"The Challenge" by Mike Molter


Finally, here's Mike's second story. It's all my fault it took so long - I'm a busy chicken and sometimes I don't get around to the fun stuff, but stop yer complainin', Bucko, cause here it is:

(After ya read it, you can e-mail Mike here with yer comments.)

"The Challenge"
by Mike Molter

"Whoa, Righteous. Steady girl." The knight pulled the reins tight, stopping the big paint in her tracks. The knight's mount nervously shifted its weight back and forth. She had a good reason to be nervous. The town before them, like a hundred others they had seen, was full of death.

There was only one difference between this town and the rest. After this town, the next one, was home. The knight had chased this relentless and unforgiving plague all the way back to this town. Everywhere the plague went, death was not long after. It killed nearly everyone in its path, sparing nobody, not even the clergy. Of them, it took the greatest toll as they tried in vain to aid those who could not help themselves. No medicine could heal the Black Death's victims, no prayers could save them. Not even the fastest horse could outrun it.

So the knight and his horse kept their distance, respectful of the plague's unquenchable thirst. The knight begin to wonder why he was even here. He couldn't stop the plague, and soon, it would be upon his village, and his home. What was he looking for when he began his quest, a year before? What did he think he could do, that so many others had failed to do?

The knight was about to give in to the melancholy that accompanied him day and night when he spotted her. There, just before the bridge she stood. It was the break he had been looking for. He had to get to her before she crossed the bridge. He had to make his stand there.

The knight knifed the sides of his mount, spurring her forward. He had to reach the bridge before she could cross it.

"Let's go, Righteous. To the bridge." In a flurry of dust, the rider and horse charged forward.

She spotted the cloud of dust rapidly approaching her from outside the little town. Normally, the cloud wouldn't have merited even a glance, but somehow this cloud had purpose. The cloud contained a human, a live and healthy one.

"Come my sweet. Come to me." She spread her arms wide to greet her fast approaching guest.

What seemed like an eternity to the knight, passed in mere moments. His trusty steed quickly covered the distance between he and the lady in flowing white robes. His mount stopped just as fast, nearly tossing the knight off her back.

"Easy, girl. Easy. You can relax, I'll bring you no closer." The lady in flowing white robes dropped her arms to her sides, seemingly disappointed. The two traded stares, neither willing to break the silence. The knight was right. He knew that eventually, he would find her. No one believed him when he said he would. The wise men said that she was but an illusion, created in the minds of the sick and dying, but the knight never doubted he would find her. He knew she was behind all this death, not the rats and the fleas. It was her, Lady Pestilence.

"I knew I would find you, Lady Pestilence."

"And who may you be, as if that really matters."

"It is I, the purest of the Knights, the most honorable, the most trusted, and very humbled, Sir Valiant of the Sevrant villages, Lady Pestilence."

"Please, Sir Valiant, Lady Pest, I prefer."

"Very well than, Lady Pest it is."

"What brings you before me, foolish knight, when all the rest are fleeing?"

"I wish to have a word with you."

"This word must be very important for you to throw down your life to have it."

"It is, Lady Pest."

"So be it, foolish knight. Have your word before I wither your life away."

"Thank you so kindly, Lady Pest. I wish to offer a challenge to you." She took a step back in shock. The knight held his ground.

"A challenge? Too me? Bringer of the Black Death and all other pestilence. You offer a challenge to me?"

"Yes, Lady Pest. I wish to offer you a challenge so that you may spare my village this horrid plague that sieges this land like no army ever mustered."

"What kind of challenge could you offer me? I'm Lady Pestilence and you are merely a mortal knight."

"It is not a challenge of my choosing, Lady Pest. It is one of your choosing." Lady Pest pondered this for a moment.

"A challenge of my choosing you say. That is rather tempting I must say. I mean after all, just going around causing all these folks to blacken and die has been a tad boring. Yet, why should I even waste a thought on such an adventure, when there is nothing in it for me?"

"Oh but there is, Lady Pest. There is. If I succeed at your challenge the reward for me is sparing my village of course, but if I fail to succeed. I will personally carry you over the sea, to the Isle of the Mighty." The English Isle's, that would be a treat, she thought.

"Again, your challenge is most tempting. Sooner or later, I will reach the Isle on my own, however, sooner is better."

"Yes, my lady."

"I'm am not your lady. I am Lady Pest."

"Yes, Lady Pest. I ask your forgiveness."

"Forgiveness is not required, mercy might be."

"What you say, Lady Pest. Do we have a challenge or not?"

