The Challenge

The stench of sulphur and brimstone filled the already-foul air. Blazing heat and the flowing hiss of liquid flame surrounded her. A volcano loomed above, spewing lava, smoke and ash. The air was poison in her lungs, burning like acid with every breath she took. The memory is filled with fear, pain, and weariness so profound and complete that it almost blocked everything else out.

The Challenge presents itself to every person in a different way, whether they can Remember or not. The way it chose to present itself to this woman was no exception. The one simple rule of the Challenge is that it will tax you to the limits of your physical and emotional forms. Living is the hardest thing one will ever have to do, but the Challenge is a very close second. By far the easiest thing one ever experiences is dying. I ought to know; I’ve felt its embrace enough times to know what I’m talking about.

She began at the edge of a cliff with a picturesque valley stretching past the horizon laid before her. Lush grasses and a myriad of flowers just beginning to bloom added the sweet green scent of life to the gentle breeze blowing in across the valley. Gazing in wonder across the vast expanse, she noted several worn dirt pathways snaking their way through the grasses in meandering, circuitous trails. Besides these paths, there was no sign that anything besides her had ever set foot in this place, which worried her greatly because paths don’t make themselves. But the entire valley exuded a sense of such profound peace and calm that she forgot all about her worry and apprehension.

When she began to walk, it seemed as if the valley would never end, and it didn’t for a long time. The paths wound on and the flowers only grew more beautiful, the grasses more lush and fragrant. After walking for what seemed like an eternity, trees began to dot the land, looking as if they’d always been there and she just hadn’t noticed. Oaks, maples, pines and more soon added their dark, earthy scents to the bouquet blooming on the breeze. If it was possible, that place was even more peaceful than the valley had been, but it began to grow unnerving as well. There were still no signs of any other person ever being in this place, and there wasn’t an animal to be seen. In the valley she could ignore it; explaining it away by telling herself there was no way for animals to support themselves there. But here were trees and sunlight with plentiful grasses, flowers, and even fruit trees, but still no animals appeared. Warning bells sounded in the back of her mind but the sense of peace and wonder of the place was padding them, quieting them to little more than a tinkle.

“Wouldn’t it be alright,” she thought. “If I just stayed here for a while? Just a year or three would be perfect.” But she couldn’t stay and she knew it. If she entertained that thought for too long, she would end up staying here forever; she’d forget and lose everything. So she hardened her heart and steeled her courage and pressed on. She’ done this before and she could do it again. Unfortunately, the quickly-growing forest seemed to sense this change in her and didn’t like it. Not one bit.

The change was gradual; so slow that she didn’t notice it at first. Around her, the scenery began to twist into something less peaceful and something more sinister. The flowers thinned and disappeared and the thick green grasses gave way to sparse yellow brush devoid of all moisture. The path she was walking grew stony and uneven, throwing up dust and threatening to trip her with every step she took. The trees grew closer and taller; seeming to thrust up through the parched ground to claw at the sun with arms and hands coated in thick gnarled bark and poisoned yellow leaves. The canopies blocked out almost all light and soon even the parched grass withered for the lack of sun and water. The whole scene worried and unnerved her more than anything else in the entire twisted place had. It seemed as if everything was watching her with bated breath; as if time itself had breathed in and was waiting to see what would happen. Silence reigned supreme in this place.

That was when it fell; the sword. Hurtling down through the thick canopy above, it landed tip down and stuck, quivering and soundless, in the parched ground below. It was the most beautiful sword she had ever laid eyes on. When she picked it up, it was as if she was meant to have this sword. As if an integral piece of herself had been lost and was finally returned. Then and there, she named her new blade Shadow Beater. The Challenge didn’t like her determination to best it.

