A PREQUEL WITH THE CHALLENGER
by Jesse Zimmerman

Chapter Seven: The Bridge Chapter
 
“So, an Ophus is a piece of pottery that glows?” K’Nat says loudly, the fisher standing in the middle of us.

This space here is small, enough for us to stand facing the opposite wall. Against this wall sits a plain-looking desk made of wood with only one object on its surface, the thing that had just introduced itself to us. It looks like a vase of porcelain, taller than wide. At its peak the piece of pottery is narrower, a kind of spout with a cone-shaped opening; from this emerges a red mist-like light.

Ura, at one end of our row, has her dagger drawn, while the Challenger beside her places his blade at his belts, waving a hand gently towards the herdswoman, saying that we are safe.

“I can assure you, your ranger friend speaks the truth,” says the Ophus, the inner light within it beaming with each syllable. 

“An Ophus, a messenger,” says the Challenger, his face alight in the glow.

The Ophus speaks again, the voice gentle as it was in my dream: “Indeed, a messenger, not unlike Chainmail here.”

I find myself smiling at the side of the ranger.

“A messenger between gods, spoken rarely but in the most ancient texts,” says the Challenger.

“You know much, Challenger,” continues the glowing vase. “Word spreads by caravan and tall ship, and in the whispers of spirits and winds, and here you stand, you having tasted the purest of zest, already a legend in many places despite your youth.”

The ranger, chuckling, asks the being if they can help us.

“Indeed, I have already,” replies the bright thing.

“The mist,” says Ura, a thoughtful look forming on her face.

“The raft,” K’Nat says next, slowly nodding.

“The voice, the fish,” I say. “In my dreams, you spoke?”

“All those things,” says the Ophus warmly. “I have been watching since you entered this domain, in truth, before then, though my sight is different within than without. You mortals must have so many questions!”

“Yes,” says the Challenger and he turns to face the rest of us, asking for a huddle.

“Though I can hear your words if I so wished, I promise to not listen,” gleams the Ophus as we four turn our backs. 

“A tiny being in a jar speaks to us, knows our names?” says Ura, giggling. 

“Who else is trying to help us?” the big fisher says. “In a place where everything else tries to hurt us?” 

“We have a guardian of sorts,” the Challenger tells us plainly. 

“This Ophus has demonstrated intent,” I say, deciding then to tell them about my dream with the fish, and now that I think of it, I can recall seeing a fish in my dreams that first night I reached Tenth Town. 

“I had no such dreams, only fishing and eating mostly. How do you know of this Ophus? The zest?” K’Nat asks the ranger then. 

The Challenger answers the fisher: “A long time ago in my first semester of academia, in Northsphere City.”

“Really?” I ask him. “Which college?”

“Winter House,” says the ranger, raising one fist. “Go Yaks! It was in Historical Ethical Metaphysics, a class by a Gnomish Professor.”

“Ooh,” says I, having gone to another college, the Field House. I try to recall my own readings, unable to remember such a thing as an Ophus.

“I was going over old notes in summer,” says the Challenger. “Ophi are ancient beings created by the early gods, made to carry messages long ways, sometimes to the stars or between realms. Many were destroyed in wars between titan forces.”

“Ah, so ancient means we can trust it, eh?” asks K’Nat. 

“I make a promise to be responsible if things go badly,” declares the Challenger, pretending to spit on his own palm.

“That is enough for me,” Ura says and K’Nat too agrees, though I feel that they both have their reasons for hesitation. We exit our huddle and turn to face the Ophus again.  

“You come with us,” says K’Nat. 

The Ophus beams what I think is a smile, saying: “Wonderful! I shall tell you where to go next,” as it speaks a tiny bit more mist emanating from its spout than before. “Behind me, behind this desk, bring it forth, you will see.” 

The three of my companions take hold of the desk by different corners, scraping its legs along the floor of the cavern. From where I am standing, I immediately see a door just like the one we came in through, only half the size though. Having no longer anything to bear for the party, I place my hands and parts of my arms around the vessel that contains the Ophus, finding it warm like a kettle that has cooled a little. Not heavy, easy to hold in my hands, the thing feels and warm. The Challenger is in front of me, props open the little door with ease. Crouching, he shuffles through, followed by Ura.

“Why did you appear as a fish in my dreams?” I ask the Ophus, semi-smiling down at it, feeling a bit calmed.

“Ah, a fish?” says K’Nat beside me now. “And the fish-shaped raft?”

“Yes, both were me,” answers the Ophus. “I once couriered for Delipha Herself, long ago.”

“Lady of the Sea? Truly?” asks K’Nat, his face turning to an expression of disbelief mixed with awe.

