Monday, December 31, 2007

Chapter 21: Hardly a Decision

~ Jaden coughed self consciously.

“Um...Hi...I'm Jaden. McAllister.” Väinämöinen stared at him. “I, um...What can I do for you today?” Väinämöinen smiled.

“I think, that you should really be asking what I can do for you, young one,” he said.

“Alright. What can you do for us?” asked Jaden.

"He's always one to please," muttered Andrew from behind him. Väinämöinen leaned forward on his staff.

“I can abstain from killing you where you stand.” Jaden nodded thoughtfully.

“That'd be nice. I think we can all agree that we'd like that. Right guys? We'd like that?” He looked back over his shoulder and his comrades nodded their agreement with vigor. “So...What now?”

"Now you complete a task for me or you die." Väinämöinen made it sound like they had some sort of choice in the matter. Jaden raised one finger.

"Could we have just one second?" He turned around and leaned in towards Andrew and Takyle. "Is this guy the challenge or are we supposed to do his task?" he whispered. Andrew shrugged, Takyle shook her head.

"I don't know. Is there even any way to tell? Maybe we should just go along with it." she said. Andrew seemed to mentally cast around himself for an alternative, but finally conceded.

"Let's keep a very close eye on him and pretend like we're just going along with it." Without really meaning to, Jaden started to smile. He turned back to Väinämöinen.

"Allright, what are we supposed to do?" Väinämöinen stared into his eyes for what felt to Jaden like a very, very long moment. He jerked his head toward the path and began walking.

"Follow me."

"Ok, you're the boss!" Jaden called. He paused for a moment for Andrew and Takyle to draw even with him before starting after Väinämöinen. He grinned at Andrew. Andrew shook his head.

"You're as subtle as a train wreck."

"Less nuanced though." Jaden added of himself.

"Way to pull that name out of your butt by the way. How do you do that?" asked Andrew

"I dunno, it just came to me is all. An epiphany if you will." Jaden shrugged. "Guess I just have grace under fire!"

"Oh yeah, definitely! Grace is the first word I think of when I imagine you under fire."

"Lords above!" Väinämöinen yelled back at them. "Don't you all ever stop talking?" ~

Friday, December 28, 2007

Chapter 20: A Turn for the Worse

~ The approach to the hill was long and tiring. Jaden discovered that walking through tall grass was far from effortless, the long strands reaching up to entangle and slow; previously unnoticed briers pulling at clothing and vainly trying to reach skin. By the time they reached the edge of the woods that marked the beginning of the foothills, it was nearing noon and all were ready for a break.

They made the concession of retiring under the trees for a few minutes while they ate an early and cold lunch. Jaden felt a little jumpy and anxious to be back on the move, and even though they didn't say it, Andrew and Takyle seemed to share in that sentiment. Again they set off, again moving silently. It was uphill going now, but in the darkness underneath the thick pines the ground was largely clear of undergrowth and walking was easier. Here it wasn't really necessary to rotate marching order so that no one person had to always break trail, but they continued to occasionally switch point position anyway, if only to give a bit of variety to the scenery.

Andrew continually, almost obsessively, checked his compass, making minor adjustments to their direction. Jaden passed the time with day dreaming in one half of his mind, while using the other to keep watch. Takyle marched silently, determinedly, focused. Jaden thought that they must have been hiking for hours now. He checked his watch and found that it was only a bit after 1. Damn.

Then, without a hint of a warning, Takyle, who was now in front, stopped in her tracks. Jaden bumped into her, and Andrew only just realized in time to keep from, in turn, lurching into him. Ahead of them a form was materializing. Jaden automatically unbuttoned the sheath strapped to his thigh and rested his hand on the hilt of his dagger. Both he and Andrew moved forward to stand on either side of Takyle.

The shape before them shimmered and turned solid. It was a man. A man wearing long violet robes and holding a tall wooden staff with what appeared to be a large, semi-translucent jade ball held to the end by a taloned foot. His white beard flowed down his chest, long enough to touch his waist. His eyes were glittering, piercing blue. It suddenly occurred to Jaden that he was experiencing being "trapped" in someone's gaze.

