The Poison Pie Publishing House presents:
The Implacable Absence
(link to main page of novel)
A Non-Idiomatic Improvisational Duet
Henry E. Gorton & David J. Keffer
2. The Deep Earth
March 1, 2014
The plasmodium of myxomycetes has chemotactic and negative phototactic capabilities, meaning that the organism is able to move towards nutrients and away from dangerous substances and light. The movements originate in the grainy cytoplasm, which streams by pulsation in one direction within the cell. In this way the cell reaches a speed of up to one millimeter per second. A resting state, the so-called sclerotium, may occur in this phase. The sclerotium is a hardened, resistant form composed of numerous "macrocysts", which enable the organism to survive in adverse conditions, for example during winter or dry periods.
Mature plasmodia can produce fruit bodies under appropriate circumstances, although the exact triggers for this process currently remain unknown.
—adapted from wikipedia
March 12, 2014
Every author has his or her own limits regarding the extent to which they will deviate from the constraints of the physical world in the telling of their story. Some prefer what is known as the verisimilitude of realism, while others prefer the skew of magic realism. Still other authors whole-heartedly embrace fantasy, choosing to construct their own set of rules governing relationships between the living and the inanimate. This author, largely due to a self-admitted dearth of imagination, prefers to write in a world that adheres strictly to the same rules that govern the reality in which the author exists.
“What?!” exclaims the diligent reader. “How can such a claim be made as we begin a new chapter in which a mushroom man, an insect man and a doppelgänger embark on a subterranean quest for a mobile City of Mushrooms? To what reality does this correspond?”
This objection, while seemingly legitimate, is actually without basis because the author recognizes that a fundamental tenet of reality is ambiguity. Probably, this ambiguity has its roots in the uncertainty principle of quantum mechanics, but such an investigation lies outside the abilities of the author to properly conduct. That the story accurately captures the ambiguity of the real world is a testament to the author’s lackluster imagination and nothing more.
As it is, if like the author, the reader prefers stories grounded in a familiar realism, then one must understand that Poison Pie is simultaneously a father and a man of the mushroom people, a duplicity not explicitly forbidden by the laws of physics, and one which is wholly in accord with the precepts of transcendental perspectivism. Similarly, Tchict’Ict is both an insect man and an eight-year-old boy beginning to understand that there are existential questions on the horizon of his intellect that he is only at the verge of perceiving. Celia likewise is an eleven-year-old sister and daughter. That she is portrayed as a changeling is only a reflection of the father’s inability to characterize her in constant terms. Her monastic wisdom, too, is only a suspicion, based on the father’s lack of understanding of the tracks by which her mental circumlocutions travel. If the alternative idea of a family spelunking for underground fungi provides comfort, the reader is encouraged to continue reading under this, perhaps mistaken, perception.
March 17, 2014
Within days of his hatching, Olm’s mother realized that there was something unusual about this larva. Where the other hatchlings of the clutch swam as a collective swarm around the birthing pond, chasing the ripples generated by their aunties as they aerated the fluid, Olm seemed engaged in an interaction with unseen creatures lodged in the muck and detritus at the bottom of the pool. His mother assumed, naturally, that he was defective and would soon die.
Olm did not perish for the spirit world had marked him as a shaman. He was not the first shaman of the troglodytes, but they were a rare enough breed for none to associate his odd behavior with a spiritual calling. On the surface world, shamans identified with a totem spirit—a bear, eagle or panther, every once in a while a field mouse; so too was it in the depths of the Earth, where a salamander spirit lent strength to young Olm.
Olm’s small tribe experienced a hard-scrabble existence, subsisting on hunting blind fish and periodic raids on the farms of the surface. Under such circumstances, his kin lacked the leisure time to imagine a practical use for a shaman. Consequently, he was sold early in his life to a much larger tribe of troglodytes who dwelt in a great fungal city and who not only recognized but prized the otherworldly skills which could be cultivated in shamans. In the great mushroom City that Crawls, Olm’s gifts were honed in several directions. He learned to call and control his totem spirit, allowing it to supplement his physical senses. Olm learned to tap into the primal energy of the spirit in order to inspire his fellow troglodytes with courage in the face of certain death as well to heal those that managed to survive raids that ran awry.
