Copyright © 2002-2017 by Dustin Jon Scott
[Last Update: Decemberrd, 2017]
¶I. After their strength came back to them, and their minds no longer were clouded by the sacred mushrooms or the tea, the Nymphs readied themselves to leave Shroomseid.
¶II. The Lampads fashioned torches from the large, dry stipes that they gathered, and gave torches also to the Dryads, who held them far in front of themselves (for Dryads are leery of fire). And the Lampads led the Dryads through the Shroomseid to its other end, to the mouth of yet another tunnel.
¶III. “We must be very careful,” said Fervidness. “The underground holds many dangers.” And with that Fervidness motioned unto the jungle from which they had just emerged, and from the forest came ten Agarians, each brandishing a spiny, crude bludgeon.
¶IV. The Agarians entered the mouth of the tunnel, followed closely be the Nymphs.
¶V. Many hours passed as through the darkness the Nymphs continued, until afore them at some distance they saw a faint light.
¶VI. “Is that the way out?” asked Faith.
¶VII. “No,” said Avidity, warily.
¶VIII. Slowly the light moved nearer them; a torch or perhaps a lantern, carried by someone or something unknown.
¶IX. The light drew closer as the Agarians and Nymphs stopped and held where they were, until finally its carrier had come so close that they could clearly see the thing by the light that was cast on it by the torch it held.
¶X. It was a hideous beast. It walked mainly on its hindlegs; using its right arm to help support its weight as its left grasped the torch. Its head was as a skull, though its eyes, fore-facing and surrounded bony ridges, were set so apart it almost seemed they projected from the sides of its head; its nose, sitting between its eyes and nearly upon its forehead, was flat, and its nostrils so close together they looked to be a single hole when the flame moved just right; its maw projected like that of an ape, and as its mouth hung open it showed its great ape-teeth and ape-tusks, with a long, ropey tongue that dangled below its chin. Its legs were bowed, squat; its arms thick and muscular, and so long that the creature had only to hunch over to rest its palm on the ground. Its fingers and toes ended in huge, sickle-shaped claws. Its skin was leathery, almost scaly, and was a blotchy leaden gray in color. From all over its hide grew a sparse coat of thick, wiry white hairs.
¶XI. The monster glared at them from under its jutting brow as its long and pointed ears flattened to the sides. It menacingly clubbed at the ground with its torch, swinging it about as the creature lumbered quickly toward them.
¶XII. The Agarians made a wall before the Nymphs, and intercepted the great beast, attacking it with their bludgeons. The beast dropped its torch and lashed back at the Agarians with its many-hooked hands, strewing the cavern with their pallid blood and innards. The monster ripped limb from stipe and tore at every part of them. Soon not one Agarian stood, and the beast sopped with their milky remains as pieces of them lay all around. All this so fast it seemed a mere blink.
¶XIII. The thing then smiled at the Nymphs, teeth haughtily borne as it panted, causing the Dryads to tremble.
¶XIV. “Stand back,” Calidity warned the Dryads. And the Lampads all smiled back at the monster, and lightly blew upon the ends of their torches held out before them, causing a torrent of fire to roar forward and enkindle the beast’s hair and clout.
¶XV. The creature howled in pain and its arms began to flail about. Enraged, the thing trudged at them, but cloaked in fire could not see where to strike, and so fought mindlessly at the air as the Nymphs backed away. Only after several minutes did it finally collapse in front of them, consumed entirely by the Lampads’ flames as its serpentine tail thrashed.
¶XVI. “We have to keep moving,” said Avidity. “The scent will attract more of them.”
¶XVII. In haste the Nymphs leaped over the creature as it burned and jogged ahead.
¶XVIII. They kept on at a lope for quite a time before finally slowing, fairly certain they’d put enough distance between themselves and the monster.
¶XIX. “What was that?” asked Serenity, still shaken by the attack. “It looked like some sort of an Orc.”
¶XX. “ ‘Twas a Troglodyte,” said Sybarity; “an Under Orc. Troglodytes were among the first Orcs to live wholly upon the land, away from the sea whence the Orcs first came.”
¶XXI. “I hate Orcs,” breathed Serenity.
¶XXII. “Think of it,” said Liberty, “if those other Dryads that the Maenads held captive back in the Somberwood feared us, they’d shit themselves if ever they were to see an Orc.”
