A Month of Doubt
Life in the house of health proceeded as normal. Well, for the most part. The customers came and went. The shelf that had been ripped down had been replaced; the items on it, too. The incense smoked as usual. The tea was just as warm. The pillow under the counter was just as soft.
Yet Roja could find no peace.
Not since the day the visitor came, the mushroom man, had Roja felt calm. The atmosphere of the house of health, which had caught her emotional fall like a bed of cotton, grew spikes out of its walls. The incense filled her nose like a poison and choked her; the tea tasted bitter and stale.
Initially, talks with Jezzy had helped a lot.
“What we're doing…”
“Mhm?” the goblin had replied.
“... I know it's for a good cause, but… Then why does it feel so wrong?”
“Oh Roja,” had the goblin said with the familiar vanilla in her voice and flowers on her breath. “You have a good heart, a pure heart. Like a true and trusty devotee of Allianthé, you see value in all life. And all life does have value, of course.” A pause. “But some life is more valuable that other. Like those of the people we're helping.”
For the first few weeks, this reasoning had formed a shield around her conscious. Yet no matter how much Jezzy consoled her, the elf would be reminded of the alien guest every time she was asked to gather more of the mushroom. No matter how much time passed, no matter how many times she opened the hatch and descended the ladder, no matter how many mushrooms she ground up, she could not overpower her senses and shut out the burning glare of the two fiery red eyes of the creature in the rune cage. Every rung on the ladder, every chop of the knife, every grind of the pestle–it was as though she was grinding down her own spirit. With time, she couldn't help but feel that Jezzy grew tired of her.
“Jezzy, nothing feels right! I, I can't keep doing this!” Roja kept saying.
“You can! I have faith in you,” Jezzy would always promise, but never more than that. The conversation would never survive for much longer after that. As the days became weeks and the weeks became months, the pair talked less and less. Jezzy went on longer errands more often. It was as though the shop had become Roja’s, as Jezzy would disappear for weeks at a time, only to come back with a curt greeting and a demand for a report over the past few days. Roja began to feel old, but familiar thoughts return:
You don't deserve to be happy.
It should have been you, not them.
The one day, as she reached the final rung of the ladder and turned around to lock eyes with the mushroom creature, it was as if something within her snapped. The red hot eyes were inside her head; she no longer perceived them with her eyes, but with her mind. She felt her breathing accelerate and whimpers escape her mouth. The tunnel–the black canal under Arbor. She had escaped, but she heard the monster, the spawn of Egrioth. It was here, with her, in the cave. She wasn't in the cave anymore, she was in that tunnel. Her arm was bleeding–it was still attached, if only barely. She was limping, escaping as fast as she could from the chasing horror. There, ahead, she saw the door into the inner trunk. If only she could reach the activation runes. Then she would escape inside and be safe. Just a little longer, just a little further! She tripped and fell forward, her hand landing perfectly on the rune. YES!
Then the image faded, the room faded. She saw brown wooden walls melt away and that all-too-familiar light of the mushrooms radiate into her vision. Only one light was missing. She lifted her hand quiveringly and noticed iridescent stains on her fingers. Her breathing turned to panicking sobs. She looked up and saw the mushroom creature standing above her, eyes like an inferno waiting to swallow her up.
She didn't have time to scream, the mycelium was too quick. White roots burst out of the ground and covered her mouth, ears and eyes and lifted her up by the legs, her one arm swinging wildly in the air. She struck nothing but the wall, bruising her hand sore with every hit until it eventually drew blood. She neither saw nor heard anything, and only her nose hinted at the close and moist presence of the creature, the stink of dampness thick on the air. A million thoughts raced through her head, her wild imagination playing a hundred thousand reels in her mind of her death at that hands of this thing. However, then–as though she fell into water–her head went cloudy and thick, her senses dulling and struggling against a viscous medium.
There. Peace and tranquility.
Roja couldn't believe herself. This was anything but peaceful. Then the dulling sensation redoubled its efforts and she felt sedated.
The parasite struggles. I will take pleasure in unraveling the fabric of her being thread by thread.
