Chat-your-own-Adventure #25: Dean of Detritus

Author’s Note: This story was written live on stream with the audience bidding tokens (earned while watching) to determine the path of the story.  The underlined phrases in the choice of three were the winning pathways.  Stop by twitch.tv/blainearcade if you’d ever like to participate in our interactive fiction.

Chunky Garden Jellies                  Serpentipedes                        Giggling Gourds

The greenhouse was always quiet, so it was the perfect place to experiment. Since the castle grounds had been corrupted and usurped, all sorts of venomous little things had emerged from the garden soil, making their nests in the giggling gourds that would’ve been the food of the people just a week prior.

Vito Nerovian, in that prior week, woud’ve been working in one of the highest towers, mixing medicines for the king and queen of the land. Now, he had been kicked out of the castle proper and told there was only one way to earn his keep. His scientific expertise would further the evil goals of the Dean of Detritus. If they didn’t, he would have to go live with the peasants, fighting off the fungal abominations as they re-plowed every field in corruption.

His first assignment? Breed something, out of the hideous new vermin of the gardens, that would be an effective minion for the Dean’s new empire. Vito remembered the villain’s exact words: It must be capable of biting, but I don’t really care about the exact mechanism of the bite. Something sharp. No gumming my enemies. It must also lack fur. Fur can become infested with rot, but it takes far too long. I won’t have my minions looking fluffy or cute for even a single moment. Shoo now. Get it done or get beheaded in the Venus steel traps I just potted in the dungeons.

The first decision was what to base the creature on. Vito had plenty of choices wriggling around in the blackening humus, sucking the nutrition out of the ancient royal plants that had been rooted there for hundreds of years. After jarring one specimen of several different varieties, he tested the aggressiveness of their responses. Two stood out as the most vicious: the chunky garden jelly and the serpentipede.

The serpentipede was a seven-segmented purple clawed menace that constantly made rasping sounds. It could poison a man with its piercing forked tongue and cobra-like strike with ease. Vito’s supplies were lacking, including gloves, so he was wary of removing the creature from its jar. Out of concern for his own blood integrity, he went with the other choice.

The jellies would have to be enhanced in order to be as dangerous as the basic serpentipede. On their own they aggressively tried to slither down animal throats and suffocate them, but you had to be dumb enough to let one near your throat for it to be effective. He yanked the captured one out of its jar and examined it under a magnifying glass as it tried to squeeze between his fingers.

The gooey blighter was crimson in color, with visible chunks in its gelatinous body. These chunks were preserved plants, to be kept in vacuoles until the jelly needed to digest them. Until it did, they served mostly as floral decorations. Vito counted sixteen buttercups lodged inside its body, perhaps the most intact remnant of the royal gardens at that point. He jabbed a syringe into it to see if there was a pain response, but it didn’t even shudder.

Nailing it in place for experimentation was impossible, so he had to use a thick yellow adhesive that smelled nearly as bad as the jelly itself. He slathered it on just as heavy rain started to pour on the glass of the greenhouse. The dark scrabbling things hurried to burrow out of sight and avoid drowning.

Extract the Buttercups             Undead Electricity            Rapid Hybridization

He’d never read much about the mad scientists that had helped create the Dean in the first place, but he knew of their most crucial ingredient: undead electricity. A commoner would just call it lightning, as they wouldn’t be able to see the difference. It was a difference you felt in your goosebumps. Where regular electricity simply raised the hair on your arm, undead electricity went much deeper. Exposure to it often caused nightmares and glowing eyes the next time you slept, even if it was just a tiny nap.

The production process involved catching lightning via rod and passing it through recently dead or preserved flesh to reanimate it. Upon moving through a nervous system once, its properties changed, making it easier to store and more compatible with sinister purposes.

If Vito was going to simply rely on that old tactic to spice up the jelly, he would have to go and fetch some. There were charged lodestones containing the undead electricity in the storeroom, which meant he had to enter the castle proper and once again view the mess the Dean had turned it into. He squished the jelly back into its jar, donned a heavy coat, pulled the hood over his face, and left the greenhouse for the miserable walk to the castle.

He knocked on one of the side doors, but had to do it carefully, as the wood was mostly rotten now. If his fist went straight through the Dean might have his hand lopped off for ruining his decorations. A moment later, something pulled the door open. It was one of the Dean’s sporelings, born from a wet crevice somewhere on his body. It was a grumpy fungal creature with many tendrils and a smooth purple cap. It couldn’t speak, so it just slithered out of the way to let Vito in.

I just have to grab some of the sparky stuff from the stores,” he told the fungus nervously, unsure where its ears were located. It nodded its long thin neck, then turned to go about its business. Vito looked up. The chandeliers were still there, their candles still lit, but the iron structures were almost completely coated in hanging fungal stalks, like wilted brown stems in a month-old bowl of soup.

