Chapter 25, and the end is in sight for Trip, Lauren and Victor! What surprises await them? How will they deal with this new threat? What is High Father Hork going to do now that he has his own personal army?
Find out in the thrilling conclusion, over the next few days!
Side note: I had real trouble not having Victor swearing in this. I'm tryin' t'keep it fam'ly friendly, I'm guessin'.
Listened to nearly all of the Final Fantasy XI soundtrack while I wrote this at 10pm at night and I got told off for getting Sue and Chippy 'right in the feels!'
Me too, y'know. Spent a lot of time in that world, and learned a lot about worldbuilding from it!
“My children.” High Father Hork’s voice rang out around the immense space, far louder than would normally have been possible. His eyes, glittering with triumph, swept over the assembled masses and Trip suddenly felt his stomach drop out from under him; the man seemed to be looking into him, penetrating the very depths of his mind. Suddenly he wanted nothing more than to be somewhere else, preferably somewhere with a toilet; Victor’s hand was on his shoulder in a moment, squeezing tightly, and the feeling passed.
“Brothers. Sisters. All who come here today. Know that you are welcome,” High Father Hork said. He paced around the Tree’s immense brown bulk, sometimes hidden from view, but some trick of the acoustics in the chamber kept his voice clear. Unnervingly, it sounded as though he was speaking from directly behind Trip and he looked over his shoulder more than once as the diatribe went on.
“You are the chosen. My chosen! Why else have you come here, why else have you heeded the call? For years, decades, you have been on the path of wrong. Look around you; everywhere are signs of waste.”
His pacing became more erratic as his fervour increased. He began waving his arms around as he ranted.
“You buy books! Books that precious trees gave their lives for! Bad enough that we had a storehouse of sin, the Great Library of the Leaves! Bad enough that we almost worshipped the wanton callous waste of blessed materials! Now, that blight is gone, wiped from the face of the world by nature itself!”
“The Library!” Trip said, starting forward in surprise. Victor’s arm shot out.
“Now then, boy, don’ blow it yet,” he muttered.
“Victor! He’s just owned up to it! In front of all these people! Why would the High Father do something like that?”
“Look up there on the platform,” Lauren whispered quickly. “It’s that girl. Anila. She’s agreeing with everything he says. She’s nodding!”
Trip looked carefully, caught off-guard by the suggestion. He felt some of the anger leaking out of him, replaced by a burning desire to know just what was going on. “She’s not under the spell, whatever it is,” Trip said sullenly. “That doesn’t change anything though!”
Victor grunted. He clenched his fist slowly, leather armour creaking as his muscles hardened. “I owe her a beatin’ or two,” he said quietly.
“You heat your homes with the very flesh of that which gave you life!” the High Father continued. “You work specifically to do it! Saving your precious coppers to buy logs and kindling and then burning them! Would you burn a baby to heat your home? You build wooden houses, then live in them! Would you hollow out a person and make your home in that?”
“Built that house with my own two hands,” Victor growled. “Can’t say th’same for that piece of ‘orse dung.”
“And now, I am ashamed to say, the worst things have come to pass. The Science and Industry College,” he spat, “toiling away in their workshops hotter than the fires of hell themselves, have created monstrosities beyond anything you can imagine!” He snapped his fingers and Anila stepped off to one side, then began to wheel something in that had been mounted on a cart. It was large and covered in a tarpaulin.
“What?” Lauren said. “I recognise that. How’d he get that off the boat? She was bolted down last I saw her…”
Anila whipped the sheet off and revealed the jointed metal sections of PAM underneath. The huge mechanical suit of armour sat slumped, hatches torn open and inner workings revealed. The polish was scuffed and damaged.
“If any permanent damage has been caused to PAM,” Lauren seethed, “I’ll make sure I pull out his eyes last so he can count how many toes I’ve made him swallow!”
“Wait,” said Trip. “Don’t you think there’s something strange about this?”
Victor looked at him with narrowed eyes but said nothing.
“I’m serious. This is a bit… targeted.”
On the stage, Hork was climbing on top of PAM. “Look at the creations of hell, my brothers and sisters! Powered by burning the flesh of our beloved tree!”
“It’s steam-powered, actually,” Lauren muttered. “Coal. Not wood.”
“Surely this is the work of devils and whores,” Hork screamed. His face was bright red and flecks of spittle could clearly be seen on his skin. The crowd watched, completely unresponsive, still caught in whatever trance had brought them there.
“Well, we will stand for it no longer. Brothers and sisters, the time is ripe!” Hork’s hand slowly raised, index finger pointing, his eyes following until he was staring up into the branches of the trees. “Here is our salvation!” he cried. “Here we will be saved! Here our sacrifice will be made, but not in vain!”
“He’s going to sacrifice people! Like Father Liam was!” Trip said. “We need to stop this!” He stared in disbelief at the head of his church who was apparently prepared to kill people to get his way.
“But how?” Lauren said. “We can’t get through the crowd!” Trip looked around, but she was right; there were so many bodies pressed around them it was like Hork had surrounded himself with a human shield a dozen metres thick.
