The giant tree with a green glowing face stared at me. Was it thinking? Was it frozen? Did it understand what I said? I stared back at it shaking slightly. It was just a tree, but it was still powerful. I didn't know what they'd do. I could only guess what an army of animated trees could want with their creator. Based on how interactions had gone with them so far, I couldn't imagine things would turn out well for me. Especially because I was vastly outnumbered.
But unfortunately, I meant what I said. If this could get the Gnomes and Dwarves free of the situation, then it was my only option. Maybe I could slip away later if they let me live that long.
The groan of wood pierced my thoughts. "YYYEEEWW MMMAAADDEEE USSS?" the tree asked, confirming.
I nodded. "Yes. I broke open those veins of nature magic. When it exploded, it created you. All of you."
The tree looked at other trees around it, including the one I stood on the shoulder of. Then it looked back at me.
"YEWW WIILL COOMMEE WWIIITTHH UUSSS," it said. It was a statement, not a question.
"Let the others free first." I said, standing my ground against the century-old adversary.
The tree looked back at me and made a noise like it was annoyed.
"Let them go, or you don't get me," I said. I took a step toward the edge of the tree's branch with my vine arm still anchored to it. The tree with the glowing face reacted, raising a limb as if it didn't want me to fall.
I stopped and the bark on the tree's face wrinkled. It relaxed, lowering the limb and then bellowed, "LLLETT THEEMM GOO."
The plants below were slow to obey, but they eventually made an opening. The few Gnomes and Dwarves walked out of the small section of tunnel back into the daylight. They were far below me, but I could still tell them apart. Cairn and Hartol seemed to be carrying Dunnel. Most of the Gnomes were still intact too, including Sillius and Porthos. They looked up at me and I saw Porthos begin to stir up some purple-blue magic as he looked.
"Stop," I said. "I'm holding true to my side of the bargain." And I was, for now at least. I needed to know they were safe before I tried my escape or else none of this was worth it.
I saw Porthos look at Sillius, and then let the energy dissipate.
I kept my eyes peeled as the Dwarves and Gnomes made their way to the edge of the swarm. They stepped out and rejoined the group of Saurians near the water. They walked forward until they disappeared beneath some unanimated trees.
Then I looked back at the tree with the glowing face. "NOW YEWW COMME WITHH USSS," it said, pointing a long gnarled branch at me.
I nodded once more. "As promised."
The long wooden hand stretched up and wrapped around me. I let my vine arm unwrap from the tree and detach from my arm. I had very little magic left anyway. I wasn't sure I'd even be able to use the vine arm if I tried.
And I had made a deal. I at least wanted to make it look like I was going to follow through. I wasn't sure it mattered when dealing with creatures that should have never existed. Did I owe it to them to be truthful? I had created them after all. Shouldn't they do my bidding or something? If there was a chance for me to get out of this, I needed to find it and take it.
The tree lifted me up and I drifted over the canopy of other trees and shrubs further below. The limb stopped over one tree that looked smaller than the rest. As it lowered me toward it, I could see that it was damaged. It only had a few leaves and the top of it was dead and lifeless.
The glowing tree held me over the hollow top of the smaller tree. It dropped me and I slammed into dusty dry wood. All around me were jagged towers of splintered wood, too tall to climb.
Great, I thought. I'm surrounded by living plants, and I still can't take advantage of it.
"GGOOOOO," bellowed the glowing tree, and the forest began to wander in the opposite direction of the Gnomes, Dwarves, and Saurians. I could hear the scraping and creaking of smaller shrubs and bushes below. Our journey had begun and I was all alone.
I looked up at the dry wood that formed my prison. I tried to climb it, but it was too smooth—weathered from time and the elements. Climbing wasn't going to work, and I was already weak from the previous chaos.
I looked up and didn't see any trees or plants close enough to see what I was doing, so I tried my magic next. I dug deep into the well inside me, and there was very little left. I tried to grow something out of the wood, but nothing would take purchase. It was completely dead, devoid of life, and there was no way my magic would be able to shape it, even if it wasn't exhausted.
Still I tried to grow something from the dead wood. Wood could work as something like soil in a pinch, but it wasn't this kind of wood. This was dense and solid. There was only one soft spot I could find, and my magic could barely produce roots into it. The growth was too weak to develop into anything on its own.
I was trapped. Entirely trapped, with no way out.
I sighed and sat, leaning against the dead wood that formed the wall of my cell.
What did I get myself into? I thought. It worked. The others got away. But I didn't expect it to be like this. These were trees. Whether they could talk or not, a month ago, this was just a normal forest with some weird energy in it. They weren't like the rest of us. They were plants. I didn't want to die in order to hold my end of a bargain to plants.
And the Suarians, I thought. I wouldn't be in this mess if they just helped. I shouldn't have expected better of them. Maybe some people aren't capable of change after all.
I looked up at the sky as the trees walked. Each step hurt and made it hard to sit without bracing myself. Tigala is going to be so mad when she hears they left me. And what about Zef and Lolan? What will they do? Will they continue without me? Will they tell the Treeks the sacrifice I made to free them? ...if there are other Treeks that is.
More than likely, they wouldn't be able to make it happen. It would all fall apart, the tentative cooperation we had formed. Without someone who overcame being hated by everyone, there would be no hope. Maybe Lolan could take the role if he revealed himself, but would he survive if he were to do that?
The thoughts weighed on me. There was no way out. I was at the mercy of the very things that my magic had always granted me control over.
