“Nather, can you hold back your flame?” Zura asked.
“You mean be cold?” Nather shivered at the thought. “Why would I want to?”
“Can you keep your heat tight inside and not let it escape?”
“Oh! Sure.” He closed his eyes and clapped his hands. The air fell by degrees. The vines slowed. The ends, pointed and accusing, turned wayward. Whatever sight they possessed had been blinded.
“Excellent,” she said. “I need you to keep that up until you get to the heart.” She pointed her scimitar, the curve an upturned claw.
“Okay,” Nather said. He peeked out of one eye and oriented himself. He closed it before starting for the cave entrance
He bumped off Windrider’s chest. The gladiator had thrust himself in the boy’s way. “We’re not sending him into that alone.”
“The more that go, the harder his escape,” Zura said. “He’s fleet of foot and can burn his way out, so long as we’re not there to obstruct him.” From where they stood, the mine looked cramped. If the trolls had ever been inside it, they had stooped.
“I am fast,” Nather agreed. Colliding with his companion had stunted his concentration. The vines wriggled with interest. When they calmed, the group knew he had recovered his focus.
“Touch him,” Zura said.
Eyes narrowed, Windrider put a hand on the boy’s shoulder. After a start, Nather relaxed.
“He’s corpse cold,” Windrider said.
“Am not!” Nather protested.
“He appears so because he’s not sharing his warmth,” Balor said. “If he can keep it inside him like a held breath, the plants will not prey on him.” He looked at Zura. “But all that lives, breathes. He will exhale at some point.”
“When he does,” Zura said, “let it be at the heart of this plant and not while his friends bicker away our victory.”
“Sound reasoning,” Balor said, “if the core is inside the tunnel, within reach.”
“I feel weird,” Nather said. “How much longer do I have to do this?”
Zura cursed and threw up her hand. “You two safeguard me. Don’t let them trap me again.” She called her Lord’s light through her soul and up her arm. It erupted from the disk she thrust overhead.
The vines took notice. Again, they fixated on her to the exclusion of all else. Like vipers, they darted over the stones.
“Nather, run!” Zura cried. “Don’t stop until you get to where the vines all meet.”
Windrider jumped out of the boy’s path as though hurled aside by the string of profanities he let loose. “You are mad!” he yelled at the priestess through what became a laugh.
Balor spun and stomped, performing some kind of dance. It was too jerking and abrupt to be beautiful. He brought his feet down and the slates under the slithering vines fractured like panes of glass. The plants fared little better. Footprints of pulped green were left wherever his foot lifted.
Eager to please, Nather made for the cave entrance. He slipped twice and fell once, but rolled onto his hands and sprung back into a trot as he got his feet under him again. The thick, cold cables stretching across the courtyard made for tricky terrain, but never did they reach for him or show any mind as he tumbled and traipsed across them.
Zura had forced their hand. It had been a less than honorable maneuver, but she would cheat and lie a million times over if it saved a single life. Something like this, with what it had done to the garrison and those sent to investigate, could overtake the mountain and grow to threaten the region.
Nather bumped along walls as he ran. He was lucky. The plants overlaid the jagged edges of the cave. He bounced back and forth, his inner eye fixed on keeping the glow of his fire from floating away in wisps like it normally would.
It was like making a fireball. He made a bubble out of imagination. Then he filled it with fire. It overfilled, but unlike a cup with too much put into it, the extra fire had nowhere to go. It hit the invisible walls of his thought bubble, and the more fire he put in, the more jumbly it got. Before it got to be too much, he would throw the ball, which by then looked like a glowing red marble. It would hold shape until it touched something, anything, and then BOOM!
When Zura asked him to keep his own heat from leaving, he just made a bubble around himself. Then he sucked it in, tight as his skin. He had done something a bit like it when he kept the others from taking in too much heat in the desert. This was the same thing, only in reverse and harder to keep up.
He felt wobbly. The skin bubble kept trying to give at one place or another. It was like holding his breath, just like Balor said, even though Nather was breathing as much as he could. He took in deep lungfuls and let them out while squeezing his stomach in, trying to prove to himself that he wasn’t suffocating. He turned his mind back to the skin bubble, just as Menolag had turned Nather’s chin back toward the books every day during reading time.
“Concentration,” the wizard had said, “is the single greatest tool of the magic user.”
“I want to play!” Nather had said many times.
