THE CHALLENGER IN THE UNDER THE DARK by Jesse Zimmerman
Deep under the mountains the two sisters, Flora and Fauna (and the ranger called the Challenger) were fleeing from slime, and after a raucous battle, the slime revealed that they three had trespassed on their realm. The slime and the three adventurers then became swept up in a huge net, scooped by two hitherto unseen beings!
Now our heroes and the slime are being dragged towards a distant light...
My sister shrieks though her voice is muffled. I feel the two smushed against me, my face, I think, is on my sister’s hair because I feel rough bunches and smell old lemons. I also feel what I think is a boot against my cheek. We are hitting hard ground together in this constricting net.
Fauna yelps: “I see nothing! Can you?”
“No!” I say to her ear.
“I can with my eye!” the Challenger cries from near my feet. “We’re coming upon the light we saw from afar! The whole cavern slowly illuminates as we near!”
“Do you see up?” I ask.
“Yes!” replies the ranger. “Far above, taller than any city I’ve seen, spans the roof of the inside of this mountain! Like immense cracks, this whole open section above, as if a god sliced it! The sun beams upon this subterranean valley! Whatever has us, this must be their home!”
“What has us?” I inquire frantically.
“Tall two-leggers, men maybe!” he answers, and he calls to our captors. “Hey! Who pulled you out of the turnip patch early?”
We hear a loud grunt, and then I feel the tight net flip over. I try to move my legs, but barely can. I feel something soft against the back of me, and I hear something soothing as I realize that the slime we are bagged with oozes itself out around us, softening each tumble the net takes.
Through my sister’s red hair I see what the ranger just described, for we sisters face upward now and the ranger is on the ground. Brightness overwhelms my sight. Having travelled underground, having left the Vale of Dragos during night, I now see daytime sky. When my eyes adjust I see puffy clouds too! The faraway walls of the interior of the mountain near the top look purple from here, all so distant. Fauna gasps. The slime oozes over the rest of us, covering the sight. We can breathe, but we’re enclosed by the slime. We are dragged longer, but eventually our captors halt.
The others struggle, likely reaching for their weapons. I try to reach my items, all at my belt. Fauna calls out.
“Silence, slime!” a voice grumbles.
I hear a soft whooshing and the slime in the net suddenly falls from us, sinking weakly to the base of our huddled forms, no longer cushioning us. There’s massive sunlight upon us, brighter than before, for we’re directly below the great hollow.
There are two forms above us; something thin emerges, a knife! The rope netting around us loosens.
“Thought you slime!” says one of them.
“Not us!” says Sister.
“We were fighting the slime!” declares the Challenger as he gets up.
I roll off of my sister, onto the cave-floor, gazing up at faraway sky. After fighting off slime-animated bones and being dragged in a net, I’m exhausted. Standing slowly, I’m feeling bruises on my legs and arms. My blue coat and hat are dusty. I pat myself down quickly.
“Slime change shape sometimes!” says another voice, slightly raspier than the other.
“But always weaken in sun!” adds the deeper first voice.
“Sunlight best disinfectant!” agrees the second.
Beyond our former captors are some peculiar sights. Around us stand trees, all tall and perfectly straight, the loftiest of them reaching a tenth of the distance to the cavern’s roof. Some heavily leafed, others of pine, they’re evenly spaced apart. Closer to us grow long shafts of golden and green grasses and soaring veggie stalks. They too all seemingly reach upward. Growing things (I remember thanks to the instant recollection slug in my head) are shaped like this when there’s a singular source of sunlight.
The Challenger stands aside my astonished sister. He’s seen more things than us girls, yet he too looks amazed. Further there stand two wide structures made of dark logs. They are side by side, square-shaped and two storeyed. Upon their flat roofs sit big and wide objects, curved bowl-shaped things, and I can see (in this short distance) long tubes emerging from under them. These things must collect rainwater.
“An underground niche farmstead!” I stammer.
“Nice groves,” compliments the Challenger, looking to the trees.
The two strangers are odd, which was not unexpected. They’re tall and thin, as much shaped like long beans as people could be, though their arms are muscled. Atop the pair’s lanky frames and long faces sprout mops of hair that literally look like mops, like ragged, encrusted old stretchy mops where each bristly fibre sweeps upward and then sideways; one yellowish, the other reddish. Their complexions are pale yet tan at the top and forehead, likely the result of a lifetime under the one light. Their necks are red, and their eyes seem small for their faces, as do their noses. Their mouths are large and wide, frowning.
