In the fall of 893 After Starlight, within the alternate world of Pangaea, a boy named Andrew Champion found something special in the outcast Tarah Reichardt, and in the end accepted her friendship. Now, he'll have a chance to find just how special his new friend really is. A magical world of danger and heroics awaits him as he skydives through the rabbit hole. For the valiant can never rest, even as this journey twists and turns from Hell to Heaven.

These are the Different and Cool Fantastic Tales.

Different and Cool Fantastic Tales: Look What Tarah Can Do

By Reid M. Haynes

On the mainland of Pangaea, deep within the suburbs of Starlight City, December winds shook the skeletal trees like a rough interrogation session. Fall was over, and the nights were as stark and cold as could be expected. A single brown leaf remained on a branch of an oak tree, testament to the season of beautiful dying. That leaf, too, snapped off from the branch and wafted to the concrete below, soon to be crushed underfoot by the lone boy wandering through the streets.

Andy walked along the sidewalk at a brisk pace, as if trying to keep one step ahead of the frigid wind. His brown jacket was his only guardian against the gusts, buffeting him against the brunt of the areo assault. Strangely, his hands were not gloved nor were they in his pockets, but were instead throwing shadow punches that whipped and shredded the air. His manner was very much that of someone who had just seen a particularly exciting martial-arts flick; the white bandanna he wore below his sea-green bangs could be an indication of this.

In actually, the reality was a bit more exciting.

Andy worked the ball joint in his shoulder with wide, circular movements of his arm, trying to recover from the stretching and yanking he had been doing to it a scant twenty minutes ago. His latest martial-arts workout with Mari had pressed him a bit further than previous session, and the long walk home was again the sour, overly-ripened cherry on top. It was almost as if his instructor was one of those die-hard mutants from the infomercials that trained on five different machines a day.

In any case, he felt good. Andy smiled and exhaled a soft breath through his nose, which quickly turned to fog in the chilled air. This past month, Mari had shown extraordinary support for an awkward kid who wasn't even on the peripheral of her social circle, all because he had asked for her help. Her words to him today had shown him where she stood.

"Hey, it's no problem Andy!" she had told him, with the confident, playful smile he had begun to associate with her. "I'm been looking for something worthwhile to do with my time, and I don't care what people think of me hangin' with you guys."

The second one of those "guys" was Tarah, his other new friend. Their relationship was still like a blast of ice water to Andy; only a few months ago he had avoided the girl like she was the bubonic plague, and now he was walking over to her house right now to hang out. He hadn't even bothered to call, but had just set out knowing he would be received with open arms by her family. It was something he finally learned to expect from Tarah: appreciation, for being there and being himself.

Turning the corner, Andy arrived at Mimic Drive, where Tarah's residence was. The houses that aligned either side of the road were mostly one-story jobs, with huge backyards filled with trees and underbrush. His mind wondered on whether the Reichardts had chosen this neighborhood for their daughter's benefit. Tarah had once told him that her folks had done a lot of moving before coming here two years ago, so he hoped this eco-lover's dream of a subdivision meant that they was ready to give her a permanent home; there was still so much he had to learn about her.

A slight glare blasted Andy's eyes, and he shaded his faceto safely view its source. One baby ash tree was shining with what looked like holiday lights, and he realized a moment later that it was in Tarah's front yard. It must've been her mother or father that had decorated it, since Tarah would've thought the tree was beautiful as is. Still, he had to admit: it gave the leafless tree some character.

But as he proceeded towards Tarah's house, he began to rethink his assessment that the lights were those that came on strings. Not only were there no electrical cords, but each one seemed to be moving by its own power. All of them were spherical in shape, soft green, and seemed to be made of cloud-dust. They hovered around the tree like pixies inhabiting a sacred grove, never straying too far from their focal point.

Fireflies? Andy raised an eyebrow in confusion.

He slowly proceeded towards the tree, his eyes slowly following the sprite-like entities' patterns. Tarah never hesitated to tell him of her interest in bugs, and he wondered if, somehow, he could deduce what they were from memory. It was difficult, since the bright glow they emitted completely concealed their bodies, assuming these mystery lights had bodies. A weird, surreal feeling was growing in Andy's gut, and he was starting to wonder if reality had left his port for a land far away.