¶XXIII. Serenity stood stiffly, her breaths labored and chest heaving, lips parted and pouting, eyes wide and brow arched as her peering kept veering back to the shadows whence they’d encountered the Troglodyte. And Serenity shook her head, casting away her worries if only for a moment, and said unto Liberty: “I wonder if perhaps it may be worth it.”
¶XXIV. “What dost thou mean?” said Liberty.
¶XXV. “To live in captivity, having the protection of the Maenads.”
¶XXVI. “They han’t freedom,” answered Liberty.
¶XXVII. “Perhaps not,” said Serenity, “but they seem content enough in those individual freedoms that have been allotted to them. Never do they have to concern themselves with any real dangers. It must be bliss to be so ignorant of the world as to fear the petty and harmless things they fear.”
¶XXVIII. “Whilst being under another’s rule?” said Liberty. “To have another choose for them which freedoms they are allowed and which they are not? I could never think it ‘worth it’ to be sheltered by slavery, no matter how strong that shelter may be. The Maenads sold those Dryads a lie; the lie that freedoms doled out by an authority somehow equal true, genuine freedom, and sold them also the lie that being haltered, bound, and watched is but a means of protection. These lies that were sold to them, they bought by sacrificing the very things they feared to lose: their freedom and well-being. For that, I pity them. I pity them with all that is in me, but I do not envy them.”
¶XXIX. “But surely they would not have to worry about such things as Orcs,” said Serenity. “They needn’t worry over any real threats. Maybe to them, having such protection is worth it, as long as they are granted enough individual freedoms.”
¶XXX. “To be granted a little safety and a list of freedoms, in exchange for true freedom and the ability to keep oneself safe in the manner one sees most fit?”
¶XXXI. “I suppose,” replied Serenity, “such a choice must be left to each person.”
¶XXXII. “Just as the choice was left to thee? Thou never made any such choice. It was thrust upon thee, and thou wert lucky to escape. But imagine if there were nowhere to hide or run to; imagine there were nothing but Maenad tribes everywhere one could go, all enforcing their law -- some more strict than others, some bestowing more freedoms than others, but all principally the same.”
¶XXXIII. “That could never happen,” said Serenity.
¶XXXIV. “Not here, in the underground,” Avidity injected.
¶XXXV. “Thou knowest of the Maenads and their law?” asked Faith.
¶XXXVI. “Unfortunately,” said Avidity. “They’ve at times attempted to enforce their law here as well, but to little effect. The underground is the last place the hand of the law wilt ever reach.”
¶XXXVII. “And how is that?” said Faith.
¶XXXVIII. “We have our own world here; our own system of cooperation and no need of law. Those of us in the underground would sooner give our lives than allow the Maenads’ law to destroy everything we’ve worked for.”
¶XXXIX. “But ye have no safety,” said Serenity. “That Under Orc might’ve easily killed any of us, just as easily as it killed those mushroom-folk.”
¶XL. “Yes,” said Avidity, “but a surface Orc could’ve just as easily killed any of the Maenads, and the Dryads that live under their law. At least down here in the underground, if thou art killed, it is because thou hast failed to protect thyself, not because the law hath failed to protect thee. And if thou endurest, it is because thou hast been able to do so on thine own merits, not because the law hath spared thee. Freedom isn’t safe, and the law is the refuge of cowards. When thou art free, thou must be responsible for thine own safety, or at the least, thou must have friends that thou canst depend on to help thee when thou art in need.”
¶XLI. “It could be argued,” stated Serenity, “that the Maenads are the ‘friends’ of those Dryads they hold captive. Those Dryads pay their tax and obey their law, in exchange for what little protection the Maenads have to offer.”
¶XLII. “That, is precisely why they fear us,” said Liberty. “There could always be an Orc, or a pack of wolves, or a wildfire, or some other danger from which the Maenads cannot protect them. They are never truly safe. But what dost thou suppose they’d do after an Orc attack? They might encourage the Maenads to make better whips. Perhaps they’d even gather thorny vines for the Maenads to do so. They’d do this thinking that if the Maenads had these thorny whips, they’d have more of a defense against future Orc attacks, not even considering what that will mean when the time comes for the Maenads to turn their whips on those Dryads that breach their law, until they find themselves being lashed. And then, after being subjected to this brutality, they will convince themselves they deserved it, and all those that witnessed the lashing will say that is the consequence for disobedience; they’ll say that if one doth not want such lashings, one hath only to obey the law. To them it will be a simple matter, because no matter how they are mistreated, their belief that the law is there to keep them safe will only be strengthened. And so they fear us because we reject the very thing that they’ve convinced themselves is there to protect them.”
