A PREQUEL WITH THE CHALLENGER

by Jesse Zimmerman

Chapter Nine: Two is Company

Our companions have returned to Tenth Town by the power of the Ophus. K’Nat the fisher was hurt, so he had to leave, and Ura to tend his wounds, while the Ophus itself had to be with them to travel. I felt the safest in the presence of the Ophus, yet I also trust the ranger here, hence why I remained. 

This is strange, being here in the insides of this gigantic floating island with the Challenger and no one else, and to have a fierce-glowing ball of light in my hand, that light which the Ophus gifted me before leaving. The warm orb stays a half an inch from my palm at all times, locked in place. So, we two are following stairs made of rock that lead through a narrow passage. This palm-light is bright enough to reveal our way, illuminating six steps at a time as I hold my open hand over the ranger’s shoulder, all the while struggling to keep up, surprised that I remain within reach of him. 

“I can move well in the dark,” says the Challenger to me after a while of silence. “But it’s always better to see things in front of me.” 

“I am glad to be of some use,” I say.

“You always were,” says the ranger, smiling back at me for a split moment before he says: “All we have to eat are wheat chips, some nuts, bits of dried fruit.”

“Not so hungry,” I say truthfully. “Little is appetizing after the spider-beast and its venom.”

He hands me something small covered in cloth, foodstuffs, which I receive in my unlighted hand, placing it in a pocket for later. The steps have ended and we are on flat hard floor. Before us is a fairly wide tunnel. The Challenger takes a few cautious steps, peering straight onward. Following his gaze, I think I see distant light. 

“Breeze,” he tells me quietly, sword in hand, his broken bow remaining strapped on his back along with a quiver of arrows, the last of them.

“I relish the chance to write about all this, so long as we make it through,” I say, somewhat randomly as we begin walking side by side.

“I write things down sometimes,” he says seeming fixated on something ahead, his nostrils flaring as he smells. He asks for the scope, and once he has it I shine the light from my hand right over its outer lens.

He grunts. 

And then he returns the scope to me, pressing a finger against his lips as I bring the item over my own eye; ahead of us is the end of this shaft, an opening to another chamber. 

“Slowly,” he whispers to me, and so we walk tepidly to this newest archway, eventually passing through it, entering into a much bigger place. Here, all along the walls are shelves. They wrap around the circumference of the great circular room, while in the middle of the place is a pit, its width taking up around one third of the entire chamber. 

The Challenger and I share a glance, and then all three of our eyes focus on the ceiling far above us. At the pinnacle there is a hole, a beam of vertical light shoots down from it. I give out a sigh of relief as I see a ladder, a tall one with silvery rungs that ascend along the path of the light upwards.

“Our way out,” says the Challenger, looking to be sizing up the hole in the roof. The ladder’s lowest rungs, I notice, end a good five paces above the pit. We approach, the two of us looking over the lip of the wide pit where we take in the sight of more light, a radiant glow.

“What do we look upon?” I ask him, amazed, unable to tell how deep the pit is since it is filled with the brilliant light.

“Coins,” says the Challenger, fanning his brow as he often does.

These are the villager’s coins. I see now, able to discern them, all the coins of gold, silver, bronze, and other lesser metals, including hues I’ve never seen. 

“Why would they dump them here?” I ask and the ranger only shrugs, telling me that these magi-merchants are strange, as if I needed a reminder. There is something in the air as well, a sweet rich smell. 

“Zest. It stirs up old senses,” he says to me, a curious expression overtaking his scruffy face. 

He turns, walking towards the shelves behind us, the ones that stretch all about the chamber. I follow him over to those nearest the tunnel we came in. Upon the surface of these shelves there are square-shaped cages, each made of a brownish material that looks to be partway between wood and metal. These enclosures are only large enough to tightly contain their possessions. 

“Them,” the Challenger mutters. 

I groan, looking at the nearest one on the third-level shelf right in front of me; it has the painted face of a white tiger, fangs bared in a snarl. Beside it is a furry brown mammoth, and then a grey wolf at the big cat’s other side that leans into a howl pose. Below them are others, among them an aardvark, a boar, and some likenesses of beasts that I cannot recognize. These are the tokens, the carved things, that came to life and robbed Tenth Town those nights ago.

“True creatures they are not,” says the ranger, studying the tokens farther along the shelves. “Now in the zest I sense it; these are contraptions, forged for one duty. They move according to a script, no mind among them save the ones that first told them what to do.”