"You say I get to choose the challenge?"

"Yes, Lady Pest. It is your challenge."

"Then a challenge it is. You may regret this quest, Sir Valiant, for my challenge is not to be taken easily."

"I understand, Lady Pest. Please, name your challenge." With that, a sinister grin crossed Lady Pestilence's thin white lips.

"I want you to bring me the head of the Cyclops." A cold shiver sped down Sir Valiant's back. The challenge twisted fear into his guts even more than facing the Queen of Pestilence.

"What's the matter, Sir Valiant. Are you afraid of a little one-eyed giant?"

"No, no. Sir Valiant is afraid of nothing. I wasn't exactly thinking along that pathway, Lady Pest."

"Why, I believe your a little bit afraid. Yes I do. Are you sure your name is Valiant?"

"Of course it is. I'm the most pure__."

"I know, I know. I heard all of that. Are you going to take the challenge, or am I going to lay waste to your village right now?"

"Yes, yes. I'll take your challenge. May I ask you a little question though, Lady Pest?"

"Why the head of the Cyclops?"

"Why not? You didn't expect me to arrange a petty little joust did you?'

"Of course not, I was just curious to know."

"If you must. The damnable creature is untouchable by anything I can throw at him, not even a sniffle. It's quite a disappointment you see."

"How long do I have, Lady Pest?"

"A week."

"A week! It will take several days just to get there. That's impossible."

"It's your village."

"Alright, alright. I'll do it."

"Good. And just before you take his hideous head. Tell him love and kisses from me will you."

"If you say so, Lady Pest."

"Now get going. You haven't much time."

"Your telling me. Time to slay the Cyclops." The mere thought sent new chills through his body. Sir Valiant saluted Lady Pest, reined his horse around, and cantered off toward the dreaded Cyclops's stronghold. The knight's horse was only too eager to leave Lady Pest.

The ride was long and hard, two rivers, three forest and a mountain range. Before the plague, Sir Valiant would have been stopped a half dozen times by the soldiers of one or more baronies. But not now, the plague had rid the land of many of those petty kingdoms. To rule a land, one must have a stronghold, soldiers to defend it, and peasantry to maintain it. Of the three, only the strongholds survived, eerily haunting the barren lands they once protected.

"If my horse survives this ordeal it will be a miracle. What am I saying? If I survive the Cyclops, it will be a gift from god." The knight slowly dismounted his winded horse. He was sore and knew she must be. Sir Valiant fed her the last remaining oats from his pack and stared up the long winding, uneven steps carved into the hillside.

"If I don't come back before nightfall, take off girl. Get as far away from here as possible. I don't mind dying for the quest, girl, but I'll be damned if I'm going to feed one-eye too."

Sir Valiant took one last look around, ignoring the skeleton lying at the foot of the steps and started his ascent. Sneaking up the stairs quietly was an impossibility. Between the clanking of his plate armor and the falling of loose rocks, the Cyclops would have to be deaf or sound asleep not to hear him. In addition, the stairs were steep, broken, misshaped and hard to climb. They were an excellent defense. Sir Valiant refused to let the growing tally of disadvantages root into his mind.

For the second time in his long ascent, Sir Valiant kicked aside the skeletal remains of another of the Cyclops's victims. This one was missing its head. Warily he neared the top of the steps, not sure what to expect, and ready to dive for cover if necessary. Where he would dive, he hadn't a clue, but he would dive. There was a wall on one side of the steps. The other side offered a sharp drop off, as verified by the clatter of skeletal bones he had kicked off the steps.

Fortunately, nothing came flying down at him from the stronghold above. In fact, Sir Valiant heard nothing at all. That in itself was spooky. Where were the birds at least. Were they also terrified of the Cyclops?

Sir Valiant stepped up to the great oak doors wondering how he was going to be able to open them. The doors stood nearly two dozen feet high, reinforced with iron studded bands and decorated with a pair of hideous demon heads. Two large black iron rings were fastened to the doors, ten feet above the ground. Gads, the Cyclops is a real big giant.

He had never met anyone who had seen it, but the rumors about the Cyclops had everyone in the region absolutely terrified of it. Rumor had it that no one had ever returned from the stronghold alive. There was even a rumor about one baron sending a warparty up here to rid the land of the Cyclops and his grip of terror. The warparty was never seen again. Not to be denied, the baron formed another set of soldiers to go after the Cyclops, this warparty was larger and stronger than before. They too, never returned. After the third set of soldiers failed to return, the peasants revolted against the now weakened baron and no more warparties were sent to slay the indestructible Cyclops. These rumors did little to aid the growing queasiness in Sir Valiant's stomach.

