And then they were met with a large wall with an angry brick face on it.
"Why the hell is there a face on that wall?" Anchovy demanded.
"WHY DARE YOU TO ENTER THIS PLACE?" the wall shot back.
“What do you think a wall eats to give it breath like that?“ Anchovy murmured to Mushroom.
"I HEARD THAT," the wall replied.
"We seek the jewels," Anchovy said quickly.
"SO DID THE OTHER TWO THAT WERE HERE," said the wall. "YOU’RE GOING TO HAVE TO GIVE ME A BETTER REASON THAN THAT." Anchovy groaned loudly.
"You mean the other group was already here? How is that even possible?" If walls could shrug, this wall would have. However, since most walls are generally lacking shoulders of any kind, this wall did not shrug.
"THEY GOT HERE FIRST, THAT IS HOW IT’S POSSIBLE," said the wall.
"Well, how long ago?" Anchovy asked.
"ABOUT FIVE HOURS AGO."
"Five hours?! Anchovy moaned, wincing. "That’s awful! Mushroom, they’re already so far ahead of us!" She gestured vaguely past the wall.
"Then let’s stop talking to the wall and start moving to fix that!" Mushroom retorted.
"NOT SO FAST," quoth the wall. "BEFORE YOU PASS BY ME WE MUST HAVE A DUEL OF WORDS." "A duel of words? What do you mean by that?" Anchovy asked.
"YOU HAVE TO TAKE THAT PADDLE OVER THERE THAT LOOKS LIKE A WORD AND HIT ME WITH IT REPEATEDLY WHILE I TAKE A SIMILAR PADDLE AND HIT YOU WITH IT REPEATEDLY UNTIL ONE OF US KNOCKS THE WORD OUT OF THE OTHER’S HANDS, OR, IN MY CASE, MOUTH."
"I’ll do it," said Anchovy.
"You do it," said Mushroom, at the exact same time. The two grinned at each other.
"WOULD YOU BE SO KIND AS TO FETCH ONE FOR ME? I CAN’T QUITE REACH, IN MY STATE." Anchovy went to the corner, where a small stack of words were left. The words were ARSE, FECK, BOLLOCKS, TITTIES, FART and POOPWHISTLE.
"This is absolutely immature!" Anchovy cried, appalled.
"IF YOU’RE GOING TO HAVE A DUEL OF WORDS THEN YOU’D MIGHT AS WELL DO IT RIGHT," said the wall. "A DUEL OF WORDS ALWAYS MEANS FOUL LANGUAGE." Anchovy picked "bollocks" for herself and "arse" for the wall, because she couldn’t be arsed. She placed the arse in the wall’s mouth.
"Count to three, Mushroom," she said. Mushroom obliged, then Anchovy and the wall started their heated battle. Anchovy started by slapping the bollocks all over the wall, particularly around its nose.
"STOP THAT," bellowed the wall, still somehow managing to keep the arse in the corner of its mouth. Anchovy thrust the bollocks toward the wall’s arse, but they bounced off.
"Cripes!" Anchovy yelled. "Your arse is awfully bouncy!"
"I POLISH IT EVERY DAY," the wall replied. Anchovy slapped her bollocks fiercely against the wall’s perceived cheek. "OUCH," said the wall.
"Spit out that arse!" cried Anchovy.
"NEVER!" cried the wall. Anchovy hopped back for a second, after getting arsed in the knee, then she did a roll forward and thrust her bollocks firmly at the wall’s arse. The arse flew out of the wall’s mouth and rolled onto the floor.
"GOOD GAME," said the wall. "THAT WAS INDEED A VERY GOOD DUEL OF WORDS. I AM PLEASED AND SATISFIED." Anchovy smiled.
"That was indeed a good game, though quite immature, I daresay."
"AND POORLY WRITTEN," agreed the wall. Mushroom clapped his partner amicably on the shoulder.
"Well done!" he said with a smile. "Now then, how do we get by?" asked Anchovy. The wall opened its mouth wide.
"JUST JUMP THROUGH HERE AND YOU WILL GET TO THE OTHER SIDE," it said.
"But... you don’t have a digestive system or anything?" asked Anchovy, peering out beyond the gaping hole that was the wall’s mouth. She saw the hallway on the other side.
"DON’T BE FOOLISH," chuckled the wall. "WALLS DON’T HAVE DIGESTIVE SYSTEMS."
"Walls don’t have mouths, either," commented Mushroom. The wall paused a moment in thought.
