Chapter 2 - we find out a little about what's going on.
Visually, in my mind at least, Victor is based on Sarge from Quake 3. No shit. Down to the cigar and everything. He's a world-weary fighter, seen it all, done it all, killed it all, retired but not really; he's something like Bruce Willis' character in that film about the retired assassins.
Trip opened one eye, then the other. The man’s hand was open, waiting to pick him up.
“Let’s get you out of there, get you cleaned up. You look like you could use a meal, too,” Victor grunted. Trip blinked and took the offered hand, finding himself lifted out with little effort and then he watched as the old hero started to bustle around the kitchen. Trip sat on one of the chairs and looked around in the yellow glow.
The room was about ten paces square, the furniture worn but cared for. A dresser was filled with matching plates and the curtains had a flower pattern embroidered on them, as did the tablecloth. The only thing on the table was a portrait of a young woman.
“Why did you come here?”
“Something’s following me. One of the things that attacked us, I think.” Slipping his sandals off, Trip pulled his knees up to his chest and rested his heels on the edge of the chair. The warmth began to penetrate his thin body. “I didn’t stop to ask what it wanted. I knew from reading the books that you were here, and I knew you’d help. Like that time in Jerrin, where you saved the boy from the three-headed eagle.” Trip looked over at the man - no, he realised, the old man - whose shoulders had suddenly hunched. “Er, if that’s ok, I mean.”
Victor turned and brought a plate over to the table. A huge slice of boiled ham lay between two equally huge slices of bread; almost immediately Trip realised he was starving, but he sat up straight and folded his hands over the meal, silently giving thanks for the wheat that had given up its flour for this meal. He was aware that the old man was watching him, and suddenly the simple act of saying grace was something to be embarrassed about like never before. Trip opened his eyes a tiny bit and watched as Victor took another puff on the cigar.
“Best eat it, lad; prayin’ at it won’t help.”
Trip snapped his eyes shut and quickly finished the well-worn chant, then looked again at Victor.
“May I begin?”
In answer, the man waved his hand vaguely and Trip took that as permission. The bread was good-quality and the ham had maybe been cured for months; in short, it was delicious.
“You’ve read the books then,” Victor muttered. “It ain’t all like that, y’know. Things was different.” He blew out more smoke and ran his tongue over his lips. “Damned authors, always with their audience in mind.”
Trip swallowed and shook his head. “I’ve read them all, Mr Junn! Victor and the Lion-Headed Priest of Shamun, Victor and the Ingir, Victor and the Korokolok… even Victor and the Deathlord of Firic. That one was my favourite.” He took another bite of sandwich and spoke round it. “We had them all in the Great Library. The Elders said I wasn’t supposed to read them, but I only had to read them once.”
“Tell me what you remember from the attack.” Victor leaned forward and folded his arms onto the table.
Trip chewed more slowly, then put the remains of the sandwich back onto the plate. Suddenly his appetite had fled.
“It was as if the ground came alive. More and more all the time, tall plant-men coming out of the soil. They dragged some of the monks back down with them. They were really strong; I saw one of them pulling Father Tommics…” Trip stopped, his voice suddenly choking his throat. He coughed and forced himself to take another bite of the sandwich, chewing mechanically. His mind had preserved the moment forever, just like it always did, but where it was usually a pleasure consulting the frozen scenes this time it was painful. He swallowed heavily before continuing. As he spoke, the memory assaulted every sense, pinning him down like a dead weight.
“I was asleep when the attack started. There were three dead… people on the floor outside my chamber; I couldn’t see any of the other acolytes, and the bodies were too badly burned for me to see who they were. The smoke wasn’t thick but everything was burning.”
The comforting scent of Brother Matthew was completely over-ridden by soot and smoke as he pushed Trip roughly through the door into the cellar, then followed him in and closed the door. The room was dimly lit, one small window letting in moonlight.
“Brother Matthew showed me an escape passage out of the monastery; it brought me out by a small lake,” Trip said. “Then told me to run away; he went back to the monastery, back to the fight.” Trip sniffed and blinked away tears. “I… I started to run. The trail joined the main road about half a mile down and it was fairly simple from there.” He listlessly picked up the sandwich and nibbled at one of the corners.
Victor grunted and sat back. “I’m a mite annoyed that someone’s destroyed the temple up there, but from what you’ve said, it’s done. Done to death.”
Trip felt his eyes well up again and he looked away. Victor paused and then cleared his throat. “P’raps not the best words. Anyway, you’ve got yer life and yer health; why’re you here botherin’ me?”
