The fort’s high wall made a crescent. Bowed from the mountainside, it stuck thirty feet out of the ground. That much they had been told. That the fifteen foot high doors would be open to them hadn’t been in Harrison’s debriefing.
Zura frowned. Balor had a better view past the doors than she. They were cracked open wide enough to accept single file procession through them. They could have been spread to accept a score, shoulder to shoulder, at once.
“They expecting us?” Windrider asked, laying on his belly and staring at the expanse of sand between where they hid themselves and Fort Sommer’s wall.
“Maybe someone forgot to close them,” Nather said.
“Doubtful,” Balor said. “I cannot see anyone. What I can see doesn’t make any sense.”
“What do you see?” Zura asked.
Now that he mentioned it, she could pick out small lines of the color in the wall. At first she thought it was a shadow, or darkening of the mortar, but Sommer’s walls had been erected by earth wizards. It was a seamless sheet of rock three stories high and perhaps ten thick.
The green in the wall came out of cracks on its surface.
“It can’t be,” she said. She had taken a pilgrimage to the Last Jungle. Most of the Blue Sun’s priestesses did at least once. They kept their distance, lest the halflings make meals of them, but it had been the first time she had seen uncut plants growing from the ground.
“What?” Windrider asked. He was past the orc, with Nather, the boy of Ig, on the other side of him. This put Zura on the outside of their group.
“Plants,” Balor answered. He rose, squinted at the top of the wall, and trudged forward. The boy, Nather, hopped to his feet and followed. He made to pass the orc but was grabbed just within Balor’s reach and brought to heel. Zura stood.
“Plants?” Windrider asked her as he got up. “Someone knocked over a shipment?”
“No,” Zura answered, walking across the sand. The human male in his blue armor followed. She wondered at the color. Was it another sign? “Fresh ones, like they grow in Copperhead’s private gardens.”
His eyes grew wide. “Live?”
“There should be no growth,” Balor said. “ Not unless someone has the power to force life from dead sand.”
Maybe this too was an omen. The sun fed plants with its light. Her lord’s time was coming. It was the Red God who oversaw the waste of Geze. Perhaps the Blue God would see it quickened.
The other two had stopped at the door. Balor’s tall form was pressed back first to one of them, weering in and around the edge. Nather peeked around, his head in full view.
She grabbed and pulled him back. He was so warm. “You must be more careful. You’ll catch an arrow in the eye.”
“Oh,” he said, looking down in thought. “That would be worse than my leg, or my shoulder.”
She looked, not for the first time, where his arm met his body. There was gauze there, wrapped so he could move the limb without uncovering whatever wound lay beneath it. “You’ve been healed by fire?” she asked.
“Yes.” He looked at the bandage and smiled. “Oh, Windrider said I should keep that on because of Anya.” He leaned in, and his breath was hotter than the desert air on her ear. “He doesn’t trust her. I think she’s a good person, though.”
“No such thing,” Windrider said, too loud. All the rest kept themselves quiet at the enemy’s door. Balor put a finger to his lips. Windrider waved him off. “If anyone’s in there, they know we’re here.” Then to Zura he said, “Anya is a half-elf. I don’t trust anyone, but elf-blooded least of all. You can understand that, right?”
She couldn’t argue. She had her own reasons to ensure the elites paid as little attention to Nather as possible. He may be here as an emissary, but accidents happened. There were many who would want to spark a new era of war between the lands of earth and fire. Geze and Ig were not friendly neighbors, but they hadn’t been involved in outright warfare since before she was born.
They crowded at the entryway to the courtyard. Zura was forced to the back by Balor’s size, Nather’s insistence, and Windrider being an ass. He had been beside her on the way to the doors, but shouldered past to get a view.
“Impossible,” Balor said. His voice was haunted.
Zura crossed her arms. She should have been battle ready, but the other three had dropped any pretense of guard on the approach.
Nather vanished from the opening, sauntering in while the other two stood stock still.
It wasn’t that the boy was any less surprised. Everything in Geze was foreign and wonderful to him. Nather lived in perpetual surprise. Rather than anxiety, the energy of any new experience transmuted to curiosity.
It will get him killed, she thought.
She took up the place the boy had made in leaving, having to stand sidelong between the other men as she looked in.
The courtyard was blanketed in green, and the smell of life, wet and new, hit her nostrils as she leaned into the doorway. “Plants,” she said. It hadn’t been a mirage after all. Vines had grown over every inch of the ground and the five buildings that had made up the garrison of Fort Sommer. One structure was taller than the others, standing two stories high. It was still entirely covered, like the smaller square buildings, but this one had a cut in one side where vines had curled inward around the frame, and Zura was able to work out that it was an open doorway. The others had no such break in their surfaces. Whatever entrances they had once known were covered.
“How?” Windrider said. He drifted past her, not the brusque shove that had gained him a first look, but a mindless advance into the courtyard. Balor walked in as well. It took her a moment to realize she too had been carried by a decision made somewhere below her ankles into this oddity.
