THE CHALLENGER IN THE UNDER THE DARK by Jesse Zimmerman
That force of the green hand-shaped thing that came at us!
Everything spun as we plunged together to the bottom of the pit, this cylindrical hole-thing! It had happened so fast!
It’s so common to feel nothing in the moment, but then have it all throbbing once you’ve settled. I land sideways-like, my feet at the Challenger’s shoulders, my bottom hitting the hard ground while other parts of me collided with my sister. We stand and gaze upward with our five eyes to the distant circle of light, the surface of the hole. It must be as far up as a two-storey building, I deduce, the slug in my brain helping me calculate accurately from sight.
Fauna, with a big fresh gash on her forehead, holds her bow in the limited space between us. It is broken, both the string and the curvy wood snapped. She tosses it at our feet, cursing.
“Ow,” the Challenger groans, lifting his arms. He carefully reaches his palms to the back of his head, his jutting elbows nearly hitting both of our faces.
“Bleeding?” I ask.
He shakes his head, now looking at his hands. He grabs his bow from off his back. “Do either of you have rope or strong thread?” he asks.
“At the bottom of my bag, under the bread!” shouts Fauna.
“Where is your bag?” I ask her.
“Up there! It flung off me!”
I only have a tiny bit of our bread supply in my own bag. As I back up against the wall behind me I can feel my little carrier still clasped to my back.
“Well,” says the Challenger, holding now his three remaining arrows from his quiver, all of them bent at the middle, so we couldn’t use them anyway. “What does this leave us?”
“Our swords!” declares my sister. Hers is still at her belt and we’re lucky that neither of their blades stabbed anybody when we fell. Fauna then waves one of her hands, full of glowing blue mushrooms. “And these!?”
The Challenger looks to me, and I see that rare look of fear in his eye that is not covered by a patch. Maybe it’s not fear; he’s always hard to read.
“I have the Mighty Magnet,” I say. He is at my left, while my sister is wedged to my right and the Challenger to her right. With my arms barely able to move, I grab my other item and feel its smooth body in my clasping palm. “And this, the Rod of Delipha! But what good are they now? We can’t use magnetic force or seawater to get out of here!”
“You have the slug in your brain,” says Fauna and she gasps. “You can think of something, Flora! I know you can!”
I simultaneously shake my head and my eyes, letting images form underneath my eyelids. I see myself on the playscape back home at Silver Coast; the little girl with pink hair. I remember stepping to her side. She looks down at an anthill. With a tiny shovel she had built miniature canals uphill. It had rained, and now the canals stream with water into the base of the anthill, into underground tunnels she also made.
“Ah! Do you remember that little pink girl who flooded ants?” I ask, my eyes flicking open.
My sister furrows both her red eyebrows. She begins asking me why I’d bring that up now.
I raise the rod in my hands. The Challenger chuckles childishly. He was once a scholar, a man of science.
“How long can you two tread?” the ranger asks us as I place the Mighty Magnet back at my belt.
Fauna mutters, rolling her eyes, seemingly understanding now. She looks up and says: “Can’t we just stand on one another?”
“Won’t be enough,” I say, calculating our combined heights, and I point Delipha’s Rod at our feet. “Prepare your socks for soggy!”
Fauna groans as I call on the Sea Goddess.
I feel rumbling in my palms. Seawater shoots from its bulbous tip, and we smell strong salt at our feet, and then our shins submerge and I feel strong arms around my shoulders. The Challenger, giving me an assuring look, hoists me up and around onto his own shoulders.
“Sorry for not asking first!” he cries and I tell him it was a good idea to put me up here. I am now pouring water down his side, the rising watery firmament now at his waist. “Climb on me!” he shouts to my sister.
“You’ll drown!” she protests.
“Just go! My mass will displace the water! Will send you both up faster! Trust me!” he replies quickly, and Fauna steps onto him, climbing him like an Ettercap ascends her web.
Soon my sister and I face one another, both of us standing upon his broad, overly manly shoulders, keeping balance by leaning against the walls of the narrow pit. I worry if I am hurting him as the water level rises to his chest.
I call to him, holding down Delipha’s Rod in one hand as my sister lets me lean on her, the water coming faster now, thicker. I see a starfish fly out, smacking against the ranger’s face. He shakes his head, flinging it off just as the water surface reaches his bristly chin.
“Don’t worry—bbblllllppppp!” is the last thing he calls as his head goes under.
We two sisters are treading. I only move my legs. My arms point downward. I look up, calling to Delipha to assist us more. I feel strong waves emitting from the blessed item in my hands. My sister moves all four of her limbs, and she suddenly drops as she notices my head is bobbing in the water, almost going under!
Beneath me she goes, pushing me up with her body. I take a big breath and then I let myself fall as she gets back into her treading position. I am submerged, still shooting water, and I look down and see the Challenger’s dark form rise. He gently but firmly thrusts me back to the surface where I take another great breath!