“The plant!” Trip suddenly sat bolt upright and looked around. “It’ll be here soon! Something followed me all the way from the monastery. I spotted them just after Helga’s Rise.”
Victor raised an eyebrow. “That’s twenty-five miles away, child. You tellin’ me you’ve kept ahead for all that?”
“It’s coming, I know it! You have to protect me!” Trip sat back down and looked into the man’s eyes. “I need you, Mr Junn. Just like Jarrin needed you in Styrn.”
Victor waved his hand. “Jarrin was a thirty-year old Koru swordmaster. He didn’t need me, and neither do you. Nothin’s huntin’ you down, boy. Probably someone from the monastery who survived is looking for you.”
Fumbling in his pocket, Trip blurted “I have money!”
“Oh? Money, is it?”
“Well, this.” Trip drew out the medallion he had been given by Brother Matthew. It hung from a chain made of the same material: gold. A single ruby shone from the centre of the pendant, glinting dully in the flickering light. Several times Trip had nearly lost it in his mad flight.
Victor reached out and took it. “Where’d you get this? This is…” he started, then shook his head and tossed the medallion back in Trip’s direction. “No. I’m retired, boy.”
The door rattled loudly, cutting off the sharp retort. Both man and boy turned to look, and then Trip grabbed Victor’s hand and pressed the medallion into his loose grip.
“That’s the plant. Say you’ll take me just as far as Fennica? Please!”
“You keep sayin’ plant, lad. That supposed to scare you?” But Trip had stopped listening. He had caught the small movement under the door, oozing around the hinges and easing through the tiny gaps in the wood. It was as if the door had suddenly become the most fertile ground in the world and the plants were taking full advantage.
Suddenly the plate on the table began to vibrate, moving slowly towards the edge; the panes of glass in the windows rattled and cooking utensils, hung on hooks, started to sway from side to side. Trip watched with mounting horror as the plate walked to the edge and fell, only to be caught in Victor’s hand.
“What the…” the old man muttered, looking at the plate, and then suddenly the entire house shook.
Victor bolted to his feet, grabbed one of the swords from the rack and moved towards the front door, stopping short when he saw it. Trip got up and backed away, feeling his way around the chairs. He could feel panic fluttering in his mind like a trapped crow as he gaped, unable to tear his eyes away from the wall of green that had now completely covered the door.
Victor grunted and swung his sword but before he could make contact a tendril of green lashed out and snatched it away from him. He was left empty handed as the shoots started to move towards his face and neck.
“Bugger this for a lark,” he grunted and started to back away from the growing green mass. He looked down at Trip, then grabbed his arm. “Come on, lad, back door,” he said, and Trip allowed himself to be pulled along in the man’s wake.
Victor grabbed another sword from the rack and used it to smash one of the small windows. Trip, finally realising that he was going to die if he didn’t move, grabbed hold of the chair and tipped it into the way of the creeping greenery that was already covering the rug and curling up over the table.
“Come on, lad!” Victor shouted, already halfway through the broken window. As soon as he could, Trip dragged himself up and started to crawl through the hole, then recoiled as a piece of glass stabbed into his hand. As if scenting the blood, the coiling green tendrils that filled nearly the whole house now started to wrap around his wrists and ankles, painfully tight. Trip screamed, barely feeling the deep cuts in his hands and then felt himself pulled forward as Victor grabbed hold of his wrist.
The old man sliced neatly through all of the tendrils holding Trip and stood him on his feet. “Run, lad,” he shouted, then turned and set off in the direction of the village’s centre. Trip shook his head and followed him, cradling his tortured hands in his armpits.
The tumultuous crashing behind them caused them both to slow to a walk and turn around, still backing away slowly. The entire house was covered in greenery, a herbalist’s dream, but even as they watched more tendrils soared into the sky and curled around the roof, caving it in with sharp stabbing motions. A shudder ran through the entire construct and with a jerking movement the house seemed to fall apart, crumbling into pillars of stone and wood that tumbled down and crushed the plant that had brought it down.
Victor moved forward a few steps. “My home,” he murmured. Then he turned to Trip and grabbed him viciously by the shoulders. “What did you bring to my home, you little guttersnipe?”
Trip stared into his eyes, too shocked for words. After a moment Victor released him and turned to gaze on the ruin that had been his home. Then the pain from his hands overpowered everything else and the tears began to fall. He slumped to the ground and everything went black for a timeless moment.