“Come now, old fisher!” calls Ura through the door to us, she and the ranger already on the other side. 

K’Nat follows Ura and I crouch, moving after him, stepping into a place with a taller roof, another cavern, far larger than the last, with the same hue of purplish-blue rock walls. 

“As for your dreams, I am sorry,” says the Ophus from under my chin. “It is the way I reach, only through signs and portents, reaching those in slumber and hibernation. I wanted you all to come here to aid me.”

“No apology needed,” I tell the Ophus, understanding that things are different for something so ethereal.

“Where is the Korechee?” Ura asks once we are walking again. The Challenger moves beside her, holding his sword, his bow and quiver at his back. This open place is wide, long as well, like a path between a chasm.

“Ah, yes, the Korechee wrote of a red mist?” I ask, suddenly remembering what we read on the walls earlier. 

My hands feel the warmth again as the Ophus speaks: “At the end of this vast corridor there is a way out, a tunnel that leads to the edge and brings us outside,” and then the Ophus says: “The Korechee left this place. I knew she could not contend alone with the masters of this device, so I let her go.”

“Let her go?” I ask her, unsure of what she means.

“When I am not so spent, when I am large and brisk, I am able to transport immense distances, so long as I can see my destination,” explains the Ophus.

“Really?” asks Ura.

“I can,” beams the entity. “I too can move folks within this place, even when I do not see the destination. I am tied to this place, this device, tied in the ancient struggle to end the cycle.”

As we walk, we four mortals trade glances, but I am the first to ask: “Does that mean you could bring us out of here?”

I see a reddish and pinkish face forming in the wispy mist just beneath me. It now has a chin, which it uses to nod. 

Continuing on, we enter a narrow tunnel that slides upward until we reach a great crack in the wall. There is light beyond this crevice, and so we pass through the cleft in rock, stepping in to meet our first sunlight in days uncounted. A communal sigh rises as we get out on a ledge, a balcony without rail, all of it made of rock, beyond which we can see the sky and the waters. 

“Ah, here we are,” says the Ophus, itself far brighter than before. “Gaze upon the outer world. For me it has been far too long.”

“Must be a hundred paces drop,” says the big fisher.

“Two hundred and fifty-three,” explains the Ophus.

“We are not facing Tenth Town,” I say, noticing a lone gull passing by, screeching as it banks sharply away from us.

“I see no land,” Ura agrees, placing a hand over her forehead. The Challenger at my side has taken out the scope and is scanning the watery scene.

“North. Small islands, rocky, bare of trees,” says K’Nat, the big man looking a bit nervous at the immense height. “We fishing folk have come this far out before, good deep stocks!” 

Underneath us is a sheer drop to waters far below, the open bay shrouded in the shadows of the hovering land mass. I look upward near the edge, unable to see the peak of the floating island. My eyes sting from the sun, having grown accustomed to the dark and the dim. 

“The Korechee left from here?” Ura asks, peering over the end. She then begins passing about some chips among us. 

“Yes,” says the Ophus. “Mag left through this alcove those years ago, back with her folk.”

“Strange name. Ah, all people related to these herders have strange names!” says K’Nat and Ura laughs a bit. She is passing about a flagon of water now.

“I gave her the choice,” says the Ophus with what I think is a sigh. “Her companions all perished in the forests of zests, their mission failed.”

“Oh yeah, them,” says the Challenger, passing the scope to the fisher. 

“When twilight unfurls I shall have the power to set you off on one of those tiny isles,” says the Ophus, declining when I offer some chips.

“Just the islands?” asks K’Nat, stepping back from the edge a few paces.

“It is all we are facing now,” replies the Ophus.

“If you send us to a wooded isle we can make signals,” says K’Nat with a shrug. “Otherwise, I will swim out and get help.” 

“You can transport us anywhere outside that is in sight?” asks the Challenger to the Ophus. “And what of inside this floating island?”

“Within this device I may go to certain places, farther yet than you’ve gone, far over the blazing inner sun.”

“So, are we going to the islands or going on?” I ask.

“We’ve come all this way,” says the Challenger. “We could get reinforcements in town and bring them back in here, yes, but it takes too much time.”

Ura is nodding first, prompting the fisher to follow. I also agree with the ranger. The Ophus warmly tell us we are a united party. 

The ridge, the rest of this balcony, is lengthy, turning upward as we follow it further where it leads into another tunnel, The sun at our backs, a reunion cut short, our fellowship heads back into the floating island, the Ophus now providing light twice the strength of a torch. Here we can see lines where tracks were once laid. This is an old shaft, we are told by our companion; it leads to an immense hollow where the light orb, the false sun, resides. 