As is the case with skunks, outsiders associated with troglodytes the stink that was secreted from an oily gland when under physical threat or mental duress. Olm learned to magnify the singular stench that emanated from his fellow troglodytes to such a degree that it could overwhelm the uninitiated with a paralyzing nausea. It was perhaps this skill of biological alchemy more than his ability to communicate with the spirit world that was responsible for Olm’s rise to power in the City that Crawls. On the celebratory nights of high rituals, Olm could induce in the general population a magnificently malodorous cloud that permeated every niche in the city and flowed out in choking waves through the adjacent caverns and passages of the depths. The troglodytes, of course, took great pride in this display of olfactory might.
The troglodyte elite that maintained control over the City that Crawls did so in the name of the mycological deity, the Deadly Galerina. Although Olm had no particular contact with mushroom spirits, he was quick of wit (for a troglodyte) and could readily adapt to otherwise unfavorable situations. He allowed the salamander spirit to guide him in his ascent through the ranks of the priesthood of the Deadly Galerina. In this manner, he discovered damaging secrets of which his fellow priests were certain he was ignorant. Olm always maintained an unspoken reservation, based on a faint suspicion that perhaps other priests indeed possessed a genuine channel to mushroom spirits, as he had to amphibious spirits, which instilled in him a prudent caution. He certainly never shared his doubt, as such an admission would have ended his career in the theocracy and would have likely resulted in his sacrifice to the mushroom god. Therefore, when the plebeian troglodytes came to him with their mundane disputes and asked him to beseech the Deadly Galerina on their behalf, Olm improvised and rendered judgments based on a concept largely foreign to troglodytes but known among other races as ‘common sense’.
This approach served Olm well. As a mature troglodyte, he cunningly manipulated a coup, which resulted in him not only assuming the high priesthood, but inheriting the vast harem of the former occupant of that position. Having begun as a purchased slave and having lived to that point a relatively austere life, Olm was unprepared for the (certainly under-reported) feminine wiles of lithe troglodyte beauties. As has been the case for great leaders of all species before him and will certainly be the case after, Olm lost himself in dissipated hours of debauchery. For one so intimately connected to the spirit world, we may wonder how Olm succumbed to this common, carnal temptation. As is widely acknowledged, those who rise to fame and power due to particular strengths in their character, all too often possess complementary weaknesses that are allowed expression only once they have ascended to great heights. Such was the unfortunate case with Olm.
That the days of Olm’s tenure as high priest of the Temple of the Deadly Galerina in the City that Crawls were numbered was a foregone conclusion to all who paid attention to such matters. The moment of his downfall proved such a shameful episode that one Olm tried to purge it from his memory, though without success. Dragged bodily from the chambers of his concubines, he was convicted, while half-dressed, of heresy by a court filled with the very same conspirators who had aided his ascension to the throne. Deemed unfit for sacrifice to the most high Deadly Galerina, Olm was instead offered to the water nāga, Sinonatryx, a contemptible fate, ordinarily reserved for those guilty of apostasy. This nāga, a snake-like creature who existed in both material and spirit domains, resided in an underground lake; she was a predatory menace to troglodytes, but one they tolerated as a known danger and an excellent guardian of the lake.
Despite his transgressions, the spirit world had not forsaken Olm. Tossed into the lake of the nāga, he was freed from his bonds and, following the path provided by his salamander spirit, eluded Sinonatryx. He emerged on the far bank, in a strange, dank cavern, humbled and terrified, but alive.
Olm gathered himself and set off in the darkness. One wonders, at the moment that Olm embarked on this new stage of his life, what thoughts drove him forward. Did his history of overcoming disadvantage spur him on to reclaim his lost authority? Did he seek revenge over those who had betrayed him? Did he, perhaps, seek a return to the cushioned rooms of the temple in which he had known the bliss of carnal delights? Or, rather, did the spirit world arrange this fall from grace in order to cleanse him of such petty mortal notions of ambition, vengeance and desire, and instead launch him forth to achieve a loftier goal, one which had been set before him at the moment of his conception and which he had not yet achieved? We are left to wonder. Olm’s expression as he trod quietly through the rough stone corridors remained entirely inscrutable.
March 18, 2014
Poison Pie, like his distant relatives the slime molds, possessed chemotactic and negative phototactic capabilities; he was imbued with natural senses that directed him toward that which sustained him and drove him from that which stressed his physiological and psychological systems. That he had a predilection for shadows over light was perhaps a manifestation of the mushroom in him. That he had a weakness for melancholia seemed attributable only to a wily fluke of chromosomes. As we have now mentioned several times, in addition to these physiological responses, Poison Pie also possessed a metaphysical aversion to reason. He had not only been born without understanding but had never developed any appreciation for it. Thus when Tchict’Ict asked the very practical question, “Do you know where we are going?”, Poison Pie could only respond, “Of course not, I have never known.”
