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Rated: E · Short Story · Fantasy · #2195216
A mushroom man comes to terms with his newly developed sapience.
         We didn't notice her at first. She sat in the shadows outside our cavern, watching us come and go. Eventually she let us see her, and we felt comfortable with her presence. We found it strange, but did nothing. None of us recognised it for the warning it was.
         The woman towered over us - she must have been at least six feet tall. But that did not stop her entering our caverns as soon as she could. She found the mossery, the largest of our caverns, and a spacious ledge to recline on and watch us from. She stayed there for days.
         As she observed us, we observed her. Her skin was a dusky grey colour, her face sharp and refined, her hair thick and black. She wore a black robe, and appeared to carry nothing with her. We were a tribe of haroriwi, or ‘mushroom men’ as the deep elf knew us. She recognised us as ‘humanoid mushrooms with limited intelligence, tough and capable denizens of the underlands’. Despite having never encountered our kind before, she knew almost everything about us.
         The mossery had a large pond in the centre, with thick green moss growing on its shores. It was where the tribe kept, prepared, and ate food. Whenever we ate, we would notice she had none and feel compelled to bring her some. We knew she was from one of the more complicated races, but if she was offended by our offerings of roasted lizard, spongy mushroom bread and earthy moss tea, she gave no sign and consumed them happily.
         It wasn't long until she began interfering with our lives. She decided who went hunting when, and for what. She decided when we ate, when we slept, and eventually, she decided that we would leave. By then it was far too late. She was a part of our community, and as the only one with an individual will, she quickly took control. Her mastery of us became a part of our minds, and although her influence changed us, we can never escape her. We do not want to.
         When she told us to pack up our things, we did so without hesitation or question. Our furs, tools and weapons, even the precious metal cookware we’d pilfered long ago. Most of the moss and water was harvested or drained for our provisions, leaving the mossery barren.
         I remember the image of that desolate cavern so clearly. As the rear guard, I was the last to leave. With a heavy pack on my back and a wooden spear in my hands, I looked back on my way out. I think that moment of sadness was my first independent thought. A fitting welcome to the world of individuality. But it was a long time before I recognised it as such.
         She took us closer and closer to the dreaded surface, looking for a place to settle. Eventually she found what she was looking for. In the endless twisting and rambling tunnels of the underlands, she found a large enough system of caverns and chambers that was easily defensible. We were sent to work.
         Some of us were set to carving the walls and floors of the cavern into a more pleasing shape. A difficult task with primitive tools, but not impossible. Our master placed a high priority on this aesthetic, a completely alien concept to us. But we had not yet learned to question.
         Others were sent to harvest wood from the now distant fungiwood forest, something we were well practiced at. Hauling such heavy loads so far was new to us, and we should have cut the trunks into boards and posts first. But we had not yet learned to think for ourselves.
         I was sent hunting, but unlike before the master came, I was sent alone. Before I would hunt with at least three others, each of us wielding wooden spears with copper tips. We would ambush a hunting lizard wyrm, crippling its legs and pinning it in place before killing it with a single thrust to the heart or head.
         This was impossible on my own, yet I attempted it three times. The first two times I barely escaped. The last time I lost my entire left arm. I managed to crawl back to our new home, thick blood running down my side. The pain let the tribe know I was coming, but they could do nothing. Each of us had orders to follow, and none of them were to help the injured.
         With the magic of the deep elf working in my mind, my self-awareness had grown. With the pain of losing my arm and stumbling back alone, I made my first independent decision. I had to look after myself.
         Using stored medicine made from specially grown fungus and a bandage of fibrous moss, I treated and covered my wound. I would not hunt until it had healed and my arm had regrown. Instead, I waited for the master to return. She had taken the other hunters with her, to loot the first of what would be many items from nearby city ruins.
         They returned with iron tools to make our work faster and easier, and knowledge of where the other items our master wanted were located. I was given an iron speartip that was almost as tall as I was, and told to craft a more formidable weapon with it. When I showed her my missing arm, she frowned. This was when she began to commune with us regularly.
         This ongoing attention from our master increased the development of every mind in the tribe, and soon we were all thinking individually. She gave us leave to make our own decisions, and we took to it immediately. Work became more efficient, and we began to approach something resembling our old life.
