THE STRAW MAN COMETH by Jesse Zimmerman
There is a breeze that sends the grass blades fluttering in the field below us. We move downward on a rocky green mountain, through a pathway that twists, at times departing from its gradual descent. The meadow, at the times when I see it through the thick foliage, stretches on to a river. I know this place. I’ve seen it on maps in the library back home at Silver Coast. It’s called the Spherion River. The river ultimately leads to Northsphere. This city was where the Challenger came from, where the vision we saw days before took place, back when we were in the plains beyond this range of green crags. The ranger’s been silent mostly since then, volunteering watch each night, claiming he will be awake, but always asleep by the time me and Sis climb down the trees in the morning.
“He’s thinking about her,” Fauna tells me today, at a point past noon when we are finished a meal of crushed acorns and bread. The Challenger has gone up ahead of us. We see him periodically when we pass a turn and look down a treed cliff to see him further down the path.
“Obvious,” I say, feeling a chill under my clothes.
“Do you think this explains why he’s neutral, why he’s chaotic?” my sister asks me, no jesting in her voice. “Maybe losing his love made him bitter about order, maybe feeling as if there is no true good worth fighting for?”
I give her a glare, unsure of how to answer. I hadn’t thought about it. “Maybe,” I say, about to explain how moral concepts are relative, but I hold back, feeling tired. I didn’t get too much sleep up in the tree across last night. I woke up twice, one time hearing the Challenger mumbling things on the ground, unable to make the words out from my perch.
I now grab my bag on my back, bringing the two straps as far forward as I can, shifting the weight a bit. I haven’t mentioned that we have new bags, us twins, and more stuff in them. Yesterday we found a general store out in the middle of some woods on the other side of these green mountains. It’s a weird location there in that clearing, but the store manager, this short stubby man with a big droopy moustache, told us adventurers often come through this way. He also had inflated prices, but we had some coin left.
We have four loaves of bread, a jar of acorn paste, dried fritters, a few feet of hemp rope, three faux-skin flasks, two bottles of rabbit milk, and a booklet on the local plants and beasts so I can brush up on my studies and be able to tell what’s what out here (there are different dangers since we are more northerly now).The stuff in my bag now makes clanging and shuffling noises. I stoop over a bit, hitting my raggedy shoes against hardening ground.
“I’ve been thinking,” Fauna starts. “We’ve gone pretty far, haven’t we? It’s been what? Lost track of the days.”
“Twenty-five only,” I tell her. “Remember? We left Silver Coast on the second day because the city’s so big; then on Day Four we stayed at Moof Village; then we met the Challenger on Day Seven at the tavern on the edge of the Grand Forest.”
“Right,” she says sharply, trying to cut me off.
I keep talking: “And then later we met Dick Bumpledop, had the whole adventure in Hair-Neck Valley, and then stayed with Barpar and Screech for a while, where we then proceeded to have our misadventure with Lobster-Man!”
“Yes, and then we ate the toad!” Fauna adds quickly, waving a downward hand. “It’s been a while, and we’ve had quests. Haven’t we had enough for a lifetime?”
I stop walking, feeling tension in my back and arms for a moment. “I don’t believe this,” I say to her after a tiny groan. She pauses a few steps ahead of me, looking over, turned partway.
“What?” she asks with her mouth hanging.
“You want to quit? You, whose whole idea was coming out here? You want to go home? You?”
I see her flush a bit, her face a lighter red than her clothes. She shakes her head with clear vehemence. “No! NO! I’m not saying that! I was more just bringing it up to see if you wanted to quit! That’s all. I was thinking of you, see? I always do!”
I groan again. Obviously I know she’s saving face like she always does.
“Well then never mind!” Fauna snaps, turning from me, bringing up her red cloak over the back of her head. “I’m going make water! Go catch up to Ranger-Boy!” She zips off the path, between two trunks, her feet crunching over leaves, her bag bouncing, the sounds becoming fainter as I see dabs of red blip between the trees further away.