“Twins?” I ask awkwardly, trying to remove tension.
The yellowish-haired one nods. I gaze at their simple garments, thin partly sleeved set of tunics and plain white sarongs over their lower halves.
“We’re twins too!” says Fauna. Both she and the ranger looked angry a moment ago, but they both now appear relieved.
Between us and them lay the unravelled net and the now coiling slime. Its pinkish-greenish mass shrinks into a puddle formation, drying, looking more like dough. The sun, I realize, causes slime to weaken massively.
“They not slime!” says the deep voiced, reddish-haired twin to the other.
The Challenger has his hand at his scabbard. Fauna’s arms are crossed, but neither seems poised to fight.
I tell them our names, explaining that we’re passing underground, and about the fight with the slime. Sister shows a glowing mushroom to them, still having some in her knapsack.
They both laugh, and then the reddish-haired brother wraps the slime with the net again and hoists it onto his gangly but large shoulders.
“Capturing the slime?” Fauna then asks softly. The twins already head to the nearer of the two log buildings.
I shrug, feeling a bit bad, especially since the slime had told us that we’d trespassed on its blessed lands, that it had only meant to scare us, and because it had just cushioned us while we were being dragged. I wonder if the three of us would’ve been able to work things out peacefully back there if we hadn’t all gotten swept up.
“We’re safe finally,” says the Challenger.
“Yeah,” agrees Fauna, putting the glowing fungi in her pocket, pulling the straps of her knapsack at her front. “Ugh, can’t believe I ate one of those back there!”
“And the slime saved you,” I remind her.
“Well,” the Challenger mutters. “Before that it pushed us into a pit to die, and we saved ourselves!”
“Come!” calls the yellowish-haired brother.
We follow them between the tall crops, to what I assume is their stead. Some small fowl, blue in feather, hop around lightly, and I see a small pond near the edge of the yields. There are, along the walls of both of the structures, more of the hose-like things that stretch down from the big rain-catchers, some that run into the crops. There are lots of wooden buckets strewn about as well.
“Beautiful,” Fauna compliments, and I can tell she’s open to being friendly.
The yellow-haired twin opens the door. Slight smoke and steam escape. Our apparent hosts enter, and we follow, sister first, Challenger second, me last, standard for our trio.
The place is big and wide, yet cluttered and stuffy. On our right stands a pile of worn boots aside crates with tools in them, as well as stacked stools and pots, and further inward along the wall runs a row of thick wooden barrels to the midpoint of the chamber. To our left runs a long line of curtains that hang from the ceiling, a bright blue one nearest to them, while the proceeding curtains are of white and brown along the wall. Before us runs a tattered, muddy carpet over wooden planks. Where the long carpeting ends, the floor raises a tall step, and upon this elevated region stands a crude lengthy table near the right-hand wall, while nearer the middle of it sits some furnishings. From between these a column of smoke rises.
We companions gaze at the ceiling far above. Among a maze of beams and the tops of six wooden pillars I see numerous bunched baskets that are tied to the beams with pulley ropes. I spot two particularly long straw-weaved pods that dangle side by side over the entranceway, and I see two faces, each peering over the side of their respective pods. They look shrivelled, one bald of hair, and the other with a woolly knot of whites.
This one speaks in a weak yet piercing voice: “You bring in slime folk, Lumpin?”
“Slime?” says the bald one, shaking over the edge of his pod. “Over Bub’s shoulders, is it?”
“Shush you!” screeches the crone beside him. Her pod lowers a bit. “It’s sun-dried slime! What of those girls and that patch-eyed man?”
“They not slime! They were lighted!” growls Bub, the reddish-haired twin.
I nod to the two above, quickly calling our names to them. Bub waves a hand, interrupting me: “No need to meet rotting fruit!” says he, stepping along the carpet toward the elevated space near the middle of the chamber.
The white-haired crone curses at him.
“Shush you, Gram, or I’ll poke you with my stick!” yells Bub in reply.
Her face contorts, but her pod slinks back up to the jumbled roof. I give Fauna and the Challenger a weird look. We all shrug.
“Lumpin! Bub! What you boys brought?”
The booming voice, like an uglier rendition of Bub’s voice, startles me as I see a rotund head rise from behind a long piece of furniture. Fauna follows the carpet, coming up behind the tall brothers. The Challenger trails her. They both call reserved greetings, introducing themselves.
“Fauna? Challenger?” rumbles the thick figure near the hearth. “What sortah names are those?”
“Your name, friend?” Sister asks as I speedily join her.