         She removed my pain and sped up my regeneration with her magic. Within days, I was ready to hunt. Using my new freedom of thought, I had chosen to hunt rats - they were large, numerous, and easier to kill on my own. The other hunters had returned to collect more items, and I was the sole provider of meat to the tribe. There had not been many rats where we lived before, but I quickly learned how to find and hunt them.
         My new spear was a foot taller than me, with a long blade that I could both slash and stab with. Soon, I was delivering a dozen rats a day to our new and elaborate kitchen. Their hides were turned into leather and furs, their meat into roasts and stews. The mossery housed a larger variety of moss and mushrooms, and even the master was pleased with the quality and variety of food we now produced.
         Whether the master intended for our intellects to develop or not, she quickly recognised and encouraged it. We were given our own cabins, fungiwood buildings in a large cavern complete with furniture in imitation of what the master used. I learned to sleep in a bed and store personal belongings.
         At first it was just my spear, the first thing I’d taken pride in. Later, I was given a set of armor. Boots, bracers and brigandine, reinforced with iron plates taken from a battlefield in the ruins. I had a fur robe to wear when not hunting that was styled after the masters own outfit. After a while, it was rare to see anyone not in a black rat robe. I again felt pride when I realised I had provided every pelt that made up the new robes. I was almost overwhelmed when I saw the master had taken one for herself, a finely made thing with thick, glossy black fur to rival her own, to wear over one shoulder.
         Creativity surged within the tribe as we began to express our individualities. The chefs experimented with their new array of ingredients, and had to learn to write to provide the master with a full list to choose from. The builders had come up with cunning traps to add to the existing fortifications. The crafters improved both my weapon and armour several times. But what seemed to delight the master most were the carvings that the carvers left on her walls. Straight and orderly, her chambers had been smoothed into the style of her people. Throughout her rooms, the tale of the haroriwi’s rise to sapience was carved into the wall. From a somewhat crude depiction of the stranger that sat outside our camp, in a style that was more impression than depiction, to an incredibly lifelike portrait of an individual mushroom man standing alone above the tribe, with a benevolent and beautiful deep elf looking over him. The master shed a tear when she saw it, and none of the haroriwi could recognise the greed that lurked behind her smile.
         I longed to express myself as well, but all I could do was hunt. While the carvers worked on the rest of the caves, I was spearing rats and dragging them home. It took me many days of contemplation before I could think of something. It would not be as impressive as a great work of art, but the idea excited me, and I took it to the tribe smith.
         I asked him for his help. He agreed. It was a new experience for both of us. But with the knowledge from the master, the new forge she’d had us make and the experience of working with the looted tools and weapons, we were able to bring my idea into reality.
Using the crude lumps of copper from our now disused spears and axes, we smelt and cast new speartips. I carved the hafts myself, and when we were done, I had four finely made javelins. The leatherworker made a quiver to hold them, and with much excitement and well wishes from my fellow tribe members, I set out on the hunt for a new prey.
         As the only meat being provided to the ever-experimenting chefs, the tribe had grown weary of the flavour. Although it could be prepared a number of ways, they had run out of new things to try with it. Even the master had displayed a weariness of it. I could not abide that.
         Our new home was closer to the surface than any of us had ever been, and the prey that lived there was all but new to us. On my hunts I had found huge caverns that housed hundreds of fat, sleeping bats. Even bigger than the rats I hunted, which themselves were often over a foot long, they would be easy targets for my new javelins.
         My fibrous muscles bunched as I drew back my arm, javelin in hand. A cluster of bats slept a dozen feet away. Silently, I launched my attack. It struck with a heavy thud. A body fell, hitting the ground. The javelin was lodged square in its chest.
         The rest of the bats awoke, and like a great dark storm they descended, flapping leathery wings, violently passing me overhead as they fled to other caverns. I crawled across the ground, beneath their notice, and retrieved my kill and my javelin. It had worked. I had added a new prey to the menu.
         Both the bats and the caves where they slept were numerous, and I would often return with half a dozen at a time. These were immediately popular, and the chefs quickly came up with several delicious recipes for them. But most importantly, the master was delighted. Her rooms had finally been furnished to her satisfaction, and the hunters that had been among the looters returned to hunting. The master asked me personally to instruct them, and commanded they be provided identical weapons. She wanted more meat so that some could be preserved and stored, and for us to be trained to fight with our spears and javelins to defend the village when the raids began. It would not be long before word got out that there was a wealthy tribe of haroriwi in the area, and dwarves or goblins would come seeking easy prey.
