by Jesse Zimmerman
Chapter Four: The Departure of Achalay

Two fresh torches are lit, one for Ura, another for me.

All of the party are dashing ahead of me, creating nooks in the sandy slope with their feet that I use as steps. At my front, Ura slows abruptly, sidestepping us, waiting for Achalay, K’Nat, and myself to catch up.

“Did someone bring a Tome of Bestiary?” asks Achalay frantically, crouching as he runs.

“It didn’t like fire,” says Ura of the big thing that attacked us in the water. Her and I bear the torches.

“Most things don’t like fire,” says the Challenger at our lead. He slows and steps to the side, raising his bow, letting his notched arrow burn on my torch when I pass. He shoots the fire arrow, revealing an open area.

The ranger catches back up to me, so I stretch out my torch-bearing arm. As he shoots again, we see there is level ground a few dozen paces before us, and beyond the plateau is the faint front of a rising wall. When we get nearer I see holes, two archways.

“Two tunnels!” says K’Nat as we all cease our ascent, making it to flat sandy ground. We stand in a line as the fisher asks us which hole to enter.

“Might we toss a coin, a real one?” asks the Challenger.

K’Nat laughs curtly, then the big fisher extends his arm, at first waving it to the right-side before he sweeps it across himself, resting his pointing hand on the left archway, telling us that he thinks Delipha, his goddess, wants it so.

“We can turn back if we err,” says Ura, standing directly beside me, holding the other torch. The Challenger only nods, leading us through the passage on the left. After a few steps beyond the opening we’re on hard ground that turns upward, though not so steeply.

“We’ve lost the creature,” says the Challenger. Slowing down in the cramped space, we all push ourselves against the walls of the tunnel, aligned up on either side of the ranger while he lights the arrow, this time on Ura’s torch, and fires back the way we came.

“Dark and still,” says the Challenger.

“We can put more distance,” says Ura, waving for us to keep moving.

After a few more slanting paces, with the Challenger and Ura leading, we come to a bend that veers sharply. We follow it, walking in a line, Achalay at the very back behind K’Nat.

“West,” the Challenger grumbles, sniffing the air. If not frightened, he is clearly on guard, although he always seems that way.

“Who has wounds?” Ura asks, glancing back at the rest of us. There are some bruises on my legs from when I fell on the raft, but nothing that needs attending, nor has anyone else any substantial injuries.

“The only wounded thing is that beast!” spits K’Nat behind me, raising his spear, the gooey eye skewered on its end.

“I saw two arms, massive ones!” I tell him, recoiling at the sight.

“A great head, hairy,” says Achalay, his own face glistening with sweat.

“Two pincers, mouth like a crawling bug, like a spider,” says Ura, shivering a bit in disgust.

I try to imagine the whole creature in my mind.

“I know of nothing like that, I’ve seen a lot, been to many places,” says the Challenger as we come to another sharp bend in the tunnel. “North,” he says while we turn.

“You plan to keep that thing?” asks Ura to K’Nat, bringing her torch over her shoulder towards the oozing trophy on his spear tip. He nods, a content smile on his wide face.

“If we encounter that thing the sight might enrage it,” says the Challenger.

“Or remind him not to trifle with us!” K’Nat laughs back.

“Sad state when a hideous beast has so many eyes, yet others have so few,” laments the Challenger beside the herdswoman. I am about to awkwardly chuckle when I see the walls suddenly stop, revealing vast darkness on both of our sides. We’ve left the tunnel and entered a colossal space.

We step about ten more paces and then stop, bunching together as we all look around, unable to see far beyond our circle of light from our torches. Something drips on my face, a tiny drop that I hope is water.

The Challenger brings a fresh arrow’s tip over my flame. He shoots one way, and then does so three more times in each other direction. With every lighted projectile shot I expect to see something, a hulking shape, glowing eyes, appendages…but instead there’s only four walls of stone, each about twenty paces from us. There’s only one way out we can see, the way we came in.

“We could go back, try that other way?” K’Nat suggests.

“Oh, the way you didn’t pick? We shouldn’t have to!” Achalay says snappily.

“What do you suggest we do?” the fisher says, stamping the butt-end of his spear on the hard floor beneath us in obvious annoyance.

“I suggest you listen to my leadership,” replies the younger man, moving his hand against his chest.

The Challenger is glancing about, turned from the rest of us. “There is a breeze, something I haven’t smelt since….” he trails off

I feel another drip on my face, this one hitting my lips. “Does anyone else notice those drops?” I ask, sputtering.

“No,” says Ura, walking a few steps from me.

