to wonder if perhaps they were giving you hard times?”
Frankie tried to hide the childish smile that appeared on his face. “Oh. No miss, they were no trouble.”
Lola offered the guard a mischievous grin at his words. She placed two of her four hands on either side of Frankie’s face, tapping them gently. “Oh good.” She leaned in and kissed him on each cheek. It was more of a lick than a kiss, really. “Thank you, Franklin. You may wait outside. I will call when we are done.”
Frankie nodded and retraced his steps out of the forest, trying desperately to hide the deep shade of maroon his face had turned. He stepped out of sight and just beyond ear shot.
Attila could swear he heard a high pitched giggle coming from that direction.
Lola turned her attention back to the three as she reclaimed her seat. Her syrup-ey manner dropped as she said, “Sit.”
Attila and Errik had hesitantly dropped into the tiny metal chairs. Vel, however, remained standing, his hands folded before him. He studied her, calculating her reasons for the secluded visit. But more importantly, he was silently working out and escape or two. “Why are we here? ” he asked, his voice breaking the silence at last. The featherless birds gave loud shrill whistles before they fled into the depths of the forest.
“I -said- sit.,” Lola ordered, returning Vel’s icy glare with one of her own.
Even Vel couldn’t match Lola’s glare. He relented, falling into the last fragile chair.
Lola picked up an ancient looking ceramic cup, lapping at its contents gently, before turning her attention to Attila. There was that mischievous smile on her muzzle again. “Ah, myshka. I have managed to get you Council before Madam Whisper.”
Vel narrowed his eyes. “Why would you do that?”
Lola gave Vel a short sniff, before huffing in his direction. “I do not like him. He asks far too many questions.,” she told Attila as her cold stare remained locked with Vel’s.
Attila gave a nervous chuckle. “Oh. Well. He grows on you. But, uh, if you don’t mind my saying so, how -did- you manage that? And also. . . who -is- Madam Whisper?”
Lola set her cup down. “I forget that you dwell on the surface. The Madam is ruler of the Under Well. For three hundred years, the city has known only the cruel hands of tyrants. But when the Madam arrived, she took down the oppressors and the city has known ‘peace’ since. I have known her ever since, and she has known my family for even longer. And I have asked her, just for you my myshka, to personally see to your case.” Lola patted Attila’s knee affectionately. “She has agreed.”
“Oh!,” Attila exclaimed, his face lighting up. “Does that mean she’ll let us go?”
Vel gave a halfhearted laugh.
Lola shrugged, picking up her cup again, her eyes flickering back towards Vel. “I suppose that depends on you. Just. Don’t let the angry idiot speak for you.”
Vel clenched his jaw. Crime boss or not, no one speaks to him that way. He opened his mouth to respond but received a sharp kick to his shin from Errik’s direction.
Attila beamed. “Wow. Lola. Thank you! How can I ever repay you?”
“Next time you are down here, you invite Lola. She will bring many gummies to feed you as you tell her your tales!”
Perhaps it was because wolves are partially color blind, but Lola didn’t seem to notice the shade of green that Attila’s face had turned. He nodded his head furiously while keeping his hand pressed against his mouth. “Oh.,” he started, his voice muffled against his hand. “Oh. That sounds…wonderful. I can’t wait.” His words were forced as if each word took a great amount of effort to say.
“Franklin. You may take them from me now.,” Lola called, waving down the guard. “You come see me after this, and perhaps we can share some company. And perhaps some dessert.”
Back into the heart of the pillar once more, down another abandoned corridor, and finally up a teetering flight of stairs before they stopped at a large golden door. Frankie pushed against it, and it creaked slowly open, the sound of which reverberated around them. “You will not speak unless spoken to. You will limit your questions. If you make any wrong moves or unwanted actions, the court will end you.,” Frankie directed, his baritone voice rattling the dust around him. He shoved them into the room, one by one, and shut the door behind them.
The room was long and devoid of any notable fixtures or decorations, with an extremely high ceiling. The floor was a bare and unvarnished marble. There was, however, a rich purple runner, layered in dust, that ran the length of the room. It stopped two feet in front of a towering golden chair. The throne looked as if it had been made from the remains of a graveyard, and then dipped in gold. A story was carved into each gilded bone, with details of serpents and sun gods laid with gems and jewels. On either side of the throne were two large onyx statues carved into the forms of colossal skeletons. One was blindfolded and held a set of scales in one hand and a dagger in the other. The other had a hand clasped around a large snake and wielded a sword.
Most curious of all, Attila thought, was the limp figure propped up in the seat of the golden throne. Another skeleton, draped in a fine gauze as if to keep the ancient bones together. It was adorned with fine linen armor, a towering gold headdress and glittering jewelry.
“Heh. I guess you could say it’s…dead in here.,” Errik said over a giant grin.
“That’s two.,” Vel replied through grit teeth. He had a wearied look in his eye and a chill apparent on his skin from the sheen of cold sweat. He knew what was coming.