         Back when we were one, we never dreamed such a thing would happen to us. But that day I stood, one among many, with skills and knowledge possessed only by me. I had distinguished myself among my peers, earned their respect and admiration, and knew both pride and ambition. I was a new creation.

         Once the master's chambers had been prepared to her liking, we saw little of her. Although we now possessed individual intelligence, we were still connected as one. The master was still there, giving orders and influencing us, but from the comfort of her rooms. She was busy with her looted books and artifacts, and we were busy providing for her and ourselves.
         Our days were based on her schedule. The luminescent fungi that lit our caverns waxed and waned at her whim. Our new home was complete. The mossery was established, much larger than the last, with an artificial pool and orderly rows of growing moss and fungus. Our workshops, more advanced than anything we could have devised ourselves, were running smoothly and efficiently. Our homes, far more luxurious than the pile of stinking furs we'd once slept on, were richly furnished and provided us a safe place to contemplate the individual changes we were each going through.
         My bed, styled after the huge one that the master had taken from the nearby ruins, was covered in the thick furs of rats I had killed myself. The caverns were cooler than where we'd lived before, and the warm furs were a welcome addition to my new lonely sleeping arrangements.
         In the corner of my room stood my armour stand, and each night I would arrange my armour carefully upon it. The armourer had copied the designs of armour looted from the nearby human ruins, and I now had a full suit of finely made leather and iron armour. It was light enough that it didn't slow me down and did not restrict my movement while hunting, and protected me from the claws and fangs of my prey. Every morning when I donned the armour and took up my spear and javelins, my pride in my possessions and ability radiated throughout the tribe. I felt similar pride from my fellow hunters, and we would greet each other jovially every morning.
         Working with the other hunters again, I began to notice their budding personalities developing. No longer of one mind, we were many minds connected through old bonds. Those bonds helped us work together, to know how each was feeling, to make group decisions. It was still difficult to share individual thoughts, but we were learning.
         One of the hunters had developed a crude sense of humour. He would ambush us every morning as though we were prey, pouncing on one of us and attempting to wrestle us to the ground. We were learning to laugh at his antics, and even as they became predictable, it was still pleasing to give voice to our mirth.
         The other two hunters had become obsessed with their new material possessions. They were continually appraising and comparing their weapons, armour and trinkets, discussing how best to use their tools, tactics for hunting different kinds of beasts, and potential improvements they could make to both.
         I wondered what they thought of me, or indeed, if they thought of my personality at all. It had occurred to me that none of us, outside our shared mind, had considered these changes objectively. The members of the tribe seemed to revel in them, celebrating their new individuality. I was the only one considering the effects of these changes.
         The master had not only evolved our minds, but given us the language and frame of reference we needed to understand it. It was too much to take in at once, and the tribe was still coming to terms with it. I doubted we would ever fully understand the changes our master had wrought on us.
         One morning, not long after the master had sequestered herself, we were summoned to her. I realised I had never personally been that way before. All my knowledge of the master’s chambers came from the tribe, so it was a shock to see them with my own eyes.
         The rock had been smoothed and cut tall enough to allow the master to walk unbowed. I was not prepared for how artificial it felt. A large wooden door, one of the many looted items, was set into the wall. With its brass hinges and handle, it put our simple doors to shame. One of my companions knocked, and a moment later the door swung open.
         The first thing I noticed was the towering bookshelves. Taller even than the master, they reached to the very height of the large room and lined every wall. At the centre of the room was a large table, and sat at it in a comfortable cushioned chair was the master. Piles of books covered the table, and her bright eyes peered intently at one that lay open in front of her.
         She instructed us to line up before her and wait. I do not know how long we did so. There was nothing like being in her presence. After a while she looked up, and imparted her wishes to us. We were to travel back to the ruined city and collect more items for her - not furnishings and trinkets as before, but important artifacts that she had located for us.