“Shall we feast?” K’Nat says, chuckling as he moves over to me to grab at the bag on my back, pulling out some wrapped foodstuffs. He takes out and unwraps two juicy cooked portions of squid.

“Each time we reach a dead-end you will eat?” asks Achalay.

“Eh, feasting makes us fishers able to think!” says K’Nat, bringing out more food. “And for dessert, marsh muffins!”

Ura is unfastening a jar of milk she brought in her own bag. Achalay snorts in disapproval, and he closes his eyes, twitching his nose, a vein bulging in his forehead.

“I felt like a marsh muffin all day,” says the Challenger. The fisher throws one to the ranger, who catches in one hand.

Achalay, now kneeling with his eyes shut near the midpoint of the room, mutters softly, shaking his head, abstaining from the offers of food.

“No ledges or alcoves or holes,” the ranger says, stepping further out, around the walls.

A droplet hits my helm, making a pinging noise.

“Again! No one else feels this?” I ask the other party members, wiping my cheek with my free hand. Ura only shrugs, grabbing a muffin for herself from the fisher.

“This is a sign of failure in leadership,” mutters Achalay, balling both of his hands into little fists at his sides.

“What drips in a cavern?” I ask the others, trying to think.

“Subterranean rivers, might be,” says K’Nat plainly, munching as the Challenger returns to the rest of us near the middle. The ranger, chewing down his muffin, reaches into the big bag, pulling out another bunch of arrows. Then he shoves an arrow’s end into the torchlight, quickly plucking it onto his bow, this time aiming it straight above himself, loudly warning everyone to move a few paces. Then he is pulling back, seemingly uncaring if his fingers get singed while we clear the way.

K’Nat grabs crawls one way while Ura dashes in the opposite direction. Only Achalay remains, unmoving. The fisher hides his laughter as he points to Achalay, grinning over to the Challenger, but the ranger shoots upward, sending the fiery arrow above where I had just been standing. The arrow makes a thudding sound after a brief bout of silence.

“There’s another chamber up there,” says the Challenger, explaining that there was a hole in the ceiling and that his arrow is lodged in the upper ceiling.

“Might be, did you see how wide the hole is?” asks the fisher as we all move back to stand with the Challenger. I raise my torch as high as I can over my head, unable to see the hole through the darkness overhead.

“We should be able to pass,” says the ranger. Ura fumbles through the big sack behind me, bringing out both ropes, which she and the Challenger quickly tie up. The arrows, the ranger tells me, are made of some of the strongest wood in the region.

“I knew,” says Achalay, his thin lips curving. He rises back to his feet, saying: “I sensed it. I knew there would be a passage up here!”

The Challenger manages to fit the roped arrow onto his bowstring and shoots straight up, letting loose a trail of flying rope. The upward arrow sticks into the roof far above, and the Challenger pulls on the rope, finding it secure. At our feet the rest of the rope lies in a coil, enough length remaining for each of us to grab the rope at once, so we can all pull on it in a line.

“Nominating myself to go first,” says the ranger, already positioned at our front where the rope curves upward.

“I agree,” says K’Nat from behind the Challenger. “I could be next this time? I can help ranger-friend pull up the rest!”

“You don’t want to be last again, right K’Nat?” Ura asks him teasingly.

“We lost that stupid bug, trust me,” says Achalay, untying the straps of the backpack he bears, letting it fall behind him. “I should be first to step foot!”

K’Nat grunts, raising his hand, giving his vote for the ranger. Achalay’s movements become erratic as he grabs onto the rope and starts climbing, stepping past the Challenger.

“What are you doing?” asks the ranger.

“Believe me,” Achalay says between panting, bringing his legs around the rope, reaching upward. “Give me your trust, I can lead this party!”

“I’ll tell him off once we’re up,” says the Challenger to the rest of us, shrugging heavily. Now I wonder why we allowed Achalay to join us, unsure of why.

“Pull the rope to sturdy him,” suggests Ura after she hastily places the backpack, the one that Achalay just discarded, over shoulder. The ranger nods and they and K’Nat grab hold of the rope, leaning to keep it straight like the string on a lute. I tie the far end of the rope around my waist, ready to be the anchor, the counterweight.

Achalay, having only ascended a few feet, is muttering bitterly to himself as we all lean back further, making the rope as stiff as we can.

“What must the roof be made of up there?” Ura asks the rest of us.

“Could it be some kind of putty, grout, caulking?” asks K’Nat. “Like made of bricks and you just happened to hit the mortar, aye ranger?”

“Or some kind of vegetation,” says the Challenger, too busy to shrug. “Achalay! Would you like a flying flaming arrow in front of you so you can see?”