I sense hostility. These are strange folk, indeed people. Living underground may have made them peculiar. I see the owner of the intimidating voice. Standing at the end of a crude brown couch stands a man, late middle-aged (around our mother’s age). It’s obvious he’s the father of two. He’s wider than them, both his body and his face. Over his broad torso sits a furry black shroud parted at the middle, the collar of a tunic poking where the furs meet. On thick legs he wears muddy pants.
His beady brown eyes overlook each of us. I feel nervy as they come to me.
“You were fighting slime?” he asks.
“Yes,” says Sister. “It chased us from the beginning of the valley here, animating walking skeletons, if you can believe it!”
“Yeah, they do that trick,” sneers the older man. He turns to his couch and sits, his back to us again as he says: “Put them in the barn for tonight, Bub.”
“Lumpin can do that,” says Bub, flinging the net near the fire-pit on the raised area.
“Fire dying, magic reeling!” says a shrill voice from an unseen source.
“May we come up?” Fauna asks. The Challenger looks to us sisters one by one, and I can tell he too has a strange feeling.
“Don’t care!” answers the father.
Sister steps up, and we follow her. The table covers most of the right side of the platform, while the left half directly before us consists of two long wooden couches that face one another and a single big comfy looking green chair. In the exact middle of the furnishing is the fire-pit. I can see embers and small flickering flames at the bottom of this deep hole.
“What they pay?” asks the shrill voice. I see her now, in the green chair on the far left of the elevated living room. In the declining glow sits a thin figure shrouded in a sprawling multi-coloured blanket. I see a frail looking face, gaunt, with a tiny mouth only partly open in a disapproving frown.
“Maybe we can do some farm work?” asks Fauna, smiling.
“Bah!” says the big man.
“Here,” says the Challenger. In his unarmed hand he holds a green shiny stone, the little green gem that he had picked up back when we first entered the Under the Dark. He says to me: “I told you this would foreshadow something!”
Bub, coming over from the edge of the fire, grabs the round gem, revealing a grin with five white teeth, two golden ones, and one bright red.
“We came from the Vale of Dragos,” the ranger says then.
“Yes, we’ve been reading the words of Xelia, do you know of her?”
The father shakes his big head. “No read,” says he.
“Where are you folks from?” I ask.
“The Dropped,” says Bub, putting the payment in his pocket. “Lumpin, show them their lodgings!”
The yellowish-haired twin walks on past the living room, and as we follow I get a good look at the woman in the chair. I see that her expression hasn’t moved, nor do her eyes as we pass, and I notice too that her skin is grey and stone-like.
“Peculiar folks,” I say in my head, but I try to remember how Mother taught me not to be judgmental.
Lumpin leads us down into the back space of the long home where I see many red flags, or red towels or something, hanging above on the beams. This part of the homestead is roomier. Lumpin pushes through a short door, bending over as he passes through. We sisters do not need to duck. Outside the wall of the barn stands right before us, only a watery ditch between the structures.
The barn doors, where Lumpin leads us, are bigger. Inside, the floor is covered in pink straw, while the walls and ceiling are shrouded in thick clusters of glowing blue mushrooms that light the immense spanning interior. In the blue light I see some forms move in the distance, what I guess, or hope, are some kind of cattle.
“Wow!” gasps Fauna. “You grow them here?”
The yellow-haired brother heads to the nearest wall, grabs some mushrooms, scooping them with his long arm, into a sack. He ties the bag once it’s full and heaves it over his shoulder.
“You don’t eat it, do you?” my sister asks. “Because that’s not a good idea!”
“Fuel to fire,” Lumpin says. “And fire fuels our magic!”
“Magic?” I ask, not finding it likely that these folk are spell-casters.
Lumpin chuckles. He waves a hand back toward the closed barn doors behind us. The heavy doors creak and then swing right open!
“Come,” he says and brings us all back to the home where we return to the elevated space, and the two brothers unload at once their contributions onto the fire.
Yellowish-haired brother pours the fungus and the fire blooms, while Bub flings the dried out mass of slime in next and we hear the high voice shrieking in the flames.
Fauna’s face goes wild.
The wide father and thin brothers begin moving their arms, all of them standing around the fire-pit, and I see something forming in the smoke.
I weigh over my options in this moment that is confusing and terrifying… Can we ever find our way back to Xelia’s path? The ancient paladin had made it through these cavernous realms, why can’t we? I need to decide what to do next.
Run? Hide? Fight? Stay?
CONTINUES NEXT MONTH…