Sounnu was permitted one last night in the village. At dawn the shamans pronounced him exile and the young man left without ceremony. His fellow warriors stayed to their huts, unable to bear the spectacle. Even Tenno lay on his woven palette feigning sleep. Sounnu had been his constant companion for their entire lives. They were close as brothers until the day Sounnu’s father died. The sword the old man bore, crafted by the forgotten lore of the ancients, passed into Sounnu’s hands. Tenno’s flint blades, though artfully made, had seemed worthless by comparison and a shadow of envy passed over their friendship. Sounnu was taking the ancient blade with him into exile; none had dared attempt to take it from the young man.
Though his heart was heavy Sounnu resisted the urge to look over his shoulder as he left the green vale which cradled his village. Trees and shrubs diminished until the steppe was underfoot. By sundown he had crossed the grasslands that separated the vale from the ruined city due west, a nameless relic of the golden age.
The next day he followed the western road as it made its long, winding detour around the edges of the city. The remains of its crooked towers slashed at the blue sky like jagged flint blades, a last blow from a long ago age when people could twist nature into grand shapes of their own design. The road had shrunk to a mere footpath by the time it reached the base of the old mountains. Like the city, the lands beyond the mountains were forbidden by old custom. In despair Sounnu scaled in the low peaks, now finally sparing a glance backwards to view the trailing tendrils of smoke in the far distance marking his former home. There was warmth and community, now forever out of reach. The high air stung his broad, naked back with lashings of snow, shining like miniscule diamonds in the bright light of a cloudless sky.
On the other side of the range the grim warrior found himself standing before a forest of dark pine and stunted birch. Sounnu felt a palpable menace emanating from the line of black shadows draped under the gnarled branches. The presence of danger stirred his soul to something of its former buoyancy. Impatient for the thrill of combat he drew the ancient broadsword from its carved scabbard and plunged forward. He screamed his low battle cry into the mute trunks and scrambled over rocks and deadfall, ducking limbs and weaving through brush. No ghask nor ghoul nor ur-wolf answered his hoarse challenges. He grew tired and gave up seeking foes. Sounnu drank from a clear, cold stream and lay to rest on a bed of moss.
He awoke surrounded by tall heavy creatures, bearing the form of a mushroom bent into the shape of men. Their ill-formed, elongated faces were unreadable masks. The warrior sought the handle of his blade but found he could not move.
He spoke to the mushroom men in a voice heavy with despair. “By what art am I frozen?”
“By manipulating our spores we are able to cause specific calamities to fall upon the unwary,” they answered in unison.
Sounnu sighed, “This is an inglorious end. Be quick, spare me this indignity.”
The mushroom men laughed and replied, “Not so hasty! We will avenge ourselves slowly upon you and extract some recompense for the great wrong your people have wrought.”
Sounnu’s brow furrowed. “To what do you refer?”
The mushroom men leaned their heads back and shook slightly, an apparent expression of distress. Their low voices pooled over the soft ground around the young man like a cool mist as they spoke, “The memory pains us. Long ago your species attacked us with fire and steel, pushing us from our beloved vale into this place. Once we stood content underneath clean oaks as laughing fey danced around our thick legs. Now we work our spores into weapons to ward against ur-wolves and ghasks.”
“In my village the shamans told stories of the hulking Ob-men who once ruled the vale. The ancients defeated them with much sacrifice, expelling their evil from the land.”
The mushroom men let out a low, keening wail.
Sounnu winced, continuing, “I spoke hastily. Perhaps the term Ob-men does not refer to your ancestors.”
The mushroom men spoke in harsh tones, “No! That is the name they bestowed upon us. We were there! And now to learn you creatures have lionized our expulsion! Oh, the injustice is compounded! What variations should we apply presently upon this body to expend our rage?”
For the first time, one of the mushroom men spoke singularly. “Perhaps a spore to turn him inside out?”
Another suggested a spore to splinter the mind into dozens of warring identities. Sounnu felt cold sweat erupt along his muscular frame. He interrupted their conference.
“Would it, perhaps, lessen your anger to know that I am an outcast from the village of men? The great cities are no more. The temples lie in jumbled ruins. The punishment of exile now is a death sentence. And by killing me, you stoop to perform their errands and perfect their will.”
The mushroom men ceased their planning.
“You are an enemy of the humans?”
Sounnu spoke earnestly, “I am indeed. In a fit of pique I smashed an idol and offended the priestesses. The incident arose from an excess of energy on my part. The clans have faded away, consolidated now into one village. The tribes of ghask that once raided the vale are slain, and no ur-wolves dare come close to the village. There is no one for me to fight. To assuage my boredom I explored the vale. Inside a ruin I came across the idol, a strange thing with a strange face. Neither shaman nor priestess could explain its meaning. I became enraged and smashed it. At that time Yulik was thatching his roof and fell painfully. The shamans believed the events were linked and I was charged with bringing a god’s wrath down upon the village. They are clever men, though stunted and cruel, and look for any excuse to castigate a warrior.”
The Ob-Men replied, “Your story bores us. We would prefer you elaborate upon an earlier comment. The great cities are no more?”
“This is true. The elders tell us the city people died away, ignoring nature’s demands to work their great art.”
“So mankind now consists of only one village?”
“That is true also, to the extent of my people’s knowledge. Some dream that across the mountains and through endless ruins lay communities of men that live as in the golden age. They are admonished for their frivolity.”
The mushroom men stepped away from Sounnu and conversed amongst themselves. The warrior allowed himself to relax. He would be tortured to death. Such was fate. The mushroom men returned, now animated and anxious.
“We have decided to spare your life under one condition.”
There was a smell in the air, earthy and floral. Sounnu found he could move. He stood, shaking slightly from the spores’ effects.
“What is this condition?”
The mushroom men spoke in unison again. “You will return home and empty the village of people.”
Sounnu laughed. “That is impossible. Upon sighting an exile the shamans will fill my guts with worms and my ears with shrieking demons. The priestesses will publicly rebuke me with stinging words and the warriors will be compelled to kill me. Why not use your dire spores and perform the deed yourselves?”
“To answer your first concern, know that we will bestow upon you advantages. Insofar as completing the task ourselves, know that we also are a dying race. Our numbers have dwindled to that which you see before you. Should our spores be exhausted then we risk total annihilation. Do as we say and restore us to the vale where we may become contented again and the race of man trouble us no more.”
The mushroom men made Sounnu swear an oath on the souls of his ancestors and another on his prized blade. Satisfied, they then looked to one of their number. A squat specimen with black spots stepped toward Sounnu. The smell of bitter acorns filled his nose. Sounnu lost consciousness.