“A flying flaming arrow?” asks Ura, holding a torch at her side, careful to keep it away from the rope. “Sounds like a strong drink!”

K’Nat laughs.

“I need not any help!” Achalay shouts down, less than halfway to the hole that leads to the next level.

“Among fishers he would not last long,” says K’Nat in a whisper. “Probably get pushed off the boat when there’s a storm, and I mean not by the waves and heavy winds.”

Achalay is climbing further. With his white robe flapping over his arching back, he moves like an encumbered sloth. When he’s finally nearer the ceiling he pauses his climb.

“Maybe,” Achalay begins, raising his voice, looking down at us. “Maybe the Challenger should go first?”

K’Nat grunts.

“I guess,” says the ranger, wrapping his legs around the rope, pulling himself up far faster than Achalay did, his bow strapped against his back along with his quiver, his sword secured in his sheath.

“But I go up after him!” Achalay then shouts, his voice echoing.

I feel a drip on my forehead again, realizing I stand directly under the hole above us. There must be some source of water up there. The Challenger has already made it halfway above.

“I just cast something,” declares Achalay, inching a tiny bit upward when the climbing ranger reaches the part of the rope just beneath him.

“What have you cast?” asks Ura.

“A seal that will keep me safe! Up there is nothing to fear!” says Achalay. Another drop hits my forehead beneath the rim of my helm.

There is a sudden jolt in the rope. I feel the hard jerk at the part tied about my waist. It brings me up off the ground, sending my feet kicking the air behind me. The others before me gasp, above me, having too been forced from their feet. Something is pulling the whole rope upward, bringing our party along for the ride!

I begin swaying like a pendulum in the dark. An unseen force gives the rope a mighty tug, pulling Achalay through the hole to the next level first. I hear his screams, frantic and desperate: “Help me, Challenger! Help!”

Something wet drips on my face and helm, something new, thicker than water, as the rope tied about my waist brings me higher and higher. Achalay’s panicky screams are overtaken by a harsh growl. In the flickering torchlight, I see up there a dark form hovering over the hole that I rise towards.

The Challenger is pulled up through the hole next. I see the shine of his blade flash, followed by the sound of a swoosh and a shrill hiss.

Then K’Nat goes through, having taken the chaotic moment to ready his spear, which I see him thrust, hearing a crunching noise. Ura, directly above me, swings her torch from side to side as she is yanked through after him.

While I ascend, lucky not to bang my head on the edge, I fling straight up through, landing on my backside on the floor up here, my huge strapped bag cushioning my fall. Aside from me, Ura and K’Nat are on their feet again, both across from the small hole we were all just pulled through. The Challenger I only see slightly, part of him covered from sight.

I manage to blurt some loud words, the rope’s end still tied about me. The tall herdswoman waves the torch in one hand, bringing out her long knife in her other. The illumination from the flame reveals a bulky thing that stands about six heads over my companions. At the sides of its bulky torso stretch a wide set of limbs that move too fast for me to count.

The Challenger, moving into sight again, swipes broadly, managing to hit his blade just below Achalay’s dangling feet. Ura, stepping leftward about the hole, raising her torch, revealing the highest pair of arms.

“Drop him, beast!” yells K’Nat, leaping across the hole, shoving his spear. He manages a short scratch, scouring the left side of the creature. In the little light I can make out seven round orbs, six side by side, one alone beneath them. The tall brute, most of its form still cloaked in shadow, emits a piercing shriek, dropping Achalay as it brings all of its arms outward at once, knocking Ura aside, her torch flying from her grip. K’Nat, also hit, loses his spear, a claw snatching it from him, but the fisher manages to keep his footing, reaching through the little clothing he’s wearing for something else to fight with as we all hear a loud cracking sound followed by the echo of fallen bits of wood.

The Challenger steps towards the dark bulge, parrying with his blade from side to side, keeping the lashing claws at bay. Behind them I roll over, trying to get up, unsure of what I can do to help. I see Ura, springing to her feet, throwing her knife into the middle of the big thing. The creature recoils, stepping back with a single thump.

K’Nat roars, throwing something small and curved into the dark mass. I roll over onto my feet, in time to see the shadows shift, movement. Still a few paces behind the others, I wince, expecting the creature to attack once more as my companions move in to fight.

There is light, faint at first, but it quickly grows in the little space between my party members and the beast – a glow, a pulsating fog, forms and spreads out before us. This force brightens further until the full sight of the monster becomes clear. Hoisting the mass are a pair of powerful bent legs covered in coarse black hair. The middle of the upright-standing being is a round bulge, yet its torso and broad shoulders harken to the form of an enormous man. Spreading from the bulge are six arms, the lower two and upper two smaller than the muscular middle pair that span as long as the monster is tall, two great grasping arms. Most horrifying is the face, completely inhuman, cold and void are all its eyes. Beneath them protrudes a glistening pair of mandibles, sharp and edged like specialized knives. Spread out from the sides of its roundish head are plumes of thistle-like whiskers.

