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13.8 Ficus

# 2365 12 - 16 mins. 9

"WUUTTT?" said the giant glowing tree. I was pretty sure it was a question. That would make for an interesting name. But I was supposed to be learning about them, not mocking their name choices.

"A name. What are you called?" I said, clarifying.

The tree took a moment, eyeing me from an angle, studying me. "I AMM CALLED GRROLLOKK," it said.

"Grollok, nice to meet you," I said. Despite my change of heart toward these creatures, I still was scared. I looked cautiously between them to see if I was overstepping some animated tree social boundary or something. They acted a bit spooked by me, and I didn't want to be crushed as the result of a gut reaction on their part. "I am called Kaia."

Grollok looked at the other trees. Then bark bent above his glowing eyes. A clump of moss loosened and dangled in front of his face, but he didn't seem to mind. "YEEWW DIID NOOOT ANNSSWWEERR," said the tree. "WWHHYY DIIDDD YYEEWWW MAAKE UUSSS?"

What are they looking for? Why do they want to know? I wondered.

"I don't know," I said. "I didn't really know what I was doing. I was being attacked, and I used the magic that covers you." I pointed at the green glow all throughout Grollok's trunk.

"YEEWW DIID NOTT KNOWW?" said Grollok.

"I was just trying to create some plants to get me and my friends out of trouble," I said. "I didn't know it would make you... alive."

"NOOO," bellowed Grollok. "NOTT GOOOODD ENOUGH!" He took one of his branches and slammed it into the ground beneath him. Smaller plants scrambled to get out of its way. The impact shook the ground and knocked me off of my feet. I found a handhold and breathed a sigh of relief as I looked down at the drop below.

Sure, I had been thinking about jumping off of it only a moment ago, but thinking about it and doing it were two completely different things. And I definitely didn't want to be pushed off of it.

"SHEE KNOWWSS NOTHHIING," said another tree. "LETT USS ENNDD HEERR NOWW ANND GOO BACKK FORR THEE RESST." Some of the smaller plants on my level were starting to creep forward. They didn't seem to speak much, if at all, but they were definitely reacting to what the others said. But they weren't just angry for the sake of being angry.

They are lost—trying to find their purpose. They are just like me when I was alone in those woods so many years ago. There was no one to show them how to deal with this world that they were thrown into. That sucks. And if it hadn't been for Chipry—if I didn't have that one reason to keep going, I don't know how I would have turned out.

"I want to help," I said. The trees' heads stared back at me and the shrubs stopped for a moment. "I don't know why you're here. It was my magic, but it did something it has never done before. I want to know how it happened too. And I want you to get what you want."

"WEE WANNTT THEE ANIMALLS LIKKE YEEWWW DEAAAD," said the smaller tree that previously imprisoned me.

I looked at the others. They seemed to be in agreeance that I was the enemy, but no one was acting on it just yet. This was a new civilization. It was a new people group that was forged in chaos. I couldn't let them turn out like the rest of us—just another race of killers and destroyers only looking to protect their own.

I put my hands up. "Why?" I said. They halted again, exchanging glances and giving me a chance to gather my thoughts. "Why do you want them...us dead?"

"YEWW ARRRE DAANNGGERRR," said one tree.

"YEEWW KILLL USSS," said another.

"WEE WANTT TO BEE SAAAFFFE," said Grollok.

I pointed at Grollok and he narrowed his eyes at me. I couldn't tell how much intelligence these guys had. Was he offended? I pulled back my hand.

They could talk, but would they listen to reason? "That's why," I said. "You want safety. That's what I want too. That's what the others like me want. We didn't know you were alive. We thought there was just some strange magic making plants attack us."

"LIIIESS," said the smaller tree.

"It's true," I said. I pointed at the cliff where I stood. "Imagine this rock stood on its own and began rolling over you. You would fight back. Right?"

"ROCKKSSS DO NOTTT FIIIGHTT," said Grollok.

"Trees didn't used to fight either," I said. "All of you used to be a forest. Something crazy happened when I let that magic loose, and now you can move and think. But you started out by attacking us. We fought back to defend ourselves."

"HMMM," Grollok groaned. He looked at the other trees considering my words.

I stood quietly at the edge of the cliff with my fate in the wooden hands of an angry forest. I looked down over the cliff again at the trees below. I could feel the sweat running down my forehead as I thought about what it would be like if I had to jump.

"ANNDD YEWW WILLL GRRANNTT USS SAAFFETTY?" said Grollok.

"Yes," I said. "But we want safety too. Stop attacking us and we'll stop attacking you." Maybe they could even help us in the future, but I didn't want to mess up the understanding we were finally coming to.

A smaller tree stepped forward, pushed past Grollok. It had pale yellow bark that peeled off of it in crisp curls. A yellow birch. "WUTT ABOUTTT THEEE FORRESST NEEAAR YOURRR COLLONY?" asked the birch. "DIID THOSE TREEES FIIGHT TOO?"

"No?" I said. I wasn't sure what she was talking about.

The yellow birch took a deep breath. "THHENNN WHYYY DDIIDD YEEWW KILLL THEMMM?"

That's when I realized what she was talking about—not a forest, but the lack of one. Near the shoreline was a forest of stumps—lumber used to build the wall and buildings of the colony.

"Look. Those trees weren't like you. They were just plants. Not alive." I said. But it didn't matter. It seemed that's where my logic stopped with them. Plants were plants, whether they could talk or not. At least that's how they were choosing to think about it.

"SHHEEE ENNDSSS USSS," said the yellow birch stepping toward me.

Grollok reached a limb forward to stop the yellow birch, but it didn't matter. The other trees were on board with the birch's thinking and they were closing in.