"SHUT UP," it replied.
"Thank you for the duel, Mister Wall," said Anchovy. She then jumped through the mouth, and came out the other side. Mushroom did the same, and when they turned around, they noticed no hole, and, in fact, nothing out of the ordinary at all. The wall must have closed its mouth, Anchovy thought. The pair gazed out into the hallway before them.
The first thing they noticed was a considerable haze through the hall. They hadn’t noticed it when they were at the wall, leading them both to believe that the wall must have been blocking it off altogether. Whatever it was, it instilled a considerable coolness on the whole area, and it made Anchovy shiver. Mushroom glanced at her.
"Are you all right?" he asked. Anchovy nodded.
"A little chilly," she replied, rubbing her arms. "I should have brought a jacket." Mushroom started to unbutton his shirt, and Anchovy peered at him. "Uhhh... what are you doing?" she asked. Mushroom smiled at her.
"I’m not overly cold," he said. "You can wear this." Anchovy blinked.
"Are you sure?" She asked. Mushroom nodded and handed her the shirt. He still wore his vest, but Anchovy could see most of his chest. And… dang.
Mushroom was a tall and lanky sort of fellow, but that didn’t mean he didn’t have any muscle at all. In fact, quite the opposite was true. Mushroom had a lean and washboard stomach, with rippling muscles and well-defined abs. His arms, while fairly thin, had good muscle tone as well. The small vest on Mushroom made him look even more toned, as the vest was so small it showed off how large his muscles actually were quite nicely. Anchovy felt herself blushing. Most of the other men in the Panzerotti Group were fleshier, or had more brains than brawn. From what Anchovy knew of Mushroom so far, he had a fair share of both of these qualities. Anchovy had been paired up with strong partners who had the intelligence of a semi-deranged fruit bat, or partners who were intelligent, but soft as marshmallows. She had never been paired with people who had excelled in both.
While most of the Panzerotti Group had permanent partners, Anchovy had decided never to have a permanent partner if they were all to be like this, but it seemed as though Mushroom was beginning to grow on her. Much like a fungus.
After literally five minutes of staring, Anchovy provoked a comment out of Mushroom. He cleared his throat.
"I believe you have been staring at my chest for five minutes, Anchovy," he said. Anchovy blushed a bit deeper and looked away at last.
"Ah s-sorry let’s move on," she said. To be clear, that sentence was not grammatically incorrect. Anchovy said it in such a direct manner as to omit any and all implied punctuation. She walked away, somewhat mechanically, with Mushroom’s shirt draped over her. Mushroom scratched his head faintly. He didn’t really know what had just happened there. He followed behind Anchovy, who was still walking like she wore cement shoes.
As the pair walked, they noticed the fog getting a thicker, and thus the air getting a colder. Mushroom, at this point, was getting a bit cold, himself.
"Do you want your shirt back?" Anchovy asked. Mushroom shook his head.
"I’m fine," he replied. "Hey, a door." Right he was. Not far down the hallway ahead of them was a door on the right wall. It was large and wooden, and it had not only an iron handle, but also an iron knocker. It also had strange designs on it.
"I can’t decipher any of those designs," Anchovy admitted. "I’ve never seen them before."
"There’s a knocker," said Mushroom. “So… let’s knock.”
"Good plan," agreed Anchovy. She took the knocker in her hand and dropped it firmly onto the door, creating a resounding thud. The two waited a moment and glanced at one another. Anchovy stole a glance at Mushroom’s chiselled chest.
"Doesn’t sound like anyone is coming," said Mushroom with a faint shrug. "What n-" The door abruptly swung open. Both of them were too shocked to do anything specific at first. They couldn’t even look in. After a moment, however, a very large and imposing figure appeared in the doorway and looked down on them. It was a massive and hairy beast, and it looked exactly like the one Mushroom and Anchovy had seen in the entrance to the cave, when they had first entered. Anchovy was ready to kick it in the face, which, she noticed, seemed somewhat more feminine than the other beast’s... this was exemplified by the fact that it seemed to wear lipstick on its lips. It opened its mouth, looking most menacing and frightening, but then, to the pair’s great surprise, it spoke.
"Oh my! Visitors!" said the creature. The voice was decidedly female, but it wasn’t exactly a tinkling fairy voice. It sounded more like a male human pretending to be a female—raspy but with a high tilt. "Oh, do come in! Oh my, I’m just so excited! I never get visitors here!" She stepped aside and invited the pair in. Mushroom and Anchovy glanced at one other. The looks they gave each other explained everything; they had each decided that there was very little they couldn’t handle, and that they would enter. Anchovy smiled brightly at the hideous lady-beast.