His apprehension didn't keep him from noting the beauty of the scene. It was like he was living a scene from a cartoon movie, where the animators would struggle to capture a once-in-a-lifetime phenomenon. And the tree, truly, didn't need holiday lights after all; in a way, it had the same gentle pride that Tarah herself possessed, as he had learned over the past month. He felt his worries face away with the soothing atmosphere of the scene and put his hand on the tree's trunk as if giving it his approval.

A ripping sensation clawed at Andy's heart, and his entire being felt like it had been grasped by a titan. "W-whaaat...?!" he stammered out, the word sounding less like it was being spoken and more like it was being pitched into an abyss. His lungs were sucked of the air that sustained his being, and he felt his world blacken around him.

Andy's next sensation was the hard impact of a face-first fall on cold earth. He felt the rough taste of dirt in his mouth, its unsavory flavor coating his tongue like a second skin. He sputtered a bit, spewing large globs of spit in an effort to expel the dirt from his mouth. Like a blind grub, he wallowed on the ground, trying to bring himself to his feet again.

Then, he felt his balance shift as he tumbled back over on his side, and tumbled again. He was rolling, rolling, as if a barrel on a steep incline. The somewhat painful experience ended a few seconds later with Andy at a lower altitude and dealing with groaning bones and muscles. He felt like he had just woken up late on a school someone pulling up the mattress and dumping him on the floor.

He moaned, letting the pain pulse through his being, bringing a second sensation of relief in its wake. His senses were starting to flare up, and he exhaled a small breath, trying to get adjusted. A bright, yellow light was beating down on him, and he felt warm, June warm. He could feel a few insects run though the openings in his clothes, their feelers tickling and irritating his skin.

He didn't rush to wipe the bugs off his body. In fact, up until this moment, his eyes had been closed, and closed hard. Deep inside himself, he knew that he wasn't going to be looking at Tarah's lawn when he decided to accept the reality of his situation and look upon the world. He could feel the truth beckoning him like a train wreck, and like all present to a train wreck, his inclination to view it overtook all other instincts.

The first thing Andy saw before him was a brilliant blue sky, covered with an outcropping of snow-white cumulus. Birds of the like he'd seven seen fluttered overhead, sporting large beaks and a rainbow of feathers. He could see the treetops forming a canopy in the corner of his vision, along with a few large red objects that he couldn't quite define. He realized that he would need to stand in order to get a better view, and as he did so, he mentally prepared himself for any shocks that his surroundings might cause him.

What needs to be described here could be called a forest, or perhaps an oversized lawn that had never been cut. Everything about his surroundings existed in an exaggerated state. Small fungi common to Starlight City suburbs were present here at ten times their unusual size; the red objects he noted earlier turned out to be a even larger variety of 'shroom. All kinds of botanical life was within sight, some of which did not co-exist in the same season.

The trees were all gigantic, like the century old oaks one one finds every now and again, only with dozens of them within eyesight, competing for his attention. Strange animal noises could be heard coming from the depths of the forest, a great deal of them unfamiliar. A small brook to his right added a bit of tranquility to the setting, the one thing relatively normal about his surroundings. Nevertheless, the whole thing came across as a belabored artist's drug-induced idea of nature, and it was sensory overload for Andrew Champion.

The boy's heart-rate was through the roof, and his green mane flared like fire as he turned this way and that in a panic. What had happened? How did he get here, and what was here exactly? Was he asleep now? Did someone slip him something?

Calm down, a sharp voice from his rational half interjected, like the banging of a gavel in the rowdy courtroom of his consciousness. He responded quickly to this and willed his body to stop shaking, quietly reminding himself that he was not in any immediate danger. He grit his teeth and sucked in air through the gaps, feeling his heartbeat slow to a more regular rhythm. And, through the special training that Mari had given him, he began to methodically prepare himself for the upcoming trials.

Okay, it's obvious this isn't Starlight City, he told himself slowly, closing his eyes to free himself of the exotic imagery. The last thing I remember is walking up to the ash tree in Tarah's yard, and then...all this. I need to find out where I am, and for that, I need to find someone to tell me. A signpost, a map, anyone or anything that speaks my language, it's all good right now.

Andy felt his determination grow, a calling for the quest settling deeper than the fear in his heart. His hands went to the bandanna that still covered his forehead, the familiarity of the cloth between his fingers comforting. This bandanna is the symbol of my personal accomplishments. It's my sign that I can handle what Destiny throws at me, and throw it back. If something strange is happening to me, then I have to be strange myself.