"Huh," he thought.

But seriously, the live-sim was capable of creating things so convincingly real that they would be able to persuade you into believing that you were the fake one. Why would the creators of this particular stage use talent like that to create a stereotypical wizard of all things? And in an environment as natural and untouched as this one on top of it.

"Must have been fantasy geeks."

The wizard raised his staff and spoke with a booming voice.

"Hark travelers! What brings you to this place?" Takyle looked back and forth at Andrew and Jaden, but getting no better ideas immediately, decided to go for honesty.

"We spotted a building on this hill, and have come to find it. Who are you?" The wizard narrowed his eyes at her.

"If you do not know who I am already, than you are unworthy to know."

A spark lit itself in Jaden's mind. A memory. A faded image in a book of Finnish myths. A wizard in violet robes, a copper knot hung around his neck, a jade staff held at his side, using his magical voice to sing an enemy to sleep. Jaden stared at the old man before him. Nearly hidden by his beard, Jaden caught the glint of copper lying against the side of wizard's throat beneath his ear, also hung with a fine bronze knot.

"Väinämöinen?" he asked in disbelief. The wizard smiled, just missing benevolence.

"Now here is a young man who is worthy of looking upon my face," he said. Takyle and Andrew stared at Jaden.

"How did you know that?" demanded Takyle in a whisper.

"Lucky coincidence," Jaden muttered back.

"Well use your lucky ass to find out what he wants!" tossed in Andrew.

"Uh, yeah...sure thing."

Jaden nervously cleared his throat and boldly stepped forward. ~

Monday, December 24, 2007

Chapter 19: On the Road Again

~ Jaden quickly gathered his dried clothes and repacked his belongings. He gulped down a cup of instant coffee that Andrew offered him and a chalky tasting protein bar.

“The breakfast of champions, ey?” said Andrew. Jaden rolled his eyes.

“Oh yeah, definitely.” Andrew kicked dirt over the now dead fire pit and hoisted his pack onto his back.

“You guys ready to go?” Jaden looked back and forth between he and Takyle.

“Where are we going exactly? Do we know what to do next?”

“Well,” said Takyle. “We really don't know for sure what we're supposed to do next. That com terminal turned back into a stump after we used it last night you know; but I did spot a building near the top of that hill.” She pointed to a hill far off to the South. Jaden squinted into the distance.

“And how exactly did you see that? I don't see a thing.” Takyle nodded.

“I saw some smoke rising this morning; you can locate it with binoculars..”

“Oh,” said Jaden. “Good going.” Andrew picked up Takyle's backpack and helped her put it on.
“Alright then,” she said. “I guess we're ready to be off...” Takyle looked around herself at the plain, splashed with golden morning light, fast growing busy with the waking birds. “Doesn't really feel like we're in much of a race anymore, not here anyway.”

“Yeah, you just feel that way because we're not in immanent danger...That we know of.” Andrew grinned wickedly.

“Thanks for that cheerful image Andy,” said Jaden. “That just does my soul good.”

The trio set off towards the South, walking single file through the tall grass. Andrew's joke in mind, Jaden kept an observant eye turned on his surroundings. He was determined not to be surprised again. Better to assume that everything in their environment was malicious. Ahead of him was Takyle, and in front of her, Andrew. They all walked in silence and Jaden noticed that neither of his companions were just staring at their feet either. Suddenly Andrew broke the silence.

“You know what I need? I need one of those things that you put one cup of coffee on. You know, one of those tiny hot pads to keep it warm at your desk.” Takyle turned around to shoot a look at Jaden.

“Yeah, because you spend so very much time at a desk,” she said with an ill-concealed laugh in her voice.

“I might some day. And when I do, I'm gonna get me one of those little cup warmers.” Jaden did laugh aloud.

“Andrew, if we win this thing, I will buy you a little cup warmer.” Andrew squared his shoulders and lengthened his stride.