Sir Valiant took a look at the stone walls and decided against trying to scale them. They were thirty feet high or more. He might as well go through the front door. Why not? His chances on killing the Cyclops was small anyway. He might as well conserve what energy he could. The only consolation to this quest for Lady Pest was that if he failed to kill the Cyclops, he would be dead, thus unable to carry Lady Pest over the sea to the Isle of the Mighty. Something in the back of his mind told him that she had already considered this and had a solution to his demise.

Sir Valiant used a pair of skulls to give him the boost he needed to reach the rings. With a firm grip and positioning himself in such a way to give him maximum leverage, he pulled. He pulled and yanked and jerked and strained, yet the doors refused to budge. With neck muscles bulging and face bright red, Sir Valiant grunted with all the strength he had. Still, the doors wouldn't move. Gads he thought, the doors aren't moving one bit. Even if the doors were barred from inside there would be some scant movement. These doors moved not at all. Sir Valiant looked once again to the thirty foot wall and dropped to the ground.

How was he going to get into the castle, there was no other way into it. The perimeter of the stronghold was blocked by large chunks of rock too big for a team of horses to move. Even if he could move them, the narrow ledge wasn't big enough for a sure footed goat, much less a man. Sir Valiant decided to rest and think this over. As he plopped down his full weight against one of the rocks he felt it move. Huh?

With another solid nudge, the hugh rock moved again. Sir Valiant looked down, suddenly spotting what appeared to be the corner of a secret hatch. The knight shoved the rock with all his remaining might, forcing it back a whole three feet. He was right. It was a small hatch, barely big enough for a man. It only took moments for Sir Valiant to clear the dirt away from the doorway, and less time to pull the hatch open.

"Good lord in heaven. What is that smell?" The smell of rot and decay oozed from the opening. Sir Valiant had smelled it before, death or something just as gruesome. After the plague, whole villages smelled similar to this. It was something one could never forget, and no easier to stomach. After the initial stench, the obnoxious odor dissipated, enough for Sir Valiant to take a look.

There was a small wooden ladder leading down into the darkness. Gads, how am I going to see. Sir Valiant had left his torch in his pack next to his horse. There was no way he was going to go back down those broken old stairs to fetch his torch. He really didn't want to see down there anyway? Then again, he really did.

"I guess my hands will have to guide me." With that, Sir Valiant descended down into the dark and damp hole.

Suddenly, a rung gave way and onto his back, Sir Valiant fell. Fortunately, the fall was short, but it was wet. Wet and slimy. Sir Valiant jumped back up, brushing the slimy water from himself, when he noticed an unlit torch next to the entrance. Just my luck, he thought. Even with a torch, I don't have anything to light it. But maybe....

Next to the torch was a tiny ledge, and on it were the tools he needed to light the torch. It didn't take long for Sir Valiant to get the torch lit. Once lit, Sir Valiant looked around. He was standing in about five inches of wet murk and every once in awhile he would catch it ripple, or the refracted light off of something moving. He had to get out of here, soon, but not until he gave it a thorough look at least. Above him, was a lever he guessed would close the secret rock entrance. No need to let the Cyclops know that I'm here for sure. With this thought, he pulled the lever. It was hard to move, but once he put some effort into it, the lever swung around and the secret entrance closed shut. The smell returned immediately, and almost caused Sir Valiant to bring his meager lunch back up. It took several long moments to get acclimated to the stench.

The torch was a poor one, reaching, at best, twenty feet. It appeared he was in a narrow tunnel heading back into the direction of the castle above. It was filled with water and cobwebs. It also appeared that it hadn't been used in awhile. Maybe the Cyclops didn't know about the secret entrance. Things may be looking better, thought Sir Valiant, but he wasn't going to take any chances. As quietly as he could, Sir Valiant drew his sword. He didn't wish to be unprepared.

"Now, let me see where this leads."

Step after sloshing step, Sir Valiant marched, burning away the cobwebs, sending rats scurrying and wondering how soon he would find a way to leave this foul smelling tunnel. No sooner had the thought passed, the tunnel took a sharp turn and suddenly he knew why it smelled so bad. Dead bodies were piled waist high and as far as his pathetic torch allowed him to see. The Cyclops must have tossed them down here, as if they were but garbage. Maybe dead humans were garbage to him. Sir Valiant gathered his composure and crept nearer. More rats and other vermin made a hasty retreat from the light.

