Almost done, I think! Can things get any worse for Trip and company? Rennin swoops in the save the day and Sabir kicks ass, but will it be enough?
All over the room city-dwellers shuddered as the fruit did its work.
“What have you done to them? Lauren said, her voice almost a whisper as she stared round in horror. Trip and Victor looked at each other briefly; this was too similar to Deep Round for mere coincidence.
Every person suddenly stood bolt upright, and an immense scream seemed to flow around the chamber; from outside, the scream was doubled and redoubled as thousands of people, each apparently forced to eat the fruit, felt it take effect.
“My glorious army of believers,” Hork shouted, his voice somehow heard above the cacophony. “You must go forth! To the towns, the villages, out from the city! Take up arms! Destroy all that is vile in the sight of our glorious Tree! Wherever you see injustice, wherever you see the lifeblood and flesh of trees being used for profit by man, raise your arm in anger.
The vines that had been wrapped around each person crept into their hands and hardened, becoming a pointed stave. Every hand went to the sky, brandishing a club, and the scream became a roar.
“Now GO!” Hork yelled, and he threw his arms out towards the city. As one, the population turned and began to rush out of the chamber. They clambered over each other in their haste to get out; many bodies were crushed at the entrances where they were too slow, and one or two were simply dead where they had stood. Trip stared around at the murder, unable to believe that anyone was capable of carnage on this scale.
He turned back to Hork. “You… you monster!” he yelled. “You’re inhuman!”
“Yes I am,” Hork said. Anila looked at her father with puzzled eyes, but he moved forward. “It’s time for you to leave, I think. I’m not sure how you’ve managed to resist the Call, but now that you’re here I think this needs to end.”
“Damn’ right it does,” Victor said, pulling out his sword. Lauren freed up the knife in its small sheathe.
Sabir looked around and suddenly jumped out of Trip’s arms. He watched in despair as she dashed off towards the cloisters and then out of the building.
Hork laughed. “Even your cat knows when it’s sensible to run!” he sneered.
Anila gritted her teeth. “When this is over, I’m finding that cat,” she said. “I’ve got some scratches to repay.”
“There will be plenty of time for that,” Hork said, walking slowly backwards to the tree. He stretched an arm out and touched the trunk, running his hands almost lovingly over its knots and whorls.
Suddenly the bark erupted outwards, thick vines wrapping around his arm, engulfing it up to the shoulder.
“Father!” Anila cried.
“It is… all right,” Hork replied, his face a mask of pain. “This is simply the next… stage.” He grunted as more vines shot out and enveloped his other arm. Anila dashed up to the tree and pulled a small knife out but stood, uncertain as to where to begin cutting.
“Sod this,” Victor said, moving forward. The ground shook, nearly knocking him off balance, and he whirled round with his sword outstretched.
The grassy floor of the shrine was rippling, great waves of dirt rising and falling. It was an impossible sight.
“What is it?” Lauren shouted over the rising rumbling sound.
“I don’ know!” Victor yelled. “Stay with me!”
Trip staggered over to Victor, desperately trying to keep his feet as the ground seemed to quiver beneath him.
Then it stopped.
Dust drifted down from the ceiling, caught in the sunshine.
An arm thrust out of the ground and Trip yelped in surprise. It was green, thick vines wrapped around what looked like human bones; where the fibres of muscles would be on a body, here they were replaced by thick pulsing greenery.
The cadaverous form continued to pull itself out of the ground. A pelvis, wrapped tightly round with living plant tissue, supported a thin spine; no attempt had been made to simulate a stomach, but inside the ribcage vine tentacles writhed and twisted. Atop it all sat a skull, sat at a slightly cocked angle. The effect would have been amusing had Trip not been so utterly terrified.
“Behold!” Father Hork, his arms still imprisoned by the tree, bared his teeth. “In times before, when men still worshipped the Tree as they should, they brought their dead here so that their bodies might feed the Tree even in death! Fitting soldiers for my reign, do you not think? Ghasts from time immemorial brought back by my vines.” As he spoke, arms erupted from the grass all over the room; dozens of skeletal limbs pulling bodies from the ground, writhing vines whipping left and right as the vine-ghasts jerkily reanimated. Victor and Lauren moved closer to Trip, weapons out.
