THE CHALLENGER IN THE UNDER THE DARK by Jesse Zimmerman
I am Flora, Daughter of Flora, and I’m narrating the intro this time. My sister (Fauna), the Challenger, and I stand in a strange house under a mountain. This is a subterranean farmstead that sits beneath a great crack with open skies above. After fleeing the slime, we now realize we’d trespassed on its land, and these seemingly simple farmer-folk are more malevolent and magical than we thought.
With my Rod of Delipha I’d squelched the fireball that was shot towards the home’s front. Sister ascends steps to the raised platform where the two brothers and the father stand. The Challenger, a ranger, strides aside her, sword in hand.
Another fireball bursts from the red-haired brother’s fists, passing over my companions, zooming at me! I raise again the magical rod, say the words, and seawater shoots forth, ending the threat. Frantically, I shout: “I was trying to prevent a fire with that first fireball!”
“Ah!” the big father snaps, waving dismissively. “I’ve the power of cold, was under control!”
“Hospitality privileges revoked! Insulted us!” the clan-mother cries. Her stony form is seated in the big chair across from the others of the clan. The Challenger leaps across the hearth, challenging (hence his name) the two brothers at once. He waves his sword from one side to the other, bidding them to move back.
“Can we de-escalate?” I wonder wildly, but Fauna is dashing into the sunken hearth to rescue the slime. I leap up the little steps, raising Delipha’s Rod in my right hand, taking out the Mighty Magnet from my belt in my left. I call upon the Sea Goddess, splashing down at the blazing hearth. I see Fauna’s red cap and I drench the spaces in front, beside, and behind in a circular frenzy as she moves her small arms around the quivering mass, the burnt slime. Soon I squelch all the flames, and then the glowing embers, leaving only soaked ash.
Suddenly there’s great weight pulling on my arm. I gasp, realizing the stream of water has become solid ice! From the heaviness, I nearly topple, but the long frozen stream breaks off, and I yank myself backwards.
Straightening, I stare onward at the scene:
Directly across from me the stout father stands, his frosty thick arms protruding at the sides of his furry mantle, his beady eyes fixated on me. The Challenger, his back to the fireless hearth, flicks his sword about, and Bub, tall and red of hair, steps from him, face contorted as he chants deeply. Lumpin, tall and of blonde hair, has backed further from the ranger, twirling his hands about.
“Fauna!” I cry to my sister. Unaided, I see her hand reach the end of the lip of the hearth. Her clothes are damp; she remains unburnt. The bulging mass of the slime (crisped from having been in the fire so long) she pushes above her onto the floor to the base of the chair across the way, the chair where the lady of stone sits. Fauna pulls herself up. At her right is the Challenger, keeping the others at bay.
“Insulters!” shouts the father.
“Farmer guy!” cries the Challenger. “Allow us leave!”
“The slime comes with us!” shouts Fauna as I run to her side.
Something creaks. The stone mother on the chair stands and we sisters gasp.
“Oh girls, did you really think I was immobile this whole time?” she asks, her mouth gaping. She pulls back an arm and swiftly punches Fauna, sending her back into the hearth. I duck as another rocky fist comes at me, lowering my face close to the slime’s surface.
“Thank you,” a limp voice speaks.
A stone foot comes for my face, but I tumble away, back towards the couch we’d earlier been sitting on. I get to my feet and begin dousing the hearth again and I glance up frantically to the father across the way. He is rushing at the Challenger. Our ranger friend does one of his high jumps just as the thick father is about to ram him, letting the portly farmer bash into Bub. As the Challenger lands, Lumpin sends a whirlwind from his hands, flinging the Challenger over my head to the front of the big room.
Fauna jumps, landing at my side, her sword drawn. The stone mother runs at us, while the father and two brothers scramble along behind her. The three men suddenly trip. I see that the slime is moving again, muddling at their feet. Fauna waves her blade at the stone woman, slowly backing from her. I turn, beginning to run towards the Challenger at the front. He is being assailed from above. Pots and pans are chucked by the two hanging elders, the one of white hair, the other of none. Beneath their dangling pods, the Challenger dodges their thrown items, hopping from one foot to another, all the while grabbing his bow from his back, dropping his sword for a moment as he fits his only arrow (not sure where he got it from) onto the bowstring and shoots upward. The arrow flies diagonally toward the ropes that bear the two swaying baskets, piercing one of each in its flight, lop-siding both pods, sending both elders to the floor. They feebly lie slug-like at the Challenger’s feet, but as he retrieves his sword they
scurry away together, vanishing behind the curtains to the side.
“Fauna!” I yell.
“Slime!” she cries back. Our slippery ally, having already tripped the three men, now oozes towards the front. The stone woman turns about and steps heavily with both feet upon the slime, stopping it in its slime tracks. Fauna charges her, slicing her sword, and she keeps smacking until sparks appear.