Sir Valiant could see that many of the bodies had been there awhile. All of the bodies were in varied states of decomposition. As he drew near, Sir Valiant noticed another ladder reaching up into the ceiling.

"Thank you, god. I was wondering if there was a way out of this nightmare from hell." Sir Valiant began climbing up the ladder after pushing aside a body that was entangled with the lower rungs.

"How disgusting," he said, grimacing. The body was cold, mushy, and slimy.

Sir Valiant pushed at the hatch at the top of the ladder but it refused to move. The hatch refused to budge on his second attempt. On the third try, Sir Valiant heard the rung of the ladder, he was standing on, crack. He frowned and thought about how the other entry had a lever. Maybe this one had a lever also. If it did, it was well hidden. Sir Valiant tried the hatch again, making sure he adjusted his weight on the ladder. The hatch remained firmly closed.

Sir Valiant stepped back down from the ladder and looked around for another entry. Surely there had to be a way in. How could he get this far, only to be denied. He considered giving the tunnel idea up when he noticed a rat was standing on the very lever he was looking for. This lever was much lower than the one at the other end was.

"No wonder I missed it. I thought it was just another part of one of these dead bodies."

Sir Valiant quickly belted the squealing rat off of the lever with his hand. Just as quickly, he tugged on the lever. The hatch groaned in protest, and opened.

Sir Valiant slid his torch in a convenient torch holder and climbed the ladder in a hurry. He was eager to get out of the death-filled water. His head crested the hatch opening and once again, he was in complete darkness. Sir Valiant rolled his eyes and dropped back into the tunnel to retrieve the still lit torch.

The room was hugh, nearly twenty feet from floor to ceiling, and twice that from side to side. Sir Valiant was puzzled. Where was the Cyclops? Had he come when the beast was out? It would just be his luck if the creature wasn't even home to slay. Maybe Lady Pest knew this already, thus sealing her victory. So much for a fair challenge. But then again, she was no knight. A knight would never use such trickery.

Sir Valiant pulled himself out of the hole after convincing himself that at least here, he was safe. The knight closed the hatch with some effort. Apparently it hadn't been used in awhile. Sir Valiant quietly started to explore, a sword tightly gripped in one hand, a torch in the other. The room was barren except for one massive chair and table. He had seen smaller shelters than this table, and the chair... well he had never seen the likes of such a big chair. This made the hair on the back of his neck stand straight up, because whatever creature sat in that chair must be over fifteen feet tall.

Sir Valiant gritted his teeth and headed toward the large opening at the end of the hall. A little light came from that direction. He stopped at the doorway for a listen. Hearing nothing, he rounded the doorway. It was the shock of his life. Breathlessly he slipped back behind the doorway. It was bigger than he thought. He prayed it hadn't seen him yet. Okay, now I know what I'm up against. What's the plan. If I try to sneak up on it and it catches me before I can attack.... Forget the plan, I'm a knight, fearless, and bold. I'm the purest, most trusted, most honorable and humble knight of the land. No enemy can stand before the just and pure of heart.

Sir Valiant swallowed his fear and with grim determination, he charged the unaware Cyclops. It was staring out an upper window, some eighteen feet above the floor. Sir Valiant didn't venture to guess whether it would turn in time to see his attack. If it did, he was as good as dead. The Cyclops's gaze alone could roast a man. Sir Valiant crashed into the Cyclops at full speed. With his free hand he grabbed for a patch of coarse hair to pull himself up for the killing blow. The knight had no sooner swung his sword around to strike at the Cyclops's vital mid-section when he found himself on his back.

Sir Valiant rapidly rolled aside, expecting the Cyclops to stomp him to
death. Thanking the angels of mercy, Sir Valiant gained his feet and
prepared for the rush of the Cyclops. His head cleared from the fall
and he realized the Cyclops hadn't even moved. In fact, he still held a
handful of the hair he had grabbed to pull himself up. It had torn
loose from the monster, yet the creature hadn't even felt it, nor was
there any blood. Dumbfounded and filled with the dread that this may
imply, Sir Valiant attacked again. This time he cut deeply into the
creature's leg, praying to cripple it on the first strike.

The strike jarred his whole body as if he had hit stone. Again there
was no blood. As Sir Valiant tried to pull his sword free for another
strike he found he was unable too. The sword was stuck fast. A new
terror filled in the confusion of Sir Valiant's mind. The knight
grabbed for the backup dirk, at his belt. He was dead meat for sure if
all he had to fight with was this small dirk.