"Why, thank you for your hospitality!" she said. Mushroom could scarcely believe his eyes. What a good actress Anchovy was! The monster led them both in.
"Ohhh I can hardly stand it!" cried the she-beast with glee. "I’m Daisy, by the way." She shook both of their hands with a massive, furry hand. "Oh my! No one ever comes down here. They’ve got this silly place trapped so badly that anyone who does stop by for a visit gets horribly killed before I can even put tea on! It’s tragic, really!" She sighed.
"I’m sorry to hear that," Anchovy managed. "We can’t stay long, though, I’m afraid." The she-beast made a horrible grimace. At first, Mushroom and Anchovy were terrified, but then they realised she was trying to smile and they tried to be a little nicer about it. They returned the smile.
"That’s quite all right," she said, "as long as you stay long enough for tea." The she-beast got up, and then Mushroom and Anchovy took this opportunity to seat themselves.
The room was cozy and warm, and it combined a bedroom, living room, and kitchen all in the same space. It was round and small, but the space was well-used. There was a hearth which burned away merrily, giving off a warmth that was welcome, compared with the cold, damp hallway they had just come from. The she-beast looked Mushroom over.
"Oh dear, you must be chilly without a shirt on!" she said, tsking. "Here, you can use one of mine." Before Mushroom could protest, the she-beast had produced a patchwork quilted tunic. "Wear this, dear. It’s ever so comfortable and the tawny colours will suit you so well!" It was hardly an attractive tunic, but Mushroom put it on all the same. It was cozy, at least.
"Thank you," said Mushroom with his best friendly smile.
Daisy had gotten to putting the tea on, boiling the water in the fire and bringing out some milk, sugar and honey.
"Here you are, my dears," she said, handing them each a teacup and a saucer, with a teabag in each cup. "Now let me get the shortbreads out!" She produced a small tin of cookies, then, from a cupboard, and handed it over to the pair. They each accepted a couple and snacked away. Anchovy was grateful for a little bit of rest and some free food, even if it wasn’t particularly substantial.
"I’m really starting to worry about my husband," said Daisy with a sigh. "He went up to the upper part of the cave just about a day ago. Normally he’ll come back within half a day, but I haven’t seen him." Mushroom and Anchovy both felt a momentary twinge of concern. They made eye contact briefly. Then, Anchovy changed the subject.
"Oh hey, the upper part? How do we get up there?" asked Anchovy with a bit of a smile. "We just fell down, you see, and we’d like to get back up if we can." Daisy grimaced. Again, probably a smile.
"Let’s wait until after tea to speak of that, hmm? Just rest for now!" she leaned forward and patted them each on the knee. "I like to have guests ever so much. I just wish my husband would come home so we could all have a nice chat!" Daisy stood and fetched the boiling water from the hook by the stove, then came by and poured it into Mushroom and Anchovy’s cups. The smell of hot tea filled their nostrils and they both sighed.
"It smells nice, hmm?" said Daisy. "Here, have another cookie." She offered them the tin again, and they each took another.
"Tell us, Daisy,” said Anchovy, "what does your husband look like?" Daisy smiled.
"Well, he looks a lot like me," she replied. "And really, he’d be hard to miss! I know this is a big cave, but we’re the only ones who look like this down here." Anchovy and Mushroom paused at that, and Anchovy swallowed the lump of cookie in her mouth, hard.
"You... don’t say," she said. Daisy smiled and nodded. "Yes! We make quite the couple," she said. She gestured to a shelf behind her, which held a number of pictures of the couple, including a wedding photo. There was no mistaking the groom. Anchovy and Mushroom exchanged glances once more, and Mushroom saw Anchovy’s the colour steadily draining from Anchovy’s face.
"I... bet you do," said Anchovy. I’m going to have to try very hard not to tell her that I’ve killed her husband, she thought. She might eat me.
"My husband was going up to the little shop that’s on the top floor of the cave. He had our life savings with him--some gold and jewels. He was going to buy us some nice new furniture!" said Daisy with a smile. "Oh, maybe he’s just having trouble getting the furniture moved! I’m sure that’s it." She nodded. "I feel much better now." Anchovy didn’t. She felt a wave of guilt sweep over her. Maybe there was a way she could manage to leave the pouch behind when Daisy wasn’t looking.