“Well then let's pick up the pace, by golly!” ~

Friday, December 21, 2007

Chapter 18: Pulling it Together

~ True to Andrew's word Jaden did find a small rushing stream not far from their camp site. He took a good look around before approaching the bank, identifying the fastest route to the hills, should the water suddenly begin to rise. Setting down his kit, he knelt beside the creek and bent over the water. The rushing sound filled his ears and for a moment an artifact of his panic tried to take him over. Not without difficulty he fought it back down and swallowed the huge lump in his throat.

“Weakling!” he reprimanded himself. Andrew had no trouble getting back in the water. And almost dying a second time. He decided he needed to get over it.

Jaden scooped up a bit of the icy water in his cupped hands and splashed it over his face, rubbing it from his eyelids. He pulled off his shirt and took a bar of soap from his kit, working up a bit of a lather between his hands and rubbing them over his chest and up his arms. He shivered as a cool wind rushed past him. Up the bank from him he heard a rustle and spun toward it. He saw Takyle's black hair and relaxed.

Jaden? You down here?” she called.

“Yeah, over here.” She turned toward his voice and he saw that her eyes were tightly shut.

“I'm not looking, just wanted to locate you.” She snickered quietly.

“I'm not naked, Takyle. I'm not a polar bear,” he said.

“Oh, well I will look then.” Takyle opened her eyes and walked over to him. Jaden carried on with his half-bath, fairly sure that he wasn't blushing. He rinsed the rest of the soap from his torso, getting only a little water on his pants, but still more than Andrew had on his. He pulled his black t-shirt back over his head and turned to Takyle, standing on the bank behind him.

Ok. Your turn.” In response she raised an eyebrow and grinned.

“You never said it had to be reciprocal.” Jaden pulled out his razor and a small tube of shave gel.

“You're really going to renege on account of a technicality like that?” he asked.


“Well...Ok then,” he replied. He quickly shaved and ran his fingers through his hair, anxious to get back to camp and put his warm, dry long-sleeved overshirt back on. A couple of feet upstream from him Takyle had begun to brush out her hair. She pulled it into a ponytail on the back of her head and smoothed down the sides with a bit of water. It gleamed blue in the morning sun. She washed her face and splashed water onto her arms, checking that under her fingernails were clean.

Jaden repacked his kit and stood.

“I'm going to head back to camp.” Takyle looked up.

“If you'll wait for just a second more, I'll be done.” She gave her face one more rinse and shoved her stuff back in her little bag, pulling out a little bottle of lotion as an afterthought and squeezing some on her hand. With the free hand she zipped up her bag and rose. As they walked back she rubbed it into her face, arms, and hands.

“Aloe. Keeps my skin from chapping.”

“That's...good to know,” said Jaden. There was a long silence before Takyle looked to Jaden again.

“You don't like me much,” she stated, calmly and assuredly. Jaden shot a quick look at her face. She seemed to just be making light conversation.

“I...I don't not like you, Takyle. You're boss...” She nodded and they continued.

“Andrew's a pretty good guy,” she said.

“Yeah, yeah he is.”

They reached the top of the rise blocking their view of the camp and Andrew came into sight.

“Well it's about freaking time, guys! I mean hell, how long does it take you all to wash up? You'd think it was a difficult task or something!” he called up to them as he shoved his dried spare clothes into a sealable bag. Jaden and Takyle looked at one another. Takyle raised an eyebrow.

“Yup,” said Jaden. “He's a sweetheart alright!” ~

Monday, December 17, 2007

Chapter 17: Rise and Shine

~ Jaden woke up before the sun cleared the horizon, the eastern clouds splashed with hues of orange and pink. He lay there motionless for several minutes while birdsong drifted from the forests and out across the plain. A pair of swallows danced overhead.

"This is way too peaceful," he thought. He wondered why Andrew wasn't up poking around, he was always awake first. That was when he looked over and noticed that the sleeping bag across the now dead fire from him was empty. He sat up with a start.


"What?" Jaden turned around and there Andrew was, just sauntering towards him over the rise of a hill. Jaden's irritation flared.

"If you're going to go wandering about why don't you tell somebody for pete's sake! What if something happened? It's not out of the question, we are in a competition afterall!" Andrew remained maddeningly calm and happy.

