The Fates chose to bribe the mushrooms with loot.
Oh, Fates, you have decided to send our hero on the path of diplomacy… with talking mushrooms. Well, what can I say? I applaud your creativity, ambition, and courage. Yet, I wouldn’t want to be in the knight’s shoes. Not with you looking over his shoulder.
In the damp passageway, the mushrooms crash on the knight and Dawn like a wave. They pour from the crack in the ceiling, clambering up their legs, dropping on them and bouncing off of the knight’s helmet. Dawn flails, trying to get them out of her hair. The knight can hear Compie, shouting obscenities:
“Get off me! Curse you, you mangy sponge brains!”
Careful not to move his feet, the Eternal Knight weighs his options. Could he bribe the creatures? Do mushrooms like food? He pulls Dawn closer to him and reaches for her bag, pulling out a neatly wrapped bundle of dried fish.
“Here,” he says, laying the fish on the ground, “you can have it if you leave us alone.”
All at once, the tumult quiets and the mushrooms stop moving, intrigued. In silence, one warrior mushroom approaches the fish, reaching out a spindly arm to touch it. The fungi withdraws as if burned.
“Poison!” It shouts and the chaos resumes. The tiny spears rattle against the knight’s legs and scratch Dawns ankles, breaking through the fabric of her trousers and drawing blood.
No helping it then, the knight thinks, he will have to start stomping.
“No, don’t kill them, it’s just a scratch!” Dawn shouts, seeing his foot rise. “They must not like salt. They’re just defending themsel-” She yelps and covers her face as a mushroom reaches her shoulder, waving its tiny spear.
“Kill them!” Compie screams from the ground where the knight dropped it, its words muffled by the furious tapping of tiny spears against its bronze shell. “Amateurs! Master Turcifa would never have been ambushed by these filthy tunnel crawlers! He ate them for supper!”
“Turcifa?” The mushrooms repeat amidst gasps and shrieks. “Turcifa the Devourer?!”
A faint cloud rises around the mushrooms. It thickens with every passing second, swirls and climbs higher.
“Hold your breath, Dawn!” The knight commands, but it’s too late. The mushroom warriors retreat, leaving a space around them as the elf staggers forward and then sways back, her arms limp at her sides. She collapses into Ren’s arms, still breathing, but unconscious.
The creatures wait a moment longer, then a discontented murmur passes through them. “Why not fall? Steel-man immune! What now?”
One mushroom, larger and older, with a cracked, mossy cap, steps out in front of the knight and taps its spear against the floor for attention. “You! Prisoner!” It says. “Take dreaming friend and box. Follow us!”
Compie protests, but Ren stuffs it into his backpack. Then he lifts Dawn gently in his arms, and follows the old mushroom further up the corridor. They come upon a doorless room into which the knight is ushered and told to wait while two mushroom-guards position themselves at both sides of the entrance. The fierce little warriors show no fear of the eight-foot skull-faced giant. Their bravery pleases Ren and puts him oddly at ease with his captors.
He lays Dawn on the ground, sliding a backpack under her head, and sits next to her, leaning against the stone wall. First knocked out by the plant monster and now by fungi, and it’s not even noon yet — the girl’s had a rough morning.
His steel body is paying off after all. He wonders whether Dawn’s story — the one about him joining the Eternal Knights — was true. Did he volunteer to forgo his humanity to protect his brother’s throne? It doesn’t seem quite right. He searches for answers in the cold emptiness of his mind, but finds none.
Time grinds to a crawl. Ren tries to push his thoughts away, exhausted, but many questions haunt him, mock him. He sighs in relief as Dawn stirs and opens her eyes.
“Oh, I had the most vivid dream,” she says, “You wouldn’t believe what-”
Her words are interrupted by the light tapping of tiny feet against the damp floor. A new mushroom approaches the doorway and waves the guards away imperiously. It’s thin and tall, and a scar runs across one of its beady eyes. The mushroom looks straight up at Ren.
“Attention!” it shouts. “Mushroom king summons you to answer for your crimes. The punishment for killing mushroom warrior is death.” It pauses dramatically, looking up. Dawn peers at it, nonplussed, while Ren nods.
“Good timing, little one,” he says to the mushroom, getting up on his feet. “I think we should get going now that Dawn is awake. I’ll be sure to thank your king for his hospitality.”
“No!” shouts the mushroom. “You are summoned!”
The knight turns his eyeless stare on the scarred mushroom. He has no wish to harm these strange folk, but neither will he be kept from the oar by them.