Seconds after she pulled the sword from the dust, a tortured howl echoed through the forest. Fear laid iron bands around her heart and squeezed every ounce of courage from her body. Whirling around, she tried to find the source of the sound, but it seemed to come from everywhere. On and on it echoed, rattling around in the complete silence of the forest. It was a long time before the sound stopped, and even more before she had calmed and gathered her wits enough to recognize the terrifying howl as twisted laughter. It was clear that whatever creature had created that sound was wonderfully, horrifyingly insane. Gazing around her once more, she abandoned the sword and clambered up the nearest tree. Again the mad laughter rang out through the forest and again the iron bands squeezed her heart for all it was worth. Bravery abandoned her. Logic and intelligence went with it.

But no. She wouldn’t let the monster creating that sound keep her from her lives. Her courage was a blazing forge and her will a piece of iron to be bent and shaped however she wished. Steeling her heart and mind, she jumped from the tree and knelt in front of the fallen blade. She shut her eyes and waited for her heart to calm it’s fevered pace. Many times, in many lives, she had lived and died by the sword. Metal was strong and true and had never failed her before. Opening her eyes again, she took the sword in hand and weighed it. The cold metal seemed to warm and come alive in her hand, vibrating subtly. It longed to taste flesh and blood; to see battle and drink in victory. She stood and strode towards the source of the sound. It was a long way off, but her courage did not fail her this time.

Advancing upon an unknown creature, mysterious blade in hand, a snatch of long-forgotten poetry rose in her mind and made her grin. “Prepare yourself, my Vorpal blade. Tonight you taste Jabberwock flesh. And with its head, I’ll go galumphing back.” She spoke with a heavy accent that no world has heard in millennia or more. Her voice was the deep bass rumble of a landslide on some distant peak. It resonated through the forest and seemed to come from everywhere. Over distance and through time it flew to the ear of any who cared to listen. She did not fear what awaited her.

The laughter did not come to her ears again. Every muscle in her body was relaxed as she strode forward. This world was nothing to her. The monster that would greet her was just another manifestation designed to stop her at any cost. When she emerged from the forest, the trees ended abruptly; opening onto another valley, but this wasn’t a place you’d want to stay. It was a valley of fire and death. Scorched and blackened earth greeted her eyes. Ash and dust sifted across the landscape in the hot, dry wind. Bones lay piled around a flattened circle of earth surrounded by red stone. The sky wasn’t a true sky. Instead, a roiling mass of crimson storm clouds crossed her gaze when she looked up. No, this wasn’t somewhere you would want to stay, and she didn’t intend to. In front of her stood a beast more terrifying than any Mother Nature could cook up. Here was the bastard child of Lilith and the Reaper. A creature made to maim and kill and stop her progress through any means necessary. The Romai.

It stood just over eleven feet tall, walking upright and covered head to toe in shaggy black hair, save for its hands and face. The skin that did show through was leathery and colored the deep maroon of dried blood. Its hands ended in long fingers, which ended in even longer talons, cracked and yellowed with age. Its head was large and roughly egg shaped with deep-set eyes and a mashed in nose. Thick lips hid a gaping maw filled with blindingly white teeth; its fat pink tongue constantly running across their sharp points. The Romai’s ears were long and cone-shaped like a rabbit’s, but stuck out parallel to the ground. But its arms may have been the most twisted part of all. They were long, powerful, and jointed in several places; hanging to the ground and as big around as her waist. In comparison, its legs were rather short; bending only in one place, but heavily muscled and immensely powerful. By far the strangest part of the beast was what it wore on its head. Hanging at an implausibly-jaunty angle a tall, pitch-black top hat sat on its head without so much as a wiggle when the beast moved.

The Romai sneered and bared its teeth before beginning to circle her slowly. Not missing a beat, she began circling the other way, wielding Shadow Beater in two hands and never taking her gaze from the monstrosity before her. A low chuckling began in its throat; snaking out of its mouth and twisting into her ears like a corkscrew. The bands threatened to crush her steel heart, but she broke them and stepped towards the creature. Rising to its full, monstrous height, it stood and moved to greet her. Bearing down on her, it swiped at her with one hand and it was all she could do to parry the strike and leap out of reach. Again they circled. They entered into a duel of blade and beast; metal against talons and teeth. The Romai attacked so swiftly and so often that she had no openings to attack it back. The most she could do was hang on and defend from the barrage of blows.