"That's cute Jay, you were worried about me. You do care. Anyway, there's a little creek over that way." He pointed in the direction he'd just come from. "It's awfully cold, but not so bad that you can't clean up in it if you want." Jaden then noticed that Andrew was indeed freshly shaven, his hair neatly combed and slightly damp. He would think of personal hygiene at a time like this.

"A time like what?" Jaden asked himself.

"Shut up," he replied. He pulled himself up and grabbed his bag of "Pretty Boy Stuff", as he and Andrew called their hygiene kits, from his pack.

"I'm, uh, gonna go clean up then," Jaden informed. Andrew didn't look up from his digging in the coals for a bed of live embers.

"You have fun with that." Jaden started to walk away. "But not too much fun!" Andrew hollered after him. Jaden heard Takyle's muffled snap from deep within her sleeping bag.

"Quit yelling for crying out loud, what is wrong with you people?" ~

Friday, December 14, 2007

Chapter 16: When the Bough Breaks

~ Jaden squinted around himself for another dead branch to use for kindling. Here under the trees twilight had fallen fast and it was quickly becoming impossible to define solid objects from the normal lurking shadows of a pine forest. Tucking his hatchet into his belt Jaden gathered up his last armful of wood and headed back toward the plain where the others waited. He stepped out of the trees' cover and slowed to a halt. Below him was their camp, Andrew already had a fire started and something was simmering for their supper. Takyle sat on her sleeping bag, prodding the flaming logs with a stick. The scene was downright cozy, an island of light, but that was not what had halted Jaden.

Above him stretched an endless expanse of stars, jewels shimmering in the chill night. Out across the plain the moon, barely a thumbnail crescent, was just beginning to rise from behind one of the darkened hills in the distance. In the North a tiny splash of pink, overlain by a faint, twisting ribbon of green painted the horizon. A shadow of the Aurora Borealis.

Jaden set down the branches he was carrying and sat down beside them. He lay back in the grass and reveled in the sky, drinking it in, pulling it towards him, allowing his soul to expand to meet it, crossing the void, filling the space, turning, floating, alive...

A faint wind whispered through the grass, caressing his face, causing a shiver to run up his arms. Above him the pine boughs rustled in agreement.

"This is not real," his mind told him. "I do not care," he told his mind.

Below him he heard Andrew call his name. Realized that he could not be seen hidden in the darkness as he was, and that he'd been gone far longer than it should take to gather a few more pieces of wood. The spell was broken. He stood up and took one last look around, and then, almost regretfully, continued on down the slope to his teammates.

"Soup's on, Jay, you might want to hang up your wet clothes to dry first though," Andrew counseled, while using a spoon to poke at his simmering pot of...stew? Takyle spoke up to contradict him.

"I took the liberty of doing that for you, Jaden," she said.

"Um, thanks." He sat down with a sigh on top of his sleeping bag and accepted the steaming aluminum bowl that Andrew passed to him. He stirred the suspect looking contents for a moment and took a somewhat hesitant bite.

"Hey Andy, this isn't nearly as bad as I expected it to be. Thanks!" Andrew gave him an exaggerated glare across the fire.

"You love my cooking you little squirt, and it's a hell of a lot better than anything you can do!" Jaden shrugged and took another bite. What the man said was true.

The meal was finished in what Jaden would classify as companionable silence. When he was done he pulled out his journal and leaned close to the fire for light. Takyle scooted over to sit next to Andrew and when Jaden next glanced up she was leaning into him, his arm around her shoulders, as they silently gazed into the fire. Jaden quickly looked down again. A small, but instantaneous knot had formed in his belly.

Takyle and Andrew had grown increasingly close over the past few months and Jaden found their newfound intimacy to be intimidating. He wouldn't have admitted it to anyone, but he was fairly sure that he was actually jealous. Afterall, Andrew was his best friend, why couldn't Takyle find somebody else? Somebody that Jaden didn't know... He wrote in his journal:

I know that Takyle has known him longer than I have, and thus has more claim on him than I do. That doesn't change the fact that I don't like it. ~

Monday, December 10, 2007

Chapter 15: The First Fallen

~ Dazzling.