"STTTAWWWPP," said Grollok. But they didn't stop this time. They were angry, and they wanted a scapegoat. And as the rest of the world looks at it: when in doubt, blame a Treek.

But I had no time for a pity party now. They were done listening and they wouldn't be able to hear me now anyway. With their movement came more creaking and groaning as wood bent and rubbed against itself.

I looked down at the canopy of trees below me. I reached for my magic to see if it was still there. It was, but barely. Probably not enough to bend branches quickly. Maybe I'd get lucky and find some nearby vines to catch me.

The plants behind me were back in full swarm-mode and I had only seconds to think. I had no other choice. I took a deep breath, and took a running leap.

Adrenaline made my mind race as I fell. Butterflies filled my stomach as I realized the stupidity of what I had just done.

I fell down, losing my orientation as the wind tossed me around. I didn't try to right myself. Who was I kidding. There was no way I was going to stop my fall. And after all of the craziness I had been through in the past month, it was a relief in a way, to give up. If the world had to fight this hard to kill me, maybe the world deserved to win. Well done, I thought.

I shook from my thoughts as something shifted above me. There was a flicker of purple in the air. Then, all at once, water blasted me. It was like I was falling up into a waterfall. I clawed and tried to escape the water, choking on it and coughing. Then, my knuckle slammed something hard. I could feel the pain instantly, like punching a wall. My side hit next and I began sliding down a slope. I fought for my footing as I rolled and slid, no doubt taking more scrapes and bruises in the meantime.

Finally, the motion stopped. The water slowed and everything was still, aside from the scrambling near me. The plants, I thought.

I struggled to my feet and turned to face my enemy. But I didn't see trees or bushes or saplings. I saw Cairn, followed up by Porthos, Sillius, and a few Saurians.

"What?" I said, but Porthos quickly put his hand to my mouth, shushing me.

Cairn stepped past me threw her hands toward the large wet stone ramp that I had just rolled down. It stuck out of the cliffside like a curled finger. A bronze glow formed on it and Cairn slowly pulled the ramp flat into the cliffside.

As I watched, I saw something fall past. Then something else. Then a lot of them. They were the smaller plants that had previously been chasing me. They fell past the small ledge on the side of the mountain and plummeted into the forest below. I watched with Porthos's hand still on my mouth.

There was a crunch next to us. My eyes snapped to it and found one of the shrubs on the ledge nearby—a lucky landing. It struggled to stand on broken twigs, but before it could hobble toward us a blast of water sent it back off of the ledge into the forest below. I looked up to find the Saurian leader as the source of the magic.

They came back. They worked together to save me, I thought. I couldn't believe what I was seeing.

Porthos nudged me in the side and then pointed up. I looked, and through a purple shimmer, I could see the living trees looking over the ledge for me. Grollok pushed his way through to check too. I flinched when I saw them, but Porthos snickered and then waved his fingers to point out the illusion that covered us.

We waited there for what felt like hours until the miniature earthquakes of each tree footfall faded out. Then, the Gnomes dropped their illusion and we began our walk along the ledge back to solid ground.

"What just happened?" I asked when I finally felt safe to do so.

"We couldn't just let you die," said Porthos. "You helped ours."

"She got us all to come," said Sillius. He pointed at Cairn, behind me.

Cairn looked tired. She wore a cut across the bridge of her nose and was covered in dirt. She had been through a lot today. She looked back at me, making eye contact.

"Thank you," I said. "Are you okay?"

She looked herself over, as if she was unaware of the damage previously. "Yeah. I'll be fine."

"How did you convince them? And how did you build that ramp so quickly?"

She shrugged. "You're the one that brought us all out here. You brought us together. The Gnomes were on board, and since the Saurians also called for reinforcements they had nothing to hold over the Gnomes."

"They what?" I said.

Porthos cut in, "Yeah, we listened in on the liz— Saurians when they sent for them. We were only trying to keep us from being outnumbered."

"So they didn't help even though they did the same thing?" I said amazed.

"The important thing is that they helped this time," said Cairn. She was really starting to grow on me. She still looked frazzled and nervous, but it was good to have her keeping me accountable. "They didn't exactly want to show up without you either."

"RIght," I said. "How'd you do the ramp?"

She shrugged. "Most of it was already here. I wasn't sure I was going to have enough time to build a ramp that would reach out far enough to catch you, but your stalling helped."

If only I had known that I needed to stall, I thought.

"The water from the Saurians helped soften the landing too," said Cairn.

I looked down at the dried blood on my arms. "Yeah," I said. "I can't imagine what it would have been like without the water. But thanks. I appreciate it."

"We made sure the trees couldn't see us," said Porthos, bragging.

"Yeah, I figured that part out," I said. "Why didn't you just teleport to me?"

He scoffed. "Teleporting is difficult. We're not even supposed to let others know we can do it. And it's hard enough teleporting myself, let alone another person who is falling to their death."

"Well, thanks." I smiled and he nodded back.

We reached the end of the ledge and got ourselves back onto the land. It was a relief to go back on the beach where there were very few plants. We regrouped with the others and rested for a few moments before continuing our journey to the valley.

I saw the Saurian representative among the other Saurians. I approached and he said something I couldn't hear, resulting in the other Saurians leaving him to himself. Then he turned my way.

"Thank you, for coming back for me," I said.

"There is something interesting about you," said the Saurian. "You either have a death wish or a very strong set of morals."

"Yeah, uh, I'm not sure which it is, to be honest," I said. "But I appreciate the help. I won't forget it."

The Saurian lowered his head longer than what could have been considered a nod. "Call me Srak," he said.

"Right," I said. "Thank you, Srak."

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