I just keep walking, catching up to the Challenger. Here is a wide stretch of land, all treed with some rows of mossy stones here and there. He’s standing still, eye wide, gazing before him, sniffing the air.
He stirs as he hears me. “I know this place,” he says, raising a hand, his longbow clutched firmly in it. “These trees, they’re thinner than the others.”
He steps forward. I follow. The narrow trees look like they are not as old as the rest of the forest. Some of them bend and twist, teenaged and rebellious, not stout and dignified like the old oaks and ashes further away. In a nearby distance I can hear the rushing of water, and my ranger friend veers his head towards it, simultaneously grabbing an arrow from his quiver, lining it upon his bow. I’ve only my dagger, so I grab it off my belt under my blue cloak.
We can see the river, the Spherion now, just where the thin trees stop and a muddy bank descends.
“We’re near your old city,” I say cautiously. “Do you want to avoid it?”
He looks to me sharply. “Yes please. I avoid all cities, but this one…”
I nod back, gazing about the place, trying to search my mind to remember the significance. “And this place? I think I know the lands outside of here. Killer…Killer Grass?”
“How do you know that?” he asks with his usual plain face. “Let me guess, you read it?”
“Yeah,” I say, remembering now. “It was in the booklet I just bought; Killer Grass is in the fields south and east of Northsphere. But there was something else, something nearby those fields, the place where the Killer Grass first came from.”
“Old Campus. The Killer Grass is more eastward so we’re safe,” the Challenger answers. “Where’s your sister?”
As if she heard (she probably did), Fauna appears behind us, calling out: “Guys! I just saw an old weird statue!”
“Where?” the Challenger asks.
We are all now moving to where Fauna had come from. I ask the ranger if he’s been here before. He explains that this is first campus of Northsphere Academy back when the land was more savage and monsters and bandits and monstrous bandits roamed the land freely, when the civilized people walled themselves in great cities. This one campus south of Northsphere was safe though, at least for a few years, for they had walls and a grand weapon. I remember reading all about this place back in the Academy at Silver Coast, back in Mother’s Library. I suddenly recall a very vague memory of reading a list of words and chants that unleash powerful forces, but I don’t remember any details.
“When was this place abandoned?” Fauna asks him.
“It depends who you ask,” says the ranger. “Some say it was the moment that the new campus was constructed; others say it was when the Killer Grass experiment overwhelmed the nearby fields. Some say it was because of monsters that overran. All knowledge was lost, even in Northsphere’s new Academy, the one I went to. They have no data, no written accounts of details concerning the last days of Old Campus.”
“I remember reading things about it,” I tell him then.
“Where?” he asks, his bow still armed. Fauna has a bow, but she opts to take her sword out instead as she often does, hacking at some low branches while we ascend sloping ground.
Before I can answer she points her blade and shouts: “There!”
The Challenger runs ahead of us. We are out of the trees, now in a space paved with broken stones. For the first time in days I hear him laugh. “Yes, this place! Look!”
We’re standing in a decrepit outdoor rotunda, six thick stone columns surrounding us in a great circle. Vines and grasses have taken over, greenery wrapping itself around the columns, snaking through the cracked floor, and even some small trees have sprung up around the edge. What the Challenger points to stands in the middle of this place, a bronze-coloured statue that stands three times as tall as him.
“W-Wow!” my sister stammers, running around the sculpture.
“Talen,” I say the name of the God of Knowledge. It is man-like in shape, thin, garbed in a cloak that reaches the base. Two arms extend from the god’s side; in one hand he holds a beaker, in the other a quilled pen. His face is shrouded by a hood.
The Challenger and I circle the statue and I see upon Talen’s back a pair of folded wings. “Talen flies?” I ask.
“Yes,” says the ranger, placing the bow back on his chest, his free hand now on his sword’s hilt in the scabbard at his belts. “His symbol is a bird; with knowledge comes great vision, like that of a hawk or eagle.”
“Or an owl,” I add.