“Not knowing,” said Celia from the rear of the group, “is the triumph of evolution,” quoting from the texts of aesthetes long gone from this world.
“Exactly,” said Poison Pie almost triumphantly.
Before Tchict’Ict could reply, Poison Pie continued, “Alternatively, I could offer the defense that the ambiguity of our passage is an intentional consequence of my loathing for the gruesomely predictable.”
At the very least, Poison Pie’s response provided Tchict’Ict with food for thought as they descended from one cavern to the next down into the deep Earth.
Poison Pie for his part was not yet ready to share with his companions that the burst of inspiration that had momentarily seized hold of him, leading him to the entrance to this underground route, had now thoroughly abandoned him. He felt no guidance whatsoever from the stone in his chest. He was of two minds regarding this turn of events. It would certainly take them longer to reach their destination without the compass provided by the pink marble stone. At the same time, Poison Pie had spent the bulk of his life engaged in just this sort of wandering; he found no small comfort in the familiar sense of futility.
Of the group, only Celia, still in the form of the deep gnome, Hebeloma, seemed unaffected by the darkness of their environs. Hebeloma’s eyes were made for subterranean living. The faint illumination provided by the fungal growths that clung to Poison Pie’s shoulders and neck proved sufficient to allow her to proceed without stumbling over the rocky path. Moreover, Celia maintained a robust and unsubstantiated faith, (we shall call it faith because that is exactly what it was), that the universe was not wholly inimical to the interests of men and, perhaps, maintained a soft spot somewhere for the seemingly hopeless endeavors of creatures like Poison Pie—part one thing, part another—who had never found their place in the world.
March 18, 2014
“You’re late,” said Olm to the mushroom man.
Poison Pie who had almost stumbled over the creature, as it sat motionless in the shadows, did not know entirely how to respond.
“I have been waiting here for nearly two days,” Old continued in a tone of unapologetic exasperation. “Where have you been?”
Again, Poison Pie was at a loss for words. There were all manners of creatures that represented crosses between reptiles and men and certainly one such specimen now stood before him, but the particular kind was beyond his experience. He had thought lizard-men kept to the surface. Moreover, he had certainly never expected them to reach such old age as this withered and wrinkled thing before him.
Strangely, the old lizard-man continued to upbraid him for his tardiness, without taking the slightest note of Poison Pie’s earnest attempts to convey a total lack of recognition on his swarthy face.
When Tchict’Ict rounded the corner a moment later and found Poison Pie at the receiving end of a rather dry and academic lecture on the virtue of timeliness, he paused at the mushroom man’s flank and received a curt examination from the lizard-man who concluded, “Good, you’ve brought an ally.” He eyed the blades on Tchict’Ict’s shields and polearm. “And a formidable one by the looks of him.”
“Do you know him?” Tchict’Ict asked the mushroom man. It seemed at least as plausible as a deep gnome sorceress appearing out of the woods one night and shoving a chunk of marble into the mushroom man’s chest.
Poison Pie shook his head, which only served to further irritate the lizard man.
“Don’t act like you’ve never seen a troglodyte before,” shouted Olm, who nudged Poison Pie with the head of his staff none too gently in the ribs.
“Troglodyte?” Poison Pie repeated. Neither he nor Tchict’Ict could recall ever hearing the word before much less ever laying eyes on one and Poison Pie admitted as much.
Just at that instant, a second troglodyte, a female by the looks of her, rounded the corner behind Tchict’Ict and greeted them, “What’s up, Poison Pie?”
Olm examined first the new arrival, noting with relief that she wore a gray robe, not at all the sort of apparel donned by troglodytes in the City that Crawls. She was an outsider and would know nothing of his recent banishment. Then he turned his attention back to Poison Pie and bellowed in a tone of outrage, “So, Mr. Pie, you have never laid eyes on a troglodyte, have you?” He shook the staff at Poison Pie. He shrieked, “You dare lie to me?”
Poison Pie frowned at Celia, now most inconveniently in the guise of some new recently discovered unpleasantness going under the moniker of troglodyte. Before he could speak a single word to the monk, he was assaulted by a terrible odor. He quickly identified it as originating from the furious old lizard-man before him.
“What is that smell?” Poison Pie gasped, clamping his mitt over his mouth and nose.