The scarred mushroom takes in the knight’s metal limbs, the heavy gauntlets and weighty iron sabaton on his feet. It comes to some conclusion then and closes the distance between them. “Not so fast, giant! I have a proposition. A great bargain! Can’t refuse. Mutual benefit.” It whispers, “If giant does as I say, giant and his friends may be saved.”
“Well, well, well,” the knight laughs. “Let’s hear it.”
“Mushroom king is old and short-sighted. Crown should be passed into capable hands. Mine! I will rule mushrooms and make prosperous kingdom. Giant kill the king for me and I will let him and friends go.”
If the knight had eyebrows, he would have raised one. Instead he takes a step around the murderous mushroom.
“Should have known even fungi war amongst themselves,” says the knight. “No deal, little one. I don’t meddle in affairs that are not mine to meddle with.”
“Foolish not to consider the option,” the mushroom harrumphs. “What if I throw in curse-immunity for the sleepy human? Do it then?”
“Immunity?” Dawn asks, pausing. “But I have Turcifa’s eye.”
“Turcifa the Devourer’s gold eye. Did it save him?” the scarred mushroom has a nasty smile. “Only temporary. Our spores last forever. Do it now?”
Ren remembers how quickly Turcifa transformed without his eye. “We’ll think about it,” he says.
“No time to think. I take you to king now.”
The mushroom king’s chambers were tucked safely beyond a collapsed part of the tunnel. Lantern in hand and Compie in his backpack, the knight and Dawn are forced to crawl on hands and knees, led by the scarred mushroom. A throng of smaller mushrooms brings up the rear. The wings on the knight’s back scrape against the ceiling. Dawn shields her palms against the cold, damp floor with her coat sleeves, but it isn’t long before she begins shivering as her clothes become soaked.
The throne room opens before them into a wider space, high enough to kneel. Stalactites gleam above their heads, picking up the flame of the lantern, reaching down toward their stalagmite counterparts, giving the effect of crawling into a bestial mouth. All around them extends a sea of mushroom warriors, waiting for their arrival. In the middle of the cavern on an elevated platform stands the red-capped king. On top of its head is a white growth that resembles a crown, a lacy white fungal cape cascades down its back onto the platform and its ample beard reaches the ground.
A mushroom steps forward and shouts, “All bow to King Zwiglet Noxspain, the gardener of Ferax, oracle of fungi, and destroyer of the Noxis!”
Ren pulls Compie out of his bag and sets it on the floor. “Greetings, your majesty,” he says, bowing his head.
“You have killed warrior. You have killed one of my strongest warriors, Snuusling Greycap.” The king speaks in barely more than a breathy whisper, but in the cavern’s silence, its voice carries clearly. He does seem very old. “Do you plead guilty?”
“Oh, your highness,” Dawn bows her head, “it was an accident. We didn’t mean to. It’s just that you’re so small and -”
“Silence!” whispers the king. “Is not a small life as valuable as a large one?”
“Yes, sir!” says Dawn, aghast.
“In my realm the punishment for death is death.”
“Ha!” Compie snorts. “You think you can sentence us to death? I am indestructible for mere fungi and the knight could wipe you out by simply rolling on the ground!”
The king looks at Compie, then at Ren. “It is true that you two are strong. You withstood our spore attack. Hmm…” The king closes its eyes in thought. “You could prove to be a powerful weapon in our war against the Noxis,” it says. “Yes… It is decided then! If you pledge your loyalty to me and help save Ferax, I will spare your lives.”
“The Noxis?” asks Dawn, timidly.
“The Cursed,” says the mushroom king, impatient. “The plants. Our enemies. Help to free Ferax! Or else.”
The knight considers this proposition carefully.
“You can’t!” Dawn hisses. “We have to find our way home! Cato will worry, and-”
“Master Turcifa would kill the arrogant sponge,” Compie murmurs, “you’ll get more out of the usurper’s offer than from aligning yourself with the king.”
My esteemed Fates, it is time to put that creativity, ambition, and courage to test once more. Let’s see how it fares when the stakes are higher.
Option 1: The cruel plight of cursed Ferax has moved the Knight’s heart. Or it would, if he had one. Swear to free Ferax and ally with the mushroom king.
Option 2: Listen to Dawn and decline both offers. It’s not like the mushrooms can stop him. The plan is: find the oar. Find a ship. Leave this cursed land.
Option 3: Kill the mushroom king and make a pact with the usurper shroom. It might end up saving Dawn’s life.
The chapter voting closes every Monday at 8:00 AM WEST (Lisbon, Portugal time).