I give my companion a puzzled look. “I sense nothing, only see,” I tell him, but in truth I can taste the spicy zest in the air, a pungent taste.

“Having once taken so much of it, it gives me this sight now that I am among it again,” he then says, turning from the shelves.

“At least they are in cages this time,” I remark, following him after taking another glance at the tiger token, remembering that glaring face. And then I trail the Challenger towards the pit full of coins. 

As we run along the lip of the pit, I hear a sudden clinking. A bulge of the coins in the pit begins to rustle, and then something streaks underneath like a fish underwater, creating ripples. Coins part whilst something moves in our direction. A pale claw emerges, followed by a long dark sleeve rising from the coinage. 

“Dreadful,” notes the Challenger when a hooded head follows the arm. His blade is at the ready. Closer to us, just beneath our feet at the edge of the pit, more of the coins shake; another being emerges, this one larger than the first. 

“They stole from Tenth Town, these liars!” I cry out when both of the tall forms have fully appeared. I know what we deal with at once. 

They move slowly, their spindly arms and robes swaying soundlessly as they float out of the coins. Only one of them, the shorter one, just as I remember it, has a visible mouth. Cloth parts over its chin, covering the rest of its face. 

Between bejeweled incisors it says: “You go no farther!”

“Your path ends here,” says the other, only its crystalline eyes visible along with a slit of shiny skin. They speak in unworldly tones, like their voices flow in from elsewhere.

“They too are false!” declares the Challenger, now waving his blade over the edge of the round pit. “Mere representations of things, not true things!” 

“They look true to me!” I shout, taking steps back as they hover in place near the ladder above the pit, the ends of their robes dangling over the shining coinage.

“I sense it – they are wound up, puppets!” speaks the Challenger..

“Our origins are immaterial to such mortals!” calls the one with the mouth.

“We will allow you a last prayer!” says the taller one, voice deep like the first, though less guttural. 

“In the name of Talon, I waive the prayer and request in its stead a question!” blurts my companion, raising his trusty sword half at his side. 

I am about six paces behind him, feeling my knees start to shake. 

Looking sideways back, the ranger whispers: “When you can…you…run…up.”

“Up?” I think frantically. Even if my way to the ladder were not blocked, I know not if I could make such a jump over the edge of the pit, for the base of the ladder dangles at least eight paces high from the coinage hole.

“Question? Question!” the mouthed one chortles, then says: “Ask your question!”

“Free inquiry, gentlemen,” says the Challenger as I move my steps sideways a little and he asks them: “What use do you have for the zest?”

“We serve the first ones,” says the taller of the two, stretching its wiry arms at its sides like it had those nights ago when they bartered with the townsfolk. 

“Cliche,” mutters the ranger. “And the first ones made you, made all of the beast tokens…and zest? Why do they take coins, for what purpose?”

“One prayer for one question!” exclaims the mouthy one.

“Questioning is worth more than prayers,” retorts the Challenger.

Trying to find some courage, I stop my sluggish retreat and raise my arm. My palm with the glow gifted from the Ophus, pointed in front of me, illuminates the area around the two of us. In this bright gleam, I manage to whisper: “What’s the plan?”

The ranger ahead of me shrugs, not keeping his eye off of the two peddlers. By now the pair have floated apart, each going to one end of the rotund chamber, and so the Challenger moves, crab-walking to one side, boldly telling them that he means to ascend the ladder and reach the surface, his sword pointed at neither of them. In reply there is deep laughter that bounces off the walls

“He’s distracting,” I think to myself, seeing the two human-shaped beings, still floating, reach the floor on either side of the pit. Beneath them their purple robes sprawl out like flower petals. 

As I was expecting, the Challenger moves suddenly, faking a turn to the left before instead pivoting to dash along the wall to the right, bounding towards the taller of them. Forcing the intense dread and fear deep within myself, I start bidding my legs to take me straight ahead, to the edge of the coin pit. The reverberating laughter ends abruptly as I jump, my body parting from the ground farther than I imagined I could, mail clinking as my shoulders curl backwards and I raise my arms as high over me as I can muster.

And then I see my fingers won’t make it to the lowest rung. I am about to plunge. 

Bracing for my fall below into the coins, somehow I find my fingers clasped against cold metal. I hear something then, a familiar soft voice: “You have more power than you know.”

Extending one hand after the other, bringing myself bar by bar, I climb. 

The Challenger shouts. 