Tchict’Ict too was busy dialing down the sensitivity of his pheromone receptors to their lowest levels. Standing as he was between the two troglodytes, it seemed undeniable that some version of the same odor was issuing forth from Celia. “Is that really necessary?” he asked quietly.
Olm gazed at the two creatures, each at least two feet taller than himself, and only briefly considered each of their questions. To Poison Pie, he admonished, “This is the smell of righteousness!” To the other, he shouted, “And it is ever so necessary! None of the works of the Deadly Galerina are superfluous. For this I, Proteus Olm, High Priest of the Temple of the Deadly Galerina in the City that Crawls have spent myself in supplication two days and implored my god to send me a champion by which I shall redeem myself. And so you have come! The answer to my prayers! That I do not strike you down for your prevarication and stupidity is solely due to my role as servant of the Deadly Galerina!”
Two phrases from this speech stuck with Poison Pie. The first was “City that Crawls”. He knew that to be a subject of interest to them. The second was “The answer to my prayers”. Poison Pie had never been called the answer to anyone’s prayers before. In fact, he could recollect nothing remotely of the sort ever having been even mistakenly addressed to him.
He pumped a fist at the rocky ceiling and shouted, as much to convince himself as Tchict’Ict and Celia, “Here I am! The answer to your prayers!”
March 19, 2014
Having not eaten for several days, Olm was hungry. His disappointment with the other troglodyte, which the mushroom and insect called Celia, continued to grow when he discovered that she carried no meat.
“What good is a female who cannot provide a meal?” he demanded.
Poison Pie had to admit that traveling with the old troglodyte was most uncomfortable. The peaceful equanimity that had reigned in the fellowship when they were but a trio was sorely tested by Olm’s egregious sense of self-entitlement. In defense of Celia, who had thus far refused to give Olm any indication that she was not a genuine troglodyte, Poison Pie mumbled, “She’s a vegetarian.”
“A vegetarian troglodyte!” Olm shouted. “There is no such thing. There never has been, nor will there ever be. It’s a perversion of the natural way.”
Indeed, as they followed him further into the depths, Olm continuously provided unwelcome edicts and opinions regarding all aspects of the trio. Insects, he had noted, were fit only for providing fat, juicy larva for the plates of troglodyte nurslings. Mushroom men...well, here Olm paused. As a high priest of a mushroom deity, he tread through dangerous territory criticizing the champion he had been sent.
“Look at you,” he spat at Poison Pie. “What kind of mushroom man are you?”
Poison Pie unleashed a powerful shrug.
Shrugs are imbued great power because they have the ability, when properly wielded, to confront the most well-constructed logical argument and to deflect it aside as if it were a weightless dandelion floret or the whirling samara of a maple tree. Poison Pie was indisputably a master of the shrug.
Unprepared for the casual release of might contained in that gesture, Olm took a step back and reappraised his champion. “When mushroom men come through the portal in the City that Crawls they are nine parts mushroom and one part man. You,” he said, pointing at Poison Pie, “are of a different proportion.”
“There are other kinds of mushroom people?” Tchict’Ict asked. The thought had not occurred to him.
“Oh yes,” said Olm. “Creatures only hinted at by this oaf,” (Olm let slip his true opinion), “before us.” Olm strode in a circle, circumnavigating Poison Pie. “This one,” he said is, “seven parts man, one or two parts mushroom, and something else...”
“Maybe stone,” suggested Tchict’Ict, thinking of Poison Pie’s second heart.
Olm didn’t like the insect man offering an opinion, especially when it rang true. “Shut your mandibles, bug-man,” he ordered. “One part something else.”
“One part answered prayer,” Poison Pie dared remind him.
“You shut up too,” Olm replied. He could hardly wait to get back to the City that Crawls, employ this champion and cohorts to reverse his fortunes, then be rid of them.
For his part, Poison Pie was not upset by the lack of civility. When one encountered someone in which good judgment was so obviously lacking, one understands that their unhappiness was a self-perpetuating result due to their lack of regard for others. As such they were first to be avoided and, if that was not possible, pitied.
Besides, Poison Pie had more important thoughts on his mind. He had distinctly heard Olm say that mushroom men traveled through a portal in the City that Crawls. Clearly, this was his destination.
March 20, 2014
“Will you take us to the City that Crawls?” Poison Pie asked, after hours of silently following in single file the old troglodyte, Proteus Olm.
“I will take you nowhere else,” said Olm, offended by the suggestion that he might share company with creatures such as these for any purpose other than one of dire need.
