The living do not belong in the underworld.
But if ever they should find themselves there, trapped, unable to return to their proper realm, there were a few paths of escape.
The easiest path was to find a mushroom.
The other ways were grueling and torturous. Narrowing tunnels lined with coils of rusted barbs that catch and scratch, and give way to crisscrossing thorny branches on which nightmare wasps lay sleeping, until some poor soul came struggling through, shaking and waking the wasps, who pierced the soul with needle stings filled with paralyzing venom.
But that tunnel was preferable to the ladder of bones that ascended into the realm of the living. It was called so because it was made from the bones of the dead, but only the wicked dead. The ladder was covered in blood and entrails and refuse, and as one climbed, the bones would twist and wriggle, and sometimes fall away. The ladder was held up against a steep cliff face, pocked with holes from which skeletal arms would emerge and grasp the climber, sharp boney fingers puncturing living flesh, seeking anchor, seeking to be pulled back up to the world of the living—or failing that, seeking to drag the living soul down to bask in its dying radiance. For nothing living could abide in the underworld for too long.
That ladder too was preferable to the maze of hedges. It was the shortest distance from underworld to living world. It could hardly be called a maze, for it had but six turns. Yet none had tried it since ancient times when the blood of gods ran in the veins of a few mortal humans. Within that maze lay unfathomable horrors, fears twisted to appear like pleasures, pains dressed so prettily as to be welcomed, and things lurking in the hollows of madness. No ordinary mortal mind could withstand it. And even the sovereign who ruled the underworld never lay his dark but holy gaze upon it.
And so if ever a living soul were trapped in the underworld, the best and easiest way to escape was to find a mushroom.
The challenge was this.
Every mushroom growing in the underworld was invisible.
Here the tale is told.
A godlike sovereign ruled the underworld realm, through which the souls of mortals passed after death on their way to one of many afterworlds, and in which some of those souls were held and punished, tormented for reasons both just and unjust. Only immortal beings or things were allowed in the underworld. But mortal beings and things could pass through, if they gained permission from the underworld sovereign, or more likely, if found a way to thwart the rules.
In the beginning, such trespasses were few and exceptional. But the underworld sovereign came to observe that more and more of the living were trespassing in his realm. He sent his spies up and out into the realm of the living to find out how so many of the living were managing to pass so easily into and out of his realm, not just great heroes, but ordinary, common humans.
There were a number of ways for the passage to be made—flesh-wrenching spells, maps that could only be read by those who had spent a lifetime studying magic, or aid given by the sovereign’s own siblings to some favored mortal, all of which were giving way to a new and much easier means…mushrooms.
In those days, all mushrooms were edible and safe—that is to say, effects could be unpredictable, but none led to danger for either the one who consumed or those around that one. Mushrooms were food. They were medicine. They could alter perception. They were used in spells. They were themselves enchanted. The greatest challenge in consuming them was in knowing and managing the effects.
An entire people had arisen—or some said, had been made by those who created the world—to grow, care for, and master mushrooms. They were called the mushroom-keepers.
Mushrooms grew from the air and the ether in those days, far above and beyond the reach of mortal beings, even those that could fly.
No ordinary person could pick a mushroom. They needed the help of a mushroom-keeper. The mushroom-keepers had a cordial rapport with all beings. This included the underworld sovereign, whom they addressed as “Fair Warden.” Yet they had no qualms about helping the living sneak into the underworld to gather rare items for spells, or rescue loved ones who’d been mistakenly trapped, or complete some quest to prove their worth.
Though stirred to anger, the underworld sovereign was not without wisdom or patience. He sought to find out how the mushrooms worked, so that he could devise a means of thwarting them.
While their native place was the air, mushrooms could grow in any realm, the earth, the waters, and even the underworld. The mushroom-keepers had grown several species of mushrooms capable of penetrating the veil between life and death.
But the mushrooms’ strength was also their weakness.
The underworld sovereign found the mushrooms that grew down to his realm. He tried to sever the connection, using all the tools at his disposal, including his sword, so sharp it could shear a shadow. But he found he could not sever the threads—fine and delicate though they appeared—between the parts of the mushroom that connected his realm to the realm of the living. Anchored to their native realm, the mushrooms were somehow shielded and protected from anything that abided in the underworld realm. While they appeared simple, most even whimsical, the magic of the mushrooms was complex and arcane. Their workings were mysterious to him, for mushrooms fell under the rule of his sibling, the gentle gardener of the world.