Pausing my climb, I steal a glance – my companion has moved behind his foe, slashing against its lanky backside, a dull clang ringing out at each hit. Bits of shiny material fall, clattering at the feet of the ranger as the tall being’s arms stretch backwards like gnarled tree branches, trying to reach him.

“No escape! You shall not escape!” a villainous voice cries out.

As I am reaching for the next bar, I see a hole far above me. It looks like a circle of bright blue, daytime. This is the surface of the device, this chamber on this huge floating island. We are near the top, near the end of our journey. 

My relief is cut short when something tugs at my foot. I glance underneath me, seeing the familiar gaping maw, sunlight glinting in the encrusted teeth. This fiend has enclosed a hand about my foot, its cloak flapping over the pond of coins. My other foot free, I try to kick, my heel thudding hard against something harder. Feeling immense weight, far more than I would have thought this being capable, I see the Challenger. He has turned to see my predicament, yet he cannot stop his fight, thus returning to blocking the grasp of the towering fiend. I manage to keep moving, trying to ignore the mass on my foot, flinging my legs as best I can, but my fingers feel numb from the pressure against the cold rungs.

I make it up one bar, bringing my unencumbered foot up to the next step. 

A shrill cry shoots forth from under me. Force pulls, heavier, and I fall. The back of my helm hit against the foe, and then I become emerged in coins, sinking as if in quicksand. For a moment I tread coins like water, and then I stretch out my arms at my front, kicking myself forward, clinkingly swimming to a solid spot where I begin pulling myself up. 

“I fell in!” I shout as I bring myself onto an island of stable coins. 

I only have a moment of respite when I get up, turning myself the way I came from. The coins nearest my feet jingle and clang, deep purple fabric moving among them, approaching me, most of the enemy submerged in wealth. Crooked fingers shoot towards my heels, gripping like vices. Things spin. My feet give out, the rest of me falling over. 

My back slams against the side of the pit, leaving me slanted. The horrible mouth rises next, the rest of the being sliding up on the island of coins, taking one sickly hand off of my left foot, bringing over to my shoulder, leaving me struggling to reach towards the cursed face. On my free hand, the palm gifted by the Ophus, I suddenly feel heat, like…burning. 

And then fire appears before me, searing flame shooting forth from my open hand. Through the flickers, I see the grinning mouth twisting into a deep scowl whilst the cloth covering its upper face burns away, revealing chalky flesh that burns, singes away to what looks like varnished wood grain, swirling patterns and all. 

If my hand were a gnomish cannon, I would be shooting my inner rage upon it. Hitherto grasping claws melt away, releasing me. Confused, I begin crying out while the flames spread to the coins, burning the being’s robes, sending white and black ash into the air.

“The Ophus…it gave me more than light!” I bellow, for once feeling powerful. My feet begin to burn on the hot coins, and then something grabs both of my shoulders, pulling me upward. The chamber’s far ceiling spins above me. 

“That’s not you, is it Challenger?” I shout, the fire from my palm vanishing at once.

“No!” I hear the ranger call from somewhere unseen.

 It is the tall fiend that is hauling me upward. Now, I am above the pit again, unable to reach for the ladder or anything else. The ranger, his charging cry I hear, followed by the patter of footfalls. I pull my arms inward, this time knowing I will fall. 

My body hits a soft stretch of coins, plunging deep. Like before, I can swim like a frog through the coins, and so I push on. Another sound reaches my ears through the overflow of currency, what sounds like a pair of feet landing on copper pieces. Unsure of where to go, I raise an arm as far above me as I can. A warm glove takes hold of it, bringing me up.

I cry out, spitting out a pair of coins, feeling a trickle-down running down my sides. Through a blurry sight I see the Challenger.

“You make fire now?” he asks, lifting me fully onto a small island of hardy silvers. Two long arms stick out from the coins behind him, the rest of the tall creature submerged. I look farther down the curve of the pit, taking in the other being, the shorter one, now a heap of burning debris. 

I merely shrug, laughing nervously. Half jumping, half side-stepping, we both make our way to the other end of the pit. The ranger reaches the wall first, placing his hands before me, bidding me to step on them, and so I let him lift my foot, easily reaching for the top of the edge. After I am up from the pit, the Challenger climbs against the wall of it, jumping most of the way. Before he can reach the edge, one of the long monstrous arms shoots forth, grabbing his leg.

I feel heat on my palm, so I raise it.

