Dale the Mycologist
Dale the Mycologist
By Geoff Bottone
The Red Dragon Inn 9 – The Undercity is live on Kickstarter! Today we dive into a tale from the Undercity. Let’s meet Dale, our diminutive, pixie mushroom farmer as he runs into an intriguing character up to no good.
“Hey!” shouted Dale, his mouth full of mud. “Watch where you’re going!”
He pushed himself up off of the cavern floor and squinted angrily through the roiling cloud of spores. Ahead of him, a gorge of absolute ruin had been carved straight through the middle of his carefully cultivated field. In the distant shadows, he could just make out the back of a kobold running away.
“Verylateneededtotakeashortcutsorry!” shouted the running kobold as he disappeared into the gloom.
Dale attempted to shout out a really crushing rejoinder, only to find himself gargling mud in reply. He coughed noisily and spat before peeling himself up off of the ground. He was caked in mud so thick that it was impossible to tell where it ended and his clothes began. His wings were similarly soiled, coated both with mud and a thick dusting of spores. He’d need to get all of that washed off right quick—not just because he couldn’t fly with them in this condition, but also because he’d probably start sprouting baby mushrooms before too long.
Dale stooped, picked up his cap, dumped out the mud, and clumped it on his head. The inside of it was still wet and chilly enough to give him the shivers.
“This is private property!” he shouted, to no one, before shaking a tiny fist helplessly in the direction of the now long-gone kobold. “You’d best not come back here! Jerk!”
Only his echoes replied.
Still furious, he stomped over to the large watering can standing beside the mushroom field. It still had some water in it from when he had gone to the little subterranean grotto earlier in the day. Good thing, too. It was bad enough to make the trip up and back with a heavy watering can without having to…ugh…walk.
Dale found a scrubbing brush and had soon managed to clean off most of the mud from his clothes and wings. He gave them a little flap, shaking out a fine mist of droplets and pollen all around him. In the dim cavern, lit only by phosphorescent moss and his own little fairy lights, his wings were still damp, but they were at the very least back to their original brownish orangish reddish color.
He tossed the brush into the now very muddy water at the bottom of the can with a grunt. The next thing to do was to assess the damage that the danged kobold had done to his field. Hopefully, he hadn’t set him back so far that he’d lose out on coin the next time he went to the Grey Market. Dale shook his head. He hadn’t ever really considered the point of putting up a fence before, since he was a flier by nature. However, if that kobold decided his mushroom farm was a good and reliable shortcut, maybe it’d be a good idea. And a fun one. Especially if he made it nice and sturdy.
“And I could put up some nice sharp spi—” Dale said, as he turned around and walked face first into the boot of another person.
“Hello down there,” said the person.
“Hello,” said Dale, his voice muffled by the black and eerily squeaky clean boot leather. He pulled his face free and looked up.
The person in question was a thin, horned woman, who was now descending into a crouch to bring her head somewhat closer to Dale’s eye level. In addition to the tall, black boots, she wore black leggings, a black leather bodice over a dark grey shirt, a long, black coat, and, most oddly, a pair of darkly tinted spectacles.
She favored Dale with a small, but very sharply-pointed grin that caught him rather off guard. The grin was not helped by the woman’s spectacles, which loomed flat and black over her sharp nose, like spider’s eyes.
“Hello,” she said at last. “Sorry if I startled you. I’m Petra.”
“It’s all right,” said Dale, giving his wings a quick beat. They felt lighter, less waterlogged, but still unable to bear him away at the moment. Damn.
“You’re Dale, aren’t you? The mycologist?”
“Well, sort of.”
Petra cocked her head, frowning. “Sort of?”
“I am Dale, of course, and I do quite a bit of work with mushrooms, but I barely count myself as a mycologist. That’s one a them bookish-type folk who study mushrooms for their alchemical properties and whatnot. I’m a mushroom farmer. I study mushrooms so that I can grow ‘em bigger and plumper and faster, so I can sell ‘em at market.”
Petra smiled again, her teeth seeming somehow sharper this time. “Sounds like a mycologist to me.”
“Hmph. I suppose.”
“All that aside, you are the pixie I’m looking for.” Petra shifted her weight forward and bent even lower, so that her head hung only inches from Dale’s face. “I had been asking around at the Grey Market for someone who was an expert in mushrooms, and the nice old man at the fish stall told me that you were the best.”
Dale gave a conflicted grunt. On the one hand, he was pleased that anyone thought him the best at anything–doubly so because the thing they thought he was best at was mushrooms. On the other hand, he was going to have words with Old Cavefish Sam for giving his personal information to this very creepily polite woman.