He reached for the twin tendrils of his bandanna, which hung loosely in the warm, June-like weather. With two hands, he tightened the bandanna around his forehead, and his eyes opened once more to his unusual new setting, this time with courage.

With his mind set, he began walking.

A hour or so ran by, and the sun had moved to the three o'clock position behind a few clouds, making the light and heat more bearable. Time seemed to pass normally in this realm (Andy had been referring to this place in his head as a "realm"), even if nothing else was normal about this place. The jungle-like canopies generally kept things cool under their gentle shade, and there was also a small amount of dew left over from the night before. Once you got used to the gigantic man-eating plants that popped up every now and again, it was quite the pleasant place.

Andy wiped a bead of sweat from his head as he trudged up another small hill between more gargantuan oaks. Though he had managed to find a relatively walkable pathway through the mysterious forest, he found he had to periodically swipe foliage out of the way. Aiding him in this manner was a fallen tree branch that currently substituted as a staff. Whatever bizarre creatures that inhabited the forest had not yet revealed themselves, but he could always hear the noises, and thusly felt more secure with some sort of weapon.

His spirits were relatively high, given the circumstances. It was nice and warm here, warm enough to prompt Andy to take off his winter jacket and tie it around his waist to keep from sweating. The fresh air revitalized him, and he now felt like the main character of an adventure story. As he grew more comfortable with his surroundings, he took the time to examine his surroundings more closely, picking out any oddity he could find.

Of which there were many.

Those of note:

Flowers with bud that continually opened and closed in rhythm. Each time they opened, they made a small musical chirp, and since each flower opened at a different set time, they managed to create quite a little tune for themselves.

Long, vine-like growths that hung and perhaps even grew high up in the treetops. Upon closer examination, they were not actually vines, for at the end of each was a small tulip-like bud that indicated it was another strange type of flower.

Again, giant man-eating plants. Open maws big enough to fit a human up to his or her hips, and with "incisors" sharp enough to chomp that human down to size (he steered clear of those).

Large, rocky monoliths covered with moss. Certainly not strange in of itself, but there was the fact that they seemed to somehow be moving very slightly.

There was another thing odd about the mobile boulders. Andy scrambled over some bushes, and then carefully edged up to one of the boulders to examine the etchings in the rock face. There were some crude pictures of plants and animals, obviously those native to this realm, judging by their unfamiliarity. There was also a small, smiling stick figure, carrying what seemed to be a staff in its hand, with a crude speech balloon above it encasing the words: "PLANTS ARE OUR FRIENDS!"

So there's at least one person here. Andy smiled with satisfaction. I'll find this person.

He quickly turned away to set about on his journey again, but then on a sudden thought whirled back to the boulder. The unabashed, earnest attitude coming from the stick figure's message had struck something inside of Andy, and he appraised the drawing more carefully, a wild hunch forming in the recesses of his mind. Yes, there wasn't a doubt. That stick figure has glasses, twin pigtails, and a unmistakable passion for nature that he could help but find charming.

Then this means...

Any revelations that Andy was going through were cut short by the menacing growl coming from his rear. He turned around, and felt the color drain from his face as he caught sight of the first animal to reveal itself to him, standing outside of a thicket like it had always been there. It had the body of a tiger, but its stripes were green and brown, and it bore a snake's head in place of the standard feline mug. To add just the right touch of fearful oddity, its tail was a snake as well, hissing and snapping like live wire.

A chimera of a creation, apparently brought in just to give out a violent death. Sent from Hell, perhaps?

Andy followed his first impulse immediately, and took off for a dense cluster of trees to his right. Looking behind him, he could already tell the action was pointless, for though the beast was still a ways off, it has ample confidence in ability to catch its prey. It moved at a steady pace, obviously not wanting to overexert itself for what it thought was an easy meal. It hissed calmly through its fangs, licking its lips with blood-hunger.

Andy felt a terrible frustration building up within him, tearing apart any memory of his once-chipper attitude. Just one second after finding a clue to all this, his life was to be fodder for some monster. He felt his hand tighten around his makeshift staff, still held firmly in hand. All of a sudden, he just stopped and turned to face the creature, mentally turning it from an unstoppable force into his sworn opponent.

"You hungry, friend?" he yelled at the beast, as if trying to dampen its spirit with his barbed tongue. "I'll make you choke on that appetite!" Feeling more and more ridiculous by the second, he decided to throw all pride to the wind and adopted a mock martial-arts pose with his weapon. "Ho-choi!"