“Sure,” he continues, looking about. “I remember this place. We came here on a field trip.” I see him flash his teeth, a rare sight. “Let me show you something!”
“There better be tavern!” Fauna calls.
“Drink your rabbit milk,” I tell her, following the Challenger, this time through the other side of the rotunda opposite from whence we had just come.
The place is filled with juvenile trees and I still hear the Spherion babbling on unseen. We approach structures made of red brick, the nearest of them two stories tall, the next nearest five stories; all of them covered in a millennia’s growth of vines. There is a path that leads between the encrusted buildings. There is, not far off, at the end of this trail, a single tower. I count nine floors, the tall glass windows as my guide. For one moment I feel euphoria; smooth joy, a whiff of nostalgia. I can see beyond this ruin that’s been taken back by nature a place that was once a community. Pupils like me must have been here in the hundreds, and that tower at the end…
The others speed up. When I’m sprinting, my knapsack smacks against my back. Between the buildings I see trees, taller ones, and I see shadows about their trunks. We reach the walls of tower. It’s thick, twice as wide as the open rotunda we just left and there is a huge open doorway leading inside.
“What’s inside?” Fauna asks.
“Library,” says the Challenger.
“Library!” I shout, panting from the run. “Yes! I knew it!”
My sister slaps my shoulder from my side, putting her sword back at her belt.
“Why put your sword away?” I ask her, pulling the straps on my knapsack, leaning towards her.
“It’s a library,” she says, fitting her sword at her side. “What are there, mutated book lice?”
“Walking moulds maybe,” says the ranger, blade in hand. “But look, Flora, you’ll love this especially.”
“What about me?” asks my sister as we walk in together, stepping into a chamber, no—an atrium!
My gasp shoots all the way up to top of this hollow interior. This atrium takes up the whole tower! There are overlooking interior balconies on every floor leading up and immense leafy plants growing from the sides of the bannisters. At the pinnacle I see a glass ceiling. Additional light comes from windows, streaming in from what must be a soon-to-be setting sun because the glow against the backdrop of the top three levels is pink-orange. This place is so big. This circular floor is thirty paces in circumference. There is a staircase at the far point, the only part of the chamber untouched by vegetation. It winds upward, writhing towards the ninth floor; reminding me of a corkscrew.
“I come in around this time, done with lectures. I’m ready to read, study, overview the lesson, conduct arguments, make conclusions. I’d want to take a spot on high up, way above in my peaceful niche,” I say, nearly cooing.
“You need an owl’s perch,” Fauna says. “Look at the vines!”
These vines look like ropes. They’re hanging from all the balconies, some of them intersecting and turning into hydra-like formations, some bulging and overtaking the wall. There are thinner ones too, all of the vines pouring inward, all reaching for the floor.
“Let’s climb!” says sister.
The Challenger grins, looking excited. He crosses his arms, tilts his torso, his uncovered eye moving a full semi-circle. “We can do that.”
“Not me!” I tell them. “
“Ah,” says the Challenger. “Keep going, the stairs are made of stone-wood, the hardiest wood of them all. Only fire can destroy it.”
“Good luck with the climb!” I say to them, running to the stairs. I can tell the steps are old, yet when I take my first steps the staircase neither creaks or sways. The wood is a dark brown. “Stone-wood,” I say, remembering reading about it. I look over to see both of my companions grabbing at the lower vines, Fauna jetting up to the second level, the Challenger following close behind, their two figures bounding upward like spiders climbing webs.
I sigh, knowing they’ll reach the top first. I decide to take a leisurely stroll (at a fast pace). There are bookshelves, long rows going in every direction to the far exterior walls where the tall windows are, the light from them illuminating the spines of every book, all the thousands of them. I wonder, and hope, if we can spend some time here. There must be tons of new knowledge, things I haven’t read back home. Third, fourth, fifth, and sixth floor are more of the same; more books, and I see desks further towards the windows.