“Magic reeling!” shouts the stone woman to the others of the clan, ignoring Fauna. “More glow mushrooms! Hearth dies! So too will our powers fade if not relit!”
I take the Mighty Magnet, and I say the words to activate, flinging some of the pots and pans that had earlier been hurled at the Challenger (whose sword gets flung in the process, but I swiftly chuck it back to him hilt first). The items barely deter the mother, and Fauna is still making sparks on her side as the father and his sons rise again. The Challenger, catching his sword, steps over to the large curtains on the left-hand wall of the front of the home, and gingerly lifts the flap of one with his sword’s end, revealing a small room with a thick cauldron.
Thanking the ranger, I pull the mighty iron pot towards me. It moves slowly, scraping the floor as it heaves. I side-step toward the Challenger, and I switch opposite magnetic force, pushing hard, sending the cauldron at the raised wooden platform that is the living room. The cauldron crashes into wood, sending splinters everywhere as I manage to raise it slightly, just enough to slam against the mother, and I push further along the platform, into the father and Bub and Lumpin—four voices cry out as the commotion ensues. My sister jumps off the platform. The slime slithers along her side towards us, and the Challenger chucks open the front door. I grab the curtain that was hanging before the cauldron as I run out, slamming the door behind us.
We run into the cold underground night. The curtain in my arms is huge, and I nearly trip as I dash after Fauna. I toss the curtain over the slime at my side, hoping it might protect it from the sunlight that comes from the strange bowl that sits atop the home’s roof; this magical device up there stores sunlight during the day and then emits the glow to keep slime away at night!
Fauna, seeming to understand why I covered the slime, kneels over hastily to scoop it into her arms. A soft voice speaks from under: “Their magic is fading, but the light still beams. Hastily to the barn!”
We’re running, the Challenger in the lead, my sister and I behind him, the curtain flapping in her arms. Tiny blue fowls jump out of our way, clucking in annoyance as we run alongside the wall of the big home toward the back of it. When we reach the small space between the home and the barn, Fauna swings open the barn’s big door, rushing in with the slime in tow. The Challenger and I stand at the entranceway. With his blade drawn and my magic items both at the ready, we stare at the back door of the home.
I glance behind and see everything inside the barn glows. The blue mushrooms on the walls pulsate wildly, and in near unison they detach from the wall and begin to float.
“They look like jellyfish!” the Challenger grunts in amazement.
The blue mushrooms, brighter than ever, all hover above the slime, encircling it, then they dissipate in a flash, their forms fading into shining mist that cascades onto the slime as Fauna gazes on. The slime glows.
“Ah, sacred crop, ancestral lifeblood!” says the slime and its form begins to make random patterns, bulging and then stretching. “Xelia, she is who you followed. On rocks of our homeland she carved ages ago. She used her heart, the first of the surface world to treat us kindly. I see Xelia now lives in your hearts!”
Fauna smiles. “Thank you. Hey Sis! Did you hear that? That’s what the riddle meant! Use your heart?”
“Ah!” says the Challenger, nodding over to her, then me. “You didn’t catch that with your brain slug, eh, Flora?”
“What Xelia carved is too subjective,” I say. The back door of the home shakes, then flings open.
Lumpin stands there. “Give mushrooms!” he hollers. “Squelch my brother’s fire, but can you withstand my flurries?”
Behind him the great light bowl fades slightly. The Challenger steps forth, ready to start swinging. Lumpin shoots wind from his fingertips, sending both of us hard against the wooden barn’s front. I maintain the grips on my magnet and rod, but my hands are flung at my sides and I cannot move! Something shoots through the barn door then, something green, blue, flat, and wide. It hugs the ground, zooming underneath the gusts. This mass spins around Lumpin’s feet, tripping him, stopping his winds, allowing the Challenger and me to drop. Fauna runs out beside us and she takes off running alongside the home again. The Challenger and I follow, passing by the slime as it morphs into a bigger form, turning into that green hand form that it had used to slap us way earlier. It chucks Lumpin into the barn.
Far above us, through the crack in the mountain, is a black starry sky. The slime following us, we all tear along the side of the home, dodging patches of crops. I hear commotion, heavy footfalls. The slime, now a big turquoise ball that is twice as tall as the Challenger, rolls alongside my left.
“What’s the plan?” asks the Challenger.
“Where can we leave the underground?” Fauna asks the slime quickly.
“Xelia found a way, but the pass she took has been blocked for centuries!” replies the slime.
“There they are!” shouts a deep voice. I see the father emerge at the corner of the home. Bub and the stone mother are behind him. The red-haired brother bears the great net which he had originally caught us in. It is strong, the netting, to have entrapped us so helplessly.
“No!” cries the Challenger, standing beside my sister, and they both raise their swords.
The air is suddenly cold. I see the father, though he stands a ways from us, holding out his arms, sending an arctic blast.