“Let me guess,” I say to the Ophus in my hands. “The orb is powered by the zest?”

“Yes,” answers the voice. Myself and the ranger are a bit ahead of K’Nat and Ura who walk side by side some paces behind.

“And the orb grows the zest,” says the Challenger.

“The device is powered by the zest, a loop made by the ones who built this machine long ago,” says the Ophus, sounding far more lively than before. 

“Who runs the island, the device?” I ask plainly, feeling the warmth grow on my arms.

“Mortals, merchants filled with zest and greed,” says the Ophus. “I can sense it in you, Challenger, the zest. Word travels of the Challenger. I hear whispers from elsewhere.”

The Challenger begins moving on up ahead of myself and the new companion. “Long ago I was exposed to it. What are your skills, your powers?” he then asks the being in my arms.

“Many things, it depends how vigorous I am. Small as you see me now, I can do less, but I had enough strength to project the shield as you blasted the ceiling in the watery chamber.”

“I thought I saw some red in there!” calls K’Nat from behind us. 

The light pottery jiggles a bit, what I think is a laugh. Under my face, bolder hues of red rise from the spout of the round vessel, a semi-see through round face emerges, seeming to smile, its wispy form fluttering. 

Very soon there are more corridors ahead of us, sets of archways, choices to make. The Ophus has grown. The glowing bulge now the size of a rubber kicking ball, transforms into a red hand and points a finger which way to go, which tunnel to enter.. 

After a few turns, our pathway gradually takes us upward once more. Ura and K’Nat are busy with their hands just behind us, holding tiny tools, a fabric between them as they walk.

“The air is lighter,” says the Challenger, sniffing.

“We are near the Sphere Chamber!” states the Ophus. Here the corridor is bending, so we turn sharply, coming into a wider place where the walls consist of a raw facade of thousands of rocks, some bulging, others crushed underneath larger ones. 

“Long ago, fitted on layers, an ancient fortress that became the uppermost part of the device,” explains the Ophus, speaking quicker. The growth of the floating light makes the ceramic item heavier and I’m beginning to feel a strain. Ura then appears aside of me, bearing a strap that holds up a round pouch. 

“K’Nat had an extra bag, me a spare cord,” she says laughingly. The fisher is grinning while Ura places the strap over my shoulder. She then picks up the Ophus, placing our new companion and its vessel in the pouch, which sags a little behind me, but the cord is strong against my chest, secure. I give thanks with my smile. 

“A vantage point!” speaks the being’s voice in my ears as we all step under a tall archway. This is a kind of rotunda we move into, with walls made of whole rock slabs wedged between each other, uneven in appearance, but sturdy enough to sustain the crumbly domed ceiling that rises about fifty paces over us. 

“The last watchtower!” says the Ophus before we can ask.

“There must be some kind of way out of here!” says the Challenger with a dry chuckle. There is another archway just ahead of us, a great doorway at the end of this rotunda area.

“The bridge awaits, spans across a burning furnace!” says the Ophus, waving a beam of light over my shoulder, towards where we walk. 

“Bridges are often bad news,” says the Challenger glumly.

“They are for fishing off of,” grumbles K’Nat, stepping before the rest of us through the archway. Ura laughs as we follow him, greeted by the grand light that emanates from below. 

The place is as the Ophus described, the uppermost part of an expansive chamber, a hollow within the floating island. Before us is hard ground that stretches out about nine paces before sharply ending, turning downward into a cliff. There are two ways we could go - to our right features the narrow precipice winding until it reaches the far wall, and to our left the walkway stretches further, connecting to a stone bridge that juts out and crosses the immense chasm before us. 

With the Challenger at my side, I crouch, lurching forward, looking down at the sheer drop. Far below, a plunge of thousands of paces, is the radiant sphere. Though I cannot look upon the fiery surface for long, I see plumes and flares rising and falling, a scene of burning chaos.

“This sun within the device blazes hotter until it expands and then shrinks!” explains the Ophus loudly over the distant crackling.

“It looks big now,” I say in astonishment, backing from the edge.

“Indeed!” agrees the Ophus over me. “The mortals, the magi-merchants as you call them…they leave in two days!”

“Two days?” asks Ura gaspingly. “And then they leave for good?”

“Yes,” says the Ophus. 

“And we can get things back?” I ask. “The villager’s coins and everything else stolen?”