“Think of this as a game, then,” the white bearded human had said. “How long can you keep your eyes moving across the page without letting them flick back to the words you’ve already passed? How many pages can you read thusly in the span of an hour? How many books can you read in a week? These are games, yes?”
They were not. Not any games Nather wanted to play at least. Granted, his exposure to the concept of games was only due to all the reading he had to do. Reading and play still didn’t seem like the same thing.
Nather’s bare feet passed strange textures, rough then smooth. The chill he knew had to be in the cave was a distant thing; his flesh hoarded its warmth, so everything was as warm to the touch as he himself was. That couldn’t be true though. Nothing melted or ignited. There was the rough stone between the thick tendrils, but at odd intervals the parallel order of the lines was broken by smooth edges, like glass that wouldn’t cut.
He scrunched his eyes tighter. The feeling of the plants surrounding him, breathing their cool, tiny gasps, the sound of them dragging stalks over cave walls and floor, made his insides try to work their way out his mouth. He bit his lips and swallowed hard. When others got sick they let out what was waiting inside their stomachs. It was the same for Nather, only all he had in there was the very fire Zura had told him to lock inside his flesh.
The next thing he knew he was down on what felt like a scraped knee. HIs bubble held, but a bit had leaked when his actual skin peeled back. A jagged nugget took most of his weight, and he had been the thing to break.
Around his knee the ground sizzled. Burning copper wafted to his nose.
Nather got to his feet. It was the hardest thing he had ever done.
He walked, each step slow, carried out by deliberate order to either leg. No thought was given to a goal or progress. These were distractions. There was only holding his skin in, trying to will the liquid running down his leg to stop, or at least to give up the heat it transferred out of him. It worked, mostly. The blood was ice against his ankle and never touched the ground. Plants stirred, but none reared up.
All his self was wrapped around a pulsing core that pleaded for freedom in maddened, starved roars. He had heard a sound like it before, through the pipes that fed from the Works to the arena. When he asked, he was told they had been lions.
He was dizzy and hungry. After a moment, he noticed he had stopped walking. A raised knee, the one without a wound, was stopped by some obstruction, which thrummed as he made contact. He cracked one eye, then blinked both open. The effort of concentration had so overwhelmed him that vision, or its absence, had little effect on his inner distress.
The cave ended in a blockage of twisted vines, wound in on themselves into a circular mass. Thicker than the extensions that were grappling his friends outside, these throbbed with violet and dark blue veins. Their rhythm was paced slower than his own hammering heart, but somewhere in the knotwork beat an organ of similar design.
“Okay,” Nather said, reaching a hand out. “Time to -” He was cut off by his own scream. “Ow!”
A shorter vine, recently sprouted from the giant ball, had lashed around Nather’s bloody knee. It stung, but the whipping and squeezing were feather brushes compared to the when the needle thin tip prodded and sank into his wound.
It did not. His blood blackened the vine and it caught fire. This didn’t dissuade it. The vine pushed harder.
Nather struggled to hold onto his second skin, the tight bubble wavering as pain crashed over him in waves. He realised two things: first, that the pressure he held inside him was somewhat less because the vine was leeching warmth from his cut as a mouth might blood, and second, that he had no reason to hold back any longer.
He sighed, then exploded.
Outside, the others were in a bind. While Zura had managed to keep all but her ankles clear of the vines, Windrider had succeeded in protecting her by enticing vines to strangle the life out of him. Such was his effect on all of the Blue God’s creatures. Three of the lengths coiled around his torso, constriction hampered by the thick, stomach guarding belt that encased his abdomen. Two more were at his throat, but as they had also tethered his hand in their rush to wring the air out of him, he was able to flex and keep a fraction of a lungful passing in and out his nostrils. To the man’s credit, his free hand swatted whatever came near with its mace.
Balor was spread and suspended off the ground, vines from an overhang off one of the garrison buildings having captured his left wrist and leg, then as they dragged up his other extremities were secured by ground dwelling foliage. They were drawn tight, the tentacles working to quarter the orc. So far they had only ellicitated pops from his joints that sounded more therapeutic than crippling.
The ground shook. Dust billowed in brown-gray plumes from the cave’s entrance.
When the vines went limp, it was a relief. A third of their company gave pained grunts as he was dropped on his realigned back.