“Anyway,” said Petra, “I’ve come to your little farm because I need some help with a most unusual fungal matter.”
Petra nodded, slowly. “Indeed. A friend of mine is looking for a certain type of mushroom—very rare—for a, shall we say, alchemical preparation he was making. I wonder if you might have any that you could sell me.”
At this, Petra stood and pulled out a heavy pouch from her pocket. Dale craned his neck to look up at her as she produced a few coins and held them out, high above him. Even with the distance and in the dim light of the cavern, he could tell that they were gold.
“Well,” said Dale, tearing his eyes from the coins and trying to keep his voice steady. “You’ve come to the right place. Folks do say that I’m outstanding in my field.”
Normally, the well-worn joke got him a chuckle or, at the very least, an annoyed groan. Not today, though. Either Petra didn’t understand the wordplay, or she was focused on other things.
“Destroying Angels,” she said, rattling the coins in her palm. “I’ll take however many you have.”
Dale swallowed as quietly as he could and gave his wings another tentative flap. Almost dry enough to risk it. Almost.
“I think I might be the one who’s misunderstanding there. Like I said, I’m a farmer. I thought your friend wanted something nice and meaty for a stew or whatnot. I’ve got some portobellos I’m growing up now. Should be ready to harvest. I’ll sell you any with kobold footprints in ‘em for half price. Heh.”
Petra stood over him, immobile as a statue.
“What I’m saying,” said Dale, “Is that I only grow edible mushrooms.”
“Destroying Angels,” said Petra, grinning, “are edible.”
“Yeah,” said Dale. “Once.”
“Look, friend,” Dale swallowed. “I’m not in the business of growing lethally poisonous mushrooms, and not just because the spores’ll get mixed up with the food crop and cause a whole heap of problems, either. I don’t know why your friend’s interested in Destroying Angels, but…well…you’re not buying them here.”
Petra hung her head and continued to stare at Dale through the dead, flat lenses of her spectacles. Then, in a low voice, she said, “I see that I’ve upset you. My apologies.”
“No no,” said Dale. “Not at all. Not at all. Just trying to be clear in what I do and what I don’t do. Sorry you came all this way out here for nothing. What say I give you some of those portobellos and some of them puffballs over yonder, you know, gratis, and the both of us can forget this whole embarrassing thing.”
“Oh no no. That’s not necessary.” She slowly tipped her hand, letting the small fortune of gold coins fall with earth-shaking thuds into the mud a very short distance away from Dale. “Though I do agree that we should just forget this whole conversation.”
The empty, expressionless black lenses of Petra’ spectacles somehow seemed to stare right into Dale’s soul. He gulped, audibly.
“Of course. You have a pleasant day now.”
Petra turned and stalked off, as silently as she had arrived. Dale, fearful but also suspicious, watched her as she left, trying to see where she went once she had stepped beyond the boundaries of his little mushroom farm. When Petra disappeared behind a cluster of large stalagmites, he beat his now mostly dry wings and flew straight up, hoping to maintain visual contact with her as she traveled farther away.
Hiding behind a stalactite–just in case Petra happened to look back his way–Dale watched her as she made for the tunnel that would, through various twists and turns, take her back to the main tunnels that would eventually bring her to the Grey Market. However, just when he was sure she was going that way, she zigged instead of zagged and disappeared down a smaller, less well used tunnel that would take her well past the farming cave and out into the unsettled caverns beyond the city.
As someone who lived on the fringes of the Undercity, Dale knew that the areas outside of and below it were dangerous, often literally crawling with creatures that defied description. He was also aware, as something of a connoisseur of underground flora, of what sorts of things grew out that way, beyond the jurisdiction of the Runoff Rangers and the Thieves’ Guild.
It wasn’t his business, though. Not really. If Petra wanted to get herself mauled poking around in the outer caverns, that was just fine by him. He should just go back to his work, use the gold she had tried to bribe him with to buy quality spore feed, and get on with his life. He was just a humble farmer, after all. Bigger cavefish than him would deal with Petra soon enough, of course.
He flew down to the ground, furled his wings, and began rolling the gold coins, wagon-wheel style, into the shed at the south edge of the farm. He whistled loudly as he guided each coin, now thoroughly fouled with mud around their sides, but neither his atonal tune or the heavy labor of hauling gold could keep the worried thoughts out of his mind.
They had to have known about Petra. By “they,” he meant the Thieves’ Guild, or someone else of prominence. A person doesn’t just wander around the Undercity asking about incredibly deadly mushrooms without someone noticing, right? No doubt he’d either be visited by some official, or catch sight of one of them snooping through the fields looking for evidence. They’d soon be on Petra’s trail and take care of her before she did any harm.