Was it the creature casting these thoughts into her?
It is denser than bedrock. Every moment I suffer its existence is a sin graver than each cut she has dealt to the colony.
It was! The creature spoke into her mind! But how? How was this possible?!
There was a pause. Then the mycelium unwrapped itself from her eyes. Before her, she beheld the upside down view of the creature in a squat, its cone-like forearms crossed over its chest in what she would consider to be an indecisive manner. It showed no expressions beyond that that she could even begin to interpret, except that the eyes showed no sign of love.
“HMPH! MMMPH! MUHMPH!”
The viscous sensation intensified once again and she felt close to passing out. Even the voice in her head felt cotton-wrapped. However, something in her brain told her that she no longer had a reason to be afraid. At least not at the moment. Consider yourself lucky, parasite. The Council believes you can be of use in laying a trap for the antithesis. You will help us or be destroyed. Choose.
She felt the presence loosen up her mind again and her thoughts became nimble. “H-h-h-help or die?! W-with what?! What's the antithesis?! Wha–” The cloudiness returned and she felt her brain go limp.
Her thoughts are like a storm in a pond. I see not how she can be of anyone's assistance, even the antithesis’s. She is more harmless than a fly and less useful to the life chain.
There came another pause. In her stupor, the elf didn't even know how to even think of a response. Then came an elation, like the presence relented. The mycelium roots loosened their grips and dropped the elf on the floor, where she sloshed about like a confused slug.
As the Council commands. She will guide the antithesis down here where it will be ground down into dust and spread to the Teacher's astral winds.
“He… Hey! What's, what's the antithesis?” demanded Roja as she staggered to her feet. The creature barely acknowledged her with a small glance.
To you, this thing is known as “Jezzy”. It has been declared the eternal enemy of the colony and the Council demands it be disposed of completely, down to the smallest speck of Lumen.
“Jezzy? Lumen? What?"
Please, Council, see reason. She cannot possibly–... Yet another pause, one which shifted the tone in the room and even seemed to make the creature uneasy. Roja couldn't make sense of much, but there was an unmistakable thumping on the air, physical like the deep notes of a horn.
Ba-dump… Ba-dump… Ba-dump…
She noticed the creature deflated a little. Yes, of course. I will… Respect the Council’s decision. The mushroom walked over to the elf. Roja suddenly felt herself levitate off the ground and be spun around, cast into odd angles by an invisible force.
“Hey! HEY! Let, let me down!” Then she quieted down as the creature leaned in.
You have been granted amnesty by the Council. You will not think another thought unless I command you to do so. She felt the creature sigh. Every day, every minute, every second you have been down here, your doubts, your self-hate and your urge to please this “Jezzy” have oozed out of you like pus from a wound. I did not want to listen; I wanted to shut you out. However… The creature picked up the knife, spotted with the iridescent spores of its kind. ... You have consumed Lumen. Your resulting affinity for accessing the Astral Plane, however weak, forces me to hear your thoughts as though you were yourself a cantar. You would think watching your own kin be systematically hacked apart to be eaten was a cruel fate, but being imprisoned in this cellar, forced to hear hundreds of frail minds trot around above thinking about the most miniscule, minute, unimportant details like they are world-ending threats–I can scarcely think of a worse punishment. A thousand years of rot upon you and all your kin!
The mental assault thundered through her head like a migraine. Roja was already dizzy from hanging upside down, but the headache intensified the nausea. She felt something bubble from below and a throatful of bile exploded out of her mouth. The cantar recoiled and dropped her, letting her once again fall onto the ground torso first. Roja flabbed about in her own vomit and noticed that her nose was running. As she swabbed a finger underneath, she noticed its crimson colour. “I… I'm not well…”
The cantar hissed and slapped off the bits of vomit that had doused it's leg. Disgusting. Yet oddly fascinating. I will make a note that your kind also vomits up your stomach fluid for extratestinal pre-digestion. A valiant last effort to exercise your hate towards my kind, but alas… The creature waved a hand over the small burns. They healed near instantly. ... A failed one. Now, is there anything else that you want to do to me before you finally obey and assassinate the antithesis?
