THE CHALLENGER IN THE UNDER THE DARK by Jesse Zimmerman
 
Part One
 
We left the Vale of Dragos, liberated if you remember, from the theocratic clutches of the Gem Priest!
 
We departed our friends when we entered this new underground area, getting access through the old mines. I am gracious to Emera, that green-haired friend who hosted and healed us, and also to Qilla and her multi-mechanical armed husband, Hue, for they had protected us the most.
 
The three of us now make our way through an enormous tunnel. The Challenger lights up a torch with the fast burning wood we were also gifted, and he says “Stay close together. There are older and fouler things than kobolds in the deep places of the world.”
 
My sister, her glowing face glowing in the torchlight, looks alert as the ranger says this, and she clasps the leather straps about her shoulders. We sisters both carry our supplies in these backpacks. At Fauna’s belt is her sword, while her bow is secured around her torso. The Challenger too has a sword and bow, though both only have a few arrows in each of their quivers. The Challenger looks at me, his uncovered eye shimmering in the firelight, while we walk in a huddled trio. She and the Challenger both seem apprehensive, but I think that I am the only one who is afraid.
 
Not wanting to hear the silence of this dark place, I ask my sis how many supplies we have. Fauna swings off her knapsack, checking it as we slow our steps. She announces that we have enough bread for two days. The Challenger, peering over her shoulder, adds that the pieces of wood can last likely less than a day.
 
“At least it will be dark when we sleep,” he adds dryly.
 
“And in the morning,” Fauna mutters, returning her sack onto her back. “Like winter in Silver Coast.”
 
Our clustered trio hastens our pace. I am barely able to see the walls, though sometimes when the torch in my friend’s hand flickers I see the faint rock face through the shadows. At our feet we follow a decrepit track. This used to be part of the mine, and I wonder if it’s an expanding tunnel that was abandoned long ago.
 
Further on, we come across a little wooden cart on its side, its dark brown frame half rotted away into the cave’s floor, a clump of black substance spilling from its edges. The Challenger kneels here, raising his torch over his head (in case the stuff is flammable), and runs his other hand through the black mass, retrieving a small green thing, a nearly perfectly spherical gem. He shows us the dozens of tiny lights glint within its green surface from the torchlight.
 
“This could be some foreshadowing, this gem,” he says, pocketing it, and I don’t get what he means and Fauna looks like she doesn’t either.
 
We soon come to a huge wall, the end of this great open area, and to our lefts and rights the wall runs far and both ways they disappear into shadow.
 
“Which?” asks Sis, both her hands clasping her belt, looking to me. “Does your brain slug tell you anything?”
 
My ability (call it a curse since an enemy gave it to me) to recall my memory perfectly isn’t helping me here. “I never read or was told anything about this place,” I say, shaking my head. I look at the Challenger. He is sniffing the air.
 
“I don’t know, girls, honestly,” he then says with a defeated shrug. “Either way is as good as the other.”
 
“Okay!” shouts Fauna and her voice echoes far and wide. She begins to twirl herself like a top, sticking one of her legs out and speeding up, jumping in one movement away from the wall. When she slows down and finally stops spinning her booted foot is pointed to the left.
 
“She always took classes back home,” I tell the Challenger and he shrugs again, starting to walk down the wall to the left. Now the wall is to our right and the left is the big dark space. I wonder if anything can see us from afar. The glow from his torch only emits a few paces around us. The wall, shale-coloured, has some patterns, swirls here and there, dark lines elsewhere, and, as we get further along we see embedded shells and numerous patterns of bones. I immediately know (thanks to Sluggy) that these are the remains of long deceased animals, and I postulate in my mind that this place must have once been underwater.
 
I look down to Delipha’s Rod. It is tied onto my belt, nestled in right beside my dagger. The rod is a magical item I have had since before we were in the Vale of Dragos. It shoots out seawater on command. At my left hip I have fastened the Mighty Magnet, another item I attained on that past adventure. Its name speaks for itself! So, even though my sister and the Challenger are trained warriors, I hold two powerful items.
 
The Challenger leans his free hand a little, revealing more of the wall. We see the bones of a small fish, and as we walk we see another fish, much bigger, behind the small one, its skeletal jaws open, ready to eat. We keep moving and soon see another big fish, this one turned around, seemingly fleeing, and then we see a whole school of smaller fish chasing the big one.
 
“This is why unionization is important,” mutters the Challenger.
 
“Huh?” Fauna asks. She then points ahead and says: “Hey, look!”
 
I see it some scratches on the wall just ahead of us. We reach it and our ranger friend raises his arm the highest he can, illuminating the surface. “What is this, Flora?” my sister asks me. We can clearly see that these are letters, words, but it’s not in the common speech. These are glyphs of some kind.
 
I take a moment to recognize it, but then I see patterns and I know what it says. “This is an ancient tongue,” I say. “It’s Pre-Common.”
 
“Oh?” asks my sister. “So the people who spoke it knew it was from before common what they were speaking in?”
 
“No,” I say. “It’s what we call it now because we don’t know what it was actually called.”
 
