Weekly Illustrated Fiction Series:

No Dragons Press: A HIGH FANTASY Adventure

by Maggie Gibbs

Illustrations by Emily Ruf

Chapter Twenty-Three: Distractions and Death Morels

Xenia. Interloper. Impresser of Nate. These thoughts play through my mind like a mantra as I dig up another mushroom with my mushroom tool (a splintered stick, blunt and flat at the broken end) and cram it into Duc’s little black ski hat (not currently on his head or in the pocket he’d been keeping it in).

Before Nate and Xenia left on their scouting mission, already speaking in gestures and casual shorthand like the old army buddies they have suddenly become, we’d moved our camp to a smaller, more secluded area—the top of a low rocky outcropping that overlooked the clearing we’d made camp in for the past two nights. Xenia assured Duc, Nate, and me that there are no other people in the area, and since apparently she can do no wrong and her assurances have become a law of nature, I didn’t even bother being outvoted.

But she wanted us in a good spot to survey our surroundings, just in case. A contradiction that seems to worry no one but me.

I sigh. The fact is, she’s absolutely amazing. It’s no wonder Nate thinks so. I think so, if I’m really being honest. We’re much better off with her on our side, assuming that’s the side she’s on: she knows where we’re going, she’s definitely more familiar with the dangers of this world than we are, and she even had a thing or two to show Nate about effortlessly proficient woodsmanism in general. And she did lose her sister.

Right?

Everything is getting jumbled. I’m angry. I’m worried.  Tristan. Bradley. Nate. Xenia.

“Addie, no,” Duc says, jarring me out of my thoughts. “Not those. Look.” He displays a shapely nub of mushroom, nut-brown and brainy and dense. “This is a morel.”

I inspect my own dense and brainy pile, baffled. “That’s what these are.”

He shakes his head. “Nope. These are fake morels. Death morels. See, this part is twisted, and the color is—”

“They look exactly the same. And this is stupid,” I add, in case he hasn’t gotten the hint by now. “Death morels? What the fuck, Duc? Why don’t we just eat those?” I point to yet another rotting log overrun with oyster mushrooms, layered and clustered like alien villages. “That’s more than we could eat in a week.”

I cross my arms in a challenge. My neck is sore from staring at the ground, I’ve walked directly into at least three branches, two of them very scratchy, I have two new holes in my sweatshirt, I’m exhausted, and now Duc wants to risk both our lives exploring the subtle differences between two mushrooms that look exactly the same?

No wonder my dad never taught me morels. He wasn’t trying to kill me.

Duc matches my stance, and the grin on his face almost elicits one out of me, but I hold my glare. “True. But this is an opportunity for you to learn about morels.”

“You’re just trying to distract me,” I accuse him, moving hands to hips.

His grin widens. “Of course I am. Now come on. How can you call yourself a forager if you aren’t interested in what else you can forage?”

“My dad was the forager,” I tell him, and I can’t keep the sadness from creeping into my voice. “He just taught me the oyster mushrooms.” And the cattail shoots, and a bit about freshwater clams, and how to get the milk out of milk pods with a bunch of kitchen equipment that doesn’t exist, but none of that is going to come in handy at the moment.

Duc plucks his hat from my hands with gentle fingers, empties it onto the ground, brushes it out, and returns it to me. “Then don’t you want to learn more about the things he knew?”

I can’t look at him. Not yet. I’d been a child when my dad left, and ever since then I’ve clung to the memories and knowledge he gave me like they were my lifeline. I’d always thought of these packets of knowledge as the most important of what he’d intended to share with me, and I protected it fiercely as the legacy he’d left for me.

But for the first time since entering this semblance of adulthood, something about Duc’s question spears me to the core and makes me consider this aggregated sum of knowledge in a new light. It’s almost like pieces of myself are changing, shifting, repositioning themselves in a way that feels like . . . something.

Comfort.

Maybe my dad hadn’t imparted “the most important” information. Maybe he’d just taught me what had been most appropriate for a little girl to learn, things I wouldn’t hurt myself with back then. Maybe there was more he’d wanted—intended—to teach me. Maybe I owed it to him to keep learning.

And maybe, shutting myself off from going deeper into the world he’d opened up for me was less about protecting the knowledge he shared with me, and more that gaining that knowledge from some other source felt wrong, traitorous somehow. Or maybe just too steeped in loss for me to bear examining.

When I lift my eyes to Duc’s, he’s smiling at me, holding a morel in his palm like an offering.

I swipe my face with my sleeve, no doubt adding a stripe of grime, then pluck the brainy mass out of his hand.

“You say these are better than oyster mushrooms?”

He clamps a hand on my shoulder. “With the fat Xenia gave us, they’re going to blow your mind.”

I wrinkle my nose at the idea—I’ve never thought so hard about butter before as when I’d overheard that lecture—but he gives me one more quick smile and turns away.

That’s the thing about Duc: he always knows just what to say. He’s one of those people with the innate ability to reach inside someone’s head, figure out exactly what they need from an interaction, and give them that thing. Or maybe it isn’t so innate—I’m sure years of practice with Tristan has given him valuable insight into how to navigate unpredictable conversations.

Tristan.

The thought sends a stab through me, and I risk a guilty glance at Duc. But he’s moved off a bit, placing a few trees between us, giving me relative privacy to collect my thoughts.

And here I am, worried about my own ancient history, while Duc’s best friend is missing now. I don’t want Bradley hurt either, of course, but the thought of these two almost-brothers being torn apart, maybe forever, makes my insides clench.

I’d gone from cool, collected, stealth-stoner Addie to freaking-out-when-things-go-wrong, crazy-person Addie to plain old boring nothing-next-to-Xenia Addie. But whatever part I’m playing, I am determined that I will play the most important role in my life.

I am determined to help bring Tristan back. For Duc, for Tristan, and for all of us.

We just have to make it until Nate and Xenia get back.

Did you know?

No Dragons Press is available as a podcast!

LISTEN TO EPISODE 23