“How long ‘til we get there?” Tchict’Ict asked from behind Poison Pie. It seemed a fair question as several days had passed since they had first encountered Olm.
“Before we get to the city,” Olm said, “We must first cross the lake of Sinonatrix.” He did not deign to explain who Sinonatrix was, since, after all, he was the brains of the operation. “And we are not far from the shore of that lake.” Olm turned back to face the dark passage and continued forward.
Another hour passed before they first began to sense a hint of humidity in the air. Quickly it grew until the air was dank and the walls beaded with humidity. Beneath this moisture, a bioluminescent fungus of pale purple provided an eerie, faint light. Parts of the stone walls gave way to patches of earth, and through one such patch, the party found an enormous earthworm partially emerged. The creature was eight inches in diameter and extended at least four feet from the wall. How far back it extended was unclear. The exposed portion spun slowly through the air seeking purchase with the far wall. The worm was covered in a glistening film of slime and moist soil.
“Grab it,” Olm shouted at Poison Pie.
“I shall do no such thing,” protested the man of the mushroom people.
“I command thee,” bellowed the troglodyte.
Poison Pie contemplated the idea that being the answer to the prayers of a cantankerous troglodyte shaman was not everything he had imagined it could be. Casting his dashed expectations to the side, Poison Pie strode forward and put the exposed end of the worm in a headlock. Curiously, the worm showed no indication of panic. It maintained the same effort it had before in its chaotic spiraling search, but now only explored the interior of Poison Pie’s armpit.
“Slide back,” Olm ordered.
“What are you going to do?” asked Poison Pie as he released his grip enough to let a foot and a half or so of one end of the worm slide forward through his hold.
Olm ignored him. “Female,” he barked at Celia, “Cut a foot off that end.”
Celia, confined to a role in a race in which females were subservient, debated her options. Before she had a chance to balk at the command and reveal her deception, Tchict’Ict deftly swung his polearm and neatly sliced a segment of worm, which fell to the feet of the shaman.
“What are you going to do with that?” Poison Pie repeated, anticipating the reply.
“Boil it,” said Olm.
No one anticipated the shout that came next. “Boil it?!” cried a watery voice from the general darkness further in the cavern. “That is no way to eat giant worm.” Into their vision stepped a pale green, bipedal, pot-bellied creature, part man and part fish. “Pan-fried worm-cakes!” he shouted with culinary delight. “That’s the only way to eat them.” His yellow eyes glowed, reflecting the pale light in the cavern as the travelers scrutinized the shape of the new arrival.
Still holding the worm, which now dripped a pinkish goo from its severed end, Poison Pie asked dubiously, “Is it tasty?”
“If,” said the fish-man sticking a single webbed finger up, “if it prepared properly. Fortunately, you are in the presence of a master chef.”
“How convenient,” noted Celia from the rear of the group. The monk knew of the reputation of fish-men; their kind was generally more predisposed to evil than dog-men or troglodytes.
Ignoring the gleam of the steel of Tchict’Ict’s lethal blades, the fish-man strode up and grabbed the end of worm off the ground, cradling it in his arm like a loaf of bread. “Let that darling go,” he said to Poison Pie, who immediately released the great worm.
“She’ll regenerate her head or tail or whichever end we’ve got and I’ll be able to harvest another lunch from her someday.” As Poison Pie watched the worm squirm back into the earth from which it had come, the fish-man thrust a hand into Poison Pie mitt and declared, “Pelophylax, at your service.”
“Poison Pie, at yours.”
“Follow me to my humble abode. I will prepare for you a meal that you shall never forget!” He marched off on flapping feet into the darkness, muttering, “Boil it indeed!”
March 20, 2014
Pelophylax led them to an unusual hut on the edge of an underground lake. The structure sat on stone pylons, with a porch that extended out over the still, black surface of the water. This porch was made of something that resembled bamboo, but was actually the stems of enormous underwater seaweed that had been cut, straightened, then dried and treated with a stiffening agent. The walls of the shack too were constructed of vertical lengths of this material. The roof was a patchwork of giant leafy fronds of seaweed. On the far side of the building, a dinghy was moored to the dock by a length of rope. “Be it ever so humble,” said Pelophylax, as he stood beside the entrance and gestured with one hand for them to enter.”
“Forgive us if we do not enter,” said Celia from the rear, before Poison Pie could blithely stride inside, “For we know the reputation of your people and their fondness for the flesh of those with more wits to them than worms.”