Suddenly it dawned on Sir Valiant that the Cyclops wasn't moving. It
hadn't even twitched a muscle. He jabbed the dirk deeply into its leg.
Still no movement, nor blood. This was odd. It was also strange that
the dirk sliced so easily through its skin and like the sword, hit
something very solid inside. It was something unlike any bone he had
cut into. But this was no man, nor any ordinary beast. Sir Valiant
gripped his sword again and freed it, leaving a gaping hole in its leg.

The realization that this was no living creature occurred at the
precise instant that Sir Valiant saw the wood-beam beneath the Cyclops's
skin. This was no living creature, it was a construct, a good one, but
still, it wasn't real. But the Cyclops was real wasn't it? Then a new
dread filled Sir Valiant's mind. Lady Pest was surely going to destroy
his village with the plague. There was no way he would pass this
construct off as the real Cyclops. Sir Valiant's town was sure to die.

After a few moments of studying it, Sir Valiant could tell that it was
quite clever. With a few gears and levers a single man could elevate
the fake Cyclops up and down, even hurl bolders at besiegers. The arm
was nothing more than a cleverly disguised catapult. He guessed that
even the Cyclops's roar could be faked.

A quick tour of the hugh castle confirmed his speculations. In a back
room he found the remains of a single man and his diary. Sir Valiant
began to read. The man had been one of the soldiers that stormed the
Cyclops's stronghold many years back. The creature had killed the rest
of the warband but had received many wounds from that battle. The lone
survivor, awoke from being knocked unconscious where he found a dying
Cyclops. It died soon after.

The soldier recognized he had been handed a great opportunity. All he
had to do was keep the dread of the Cyclops alive and he could live a
life free of servitude. By trade, he was an engineer first, but had
been conscripted into the Baron's service by need. He could use the
catapult the group had brought with them and create the ultimate
Cyclops. He had also found an old servants entrance, long in disuse by
the Cyclops's previous servants.

"So it was you that threw all those bodies into the tunnel. I know you
did it for the fright they created, but a man, however low, should have
proper send off. If I had the time I would take care of that myself."

Sir Valiant continued to read the engineer's diary, coming upon a
section about what he did with the real Cyclops. After all of his
efforts, he wanted to actually see it, even if it was a skeleton. The
real Cyclops's body was lying in one of the three keep towers, where it
had died. Sir Valiant grabbed his torch and ran off toward the nearest
of the towers. The door was shut, its opening ring was ten feet above
him. Before he had a chance to figure out a way to open the door he
realized the engineer had already taken care of that. "Your a smart man, engineer man." Sir Valiant used the makeshift wedge,
the engineer had created, to part the door from its frame. It swung
wide easily allowing Sir Valiant a good look at what he would have been
facing had it not died long ago.

"Gad's its hugh." Suddenly, Sir Valiant had an idea. Not a noble one,
but one that may save his village.

He found Lady Pest pretty much where he had first met her, although the
toll of new dead was greater. She stood and stared at Sir Valiant in
disbelief. The bloody head of the Cyclops emptily stared up at her from
her feet. The knight had defeated the Cyclops. No one in the long
history of the Cyclops had ever come close to beating it before. With
Sir Valiant's victory, came Lady Pest's nod of obligatory defeat. His
village would be spared, at least for this round of plagues.

"The gods have favored you, Sir Valiant, like no mortal before. Why do
you suppose that is?"

"Because, Lady Pest. I was the purest, most honorable, most trusted
and most humble knight the land has ever known. Sir Valiant of the
Sevrant villages."

"I know, I know. You told me before. Now leave honorable knight, and
take this head from me, for it reminds me of my loss. Do it quickly,
Sir Valiant, lest I change my mind." Sir Valiant grabbed the creature by
its horn and quickly departed on his winded horse.

Once far from sight of the village, Sir Valiant gazed across the bridge
toward the horizon where his village and home lie.

"Tis for you, my village. May you be free from plague forever more.
For the purest knight is no more, tainted by a lie and therefore cannot
be called a knight evermore." The former knight wiped the lambs blood
from the Cyclops's severed neck and covered its hideous head. It was a
good thing that the Cyclops's body was like no other living thing in the
land. What it was, mattered not. Fortunately it did not decompose like
man or beast. In fact, it appeared as if it had never died at all. A
man called Valiant would see that it never would.

"Let's go, Righteous. There's nobody back at the castle to keep an eye on things."



Cool, huh? Ya have to e-mail Mike and tell him what ya think, Bucko. He loves it when ya do.)


"The Challenge" © Michael D. Molter, Jan 5, 1999. All rights reserved.

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