“I will do all I can to return the riches to your town!” speaks the Ophus. K’Nat and Ura both smile as the Challenger begins walking over to the bridge at our left. I take another look below me, able to see other bridges, other ways across farther below us, all of them crossing the same fiery chasm. K’Nat catches up to the Challenger, who has an arrow readied, and he says something to the fisher, and then K’Nat takes the sword from the Challenger’s scabbard. 

Ura is just behind them, waving for me to follow. Over my shoulder is a big reddish face. The Ophus hovers, looking alike a sentient bonfire on my back. Upon this bridge there are no rails, only sharp plunges on both sides. The crossing is wide enough for us to walk side-by-side if we wished, though we go one by one. The Challenger, at the head, mumbles something about hiding our numbers. Ura lets me pass her so she can guard our flank. They have their weapons drawn, the fisher holding both his shield and the ranger’s loaned sword, Ura her curved dagger. 

Behind us rises the ancient fortress, an immense lengthy wall that reaches near the roof of the cavern, some spires rising from behind it. We hear something else in the silence that follows, what begins as a soft buzzing. We freeze our steps less than halfway to the middle of the long bridge.

“Must not move,” the ranger says behind a closed mouth, slowly raising his bow despite what he says, adding: “Being afraid is the mind-killer.”

“What is it?” I ask, looking over at the ranger.

“MOVE…QUICKLY,” cries the Ophus, louder than ever. All four of us tear down the colossal bridge, already passing its halfway point. The Challenger’s great speed keeps him at front, followed by Ura and I, the fisher trailing. There is a new noise, a ringing that begins distant but fast approaches, echoing throughout the huge place – CLANG! Clang! Clang. clang. 

At the final soundburst the Challenger stops abruptly as something swooshes in front of him, a fast-moving bolt – an arrow!

The ranger pivots his right foot, turning his body slantward before shooting his own projectile downward, exactly from whence the attack came. A few paces behind him, closer to the middle of the bridge’s width, I lean forward, seeing the many bridges beneath us. The nearest of them, a fair plunge down, is where I see the fiends, from here specks on the bridge, moving things on two legs.

“FOUL SERVANTS,” hisses the Ophus. 

We run while more arrows fling up, appearing to speed as they veer towards us, four of them curving in unity. 

“Guided arrows!” shouts the Challenger. 

The tip of the arrow meant for me comes close, a few paces away, then stops suddenly, clattering on the stone floor. We are enveloped in a reddish mist, a fresh wall of protection. K’Nat, a bit away from me, stands with his mouth agape, his intended arrow having come the nearest to him. The Challenger swings his shooting arm swiftly, whizzing four arrows in succession through the shield-wall and I hear four consecutive short cries from below. 

More projectiles fly at our left side as we move, most bouncing harmlessly against the hovering shield projected by the Ophus. I can see the end of the bridge just over the bouncing head of the ranger. Beyond it rises a brown wall that reaches the cavern’s roof; within it, like a gaping mouth, is an archway leading inside. 

The redness wanes around us, letting an arrow through that flies over me, plummeting down the other side. A chunky rock passes over K’Nat, barely missing the fisher’s shoulder, causing him to double his pace. Ura, nearby, has her knife grasped in one hand while the satchel strapped about her upper body flutters as she moves. At her back the reddish wall endures, blocking something that emerged suddenly over the side. Falling back a bit from the impact is a squat creature. Straightening itself, it hovers, its two bulging glassy eyes gazing at us, and I notice, as we pass, that the thing has small flitting wings. It vanishes underneath the bridge, out of sight. 

We reach a mere twenty paces from the bridge’s end, almost at the arch in the brown wall that leads out. There’s always that glance, that look over the shoulder - I see a column of fire shooting up, first on one side of the stone bridge, then another on the other. Skinny beings with short wings flutter about, some landing on the bridge upon spindly legs. As I return my sight to the front of us, I see some of the creatures landing on the stone bridge before us. 

K’Nat pushes himself into this clump of obstructing things, hitting some with the ranger’s blade, others with his shield, knocking most of those in front off the bridge. The Challenger turns about, quickly kneeling before he loses an arrow towards where I’m standing. My confusion and shock ends when I hear a raspy cry emit from right behind me and I twist about to see one of the spindly creatures sprawled out on the stone bridge. 

Pivoting again, I see two of the creatures grasping at Ura, one of them gripping her knife-arm in its claws. Reaching them, I kick with all strength, enough to push the thing off of her. The other one lunges at her other side, hissing from its mask while it reaches and clasps her satchel, pulling hard as her curved blade shoots up into one of the big black goggle-eyes, cracking apart whatever it’s made of. Too late in my movement, I manage to help Ura shove the thing back, sending it over the bridge, taking her medicinal satchel as well as her knife. 