“Ack!” Windrider said, tugging vines from around his neck and somehow ending up gagging himself. After some furious spitting, he went on, “There must be some.” He flicked his head towards the cave, where a mist of thick dust hung in the air, drifting without hurry. “Looks like our boy did the deed.” He sighed. He had somehow twisted himself up more. “Zura, be a dear and go make sure Nather isn’t crushed or pinned by the cave-in he made at your bloody stupid order.”
Zura was about to protest, but the plants at her feet were dead and required only stepping out of, like unbuckled boots. Already they stank of wet sulfur.
The boy had followed her plan.
“No harm has come to him,” she declared. It had to be so. He was her sign.
Free of vines that tumbled limp and ever more dessicated, the cave walls were a mix of drab shale and eruptions of brilliant blue crystal. Where light fell, they bent it and shared it by reflection down the shaft. The crystals stuck from the rock face at odd angles, as if each were a box slotted in random angles. She thought of cookies she had eaten on pilgrimage, with molten dough speckled with chips of chocolate.
Nather was not buried, as it turned out. He met her not more than twenty steps into the cave. A beam of light passed over his face as he walked from the darker recesses of the collapsed mine. Another reflection illuminated something held in front of him at stomach height.
“Nather, what is that?”
“She was scared,” he said, by way of explanation.
The bulb was smooth and seamless as an egg, and large enough to be fitted with a helmet. It was green, a color they had seen too much of today, but which was in short supply in the desert, and stood out on their journey back.
Zura was for destroying it.
“You cannot want to safeguard that monstrous thing,” she had said as the group discussed Nather’s pet. “It murdered these people, made slaves of the trolls.”
“The trolls would have been murderers without any compulsion,” Balor said. “Even with their hungers sated by the vines, they were violent and less than communicative.”
“Nather braved the cave,” Windrider said. “Nather blew himself up to get the thing. I think he should get to choose what happens with it.”
Zura was struck by the gladiator’s statement. Balor would side with his curiosity if there was no immediate threat. That was to be expected. But it would be simplest to kill the thing outright, and Windrider had always struck her as the most practical of their number.
“It’s because he identified it as female, isn’t it?” she accused.
Windrider waved her off. “Of course not. It’s a plant monster.”
“And you’re a sexist pervert. Don’t deny it,” she closed his mouth with her words. “I know a predator’s gaze for what it is. You cannot possibly think whatever might be born from this larva will be a thing you can bed.”
Windrider shrugged. “I hedge my bets. But that doesn’t change the fact that since the vines were blasted, it’s been quiet as a corpse.”
“She’s not dead,” Nather said. “She’s just sleeping.”
Zura wheeled around on the boy. “What happened?”
He told her of his struggle into the cave, of his wounded knee and the vine pushing into him.
“I let all the fire go, but I hear this voice, begging me not to kill her, saying she didn’t want to die. She said she didn’t know she was hurting people, not until she touched me.”
“A lie,” Zura said, though she had no idea if it was. She had never known such a creature, but it had all the markings of falsehood spat out on the verge of deserved death.
“No,” Nather said, with a certainty that could not be argued with, only frustrated by.
“What of the energy she stole?” Balor asked.
“Stole being the key word,” Zura said.
“I mean, what use has it been put to? You yourself call the thing a larva, Zura. It looks to be an egg, or some unborn state. The energy must fuel whatever growth goes on inside.”
“And again I return to the need to have done with it. Split it with an axe. Let Windrider smash it. Whatever you do, do not let the thing inside come to term, or the country might well face a danger that makes that fort’s demise seem but a nick on a finger.”
“She won’t be bad,” Nather said. “I can tell. She’s good.”
Zura frowned, then looked to the other two. “You cannot give consent to this.”
“Nather,” Windrider asked, “am I a good person?”
“And is Balor?”
“And what about Zura?”
“She is, but she’s scared, because she was almost smothered.” Nather looked at Zura. “That won’t happen again. I promise.”
She threw up her hands. “And how can you promise that? How can you be so sure she – it – will not grow hungry again?”
Nather smiled at that and held up a hand. Fire curled up from his skin, lifted an inch above his palm to hover, and then changed. It flickered from orange to green, starting at its base and replacing itself in a single breath.
He touched the egg. It did not burn. Instead it absorbed the fire as a shaman might breathe medicinal smoke.
“See?” Nather asked. “I figured out how to make plant food.”
Fundamental Forces, Episode 16 by Ryan Deugan is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.