Yup, that was definitely the word Jaden would use to describe this place. The meadow looked liked it had been taken straight out of a frigging fairy tale. He glanced behind him again to make sure that no wolves or trolls or anything were sneaking up on him. On his left Takyle cleared her throat.

"So uh...What now?" she asked. The three spun around as one when suddenly, off to their left, what was formerly a rotting stump on the edge of the forest morphed into a media station, complete with com screen and uplink ports. Andrew took a step backwards.

"This place is seriously giving me the creeps," he informed them. Jaden stared at him.

"This place is giving you the creeps? As in this sim we're in right now?" Andrew nodded. "So the dark echoing chamber with the huge chasm where we almost drew our last breaths in this world you were perfectly comfortable in, but this paradise-like rolling plain set amongst purple foothills has you scared?" Andrew punched him in the shoulder.

"I didn't say scared, jerk, I said creeped out. I expected something bad to happen to us in the last place."

"Hey guys," Takyle called to them from the media station. "You think you can knock off the ever so impressive manly banter for a few minutes and come over here?" Apparently she had turned the thing on. Green letter flashed on the screen.

Scroll down for message.

Takyle did.

Congratulations Team 6. You have made it to the first check point. Rest here for the night if you choose. Scroll down one page for a map showing where you have been and the progress of your competitors.

Takyle quickly scrolled down again and scanned the positions.

"Twelve teams are exactly where we are it seems. Five are back in that room, two of those seem to have injured parties, but are not stopping. One team is disqualified," she read off.

"Why?" asked Jaden.

"One of their members is dead...One team is not in the two places on this map. They must have already gone on to the next level. Which raises the question of whether or not we're going forward today? I personally find that I am quite worn out, and the sun is setting." She pointed at what was evidently supposed to be the Western sky, whose soft fluffy clouds were beginning to be tinged with pink.

Jaden nodded his agreement. "And it sure would be nice to be able to dry out our clothes."

"Alright then," said Andrew. "Seems as if we've made our decision. Jay if you'll start getting some wood laid up, I'll fix us something for dinner. Boss, do you want to try to make some sort of frame to hang our supplies that need drying on?"

Before parting ways to get started on their assigned tasks they each changed into their only suit of blissfully dry clothes, all carefully facing in a different direction while doing it. In his mind Jaden thanked Andrew for telling him to bag at least one set. It occurred to him that he should tell him that.

"Hey Andy-"

"No, you may not borrow my underwear to sleep with Jaden."

Nevermind. Jaden put his wet shoes back on and headed for the woods with his hatchet. ~

Friday, December 7, 2007

Chapter 14: Surprising Progress Made

~ Andrew rubbed his bruised forehead thoughtfully.

"Water look lower to you guys?"

Takyle gazed out over the huge chamber.

"Yeah, yeah it does actually. It must still be draining through that door. I wonder if that's a good thing? What are you doing there Big Guy?" Jaden glanced up from his writing.

"Oh, I'm just logging what we've done so far." He checked his watch and jotted down the number. Andrew smiled.

"How are we doing then?"

"Well, we've all almost died, some of us more than once, and we've been in here for nearly three and a half hours now. I don't know if that's good or not. I wonder how the other teams are getting along...If we did something wrong we could be significantly behind."

"Eh," Andrew waved a hand in a motion that came off as flippant and lethargic. "I wouldn't bet on people doing any better than us, after all, we rock pretty hardcore."

Jaden gave him the sceptical eye. "Oh yeah, hardcore, rock, definitely, like friggin' geologists."

Takyle leaned over the edge of their shelf and peered down at the door.

"Hey guys, I can see a good two feet of the door now, this might just be our answer after all." She grinned at Andrew. "So perhaps you didn't get knocked out for nothing." Andrew was staring off into the distance.

"I once had a cactus that was named Bill...," he commented quietly. Takyle looked a little baffled and a little worried. Jaden stifled a laugh painfully. At the sound of his snort Andrew shook his head a little and caught Takyle's expression.

"I...You mentioned the water and that made me think of him- it. Made me think of it." He quickly transferred his attention to Jaden's notebook. "How's that logging going there Jay?"