“We need t’try,” Victor said, and with a muttered “sorry,” he kicked the legs out from the man in front of him. With a thump, the unlucky baker, from the look of his apron, buckled and went down. Victor was already stepping over him and moving onto the next victim.
A flicker of movement from in front caused Trip to stare in wonder as several thick branches, thrust down from the leaves of the tree and slammed into the ground. Victor looked up briefly and then began kicking with renewed vigour.
“Few will be chosen for this great sacrifice! Give your lives and bodies to the cause, my dear brothers and sisters! My friends!” The grin on Hork’s face was horrible to behold, his cheeks shining with an unnatural red sheen.
The branches tunnelled under the ground, leaving mounds of earth in their wake, and burst out behind the crowd on all sides. Quicker than thought, they pounced downwards, each one stabbing into a person. All around the chamber, screams went up as the immense pain broke the trance for the sacrifices.
One of the branches, closest to Trip, seemed to be probing the air.
“Victor!” Trip said, abandoning all hope of subtlety. “Stand still!”
Lauren grabbed Victor’s arm and froze. The branch, like some sort of horrible tentacle, sensed whatever it was looking for and stabbed down suddenly, directly towards Trip. He stumbled backwards, closed his eyes, expecting any second to feel the terrible pain, hear it strike flesh.
Then a horrible shriek, almost in his ear, made him open his eyes in a flash. He was just in time to see the tortured face of the baker whose body he had tripped over being lifted up by the tentacle-branch. It pulsed in weird ways, bulges of something - blood? - going all the way up the branch, under the ground and then up into the canopy of leaves.
The screams fell silent as Lauren helped the shaking Trip up. All around the chamber limp bodies, somehow emptied of vital fluids, were being dropped into the uninterested crowd. The final bulges of blood and viscera flowed up to the leaves and the branch-tentacles withdrew.
Father Hork fell to his knees. “Now, we shall see. Now the great Spring will come, and we will bask in its glory!”
“Look! The Tree… it’s flowering!” Lauren said. Trip looked up and gasped.
All over the Tree, the most beautiful sight he had ever seen was spreading through all the branches. Large white flowers, each with a tiny spot of what looked like glittering gold at its centre, were covering every surface of the Tree. The effect was startling, and simply the most beautiful sight any of them had ever seen. The sun reflecting off the gold sparkled more brightly than anything made of plant material should.
“Very pretty,” Victor said, then kicked the knees out from the woman in front of him. “Nearly at th’front; be ready.”
Lauren nodded. She patted the knife at her belt and licked her lips nervously. Trip searched his memory for anything that might help in the coming fight; nothing seemed appropriate. His mind was a whirl of confusion still; how could the High Father be responsible for this?
The last person fell and the three of them stumbled into the space around the Tree. In a flash, Anila was in front of them, blocking their path. Father Hork looked down at them.
“Ah,” he said. “I wondered how long it would take you.”
“This ends,” Victor said. “No more people die.”
“I disagree, you trained ape. More people will die. All people die in the end. They have dishonoured the Arbour,” Hork said, patting the bole of the Tree. “They deserve nothing better than death.”
“This isn’t the way!” Lauren said. “If you feel that what people are doing is wrong, educate them! Come up with some way to let them make the choice for themselves!”
“Why would I do that?” Hork sneered. “Look around you. They’re all out of choice. They’re all out of wanting to be educated. They stand like the trees they so wastefully destroy, waiting for the woodsman’s axe. But that will change.”
Trip moved forward, Sabir still in his arms. “Why are you doing this?” “You’re the leader of hundreds of people! The inspiration for everyone in the church! But you kill to get what you want.” He scowled. “You’re not my leader.”
“You have no idea what you’re dealing with,” Anila said, speaking for the first time. Trip looked into her face and saw the same religious desperation that was mirrored in her father. She believed in this utterly, he realised. “What my father has done for this country is nothing short of a miracle, and the Tree will see fit to respond with its own miracles! You need only to have seen how the blessed were chosen to give their lives! If this is not a miracle, what is?”
“We’re going to stop you,” Trip said, trying to keep the quavering out of his voice. “We saw this at Deep Round; Father Liam needed to give them the fruit. There are too many people here! It’ll take you hours!
Hork shook his head. “You really don’t understand. All great accomplishments have a certain amount of… experimentation. Deep Round was the trial, which you so foolishly got in the way of. This is the final result!” He spread his arms wide and suddenly, all over the room, a rustling papery sound started. Trip looked around in mounting fear; what could this new danger be? Anila took a threatening step forward, but Trip paid her no attention.
Without warning, the ground erupted at every person in the room’s feet. A green shoot came out, slowly winding its way around each person’s legs, twisting and squeezing. Like a snake throttling its prey, it reached their head. Trip watched in horror as each vine split in two; one wrapped around the forehead, forcing the head back and the mouth open; the other hovered in front of their mouths. Faster than Trip thought possible a small red fruit, no bigger than a strawberry grew on the end of each shoot and plunged into every person’s mouth. Suddenly released by the vines, every mouth involuntarily closed. Without fail, every man, woman and child swallowed the fruit.
“You see,” Hork whispered, “Everything is under control.”