Chapter 2:

The First Challenge

Second Chance Savior

The world around him returned with a loud pop, and Jack found himself standing in a forest clearing surrounded on all sides by a sweeping canopy of trees. A faint breeze stirred the treetops, and several different kinds of birds flitted from one to the next, twittering and chirping as they moved. All around the clearing, little patches of wildflowers popped their heads above the grass, sprinkling the space with tufts of purple and yellow and white.

It’s PERFECT, Jack thought. Looking around for a moment, he finally noticed a small gap in the trees in the far end of the clearing from him. Just before the gap, a faint trail worn into the ground led from the clearing through it and into the shade of the forest canopy where it disappeared from sight.

“Welp, I know the beginning of an adventure when I see one.”

Jack lifted his newly-obtained axe up on his shoulders and set off onto the path, attempting and failing to whistle a tune as he walked. Once inside the woods, the trail led straight for a couple hundred feet, picking its way around roots and stones and a small creek about five feet wide that bisected it. Here and there, a couple of squirrels darted around the forest floor and scrambling up trees, gibbering in protest and running to their hollows as he interrupted their tasks. A short way past the creek the forest began to thin, and the trail switchbacked up a steep slope. Following the path up the hillside took more effort than he was used to exerting, and Jack braced himself for the inevitable nausea and exhaustion that he was accustomed to when he did something more aggressive than make instant ramen. To his surprise, however, when he made it to the top of the hill and leaned against a tree, none came. He felt just as good as he did at the start, although he could feel his heart beating a little faster, and he let out a sigh of relief.

So this is what not being an out-of-shape slacker feels like! This is awesome!


Jack screamed, fell ass-backwards, and nearly tumbled backwards down the hill as Frumpkin’s voice exploded inside his head.

“AAAuuugh! GOD!” Jack yelled, rubbing his backside. He looked around, but saw nothing but trees and one particularly perturbed looking squirrel, who was chattering at him angrily from a nearby branch.

[YES?!] Frumpkin yelled inside his head again.

“STOP YELLING! YOU’RE HURTING MY HEAD!” Jack shouted back, curling into a ball and clutching his skull.


Jack heard the sound of rustling, and a few faint clicks like someone was flipping switches and pushing buttons inside his brain.

[...this better?] Frumpkin asked.

“Yes. Christ.” Jack said, pulling himself to his feet.

[My bad. Last kid who tried this route was deaf as a doornail. Forgot I still had the volume all the way up. Also, I’m in your head. You don’t have to respond out loud for me to hear you. Just think it, and I’ll hear it.]

So you can hear this, then? Jack thought.

[Yep. ...You could try and sound a little less sarcastic.]

Sorry. Still trying to adjust to everything. Jack thought.

[I’m sure. Now what do you want to unlock as your first reward? An item, a skill, or Super Secret Mystery Option C?]

Wait, what? Already? But I haven’t done anything heroic yet! Jack thought.

[Sure you have. This hill was your first challenge. You overcame it. Now, do you want a set of magical plate armor, lockpicking skills, or Super Secret Mystery Option C?]

Don’t you think me getting rewarded for climbing a hill is a bit… stupid? I mean, getting rewards is great and all, but this is just ridiculous.

[Why do guys like you always say that when I do things like this? Frumpkin said more than asked. [Two days ago, climbing that hill would have been the peak accomplishment of your week. But no, as soon as you get wishes that make it easier it’s all ‘oooh look at me, I need a harder challenge because I am too good to be rewarded for something so small!’]

Don’t get me wrong. I’m grateful… It’s just… not very heroic, I guess. Jack said.

[So you want a more ‘heroic’ challenge, is that it? You want a chance to be a ‘real hero’?] Frumpkin asked in a voice that Jack would have used when talking to a small child.

Well, yeah. Obviously. Jack said, choosing to ignore the tone.

As if on cue, a faint scream pierced the air in the distance. Jack’s eyes shot towards the direction of the noise, which was somewhere further down the path.

[Well hey, what do you know? Sounds like a very convenient opportunity to be a hero just presented itself out of nowhere.] Frumpkin said innocently.

...You seriously just threw some innocent person into peril so I have to save them, didn’t you? Jack said.

[I have absolutely no idea what you’re talking about, and I’m offended at the implication. Now you better get moving before something bad happens to that poor girl!] Frumpkin replied.

Jack sighed, and hefted his axe up onto his shoulder. He’d better go investigate whatever the hell Frumpkin just did.

Heading in the direction of the noise, he followed the trail down the far side of the slope. About a hundred or so feet ahead, the path appeared to open into another small clearing, and from where he stood, he could see several shapes moving in it. Getting closer, the sound of laughing and jeering grew louder, and a female voice was yelling something at the others. When he got within a couple dozen feet of the clearing, he took cover behind the trunk of a giant dead tree that lay across the forest floor to the right of the path. Peeking his head up, he tried to get a better look at what was happening.

