The information when it finally arrived came from a venerable lake sturgeon. His barbells were long and curled like the stately mustache of a Hussar, and his pointed back-plates were the deep grey of distant mountains that looked almost like winged armour.
“Roderyk Aleksander, Polkovnik of the Clan Sturgeon, at my ladies’ service.” He introduced himself, straight-backed enough to make any military man proud. “I was on my afternoon patrol when I spotted a foreign soldier riding away from the lake with a large bundle. I particularly noticed the cloud of spent magic he was trailing. Us sturgeons are very sensitive to that sort of thing.” He reported.
“…and?” asked Amaltheia impatiently.
“Where did you see them?” Clarified Melusina.
“In Zone 4, sector 47… erh-hem… what you would call the bank of the Mushroom Forest, my ladies.”
“Thank you colonel. You may g… Um… you’re dismissed.”
The sturgeon flailed stiffly in what almost felt like a salute before disappearing.
“The mushroom forest.” Said Iskra with dread.
“You’ll be there in about an hour” replied Melusina understandingly, before she and Amaltheia made their goodbyes and disappeared. As soon as the last of their fins dipped below the surface of the water and disappeared, the last remains of that ethereal mist disappeared and they were once again left in the sunlight on a clear lake.
“What’s wrong with the mushroom forest?” Asked Lidiya. More so than the rest of them, her magic usually kept her closer to home and her forge. Even Kasia and Anna tended to stick primarily to the fields, the village, and the first parts of the forest.
Only Iskra would disappear for days at a time, wondering the more hidden depths of the wilderness.
“I haven’t really gone far into it, so most of what I know I know from stories, but, it’s this part of the forest where magic is super concentrated, where the forest isn’t just alive, it’s conscious and moves around.”
‘Parts of it. The trees aren’t trees, they’re giant mushrooms. There are different groves and sometimes those groves get up and move around. The problem is that the exists from the forest still exit from those groves, even if they move. So like if you are going to the village by the sea to the north, lets say, then you have to go out of the Oyster Grove, even if the grove itself has decided to go far south.”
They portioned out bits of bread and cheese, deciding to eat before they arrived at the next stage of their journey. They continued to pester Iskra about everything she knew about this magical epicenter. The fiery red head had only gone as far as the button valley herself, the border between the forest they knew and the fungal wonderland. The valley was always covered in shade, and no matter what the weather was like, it was always damp. It had the musty smell of an old abandoned cellar, and everywhere you looked, the ground was covered in white, grey, and brown mushrooms, ranging from those as small as her pinky to those reaching her waste. Those that grew here didn’t possess the same level of consciousness that the larger groves deeper within the forest did, but even at these very edges, the magic that filled the soil made these mushrooms more potent than those that grew anywhere else.
“So there I am gathering some of those little puffballs that granny likes so much, you know the ones that always make her float a few inches off the floor and her eyes water because of how spicy they are? Anyway, I’m in the middle of guessing the riddle that you need to guess in order for the log these are growing out of to release the mushroom without tripping off the stink sap, when all of a sudden I realise I’m surrounded by Chanterelles as big as elephants.”
As she spoke, the boat continued along, following Lidiya’s spell through the water. The trees on either side of them grew taller and more imposing, as the lake narrowed , so that they floated through a channel, with both sides of the lake visible. Soon, the trees shadowed the water around them completely, creating the illusion that it was later than it was. Vegetation grew thicker in the water, with grasses sticking out here and there, surrounded by thick carpets of duckweed creating the illusion of solid ground. At the boat cut through the swaths of water plants, some of the clung to the side of the boat making it as green as the water around them. Here and there were what looked like floating logs of wood starting to degrade in the water.
“It was surreal! Just imagine, one moment you are surrounded by a field of little mushrooms, and the next thing you know, you are looking at a wall of orange. Despite their size, they moved as quietly as an owl on the wing, the bottom of their stems undulating like hundreds of little feet, while their scooped caps waved hypnotically back and forth. The wave of chanterelles broke on either side of me, so that even though I was surrounded, I wasn’t actually IN the chanterelle grove. Still I could see into it and even though I could see them moving around me, from within the grove, they looked like they were planted solidly. Gives me a headache just thinking about it.”
