Pt. 3 - "You have been challenged"

"Your final moments as a single man" I said, patting Jay on the back. "How do you feel?" 

“Nervous, but excited. Thanks for everything you did pulling this together.” Jay looked across the room to where Melissa and Ava we're probably having a similar conversation. I followed his gaze. "So, what's going on with you and Ava?" he asked me. “Oh, I don't know, maybe I’ll take her out after the wedding. Things seem to really click between us. More than they have with anyone else I've met." I realized I was staring at her, and forced myself to look away. “Aww, you've only known her for 24 hours and I can already see you falling for her." Jay was grinning from ear to ear. I couldn’t deny it, I did like Ava. She was smart, funny, and could totally take charge when she had to. Like she did last night with the band. 

The wedding was about to begin, the seats outside were filled up, the band was now ready to go, and the officiator was already standing at the front. Somehow, everything had come together in time. 

Last night had been a mad rush for Ava and I to pull everything together, but she had handled the band members, who were sober enough to play the set list. Proving that even with a few drinks in them, the music wouldn't be an issue. Meanwhile I had gone around to some of the guests, asking if any of them knew the officiator and was just starting to panic, when he arrived on his horse right before midnight. Apparently this time of the year was ‘wedding season’, so he had squeezed in another wedding that was further south in the Crystal Kingdom yesterday. Which made him arrive later than he had told Jay and Melissa he would. The flowers had only arrived this morning, but they did, and it now seems everything is set to go off without another hitch. 

The music started playing. That was our cue. I shook Jay's hand. “Go get 'em." 

I had given Hope to Jay's parents to take care of during the procession, to ensure that there wasn't a crying baby interrupting the officiator. Ava and I were going first, we linked arms as we walked down the aisle. It was beautiful, the flowers covered the archways placed at the front, and it even seemed like the crowd had sobered up. We split ways at the front. I panicked for a second, worried I didn't have the ring. I did a quick frantic pocket pat-down. It was there.

Jay walked up the aisle, looking a lot more at ease than he had just a few moments ago. Then the music changed, everyone stood up, and Melissa began walking down the aisle. 

After the ceremony, there was an open bar for all the guests outside, and it was a party. The band was playing great music, people were dancing, and people were drinking. I took Hope back from Jay’s parents and was surprised to see he actually seemed to like the music. He and I were doing a little dance of our own, and he had the cutest little giggle, even without any teeth. 

Someone tapped me on my shoulder. It was a man, about my same height, with dark hair. I didn't recognize him as one of the wedding guests, but there were a lot of people here. He didn't say anything as I turned to face him, just stood there silently. He locked eyes with me and it felt…intense. He looked down, where he was holding a wooden cube a bit bigger than a fist. He handed it to me and said “You have been challenged. ” He enunciated the words, with an almost mysterious vibe to the way that he spoke.  

“I've been challenged?" I said incredulously. The man didn't say anything else, he just walked away into the crowd, leaving me with this wooden cube. 

I started to run after him, but the crowd was too rowdy to get very far, especially with a baby. 

I lost him.

What. the. heck. 

What did he mean when he said I had been challenged. Who challenged me, and how did they know me? This is getting overwhelming. I can feel myself starting to heating up as my mind tumbled over itself with questions. 

I need to get out of here. I decided I had to step away from the music.  I rocked Hope back and forth as I slowly slipped away from the party and went back inside. //Whew//. It was quiet here, I could breath again. I walked into the first empty room I could find, the kitchen. I leaned against the windowsil.  Looking back at the cube in my hand, I began inspecting it.  It was made of a dark wood and looked seamless, like it had been carved from a single piece. The whole cube was blank except one side, which carried an inscription. 

Travel to the falling star

Down around the massive scar

Lots to do you must be quick

Or else they’ll lose old lefty stick

stay a pair and you should beware

you would not like how you would fare

risk it all on a grand old dare

or let the madman win… as he plots from his lair.’

The inscription was carved into the face very precisely, so it must have been done by a professional. I read it again, trying to dissect the riddle line by line. ‘Travel to the falling star.' Maybe it's referring to a celebrity that's falling from the heights of fame? erm, that seems like a stretch. I turned my attention to the next line ‘down around the massive scar' seems like directions, like maybe down means south? 

Through the doorway, I see Ava make her way inside. She sees me and starts walking over. 

"Did you get one of these too?" she asks as she pulls out a cube of her own. 

"You have one?!" I said. I stood up from the windowsill and we put the two cubes side by side. "Does yours also have this weird riddle inscription thingy on it too?" I said. "Yeah, it does, what do you think it means" she asked me.

 "Well, I haven't had enough time to properly dissect it yet, you wanna work on it together," I asked her. She smiled. "Sure”. 

Ava and I walked upstairs with Hope, to figure out what this riddle meant. I set Hope down on the bed and stood, holding both cubes in my hand. Wait. They look the same, they feel like they’re the same, except. I think one of them is just slightly heavier than the other. I put my ear up to both of them and move them around. Is ther something inside? 