Andrew Champion. Died in cheesy martial-arts fight with fantasy demon. A very fitting epitaph, he supposed.

And that's when he caught a small blur, undefinable in shape, streaking from the lower branches of the oak trees. It started out moving from branch to branch, then moved onto the side of a large trunk, spring off that to another branch, and started sliding down the tree. This shape, now recognizable as a very familiar young girl, moved with the sharp grace of a stuntman in a martial-arts flick, with all the acrobatics that it entails. It reached the bottom of the tree at an almost inhuman pace, and sprung off it to perform a upside-down mid-air corkscrew, spinning upright to land in between the beast and Andy, with bent knees and an outstretched palm at the beast to keep it at bay.

Tarah's expression was as serious as Andy had ever seen, and yet there was a certain serenity to her manner, not unlike Mari's zen when she practiced her Double Helix Style. She neither retreated nor advanced on the beast, but kept her curiously calm eyes trained on the beast, straightening up with a subtle pride. He had trained under the Double Helix style long enough to pick up on the distinct signs of competence and technique in the girl's posture. She was a martial artist, and maybe more than that.

What she did next wasn't an exhibition of martial skill, but perhaps an indicator of the "maybe more." Slowly, she moved toward the beast, and her outstretched arm slackened a bit. Losing the sense of urgency, a small smile appeared on Tarah's lips, gentle and sympathetic. To Andy's shock, she went right up to the beast and put its hand on its cobra-like crest, and he felt at a loss at what to do.

No screaming or shouting was necessary for Tarah to avoid danger, as the situation had quickly gone from tense to surreal. Tarah was gently talking to the beast with closed eyes, and it nodded its head as if in understanding. Both their eyes were closed, and they appeared to share a certain synchronization, like a psychic mind meld. And then the beast opened its eyes, turned around, and slowly started walking back into the thicket, its camouflage allowing it to quickly become unnoticeable in the expansive forest.

Andy stared with astonishment at his friend, who seemed to be a amalgam of the familiar and extraordinary. The worry that she had obviously bottled up was now surfacing, and she was taking some rather large heaving, breaths. The boy walked up to her, dropping his stick on the ground. "Tarah?" he said, his face curling up in confusion.

She turned to him, her expression unreadable. "Andrew, what are you doing here?" she asked him, staring with large, protuberant eyes.

Tarah was dressed in a tank top and a pair of khaki cargo shorts; he had sometimes seen her in this getup when she had gotten through tracking bugs. However, there was a few notable additions to her ensemble. Strapped to her back via a sling was a long green staff of sorts, and her left wrist was adorned with a long, coiled vine that wrapped around like a bracer. Though his friend was known to accessorize strangely, Andy wondered if these items had some sort of special use in this realm.

He had taken too long to respond, and Tarah was walking up to him, a strange urgency in her manner. "Andrew, you can't tell anybody about this place," she said, gripping the front of his shirt. "It's a secret to everybody! Please Andrew, you can't tell anybody about this place!" She was getting frantic, speaking faster and faster, her eyes filled with some unrevealed fear. "Don't tell!"

"Okay, okay!" Andy broke in to keep her form hyperventilating. "I won't tell." Tarah's breaths were short and shallow; Andy had no idea what could scare a fearless girl like her. On sudden impulse, he placed his hands on her shoulders to steady her shaking frame. "I won't tell anyone, Tarah," he told her, trying to put her worries to rest.

Tarah blinked a few times, her breathing slowing down to a more regular pace. Then, she smiled. "Okay, I believe you," she said.

Andy stared into her honest eyes, and couldn't fight the blush coming to his cheeks. The trust he had won from Tarah had a way of embarrasing him sometimes. He broke away from her and coughed a few times in his hand. "Uh Tarah, what is this place exactly?" he asked her, peeking at her from the corner of his eye.

"This is Broodring," she said, smiling pleasantly at him. "It's the birth point and distributing center for all mana energy in the world."

"...huh?" The previous statement struck Andy with the same clarity as a koala quacking, and he didn't get much out of it other than the name of this strange locale. "Birth point...what?"

"The birth point of all mana energy in the world," she repeated. "Come on Andrew, it's Chapter 7 of Rizenfort's Big Book of Nature Mythology! I thought everybody knew about mana distribution!"