“What is this? Is this like some automated Justice system?,” Attila asked, leaning forward to get a good look at the skeleton.
Vel turned on his heel in response to a rustle on the runner from behind them. The others couldn’t see her, but he could. He watched Madam Whisper effortlessly, and completely unaware that he could see her, glide towards her skeletal body. The other two might have noticed the gentle rush of air, or perhaps even the ripple of her linen armor, but Vel didn’t call it out to them. He didn’t need anyone else knowing what he could see. He said nothing as he watched the goddess of the deep slip into her body as if she were merely zipping up a coat.
“Who among you speaks for the others?” A voice like a chill wind across an endless stormy sea reverberated off the walls.
Attila and Errik ceased their chattering to look upon the pile of bones. No longer a pile, Madam Whisper was sitting upright with her hands folded in front of her. Her joints creaked with every jarring movement and the fabric of her linen armor moved on an eerie wind that no one felt.
The rumors were true. Vel stared passed the bones at the creature within. She was not a creature of the Otherworld, not an undulating mass of shadow or a bug like entity, but she did share their talent for invisibility. She defied the conventions of form itself, and if Vel had to describe her, it would be the shape of tempered rage.
“Uh…hello, Bone…uh…Lady?,” Attila said shakily, taking his hat off in respect.
Vel buried his face in his mechanical hand with a low groan. An audience with the most ruthless, bloodthirsty ruler the Under Well had ever seen, and they had Attila as their spokesman.
“My name’s Attila. I think my friend Lola talked to you?”
Madam Whisper stood, her body moved in uneven jerking motions, like a poorly constructed marionette that lost some of its strings. She towered over them, the tallest point of her golden headdress scraping the ceiling. Her spine gave two mighty snaps as she lowered herself, at the waist, to come eye to eye-socket with Attila. “Ah, yes. The Great Slayer of the Forty.”
Vel had to give Attila credit. He didn’t even flinch. He may have paled a shade or two, but he kept his lopsided smile in place.
“Heh. Yep. That’s me.,” Attila replied, his voice trembling. “Slayed all Forty. Well, twenty. My razor bear handled the rest. Sort of.”
Vel closed his eyes and exhaled slowly through his nose. This wouldn’t end well.
Madam Whisper reached out and grasped Attila’s poncho between two bony digits, inspecting the fabric closely. “You…are not what I expected.” She let the fabric drop and she slowly began to circle him. “But, to be fair, the Lady has never sent me someone who did not meet my…needs.”
Attila couldn’t decide if he had been complimented, insulted, or served up like a dessert. “And…uh…what might those needs be?”
The grinning skull gave a rattling laugh, like a dry wind over sun baked sand. “Yes. She did say you were different. Where most would tremble, you jest. Where most would beg for my mercy, you speak your mind.”
“Or he’s just an idiot.,” Vel blurted out before he realized what he was doing. As soon as the words left his lips, he instantly regretted it.
Errik gave him a desperate ‘what the hell?’ look as he backed away.
Madam Whisper spun on Vel, her true form swirling and frothing within her surrogate body. She straightened up to her full height, the light of the room dimming as she blocked it out. “Your servants are ill mannered. Shall I reprimand this one by disemboweling him?”
“Whoa! Servant?,” Vel bristled, his brow arching in disbelief. “I am no one’s -servant-.”
The two onyx skeletal guardians sprung to life, their massive stone bodies creaking with the effort to move themselves across the room. And before any of them could register what was going on, two very real, and very sharp, swords were aimed at Vel’s neck. The skeleton Queen beamed with delight.
Errik gave his brother a pleading look. “Dude, just keep quiet! You’re going to get us killed! ” he whispered angrily.
Attila stepped between Vel and Madam Whisper. “No! No. No. That’s okay. He needs his bowels. Besides, if you kill him, I’d have to go find another servant, and who has the time for that.,” he chuckled nervously. “Am I right?” He gave her a pleading look.
“Very well. He may live. But your servants shall return to their cells.” She snapped her fingers, a sound like the breaking of massive branches. The two guardians withdrew their swords and returned to their prior resting posts as Frankie entered the room. “I will make you this offer, little slayer. Come join me in my chambers, and we shall discuss what services you may render unto me to regain your freedom.”
Attila scratched at his eye patch nervously. “Uh. I’m good, thank you though.”
Another resounding crack echoed throughout the room as Madam Whisper cocked her head. “Do you mean to deny me?”
Vel grabbed Attila by the poncho, tugging on the fabric hard, and hissed into his ear, “If you don’t do this, I will-”
“Kill me, right? I’m sorry man, but no! I’m not into S.I.L.F.S.” Attila pried his poncho from Vel’s han and straightened it out.
Errik grabbed Attila’s other shoulder. “Come on, man. Would rather sleep with a giant skeleton for one night, or spend the rest of your life in a jail cell?”
Attila sighed. There was no use arguing with the ‘would you rather’ game.