Thwarted from destroying the mushrooms that invaded his realm, the underworld sovereign studied them and learned what he could.
He noted one thing about the mushrooms that led into his realm. They placed the mortals who used them in a state between life and death. That allowed them to pass through his realm without the radiance of their living souls attracting the attention of the cursed souls in the underworld, who had lost all their radiance ages past. That was the danger of remaining in the underworld. It was only meant to be a waystation for most souls, those who were decent enough in life to pass on to one of the many afterworlds, and continue the journey of their existence.
But souls who became trapped in the underworld—whether their bodies still lived or not—would rot and grow wretched.
The underworld sovereign approached the mushroom-keepers. He pointed out the imbalance in nature caused by their meddling in his dominion of the underworld. He ordered them to cease growing the mushrooms that allowed mortals to enter and exit his realm at their whims.
But the mushroom-keepers were not governed by the underworld sovereign. Their sovereign was the gentle gardener who tended all that grew within the soils of all realms. They pointed out to the underworld sovereign that the imbalance was caused by his realm. Many souls resided in his underworld who did not belong in such a wretched place. Such was the flaw of any prison. It contained the innocent alongside the guilty.
The mushroom-keepers entreated the underworld sovereign to allow them to continue aiding the mortals, but he was unmoved. Anger still simmered within him. And after residing so long in the underworld, his spirit too was affected by the wretchedness of his realm.
He returned to the underworld to plan, knowing that the gentle heart of the gardener, who was his sibling, would side with the mushroom-keepers.
While he plotted what he must do next, he continued to receive news from his many minions of trespassing souls. One day, he stumbled upon one of these interlopers himself.
A mortal man had used an enchanted mushroom to secret himself into the underworld. What business he had there, the underworld sovereign did not know, but would soon discover upon the man’s capture. The underworld sovereign himself approached the man, careful and quiet, invisible to the man’s eyes.
But somehow, the mortal man sensed something. His eyes grew wide as his hands went searching the pockets of his worn tunic. The underworld sovereign made himself visible then, looming in all his inglorious fury. The visage should have frozen the man with terror. But he found what he sought in his pockets and pulled it out.
A pale white mushroom with fluttering gills.
The man crammed the mushroom into his mouth as the underworld sovereign drew his sword.
The man bit down only once and swallowed, even as his eyes shown with a paralyzing fear.
The underworld sovereign raised his sword, and bore down on a net of fine white threads that fell over the mortal man and faded from view as they carried him away to the land of the living.
The sword that could split shadows sliced through nothing and struck the ground.
The underworld sovereign could do nothing but watch.
A common ordinary mortal had escaped the clutches of the most powerful being who walked the realm of the dead. A common ordinary mortal had thwarted the underworld sovereign in his own realm. A common ordinary mortal would visit a tavern that very night, and boast of how he had escaped from the mighty overlord of the underworld.
The anger that had only stewed and simmered till that moment boiled over into a searing acid rage.
The underworld sovereign stalked toward the entrance to his realm, even as his minions skittered along beside him, trying to stay out of reach of his sword.
He spoke a curse as walked, decreeing that any food consumed in his realm—even a single bite—should trap the eater in the underworld. He gave his minions a portion of his power and ordered them to use it to spread his curse throughout his realm. Never again would any escape the underworld with a simple bite of a mushroom.
He left his realm then and rose up to the mushroom realm, giving no announcement, no warning, as he passed through the entrance. He brought with him another of his terrible weapons, a mace forged in the accursed flame that burned at the center of his realm, and tempered in the scalding acid lake that festered right beside that flame. He could not sever the mushrooms from the firmament in which they were anchored. So he began to strike that very firmament instead.
As he hacked and hammered, the mushroom realm shuddered, cracked, and crumbled.
The mushroom-keepers could do little. They used their mushrooms to cast spells of attack to drive the underworld sovereign back, even at the risk of being struck and cast down into the underworld themselves. But their attacks—while they would have greatly damaged any other being—were as ineffective on the underworld sovereign as if were throwing feathers at him.
Every mushroom fell from the heavens.
Most of the mushrooms died.
But some fell down to the mortal realm, where they anchored and took root in the warm and welcoming earthen soil.
Still others fell further, all the way down into the underworld realm.