The Challenger shouts in confusion, pointing the end of his blade tepidly toward the red shimmering field that lights up between us and the monster. By now this wall of light resembles burning fire though with watery sleek movements, its crackling edges circling, spiralling.

When the standing beast tries to lunge at us it is held back, stopped by little eruptions of red that form wherever its claws strike. This shimmering sheet is a barrier. Ura and the ranger reach forward, each with a hand almost touching the red veil. The Challenger brings out his bow, finding a leftover arrow at his quiver, readying to shoot it.

“Is this a magical shield?” asks Ura in obvious awe. “Does it protect us from this fiend, or does it protect both sides?”

The Challenger, as if to say ‘one way to find out’, shoots the arrow, which swooshes right through, lodging itself into one of the creature’s big shoulders, to which it hisses in what sounds more like annoyance than pain. The creature then reaches its upper claw to retrieve the arrow, clasping and crushing it.

As the red firewall becomes lighter, more intense, the great monster turns, its blocky footfalls following its retreat into shadow. Three streaks of blue splatter follow it, the wounds from our party’s weaponry.

In a few passing moments the fire shield begins to dissipate, vanishing into the nothingness that it came from. At our feet is Achalay, strewn around the hole the spider monster had pulled us through. The rope is also torn to pieces, though we have a second rope.

I think over the last frantic moments when the creature seized Achalay, thrusting him towards its mouth, biting and tearing.

“I got it,” the Challenger explains when we gather around what was our companion. The ranger raises his sword. Ura lights up an extra torch, handing it to me. We all see blue streaks on the tip of the Challenger’s blade.

“Me next,” recalls K’Nat, wincing as he looks on. “I hit before the thing broke my spear!”

“A spear broken again?” I ask him, remembering the earlier night.

“Two heirloom spears gone!” bemoans K’Nat, motioning one of his broad arms towards the bisected spear at the floor. He then raises the tip that once sat at the end of it.

“Downgrade,” says the Challenger as the fisher overlooks the little blade, wiping his own sword on the back of his cloak.

K’Nat scowls, saying: “I will bring it back home to be reforged!”

“You mean tied together with rope?” asks Ura..

“Yes,” says K’Nat, half grinning.. “We fishers have their ways with the sea-rope.”

“We return here for Achalay if we can,” adds Ura, to which K’Nat and the Challenger shrug.

“I don’t think we can return there, not since we’ve crossed over the underwater channel,” I tell them, retracing our path here in my mind. Ura frowns, lowering her head and her torch.

“Alas poor Achalay,” says the Challenger plainly, sighing at the sight beneath us.

“He was…a companion,” says K’Nat.

“That’s true,” agrees the Challenger.

“Move on we must though! In fisher life we want until we return to shore to mourn. We came to get answers!” K’Nat says, his loud voice echoing.

I take the time to look about, seeing that there is behind us a rocky brown wall, a dead end, but the other way, the way the monster has since fled, is wide open now. Ura turns from us, facing the open shaft. I am the first to follow her, holding the new burning torch high.

“I would want to sleep, try to get beyond what just happened, but we have no time for that,” she says when the other two reach us and we four walk in a row.

“We sleep when we find somewhere safe, as safe as it gets in here,” says the ranger, prepping an arrow beside me.

“And someone keeps watch,” agrees K’Nat, holding the tip of his discarded spear like a dagger, only some of the ooze remaining on its surface from the monster’s eye.

The Challenger, whilst walking, does his usual thing, lighting part of an arrow with the torchlight, shooting on an upward curve where it illuminates more of the tunnel in front of us. The walls widen farther on. We take note of the strange patterns above us. I gasp as Ura raises her own torch over herself, seeing that things grow there on the ceiling.

“What are they, vines, fungus?” asks K’Nat.

“Moist whatever it is,” says the Challenger.

I notice what he means, for I can see bits of dew. Bits land on my helm with a patter. “This must be what was dripping on me earlier,” I say to the others.

“We believed you,” says Ura nonchalantly.

“This greenery is what our arrows got lodged in, how we made it up here,” adds the Challenger.

“Vegetation,” says Ura as I raise my own torch higher, unveiling more of the sight. It looks not unlike grass, green blades that dangle in immense clumps. Among these blades there is other overhanging foliage too, leafy stems and branch-like formations that tangle one another.