“I could spend the rest of my life here, learning new things to take back to Silver Coast,” I say to myself at floor seven. This one is different. There are some bookshelves, but there is, instead of open aisles leading to windows and desks, an open archway a few paces from the stairs. At the top of the archway are some carved words, an ancient script, an older version of common language. Fortunately I know the letters; Experimentation it reads.
I go in. It’s a fairly large chamber. There are columns that reach only a third of the way to the ceiling of this floor, and on the top of these columns, at about my height, are glass boxes. I see some kind of green mask in one; in another I see a silver cup. There are a dozen or so of these displays. Farthest from the archway is a glass cube with no roof, only an open space at the top. I see this last. Inside is a patch of dried out grasses, yellow and brown, only a finger height each. They appear dead, all strewn over, lying on top of one another.
“Could this be?” I ask. Ever the knowledge-seeker, I reach for my knapsack and pull out a tiny piece of bread. Taking it in my hands, I drop it on top of the grass.
I hear a rustling, and then a high-pitched growl and a series of inhuman shrieks. All the blades begin flinging about, little teeth barely visible on their ends, the frantic grass consuming the bread in seconds. Once the piece is gone the grasses all wave about, the blades nearest the end where I stand all flinging against the glass wall as if they are trying to reach me.
“Killer Grass,” I say with a half-smile. I cannot wait to show the Challenger. I think for a moment about the vision we saw, his story, his tragedy, a few days prior, about Bumbly and his admiring pupil, Rand and how their actions caused the Challenger to lose his wife. I also remember how the Challenger (before he was called the Challenger) slew Bumbly and tossed the little man known as Straw Man into the antidote cauldron in his rage.
I move back to the stairs. Floor eight is next. Here I see a similar chamber and a similar archway, the inscriptions in ancient common reading: Delipha.
“Goddess of the Sea,” I whisper, remembering that name. Inside I peer briefly, able to see inscriptions reading: Delipha’s Artefacts.
Finally I make my way to Floor Nine. As expected both my sister and the Challenger are already there. We gaze down at the floor level from here, looking down the many levels of the circular balconies that wrap around the tower’s interior. On the floor itself there are some doors, small ones, and one big one towards the centre of the space. We make our way to the big door and the Challenger sighs loudly:
He smacks his forehead with his palm, punching the door with his other hand. “It’s locked! How could I forget that?”
“What’s in there?” Fauna asks, barely winded by her climb, her knapsack still firmly on her back. “Another vision-inducing toad?”
“No, but it is something we’ve seen before,” says the ranger. “It leads to an open roof. There are flying ships!”
“Wow!” gasps Fauna. That would be really useful, for us to have one of those ships like Lobster-Man had escaped from us on. “Can we just break the door? I mean, look at how strong you were made because of the antidote.”
The Challenger shakes his head, running a hand up the surface of the door. “This is stone-wood, won’t break.”
“It would be useful for a tight spot!” I comment.
My words were so badly chosen, or so aptly chosen because what happens next is indeed just that. We hear the sound of doors slamming shut from way down at the bottom of the tower. Fauna and I rush to the side rail of the balcony, peering down over the vines. The light that had been coming in through the front door is gone.
“Orphan!” we hear a monstrous voice roar. It comes from an unseen place far below. “He who is called Challenger! Your time is over!”
Fauna curses. We see small figures emerge. Some are on the lower balconies, others on the main floor. They scramble about. I can only make out that they are bulky and green-skinned. The Challenger emerges at my side, grabbing his bow.
“Prepare to fight,” he hisses. “This is bad.”
“What is it?” Fauna asks in panic, also grabbing both her bow and arrows.
I grab my dagger again.
“Challenger!” the voice calls mockingly. “Remember me?”
Then we see it him. A hulking figure steps into the main chamber below. His shoulders and arms are massive, as is his chest and back, even at this distance I can tell he is twenty times my size. He wears a great yellow cloak, which he quickly flings off of himself, revealing a bulgy head topped with messy blonde strands of hair.
“Straw Man,” mutters the Challenger. I see fear in his good eye.
CONCLUDED NEXT WEEK…