The walls and floors had it just as bad. The portraits of the old royalty were still visible, but only because the mischievous fungus had chosen to grow on specific patches of the paintings; they gave all the ladies purple mustaches and all the men green horns or forked tongues. Everything else was coated in toadstools and bubbles that popped when they sagged too much.

Vito held his breath whenever he could and moved through the halls, his boots squelching against the undergrowth. He took a set of stairs down, meeting another sporeling halfway. It simply extended its tendrils and passed over him without a sound.

The storeroom was near, but it was quite dark. He guided himself by listening for the pops of the charged lodestones. His mind couldn’t help but wander into the terriotry of guilt. At what point was he supposed to give up hope? Was it better to flee or die immediately? Would people curse him for helping the Dean in order to stay within the relative safety of the castle walls? If they did,would he ever hear it?

Dean of Detritus                   Monstrous Cook                 Chambermaid Assassin

He was so distracted that he bumped into another body in front of him. In the low light he assumed it was another sporeling that would instinctively move out of the way. He stumbled backward and hit the wall, some of the fungus grabbing at his collar.

Watch where you’re going!” the body in the dark hissed. It sounded like a woman. The only women left in the castle were the chambermaids and the fool. The fool was only able to escape the lecherous gaze of the Dean thanks to the thick white make-up and padded costume that obscured her sex. He didn’t hear any bells jingling atop a cap, so she had to be a chambermaid.

You watch where you’re going,” he shot back. “I may have been relegated to the green house, but I’m pretty sure I still outrank you.” His eyes adjusted to the light. She carried a candle and wore an expression that was just as fiery. He saw the flash of steel tucked into her light blue dress, just under the neckline. She turned a moment later and went further into the storeroom.

Pretend you didn’t see me,” she said over her shoulder. He followed her past the polished irons, musty blankets, and glass seeing spheres to the the lodestones in the back. They had cube bases, but their tops were a mess of spiky projections that shined like silver. Bolts of lightning hopped between the blocks, emitting a popping sound and a lively fog. The chambermaid stood in front of them dumbly, with her hands held out.

Get away from there!” Vito warned her, rushing forward and pulling her hands back. “You can’t just grab them like rope. You’ll kill yourself three times over before you can even think about letting go. You need a proper vessel to hold it. Like this.” Vito went to the wall and grabbed a glass tube with metal ends. He popped one end off and held it close to the tip of a lodestone projection. Lightning and fog slithered inside; he popped the end back on and held it up in front of her. The trapped undead light was almost as bright as her candle flame.

Will this hold a charge of that?” the maid asked him, pulling the hilt of a dagger from the side of her bosom. Vito had suspected as much, but he still flinched anyway.

With direct contact, yes, I think. For a few seconds at least. Why would you need to?”

That stuff made the Dean. It can unmake him, turn him back to corpse and lichen. I’m going to take our castle back.” She pushed the knife out of sight and grabbed Vito’s hand, dragging him toward the exit.

Wait, you want to kill the Dean? As soon as we’re back under the chandeliers they’ll see what we’re doing. The toadstools on the wall will tell him immediately! You can’t! You’ll get us both killed and turned to fertilizer.” He tried to drag his feet, but the woman was surprisingly strong.

That’s why you’re coming with me. It’s not suspicious for you to hold that stuff. He keeps a night-light powered by it near his bed. I’m going to change the sheets, and you’re going to change the lamp’s battery. That’s all.”

I refuse. I’m fine the way I am. I need to go put this into some jelly to make meaner jelly.”

Make the Minions                                 Tattle                                  Fetch the Sheets

You’ll do no such thing you coward. You’re coming with me. I’ll die if you tattle, but know this: every maid will eventually make an attempt on the Dean’s life, he’s that disgusting, but they might make time to put some ground glass into your food before they do. Now come on.” She dragged him back out into the hall, where he was forced to commit to a plan.

The chandeliers groaned, the invisible eyes of the fungus pulling them slightly, following the two humans as they made their way to the laundry room. If it was going to look like they were making the bed, they needed to fetch the sheets first.

Vito couldn’t help but breathe deeply as soon as they reached the laundry room, for it was the cleanest air he’d had in more than a month. It still smelled like the old castle, as the soap and steam kept the fungus at bay. There were several other maids in there, folding sheets and clothing. The Dean, who had been reborn from an infested coffin, had but one outfit of his own, so he had simply taken to the king’s old wardrobe.

Everything needed to be cleaned constantly, as his moist emissions stained every robe, coat, and pair of underwear in hours. The laundry room was always bustling, cleaning his shed skin and slime from every scrap of linen.

Are you ready Erica?” one of the maids asked the one in the blue dress. Vito bit his lip. He hadn’t even asked her name. He’d forgotten what human company was like. The sporelings had no names, only the single jobs they were smart enough to do. One to open doors. One to keep lookout. One to take punishment whenever the Dean was in a foul mood.

