|THE CHALLENGER: ORIGINS by Jesse Zimmerman|
When we last left our three heroes they had escaped the reactionary claws of Lobster-Man. In a random tying up of loose ends, they ran into the same oversized toad that had eaten their food, and in turn, ate the toad. Little did they know (Flora knew) that it was one of those magic toads…
My vision is watery, slightly swirly, and the forest in the distance is alike a running oil painting with bubbly sparkles floating. Fauna looks odd, the reds of her cap and outfit twice as bright. In her hands is a fried toad piece, her face gnawing at it, getting juices on her cheeks.
“Fauna-aaaah,” I say. “Do you feel?—and how?”
“I feel…like…” she sniffs, looking about apprehensively like a chipmunk. “When did the sky become green?”
“I was too hungry to say anything,” I explain to her, looking at this light green sky. The land is violet, the grass an acrylic turquoise.
“You knew?” she stammers, half laughing. “People say that I’m the wild one, but you just got us into a magic toad adventure!”
The Challenger—that is, the ranger, our friend of two other adventures, was seated on a tuft of grass. He pulls out a bone from his mouth and nods. “I thought it might be!” he says. “I can’t tell you how many of these babies I’ve eaten! Other stuff too, like cave glow-worms, meditating mantises, and been sprayed by certain skunks that give insight, you know?”
“Never read about those,” I say, standing up, managing to adjust my stance on the shifty land. “Whoa…okay, so, don’t tell Mother we did this or we won’t get supplies for the next time we decide to find a quest!”
My sister shrugs, but I pay it no more mind. I feel panicked and relaxed. Without any words, we all lay on our backs, putting our weapons and things between ourselves. Things pass by in the air before us, distant birds flapping long wings slowly as if they beat against a current in the ocean, some of the birds surfing in the wind, looking cool. A soft gust comes from the North and we see a flutter of seeds flow over us, white fluffy stems spinning to keep them flying, spinning as they move over us. I imagine myself among them.
“You look good like that,” says my sister to my side.
“Hm?” I ask, my face warm in the sun.
“Oh yeah,” says the Challenger calmly. “We all see what the other person is thinking. If you imagine something and see it, then the other people who also partook in the toad will see it. It’s kind of a collective, group activity, this toad-eating thingy.”
I don’t want them seeing all my inner thoughts!
I block them, thinking of everything I’m trying to block. Images of our city, the Silver Coast, streak through my mind; memories from when we were growing up, the two of us sisters running through the hallways of our home, through fields in parkland, Fauna always showing off and climbing the biggest trees. I am in the campus next, the Academy where I learned everything I could about the world! In my mind I see the face of all my old classmates, all of them.
“Was she that one you told me about?” sister asks me in jest.
“Look up there,” says the Challenger as I’m about to make her shut up.
“Wow,” says Fauna. “Flora, look, you’ll like this.”
In the clouds is a great building with walls of marble. This structure is wide and tall, atop it ascends three domed towers. At the building’s base opens a gigantic doorway, a long, thin blue carpet rolled out to the courtyard before it.
“That’s an Academy,” I slowly say, feeling a smile. “We have a great one back home; Mother’s Library is part of it. We grew on the edge of that campus. This one though…where?”
I look to my left and see the ranger holds his stare with his one uncovered eye and then he answers: “Northsphere; back when I dwelt in urban places, before the Challenger.”
“Oh,” says my sister. “This is before you were a weird woodsy kind of guy. Sorry, that came out wrong. Blame the toad.”
There are now tiny figures in the sky, all crowding around the courtyard. Our vision zooms, the Challenger’s mind taking us closer to the people in the shadow of the great building. They wear white robes, the ones who have first honours, while the rest are clad in simpler things, these newer students. As I focus my vision on the image that the Challenger has mentally sculpted before us, I feel a tingly warm feeling inside me, looking out over the book-bearing, robed pupils. I want to be there.