Fauna looks it over, a perplexed expression on her round face. “Tell me it says something encouraging.”
 
I gaze to the top. The Challenger kindly lifts the fire for me once more and I begin reading aloud: “I have just departed a great empty vale. My winged steed fell in a thunder storm.”
 
“This must be before it was even called the Vale of Dragos,” says Fauna.
 
“Long before, or the vale villagers we met would not have spoken our tongue,” I agree and continue reading. “I am Xelia, first knight of Glacia.”
 
“Glacia?” Fauna asks.
 
I am recalling everything about the Glacian Empire. “They were ancient, very ancient peoples,” I say.
 
“Thousands of years old; I have seen their ruins before. They once ruled nearly all the lands on this continent,” the Challenger says, lowering the torch so I can read the next verses.
 
 “My beloved Firebird did not survive. I must return to Imperial Citadel to serve my Empress. I could not scale the mountainous walls, so I seek a way out under the mountains. I have explored some of the tunnels nearby. All the ones this way lead to dead-ends. Ah, here is an arrow pointing to our right, so good thing we didn’t go that way. Nice one, Fauna. Let’s see, uh: I am to proceed. I was once told by the Empress’s sages that there are monstrous things in the Under the Dark.”
 
“That’ll get R.A. Salvatore off your scent,” says the Challenger, pointing to those last words.
 
“Flora, does it say more?” asks Fauna.
 
I push up my spectacles on my nose, pressing the frames against my brow. “No,” I answer.
 
“Maybe she wrote further on,” suggests Fauna, walking into the darkness before her, to the opposite direction where the carved arrow points.
 
“Yes,” agrees the Challenger, catching up to her and lighting the way. “And if we see more writing than we know we’re going the right way.”
 
I find it romantic, the idea of following an ancient explorer, a knight on a flying steed in the employ of the Empress herself. I just hope that this underworld did not become Xelia’s tomb. Now I’m keeping up with the two others, eager to enter the first tunnel we come across.
 
It is a dark portal that we soon stumble upon, tall and oblong in shape, as if it were purposely etched to resemble a door. This stands taller than the Challenger, and is as wide as two of him. He lets us go first once more, holding the torch above us, his sword now in his other hand, telling us he can smell something faint, something rotten from further within. This passage runs deep, and so we keep moving, waiting for some change in the scenery, something beyond the sterile brown rock walls that we can barely see.
 
The Challenger soon has to burn another piece of wood as a torch, and we eat some of the bread to keep our energy. I know I’ve pushed myself before, but I feel urgency here. I want to see something to show us we’re on the right track to eventually leave this underground world.
 
“Look!” says my sister, tapping me, pointing upward. I see small bluish glowing things above us. They are like stars, spread out far, only little dots on the dark ceiling. Further on the light things are closer together, whole bunches of them, and the more we walk the more the roof is overtaken by them.
 
“Mushrooms,” says the Challenger, grinning. He takes a big breath and blows out the torch. We have more than enough light to see the place as we trek onward. Very soon the shimmering mushrooms grow down along the sides of the walls too, so thickly that there is not a single space between them. It feels like we’re in a fully lit room! I gaze up, fascinated by the sight of layers upon layers of sprouting flat, wide, and bulgy blue glowing caps that grow so thickly like fur on a beast. Their glow is brightest on the biggest mushrooms, the smaller ones more faded, but they are all a light and consistently blue.
 
“Wow,” stammers Fauna when we come to a section of the tunnel where the ceiling has become lower. She stands on her toes, swings her sword, and collects some of the bigger mushrooms that fall. She holds a handful now, and we both look closely at them. They are thick in the stalks, their caps even thicker, and all of their body glows steadily at the same luminous level.
 
I search my mind, unable to find any information on them. I know which mushrooms are poisonous on the surface of the world, and which ones are scrumptious, and which ones are exuberant, but not down here! The Challenger says that they may kill or give energy or heal, or just be food.
 
“If we run out of bread and can’t find anything else to eat then we got nothing to lose and we might as well die weirdly at that point,” says my sister, packing many handfuls into her bag. “Hopefully we can find some underground stream, catch some eyeless fish if we’re lucky.”
 
“Yum,” says our ranger friend, his face alight from the fungus that grows around us.
 
We are soon in what is either a cavern or a chamber; I don’t know which. There are only a few mushrooms, mostly on the wall behind us, the room stretching forward, only dimly lit. It is wide enough for us to walk side by side, with space for a few more of us if we had more companions.
 
Fauna tries to point out something else, but I already see it. Before us, now that we have made it halfway to the other end of the room, I see a single big rock. As we come right up to its surface, I see glyphs, but it’s not bright enough here to read. Fauna retrieves the mushrooms from her backpack, still glowing, and holds them between us and the rock.
 
“I hope that any who follow make is this far,” I read. “Okay! Xelia made it! Let’s see—here, beyond this great archway before you is a great underground valley. Beware the beasts of this realm. In the colossal caverns I have sensed something unexplained, but I do know that to survive in the depths you need not only use your mind and your body, but also your heart.”
 