I see the ceiling of the cave. It glows from the still burning torch we dropped up there. We are nearly at the top of the pit!
My legs are weak, too heavy to move. I feel my sister push me up, and then the cycle repeats, both of them taking turns pushing me to keep the water flowing!
Soon Fauna grabs the lip of the pit, our ranger friend having pushed her upward this time, and she pulls herself up onto the cave floor, panting loudly. I feel the Challenger shove me again. Soon I am at the curb, where I reach with one hand and place it atop cold rock. My sister’s hand grips my wrist, pulling me, and I soon stare up at the cave ceiling.
With my remaining strength I look over and see a single shot of seawater squirt forth from the tip of the rod, and I bid Delipha to cease, thanking her once more for saving us as the rod goes flaccid in my hand.
I hear heavy breathing, followed by a thud, and I know our ranger friend is up. I know why he managed to do what he just did, remembering that he was given the capability of superhuman feats.
“Th—thank—thank you!” my sister stammers to him.
He only laughs, coughing up seawater.
“We work so well together,” I think, lying there, letting my legs numb over.
As we rest, the Challenger leans up, gets more dry wood from Fauna’s knapsack (which was up here, so most of the bread isn’t soggy and none of the firewood is spoilt) and he lights another makeshift torch. He appears over me, dripping, his ranger tunic and cloak and breeches all soaked. He helps me to my feet, and I feel dizzy as I find my bearings.
“Slime?” Fauna says, glancing around at my side.
“Don’t see it,” answers the Challenger. “It must have fled!”
“Was that slime, that green hand thingy?” I ask him. “Was it mad that you threw a torch at it earlier?”
“It’s slime, scum, Flora,” he explains and shrugs.
“We might have a subterranean enemy,” says Fauna, and she asks me if she needs to carry me.
I tell her I am fine, just that we should move slowly as we proceed. I take one last look at the hole that is now filled to the brim with seawater. We are exhausted and drenched, but we only have a bit of food that we know we can eat (and we have the glowing mushrooms, but we don’t know what they do).
“A big archway should be ahead of us,” I tell the others, remembering what I read on the rock back there before the slime hand appeared. Xelia, the ancient winged steed rider of the Glacian Empire, had passed through here. We are following her pathway through the mountain tunnels, or so I hope.
The Challenger, munching on a piece of bread and walking a little ahead of us, suddenly points forward. When my sister and I catch up to him I can see by the light of his torch a dark oozy trail on the ground before us.
“Slime,” says the Challenger, and we cautiously follow it through wide open space. I sigh in relief as I soon see an immense stone archway emerge from the blackness. Our soggy feet reach it and my friend raises the torch. I can just barely see the high point of the arch.
There are many things piled up where the giant portal stands—enormous slabs of rock, rounded and square-like boulders, rectangular massive brick-looking objects, pieces of shining surface wedged between cracks, thousands of individual piled up stones—everything and anything that can be found and shoved and filled to the brim from one wall to the other.
Someone or something has made it so no one can pass. We cannot go through. The way is shut.
Challenger moves his torch to reveal dark green streaks that run up onto the grey and brown wall of rock and brick, seemingly vanishing into a sliver between two crusted mortar bits. The ranger steps forward and peeps through this tiny space with his eye. He tells us he can see a very distant gleam of light through immense darkness.
“Outside?” Fauna asks eagerly.
Shaking his head, he says: “We’ve been underground less than a day.”
I calculate the distance we’ve moved, realizing he is probably right that we haven’t moved very far underground, but the thought of light is encouraging.
“Night and day be hard to determine down here!” Fauna says, pressing her small hands against the makeshift wall. “I don’t see any cracks we can get through.”
She then puts some of the glowing mushrooms onto the sword at her belt. The Challenger, after handing me the torch, does the same with the bright fungus. Both blades are turned into luminous skewers.
“We might find a way!” Sister says, placing a foot between two rocks, beginning to climb again like an Ettercap spider. The Challenger follows, taking the left side of the massive clogged archway as she turns right, and I, with the torch, watch my companions and their dangling, shimmering swords.
“I am experienced at breaking fourth walls!” the ranger proclaims.
“We’ll find a space!” says my sister.
“Hey guys!” I call up, wiping salt from one of my eyes beneath my spectacles. “Remember what I read on the rock back there, from Xelia?”
“Yeah!” Fauna giggles, side-climbing to the edge. “Something about using our hearts?”
“It wasn’t our hearts that got us out of that pit!” sneers the ranger.
I am about to say that my brain saved us, but I remember that I couldn’t have escaped without them keeping me afloat.
Randomly, I ask: “What would you do if you were to use your hearts right now?”
The Challenger, high up, suddenly lets go and lets himself fall, reaching the cavern floor a few paces to my side. “No holes,” he says, leaning up from his landing stance.