Then I see the scene turn to night where from one of the domed towers black smoke rises. Thin flames begin to crackle from the windows, thickening as the pillars of smoke become ballooning clouds of black.
I am about to comment on the change of mood before the Challenger speaks: “That night long ago. I had to have been around your age then.”
Night fades backwards into day. In our vision emerges a boy with only the faintest trace of fuzz on his upper lip, his frame thin under a plain robe, his face soft and boyish. He carries books in his arms.
“Aw!” Fauna declares loudly. “Is that you?”
He looks so different. As his doppelganger walks I see an awkward gait in his step.
“I was granted a sponsorship by an old sage. He took me out of the orphanage and straight into the Academy,” the ranger narrates from my side.
We see the pre-Challenger standing in a room that glows in afternoon light from slanted windows. There are small wooden desks, all set in a semi-circle. The Challenger student takes one, and the door at the far side of the room swings open, and a man who looks ancient enters, leaning over a curved cane, wobbling over to the front podium.
I am there now.
“Where am I?” I ask loudly, uneasy. No one reacts. I see the Challenger waving to someone else now, a green-haired girl a few desks over.
At the front of the classroom stands someone new. Here is a big man, older but not nearly as old as the last man. This is a barrel chested brute clad in a robe that is black on one shoulder, yellow on the other, and then black on one part of his belly, and yellow on the other and so-on; a chequered pattern that accentuates his shape. His face is the middle place between red and pink, and he is yelling.
“Who is he?” I hear my sister ask, and I see her appear in the room, seated near the front.
“Bumbly,” says the Challenger. “He was once our alchemist. He feared the students and faculty from other Academies.”
“What?” I say, almost laughing. “You mean like Silver Coast?”
“He was paranoid, Old Bumbly,” says the Challenger. “And he hated me. All the rest hated him though. He spoke badly about Talen, so that alienated most of the other Educators. He manipulated others.”
“Talen,” I say, remembering hearing that name. I see the book in front of me, the Book of Gods. There is on the page an image of a robed figure, a tall thin being with face unseen, hands bearing a glass beaker and a quilled pen. “Talen, God of Knowledge. I know of Talen.”
“Uphold knowledge, reason, and temper it with wisdom through experience.” I hear the Challenger’s voice. We return to the classroom. The young Challenger is at the desk right in front of us.
“Then why are you neutral and chaotic?” Fauna asks. I see the look on her face. She seems concerned for him. It is legit, what she asks, for Talen is known for being lawful and ordered.
“Bumbly showed me that there is no order,” he answers and I hear anger in his voice, fixated at the sight before him. “He hated me because I was the symbol of everything he hated, an orphan who defied the odds. He hates the weak becoming strong. It was his gold, along with the gold of every rich man, he said, that was spent by the Academy through a tax to bring an orphan like to into higher learning.”
“Be Objective!” booms the one called Bumbly from the front of the classroom. We are in another chamber now, one with stone tables and no chairs. Fauna stands beside me, both of us over a table, tools and instruments of brass and glass before us. The Challenger is across from us, the green haired girl, a year older now, with him. Both wear white robes with blue sashes, and I see their hands clasped, hidden from the other pupils.
I get a closer look at our friend in front of us. I see both of his blue eyes and fair cheeks, the same as our Challenger, but he is weak, I can see it. His arms are thin, his shoulders nearly not existing. Across from him I see another boy, also thin, shorter, and clad in white with a yellow sash. Underneath a mop of straw-like hair I see a deep scowl, his face all bunched up like he just ate a salted lemon.
The room gets cold. The walls collapse, the wooden planks fading like sand. Everything is white for a moment, and then colour begins to emerge. I see the young Challenger. He stands in white robes, three colourful (blue, red, and yellow) sashes strapped against his chest. The whiteness around us is no longer, and I see many colours about us, the scents of rich flowers reaching my nose before the image of the lovely gardens emerge; forms and hues come into being, an unseen paintbrush creates them. A small crowd materializes, and now more people are near the young Challenger student. To the Challenger’s side she stands, the green haired girl—the green haired young woman. She too wears the tricolour sash.