The herder curses the worst words in her tongue. In front of us, K’Nat cries out, facing more of the winged things that have just touched their crooked feet between us and the end of the bridge. The Challenger, having bounded backwards, stands bracing himself behind us as a whole crowd of them, some armed with polearms and javelins, approach. The Challenger fires an array of arrows at the impending horde, sending some off the sides.

I stand between my companions as the fisher holds his shield over himself, knocking the nearest of the fiends over, trampling over more of them as he charges further and Ura runs after him, kicking one of the creatures that tries to spring at her. I charge at her side with the Ophus on my back, letting the fisher and the herdswoman clear the way.

“Fly, you tools!” shouts the Challenger to those he picks off with his arrows behind us. From the back of his head, his hood pulled back, coarse hair sways in the inner breeze. The ranger is working himself into a frenzy, holding off the growing throng as the rest of us keep moving. The fisher and Ura manage to reach the archway first, with me clambering in behind them.

After a brief delay, the Challenger enters, still firing arrows behind him as he side-steps. We have left the gigantic sphere chamber, streaming into a long corridor. The Ophus roars at us to run, having grown larger again, its nebulous bulk nearly reaching both sides of the walls, lighting up this greenish tunnel with its red tinge. Along with our footfalls, I can hear hundreds of clawed feet pattering against the floor behind us.

“Too many!” shouts K’Nat behind me, having just left me pass in the slim space.

“Shall we make a stand?” says Ura at my front, the ranger speeding through and getting ahead of her

“KEEP MOVING! TURN AT THE FIRST LEFT, A GAP IN THE WALL!” the Ophus instructs, louder than ever. 

The Challenger, first to sight it, quickly side-steps into the crevice, what looks like a tall crack, and the remaining three of us curve our steps in time, turning into a space that reveals itself to be wider than expected. K’Nat is the last inside, the fisher holding his shield over his shoulders like a shell. Not stopping our feet, we hear the creatures coming closer, following us. We press onward through an increasingly narrower space. I quickly realize that there is no way out of here. Here where the roof that slants downward into a wall is the end. 

The Challenger laughs dryly. “You’ve led us to nowhere. Why? I was first to trust you!”

“YES, YOU WERE,” the Ophus speaks, powerful, but with lament.

We hear hideous shrieks, louder, closer. The Challenger, turning back the way we came, has two arrows loaded upon his string. K’Nat quickly hands the ranger’s sword to the herdswoman, seeing that she lost her small blade. We begin stepping towards the slanting wall, K’Nat, on one side of me, grabbing some throwing things from his vest while he holds his ancestral shield over his front, part of it covering Ura and myself behind the ranger. 

From the shadows before us leaps one of the creatures, this one draped in a hood with a twisted mask. It has no time to do anything further, an arrow already lodged in its chest, puncturing through its back. Another form shuffles past it, also falling within seconds, a victim of successive arrows. Four more creatures emerge, stepping over their fallen kin. 

The ranger shoots, managing to hit one, the other three rushing at the rest of us, prompting Ura to step forth to greet them, sweeping the shortsword near their approaching faces, causing them to jump back. At her side, the fisher cries out, charging with his shield.

Six more have entered, streaming in. Arrows fly while Ura’s sword-swinging keeps them at bay. More emerge from behind them, some sliding between the others, over the freshly slain, whole bunches pushing towards us in a swarm. K’Nat crouches, holding his shield in front of Ura as they begin to throw their bodies towards us.

Feeling heat on my back, I look beyond the incoming creatures, gazing at the space behind them that is filling up. My entire vision is soon covered, the way we came completely blocked. My companions yell, but their voices are drowned out by the shrill screeches of our attackers. The bulge of the creatures wash over my warrior friends, covering them. 

Then I see red mist. My body feels weak as it overwhelms everything. 

“Whoa, whoa,” says a familiar voice, K’Nat’s. “We are dead, are we?”

The Challenger stands before me, rubbing his eye. I am close to him, so close I can see the light burns on his face, partly healed. Behind the ranger, just over his shoulder, I sight the fisher and Ura, both rising from a crouching position. 

“You moved us?” the ranger asks.

“Yes…” says a weak voice in my ear. 

“Ophus?” I call, taking the strap from my shoulder, bringing the being in the vase before me, my arms cradling the ceramic piece. There is only a faint light that I can see through the spout, a small flicker from within.

We are in a place much darker than the last, far from the giant inner sun. Ura exhales with a great swoosh, letting herself fall onto the floor, placing the Challenger’s sword at her side. The fisher laughs.

For the moment we are safe.
 
CONTINUES NEXT MONTH


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