The lake narrowed and narrowed till suddenly it curved inward into a point just wide enough for the boat to moor itself. Up from the water was a path in between small glowing green mushrooms which lit the way up deeper into the dark forest.
Kleks leaped out of the boat, jumping around clumsily in ecstasy over being on land again. He got himself under control, woofing gruffly in embarrassment, and letting Iskra put on his vest and halter.
“What do we do with the boat?” asked Kasia, her black cat circling around her feet while the owl stretched its wings and went hunting for a mouse or two.
“Just leave it there.” Replied Lidiya. “You need the right incantation to make it go anywhere.”
The small mushrooms lining the path created a neon green light, highlighting the path with a soft glow. The tall trees overhead blocked out so much of the sky that it was hard to tell if it was day or night. Only the fact that they had seen the sun not so long ago kept them secure in the knowledge that it was still day. By the light of the mushrooms, they made their way deeper into the darkness.
The world around them smelled like slowly decaying wood. Not the sickly sweet aroma of rot, but rather the soft damp smell of fresh earth. They followed the glowing mushrooms for some time before they realized that the thick trunks reaching high above them, surrounding them, and the canopy blocking out the sunlight wasn’t trees anymore but enormous mushrooms with overlapping caps.
What had looked like the paper that peels from birch bark was actually the ring of the mushroom stems. So busy were they admiring the colossal fungi that they didn’t notice when the glowing mushroom path was narrowing as they walked. They didn’t notice when white, blue, and purple phosphorescent mushrooms added to the glow lighting their way. They didn’t notice until suddenly they were completely surrounded by lights.
The canopy above them was speckled with white mushrooms, making it look as though they stood beneath a clear night sky full of stars. The stems of the canopy mushrooms were circled with green mushrooms, and here and there you could see shades of violet and purple in small mushroom bushes that looked like exotic flowers.
Smaller mushrooms were growing among the behemoths that blocked out the sun. Smaller that is to say, in that they were only about the height of a modest house. The walked deeper into this hidden world, startled by bulbous bullfrogs which turned out to be have only one eye. Although at first it looked like it was reflecting the green of the nearby glowing mushrooms, it turned out that the frog itself was glowing. Kleks prodded at one with his paw and all of them, except Anna, jumped when instead of the deep almost cow-like bellow produced by regular bullfrogs, these produced a high-pitched sustained squeal.
Anna meanwhile was entranced by a bird which instead of regular wings had one large wing that spiraled like a top when it flew.
Things only became stranger as they kept walking. A flock of what looked like jellyfish floated along in the air above them, the many different coloured glows reflecting in rainbows across their membranous surfaces like the colours in an oil slick. Even for witches who grew up in Baba Yaga’s magical chicken-legged house, this forest was a strange and wondrous place.
The fascination lasted about two hours. About an hour into their trek, it started to rain. They didn’t even understand how that was possible, given the way the mushroom caps covered the sky. It should have been like walking beneath a covered roof. And yet here were these big fat drops falling down from the domes above them. Within seconds all of them were soaked to the skin. The star mushrooms were completely obstructed by the falling water, and the glowing green and purple mushrooms around them reflected strangely off the drops, making it almost look like they were in the middle of a thunderstorm.
Soot was hiding under the hood of Kasia’s cloak, meowling pathetically, while Archimedes shook in the rain. Whenever he shook Kasia would stumble. It was when she stumbled into Kleks who jerked and caused Iskra’s chair to jerk which made her yelp in pain, that Lidiya finally called enough.
“We’ve been at this all day, we can’t see anything so for all we know we’re walking in circles, and if we keep going like this someone is going to get hurt.”
They followed what they could make out of the lights around them to one of the lower growing mushrooms that was blocking at least some of the raindrops falling from overhead. They kept bumping into each other as they went about setting up camp. When they ended up with three stone rings for a fire pit and no fuel or tent, they realized they needed to stop and reorganize. After a bit of arguing over who should do what, they finally managed to set up some kind of shelter. Exhausted, they piled under the canvas and went to sleep.