"What’s that on your belt?" Daisy asked. Anchovy froze. She was wearing the beast’s coin pouch on her belt. "...Nothing," said Anchovy. "Nothing." Daisy frowned a little.
"Let me see that," she said. "It looks like a pouch." Anchovy nodded.
"Well uh yes it is a pouch," she said, "but it’s not your husband’s pouch obviously." Mushroom facepalmed and Daisy glared at her suspiciously.
"Let me see that!" she ordered. Anchovy suddenly stood up and screamed, then just bolted out the door, spilling tea all over everything. Mushroom followed suit and ran after her, similarly spilling tea everywhere.
"Thank you for the shirt!" he called on his way out. The pair heard a frustrated scream, followed by the sounds of a large creature bursting through the door. Anchovy yelped and the pair sped up, running as fast as they could possibly manage. They looked behind and saw Daisy barrelling behind them at an alarming pace. At this rate, she could have easily caught up to them. They had to think fast.
Up ahead, they saw a bend in the tunnel, forking both left and right. Mushroom grabbed Anchovy firmly by the arm and twisted to the right. Immediately, they saw a small crevice that could fit two small people and no more. Mushroom quickly squeezed in, pulling Anchovy in after him. He brought Anchovy close to him, and he tilted his head downward. The two were completely hidden by the shadows of the crevice, so they didn’t have to worry about being seen. They heard Daisy’s footfalls slowing nearby, and they could hear her breathing. Anchovy bit her lip and moved a bit closer to Mushroom, accidentally managing to press against him. Mushroom raised an eyebrow at this, and found himself pressing back just a bit. Not in an angry or frustrated way... in another way altogether. Anchovy didn’t notice, though. She was too busy noticing the hot breath of Alice on the back of her neck. She tried not to make a noise, instead opting to grab Mushroom firmly by the shoulder. Mushroom merely brought up an arm to rest around Anchovy’s shoulders. They were close--comfortably so.
As immediately as the sound of breathing had arrived, it left again, and the pair heard Daisy take off down the hallway. They relaxed. Anchovy let go of Mushroom’s arm, and Mushroom brought his other arm down from around Anchovy’s shoulders. Mushroom was slightly loath to let Anchovy pull away from him, he noticed.
"Maybe we should ah, stay here until we know she is gone," Mushroom suggested, touching a stray lock of Anchovy’s hair. Anchovy absently batted his hand away.
"You think so?" she asked. "I was going to say head out, and go the other way, for now," she said. Mushroom shrugged.
"Well enough," he replied somewhat flatly. Anchovy squeezed her way to the entrance of the crevice and looked both ways. She saw nothing but settling dust to the right, meaning that Daisy had already torn her way through the cave. She looked to the left and saw the fog getting a little bit thicker in that direction, then she squeezed out of the entrance. Mushroom followed behind, an agitated expression on his face. Anchovy glanced at him.
"What’s your problem?" she asked. Mushroom merely shrugged. "I don’t like small spaces like that," he replied with a prissy little sniff. Anchovy smirked a little and kept walking. The smirk frustrated Mushroom further and he stalked behind her in silence for a good ten minutes. Anchovy, sensing his agitation, didn’t bother to ask, and she kept walking, herself.
As they walked, they noticed the fog growing ever thicker and ever colder. Anchovy shivered and found herself bringing Mushroom’s shirt closer around her.
"She was nice," Mushroom mused. "Too bad you killed her husband." Anchovy spun on her heels and narrowed her eyes at Mushroom.
"Exactly WHAT is your problem?" she snapped. "Ever since we left that hole in the wall you’ve been on edge! Look, I’M the one who’s having the rough time here, not you. I killed two of our comrades and I accidentally killed that monster’s husband. And, what. You’re a little grumpy?" She shook her head, curling her lip. “Buck up. You’ll have loads of time to be grumpy later.”
“Well, maybe we should rest," Mushroom suggested. “I’m probably just tired."
"I suppose you are," Anchovy agreed. "You watched me all night with no rest of your own. All right, I’ll take first watch and let you sleep longer," she said. "That’s only fair." Mushroom nodded with a small smile, and he set up a small camp for himself. Anchovy started a fire nearby and cozied up beside it, taking a measured drink from her water skin. She watched Mushroom as he lay down in his bedroll and closed his eyes.
Anchovy found herself with little more than her own thoughts to entertain her. She sat there and stared at the fire. It had been a long time since she had had a partner that she could actually work with like this. It had been... three years, in fact.
