Chapter One: Tidings of Toadstools
In a far bygone age there lived an old hermit. He had no kin and few friends; no one even knew his family name. Those closest to him called him Aibinn, but most folk called him simply Rook. They could have called him Rook due to his appearance; indeed, his haggard, tattered black cloak, and dark, piercing eyes were reminiscent of that most eerie bird. They could have called him Rook because, or so it was said, whenever he came into a new land, all manner of ill omen followed him. But I think the most likely reason small folk began to call him Rook is because he possessed a most ponderous object among men; a small, dark crystal orb which gave him the ability to fly under the cover of a clouded sky. This orb was an artifact Aibinn mostly used to travel long distances; mostly he preferred to walk among common men. He kept with him a small, leather-bound book where he recorded the findings of his travels. He was always occupied with his book. If he heard a new name, he placed it in his book. If he reached a new realm, he placed its name and history in his book. But mostly his book was filled with details of creatures most bizarre, for since he was a boy, the mysterious beasts that haunt folklore attracted Aibinn’s fear, and, consequently, fascination. He sojourned far and wide to find them, if there was any possibility they could be found.
Once, in his travels, Aibinn had settled for a few months in a town called Fómhar. The town was almost always under a strangely thick layer of mist, and this lack of sunlight made it quite difficult for the Fómharians to grow any plant but grass and weed there. Thus, much of the town’s populace was occupied with the keeping of livestock. The cattle and the goats certainly had no quarrel with the long grass and numerous weeds.
This hamlet intrigued the Rook because, though it bore a modest and unimportant appearance, it had one of the oldest (and most minuscule) libraries in the realm, whose dusty tomes contained knowledge few men still used. Aibinn, though, being a somewhat odd bird, was always interested in whatever old book he could get his hands on. The townsfolk were somewhat wary of him at first, but after he saved an old shepherd from a pack of wolves, many an ale was purchased for him, and claps on his back were commonplace. Even smaller than the library, the inn where Rook was staying was called the Lofty Snolar. “What on earth is a Snolar?”, many drifters through the town could be heard asking. This brings me right back to the topic of Aibinn’s business in Fómhar.
Just outside Fómhar was an expansive, wild marsh, aptly named Shroomuir by the Fómharians. The marsh was dominated not by scrub and bent old trees like most swamps, but tall, plump mushrooms of unnatural hues: green, purple, blue, red. These colors are not normally worn by a toadstool, you see.
Aibinn had accidentally met with a sorcerer in the shape of a large camel in a far-off desert whose cousin had passed through this marsh and had many a story to tell. He told of toads and spiders the size of horses. He spoke of a beautiful witch who held sway over the whole of Shroomuir. These details already piqued Aibinn’s interest, who had never heard of such creatures. He asked for a path to the marsh, to which the camel-sorcerer offered him directions to Fómhar. “It’s not far from those lands, and populated with amiable folk,” spake the sorcerer, “But beware. They will do what they can to keep you from the marsh, which they believe is dangerous! They do not understand that individuals like you and I, children of the universe’s magic, have designs to keep ourselves from harm in such conditions.” Aibinn thanked the camel-sorcerer, and, after completing his own expedition at that time, made the long journey to Fómhar.
Once there, Aibinn heeded the sorcerer’s warning and said little about his true business (beyond that of reading in the library, that is). But, one late eve, he came across a thick green book in the library that bore a familiar title; Snolars and Sneks: The Secrets of the Shroomuir. As Aibinn lifted the book, decades-old layers of dust and grime shook from its spine onto the cobbled library floor. Standing in the aisle, he skimmed through its pages, and from this book he learned that the witch the camel-sorcerer had spoken of was, indeed, real; she had once been a renowned healer in the town named Luan. She had many loyal servants in the marsh that walked the earth in the shape of gigantic, purple snails. It was written that the mucus of one such snail could cure any malady! It was these creatures that were labeled in the book as snolars. As soon as Aibinn had read this, the librarian (a stooped old man with about 6 fingers total and less teeth) peered at him from behind a bookshelf with an odd look in his eye. “What’s that yer readin’, boy?”, said the wizened one. Rook held up the book so that the title on its spine was quite plain. The librarian’s eyes widened! “Wolves and Warlocks, its been years since that volume’s been touched. My child, if yer placin’ any value on yer own back, I wouldn’t go ta that marsh. I’ve lived here nigh on ferty years, and nuthin’ good’s come from there. Everyone here knows if that there witch is angered, it’s this here town that will pay for it! I implore you, stay here where its safe, traveller!”
The deep shadows cast by the solitary candle in the corner of the room made the elderly librarian’s face look rather freakish. Rook realized the old man had placed a rather firm grip on his wrist, and placed a hand on the old man’s arm in an attempt to comfort him. “Hark, father,” said he, and held up his brown journal-book, “I wish only to record my findings in this book so I may carry its wisdom with me. I swear I bear no ill meaning towards your town; this witch will disturb you not. I will reveal to you that I would greatly like to see these “snolars” and other creatures in the witch’s realm; but if it would mean trouble for the kind people here, I will certainly move on.” The librarian looked very much placated by these soothings. His deeply lined face even contorted itself into a sympathetic smile. He gathered up his robes and said, “Well. As long as yer not bein’ seen by the witch, there should be no harm! I have myself a device that prevents a man from bein’ seen by any mortal creature. Me wife left it to my when she died. ’Tis a small crystal pyramid blessed with that weird power of translucency; I’ll let you use it to sneak into the Shroomuir if you do for me one small deed. Mind, if that witch sees you you’ve got to get out quick, or her weird wrath will follow!” Again, that unnatural shadow fell across the librarian as his anxiety returned. But, encouraged by the promise of not only a magical pyramid but also the chance to record an eye-witness account of the fabled Snolars, Aibinn asked what was required of him.