I approached the group of Treeks, my heart beating heavy in my chest. I didn't know what to expect. I didn't want to expect anything, given my last run-in with a Treek, but I couldn't keep myself from dreaming about the family I could find.
They were my people. I hadn't been around other Treeks since I lived with Mother and Father in the forest. Would they speak differently than me? Would they have their own cultural norms that I knew nothing about? Or did the war wipe the world clean of Treek customs?
But even more importantly, had they heard of my parents? It was a fool's errand, but I still didn't have a solid answer. Malcolm had said that he killed them. Maybe he had. Or maybe he was just trying to provoke me—hurt me in more ways than physically. If they were still alive, it would give me hope. And if they weren't, it would be the final page of that book. Even if they were gone, the Treeks might be able to tell me about them. Fill in gaps in my memory, or remind me of what it is to be a Treek.
They saw me coming as I approached deep in thought with my head down.
"Can you help?" one of them yelled. It was a tall muscular Treek. His bark-like skin formed ridged muscles on his upper arms and chest. His shirt was off, and he wore only a loincloth to cover himself.
"Yeah," I said. I ran forward and joined a half-circle next to a very old Treek with branches growing out of his hair, and a small boy. The three worked in tandem, like different sized mirrors of each other. Their magic fed and pulled a root the width of a tree trunk as it struggled to lift an oblong boulder leaning against the cave wall.
"Careful," said the old Treek. "Light movements. We can't hurt him."
I followed the instructions and focused mostly on the upper part of the root, leaving the more granular control to the others.
"Okay," said the muscular Treek. "Hold."
We all stopped the root where it was. Then with a small push from the muscular Treek, the end of the root curled down and grabbed at the ground. It pulled back with something large and furry wrapped up inside of it.
The muscular Treek brought the vine near and then unfurled it in front of us. A deer or something like it rolled out of the massive root's grasp. It laid there unconscious.
"Bubba!" said the old Treek, running to the creature's side once it was clear of the rocks. He looked Bubba up and down for injuries of any kind. Then, he grew a plant beside it, crushed it in his hand, and pushed it into the animal's mouth.
The muscular Treek approached. "I'm Kadero," he said. "And this is my son, Coran."
I nodded, with my eyes half on the Treek with the animal. "Nice to meet you," I said.
"That's Palem.," he said gesturing toward the old Treek. "And his elk, Bubba. He got hurt in the collapse."
"Yeah, it seems like a lot of people were." I saw his expression stiffen. Had he lost someone? I looked at the boy and his eyes were red.
Kadero spoke solemnly, "My wife, Creda, among them."
"I'm so sorry," I said.
"Me too." he said without much emotion. "She will be missed, but we will survive. It's what we do." He gave me a slight smile. How he had the fortitude to look past his wife's death just moments after was beyond me. I glanced at the boy again and saw him trying to emulate the same optimism.
"Where did you come from?" asked Kadero. "Did you come to save us? How long has it been since this started anyway? My memory is still blurry."
"Yeah, uh." I was having trouble forming words. I was still hurting in so many ways and hadn't dealt with any of it. "You've probably been here for a few months. It was about two months ago when the colony formed to find you—"
"A colony formed to find us? There are that many Treeks left?"
I shook my head. "No. I was the only one there. The colony was a temporary truce to figure out what was happening on this island. It wasn't just your group that went missing. All of the colonies on Daegal at the time vanished in an instant. I guess you were all abducted at once."
"Hmm. And how long did it take for the truce to be broken?"
"It depends on what you count as it being broken. I was there for three days before I was attacked without any kind of consequence. But it never fully broke down. Many of us are here now. Many of us died in the collapse too. We worked together to find you and free you."
He scoffed. "That's ridiculous. It's only a matter of time until they stab you in the back. Treeks will always be taken advantage of if given the opportunity."
I sighed and glanced back at the others. I could see Tigala lifting large rocks that the small folk weren't able to move. Marv was in rock form breaking through a boulder. I saw small flames of Rodrigo as he kneeled next to Lolan over Brendell. They must have been cauterizing his wounds.
"I'm not sure if that's true," I said. "All of this fighing, it only makes the world a worse place to live in. More dangerous. If we could just look past it..."
"Trust me. You're never better off with other races. There will come a time where they are weak or hurt, and they won't look past it. They can't. You're a Treek. It's as plain as the texture of your skin. They will never fully know what you have been through, what you've done to survive this long, or what was taken from you."
He was right. I was a Treek. And no matter how much I cared about those people, we weren't the same. There were always going to be differences. That's just how it worked.
But did that mean that cooperation led to destruction? Zef believed the opposite. I thought that Tigala and Lolan were of a same mind. I just wasn't sure anymore. There had been so much destruction since I came to Daegal. I had been lucky to not lose anyone close to me in the chaos until now.