There, on the closer end of the clearing, was a young girl. She was perhaps nine or ten, with ruddy tan skin and curly auburn hair that tumbled down to her waist in a disheveled heap. Around here were a half dozen small humanoids, all brandishing knives or clubs and cackling gleefully. Their little stature, exaggerated features, and lime green skin gave them away as goblins instantly. The group of them had her encircled and were gradually closing in tighter around her, occasionally taking jabs at her with their weapons. Jack couldn’t hear what they were saying to her as they closed in, but he knew enough about the little monsters from books and games to know it probably wasn’t something he wanted to hear. Seeing them, and knowing what could happen to her if he didn’t do something, he readied his axe, took a deep breath, and rushed into the clearing.

“Hey! Leave her alone!” He yelled, brandishing his axe as he stepped out of the treeline. The goblins collectively snapped around at the intrusion, and one of them, slightly larger than the others, pointed at Jack and snarled something that he didn’t understand. A pair of the creatures broke from the circle and charged at Jack, cackling gleefully as they did so. Jack slid into a combat stance that felt right, and braced himself. His heart pounded in his ears as they drew closer. This is it! Time to save the day!

The first of the creatures got within striking range and thrust at him with its dagger. Instinctively, Jack twisted his torso to the side and the blade passed harmlessly through open air a few inches from his stomach. Using the momentum from the twist as a lever, he brought the axe around in a wide swing behind the diving goblin. The axe blade met with the creature’s back with a satisfying wet thunk before passing effortlessly through. The creature stumbled forward a few paces before tumbling into two separate pieces as the blow split it in half. Jack turned back to face the other oncoming goblin, a smile starting to spread across his face. I can do this! This is awesome!

The second goblin swung its club at his knees, diving within Jack’s guard fast enough that blocking was impossible. On instinct, Jack rushed forward, closing the gap faster than the goblin could finish its swing and driving his knee into the creature’s face. The goblin’s long nose crumpled with a satisfying crunch, sending it stumbling backwards with a shriek. Following through on the movement, Jack brought his axe up in an upwards strike, splitting the little monster from crotch to ribcage. The life dissolved from the goblin’s eyes, and it slumped into a pile of gore as Jack pulled his weapon free.

“I said, leave her alone.” Jack said, readying his weapon again and stepping towards the remaining goblins. The smirk on the largest one’s face faded, and was replaced with a snarl. It snapped something in a language Jack didn’t understand, before sticking two bony fingers into its mouth and whistling loudly. In a flurry of movement, the remaining goblins rushed at him, shrieking and brandishing their weapons as they charged. The lead goblin brought up the rear, walking casually behind the others as it pulled a second knife from a sheath on its thigh.

Jack braced for the assault. Following his instincts again, he managed to parry the first attacker and dodge the second. The third, however, managed to slip past his guard and dig the tip of his knife into Jack’s side. Searing pain shot through his body, and Jack involuntarily recoiled from it and swore. Seeing the gap in his guard, another one of the goblins cracked him across the shin with its club. Jack yelped in pain again and dove backwards out of the reach of the little creatures, swinging his axe wildly in front of him to drive some space between him and his attackers. The blade managed to catch one of the creatures upside the head and sent it flying off its feet. Jack drew back into a defensive stance, watching the remaining three goblins approaching him with a sudden, creeping sense of fear. The pain in his side and shin pulsed and throbbed, making it hard to concentrate. What on earth was happening? Why was this suddenly so hard? They‘re only goblins!

Jack glanced past the approaching attackers to where the girl had been standing, but she was no longer there. He quickly scanned the field around him, but saw nothing but his attackers and waves of waist high grass. He hoped she had managed to escape someone while he kept her attackers busy. He didn’t have more than a second to ruminate, however, before the goblins were on him again. He moved to deflect the lead goblin’s attack.

Something hard cracked against the back of his head, causing his vision to explode into a sea of stars. He stumbled and reeled, trying to not black out or vomit. Unable to see what had attacked him, he spun around and swung his axe blindly in a wide arc in front of him. The blade struck something soft, and a goblin voice squealed in pain. Jack managed to focus his vision on the direction of the surprise attack, only to be met with a wooden club flying at his face. Panicking, Jack threw his weapon up to block, but not fast enough. The blow struck him square on the nose. Jack’s vision roared in a white-hot flash of pain as something in his face crunched, and he staggered backwards, only to feel something cold and hard bury itself in his spine. He screamed and swore, swinging around wildly at the numerous giggling shapes around him, but nothing seemed to connect. His pulse pounded in his head, his entire body shaking with terror and adrenaline.

Well, this is it. Ten minutes in, and you’re already a goner. Way to go, you fucking idiot. He thought as his vision began to tunnel and fade. Something fibrous and heavy fell over him and cinched tight, and he was jerked off his feet as the net closed tight around him. He toppled to the ground as his axe fell from his hands, and found himself staring up at a perfect, cloudless blue sky. One of the cackling goblinoids sauntered into view, its large club resting casually on its shoulder. It looked over and said something to another, and the larger goblin with the two knives stepped into view. He appraised Jack with a calculating expression, then looked at the other and nodded. The goblin with the club laughed heartily, and raised his weapon over Jack’s head. Jack squinted his eyes shut, and lost consciousness with a thunk.