Anila, slightly frantic now, threw down her dagger and started pulling bodily at Hork’s arms. He looked down at her, expression blank.
“Why do you interfere in the natural order of things, child?” he asked.
She pulled harder. “This isn’t what it was supposed to be! You always said you’d be there for me!”
“Kill these intruders, and you will be together,” Hork said. His eyes bored into Anila’s. She stumbled back a few paces and bent to retrieve her dagger, her eyes never leaving her father’s face. Then she turned with a scream and launched herself at Trip.
As if it was a signal, the army of vine-ghasts attacked.
Victor launched himself forward, sword swinging left and right; Lauren ducked under one ghast’s lurching swing and thrust her dagger deeply into its chest; almost immediately several of the tangled vines trapped inside the rib-cage grabbed hold of the dagger and tried to yank it away. Trip, stumbling backwards from the melee, frantically looked around for a weapon, anything that he could use.
“Boy,” Victor shouted from behind a wall of ghasts, “Catch!”
From over the top of the crowd a small sword arced up and back down, embedding itself point-first in the soft mud. Suddenly Anila was there, pushing out of the crowd of ghasts and screaming towards him. Trip reached out and grabbed it, pulling it up just in time to block her furious assault.
“You’ve ruined everything!” she yelled, wildly swinging the dagger. It was all Trip could do to try and get the sword in the way of every swipe she took. The world contracted down to just her and him, and the glittering dance of light on her dagger as she tried to kill him. Each of them hissed as the razor-sharp blades opened up dozens of small nicks, but nothing of any substance. Trip felt his hands growing slick with every drop of blood she drew.
Finally she tired slightly, pulling back a little. Trip’s consciousness broadened a little, allowing him to see that Victor and Lauren were back to back in the centre of at least a dozen vine-ghasts. Then Anila dropped into a knife-fighter’s stance and came in for the kill.
“Stop,” he said, but it was too late. As her blade came around, he brought the sword up to block it and was completely surprised when her foot swept his legs out from under him. He fell heavily on his back, winded, unable to do anything but look at her grinning evilly as she straddled him. She raised the dagger high.
“This is for my father!” she said, and stabbed down.
A sword caught her dagger as it descended and sent it spinning off into the grass. Anila gasped and looked up; Trip didn’t hesitate, but sat up and punched her full on the nose. She staggered off him and fell over.
Strong hands gripped Trip under the arms and hauled him to his feet. He turned to see Lord Rennin, unarmoured but apparently none the worse for wear, smiling grimly at him.
“You looked like you could use a hand, young one,” he said.
“This cat yours?” Rennin said, moving to one side. Sabir trotted out from behind him and licked her nose. “She got me out.”
Trip spared a moment to pat Sabir on the side. Then he looked over at the fight which was still raging near the Tree. “We have to help Victor and Lauren!” Trip said, scooping up his sword again.
“Right,” Rennin said; he looked at Trip and grinned fiercely, then charged into the seething mass of bones and vine with a wordless roar. Sabir raced in after them, claws bared.
Reacting to the new threat, several of the ghasts turned and were cut down where they stood. Trip swung his sword through the green sinews connecting head to neck and the rest of it simply fell away, clattering to the ground. Next to him, Rennin was sweeping his sword in great arcs at waist-height and almost instantly four ghasts went down, their spines severed.
“No,” Hork said. Trip looked up at the man, who was staring down in anger at the battle. “No! This will not do!”
Hork closed his eyes and took a deep breath. The surface of the Tree behind him began to ripple and shake, and he began to scream; vines came up from the ground around his feet and wrapped around his legs, binding him securely to the Tree. As Trip watched in mounting horror, he seemed to merge into the Tree’s trunk, his lower body being entirely consumed by it.
“This will not do! Rise, my brothers!” the man who had been Hork said. His voice took on a lower timbre and Trip realised with a shock that he was growing, becoming massive. He loomed over them, a torso sticking out from the body of the Tree, his arms swept back and still imprisoned in the trunk.
“RISE!” he boomed.
A dozen more skeletal arms thrust up from the ground.