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13.5 Ficus

# 2150 11 - 14 mins. 8

I broke into a run toward the swarm of thrashing trees. The Gnomes were already ahead of me looking for the quickest route to their people.

The trees looked different this time around. They weren't just thrashing wildly but looked more like an army. The large trees were in the densest part of the fight while the other plants surrounded the area and even the trees. Animated bushes and saplings clung to the massive trees. Some plants fell off with each movement of the tree's long limbs. It didn't look like the Gnomes at the heart of that mess would be able to last long.

I tried thinking of the best approach to this situation. They were a swarm, and unlike last time, every plant in the group was alive. All of the plants that came to life in that forest must have migrated together. And now, they were all tightly packed around the Gnomes like a swarm of bees attacking an intruder.

"Are you coming with us?" said a voice. I looked up to find Porthos.

"Yeah. In a second," I said. Holding up a finger. I stopped my run and looked back at the Saurians who were beginning to slow their jog back to a walk as we approached the edge of the living forest.

"Are you coming?" I asked Srak, the Saurian representative.

"We have no reason to believe that the Gnomes would help us in a similar situation," he said.

"It doesn't matter," I said. "If we don't help, they all die. They can't make it out of there on their own." I spoke quickly. We had so little time to help them and we couldn't afford to bicker.

"They're here to claim the land," said Srak.

"What?" I asked. "Those are the Gnome colonists in there. They have to be."

Srak just lifted a hand pointing at the shoreline past the confrontation. At the edge of a grassy patch was an outcropping of rocks.

"We don't have time for this," I said. "We need your—"

"Look again," he said.

I grunted and looked back. Past the rocks, the watter rippled in a strange way. I looked closer, and could see waves splashing in odd directions as if they were hitting something I couldn't see.

"What is that?" I asked.

"It's their boat," said Srak. "They just arrived on the island—to claim it."

I watched for a moment longer, and the splashes were consistently in the shape of a large ship. Was he right? Did they really call for reinforcements?

"It doesn't matter. Regardless of the reason, we can't let them die," I said.

"We can," said Srak. "Especially if it will keep my people safe."

"Agh," I grunted.

"Come on," said Dunnel. The three Dwarves waved me forward to where they stood with the Sillius and the other Gnomes. "We'll help. We'll do what we can to give them an escape route."

I looked back at Srak. He ignored me and instead directed the Saurians around the living forest. This wasn't good. I wasn't sure we could get the Gnomes out of there without their help. Honestly, I wasn't sure that we could do it with their help, but having it would be better than not. Still, there was no time to waste. The longer we waited, the less time the new group of Gnomes had.

"Let's go," I said, and we charged toward the woods.

At the edge was mostly smaller plants. It was like escaping the forest after I had first exploded the nature magic all over it, except this time, the plants were dense, climbing over each other. The Gnomes stood on the edge fighting off smaller plants that fell out of the swarm.

We circled the group until we had the shortest path from the edge of the swarm to where the Gnomes were. "In here!" yelled Dunnel.

He pulled his arms back and stomped, forcing a flat sheet of stone to shoot out of the ground at an angle. It carved into the edge of the plants, launching a few into the air. "Make a tunnel," he yelled to Cairn, and she copied his form on the other side. The slabs met at the top creating an a-frame tunnel, big enough for me to walk through.

"Can you make it any longer?" I asked, seeing it only extended about 10 feet into the jungle of plants.

Smaller seedlings were starting to climb out and crawl over us, but they were too small to deter us. Still, it made running hard when they snagged a foot or arm.

Dunnel waved an arm and I rushed into the tunnel with the Gnomes and Dwarves. Plants were starting to filter into the far side of it, so I began growing some of my own. My vines sprung up along the far entrance, barring the plants from coming in. "Go," I said.

"Dunnel and Cairn ran forward while Hartol stayed next to me. Together, the two Dwarves pushed up an extension to our tunnel. There were still angry plants beyond my vines though.

"Porthos," yelled Sillius. "With me!" I saw a flash of purple light as the two Gnomes disappeared and reappeared on the far side of the vines. They both drew blades and fought the charging plants, but they wouldn't last out there for long. I needed to help. I had to push our perimeter forward. But I couldn't let go of the current vines without letting the tree creatures in. I thought for a moment. Vines sometimes spread by putting down roots where they land. Maybe I could do the same.

I stretched my vines forward and did my best to send roots out of the tip that touched down. Roots shot into the ground and gave me enough grab to extend the vines further beyond that. I would have added thorns too, but I was afraid it would hurt the Gnomes more than the attacking plants.

I kept extending the vines until they reached the far end of the second length of tunnel, where I rooted them once more, trapping Sillius and Porthos in a web of vines and animated plants. The Gnomeshad the advantage in such a small space. They were small on their own and their teleports made it easy to navigate the vine-covered floor. Sillius teleported behind one of the plants taking a swing at its legs while Porthos teleported into a flying kick on the same plant. The creature let out a woody scream before the energy drained from it.