Delipha’s Rod! I raise it again, stepping in front of the others of my party, sending forth a great wave of water. My stream presses forward into freezing air, arching upward, becoming an immense wall of hard ice. I keep splashing forth, standing firm as I watch the whole region in front of me become a single white-blue mass. The frozen water protrudes like a singular tear-shaped bulge, the heaviest part falling first.
The three farmer folk scuttle from under the shadow of the plunging formation, and then shards of ice upon ice shatter before me! Slime projects forth its wide bulk, shielding us from the debris before it envelops us. I see nothing, only feel softness around me. In front of my nose and mouth is open space, somehow I breathe comfortably, though my heart is thumping.
“Be calm, friends.” I hear the slime speak as I feel movement all around me. I know the slime is stirring quickly. It won’t hurt us, not after all this.
Things crash, the voices of the clan cry out. The body of the slime begins bouncing and bouncing, and then it springs upward. I feel force pushing me and soon I can see again. My sister calls beside me, but I can only look forward, just my face is uncovered.
“Do you have your cap?” I call to her, nearly laughing, yet terrified as I gaze into night sky, the stars all spinning.
Now I see the white curtain above me. It shoots out and the zooming pace begins to slow. We float downward.
“Gods!” cries our unseen ranger friend. “We are above the mountain!”
I see it now, the range beneath, some of the peaks covered in snow that gleams in the moonlight. The slime glides toward a long plateaued niche region beside the massive crack in the mountain. I realize the slime must have bounced so hard it cleared the whole subterranean valley!
Soon the slime lands, rolling. Though a bit dizzy, I’m relieved when everything ceases moving and the slime softly pushes us from itself, depositing us upon rocky ground. Our clothes are surprisingly dry.
The Challenger stands, declaring: “I was wrong about you, slime! For that, I am sorry!”
The slime, mouthless, mutters: “Truly, ranger, you are good!”
“Well, neutral, chaotic, maybe a little good,” says the Challenger, grinning at Fauna to his side.
“The clan folk are surrounded by a fresh moat,” the slime beams and its big mass deflates into a long snake-like form that begins slithering around us.
Behind us three expands the great crack, and we hastily gather side by side to peer over. As the slime says, the homestead far below (visible because the bowl of light is shining again) is encircled by waters that appear thick and deep. I can see specks moving into the home.
“You’re lucky I’m out of arrows, Bub!” the Challenger roars down the immense fissure.
“I know of ways back inside,” says the slime, and it becomes a great ball again. “They have not access to more of our crop, at least for now. I shall return to my slime-folk and organize in the time we have against the clan.”
“We would love to help, but we are finished with the underworld,” my sister says and I nod eagerly in agreement.
“You have helped more than enough. I shall remind the others that there are some from the surface that are good-hearted,” the slime says and dissipates back into a puddle, scuttling down a steadily curving mountainside.
The sight before us is breath-taking, a great steep expanse of rocky ground that eventually becomes lush halfway to the base of the slope. There are forests and beyond that meadows. I know that this is west and that this is where we want to go.
“To home?” I ask Fauna.
She removes her pointed red cap, hitting some of the dust off her sleeve and shoulders with it. As she places it back on, she nods once. I can see how weary she is, despite her big relieving smile. I feel a grin on my own.
“Our luck might run if we stay questing too long,” she says, pulling on the string to her packsack.
“You two are not low-level anymore,” says the Challenger, placing his sword in his scabbard. He looks off to his side. “I think that the Vale of Dragos is that way, if I can remember rightly.”
“You’re a ranger!” says Fauna.
He looks back to us. “Will you two be alright on the long road home?”
“Well, yes, and we can pay you the rest of what we owe,” I tell him, remembering how we first met him in the tavern.
“It’s been a great quest, friends,” he says, placing both hands on his belt.
“What?” I ask, not liking where this is going.
Fauna’s mouth is hanging open as she looks to the ranger. In a moment, as the Challenger once more looks away, she appears to compose herself, and she says: “Emera?”
The Challenger nods, smirking a little. “We left the Vale of Dragos in a not great place, didn’t we? I felt kind of bad for leaving her.”
“She did a lot for us,” I say, thinking back to the lovely green-haired woman who hosted us.
“What made you decide this?” Fauna asks.
“Something Xelia said,” he says.
“Do your thing,” Sister says next, looking to me. “I think she’s single?”
“Either way, she may need help, as well her daughter and everyone of sound mind in the Vale!” He then looks to us, saying: “I’ll someday come collect the rest of the coin, and maybe another quest? But, will you two be safe?”
“Challenger!” I laugh, motioning to my rod, my magnet, my dagger, my sister.
We hug three ways, a long embrace, and then he parts to go ranging over the range.
I hope we meet again. We sisters turn westward, reaching the mountain’s base by morning. Here stands a tiny village called Xelia. Its denizens are strong and proud and we’re told that they’re the descendants of the great warrior herself! Once on the surface, she came here to this calm valley and settled. We have followed such a legacy!
Soon we set out home. Completing our quest is all!