The plants that had scaled her body sweated chill humidity. It had been dark since her last chance to draw breath. Zura was ready to die. Her only regret was that the end would come in darkness.
At least it cool. Some part of her thought it fair she be gifted respite from the heat, even if it came with the ache of her starved lungs.
Her holy symbol hummed in her grip, held aloft and enwrapped by vines. It would extinguish at her end, not that the greedy constrictors let one scrap of light reach past her wrist. She had no gauge for whether her eyes were open or closed, and reasoning such things out were beyond her air reserves.
Warmth, when she felt it, was welcome too. It beat a pulse on her face, which flushed hot then cold as the temperatures dueled against her cheeks and forehead. She squirmed in her tight nest. The heat battered only her front. She blinked and she knew she was alive. Light came through the stalks in front of her like candlelight through closed fingers.
When it went dark again she was more blind than ever.
Zura heard a thwack. A blade bit deep near her head and she cried out. New light, unobstructed, broke through. Four hands wrenched a gap open in the vines. They pulled her through.
The bright world rushed in to meet her unsheltered eyes. She coughed and blinked as her body fought to order itself.
Her eyes adjusted. Windrider supported her on the left. Balor gripped her right arm. Her hand was still trapped, though the cone of vines had capsized, turned inside out. The pinnacle entwined her at the wrist. Windrider hacked at the vines and freed her from the mass. Her cerulean disk and hand were knotted in a ball of vines thicker than those that had suffocated her. As she tugged at to get herself loose the flicker of bright colors drew her attention.
She had expected the roar to come from the trolls. Instead of was Nather. As he ran, his bare feet dripped liquid fire, each foot print glowing for an instant before the toes and heel merged with the chain of his wake. The flame that sprang up followed Nather like a tail. He wove between the trolls. They spat and swatted at the blaze, but fear of burning halted the brutes.
Two trolls stumbled through the curved barrier nearest Zura and the others. They were clothed in flame from their knees up. All she could make out of them were tusks, pointed noses, and arms long enough to scrape the ground were they not swiping at the air. The creatures howled and cried out, as if immolation could be shouted down. They fell writhing to the ground.
She looked down. The ground around her was devoid of plant life up to where her living cage had stood. The front vines were scorched, and the stones under her boots were blackened with a fine ash that each step smudged.
“He could have killed me,” she said.
“He didn’t,” Windrider said, and yanked the vines free of green lashed hand. Light shot free, blinding him. “Damn it! You didn’t think to stop that?”
Out of the corner of her eye she saw the closest vines not reduced to ash slink near.. She calmed her lord’s light. The small sun went dark in and still against her fingers, and she saw the vines hand closed tight enough that blood had welled from her fingers to mar the surface. “Apologies,” she said.
“Self-sacrifice is noble,” Balor said, “when necessary. Fire is a bane to them. They will not recover from the those wounds.”
She saw Nather skip through an arch of fire. Portions previously laid down faded after some seconds, only for the boy to cross through the same area to renew the dancing blockade.
“He has to keep moving,” she said, “elsewise it will all go out.”
“Fortunately, he loves to run,” Windrider said.
“They cannot escape without risking the blaze,” she said.
“But we can’t get to them to finish them off,” Windrider added. He flexed his fingers on the handle of the holy weapon and dropped it through his grip until he held the morningstar by its leather strap. “I’d give some choice parts for a bow right about now. This is the trouble with him getting riled up.” He grinned at Zura. “Seems he’s fond of you. Might be your worshipping a big ball of fire. The boy likes what he likes
She watched Nather leap out the other side of the entwined mesh of flaming walls, all of it mingled in her vision to a tight cluster of burning light. Then she saw him raise a hand and a pinpoint of red fluctuate an inch above his palm.
“Better to be on his good side, I think,” Zura said.
“Of all the things that have died around us of late,” Balor said, “none stood behind the boy.”
Nather tossed the red marble into the center of the cluster of remaining trolls. The fire that jumped from the trails to meet any that attempted crossing did nothing against the vivid orb that shot over them. When it made landfall, the ball erupted into brilliant dome, too fast for her to mark its expansion. Bands of yellow and crimson swam over the sphere’s surface in its second of life.
A growl turned scream sounded close to where the three of them stood. It preceded the hulking, singed body that came through the flames. The final troll had taken its burns as as toll to pass the wake Nather had laid down, rather than face the fireball’s explosion. Its escape brought it within a ridiculous stretched arm’s length of Zura, Windrider, and Balor.
They were too close. The three would trip over themselves trying to dodge its attacks.
The desert air grew hotter around them. Nather stopped his most recent trail between his companions at the smoking behemoth. He was too small to block anyone’s view.
The troll hadn’t noticed him. Its eyes were on the one who had called down the sun.
The boy reached for the highest point he could. His fingers touched the creature’s navel.
The fire that wreathed Nather went out. It ran up his arm and disappeared as it grazed the troll’s belly.
When it belched flame, the troll brought to mind Nather’s magic breath. This was nothing like it. The troll choked out a gurgle, as if it bit back vomit. The beast’s gag reflex came apart like linen stretched over a bonfire. The blast tore the troll’s lips apart. The skin down its chest and arms bubbled and popped along the arteries. It clawed at its chest, as if to let the heat out. It only served to give the vines a means to come free of the troll flesh. The fire escaped as well, but only to curl along the outside of the skin and enkindle the troll’s entire upper body.