“A well-earned reputation I’m afraid,” said Pelophylax, fish-man and chef extraordinaire, “but one which, fortunately for this occasion, does not apply to yours truly.” Observing that greater explanation would be necessary if he were to expect his guests to relax sufficiently to enjoy this meal, Pelophylax continued.
“Through no fault of own,” he began in an innocent tone that only hinted at the story to come, “poor Pelophylax was expelled from my community of fish. The rituals used to summon greater entities from the dark of the deep are complex. Sometimes they last for hours, if not days, on end. Anyone can make an honest mistake, especially if the chant is in Deep Speech.” His gaze passed over the faces of each of his four visitors, seeing if any of them, knowing of the dreadful intricacies of Deep Speech, showed a sign of sympathy. Only the troglodytes might be familiar with such a tongue and neither the old shaman nor the cautious female revealed the slightest sign of lowering their guard.
The fish-man continued his story, “If a bloke accidently lowers the intonation on a belch just half a note or mistakenly slurs a syllable for half a second too long, the whole ritual can be screwed up. If that happens, then the best you can hope for is that everyone involved in the ceremony, all hundred or more of them, have wasted their time.” Pelophylax lowered his voice, “The worst that can happen, of course, is that you end up summoning the wrong greater entity, who as likely as not possesses an appetite sufficiently voracious to devour a hundred flapping fish in a matter of minutes.
“A tragedy really. These things happen. Fortunately, I escaped the disaster, but so did one or two others, who had the audacity to blame me as the source of the error.” Here, Pelophylax’s voice trembled with indignation. “I would have been immediately sacrificed had there been any priests around to supervise the proceedings! As it was, they were all conveniently missing and I hurriedly hopped out of town. And,” Pelophylax concluded with a flourish, “Here I am!”
Poison Pie, who loved a good story, clapped his great mitts together. “Bravo!” he said. “It could have happened to anyone.” Poison Pie, more than most, implicitly understood the nefarious way the universe manipulated events to make particular individuals, wholly ignorant of the bigger picture, look bad.
“So...” Celia asked, “That’s why you don’t eat people anymore?”
“Changed my ways,” Pelophylax assured her. “Living out here in a hermit’s existence, I’ve had time to contemplate the ineffable! I’ve had a revelation or two. I don’t expect you to understand.”
Olm, for his part, was dreadfully hungry but, though his thoughts circled around pan-fried worm-cakes, voiced what he considered to be the most salient objection to entering the hut. “Is this not the Lake of Sinonatrix?”
“And none shall be taking it from her anytime soon,” the fish-man heartily agreed.
“I imagine,” replied Olm, his fears confirmed, “that she would have enjoyed such a tasty snack as you long before you had time to erect this fine home on the very edge of her domain.”
“Indeed,” the fish-man agreed. “With my meager skills, I should not have succeeded in constructing this house without her permission.”
“Then you admit to being in alliance with the witch?”
This was the first that Poison Pie, Tchict’Ict and Celia had heard that Sinonatrix was a witch. Each paused to wonder what other pertinent secrets of the deep Olm kept from them.
“Clearly,” said Pelophylax, “there is no hiding the truth from one so astute as you. However, despite my limited abilities, concealing the truth from me is also not so easy as you think.” Suddenly the buffoonish air that Pelophylax had previously displayed seemed to evaporate. He now spoke calmly and directly to his guests. “You are troglodytes with a mushroom man. You can have only destination in these parts—the City that Crawls. To reach that destination, you must cross Lake of Sinonatrix. It seems to me that you have had a stroke of luck in finding someone who is not only as accommodating as I am but on as fair terms with the witch of the lake as I happen to be.”
Olm’s reptilian face registered a frown, while visions of worm-cakes danced in his head.
“Now,” said Pelophylax, “come inside and enjoy this repast before our talk turns to matters of business.”
March 20, 2014
The pan-fried worm-cakes were as good as advertised. Olm nearly swooned over them after the first bite. Poison Pie and Tchict’Ict hunched around the small table in the low-roofed hut took great bites from the circular slices of fried worm.
“It’s like bologna,” said Poison Pie after several helpings, “fried in an earthy sauce of morels. Simply exquisite!” Tchict’Ict, though less effusive in his praise, recognized the high nutritional value of the meal and took ample advantage of it. Only Celia refused to touch her plate.
“I told you,” said Poison Pie, “She’s a vegetarian.”
“Worms are practically members of the vegetable family,” an apron-clad Pelophylax declared from in front of the hot stove. “Besides,” he added as an afterthought, “Troglodytes are strictly carnivorous.” Had he an eyebrow, he would have raised it.