Takyle shook her head silently and leaned back against the wall with the only book she had brought, a worn paperback, in hand. She kept an eye on the water level and it fell fast. Before long she felt that the time had come to rally the troops for another push.

"Better get your stuff together, I think we're just about ready to see what's behind Door Number 1," she said.

After they had re-secured their equipment they descended one by one down onto the wet floor from their perch using Takyle's rappelling rope, still anchored to the rock wall. Once on the bottom she tugged one tail through and re-coiled it at her belt.

Together the three of them turned to the open door. It was dark and forbidding. Jaden lit his flashlight and took point with an impressive show of non-cowardice. His first thought was that the beam from his torch did nothing to penetrate the deep shadows at all. With every step that he took forward though, the tunnel seemed to become a little bit brighter, until, in a surprising and unnoticeable transition he was standing in bright sunlight. Andrew and Takyle stood blinking to either side of him. Before them stretched a rolling, sun-dappled meadow, ringed by distant wooded hills and dotted with flowers.

"How- What the heck just happened?" asked Jaden. He turned around to look back through the doorway, and found it to be...missing. All that was behind him now was the edge of a shadowy pine forest. "Whoa. That's...interesting..." Andrew spoke up from his side.

"I'll say." ~

Monday, December 3, 2007

Chapter 13: Desperation

~ Just as Andrew disappeared beneath the water Jaden felt a stab of panic. He smothered it quickly, before Takyle could notice, regulating his breathing carefully to keep it normal. From where she sat feeding rope through the anchor hook, she couldn't see over the edge of the rock like he could. She could hear what came next just fine though.

There was a muffled thump and a louder rushing noise as Jaden saw a funnel forming on the surface of the water. The rope dangling over the ledge went suddenly taut and began whipping through Takyle's hands. No thought in his mind Jaden lunged for the rope. Frantically gripping it, trying to at least slow it. It burned his hands but he was able to finally stop it. Takyle regained a handhold and together they began hauling back. The pull on the thing was tremendous. Jaden thought that if Andrew was still on the other end then the pressure must surely be killing him. Not that there were a lot of other courses of action available to them.

They gained another foot and Jaden noticed that the rope in his hands was wet. They must be making progress then. Suddenly the pressure lessened and there was nothing but dead weight on the line. Whatever was on the end of it, and Jaden was frightened to look lest it not be Andrew, had broken the surface of the water and escaped the down drag.

"Jaden, have you got it?" Takyle screamed at him breathlessly. He nodded without a word and she released her grip. The extra weight made the rope slip a couple of inches through Jaden's hands, but he acclimated and recovered it fast enough. Takyle scrambled to the edge.

"He's unconscious Jaden! Oh, I can't reach him, bring him higher!" Jaden hauled on the rope with all his might and Takyle finally was able to pull Andrew's limp body back up onto their tiny ledge.

"Andrew! Andrew can you hear me?" Takyle's voice broke as she lowered her face to Andrew's, now horrifically pale, to see if he was breathing. Jaden grabbed one of his wrists and felt for a pulse. It was there. Weak, but definitely there. Takyle looked up at him and he thought that her eyes looked wet.

"He's still breathing."

"Turn his head, he might have water in his throat!" Jaden ordered. A low moan came from Andrew's mouth and his head turned of its own volition. Jaden scrambled to his head.

"Andy! Andy? Can you hear me?" Andrew drew one gasping breath and then his eyes cracked open. He choked once.

"Yes I can hear you. Who couldn't?" Takyle collapsed back on her heels.

"Oh thank God!"

Andrew sat up rubbing a growing knot on his forehead.

"What the hell happened?" He asked groggily. "Last thing I remember is unlatching the door and it went banging open and then the water started rushing through...I must have been slammed against the frame..." He looked at Takyle, as if for confirmation.

"We pulled you up," she said weakly.


While both of his friends sat there silently, contemplating life he figured, Jaden pulled out his med kit and began preparing an ointment and bandages for Takyle's badly rope burned hands. His own hands shook just a little. Apparently his panic had been warranted after all. He could have done without those 45 seconds of sheer, unadulterated terror to validate it to him though. ~