The troll was dead before it knew it. The thing had stopped flailing by the time it hit the ground. The convulsions were more likely brought on by the vines fighting to get away from their host, rather than the a corpse’s twitching.
The plants had bled green onto Zura’s robes, but the blues melded with the stains in a pleasant pattern. They colored Windrider’s armor likewise, bringing a shine to it that, though attractive, meant the leather would need an oiling before it stiffened and cracked the surface. Balor had no aesthetic comfort. The blood that had stained his fists was only a dark green-black matting, while all the rest of him was dotted with splotches of plant and troll blood. The eye tricked the nose when one looked at Balor. The color made Zura expect a putrid odor, but close up close it smelled sickly sweet.
“You have any replacements?” she asked the orc, waving her freed hand at him.
“I do not. The appearance matters not, though.”
“I was more concerned how the flies will be if they find you,” she said. “They’ll want to suck the sugars out of the cloth.”
Balor turned away and she heard him grumble. “I’ll replace them in town.”
Windrider clapped the orc’s back as he walked past Balor to round the fire. “Always the optimist. I love that about you. You always think we will survive.”
Balor shrugged. “I have yet to be wrong.”
Zura shook her head. Nather was gone, having darted off when the troll fell to its knees. His confidence knew no bounds. He didn’t bother to stick around to confirm the troll’s death, which left Windrider to squash the beast’s head until it was softened enough he could pull it from the creature’s shoulders.
“I’m certain it was dead,” Balor said.
“I’m certain it is now,” Windrider said.
“Nather!” Zura called. He had stopped in the middle of the area he had run through and around to trap their attackers. At the boy’s feet were three smoldering bodies, each larger than a horse carcass.
“Yes?” The boy said, looking over his shoulder.
“Were you injured?”
Nather looked at his stomach. There the vest over his sash belted waist was torn, and a flat belly without a wound was visible. “No.”
The boy was a terrible liar. When the flames went out, the bodies should have continued to burn. His damaged vest and the blackened remains not even smoking meant he had used them as fuel to suture his belly.
“You should be more careful,” Balor said.
“No,” Windrider said, walking over to swat the back of the boy’s head. Nather winced. No retort came from the youth. How the gladiator could handle so roughly someone who had burned monsters to death, Zura had no idea. “He should have more sense. If he hadn’t been playing, we could have taken the trolls in seconds.”
Nather looked up at the human with wide eyes. He pointed to where vines, still flush with life and unburned, covered the fort’s courtyard. “But they were grabbing me!”
“And you can burst into flames! Just do that. You’ll find few things brave enough to hug you then.”
Balor sighed. “Windrider is right. Abrasive, but right. We need you with us Nather. The world is dangerous. We cannot devote ourselves to yanking your mind into the present when we are fighting for our lives.”
Nather looked down. “I’m sorry.” He looked up at Zura, then back at his bare feet.
Zura thought it her place to say something. He had saved her, after all. They all had. But what came out of her mouth was prompted by what she saw on the courtyard floor, not the feelings of the adventurers.
“Look!” She pointed. The chain of her holy symbol jingled from her wrist. Where Nather had run they saw lengths of vine burned apart, stone left bare. The severed ends still connected to the mass spilling out of the cave at the fort’s back broke from their charred tips with bright new sprigs. These advanced anew.
Zura thought they would come for her, but even those vines under her feet were on the move away from her.
They struggled towards Nather.
The boy saw this too. “They’re trying to get me again!” He situated Windrider between him and the vines.
“Get off!” Windrider said. The boy almost climbed up the gladiator’s back. “Just burn them again!” As an after thought, he added, “When I’m well away from you.”
Nather didn’t hear. He was huffing gouts of flame from Windrider’s back, too far from the vines to have any more effect than cursing at a sandstorm.
Zura laughed, then wondered at why this was happening.
“Nather,” she said, “Hop down.”
“No! I don’t want the plants to eat me!”
“Nather.” She did not yell. She did not need to. The boy’s eyes shot to her face. “Come out from behind him.”
Nather closed his eyes and sighed. He slipped around the human, who backed away, twisting around to check if his armor was aflame. “I don’t much care for having a campfire as a backpack.”
Nather crept back, but only few feet. The vines closed in from three sides. When they grew too close for him, and he threw up both hands. Twin cones streamed from each palm, appearing an inch past the skin pointed down and away. The blasts met and became more powerful than what the boy could muster with his breath alone. The fire cleared a swath in front of Nather, spread like a triangle.
The vines were gone from the pattern he had scorched, but the empty space was filled over minutes, and still the remaining members slid closer.
“They want to be burned.” Zura said. She looked at Balor. “We have to act quickly. His fire can clear them, but they want it.”
“Why?” Balor asked. “It would not make sense, unless…” He trailed off, looking at Zura’s holy symbol. He flicked his eyes upward, not willing to make eye contact with the orb of the sun. “Energy. Plants feed on the light.” He looked to the human male who kept his distance from Nather. “Windrider, we have to push on. They come from the cave, and they will keep coming until we find the source.”
“I hate caves,” Windrider said.
Fundamental Forces, Episode 15 by Ryan Deugan is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.