Assuming that they know about it, of course.
How could they not know about it? Dale had seen her just ask about the mushrooms, bold as brass. And it’s not like her interests could have been mistaken for anything else. Destroying Angels didn’t have another use apart from what they were. It’s not like an alchemist could use them to turn into a beneficial potion or salve. Those sorts of mushrooms could only kill. Horribly. And it was clear enough, at least to Dale, that that was exactly what Petra wanted to use the mushrooms for.
Then you should tell someone.
Dale glowered angrily at the last gold coin, which he had just propped up inside his shed. Tell who? The Guild? Tell them what? That a strange lady named Petra was asking about mushrooms? They’d laugh him right off of their front porch. That is, presuming that they even took the time to listen to him at all. There were no other witnesses. No evidence, other than the gold itself.
Maybe, and stay with me here, you should get some evidence.
That was a fool idea. Terrible. Dangerous. She was one of the Big Folk, and she could swat him out of the air like a fly if she wanted to. It was also clear to Dale that she was the sort of Big Folk that wouldn’t think twice about doing it either, if she needed to. She just had that look about her. So, what was he supposed to do? Risk his life following her down into the fringes? Catch her in the act of harvesting mushrooms and mashing them up for poison? See if she might have a convenient list of enemies or something on her person that he could bring to the authorities. She couldn’t possibly be that sloppy, could she?
How would you feel, if someone died an agonizing death and you were the only one who knew who did it?
Grumbling, Dale shouldered his tiny rake, flapped his wings, and flew off after Petra.
Dale fluttered through the dark and twisting tunnels, keeping a vigilant eye out for cave fishers and the occasional spider web. Twice now, something had hissed at him from cracks in wall or ceiling, but he brandished his rake and hissed back, and was gratefully left alone.
This far out from the Undercity, the caves were neither well-patrolled nor well-maintained, with few patches of glowmoss to light the way. Fortunately, Dale’s wings allowed him to bypass obstacles that would have slowed one of the Big Folk, and his eyes were, at last, growing accustomed to the darkness.
Here and there, as he traveled, he caught a glimpse of what he was sure were Petra’s footprints in the muck below him. That was good. That meant that he was going the right way and not completely wasting his time or risking his life for no reason. There were also other footprints, too—big ones and small ones and some very obviously monstrous ones—and that made him silently curse his impulsive decision yet one more time.
Ahead of him, the tunnel opened up into a cave that was so large that it appeared to Dale as little more than a massive, black void. He paused at the entrance, blinking and willing his pupils to expand. At last, a few shadowy shapes beyond began to come into view.
Much of the cavern was taken up by a lake. This was supplied by a softly gurgling streamlet that Dale could hear, even if he couldn’t see it. Stalagmites, hummocks of rock, and other cavern formations occupied the narrow strip of shore and, in some places, even pushed their way out of the depths of the lake. On many of these, Dale could just barely make out the familiar shapes of various species of fungi. Some were the common types that he planted, babied, and harvested on his farm. Others were most definitely not.
He flew closer and settled on a wide, fluffy shelf mushroom growing out of a stalactite. From this vantage, he surveyed the lake, as well as the tall, slender figure that stalked along the muddy shore. As he watched, Petra crouched down among some of the fungal colonies growing in the mud and on the slick stones.
After a short while, Dale began to get a whiff of something unpleasant–something that smelled almost exactly like burning bone. He squinted his eyes as Petra’s horns began to glow redly from the inside, releasing a blotchy, uneven, and unpleasant light that threw ragged shadows around the cavern walls. In this light, Petra crouched even lower, bringing her smoking horns close to the earth as she scanned the fungi and lichen more carefully. She picked at one grouping of yellow-white mushrooms, then another, until finally–
“Ah,” she said, to no one in particular. “Here we are.”
Dale watched her, with mounting horror, as she took a flattened pouch from somewhere inside of her coat, shook it open, and proceeded to fill it with several large fistfulls of Destroying Angel mushrooms. There was more than enough in there to kill anywhere from fifty to a hundred people, at a rough guess. What in the hell did she want with so many?
The fact that she began whistling a jaunty tune as she pulled the drawstring on the bag closed made it somehow even worse.
Petra rose, the very full sack in her hands, and began casting around the cavern for a way out. Dale shrank back as she did so, hoping his small size and unusual perch would keep Petra from seeing him. This seemed to work, for Petra eventually turned and made one of the numerous tunnels running out of the cave, the light and heat of her horns gradually fading as she did so.
Dale shrugged his shoulders, flapped his wings until he attained flight speed, and took off down the tunnel after her.