         My fellow hunters nodded and made to withdraw. I almost followed them, when a thought struck me. Although we were still able to think as one, the master had given us individual minds. I did not know if she had done this for a reason, but I wanted to show her I appreciated the gift - and wanted to use it.
         “Master,” I began hesitantly. My voice seemed to boom throughout the caverns, and I instinctively shrunk away from it. The master’s fierce gaze focused on me entirely, and I found myself unable to speak further.
         “Yes, pet?” She asked when I did not continue. Her voice was like delicious honey, enveloping me in its sweetness. I longed for her to continue, to fill all silence with her beautiful voice.
         “I have not been to the ruined city. Will you show me the way?”
         “Of course,” she said after a moment’s consideration. Though her words lasted less than a second, the sound of them echoed through my mind for hours.
         I do not know what response I expected from her, but I was not disappointed. I felt her enclose me within her mind, and in moments she had shown me the path we were to take to reach the ruined city together, where I should depart from my fellows, and where I would find the items she desired. I was so enraptured of her, I paid little attention to the details. She had placed the knowledge in my mind, and it would be there when I needed it.
         All too soon it was done, and she sent us on our way. Whatever she thought about hearing a haroriwi speak for the first time in the history of our tribe she kept to herself. The rest of the tribe was enthused by my daring and innovation, and within a few days the caverns would be filled with the first murmurings of spoken conversation.
         But that day, as we left the master’s chambers and finally the caverns we called home, we were all in an awed silence. The master’s voice filled us with purpose, and nothing else mattered but fulfilling her wishes.

         So close to the surface, the tunnels and caverns were mostly devoid of life. The fungus and moss that grew in the underlands could barely survive here, and so there were fewer creatures to hunt. We carried leather packs filled with bread and smoked meat, and tough fungal gourds of water.
         Travelling and provisions were more concepts new to us. Any journey undertaken was usually done as a group, a migration of the tribe. The further we went, the weaker my connection to the rest of the tribe became. Having the other hunters there was reassuring, but being unable to feel the presence of the whole tribe was a difficult sensation to adjust to. But with my individuality and the lingering presence of the master in my mind, I could survive. I would not fail her.
         A large portion of the city we were travelling to was located underground. The human kingdom it once belonged to had crumbled, and though the land on the surface was still populated by them, the city was not. The master had travelled through the ruins recently, where she had discovered useful and powerful knowledge and artifacts, abandoned long ago. She retreated to the underlands, her home, to create a place from where she could loot the city and learn from what she found there. This was why she had come to us and given us purpose, and the ability to better serve her.
         The entrance to the city looked exactly as it did when she had shown it to us. The rough tunnels of the underlands met with a massive, ruined door that led into regular, worked corridors not unlike in the master's own Chambers.
         Spears ready, we entered the ancient corridor. I immediately felt a sense of evil, as though a hostile entity that watched over the city did not approve of our trespassing. I asked the other's what dangers we might face there. They told me that the danger was passed, that the master had hunted down and removed the evil that had reigned there, but that some minions might remain. They had not seen any on their previous trips, but could not deny the threat we all felt. Something still haunted the ruins of the city.
         We soon came to a large room with many branching paths. Hallways, stairwells and small passages led deeper into the city, and it was there that we were to go our separate ways. As we did, I realised I was the only one ascending further into the ruins - the others headed into flat passages or downstairs. I was headed ever closer to the dreaded surface. I hoped this did not mean anything as I pulled myself up the huge stone steps.
         Being only a third of the size of the creatures this city was built for made navigating it difficult. Years of hunting had made me strong, and since the master had come we had all become more limber and agile. We were becoming less fungoid, more humanoid. These changes served me well as I followed the halls deeper into the ruins. Everything was dead silent, but I could not shake the feeling that something was watching me. Something that knew I was coming to it, unable to turn back. Something that waited for me.

         It was hours before I reached my goal. I had travelled deep within the ruins, and the damp, grimy walls remained uniform no matter where I went. Very little remained from when this city had been alive, and what there was had been ruined beyond all recognition.
         I had no interest in the ruins or what had been left behind. My thoughts were consumed by two things - claiming that which the master had sent me to retrieve, and what I would find there. I was convinced that the presence awaited me.