“She is beautiful,” says the disembodied voice of my sister.
She has emerald eyes that contrast with her fair skin and soft features. “Oh,” I say, remembering what he once told me. “This is her.”
I hear the Challenger, our Challenger, mutter something. The young couple embrace and the crowd cheers.
Everything is dark, the blackness around us suffocating. I want this to end now. I’ve seen enough. Bumbly appears and he reads from a scroll, repeating some words, long words:
“Amberiousite, Magilidium, and Tristogralinite!” barks Bumbly, and now at his side I see something, a towering being twice as tall, four times as wide. Its skin is a swampy dark green, face devoid of feature, no eyes, nose, or mouth, only a pair of pointed ears that shoot out at the side of its head. The thick arms nearly reach the floor, long scythe-like claws on each of its hands.
“He made us create that thing,” Challenger tells us solemnly.
“When alchemists of the last era mixed these elements together, always they resulted in fire and blasts! But never have all three been combined at once! Sages once theorized that it would create greatness!”
“Those tomes are out of date! They’ve been debunked! Can I not convince you not to do this, Professor?” young Challenger says.
“No, Mister! Recall what I say, be objective! Do not give it to your fear! It is for the sake of all us individuals that we signed contracts when we entered the Academy to gain knowledge!” grumbles the big professor. Something scurries at his side—the pupil, the weird one with straw-like hair and a scrunched face.
“He is called Rand,” says the Challenger’s voice to our side. “His nickname was The Straw-Man. Bumbly was a mentor to him, those of the yellow and black patch.”
The spindly youth grins at the young Challenger. “Listen to him! He comes from a long line of blood! Best pedigree! You should see how well his dogs are bred!”
“That’s enough, Rand!” says Bumbly, turning about to a white stone desk for a moment, grabbing a tall bottle in his big hand. “Here, have something to drink!”
The young Challenger waves his hand in refusal. “No, got an examination tomorrow. She’s expecting me.”
Rand, half the size of big Bumbly, leaps up and grabs the bottle from his mentor’s hand. Bumbly grumbles, and he whispers to his ward. The whisper is faint but we hear it; “This isn’t for you, fool. This is for him, to knock him out.”
The little assistant nods eagerly and leaps towards the rival pupil, throwing the bottom of the bottle up into the young Challenger’s forehead. He falls over, and Bumbly instructs the giant green thing to pick him up. We are now in a small room, a tower from what I can tell, for there is a small window with no glass or curtain, and through this portal I can see the rooftops of the city of Northsphere. Lightning strikes in the distance because of course it does! The young Challenger is there. He is tied up against the far wall, wrapped by his wrists in ropes, his ankles in chains attached to the bricks of the wall. Across from him, in the middle of the room, sits a cauldron of bubbling blue goop filled half to the brim.
“Antidote,” I hear his voice beside me. This must the antidote, the same that Lobster-Man had, though this one is not temporary like his.
The young Challenger awakens, shaking his head, noticing in panic that he is tied to the wall. “Let me go!” he shrieks. I never thought such fear could come from him. I gaze at the shelves that line the room’s walls. There are all kinds of items here. I see vials and beakers, sealed bottles, dusty books, a few rolled up linens, among other weird things. Torches glow on the walls.
Now I see Bumbly, Rand, and the big green thing. The monster carries something in his hands, something the size of a small person in a leather sack. This sack begins moving. I realize someone is in there.
“Now, when you signed—when you signed your papers!” Bumbly shouts, pointing a single finger at the abducted pupil at the wall. “You committed to Talen, committed to finding out truth and we are here to do that! My antidote! It works! It is mixed of the elements!”