We continue, walking in silence for a long while. Here the ground looks the same, made of brown solid rock. At our feet we can see faded trails of blue.

“The blood of the beast,” says the Challenger, pointing.

“It may die of its wounds,” says K’Nat.

“Maeth willing,” Ura says softly.

We are arriving at a fork in the tunnel, a path that leads a level way to our left and a shaft that curves downward to our right. The blue trails, mostly in splotches by now, turn down the rightward path.

“As much as Challenger and I would like to use our tracker skills,” says Ura, looking on. “The right path leads downward and we need to get higher.”

“The cheating strangers at the top,” says K’Nat. “That was where they went, the birds.”

“Oh yes, those cute birds and the tokens,” agrees Ura. She is staring down the two tunnels, one after the other.

The Challenger turns first. We all go leftward, away from wherever the creature fled. This tunnel that slants upward looks and feels brighter; light is somehow coming through from further ahead of us. As we approach what looks like an archway, I take a moment to retrieve the scope. Looking through it, I see a chamber beyond the archway. The ground, hard and bare, expands about thirty paces onward until it reaches a wall covered completely in vegetation. When we leave the tunnel I notice that this green mass spreads to two other walls at our sides that are about forty paces apart.

Here there is light. It is coming from a source above and behind us. I look to the Challenger, who now stands at my side as we just formed a row again. The ranger looks as amazed, and maybe perplexed, as the rest of us.

We then march towards the middle of the room. Here there is open air above us, the ceiling of the chamber far above us. We four turn about to take in the view behind us, that of the archway we just came through. The wall above the arch only rises about twelve paces, a mere tenth of the wall opposite. Upon its crest grow thick clusters of foliage with long leaves sprouting from the densest of them.

“Ah, we shall scale over the way we just came!” says the Challenger, dashing back.

The ranger climbs so quickly it looks like he’s sliding up the vines, his arms doing most of the work. He vanishes from sight when at the top. There must be a ledge there, I deduce, and a more open area. Ura gets behind me, begins rummaging through my bag, bringing out the rope. Using an earlier loop on the end, she tosses most of it up.

“I got it! Tying it to a root!” calls the Challenger from above the archway.

“What is up there?” calls K’Nat.

“It’s a field, a garden! You need to see it! And light like day, it comes from high up, like the sun yet not the sun!”

“The sun yet not the sun?” asks the fisher, glancing over to us, a puzzled expression set upon his face.

The rope is secured, taught. Ura climbs while K’Nat holds the bottom end of the rope, fixing his eyes on the archway underneath the ledge. I take the rope next, looking up to see Ura reach the precipice, lifting herself onto it. She calls down for me to follow. Climbing slowly, the bag on my back weighing me, I feel the rope start to move upward. The ranger and the herdswoman are pulling me, while K’Nat pushes my feet up gently from below.

“You have other proficiencies!” calls the Challenger blithely, patting my shoulder once I stand on soft ground.

Here I feel as if we stand outside again. The walls and roof of the gigantic cavern are far from us, so completely covered in growing things that they take on a greenish tinge. The furthest wall way ahead of us looks like a green haze. Beneath us there grow grasses, the shortest reaching our shins, the tallest just beneath my waist. Aside from the grasses are clumps of bushes and thicket, many entwined with vines that run along the ground.

“Never have I seen so much green!” gasps Ura.

“I have, only in warmer places than the North,” says the Challenger.

Now I see too what he meant regarding the not sun; there is a light, it lies over the land like a golden blanket, but when I look directly upward I see only intense illumination, just barely able to make out the spherical shape when my hand partly covers my face.

“A false sun?” asks Ura.

“Who knows?” says the Challenger.

Farther ahead, about two hundred paces, there grow what look like trees, or something similar. They have tall stems, their canopies wide with plume-like ferns that expand outward from their tops like peeled fruit skins.

Behind us we can hear the fisher huffing, climbing over the edge of the precipice. He gets up and rolls onto the moss-covered ground.

“Ah, we should’ve pulled you!” says the Challenger, to which K’Nat waves a dismissive hand. The fisher stands, telling us that he saw nothing in the tunnel below.

“Nothing following us? Good,” says Ura as we return our attention to the unfolding land before us. K’Nat takes it in, murmuring prayers under his breath. We four say nothing for a while further, all watching the landscape and the gentle sway of some of the taller grasses, prompting me to wonder where the breeze came from.

A companion, a party-member, has been lost. We have come to a new place, an interior green world within this floating island!

I know, and I think the others know too, that our adventure is only beginning…
The Challenger’s later adventures are already available in Our Adventures with the Challenger.

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