Before they could react, Crotesius and Tarduk had been yanked from their Sand Stalker. The forest around them had come to life, branches reaching out to grab them, and vines knotting themselves around the two Agori. In a matter of moments, they were tied to trees. Crotesius looked around at the countless warriors whose bodies merged with the wood of the forest, and wondered if that would be his fate, too.
“I’ve got a little knife I use in my digging,” said Tarduk. “Maybe I can cut the vines and get free.” With some effort, Tarduk got his hands on the blade, and sliced deep into one of the vines. The plant reacted instantly, wrapping one of its tendrils around his neck and squeezing until he was sure he would black out. It wasn’t until he dropped the knife that the pressure eased. “I guess they don’t want us to leave,” he said.
Not far away, a mini-cyclone whipped leaves into the air. More and more plant matter was drawn into its wake until an entire segment of the glade was filled with leaves, vines, and branches, spinning furiously in the grip of a tornado. Then a being emerged from out of the storm itself.
At first glance, Tarduk thought he might have been made of plants. He was tall and green, with thorns jutting out from his arms and legs, and intertwined roots crisscrossing his chest. His eyes were an emerald so dark they were almost black. His arms were long, with thick vines wrapped around them, and more thorns served as his claws. Even his sword looked like it was a green and growing thing, though sharp and deadly.
It was only when he took a closer look that Tarduk began to have doubts. Perhaps this being was a living plant creature – or perhaps it was simply armor that made him seem that way. Regardless, Tarduk had no doubt who he was: the Element Lord of Jungle, Master of the Green.
The newcomer looked at Tarduk, then at Crotesius. Then he gave a gentle shrug, which sounded like the snapping of twigs underfoot. “You don’t know the way,” the Element Lord said. “You are of no use to me.”
Tarduk was going to ask just what it was he was talking about, but Crotesius spoke first. “How do you know we don’t know the way? Why do you think we’re here?”
What are you doing? thought Tarduk.
The Element Lord walked up to Crotesius and scraped a thorny nail across the Agori’s helmet. “You’re Fire,” he said. “Fire only knows how to destroy. I have seen Fire try to penetrate the Maze and fail time after time.” He turned to Tarduk. “You came here by accident – but you are of the Green, Agori, so I will let you go. Your companion must remain, however, and join my Forest of Blades.”
“I remember you,” said Tarduk. “Before the war, you led my people. You made things grow. You brought life. How can you just kill, as if it means nothing?”
The vines abruptly released Tarduk, and he tumbled to the forest floor. When he looked up, the Element Lord’s eyes were blazing at him. “Have you ever been to the deep forest, Agori?” he asked. “There the creatures live in perpetual darkness because the roof of the woods is too thick to allow sunlight to pass through. Vines strangle the trees, leeching the life from them so they can take their place and capture whatever light they can find. Every living thing profits from the death of another.”
Tarduk spotted a faint gleam of light in the distance beyond the Element Lord. He didn’t know what it was, but if there was any chance it was help on the way, he had to keep talking. “What are you that you could do this?” he asked.
“Once I was a warrior, like the ones held here,” the Element Lord answered. “Then I and five of my brothers were chosen by the Great Beings for the honor of leading the villages of Spherus Magna. We were changed by their power, made one with our elements, and given armor and weapons to defend our people. We were no longer like Agori, or anyone else. We became nature itself – as benevolent, giving, ruthless, and indifferent as that can mean. We –”
The Element Lord’s eyes suddenly went wide. He let out a ragged scream and whirled around, enraged. Behind him, Kirbold had appeared, carrying a torch. He had lit the vines that bound Crotesius on fire, and the Agori was free again. But the Element Lord had felt the pain of his creations, and Tarduk suddenly doubted very much any of the three villagers would make it out of here alive.
“The torch!” Tarduk yelled. “Throw the torch!”
Kirbold hurled the flaming stick. It landed at the Element Lord’s feet, among the leaves. Yellow-orange fire erupted, feeding off the plant matter all around. In seconds the Element Lord was surrounded by a blaze burning out of control.
“Run!” shouted Crotesius.
The three Agori took off as fast as they could, dodging trees and leaping over rocks. Only Tarduk looked back. The Element Lord was gone. Not dead, he was sure, simply vanished back into the forest. Possibly he was wounded, but more likely he was marshaling his power to stop the fire before it consumed the wood.
Tarduk saw trees and brushes and vines burning, all so that he and his two friends could escape, and he wondered about the Element Lord’s words: that every living thing profits from the death of another.
Those words would echo in Tarduk’s mind for a very long time to come.