“Just a little higher!” shouts the Challenger, leaning up to look at me, waving his hand, still holding his sword in it.

A streak of fire jets out from my palm, splashing it against the midpoint of the long groping arm. Flames spread, prompting the enemy to release its grip. The ranger scrambles to the even ground, smirking when my hand keeps spurting burning heat. He whispers in my ear, telling me what to say next.

Confused, I shout: “By the power of the Ophus…I have power!” 

He rolls his eyes, smiling a little. With the scent of zest hanging in the air, I slightly understand the spirit of what I speak of as the long flaming column casts the tall being into flames. A sheet of red flame floats over the pit like ice covering a frozen pond. 

“We move!” says the Challenger, backing a pace from me before leaping over the rising fires, his hands reaching one of the lower rungs of the ladder.

I leap, my hands both seizing one of his belts above his flinging legs. On my heels I feel intense heat as the ranger tells me to climb him, and I trust his strength to hold fast as I ascend, making it to the rungs just above him, careful not to kick the back of his head..

“The intruders will not get further, cannot get further!” a voice screeches.

I peek beneath us, seeing the burning pit where something is moving among the flames, something gold and silver, a figure. Four shiny molten limbs rise, reaching for us, its movements almost liquid-like. My movements are as quick as I can muster. Above, I see light, so much now that I look away, watching instead my hands grasp each rung, one by one. At each metallic silvery bar my fingers get hotter, yet I go on, my hands reaching for the next rung to relieve them from the heat of the last. The ranger calls out, his voice muffled by sounds of crashing and collapse. I keep climbing, feeling the primal need to flee from fire. 

Finally, I breach the top, coming to what feels like a stone lip. Here in the sun, I feel a different kind of warmth, one so welcoming…I tumble out onto soft grasses. 

Two feet land at my side, the Challenger’s. He yells at me to run. Without thought, I do so, hoping nothing is in my path. 

A piercing screech emits from behind us, from where we just exited. I gaze back, making out a fiery form with many flailing limbs. This wretched thing ambles after the Challenger, many grasses catching fire in its wake, and then it leaps, cat-like, six limbs all reaching for the ranger at once.

The Challenger leaps to his side, and then there is only floating black soot and white ash, all in a dissipating trail. The ranger, as if the attacking thing were still there, falls backwards, his sword poised upward as his back hits the ground. 

“It’s over! We have the high ground!” he pants, semi-laughing.

A pillar of fire spurts from the well we just exited out from, the vault beneath us burning. Smoke, billowing like from a chimney, flows out next. This is a traditional well, with the wooden frame and cover above it, though we saw no pulley system when we climbed it, and I figure it must be a means of hiding the chamber below.

“Did we just burn the villager’s coins?” I ask him, catching my breath, having only rolled a little on the grass.

“We?” he asks jestingly. “You were the one with the fire-hand!”

“Did I?”

He shrugs next, getting up after a moment, helping me to my feet. 

“Seems the Ophus gifted me more power than we knew!” I tell him.

“Still, I wish the Ophus told us before,” he says dryly. “No complaints though.”

“Maybe no time,” I say. 

“At last, the top!” he says next, following with a heavy sigh. 

The place is grassy. The lands rise at both sides of where we stand, slopes, hills, and bulges. The peak of this place, the highest land, is in front of us, where the ground inclines along a forested stretch, and at the end of the trees, upon the summit there is a great structure that shines reflective light from the sun. I remember seeing this from afar, back below in Tenth Town, all those days ago. It feels overwhelming, being up here now, somewhere that once seemed so distant.  

“And what were those creatures, those we thought were the magi-merchants?” I ask him, looking up[on the ash strewn upon the grasses around us.

“False beings,” mutters the ranger, wiping sweat off of his scruffy face. “No mind of their own, made from the beginning to only do certain things.”

I’m grabbing my satchel of writing tools and papers, opening it to find everything inside has burned, for the paper has blackened, the ink melted in its vial, and my feather pen scorched into unserviceability.

I shrug it off, saying: “I can re-write my log when I return to Tenth Town.”

“If you make it back,” says the Challenger, beginning to walk, quickly apologizing for being discouraging.

“I’ll make it back with the powers of the Ophus and the Challenger with me,” I tell him, catching up to him. This seems to be the middle of the slanting plateau I realize. No edge is in sight, for even with the scope all I can see is sky in the far distance beyond the trees and bulging hills.