Once I had the farthest set of vines rooted and sturdy, I dropped the ones keeping us from Porthos and Sillius. We all ran forward and tore apart the plant creatures. Wood shattered and splintered all around me while I charged one of the plants along with Cairn. I used my magic to stop it in its tracks, but before I could drain the life out of it, I saw something odd. In its hand, it had a weapon. It looked like a long rock that had bits chipped away to form a sharpened edge. Were they getting smarter?

Before I could examine it any further, a rock shot from the ground splitting the sapping's body from its legs. I looked over to find Cairn at the source of the magic.

She looked at me, concerned. "Are you okay?"

"Uh, yeah," I said. "I just thought I saw something."

Another plant creature charged us. Before it reached me, Porthos teleported into it, taking it down with a sword to the body. When he landed, he gave me an arrogant smile.

"Thanks," I said.

"Of course," he said with a nod of the head.

"Just a few more times," said Dunnel, closest to the new vines I had set up. As he finished, more slabs of stone shot up, extending the tunnel and trapping a new group of plants in the tunnel with us.

I got to work right away, snaking my vines forward until they could seal off the end again. We got better at the process and by the time I moved all the way forward, the Gnomes and Dwarves had already dispatched the thrashing bushes and saplings that we had trapped.

We continued that process four or five more times, until we could feel the shaking of the living trees around us.

"What do we do now?" I yelled into the chaos. "We can't go out there." Beyond the barrier of vines was a swarm of plants so thick that we could hardly see daylight, but at the same time, each stomp of the trees was a miniature earthquake that left me feeling scared to stay put.

"Does anyone see them," yelled out a Gnome.

"There," yelled another, pointing into the swarm. I couldn't see what he was pointing at so I focused on strengthening the vine barrier instead.

"Get ready," said Porthos before disappearing in a shimmer of purple energy. After a moment he returned with a Gnome that I hadn't seen before. She had torn pants and blonde hair. "How many more are there?" Porthos yelled.

The mash of plants against the tunnel made it hard to hear her response. I looked back to my vines. I grew them thicker, but their growth was slow with the sandy soil and lack of light. The plants pushed and piled on top of each other in front of my vine wall, causing it to bend inward. Not good.

Porthos disappeared again in a flash of energy and Sillius followed a moment later. They each returned with a Gnome and some of the plants hanging from them as well.

They fought them off, took a moment to catch their breath, and conjured up more magic for another teleport. Meanwhile, my vines struggled to keep back the weight of the growing swarm.

"Can we close off the end of the tunnel?", I asked.

A Gnome yelled back through the chaos. "They need to see where they're going," he said, pointing toward Sillius and Porthos.

"Aghh." I pushed with all that I had to get those roots thicker, but it wasn't much help. "Dunnel I need help. Can you reinforce the end?"

"Cairn, let's go!" he said. They ran forward and a rock wall shot from the ground capping off the tunnel.

"Leave a viewing area," I said, and the stone wall stopped short of closing the hole tunnel, leaving enough space for Sillius and Porthos to see through. A moment later Sillius and Porthos arrived back in the tunnel.

"Let's get out of here," yelled Sillius.

"Aren't there more of them?" I yelled back.

"No," he said. "Move!"

That was all of them? There had to be more than five or six Gnomes on that boat. Why would they just send for a handful of reinforcements?

The other option was that they did send more. Maybe those were the only ones that survived the attack from the trees. The trees that I created.

"Kaia!" yelled Dunnel. "We need another push."

I snapped out of the spiral of thoughts that I had gone into. Our exit was now swarmed as well. There were less of the living shrubs that had made it into the tunnel on the back end, but it was more than we wanted to deal with. Our exit was also blocked by vines I had grown and tangled together and I needed to move them so we could escape.

First, I sent up vines to snare the living shrubs trying to break through the wall. My vines wrapped around them and held them in place while I drained the life from the vine wall. Then the Gnomes and Dwarves moved in. A pillar of rock slammed one sapling into the roof of the tunnel. A shower of sparks distracted another, while Porthos teleported behind it and stabbed it in its core. Within a few seconds, the plants were dispatched, but more were constantly making their way into the far end of the tunnel.

"Come on," said Sillius, pointing to the far end.

We might actually get out of this one, I thought. For not planning it out, the whole tunnel thing had worked really well. But just then, there was a loud crack ahead of us. The stone roof crumbled as a gnarled ball of roots crashed through it. The light of day shined through the broken roof, blinding us temporarily. Once my eyes adjusted, I looked up and saw the towering tree that was once held the epicenter of nature magic veins. Green glowing veins still traveled across its whole body. Two spots of green light near its canopy made it look like eyes staring down at me.

And with the foot of the tree that crashed through our exit tunnel, the swarm of smaller plants started to pile in too.

Dunnel yelled, "Run!"

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