“K-... Kill Jezzy?” Roja pushed herself onto her one elbow and slowly brought her buckling knees up under her torso.
She listens at last. But she doubts. Always with the doubts.
“I… I couldn't! She saved me! She's been there for me all this time!”
A murderer. A thief. Her crimes against my kind, crimes you too have perpetrated, are innumerable. If you refuse to obey, I will hollow out your husk and seed your flesh bag with new spores. Your meat will feed the colony for years.
“But why?! Why do you need me?! What good am I to you if you just wanna find Jezzy?! You found this colony, right?!”
The Council called out to me for all these years. As their Pilot, I am attuned to its voice at all times, listening to it, feeling it. Its burning glare grew cold. It is a bond a million times stronger than any sort of “friendship” your kind can hope to achieve. I feel their joy, their fear, their pain. Every cut, every chop. But… There was a long pause as the creature paced around the kneeling elf. Roja felt as though it was undressing her with its eyes, but in the most analytical way imaginable. I do not know what she looks like.
Roja blinked. “That's–”
... unexpected, is it? Really? Is that so? Tell me, did your knife feel any different when you cut Node-Zhyk as compared to when you cut Node-Waym?
Roja fell silent, but she felt her cheeks flush with guilt. “I… They…”
Oh but of course. They were just mushrooms, weren't they? Perhaps that will be the start of the eulogy we will sing after you're gone: “Roja, just a goblin…”
“But, but I'm an elf!”
Long ears, frail mind, nothing but doubt and ambition in those tiny excuses for heads… Frankly, I do not care what you think you are. All I see is meat and mental issues packed around a small speck of Lumen, and all I want you to do is to accomplish a single, menial task. Is that so hard to understand?
Roja was at her wit’s end. “B-but why me? I-I don't want to hurt her, I–”
Because she knows, you stupid thing! She knows everything! She knows I am looking for her; she knows I want her dead; and she knows that as soon as she comes back here, she will not leave alive. And you know how she knows that?
Because she is attuned to the Lumen! She has studied it. She knows how to manipulate it. She listens to the colony. She knew I would be coming, so she was gone when I came.
“You, you lie!”
She didn't care for what happened to you; she would have locked me away when she had come home and cleaned up your mess, or better yet, let the colony take you and feed on your corpse for the next year! What, you thought you were her first assistant?
“She, she wouldn't!”
Then she felt the migraines again. Once again, her head was being forced open like a heavy tome and she felt the cantar flip through her memories. Your vision–your friends all gather before you to forgive you for your mistakes. Convenient for a first time high, isn't it?
Porchina the shesnouter–told to leave her husband for her lover as though it was preordained! Isn't it funny how she came to Jezzy with doubts, only for her second vision to tell her to go back to her old husband again?
“That's not fair!”
Jezzy feeds off of doubt, parasite. Her business isn't to help people; it's to keep people coming!
“Shut up! SHUT UP! GET OUT OF MY HEAD!”
The presence faded, but the scenery remained the same. Roja’s face was grimy with vomit, sticky with blood and wet with tears. Before her, the mushroom stood unbreathing, unmoving, unrelenting in its glare. “I… I need to find Jezzy.”
Be quick about it. My vengeance cannot come soon enough.
“... I need… To find Jezzy…” Roja crawled towards the ladder and slowly ascended with shaking movements. The mushroom followed her ascent with analytical interest, the same sort one might watch a wounded insect live out its final minutes. Then it turned to the mushroom grove with elation. It lifted its arms and the cave slowly filled with glowing, iridescent spores. From the pool of vomit and drops of blood, small red and blue nubs began to grow, mycelium eating into the goo with patient gusto. From deep within the grove, rotund little cantars the size of cats came waddling out and started digging new channels into the wood of the Tree of Life for new mycelium roots to grow in. Some climbed up the ladder to harvest whatever they could find in Jezzy’s shop to take down to the colony for consumption.
Finally… After all these years, I can return to my duties.
Then the grove slowly began to heal.