Still, Celia would not touch her slice and said nothing when Olm snatched it from her plate and devoured it.
Within ten minutes of finishing the feast, the mushroom man, the insect man and the lizard-man were unconscious on the floor.
“It’s just a sleeping drug,” said Pelophylax apologetically to Celia, who sat at the table, her eyes fixed on the fish-man. “Now, what am I to do with you?”
“Summon the witch,” Celia suggested.
“It seems as good a choice as any,” Pelophylax agreed. “You are made of sterner stuff than your appearance belies,” he added in a complimentary tone.
Pelophylax shuffled out the back door onto the porch. He sat down on the edge of the dock and rhythmically splashed the surface of the water with his flapping feet.
March 20, 2014
Just as mushroom men come in varying proportions regarding their mushroom and human composition, so too do the creatures bred from snakes and men. There are species that are virtually centaurs of the serpent world, in which human torsos are attached to the tails of snakes. Farther toward the human end of the spectrum of inter-species breeding, there are humanoid species, which betray their mixed origin only through scaly flesh, a slender tail and slit eyes. There are also species that fall further toward the purely serpent end of this spectrum, in which one finds essentially a snake with a human face. The last of these have largely left the material world because human faces are not intended to eat without arms and hands to feed them. Human jaws cannot unhinge to swallow food whole as do the jaws of constrictors. Human mouths do not house venom sacs to subdue prey as do the jaws of poisonous snakes. Consequently creatures of this kind have traveled to alternate planes in which they can sustain themselves on exclusively psychic energies. Should one return to Earth, they must, contrary to their solitary nature, engage the services of others to provide for them the sustenance which a corporeal form demands. Such was the nature of the relationship between Sinonatrix the nāga and Pelophylax, outcast of the fish folk, her butler.
Sinonatrix slithered out of the water up onto the dock.
“What have you found for me?” she asked her fish-man in a tone that conveyed the strict absence of emotion one might naturally associate with snakes.
Pelophylax bowed repeatedly. “Mistress,” he began in a sycophantic tone, “no fewer than four visitors have come to prostrate themselves in your majestic presence. A mushroom man, an insect man and two troglodytes.”
The face of Sinonatrix was, though hairless, clearly feminine, beautiful with sharp cheeks, full lips and penetrating eyes, and revoltingly reptilian. She slid toward the doorway from the dock to the hut.
“However,” Pelophylax hurried, lest she be unpleasantly surprised, “one of them...”
Sinonatrix entered the hut. She observed the party just as Pelophylax had left them—the three males slumped on the floor, Poison Pie snoring contentedly, and the lone female—tense and wide-eyed, with her back to the corner. “One of them,” Sinonatrix finished, “is still awake.”
She raised her head to the same height as that of Celia. “You are free to go,” she told the troglodyte. Her eyes swept the still forms on the floor. “There is more here than we need.”
“I shall not abandon my company,” Celia replied in a voice of steel.
Taken aback more by the unexpected force of the voice than the refusal to flee, Sinonatrix sharply uttered a word of pain. Her astonishment only grew when the troglodyte female did not collapse to the floor, writhing in agony. She studied the face of the other, as Pelophylax shuffled in behind her. She had seen the undeniable flicker of pain shoot across the face of this creature, but it had not allowed itself to succumb to the sensation. “You are not what you seem,” Sinonatrix stated. There was no question in her voice.
“On the contrary,” Celia said. “I become everything that I seem.”
“Why have you come here?”
Celia’s eyes shifted to Pelophylax, “As your spokesman, Pelophylax offered to facilitate the negotiation of our passage across your lake.”
The long neck of Sinonatrix curved around as she fixed her butler with a glance that petrified him. Returning her attention to Celia, she asked, “You seek the City that Crawls?”
“To what end?”
“To the only end.”
Only then did Sinonatrix recant the word of pain. She noted with some small satisfaction that the creature who was not a troglodyte could not entirely suppress the shudder of relief at being released from the spell. “You will find markedly less divine revelation in the City that Crawls than you suspect.”
“So it ever is,” Celia agreed. “Still, ours is to seek.”
“Why have you allied yourself to these lesser beings who have failed to brush the red dust from their feet?” Sinonatrix did not divert her gaze from Celia.
“I could ask the same of you,” said Celia, glancing at Pelophylax who remained rooted to the spot, “except in your case, your needs are transparent.”