I looked at the group. They had the same bark-like skin as me. They knew the same type of magic. They had been hated their entire lives and on the run. I didn't have to ask to know it was true. And they knew it was the same for me.
"You need help, Palem?" Kadero asked.
Palem sighed and sputtered before deciding on what to say. "I don't know. I think he's okay, but... Yes, could you help me move him? Somewhere more out of sight than here?"
We were on the plain of rocks, the same level as many of the other survivors who were rummaging through the rubble. I wasn't sure why he wanted seclusion though. These people were trying to help. At least the ones I could see were.
Kadero was already approaching the elk. It was huge, and I wasn't sure the two of them could lift it. I almost spoke up to offer my own strength, but before I did I saw that they were using their combined nature magic to create a bed of plants to make Bubba glide across the ground as new plants pushed up from the ground and leaned in the direction they walked. That was a clever use of nature. I would have to keep that in mind for the future.
I looked down at the boy who stood next to me and watched them move the reindeer. He had been quiet, and based on his expression, I was pretty sure I knew why.
"Did you know other Treeks before you came here?" I asked.
The boy glanced up at me, and then back at the ground. "Yeah." He paused as if gathering his thoughts. "We met others here too. There was one that might have been a little older than you. His name was Riak."
"Riak. Yes, I ran into him actually. They had him working with the Dwarves."
"Is... is he okay?" Coran asked, glancing back at me again.
"I don't know," I said. "The last time I saw him was in a similar situation actually. He ran before the rocks fell."
Coran nodded. "There was a girl too." He said. "She was my age."
"You haven't seen her since you were abducted?" I asked.
"Since before that," he said. "A group of Saurians found our camp on Daegal." he shook his head. "She was weak. Like you."
It caught me off guard. "What?"
"None of them have a heart. None of them care about you. They'll all turn on you sooner or later."
"I don't th—"
"They killed her because she wanted to spare an injured Saurian. If we had killed him when we had the chance, she'd still be here. The same will happen to you if think that you can work with those monsters."
I didn't know what to say. He had obviously been through a lot. And the sentiment sounded like Kadero's feelings toward other races. I had also been through a lot though, and as bad as it sounded, I understood where he was coming from. I wasn't sure if I fully disagreed with him. Is this all there is for me? Death and heartbreak?
I kept quiet while I thought about it. I got the sense he didn't like me very much anyway. Which was a shame. Even among the Treeks I had a hard time fitting in. But would that be different if I stopped trying to work with the other races—if I chose to only trust them?
After a few moments, I finally responded. "I'm sorry for your losses. Every Treek death hurts."
I didn't try to talk to him anymore after that. We followed Kadero, Palem, and Bubba in silence.
They moved slowly, but their method of moving the animal didn't seem to tax their magic very heavily. I imagined they probably could have kept it up for a while if they needed to, but our destination came quickly.
There was a ditch along the edge of the cavern where an overhang prevented rocks from settling. The rocks sloped down beneath it and formed a small cave-like area. They continued down the slope and set the elk up against the wall to rest.
Palem sat next to the animal watching over him.
Kadero looked back at me. "You're welcome to stay with us. You're a Treek, a dying race." The smile he gave didn't have any joy to it.
"Thanks," I said. This was weird. I still wasn't sure what I was doing here. But I wasn't sure what I was doing anywhere else either.
I chose to avoid prying too much yet about possible connections to my parents and joined Palem next to the Elk.
"Is he a pet?" I asked.
"You could say that. I think of him more as a friend though." He said. "My name is Palem by—"
I nudged my head toward Kadero and said, "Yeah, he already introduced you. I'm Kaia."
"Kaia, it's nice to meet you. Where had you been before all of this? I don't see many new Treek faces. I figured our colony was the last of us." He looked at the others and his face saddened. "And now that has been reduced as well."
"I'm sorry," I said and gave an apologetic look. "I lived in Brighton for a while. I hid and stole. I was alone." I thought of Chipry, my only friend. I didn't even have him anymore. It dug the pain in my chest even deeper. "Before that, I lived with my parents in the Tellstoy forest. We kept from being captured for a long time but were eventually found out. I think they're dead now." If there was any hope left in me, saying the words out loud killed it. I hung my head.
"I'm sorry to hear that." He looked at the others again. "It's a story we're all too familiar with."
"Yeah," I said. He didn't need to explain. It was part of our story as a people. We were exterminated, and it left the few of us remaining with a lot of loss. I might have been lucky to have only lost my parents.
I looked back up at him. "Did you know other Treeks?" I asked.
"I knew a lot of Treeks," he said with a sympathetic smile.