“Your heart?” asks the Challenger, chuckling dryly as he often does. “Sounds like she maybe had some mushrooms herself!”
 
“Well, that’s what it says,” I say, perplexed as to what she meant. I begin to wonder if this was an expression in her time, but I can’t find anything in my memories about this being a Glacian thing. The Challenger reaches into my sister’s backpack gently, bringing out a new piece of dry for him to make into a torch, and their two efforts double our light. I look up, able to see the cave roof way above us, full of pointy stalactites that remind me of a decadent chandelier in a mansion that spans an entire ceiling.
 
I walk now in the middle between the two bearers of light.
 
“Look!” the ranger suddenly shouts shortly after. He points his flaming stick.
 
In the illuminated space before us I see something, a small ball-like thing, greenish yellow or yellowish green in colour. It moves, rolls along its way slowly, leaving a light oozy trail behind it.
 
“A blob?” Fauna asks, giggling a little.
 
“Slime,” answers the Challenger. “Nothing to worry about though! They are the lowest level things you can encounter! Observe, get lost, slimeball!” he barks and throws his torch at it. The fiery stick lands on the piece of slime and a hissing shriek rings up and echoes through the chamber while the slime suddenly dashes away.
 
The Challenger laughs, running up and retrieving the still burning torch. He then sees and then chases the slime as it scurries towards the far wall, and there it zips into a tiny round hole, not unlike a mouse hole in a house, and vanishes.
 
“Stupid slime!” the ranger cries after it. “Anyway, believe me; even a bard could slay those things. So, carry on?”
 
“We could really use some music now,” quips Fauna. We only hear distant dripping noises.
 
“Xelia said there is an archway ahead, and that leads to a great underground valley,” I say, eager to reach it as I am wondering what else lives in this area, glad we’ve only encountered slime thus far.
 
Fauna charges ahead of us, and I see in the blackness ahead a single bright bit bouncing along, the mushrooms in her grasp. “Guys!” she calls and we begin to catch up to her. We see her standing, looking down before her. As I come around to her side I see that she is gazing into a pit. Even with the torchlight and mushrooms we cannot see beyond a few feet down into the shadows.
 
“Toss a shroom,” I tell her.
 
“Not sure if I want to do that now,” she says.
 
“No, I mean throw it down,” I say.
 
She takes one from her hand, letting it fall. Eventually, even though its light is faded and it looks tiny from where we stand, it lands. This pit is deep, at least two stories of a building down.
 
The Challenger steps around the pit, which is about as wide as a big carriage’s wheel. “I wonder what’s down there?” he asks me.
 
I remember that my ranger friend has enhanced senses. I knew this about him early on when I had met him, but it was confirmed when we learned his backstory. He closes his eye. I look at the torchlight bouncing off his rugged face. Sister peers down, a look of apprehension coming over her.
 
“I smell something rotten, like before,” the ranger utters. “And I hear something scurrying. I hear something coming together, coalescing, forming, bubbling…”
 
Fauna asks: “Down there?”
 
The Challenger’s eye swings open. Sword raised, he turns and shouts: “No! Here! Watch out!”
 
Something is coming for us from the darkness, something from back the way we came. It’s big and green, thick and wide, a slimy bulging hand that sweeps, palm open, fingers extended, toward us.
 
I hear my sister shriek as she reaches to get her bow off of her, and one of her hands snatches an arrow from the quiver at her side. The Challenger steps forward in a fighting stance, and he swipes. The big hand is too fast. It hits him first, knocking his torch and his sword from his grasping hands in one motion. Fauna gets one arrow off, too little too late.
 
Coming at me is a great strength, a heavy mass. It sends me falling backward. If it weren’t for the pit I think it would clobber me, crushing me into a pulp, but I fall from its reach. My sister is beside me, and the Challenger is on top of both of us, and we all fall. My back takes in the immense pain of the rock hard floor of the pit, and I feel my legs are flung up near the Challenger’s head, and Fauna is now underneath my elbows and back.
 
We all breathe hard and heavy as we struggle to regain our composures, but it takes some time to squeeze our way onto our feet and stand side by side. There is so little space here, we can only move slightly on both sides without crashing into one another. Fauna has a deep gash along her forehead. I see her face in the dim light of the few mushrooms still in her hands. She quickly tells me she dropped some as the hand hit us.
 
“What was that?” she asks us.
 
“It was slime!” I cry.
 
“Not slime! That was strong!” shouts the Challenger. He looks up, and we sisters follow his gaze. The pit’s top looks like a single small circle from where we are. We see only the light of the Challenger’s torch up there, still burning, but we all know it won’t last much longer.
 
I mutter softly, realizing that we are stuck two stories down. The wall of the pit is slippery, and I can feel nothing to grab onto, no bricks with creases, or vines, or protrusions—nothing!
 
“No!” Fauna yells. “After all our dangers we end up in a deep pit we can’t climb out of?”
 
With all skills and powers, is this really how it ends for us?
 
CONTINUES NEXT MONTH…

 


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