Infinity seemed to come and go as they fought and the fatigue of battle weighed heavily on them both. The beast was not quite so quick with its attacks and spent more time dancing back to avoid her increasingly-frequent counter-attacks. But she was slowing too; cuts and scrapes were a testament to the weariness dragging on them both. She saw the beast skid ever so slightly in a patch of dirt dampened by blood and took her chance. She leaped forward and plunged her blade into the monster’s gut, causing it to collapse on its side and roar in pain. Pulling the sword free, she ran forward and took the creature’s head off with one blow. Cleaning her blade on its fur, she smiled wearily and turned to gaze across the vast plain. Sighting her target, she set off at a slowed pace, wandering in the direction of a far-off mountain.

She walked for what seemed an eternity before stopping and sitting down to rest. Gazing up at the silhouetted monolith in the distance, she sighed and noted that it looked no closer than before. It was some kind of mountain, that was certain, but the inexplicable pull they felt emanating from it suggested it was something more. When she looked at it, sadness and longing ached in her heart and made her knees knock with anxious anticipation. So instead, she looked out across the plain around her. She saw other figures in the distance; some large and some small, but all of them seemed to be moving towards her. After a brief rest, she stood and moved on.

The landscape was almost no different than what she had first seen when she left the forest. Scorched earth, dust, and ash stretched as far as the eye could see and an increasingly hot wind whistled through piles of bones dotting the ground she walked. The only difference here was the foot hills she passed, each one slightly bigger than the last. It was while climbing these that she realized how horribly dry her mouth was. Her tongue rasped against her lips every time she tried to wet them, and she was constantly spitting grit and dust out. The mountain in the distance was getting closer, but she feared thirst would overcome her before she could make it there.

As she walked, the air grew hotter and soon the source of the heat was evident. She had drawn almost right up to the massive peak they had been moving towards, and it wasn’t a mountain at all. It was a volcano; massive and foreboding, but welcoming as a mother’s arms. This was the end of her journey. She didn’t know where this knowledge stemmed from, but she trusted it to be true. The volcano stretched high into the sky, spewing smoke and ash and shimmering with the heat that baked off of it. It was dotted with boulders and broken stone, but a set of steep steps wound their way towards the peak. The end was in sight, but it wasn’t entirely a good thing. Climbing to the top was as hard and time-consuming as everything other aspect of the Challenge had been, but she finally arrived at the top and gazed down to where the lava should be. What she saw there should have been impossible, but it wasn’t.

Far, far below, the volcano ended in a massive black hole. But it was more than that. This was a pit and a portal so deep that no light could escape its black depths. It was more than just a recess in the center of a volcano. It was an absence of everything; a portal to another world. It was only here that she allowed herself the luxury of doubt. She sat down to think on the lip of the crater leading to her old life: our life. She felt pain and nervousness. She longed to be back in the world of the living, but our world is no paradise. It angered and saddened her, but in the end it was her world. She didn’t go so far just to Forget. So she slipped off and fell to whatever fate awaited her.

Each time you go through the Challenge, it’s different; every time, for every person. But it always ends in the same way: a leap of faith. Everything in the Challenge is calculated to make you give up. It tries to make you love it and fear it and forget the world you came from; the lives you’ve led and touched. Beauty tries to entrap you in peace and longing for a paradise unheard of. Twisted forests try to make you turn back to the peace of the lands before. When all else fails, terrifying creatures attack you and try to force you into Forgetting. The Challenge is hard, but it’s not unbeatable.

You probably haven’t realized it, but I was the person who went through that Challenge: in another life. You’ll learn my collective name soon enough, but for now my public name will have to do. I am Benjamin J. Highcastle, and I’ve died more times than I can count.

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