“You look like an idiot, what are you doing?" Ava asked me with a smirk. 

“Wait, I think I can hear something MOVING in here." I said, with my ear still up to the side of the boxes. By now I had rotated the cubes in all directions on all 3-axis, but I noticed that if I held them both with the inscription facing down and the writing correctly orientated, there was a difference in the tone of the rolling. In my mind it looked as if maybe there was a hollow sphere inside that whatever this was maybe a ball, was rolling around. and this difference in sound must be from a bump or something that this ball hits. What if?... 

This cube might be a part of the puzzle. Whoever challenged us gave us each wooden cubes. They could have used a piece of parchment is they had wanted instead. There must have been a reason that they chose to give us wooden cubes. which we had already notices looked too perfect. 

Like they must have been made by a professional. 

I had an idea. I rotated both cubes to the right spot with my ear up to it. Ava was watching, She heard it too. I handed one of the cubes back to Ava to free up a hand. "Hold those exactly like that”. I started searching with my hands for some sort of trigger, a button, or something. You can't get a ball into a seamless cube unless there's a seam somewhere. It seems to me like part of the challenge might be figuring out this freaking cube that they gave us. 

I pressed down on the inscription face. I heard something click. I waited a second to see if anything else had happened. I couldn’t see anything, except a barely noticeable seam that had opened along the side of the inscription face. It was barely a hairs width thick. But it was there. I lightly pulled on the side of the face, expecting it to swing outwards. It didn't. I looked up. Ava was doing the exact same movements as I was with her cube.

“I got it” She yelled. The inscription face, popped out even further, enough that you could could see a hinge on one side. She had pulled the door open fully now, and inside was, for all intents and purposes, another smooth surface of wood, sealed underneath the first layer. 

“How'd you do it?" I asked her. "Once you pop the first seal, press on the backside, and you’ll hear another click, as the hinge pops out.” She told me. I did as she said, and soon enough I was looking at my own blank piece of wood, the same piece of wood it seems, as the inscription-carrying door, with a small metal hinge tucked in the corner, just big enough to see it reflect when the light hits it. "I guess this is some sort of puzzle box. Maybe this is the challenge?" I said. 

“I dunno, I think that the inscription says to go on some sort of quest, maybe this is an extra side challenge of sorts? There's a line in the riddle that says ‘Stay a pair and you should beware.' Do you think that means that we are not supposed to travel together?” she said. 

“huh, I thought it was referring to Hope and me, that maybe I should leave Hope behind. If we both were ‘challenged’” I said in air quotes, “then maybe it's telling us that we should go take Hope with us, that way we aren't a pair.” I suggested. 

Ava’s eyes lit up as understanding dawned. "Yes! when do leave, and I think I have an idea of where we're supposed to go" she said, her eyes twinkling with mischief.  

The next morning we prepared to head off on our journey. ”Okay so the plan of attack," Ava said. "We start going south, stop by Crystal City to pick up any extra supplies we need. Then we head east towards the far end of the great canyon, and try to figure out the puzzle cube along the way so that we can figure out where to go next.”

We had realized that the lines in the riddle ‘Travel to the falling star, down around the massive scar’ had to be referring to the canyon that splits the Crystal Kingdom from the Left Empire. 'Old Lefty Stick' must refer to the Left Emperor’s staff, which is the most prominent symbol within the Left Empire. We have been challenged to stop a ‘mad man' who supposedly ‘plots from his lair' and wants to take it, which would cause chaos within the whole Empire. We still aren't sure why we have to travel as a trio, but I don't want to leave Baby Hope anyway so that's not much of an issue. 

We head outside to pack our horses, making sure we have all of our things with us. I definitely have enough food for the three of us at least until we make it to Crystal City which should be about a days travel away. Then in Crystal City, we will stock up on supplies, making sure we have enough food for the long journey ahead, as well as to sharpen our weapons in case they need using. 

Jay came out to say goodbye as the two of us packed our horses. He walked up to me and held out his hand. "Safe travels Atlas, I’m so glad that you could make it out for the wedding,” he said. "I wouldn't have missed it for the world buddy,” I said as I shook his hand firmly. "It's been great seeing you again, I’ll send you a letter from wherever Ava and I end up, it sounds like we've got quite the adventure ahead of us," I tell him. 

Ava and I decided not to tell Jay and Melissa about the cubes or the challenge we got, instead we told them that we had decided to travel together and explore all the places we hadn't been. As much as it would have been cool to tell him, it sounds like it could be dangerous, and I don't want my friend to worry. But I do plan on sending him a postcard from wherever we end up, hopefully after we have stopped this ‘madman’, and have figured out why we two of all people had been tasked with this challenge. The only way to find out for sure is to follow the breadcrumbs wherever they lead. 

I said farewell to Jay one last time, and then hopped on Orion, with Hope secured to my chest with a makeshift fabric strap. I looked at Ava next to me on her horse Buttercup, and we shared a glance. We were ready.