"Uh, I only skimmed it at the bookstore," he said, turning away and rubbing the back of his hair. A part of Andy still grounded in his world of Pangaea wanted to point out the significance of the word "mythology" to Tarah, and the fact that the book was regarded as a flop by many vendors, though it was true that he had skimmed it. In the end, he decided that any argument on the book's validity was futile, especially after what he had experienced on this night. (or day as it was; there was obviously a time discrepancy between Broodring and Pangaea) He was in Tarah's world, and he would just have to let her lead him by the hand.

Tarah was smiling again. "It's okay," she said. "I can tell you on the way, when we go visit the jaggerflies in the Great Prairie." Her face lit up with excitement and zeal, her fists clenching. "Just think about it, now we can have all sorts of adventures now with the plants and animals. Oh Andrew, I'm so happy you found me here!" She stepped up and hugged him, and Andy cautiously put a hand on her back, still a bit bewildered by this experience.

He suddenly felt her stiffen up like a ramrod. "Oh, I'm late!" she cried, backing away from him and turning around in a flurry of pigtails. "I gotta go!" She stepped into the middle of the clearing, where the mobile boulders had just departed from, and put her cupped hands to her mouth. The girl then made a high-pitched shrieking noise, like a kazoo modified on a computer. Afterwords, she folded her hands behind her back and waited expectantly, rocking back and forth on her heels.

Andy refrained from cocking his eyebrow, somehow knowing that his questions about this seemingly random action would be answered. Sure enough, a small lizard darted from the treetops and right up to Tarah's feet. She giggled at the agile amphibian hopped onto her clothes and crawled its way up to her shoulders, where it perched like a pirate captain's parrot. "Do you remember Cornflower?" she asked him, stroking the animal's neck with her finger.

"Yeah," he responded, recalling the last time he had seen the creature: lying in a fish tank in Tarah's room. The creature looked at him with glassy eyes, and made a noise that was something between a guffaw and a grunt. He winced a bit; Cornflower never really took to Andy, even though he had befriended its master. He could feel a grudge radiating from the supposedly simple creature; could it somehow be angry at the shameful way he had once treated Tarah in front of his former friends?

By now, Cornflower had leapt off Tarah's shoulder onto the grassy clearing. The girl was poised in front of the lizard and appeared to be chanting some sort of witchcraft; at least, with her eyes closed, that's how it appeared. Her right hand was thrust palm-out towards Cornflower, with her left gripping onto her wrist. Cornflower seemed to be responding, twitching in comprehension.

Then, the lizard suddenly jumped ten feet in the air, spinning around like some sort of aerial top. Its arms and legs became like putty, sloppily stretching out to ten times their usual length. The body and head soon followed in this transformation, as the form of the creature bulged and fluctuated in an attempt to become a scaled-up version of its original form. When Cornflower had landed, it crowded the clearing at around twenty times its former girth, with a new neck frill resembling the creature's namesake, and a certain underlying strength in its limbs.

Andy looked slack-jawed at the giant lizard, shook his head, and went back to looking slack-jawed again. He had thought Tarah would provided some semblance of normalcy to this fantastic world, but the issues had once again become further complicated. Cornflower regarded him with a casual, yet powerful stare; almost patronizing, if a lizard was capable of being so. 'Yes, Mr. Peer Pressure, I can kick your ass from here to Pangaea' is what the creature seemed to be saying to him.

With a accustomed manner born from practice, Tarah jumped an impossible five feet upwards to land on the lizard's back, straddling it as one would a steed. "C'mon, Andrew!" she called from atop Cornflower, offering an arm up.

Andy hesitated a moment at the proffered hand, regarding it as a ticket to another world. She would only drag him down deeper into this wonderland he had stumbled into. But again, he was in Tarah's world. He had always known, deep down, that any association with her would involve abandoning reservation and throwing himself into the unknown.

And after his previous trials, he had learned not to fear the darkness.

With a confident smile, he gave his trust to Tarah and let her pull him onto Cornflower. The lizard grunted at this unwelcome passenger, while Tarah rubbed its neck in an attempt to soothe it. Andy adjusted himself on the lizard's back, straddling it as Tarah had before him. Instinctively, he braced himself as if he had just slid into a circus cannon; somehow, he knew he would soon be moving very, very fast.

"Hi ho, Cornflower!" Tarah cried out, raising a fist in the air. "Let's go!"

With a massive leap, Cornflower bolted upwards through the canopies, and Andy could feel the leaves and small branches breaking against his back. He had time to hold one more breath from the clearing as the lizard sprung from the branches to bound across this mysterious land called Broodring.

Next Up- Part 2