The ranger, ahead of me, points his sword at a short bent tree that we pass. “The trunk, look, covered in coral,” he observes and I see what he means. 

“This place is underwater most of the time,” I deduce and the Challenger nods in agreement. Jumping a step, I bring myself over a dried seastar lodged in dirt. The overall sight causes me to imagine a big shark floating over this plateau, chasing after swarms of fleeing fish, the grasses at our feet waving in the water as they pass over.

“I’ve been on mountains, plateaus like this too, but not with seaweed and coral,” says the Challenger, sniffing. “And there is zest upon the air.”

“I only smell seasalt,” I tell him, but then I begin to notice little pangs of the bittersweet zest, and as we move on I think I see it hanging in the air, tiny particles floating in the sunlight like dust. 

We next pass along a knoll, finding shards of shell and fishbones at the top of it. Far above us there are birds, moving winged specks from this far, some sweeping in wide circles way up in the blue ether. The Challenger leads me through a lightly wooded area where the tree branches are coated in orangeish flakes.

The Challenger blurts: “The zest! It’s everything here!”

“Would it explain why it’s so warm here? We are floating high up above Walrus Bay - it should be freezing!” I exclaim.

His green cloak flaps a little when he nods. We two duck under a long overhang of scented foliage, coming out into the open again where there is a stretch of green land twenty paces between us and the immense wall of the shining fortress. This structure composed of some kind of metal has thick streaks of rust throughout, the wall’s pieces uneven and full of protrusions and indentations. There is no singular design, as if there were no intention behind its creation, just a collection of scrap melded together. 

Approaching further, I can see that parts of the wall facing us are different hues, shoddy silvers as well as crass coppers, a few broken brass plates fused in here and there between them. We see no entrance, no doorway along the wall, though I reason that there may yet be a way in on the other side of it. The Challenger shrugs. Then he starts crouching, looking up. 

And then he jumps straight up like a slung projectile, making it straight to the edge of the top of the huge structure. In awe, yet not surprised at his agile ways, I ask him what he sees up there.

“Ah, rusted roof, barely a damn place to stand!” he shouts, followed by some clanging, his footsteps. “Beyond the roof the land goes up a bit more, and then there is water, either a small lake or a huge pond.”

“Yeah, and what’s beyond that?” I ask, looking if there is a place I can climb.

He lands a pace away from me with a thud, startling me, a little spark bursting from my magic-infused palm. 

“Some high land covered in barnacles,” says the ranger next to me, glancing along the wall in both directions. “And something moved along the surface of the waters, something big. Did you hear things about some of the children saying they heard monstrous sounds from the summit?”

“I think so,” I recall as best as can, remembering some of the grown-up villagers mentioning this in passing. 

Out from his pockets the ranger brings some wrapped chips, insisting I take some, telling us that no matter what happens we ought to have some sustenance inside of us. The quick meal is more needed than I thought it was, not realizing how sore and exhausted I am. 

“No way in?” I ask him when we both stand again before the imposing craggy wall, having munched our meal. 

“None that I found, no holes on the roof, sealed tight to keep sea-water out when it descends, must be,” answers the ranger, both of his hands at his sides as he looks over the rusted sight.

“We may wait,” I suggest, looking at my palm that glows with the light of the Ophus. “The Ophus is to return to my hands when they are ready. Ura will be there, and others!”

“Time,” is all the Challenger says.

“Time, yes,” I say, knowing that soon the whole floating island is set to begin lowering into the waters, ready to leave these parts forever. This is what the Ophus told us. There is a pause now, a detente, only the cool lofty breezes accompanying our thoughts. 

“In alchemy classes we learned about how to tear through things that were strong and hard, using certain elements in certain states,” the Challenger finally says.

“My schooling was mostly in literature and historical studies,” I laugh, but I know what he is hinting at. The Ophus had gifted me this power. I can use it.

With ease I imagine the hottest of energies and they begin to flow from my open hand, scorching the nearest section of the wall before us. Soon rusted brown turns red, then blue, then white, and then hard becomes soft, and soft becomes fluid, and then fluid falls, drips, and streams to the ground. When my hand is finally lowered and the hotness ceases, there is a gaping hole, an archway, this one made by me. Orange and brown dusts flow from the fresh gap, the familiar smell taking over my senses. 

Zest.

We hear a new sound, this one from within, what sounds like it can be a long creaking or a lengthy dry laugh. And so we share a glance, and then head inside.

CONTINUES NEXT MONTH 
 


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