         At the bottom of a deep stairwell I found a rusted iron gate blocking my path. The room beyond it was dark, somehow darker than the unlit tunnels I had been navigating by the light of my own luminescence. I could hear nothing beyond, and smell nothing but the ever present scent of mildew and decay.
         The gate had rusted at its lock and hinges. I used my spear to pry it open. The lock gave way easily, but the hinges squeaked and squealed stubbornly as I forced it back. I grimaced at the sound. Whatever awaited me knew I was there.
         After wrenching it open wide enough to slip through, I dropped my pack and took only my weapons and an empty bag through with me. I went slowly, stepping once, flaring the glow from my body to look around, and stepping again. Nothing seemed out of place or unusual, but I was not taking any chances. Not for my own safety, but because I did not want to disappoint the master.
         I knew that I’d been given the most dangerous task. I’d been sent deeper into the ruins than any of the others, despite never travelling there before. If it was a test, I would pass it. If it was her faith in my ability, I would live up to her expectations. Nothing but death would stop me.
         That thought caused a whole new source of fear to flood through me. Not fear of the dark and what could be lurking there, or fear that I might fail the master, but fear of death. I had never known it before. Being part of a collective mind had meant I would live on even if my body perished. But now that I thought for myself, I realised that if I died, so would the majority of my consciousness. What I had become, or was becoming, would be lost forever.
         For a moment, I froze. That fear was almost enough to overcome the master’s control. So far from her, and so far from my tribe, I felt, for a brief moment, the unrestricted and unbound freedom of an individual, intelligent mind. I felt all decisions were mine, from the obvious, logical choices to the unreasonable, insane actions I could take. I could go anywhere, do anything, become something that no haroriwi could have before. An infinite ocean of possibilities lay before me.
         Then I took another step forward. I flared again, the soft glow from my body deepening, letting me see further into the chamber. I was there to retrieve something for the master. That was my purpose, and my only choice.
         I crept forward for what seemed like years, until suddenly a pedestal loomed above me. Twice my height, I knew what I sought lay atop it. I was about to look around for something to help me climb it when I heard a shuffling behind me.
         I turned just in time to avoid the head of a mace. It passed lazily through the air in front of me, where I had just been standing. I leapt away and brought my spear up in front of me.
         A headless, mummified corpse wielding a long iron mace lurched forward, swinging its weapon again. Panicked, I managed to scramble out of its way. I backed up further, trying to find space and time to recover and steel myself to fight.
         The mummy must have once been human, though it was hard to tell now. It looked like nothing more than a skeleton, so gaunt it was under its tight, hardened skin. It moved stiffly, difficultly. I doubted whether it could have raised its weapon much higher, though in my case it didn’t need to. Even without a head, it would have been taller than the master.
         I continued to dodge its lazy swings, but I could not get within its reach. My spear, though long for me, was not long enough to attack between swings. But I could not dodge it forever.
         It swung its mace once more, level with my head. I let it pass by, so close to my face I could feel it, and darted in with my spear. With as much power as I could muster, I drove my sharp metal point into its abdomen.
         The mummy did not make a sound. It stumbled briefly under the impact, and swung again. I was within its reach, but even so, the impact knocked me to the ground. I held onto my spear, and the mummy tore itself open on the sharp blade. Nothing but dust escaped from the wound.
         It swung again, and the mace landed squarely. It bounced off my thick mushroom cap, knocking me over and leaving me dazed. Using the momentum from the attack, I rolled out of the way and rose unsteadily to my feet. I shook away the dizziness and circled around the room, keeping the pedestal between me and my foe.
         The headless corpse continued to lurch after me as I figured out my next move. But for its size and reach, the undead wouldn’t pose much danger to a skilled hunter. Was there a way I could take away one or both of those advantages?
         I swapped my spear to my left hand and drew a javelin. I took aim and threw, first one, and then another.
         The first javelin struck and lodged itself in its stiff right knee. The second missed, passing through its legs but lodging in the ground. The mummy tripped and fell against the pedestal, bringing it tumbling to the ground as well.
         The object I sought rolled along the ground to land at my feet. I snatched the empty bag from my belt and scooped it up. Not wanting to press my luck, I ran around the slowly rising undead and slipped back through the gate before it was on its feet.