Erica nodded, and the others set to work. They rolled out a clean bed sheet. It would act only as wrapping paper for their gift to the Dean. They carefully laid out a host of kitchen knives on the sheet. They were the sharpest things in the castle that wouldn’t be immediately missed. If Erica failed with her first blow, she could dive for the trove of death within the sheets and hopefully grab another weapon. The maids put a second and third sheet on top of the blades, then folded the pile so she could carry it with ease.

Vito’s grip tightened on the pipe of undead electricity. Here were the servants, still plotting, still resisting between cooking the meals and emptying the chamber pots. Meanwhile he’d hunkered down under the mushroom cap and averted his eyes from the suffering beyond the walls. He made a vow right then and there. If they failed, he would pop open that tube and drink its contents, turn himself into the mindless shambling shell he’d pretended to be the entire time.

Shall we, Doctor?” Erica asked him, cocking out one elbow for him to take. The other maids glared at him like he was the devil’s lapdog. He took one more deep breath full of steam and warm brick, before grabbing her arm and holding the pipe up like a staff.

Yes. I suppose those nasty jellies in the garden will be fine without me.”

Writing a Treaty                  Reproducing                      Playing with Undead Pet

The spiral stairs were always somewhat treacherous, and they were made more so by the slippery fungus. Still, they made their way to the highest chamber in the castle: the Dean of Detritus’ private quarters. Erica knocked only once before letting herself in.

A few more times would have been prudent, as they caught the Dean in the middle of the most distracting activity. To understand what they saw, one must first understand the sort of creature the Dean was.

Undead electricity was perfect for animating all sorts of things. In life, the Dean was just a master at a small college outside the castle. He was a private man, often taking long walks deep into the woods and sometimes not returning until after nightfall. When he passed, of natural causes, his will stated that he was to be buried in an unmarked plot under his favorite tree: a rather giant dragon of a plant in the heart of the woods.

His wishes were respected. Without a headstone he was quickly forgotten, and when the first experiments with the lightning filtered through necrotic flesh began, the scientists had no idea they tested just above his coffin. They succeeded in reanimating a plow-horse, but while they fixed a plow to it to see if it could still pull, something else crawled out of the charged ground.

It was the Dean. His body had been partly claimed by a host of different fungi. His eyebrows were replaced by fleshy yellow-white brackets. His tongue was covered in blue-white moss. His fingers were giant shoots the size of parsnips. The horse, similarly undead, ignored him, but the panicked shouts of the scientists angered the reborn Dean. He snatched them one by one and infected their bodies with deadly toxic spores. They left nothing on the ground but black mildew outlines.

The Dean had a new dream of new students. His school would be the whole world, and his pupils would be every spore and seed of every plant and toadstool. He would teach by the most effective method imaginable: inheritance. He would split and spread infinitely, each of his children growing smarter with practice. The sporelings were only his first creations.

Erica and Vito walked in on his triumph. The Dean stood in the middle of the room, naked, his legs transformed into a shoot covered in roots and drooping tendrils. Two torsos topped that shoot, the divide between them growing by the second. Each of his heads groaned and moaned as it pulled away from the other.

What?” one of them growled.

Are,” the other continued.

You”

Doing”

In”

Here?”

By god, what is this nightmare?” Erica nearly screamed. She dropped the sheets, the blades clattering everywhere.

It’s just biology,” Vito muttered. He held the pipe forward like a saber. “He’s splitting. We’ll have two Deans in a minute.”

Leave!” both heads roared, strange voice making all the surrounding fungus shudder and retract.

Now’s your chance Doctor,” Erica said with a grimace. “We need two heroes here. You must strike as I do.” She bent down and grabbed two knives, circling around the monstrosity as the split reached its waist. The Deans swiped at her with their long claws, but she ducked under their weak efforts. Reproduction had made them vulnerable.

Vito loosened the tip of the pipe. A whisper of the electric fog escaped. He was ready. He would never actually be a hero, but they might teach of him anyway, maybe even at the Dean’s old college. He nodded. Erica roared and thrust a knife into each stretching pale neck. They connected bloodlessly, like chopping mushrooms for stew.

Vito removed the end of the pipe and stabbed at their divide. The undead electricity passed through their bodies, swapping their polarity of life once more. Fluid erupted from the neck wounds, purple and foul. The Dean’s mouths stretched and stretched, eventually turning inside out like pale parasols. Their eyes disappeared as the fold turned into a curl. The Deans couldn’t even finish. Their torsos went limp, pulling the central shoot to the ground. They collapsed like a hat rack.

We did it,” Erica said, looking to the doctor for confirmation. He knew more of the wretched biology than she did. “Didn’t we?”

I’m nearly certain,” he answered. They listened. There was the faint sound of things shriveling all over the castle. “Nearly certain… I’m sorry Dean, but I always preferred learning the old fashioned way.” The creature’s former student bowed.

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