Dawn, hitherto a mere rumour heard in paler blue, now breathes her message in pink and orange whispers faintly echoing in the bellies of distant clouds. The Droll Knave, through guilt or caprice, has been to the citadel and returned with apricot brandy for Lap-Laz and damson wine for the rest. The gods reconvene at the purple blanket in solemn conclave, as though the dim glow of the approaching morning has brought with it decorum in its exposure of all to the light.
A gaunt figure stalks one side of the arena, long-limbed, long-bearded, long-fingered. Gessum of Gold, whose many necklaces, bracelets, anklets, rings and brooches gaily gleam in contrast to his slate-like eyes, his thin unsmiling mouth, his grubby yellowed fingernails.
"Who will oppose me on the Purple?" he says. "So far none have impressed."
At that, a murmur passes over the lips of the assembled deities. Gessum. Will he ever change? But there is a challenger all the same. A commotion at the back of the crowd and a fish-like figure flaps forward. The newcomer's eyes gaze blankly in opposite directions from the sides of her thin, mouthy face; she twists her head this way and that so she can fix Gessum with first one eye, then the other. This is Appappappa the Trident-Bearer; she leans heavily on her barbed weapon as though ill-equipped to support herself on land. Salt water drips from her fat belly and darkens the purple in blotches.
"I will oppose."
She slowly turns and gestures with webbed hand to the dewy grass at the edge of the blanket. The gods watch as pallid shapes sprout like many phalluses from the soil, and then unfurl; toadstools, eyed and mouthed, with limb-like appendages and the stench of dank earth. "My champions," Appappappa announces as she sweeps them onto the Purple, twenty of them, in five clearly delineated groups of four - each of whose members is larger than the last. "May they triumph."
Gessum watches with creased lip. "Good," he says, and claps his hands together, once, his jewellery jangling. At first, nothing appears to have happened and the other Gods watch in silence. But then the slim miser leans a little forward and gives the void before him a gentle puff from the lips, the heat from within him misting in the chill pre-dawn air. A male figure forms from it: pale blue, legless, ethereal; it glides gently to the ground as gossamer. "And we commence."
Yet Lap-Laz has already raised an arm in outrage and stepped onto the Purple. "Now look here!" he spits. "What can the Trident-Bearer's minions do to harm that phantom of the air? A precedent has been established on this point!"
"Quite right," come voices in support. "We seek sport, not the mere spectacle of violence."
The Elder Sister has been sitting cross-legged against a cherry tree and feeding her victorious slaves with honeyed calvados, poured into her shield for them to lap up like dogs. She stands and declares, "Since in the last bout it was I who benefited, I feel it is incumbent upon me to pass on the advantage." From the air she plucks something small, delicate and silvery, and casts it at Appappappa's feet. "Arm your champions, Trident-Bearer."
The weapon she has provided befits her: a tiny bastard sword of platinum. But Appappappa does not yet bend to take it. She turns to fix Lap-Laz with a single blank eye. "Watch. My strongest are strong."
The mushroom men are already advancing. Their tactic is simple. Unable or unwilling to break up their groups of four, they move forward in their five units like the fingers of a hand. The thumb comprises their biggest and strongest. The aerial servant wheels to meet it. Whether it is confident or afraid, aggressive or calm, is impossible to tell. Its countenance is as impassive as the greyest, dampest mist.
The four biggest myconids encircle Gessum's aerial servant. The gods squatting closest to the blanket bend forward; those behind strain to watch. Are the Trident-Bearer's champions as strong as she believes?
Yes. The myconids flail with club-like fists. Two pound the misty form of their floating enemy - it hisses and gasps in the shock of pain. This, it was not expecting. Lap-Laz lets out a whoop! But if the mushroom men are strong, the servant is stronger still. It reaches out with arms bearing the hideous force of the wind; grasping one of the fungus men who face it, it tears him in twain down the middle with a single brute yank.
There is a fight on. The gods are happy. Somebody calls out "Are you impressed yet, Gessum?" Others raise their voices in laughter. Gessum's lips shrivel even further to the point of a narrow line cut across his chin. He strokes his beard with ringed fingers.
Unperturbed by the death of their brother, the three biggest mushroom men who remain continue to club at the aerial servant with chitinous fists. Two again bash its body and it quails, flailing wildly with a slap that brings one of the myconids stumbling to its knees, though not dead. It is clear that the thing is desperate and distressed; though its face is as implacable as ever, its movements are not. It understands it faces its end, and a rapid one at that.
The other mushroom men crowd in now from the rear. They lack the power to harm Gessum's champion. But they seem to feel their presence is requested or required. Ordinary emotions are not known to them - not the triumph of victory nor grief for death. Rather, they are aware only that they must bear witness to what transpires. And with the gods they watch as their three mighty brethren beat the aerial servant's form so thoroughly that it disintegrates beneath their blows - as though their sheer force have rendered its body momentarily corporeal so as to more thoroughly destroy it.
The brief pause that follows is ended by a sharp cough from Gessum of Gold. "I am embarrassed," he tells Appappappa.
For her part, Appappappa twists her head so as to regard him through the left eye, then right, as her champions retreat once more into the soil to await their next call.
The Skurtch is sitting on a tree branch overhead, holding a goblet. He belches and a slick of mead spills down his chest and belly as he guzzles. "That was barely begun before it ended. Who's for more?"
But it is then that somebody - perhaps more sober than the rest - hisses from the edge of the crowd, "Silence. Sleep stalks us!"