         Back out in the hallway, I dragged my pack a short way before stopping to put it on. The mummy had made it to the gate. It reached vainly, arms through the bars, skeletal fingers grasping. My javelin was still lodged in its knee, thumping against the gate. I did not know if it was smart enough to find the opening I had left, which it could easily pull itself through, and I did not want to find out. With my pack and remaining javelins stowed, my spear in one hand and the object of my search in the other, I turned my back on the headless corpse and ran steadily back where I had come from.
         There was a jaunty spring in my step as I travelled back. The master would be very pleased with me. Despite the odds and challenges, I had succeeded. Alone, I had claimed her prize. Inexperienced, I had braved the evil ruins and carried out her wishes. I could barely contain my glee as I thought of her beautiful voice, sounding out in praise of me, her finest hunter.
         Yet even as I revelled in anticipation of my reward, I felt that dark presence again. An uneasiness assailed me, even though I had fulfilled my purpose and claimed victory. It was different now, and cast a dark shadow on my rejoicing. I tried to shake it off, but once I had noticed it, it became all I could think of until my happiness faded and my walk returned to normal.
         It was doubt, a voice told me. Doubt that things would turn out as expected. Doubt that I had succeeded at all. Doubt that I had any right to be joyous, that I would be rewarded, that I had done anything of any value.
         It was not the master’s voice, nor my own newly awakened inner voice. It did not compel me to do anything or follow my own train of thought. It was not clear, did not demand my attention or speak in words. But it was there, radiating doubt. A new feeling for me.
         After walking a while with this cloud over my mind, I had an urge to examine the item I’d claimed. It had not mattered before - I knew this was the object the master sought. What it was meant nothing to me, only that it was given to her. But still, I found myself opening the bag and tumbling it out into my arms.
         A mummified head looked up at me. Its eyes and mouth were sewn shut, its skin tight and tough. A single knot of hair sat on its head, dry and stiff. Was this the head of the corpse I had fought? It seemed likely, but this head showed no sign of undeath. Yet the more I looked at it, the more I suspected that it was the source of the presence I had felt, the source of the doubt and fear that now bothered me. I looked at it for a long time before putting it back in its bag.
         I reached the room where we had split up to find two of the other hunters waiting for me. I realised I had been spending too much time in my own head, and opened myself up to the tribe once more. The last of us had been lost, his presence flickering out hours ago. Whether he had gone too far or died, none of us could tell. He was gone, and we were to return without him. For a moment I felt a pang of regret. At first it was regret that his own individual consciousness was now lost, like I had earlier feared my own would be. It was then overshadowed by regret that we would not be bringing the master everything she had sent us for.
I took comfort in the mind of my tribe, and together we journeyed home.

         I’ll never forget the master’s reaction to our return. Proud and victorious, we marched into her chambers with our spoils held high. She glanced at the items - a chalice of jet black metal, set with precious green stones, an intricately carved wooden wand with an odd elaborate knot of thread between its two prongs, and my own dreadful and imposing mummified head. Then she sent us away.
         I am sure the whole tribe felt my disappointment. Not a single word, not even a thought of thanks or praise came from her. She had no interest in the struggles we went through, the trials we had overcome to fulfil her wishes. She had what she wanted, and she was done with us. We could go.
         The master didn’t even seem to notice we were one hunter short. It was this disregard for our lives that almost caused me to speak up. But before I could think of the words to say, I was walking out of her chambers behind the others. It was all I could manage to turn back for one last look at her apathetic ambivalence. I saw her absent-mindedly examining the wand, flicking one of the knots with her finger. The mummified head seemed to be looking at me once more. I felt something else from it, another new feeling I was unfamiliar with. It was smug.
         I turned away and left. I still felt the master, as ever present and invasive as she had ever been. I felt the tribe, the collective around me that would always be my home and my safety. I even felt the lingering doubt from the presence I’d brought back from the ruins. But in that moment, I shut them all out. To be an individual was to be alone. I knew that now. I was part of a tribe, and I had a master, but neither cared about my individuality. I was the only one upset over the loss of an individual haroriwi. I was the only one who expected more from the master, who I now knew saw us only as tools and pets, not companions or peers.
         No other member of the tribe had these thoughts or understood them. The master did not care for them. I was alone in my melancholy, and always would be.
         Unnoticed by the master, the lips on the mummified head curled upwards in a slight smile.

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