Anchovy’s original partner had been permanent. While some agents preferred to work with different people each time and not get to know them in any personal manner, others had decided to buddy up, and stay that way. She and Portobello had been on numerous hunts together, and they had been partners since she had joined the group. They had always gotten along well and they worked perfectly together. Rumours said that they were more than just partners in hunting, but that was never the case. The two were more like brother and sister, and some joked that they were separated at birth. Sometimes the two of them wondered if that was actually the truth.
Anchovy and Portobello had been on a hunt that primarily involved infiltrating a broken down warehouse teeming with traps to find ancient pottery, and one of the traps had gone awry while they were attempting to dismantle it. It went off in a most spectacular fashion, injuring Anchovy and killing Portobello outright.
Anchovy had never been the same again. She had thought she wouldn’t want to have another full-time partner, lest she get too attached to him or her just to see them injured or killed. For some reason, though, she felt a lot of old feelings resurfacing when she was with Mushroom. Finally, she was working with someone who thought the same way she did, who fought in a complimentary manner, and who wasn’t a complete pain in the ass to work with. In addition, he was efficient and talented, and he was considerate as well. There was one other factor Anchovy couldn’t ignore, either...
Mushroom was a damn fine-looking man. His hair was well taken care of, he had a handsome, chiselled face with fine features and kind eyes. He was tall and lanky, just like Anchovy liked them, but he still had strong arms and excellent muscle tone. Even his facial hair was well-groomed and fine-looking, and Anchovy wasn’t even particularly fond of facial hair.
There was something about Mushroom she couldn’t place, though. She hadn’t heard him mention a wife, girlfriend or otherwise, nor had he mentioned even in passing any past relationships with women, even though he had been quick to ask Anchovy similar questions. What did that mean? Was he simply private? Why would he be single?
Anchovy gave a little sigh. While she was feeling a lot of the same feelings she felt when she was with Portobello, having the add-on of physical attraction complicated the matter. Not that Mushroom had a bad personality, but Anchovy wasn’t the romantic sort, and she hadn’t even thought of Mushroom in that way... until, of course, he’d had his shirt off. It all went sort of downhill from there.
Anchovy only rarely found herself interested in how a man looked. She was extremely picky. The last man she was attracted to was only attractive to her when he looked at her with his head ever-so-slightly turned to the left. But when she found him attractive, did she ever. That was also the last relationship she was in. It lasted for about ten minutes, and it was in a broom closet in the Panzerotti Group headquarters.
The sound of the fire crackling brought her momentarily back to reality. What was she doing, and why? Why was she thinking about all this?
She was starting to wonder if maybe she should invite Mushroom to be her permanent partner. He worked well under pressure, and their safety seemed to be of utmost priority to him, so she had to consider that he might be the right partner for her, even if he could sometimes be blunt or argumentative. She had had some partners who cracked so badly under pressure that they ran home at the end of the day to some job they didn’t even like. Some of them became politicians.
It’s been three years, Anchovy thought. I think it’s time for me to move on. Besides, I’m sure Portobello wouldn’t want me to mourn him forever. It’s not like we were married.
She felt the fog around her thicken, and saw the whole hall getting hazier, even though it was lined with torches. The cold crept up and Anchovy found herself unpacking her bedroll just to get to the lovely wool blanket that came with it. She brought it up around her and, just for a moment, she lay down beside Mushroom and looked at him as he slept. She stopped herself and sat up.
What the hell am I doing?! She thought. Oh, grow up, Patricia! She frowned at herself and wrapped the blanket completely around her body. She suddenly felt foolish. She was twenty-six, but she felt like she must have been about half that. Besides, that was a relationship that really would go nowhere for her. No, she thought. Best to distance yourself. And then, she did. She scooted away and closer to the fire.
The fog continued to grow thicker. She found that could see her own breath, and she felt the air around her getting denser. Just then, one by one, the torches on the walls went out completely. She was in the dark, except for the fire, which was also starting to die down. She felt her eyelids sag, and she started to reason with herself regarding whether or not she should sleep.
“Well of course I should sleep,” she said aloud. “It’s foolish to... no! You have to stay up and watch Mushroom, you idiot!” She frowned at herself. “What are you... ohhh sleep!” She smiled and stretched out, resting her head. “I like to slee... NO!” she bolted upright. She was having some difficulty making up her mind, so the fog took it upon itself to help her with that decision. It got thicker and colder, forcing Anchovy into a dreamless sleep.
When Anchovy awoke, it was several hours later.
In a holding cell.