The interior of the wall that separated the desert from the fort was covered to just over twenty feet, the shoots of green breaking and scattering as they diffused. They looked desperate to grasp all the sandstone they could and swallow it beneath them.
Their wonder persisted until Nather yelped. He had tripped on something. He scrambled to his feet quickly and brushed himself off. The disturbance of his foot made obvious a lump under the vines.
Windrider took a morningstar from his pack and pushed the clump of vines aside to get a better look.
Zura gasped at the weapon. “That is a holy item. It is a symbol of my church.” The head of the morningstar was a solid blue sphere with yellow kriss blades for spikes. “Those are the rays of the Blue Sun that created change in the world.”
“I think the kinds of change it brings are obvious,” Windrider said. He continued to shove flora with it. Beneath the vines was a sight that kept Zura from cursing him. Leather, stained and damp. It was the same kind of armor the garrison of Fort Waken wore. Under the arm hole Nather’s foot had found, they saw bone. They began pull it aside, but the vines fought them and knotted tighter.
“Doesn’t want to give it up,” Windrider said.
Balor yanked a sheet of foliage up and exposed a pair of bent leg bones. “It looks like he laid down and died,” he said.
“Stop it! Let me go!” Nather screamed at the ground. Zura and the others looked from where they puzzled over the body. The boy pointed at the ground. “They’re trying to get my feet!”
Nather was barefoot. Windrider wore sandals. Balor had pads bound to his feet with cloth wraps and leather twine. Zura had hard leather boots with metal plates on the top and around the calf.
Each of the others looked at their feet and found the curling lines of green coiling around straps and heels. Balor ripped his feet up with little trouble, but stumbled for a moment from the force he had used. Windrider had kneeled and couldn’t muster the force. He struggled, then fell on the legs they had uncovered.
Zura pulled her knife and slashed, the vines coming away cleanly. She looked at the steel and saw it stained. Plants bled, it seemed, though the marks of green were like chalk rubbed on the face rather than the smeared leaking of life from a wound.
She helped Windrider to his feet, cleaving vines in the process. They were small, weak.
“How did they get him?” Windrider pointed the morningstar at the skeleton. It had already disappeared, hidden under a mound. Zura looked at the weapon, not the corpse. When she pulled her eyes off the head and glanced around she saw other small barrows. Ten in all, from where she stood.
“The vines are too slow. They couldn’t pull soldiers down and smother them,” Balor said. He had taken to walking in slow, deliberate circles. This kept his feet moving, never settled too long. Zura imitated him, her dagger ready and a hand on the disk at her chest.
Out of the corner of her eye she saw frantic movement. Nather hopped from foot to foot. It was how someone would react to burning sand, and the fact that a boy who ate fire did it now brought a laugh from her.
Her laugh echoed, and then changed. It wasn’t her throat that made the second noise that overtook the sound of mirth, replaced it with a thunderous roar.
They looked skyward. Atop the wall stood a figure, backlit by the sun. It was humanoid, with a head and two legs and arms, all attached by a torso. But the body hunched too much for a human, elf, or orc. The arms were long. They went past the knees, and would have even if it had been fully upright. The head was too large, and the wrong shape.
Other shapes rose along the top of the wall, all about the same in size and shape as the first, and all bellowing. The six voices filled the courtyard like a choir screaming into an empty cup. Zura fought to not cover her ears, but winced.
Her hearing hadn’t fully returned when the first creature jumped. When it hit the ground in front of them, she felt the thud of it on the vine strewn masonry through her feet more than heard the vibration. The thing looked broken, but she could see now what it was. Bones stuck out of split skin in one leg and an arm, and its jaw was crooked where it lay with its head against the ground. A tooth had come loose from its mouth and made it all the way to strike the toe of Zura’s shoe.
She looked down. The tooth was twice her thumb’s width. It was a tooth meant for grinding.
“Troll!” Balor called, moving backwards.
The troll pulled itself from the ground, and Zura saw the bones pulled back into the meat of its thigh and bicep, muscle pushing them into place where they bubbled and popped, then the wounds closed, showing no hint of injury. When it opened its mouth and growled, spittle flew and she saw the aperture where the tooth had been filled with a new one, fed by a long row that replaced any lost in an instant. The teeth were like regiment soldiers in a phalanx.
Four more tossed themselves off the wall.
“Careful,” Balor said. “They regenerate.”
“Yes,” Windrider said, already running to one of the downed trolls, the one farthest fallen from the others. “We saw that. Thank you.” He jumped onto the troll’s back and hammered the morningstar down on the back of its skull.
“No! That’s a relic!”
“No. A tool!” Windrider said between heaves as he brought it down on the troll’s head. “To change this thing’s head to pulp.”
The troll under him moved. Its arms lifted, and the shoulders snapped. The shot wasn’t aimed, but it was enough to send Windrider reeling as the ridge of a huge hand took him in the shoulder. A blessing he had slipped into his armor that morning before they made their final approach, elsewise his collarbone might have snapped. As it was, he was tossed off the by the prone creature.