Something came into view above me. It was one of the shrubs that had been swarming us earlier. It peaked over the top and looked at me.
"What do you want?" I yelled up at it.
It ducked back behind the peak of dead wood for a moment and then peaked out again. Was it curious? Was it trying to understand me? I stared back at it. It sat there like a spider made of tangled wood, using too many limbs to keep its balance on the peaks of dead wood. But even in the bark that formed what would be something like its face, I thought I could make out a face.
"Can you help me out?" I asked quietly. I stood and stretched out a hand. The plant shied away, hiding all but its head behind the walls of my cell.
I lowered my hand a touch, and the shrub inched forward, studying me.
"I won't hurt you," I said. "I just want out of this cage. Then we can figure things out."
I lied. If I got out of this thing, I would do anything I could to get away. With the rest of my group away from the swarm, they would hopefully be able to avoid future encounters, especially if the Gnomes were using their magic. So all I had to do was get free and we could go about observing the valley where the mind-controllers were supposed to be holed up. This shrub didn't need to know that though.
The shrub inched closer, hanging over the edge of the wood.
"Yeah," I said. "Come on. I just want a little more space to move around."
The spider-like shrub crawled part of the way down the wood cocking it's head at me. It was getting close now.
"That's right," I said. "Grab my hand." I reached my hand toward it. It cowered back for a moment and then began slowly stretching a limb in my direction. It inched closer and closer.
It was only a few inches from me when the walking stopped and knocked me off of my feet. The spider-like shrub looked around and then skittered back over the edge of my cell, out of sight.
I saw a wooden hand swipe over top.
"IITT ISS NOTT TOO BEE TRUSSTEDD," said the glowing tree. "LEEAVVE ITT THERRE."
I continued looking up, hoping the shrub would reappear, but I only saw the canopy and sky beyond that.
"Aggh, I was so close," I said under my breath. What was I supposed to do now?
"WEE DISSCUSSS," said the tree.
"ENNNDD ITTT," said a tree. This one sounded more squeaky than the only one that had talked so far. It was a higher-pitched groan, but I couldn't make out which tree it came from. "THEEYY ENNNDD USSS WITHOUTT THOUGHTT. ENNDD ITT BEFORRE ITT ENNDSS MORRRE OFFF USS."
"YESS," said another tree. It was hard to differentiate, but this one sounded drier and scratchier than the glowing tree. "THEYY KILLL. ITT ISS DANGERR."
They were afraid of me.
There was a knot in the wood where I could peak out in the direction of the conversation. All of the trees had gathered around, many with smaller plants climbing up them and sitting in crevices to be closer to the conversation of giants. The drier tree was an older, weathered tree that had moss hanging from several branches.
"WEE NEEDD TOO KNOOW MOORRE," said the glowing tree.
The wood beneath me rocked forward and then back, throwing me into the back of my cell. Then a voice creaked out beneath me. "I WANNTT TOO KNOOW TOOO."
"IIFF WEE LETT ITT FREEE, ITT WIILLL RUNN AND END MORRE OFFF USS," said the higher-pitched tree.
I didn't say anything. If they thought I couldn't be part of the conversation from within my wooden prison, I didn't want to change their minds. If they let me out, I had a chance to get out of this.
"WEEE ARRE STROONNGG. WEE CAANN STOPPP ITT," said the glowing tree.
"ITT CAN CONTROLL USS," said the mossy tree.
"BUTTT ITT DOESN'T," said the tree beneath me.
"YEESS. WEE TALLK. THENN WEE DECIIDDE." said the glowing tree.
It reached above the smaller tree where I was trapped. With wooden fingers, it wrapped around my body and lifted me into the air once more. Then, the hulking tree bent and set me on the ground. When its hand lifted back up, I could see I was standing on a large rock with a cliff at my back and the swarm in front of me. Shrubs, saplings, and trees stood around me in a half-circle staring back at me. The plants were so thick, that it was as if I was standing in a perfect clearing in the middle of a jungle.
I looked over my shoulder at the cliff. Below a large drop, were more trees, the unanimated kind. If I could jump, I might just be able to use the remainder of my magic to bend the branches and break my fall. It was just a matter of slowly inching my way toward it and jumping when they didn't expect it. It wasn't a foolproof plan, but it was all I had.
I looked back at the plants, guessing how long it would take any of them to react if I made a run for it. But as I did, I couldn't help but notice the diversity of plants that were staring back at me. They were all different, each with its own leaf patterns, shape, and size, yet they all had similarities. Their faces were hard to pick out, but the longer I looked, the more I could find. They might have even had expressions. A small vining plant used two leaves as eyebrows cocking them as it studied me. A sapling held branches in a peculiar way, forming something like a face in the negative space. Why did they do that? Why did they try to imitate people?
"WWHHYY DDIIIDD YYEWW MMAKKE USS?" asked the glowing tree.
I looked up at the tree. It was huge, and its own expression said that this was more than just a simple question. I noticed the spider-like shrub that had almost helped me out of my cage earlier. It was next to a plant much bigger than it with a similar shape. It was a young plant.
The plants looked scared. As scared of me as I was of them. We had just attacked them. They had just attacked us. I thought of the colony—of the war, and the stupid chain of tragedies. I thought of the hatred that each race has for others. A hatred that they couldn't trace back to its source if they tried.
I turned my back to the cliff and looked up at the tree that asked the question. These were no longer plants. Whatever happened in that forest, it created life. It created people. And if they were people, people that I created, I couldn't pass on the tradition of hatred.
"Do you have a name?" I asked.