Sinonatrix flashed a wicked smiled. “Well said.” Sinonatrix turned and slithered past her butler. Before exiting the hut, she turned and said to Celia, “I think our paths may yet again cross, but not in this world. I shall look forward to that meeting.” To her butler, she ordered curtly, “Escort this one and her companions across the lake, unmolested.”
Celia heard the splash from the dock as the witch disappeared into the lake.
Although there was not the slightest doubt that Pelophylax would carry out his mistress’s command to the letter, there was no disguising the disappointment on his face at the thought of the feast, of which Celia, through her unconscionable stubbornness, had deprived him.
March 20, 2014
“What happened?” Poison Pie asked, waking on the stone bank of the underground lake.
“You ate too much cake,” Celia replied.
In the confused grog of rousing from his drugged slumber, it finally occurred to Olm that Celia was not a troglodyte. The Deadly Galerina worked in mysterious, but effective, ways. All praise the Deadly Galerina!
March 26, 2014
Tchict’Ict could sense the proximity of the City that Crawls long before the outer plasmodium, stretched along the surface of the tunnel walls, came into view. The continual lack of light had heightened his pheromone sensors. In the air, he tasted not only the earthy scent of decomposition associated with fungi but also the unique chemical signature of troglodytes under stress.
The layer of slime mold on the walls grew thicker and the intensity of the light emitted increases commensurately. The mold seemed not to be composed of a single species, but rather was its own two-dimensional ecosystem in which the colors of various tribes engaged in slow motion exchanges of territory. The shifting lights created a kaleidoscopic view of the caverns. For one unlike Tchict’Ict such an effect would have surely induced dizziness. Tchict’Ict, for his part, simply marveled at the manifestations of the physical world, which had not so much as ever been hinted at in the recesses of his imagination.
Many well-traveled thinkers promote the mind-broadening effects of visiting other cultures, because they have experienced first-hand the benefits. The insect-people possessed no such tradition of thinkers, as their migrant paths were governed solely by the seasonal abundance of food and the threats of predation by their neighbors. As such, when the thought occurred to Tchict’Ict that perhaps his life had taken an unexpected turn for the richer, due to the tragedy that had cast him from his former way of life, it came as no small surprise. He was frankly astonished that he felt what could only be described as anticipation for arriving at the city and observing its structure and dynamics in person.
Tchict’Ict was not disappointed, at least by the strangeness of the city. The multi-colored illumination grew. Sounds that one associates with town—the rise and fall of voices, unexplained hammering or thumps, a subliminal thrum due to the cumulative activity of the city. When Olm, in the lead, turned to them and announced, “We shall be there soon,” it seemed entirely unnecessary.
The mold, at first in patches, now formed a continuous layer over all exposed rock, including the floor. Their weight sank ever so slightly into the film, causing a physiological response that darkened the mold, leaving a trail of footprints that gradually resumed their glow behind the party. Small, more-or-less conventionally shaped mushrooms sprouted from the edges of the path. They were of all shapes and sizes, squat, round caps on fat stalks, pointed caps on stalks so narrow as to seem unable to sustain the weight. The colors too spanned the spectrum, from caps that shifted from ochre at the center to dun at the ridge, while others exhibited chartreuse rings on a mauve background. Their number and complexity increased it seemed with each bend in the tunnel. Tchict’Ict became so engrossed in the scenery around him that he utterly failed to notice the tension entering the movements of their guide.
The narrow tunnel through which they had been traveling suddenly broadened into a cavern. Tchict’Ict could sense the immensity of the cavern but could not see it, for where the rock walls stopped, barriers composed entirely of fungal growths began. The architecture of these walls was indeed otherworldly. Curves dominated the structures; no flat surfaces were to be found. Corners were rounded and populated with clusters of mushrooms. The surfaces were decorated with elaborate arabesques formed of living organisms, which shifted on a timescale too slow to be observed by the passing party. The mushrooms themselves began to increase in size. Those that rose two or three feet seemed most common, though they were surrounded by diminutive cousins and periodically gave way to enormous, statuesque ancestors that towered above Tchict’Ict and Poison Pie.
“We stand at the border of the City that Crawls,” Olm explained. “This uninhabited region forms its shifting frontiers, exploring directions for movement and growth. Soon, we shall encounter the guards of the city.” The old troglodyte fixed his champion first and then each of his champion’s allies with a stern expression. “Gather yourself and gird your strength around you.”
It was not lost on Tchict’Ict that Olm spoke in a tone that more than intimated a less than welcome reception.
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