¶XLIII. “That is why they must feign freedom,” added Avidity. “They must make themselves believe they are free, so that they don’t have to admit to themselves, that the thing they fear above all else, is freedom. They fear freedom because it is unsafe, and they fear us because we are free ... ”
¶XLIV. “And therefore a threat to their safety,” Serenity concluded. “But do ye not grow tired of always lurking in the shadows?”
¶XLV. “Not we Lampads,” said Avidity. “It is our way. Shroomseid shall always be our home.”
¶XLVI. “We Dryads of Liss-Heim certainly grow tired,” said Liberty. “But until the day cometh that there are more freedom fighters than cowards amongst the Dryads of the Somberwood, we must always hide away in Liss-Heim where the hand of the law doth not reach. For as the law is the refuge of cowards, then the shadows must be the refuge of those that love freedom.”
¶XLVII. “How canst thou be free whilst always having to steal away into the darkness?” asked Serenity.
¶XLVIII. “We cannot be,” answered Liberty. “Not truly. That is why we hate the law so. The law not only taketh freedom from the cowards that willingly surrender to it, but it taketh also the freedom from we who surrender not.”
¶XLIX. “Why doesn’t your tribe just go to the Elderwood, away from the Maenads and their law?”
¶L. “Because, Serenity,” said Liberty, “it is we Dryads of Liss-Heim that must keep the law from spreading beyond the Somberwood.”
¶LI. Not much more was said in the next many hours that the Nymphs persisted through the underground channels, until eventually they saw another light ahead of them.
¶LII. “Another Under Orc?” said Serenity.
¶LIII. “No,” replied Lubricity, “we are nighing Mor’nor, the city of the Swartelves.”
¶LIV. Each moment the Dryads and the Lampads drew nearer to the soft glow yonder, and out onto a ridge at the mouth of the cavern.
¶LV. Standing at this ledge the Nymphs found themselves almost at the ceiling of a fathomless undercroft, so cavernous that at its floor sat a vast city, lit just as those seen at night from the tallest of hills in the Emerald Forest.
¶LVI. From so high above the city’s lights twinkled like the stars of the heavens, speckling the canyon’s bottom in a web of soft yellow radiances so distant and small they seemed a beacon of the worlds beyond.
¶LVII. The Nymphs walked along the ridge, descending adown alongside the undercroft’s wall as aye they ventured forth toward the city below.
¶LVIII. After some time the Nymphs found themselves nearing a great tunnel’s mouth letting out onto the ledge, and from it came the sound of a dire beast breathing.
¶LIX. And then the Troglodyte emerged from its den, angrily snarling. It lurched at them on all fours as its tail swung behind it; its far-apart eyes evilly glaring, its lip kirked and stained teeth peeled, and its nostrils flaring between its blood-shot eyes as evermore it stalked upon them.
¶LX. Ears down and hackles up, its claws clacked against the stony pass with each slow step it took. It then reared upon its legs and raised its arms as if ready to pounce, and unsteadily stumbled at them as a trickle of drool dripped from its lower lip.
¶LXI. Again the Lampads held their torches before them, and again blew lightly against their flames. Again a fire erupted fore, and in this fire was the Orc engulfed, and wordlessly wailed of its pain. And the creature fought at empty air, and swung and swiped at nothings, still screaming as it did, with agony upborne upon its harrowed hales.
¶LXII. And aflame it staggered, and flung its arms as finally its footing failed, ere from the tier the Troglodyte toppled and fell for the founding far below.
¶LXIII. The Nymphs watched from the ledge as the Under Orc plummeted with a wake of fire and smoke. They watched as downward into the darkness the creature dropped, until its burning body was but a faint flicker, and a thud was heard.
¶LXIV. “Ye’ll see that the underground is quite infested with Troglodytes,” said Fervidness, “and other monsters as well. Dire foes indeed, but no match for a Lampad’s flare.”
¶LXV. “Hardly,” said Carnality. “We’ve been lucky twice this day, and luck doth not last forever.”
¶LXVI. So the Nymphs kept walking down along the ledge, slowly circling the city that still so far beneath them sat.