It rolled onto its back and slid one torn and broken shoulder under it in the process. The other joint mended before their eyes, twisting back into place. The troll rose, and the other limb spun back into place with a crack and squelch.
Balor hadn’t moved to engage the fallen. “They are all hunger. It makes them impatient.”
“Why does everyone we meet want to eat people?” Nather asked, back to the trolls as he spun to keep his feet off the ground.
“Luck?” Windrider said, rolling his shoulder joint. The head of the morningstar was spattered red and green. He shook his head. “What I’d give for a sword. I was always better with swords.”
“I said to stop grabbing me!” Nather yelled. He tucked his elbows into his sides and balled his hands into fists. One foot came up and stomped down. The fire that had danced along his skin leapt down off him and onto the ground at his feet. It spread in a flash and left the space around him clear of vines.
Ash marked the stones. With a smile, Nather sucked a breath in that distended his belly, the bottom of it peeking out under his vest. He exhaled. The stream began as a line of red and orange just in front of his pursed lips. It blossomed into a rolling cone of yellow, half liquid and half cloud. It swept the floor at his feet and extended out as he spun like a top. He stopped when he was dizzy. He wobbled, almost fell. Not a bit of green remained around him.
The death of everything for twenty feet from Nather revealed the full remains the boy had tripped over. Scorched but bare, the armor showed claw marks and a gaping fissure that led to broken ribs. The skull was caved in on its left side, cracked on the right, as if a big hand had smashed it into the ground.
Killed, but not eaten.
“Balor!” He had to know.
Too late. The orc slipped inside a troll’s range, but only to dip low. As the troll struck out and missed, Balor rose with fist sailing high, and pounded up into and through the troll’s armpit. The arm ripped free from its mooring, shredded flesh and sinew stretching, tearing. Green and red liquids pumped free and rained down. Balor spun and backed away.
He looked at his gore covered fist. “Soft,” Balor said to himself. Louder, he cried, “They’re softer than they should be!”
“Bad form,” Windrider said, swinging the morningstar by its handle strap. “Never confess an opponent’s handicap after you please the crowd. The greater the foe, the greater the show.”
“This is not the arena, Windrider!” snapped Balor.
“The world’s an arena, and we’re all its gladiators.” He ducked away from the troll he had attacked while down, but it only snarled as it walked by him. “Hey, why aren’t you trying to kill me? Fair’s fair.”
Zura cut in. “They didn’t eat the soldiers!” She met Balor’s eyes. “They killed them but didn’t feed. Trolls should have left stains, not bones.”
Balor and Windrider looked at her, then to the source of a wet cracking.
The troll missing its arm trudged to the downed limb instead of going after the one who had handicapped it.
“Don’t let it reattach the arm! They can put their limbs back!”
Windrider, closest to the arm, dove for it. He landed on his side and grabbed hold of a wrist too large for his fingers to encircle.
The noise persisted. The tattered stump of the troll’s shoulder sprouted three sprigs. They stretched out, flying to jab deep into the ripped off limb’s own shredded end.
Windrider let go when the fingers twitched, then rolled away when the troll arm made a grab for him. It was jerked up and away by the full creature turning. The vines recoiled up into its body like a rope pulled by a winch, carrying the arm until it connected with a pop and splash.
“The vines grew into them!” Zura said. A troll approached her from her left. She opted to kill it rather than berate her companions. She hoisted her lapis lazuli disk by its gold chain.
“I am the lens for your light! Burn through me and enlighten the world!”
The beam started as the glow of a hooded lantern, save that it was visible in daylight. The ray contracted to a shaft that blotted out all but itself. It darkened the world not directly in front of it by contrast.
When she could see again, the troll’s head was gone. In its place were a mass of vines jutting from a neck hole, set in loose pattern that matched the veins and arteries they had replaced. Zura had thought it would fall over. Instead the troll hunched and the vines writhed while the opening of its throat bubbled.
It’s growling at me, she thought. It’s growling without a head.
At least it couldn’t see. She proved that when it stepped in to swipe at her and it got only open air as she pulled to the side. After a moment it perked up and reeled on her.
Does it hear without ears?
She heard the crunch of plants under her boots and realized it wasn’t the noise but what had made it that gave her away.
She looked to the patch Nather had cleared.
Four trolls closed on the boy. He was still looking at the ground, too pleased with himself to realize the threat.
Her hand shook. She lifted her holy symbol high. “I am your lens! Shine through me!”
The light was not as focused as had been her searing attack. It wouldn’t behead anyone. It did as she hoped, though. Her boots tightened as the vines grew up faster and constricted with more power than before. The trolls on their way to Nather twitched and jerked. Their skin writhed as things under it swam in her direction and pulled the trolls away from their prey. Only then did they turn their heads to see where they were going, and caught sight of Zura.
They galloped on all fours toward her.
She was at the center of a radiant globe. Plants climbed her legs and over her body to get at the tiny sun she held aloft. Her only consolation was that the trolls would hesitate to rip through the vines to get at her. She was more like to die by suffocation than be torn apart.
Fundamental Forces, 14 by Ryan Deugan is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.