Alone and fearful of being trapped, some of those mushrooms strained to escape, growing and climbing upward until they reached the roof of the underworld and the floor of the living world, pushing their way through contamination, farther and farther up, until they felt nourishment, and with relief, sprouted into the fresh air and sunlight, alive, but carrying the poison of the underworld upon and within them.
When the attack was over, the underworld sovereign descended back to his realm.
The mushroom-keepers saw to their shock that their entire realm was destroyed.
They mushroom-keepers entreated their sovereign, the gentle gardener, for comfort and aid. The gardener said that he would help them by restoring as much of the mushroom realm as he could.
But worse news was to come. The mushrooms that were growing up into the mortal world from where they had fallen in the underworld were all poisonous. Mortal creatures were eating them, and dying. Their souls were being cast into the underworld, where the underworld sovereign was keeping them from passing on into the afterworlds.
One of the mushroom-keepers came forth. A mysterious figure wearing a many-chambered cap from which fell delicate layers of fungal lattice, obscuring the keeper’s face.
This veiled keeper requested permission from the gardener to travel down to the underworld and entreat the underworld’s sovereign.
Many mushroom-keepers were angered. Many were afraid. And many could not feel or think much of anything.
But the veiled keeper snapped a finger, the official request for all to listen. The veiled mushroom-keeper spoke, pacing the broken halls of governance.
“First we must ask him to soften his punishment, and allow the souls who have perished from eating the poison mushrooms to pass into their next life in peace. Next we must ask permission for a number of us to descend to the underworld, and gather those many mushrooms that have fallen there, so that we may bring them up to the mortal world, where they can grow and flourish, and be safely consumed by mortal beings, until we can restore our airy firmament and raise our mushrooms up to the sky again, where they truly belong.”
None had any response. So the gentle gardener spoke.
“If the warden’s temper has cooled, he will hear your entreaty. But he will not merely grant your requests. You will need to bargain with him. You will need to offer him something in return for what you ask of him.”
“We have nothing of value to offer him,” the veiled keeper said. “Not anymore. But we must do something, my sovereign. The most precious of our mushrooms have fallen to ruin. What was once the love cap has now become the death cap. The blue candy cloud is now the blue killing cloud. Even one of the mushrooms we once used to bring mortals back to the living realm from the underworld, the resurrecting angel, has fallen and become the destroying angel.”
The gentle gardener agreed and supported the veiled keeper’s plan. So the other mushroom-keepers too were convinced.
The gardener accompanied the veiled mushroom-keeper to the gates of the underworld.
“My brother will not let me pass,” the gardener said, peering at the gate. “It seems he does not wish for you to enjoy my protection. But the underworld is too dangerous for a living soul—even the soul of a mushroom-keeper—to traverse without protection. We must devise another plan.”
“Do not worry for me, my sovereign,” the veiled keeper said. “I will go. If I fail, then it will be time for another plan. But if I succeed, then we can begin to rescue the many souls that are already falling to ruin, like spores carried downward by an ill and vicious wind.”
The veiled keeper was allowed to enter through the red rusted gates. The keeper walked the long distance to the throne of the underworld sovereign, disheartened to see a realm replete with mushrooms. Trapped though they were, the mushrooms still brought some beauty into the dismal underworld realm.
The veiled keeper was received by the underworld sovereign, who agreed to hear the entreaty of the mushroom-keepers.
As the gardener had warned, the underworld sovereign—though his temper did seem to have cooled—did not merely agree to the mushroom-keeper’s request.
“Why would I surrender such precious gifts?” he asked, flourishing his pale hand toward the many mushrooms that surrounded his throne. “Since falling into my realm, the mushrooms have granted me their beauty and splendor, and in time, I’m certain they will surrender their magic as well.”
“Likely not, Fair Warden,” the veiled keeper said. “As souls lose their radiance, the mushrooms in your realm will lose their powers, all perhaps save the powers that they learn from your own realm. For instance, the power to poison.”
“So be it. I and my realm need souls to rule over, as does any sovereign.”
“Souls are a great burden to you once their radiance has faded. They will weigh upon your being until the balance is tipped, and their weight is too great for even your supreme strength to bear. Then you too will fall, into your maze of madness perhaps. Or into some more terrible realm that even the mighty mind of a sovereign cannot comprehend.”
The underworld sovereign rankled at the veiled keeper’s bold and defiant words.