“Amberiousite, Magilidium, and Tristogralinite!” shouts Rand at his side.
“You mock Talen!” young Challenger snaps.
“Now drink of it!” Bumbly calls, taking a long wooden spoon from one of the shelves and dipping it in the blue antidote.
“I refuse!” the young Challenger barks.
“We are committed to finding out the truth, no matter the methods!” Bumbly retorts. “Even if the methods are questionable. Attomoton!”
The green faceless thing opens up the sack, pulls the person inside out of it, and then tosses the sack out the window. I hear Fauna gasping, and then I hear both the young Challenger and the woman in the arms of the green beast scream.
“No,” I whisper. It is the Challenger’s wife. (We know not her name, or anything else save her appearance, for this story is not about her, but about what happened to the Challenger.)
Her hair flings about as she struggles to get free of the thing called Attomoton. Bumbly approaches the Challenger. She calls his name, but I cannot hear it properly over the commotion. And then I see Bumbly stick the end of the spoon into young Challenger’s mouth. He must have done it from fear.
“Now, show me your strength! Break free of your ropes and chains and save her!” he bellows as the Challenger gulps.
“Let her go!” the pupil shouts with a rage that he looks too weak to create, but still does not break the bonds.
Bumbly shakes his head, “It’s not working!”
“Come! Break free!” chirps Rand menacingly at the bigger man’s side.
Young Challenger struggles hard. Nothing changes.
The monster holds her over the open window. She screams for her husband.
“Okay,” says Bumbly, sounding defeated and Rand sighs loudly. “The experiment is over. The antidote doesn’t work. Okay, Atto, bring her back in.”
The green thing shakes its head and we hear a deep monstrous voice emanate from it: “No Master. You who made me and educated me in the ways of the individual’s will. You told me that we would do all to find the truth, yet you are unwilling to take it all the way.”
Bumbly repeats his order for the thing we assumed was mindless to bring the green-haired woman back inside, but the monster refuses.
Attomoton drops Challenger’s wife over the window pane.
I hear two screams, one from Fauna, and one from Challenger’s wife as she falls from sight. The student does not cry out. He merely snaps the chains at his ankle, rips the ropes apart, and charges, leaping over the cauldron, pushing the green beast as he reaches him. A claw flings up as Attomoton falls over the edge, following the poor woman he had just dropped, managing to scratch out one of Challenger’s eyes before falling.
Lightning illuminates the room. I see rage on the young man’s face as he turns to Bumbly. The older man cries out, yelling apologies to no avail. The young Challenger jumps to him, put his feet on his shoulders, twists his neck, the big floppy body falling onto the floor. Rand cries out for help. Challenger tears across the room as the assistant makes for the doorway, our youthful friend knocking over everything on the shelves as he runs, causing the room to ignite on fire almost instantly. He reaches Rand and in one move tosses him across the room, the little man landing in the cauldron with a goopy splash.
For a moment I think I hear something amongst the roaring, the sound of Challenger crying. The room burns. Young Challenger grabs one of the linens and leaps from the window into the night, gliding with the linen that acts like makeshift wings.
Things swirl in fire and smoke.
We see images of various landscapes; mountains, rivers, and the rest of our time here on the grass is that, just relaxing as the world passes us by. The images eventually fade. The Challenger is first to stand. Fauna is next, and then I get up. A part of me wants to say something, to tell him I am sorry about what happened, how I wish I knew more about his wife, and to remind him that we are glad to be his friends now, but I say nothing. We walk away, onward East to continue our quest to find yet another quest, another adventure.
As we descend a hill, we do not see that the vision in the sky has come back. I look for a moment and see it, though I do not tell the others what I see.
The room, in that small room in the tower where our friend lost his wife long ago and became a great warrior, something happens. The cauldron of blue antidote goop that Rand was thrown into, it stirs even as the room turns to ash.
A wet hand rises, and then an arm, muscular and thick followed by a mop of straw-like hair.