The tunnel that Petra had decided on had, for the last few minutes, been rising steadily higher and been getting steadily brighter. That made Dale nervous, because that likely meant that she was heading toward the one place on earth that he disliked the most.
Dale winced internally at all the conversations he had had over the course of his middlingly-longish–but not long enough–life with people who reacted in stunned disbelief at some of his life choices. “But the literature,” they would say. “Your people are always depicted as loving nature. As frolicking through beautiful fields or sprinkling glittering dust upon flowers and farm fields at night. Why on earth would you live…well…underneath the earth?”
“Now that’s just a bunch of stereotyping nonsense,” he would always reply. “A person’s an individual, and they can do and live and love whatever they like. Sure, some pixies like to drink the morning dew out of fresh-picked bluebells, but others are just as likely to drink beer out of thimbles, or spirits out of acorn caps, or what have you. Many a pixie lives as fine a life underground as those on the surface, and never feels as though they’d missed anything.”
And that, fortunately, was about where those conversations ended, with blushing faces and stammered apologies. Because Dale never wanted to talk about the real reason that he moved to the Undercity. It was partially because he liked the quiet, and partially because all the good mushrooms grew down below.
But mostly, it was because of the birds.
Big, flapping, feathery things, with their big, beady eyes and their sharp beaks. Birds always screaming and hollering at one another, popping off about whatever foolish notion filled their empty heads. Birds that could fly so fast and were so large that they could knock a pixie right out of the sky, or who could mistake one for a tasty morsel to bring home to their ravenous, peeping, greedy young.
“Three times,” he muttered to himself, remembering the terror of looking down into the black abysses of the eaglets’ bottomless gullets. “Three. Times.”
Ahead of him, Petra ground dirt beneath her heel as she turned, peering back the way she had come over the rims of her darkened spectacles. Dale had gotten out of sight just in time, and was now pressed firmly against the opposite side of a stalactite, willing his heart to thump more quietly in his chest.
“Hmm,” said Petra, before turning and resuming her climb. “Weird echoes down here.”
Dale waited until she had gone up-tunnel aways before peeling himself off of the stalactite and flitting after her. Stupid birds. Making him relive traumatic memories and nearly give himself away. That was yet another terrible thing about them that he could add to the list.
Gritting his teeth against further reflexive outbursts, Dale flew a safe distance after Petra, until at last the tunnel ahead of them both opened out into the bottom of a tall, brick-lined cylinder with a ladder in it. Dale hovered in the darkness of the tunnel while Petra carefully fastened her bag of lethal mushrooms to her belt, rubbed her hands together, and began her ascent up the ladder.
The sound of Petra’s footsteps diminished as she climbed and, a short time later, Dale heard a distant grunt and the accompanying scrape of metal on metal. A few seconds after that, Dale heard the metal scrape again, punctuated by a hollow clang, and the now very distant sound of someone walking away.
It was only then that he dared to fly into the vertical shaft. High above him, at the top of the ladder, light filtered in through the gaps in a metal lattice grating. Dale tried not to imagine how many birds might be swooping, diving, or circling in the air far above him as he flitted up the tunnel and squeezed through one of the larger gaps in the grating.
He was relieved to discover that he had come to one of those places topside that someone had rather sensibly roofed over. Dale was in a large room, lit with hanging lanterns and torches burning merrily on the walls. It appeared to be some kind of disused storage area, judging by both the stacks of packing crates against the walls and the thick layer of dust on said crates.
Dale floated over to one of the crates to inspect it. It was unremarkable apart from the insignia carved into its side. This was an image–larger than Dale was tall–of a coin purse superimposed over two crossed daggers. Beneath it, within a delicately carved scroll, was written the words, “CUPIMUS PECUNIAM.”
The Thieves’ Guild!
Dale felt himself suddenly unable to breathe as a dozen thoughts fought for prominence in the front of his mind. The Thieves’ Guild didn’t use poison! Well, all right, they had at one time, for sure, but they had mostly given all that up after the Day of Red Fire. They had reinvented themselves as a benevolent–but still fiscally-motivated–organization that was dedicated to helping the people of the Undercity. Dale himself had gotten a small grant–at a somewhat reasonable interest–from them to start his farm when he had first moved down here.
Overwhelmed by his thoughts, Dale gradually sank until his feet came to rest on the top of the stack of packages, his now fitfully fluttering wings stirring up a great cloud of dust around his ankles.
