“There are fourteen doors,” the troll said. “The first and second each have one guard. The third has two. The fourth, three; the fifth, five; the sixth, eight–”
“Fibonacci?” I asked.
“Yes,” the tiny wretch answered, his voice the scratching of hay across wet stone. “Final door has three hundred and seventy-seven guards.”
“Christ,” I said, exhaling. “Okay.”
“Each guard has a secret, randomly-assigned number between one and fifty. Each prime-numbered guard in front of a non-prime door will always tell the truth – subject to clause thirteen. Each guard whose name contains an ‘E’ will always lie. The rest determine the truthiness of their responses based on the following self-referential algorithm…”
I rolled my eyes but kept my sighs silent, careful to make no noise that might confound the microphone concealed beneath my shirt collar. The troll – ochre-green, covered in boils and pustules, nude but for a ruined loincloth and a visage of desperation – rambled on at length, describing a series of insane logic puzzles that somehow passed for a riddle. I’m a sharp enough person, but I had completely lost track of his quandary within minutes. It didn’t matter. The eggheads on the other end of the line would plug it into their fancy supercomputer, and spit out an answer before the question had finished echoing across the ancient cobblestone bridge, and the river below.
It’s been one hell of a ride, my hideous little friend, I thought. Despite the problems he’d caused, I couldn’t help but feel a pang of pity for the twisted little monster. Holton Bridgeworks had been confronted by an increasingly-elaborate series of riddles designed to slow, stymie, and ultimately stop the construction workers who had sought to cross. The troll’s magic prevented any means of access across the river, save by his leave. But he was bound by that ancient pact, sworn centuries ago between himself and a local wizard, to grant passage to any who could answer his riddles.
For hundreds of years, this had empowered the strange beast with absolute dominance over the bounteous lands beyond the Chlathra River, visited only rarely by those with the wit to best his puzzles. Boats, underground tunnels – even hovercraft and skydarts coming from the ocean on the other side of the land – all were stopped dead in their tracks by the Fadewall. The terms of the pact were ironclad, and through them the entire region of Chlathra, fully ten percent of Lithania’s landmass, lay under the exclusive control of Heggak, the Last Bridge Troll.
It was the last undeveloped land in the world. But with global overpopulation reaching crisis levels, and the Chlathra Fadewall constituting a serious aviation hazard, legislators had agreed that the time for observing the ancient contract had come to a close. Heggak’s intractability could no longer be tolerated. It was time to invoke that long-whispered clause – the only means by which the creature’s hegemony could finally be ended.
It was time to build our own bridge.
The clause was only there for his sake. A means by which the barrier could be broken if Heggak ever tired of his post, and wished to relinquish Chlathra. He had insisted upon it as a gesture of goodwill to humanity, a promise that it could never be eternally lost to them.
But he had never invoked it. And now, we needed it.
Heggak had centuries of experience constructing impossibly complex – but technically solvable – quandries. He had only used this loophole to deny access to the cruel, and the rude, and the unkind. Those he considered unworthy. He had only turned them on us when we started bringing across construction cbots. Steel and concrete, signs he could not ignore.
He had more knowledge of riddles than all humanity combined. But we had Blue Crossing, the custom-built unstoppable riddle-killing supercomputer. And I had the last truckload of concrete. Enough to bridge the gap between the two sides, and shatter the Fadewall forever.
For two hours, Heggak laid out a series of confounding clauses and convoluted stipulations, weaving an incomprehensible web of madness. In the second hour, he began using a hopelessly intricate code to convey his query, explaining it once and then speaking exclusively in his freshly-invented form of total nonsense. It made no difference to me – I was just the guy with the concrete, and he was just some relic standing in the way.
It was impressive. An artist with centuries of experience in his craft, demonstrating the culmination of all his skill in a single live performance, exclusive to me. The magnum opus of a true master, delivered on a calm summer morn. It must have taken him decades to prepare this. His masterpiece. Delivered to me in a tongue I could not comprehend, his stare unwavering, eyes unblinking. Intent. Dedicated.
Finally, he completed his recitation, his voice cracking. He did not lower his gaze from me – rather, he stared, hoping against hope that the mystical powers I held, the technology he did not comprehend, would finally falter.
It didn’t. The answer began to flow through my earpiece, and while I did not understand it, I only needed to repeat it.
I relayed the answer, keeping my voice level as his face descended into his hands, my tone even as his shoulders shook. Unbending iron, resolute as Heggak, the Last Bridge Troll, shattered before me.