“I wonder how Xelia got through,” I say, recalling the two inscriptions from her.
The Challenger reaches into his damp cloak, retrieving the tiny green gem he had earlier picked up.
“Ah, that gem reminds me of Emera,” I tell him, thinking of our green-haired friend back in the Vale of Dragos.
He says: “I wish she were with us.”
“I wonder if we should’ve stayed in the Vale?”
He looks at me, a thoughtful expression in his uncovered eye. “They had magic and gadgets. If we’d stayed we would’ve eventually figured out a way to escape together.”
Fauna climbs down halfway and then drops, landing gingerly beside us. She states that she also found nothing that any of us can fit through, even us small sisters. “We left because of the High Priest. As long as we were there he would’ve hunted us,” she adds.
“A small group of extremists can ruin everything,” I say.
The Challenger nods eagerly, and then he looks at the wall. With the combined forces of the torch in my hands and the two glowing fungus encrusted swords we can see the wall better. It is in this triple illumination where I see something shiny, something rectangular and tall and right before us near the exact mid-point of the archway’s width.
I hastily grab the Mighty Magnet from my belt as I notice that this big block looks to be made of something metallic, copper or bronze. I utter the word to activate the Mighty Magnet in my hands, holding its two ends in front of the glittering slab. I see that the piece above it is rectangular as well, running horizontally across the metal bit as well as the other rocks beside it. Using the magnetic force, I pull the metal piece out, stepping back as I drag it with me a few paces backwards. Fauna and the ranger part to let the tall oblong piece through.
“It’s perfect!” stammers Sister.
I release the force, and then walk around the tall metal block before me, seeing a stable portal into the dark beyond the wall. It is tall enough for us to get through, with the Challenger ducking a little as we pass one by one.
“Brain two, heart zero,” I say once we are on the other side. Fauna shrugs as I say this.
We are in great darkness, although now we have three strong sources of light. To our sides, about twenty paces of either side of us, we see rock walls again. This place is even bigger than the last chamber! And I see it, the tiny speck of light in the far, far distance. Placing the Mighty Magnet at my hip, I stand in the middle and both of them have their glowing swords drawn.
“To the light,” Fauna says.
We walk and walk, the light only seeming to get a little bit bigger, closer. At times the walls at our sides seem to vanish, and I know not how far they expand. This place must be huge, this valley that Xelia’s carvings warned about. After a long time treading in silence over unobstructed ground we come to a protruding rock that stands in the middle of the immense chamber. It is as tall as a medium sized person and I can see from the lights we hold that there are words on it, ancient words in Pre-Common:
I, Xelia of the Glacian Empire, have made it thus far. Beware the beasts of this underground valley! Here I met a thunderous beast as well as its underlings! They fell to my blade, for they knew not my power or the strength of my blade and armour! There is light in the distance and I now go to it.
As I read it to my companions I see looks of hope develop on both their faces. We continue toward the light, parting shadows with our light sources. I see something emerge from the blackness a short way away. It is immense and, as we near it, I can see it is white.
“Thunderous Beast!” growls the Challenger
It is something long dead, a great colossal skeleton—this rising mass of bones! It leans against the enormous cave wall to our left, having likely falling over as it died, and we see the many vertebrae of its back and long tail, and its big crumpled limb bones underneath a thick ribcage. As we pass it, we eventually come to its skull. I look into its deep eye socks, admiring the long teeth in its protruding jaws.
“Gods!” the Challenger says. “I’ve never seen such a thing in the flesh!”
“And look!” says Fauna, lowering her mushroom covered sword toward her feet. There sits a smaller skeleton, a two legged thing with a rodent-like skull covered in cobwebs. A pair of big teeth juts from its upper jaw. It must have stood just under my height in life. I see small tailbones under its crumpled form.
“Kobolds, little 1D4 feckers!” the Challenger says, and we all soon notice more of these smaller skeletons sprawled about the dark area.
“Xelia was tough!” declares Fauna as we continue, coming across more and more long gone kobolds.
“Talk about a random encounter!” adds the ranger and then adds: “I guess there’s nothing to fear unless there’s some necromancy here!”
There must be such a thing as a cursed mouth, because within seconds I can hear what sounds like the clattering of bones and my own bones begin shaking. Our party spins around. One of the kobold skeletons stands up slowly, wobbly at first, but then turns its snouted skull towards us and raises a rusted old spear in its hands. Two more stand, sprouting from their places.
Fauna begins swearing.
“What are these?” asks the Challenger. “Stal-bolds?!”
I see underneath them tiny bits of green moving about—slime! It must be animating them!
And then I hear thunderous clattering.
The skeleton of the big monster is rising like a surfacing whale.
One big skull and dozens of tiny ones gaze at us.
I calculate our odds, not good.
“Run?” I ask the others.
They both nod and at once yell: “RUN!”
CONTINUES NEXT MONTH…