Was the Thieves’ Guild looking to poison people? Did Petra work for them? Or was Petra working for someone else? Someone who wanted to poison the members of the Thieves’ Guild? If so, why? The Thieves’ Guild was arguably–in that the Undercitizens constantly argued about whether or not the guild were –a positive force in the Undercity. Why would someone want to disrupt that? What would they gain from doing so? And if the Guild was actually ordering the poisonings, who would they want poisoned? They had no rivals, surely! Unless they were having more problems than usual with Greyport and the surfacers.
Dale shook his head vigorously, trying to clear it. No. If the surfacers and the Undercity were at odds again, he would have certainly heard grumbling about it at the Grey Market. The Guild liked to play up the tensions between the two cities. It was good for civic unity and better for business.
All right, but if that’s not the case, then why…
This final line of reasoning was abruptly cut short when a delicate, pink, yet incredibly warm hand seized Dale about the middle from behind. Surprised and in a panic, Dale brought his rake down hard, in a two-handed swing. This successfully drew a line of pinkish, steaming blood from just below the hand’s thumb, and a string of irritated cursing from the hand’s owner. It also caused the hand to squeeze spasmodically, which resulted in Dale dropping his rake and becoming terrified that his giblets were about to be squirted out of his nose.
“Urk!” he said, as the bloodied hand swung him around and brought him up level with a pair of flat, frosted black, glass lenses.
“Spying on me, were you?” said Petra, smiling at him with a mouthful of small, sharp teeth. “And here I thought you were one of those fine, upstanding, incorruptible, and forgetful cave farmers.”
“Don’t you turn this around on me, missy,” said Dale who, despite his predicament, could not keep his dudgeon from rising at the sarcastic slight against his reasonably good name. “You and I both know that you’re up to no good.”
“That’s true. And since you know that,” Petra cocked her head to one side and regarded Dale with a look of wry amusement, “I’m afraid it means that I can’t possibly let you go.”
“So, what? You’re going to kill me?”
“No,” Petra said, as she stuffed Dale into the slippery, silken prison of an inside coat pocket. “Killing is boring.”
The next time Petra’s hand reached into the pocket, it had a bandage on it. It brought Dale out–firmly, but gently–into a brightly lit room that was finely furnished. It also, to Dale’s growing concern, featured more than a touch of the macabre. Cobwebs artfully clung to all the darkest corners of the room, and a human skeleton, dressed in wizard’s robes and an ornate hat, sat in a gilded, overstuffed chair. A dusty martini glass had been carefully wired into its left hand.
Dale took in the room all in one glance as Petra used her other hand to take down a silver birdcage from a hook by a large window. She spoke in a cooing voice to the cage’s sole occupant, an unusually dark-plumed pigeon that regarded Dale with a quizzical glance. Dale bared his teeth, in the hopes that the pigeon would consider him more dangerous than delicious.
“Alas, sweetling, I need to evict you temporarily,” said Petra, opening the cage door with a deft flick of her other hand. “As you can see, we have a guest that needs secure, if temporary, accommodations. Please don’t be mad. You’ll have your room back soon enough.”
The pigeon, for its part, merely responded by staring at Dale stupidly before flapping its wings and flying out the open window.
“Now then,” said Petra, as she placed Dale on the damp papers that lined the cage’s bottom. “This is going to be your home for the duration. I admit it’s not much to look at, but it’s certainly airy, and it provides one hell of a view!”
She pinched the edge of the cage door and its frame between two fingers. Almost immediately, Dale felt waves of heat begin to pour off of her fingertips. He watched with growing alarm as the metal of the cage screamed and smoked, as Petra’s fingernails glowed red.
Petra released her hold a moment later. The two slender bars of metal had blackened, twisted, and fused together. Dale, who had retreated from the heat to the far side of the cage, was fairly sure he wouldn’t be getting out that way, no matter how hard he tried.
Petra lifted the cage with both hands and rehung it back on its window hook. Dale grabbed onto the bars, steadying himself as the cage swayed dizzyingly all around him. She stepped away from the cage, moving across the room to the door on the opposite side.
“Now then,” said Petra. “I have to go take care of a few quick errands, but I’ll be back soon with some food and some proper bedding for you.”
She unfastened the bulging sack from her belt, tossed it, and caught it deftly in her bandaged hand.
“Let me guess. You prefer mushrooms, right?”
With a joyous-sounding cackle, Petra left the room and slammed the door behind her. She was still laughing after she locked the door and walked away.
Dale waited for the cage to settle before releasing his white-knuckled grip on the bars. He began to pace around his prison worryingly, his eyes darting from the half-full water dish, to the picked over trough of seeds, to the smudged writing of the broadsheets that lined the cage floor.
“THIEVES’ GUILD GALA TOMORROW,” blared the headline of the top story. “GREYPORT’S GLITTERATI TO BE IN ATTENDANCE.”