But he dared not ignore those words, for they held truth.
He instructed the veiled mushroom-keeper to wait and enjoy refreshments while he deliberated on the keeper’s request.
So long was the wait that the veiled keeper grew hungry and reached for refreshment, but paused on perceiving the familiar cries of a mushroom that grew nearby.
“Inky cap,” the veiled keeper exclaimed, almost smiling at the sight of the familiar flaring dome, dripping black drops of ink at its rim.
The mushroom knew of the sovereign’s newest decree. Any who tasted of the food of the underworld would be trapped in the underworld forever, unable to pass into any other realm. The underworld sovereign had sacrificed a portion of his own power to cast the curse.
The veiled keeper thanked the humble mushroom, and reached over to collect it and bring it back up to the living realm. But the mushroom refused. There were some who found the underworld realm comfortable, for no realm was completely devoid of good, even as no realm was completely devoid of evil. There were others too who had adapted to the conditions of the realm.
“We will stay,” the mushroom said. “And you will know that you have friends in this realm. And as I do not seek to pass through the wicked and corrupt things that guard the forbidden passages between realms, I and the others like me, will not become filled with poison.”
When the underworld sovereign returned, he offered a bargain to the mushroom-keepers.
He would allow the souls of those who had died from consuming poisoned mushrooms to pass out of his realm and into the afterworld, but only if they were accompanied and guided by a mushroom-keeper.
And he would allow the mushroom-keepers to descend and collect all of the fallen mushrooms from his realm and take them back, if the keepers could find any.
As he spoke, a spell of invisibility fell upon the mushrooms in the underworld.
The veiled mushroom-keeper watched as the inky cap mushroom who had spoken out in warning flickered and faded from view.
“As you will it,” the veiled keeper said. “But may I ask one more request, Fair Warden?”
“You may ask. I may not grant it.”
“To curse every bite of food eaten in the underworld would lead to the same problem you currently have. Too many souls would be trapped here.”
“I will not allow a single soul to escape my realm by taking a bite of some mushroom.”
“But the mushrooms are invisible now. You have made it so.”
“I am not so arrogant as to believe that you mushroom-keepers will not find a way around my spell in time, even in my own realm. I see now that the mushrooms are hardy and mighty to grow so well in my realm of all realms. Such hardy things could only have been made by an equally hardy and resilient people. But even as you watch and study my realm upon your allowed visits, I shall be studying you.”
The underworld sovereign dismissed the veiled mushroom-keeper, who returned to the temporary home in which that the mushroom-keepers were residing in the mortal realm.
The veiled keeper had made the best bargain that could have been made. The work of the mushroom-keepers to find and recover their mushrooms would take eons. In that time, many mortals would die. But far fewer, they hoped, once they were warned that the innocent days of the mushrooms were done. Some were deadly. And so all must be suspected. The mushroom-keepers would teach any mortal beings who sought to learn, how to distinguish between the mushrooms that would sicken or kill them and those that would nourish and feed them. And if any did sicken and die, they need not fear being trapped in the underworld. Their souls could not return to the land of the living, but nor would they fester. Their souls would be guided to the next realm in their journey by those mushroom-keepers who had agreed to serve as psychopomps.
One of these was veiled keeper, who listened for the sounds of the hidden mushrooms.
One might expect that the mushroom-keepers, devastated and humbled by the destruction of their realm, and brought down into the underworld themselves, would thereafter refrain from agreeing to help the living to enter and escape the underworld in secret.
But it was not so. All the mushrooms that could send a mortal to and from the underworld had been lost. But the mushroom-keepers who descended into the underworld would sometimes smuggle a mortal down with them, though in far smaller numbers, for all now had to fear being caught.
And there were still other ways for mortals on reckless quests to find themselves in the underworld.
The mushrooms struggled to throw off the spell of invisibility placed upon them by the sovereign lord of the realm, and someday, perhaps, they would, with the help of their keepers. But until then, there was one sign a living soul could seek.
The mushrooms grew in every corner of the underworld. They were invisible, but the parts they discarded were not. And while spores were difficult to see in the dimness of the underworld, it was quite easy to see the messages written in drops of ink.
Messages of greeting. Messages of hope and courage. Messages containing directions for safe passage out of the underworld on paths never before known.
All from the mushrooms of the underworld.
Copyright © 2021 Nila L. Patel