"Really?" I said, a little too hopeful. "My father's name was Lyndon, and my mother was Marigold."
Palem's eyebrows rose. "Oh, um. Hmm. The names don't ring a bell. Was there anything else notable about them?"
Notable? I wasn't sure what that would mean. And spending my formative years hiding from anyone else didn't really lead to me seeing them interact with others in a notable way.
"My father was a good hunter. I think it was something he did back in the town we came from."
"Do you remember which town that would have been?"
"Ah, Wilderwood. Yes, I know the town. Their bark, it was similar to yours?" he asked gesturing at my arm.
"Yes," I said. I thought back and tried to remember the specifics. It had been so long that I wasn't sure about much. I hated that I was forgetting the people who made me who I am. "I think so at least. My father might have had a darker tone to his. My mother wore her hair in dark dreads."
"Ah, yes. I do remember them. They were leaders in the town. Strong people. Seems like you got some of that in you."
"Can you tell me anything else you know about them?" I asked. "I have been dying to learn more and to find out if they are still alive."
"I'm sorry, but I don't know if they're alive or dead. If I haven't seen them in person, I assume the worst these days." He gave me an apologetic look. "I do know the people though. That town focused a lot on animating plants. With enough of them using their magic, they could create armies of plant monsters. Mushroom warriors, twig soldiers, and even treants."
"Treants?" I asked
"Trees that can walk and attack for them," he said, gesturing at the tree in the distance that stretched out of the cavern floor.
"Oh," I said. "That explains a lot."
"What do you mean?"
"I kind of created a wandering forest on Daegal using some veins of nature magic."
He gave me a confused look. "I thought you were the only Treek on Daegal besides us."
"I am," I said, unsure of what he meant.
"Then how did you animate an entire forest? That should take a whole Treek village to do."
"Oh. The veins—they were some kind of magical reserve. I tapped into them and lost control, but it made whatever I did a hundred times more powerful."
He winced. "I hope there aren't more of those. Sounds like the kind of thing others will use as a weapon."
"There's more," I said. "But it may not matter with that thing wandering around."
Palem looked up at the sky, pondering the thought. Then he continued. "Well, I think you probably have some of those genes in you. We pass down our preferred uses of magic to our descendants."
"We do?" I asked. "I've never heard that before."
"Sure," he said. "When you use parts of your magic less, your descendants are likely to be less naturally talented with it and vice versa. If your parents were skilled animators, and it sounds like they were, you probably have that in you too. It will come easier to you."
"Cool," I said. "Is there any way to get better at it? I've heard other magics come easier if you're in a certain state of mind. Do we have that?"
Palem smiled. I got the sense that he was enjoying coaching a young Treek. I wondered if Coran talked to him about this stuff as well or if he stuck with his father.
"Yes," said Palem. "Nature magic is a hopeful magic. Each plant is a celebration. It's a new life coming into existence. Our magic works the same. If you can get yourself to look past the evils of the world and focus on hopes and growth, it will make the plants much easier to grow."
"Huh," I thought back through my recent usage of magic. Most of it had been from a place of desperation, trying so hard to scrape by and save us from the current threat. I was excited to try it out.
"Come sit, Kaia," said Kadero. He was leaned against the wall of the small alcove.
He had dried wood in his hands, breaking small twigs and placing them in a teepee formation. He grew a few vines, one much smaller than the others, and made a miniature bow, like Lolan's. He wrapped the thin vine that was the bowstring and wrapped it around a stick. With a rock to hold the top of a stick upright on a plank of wood, his other hand moved the bow back and forth in a sawing motion and the thin vine served to spin the upright stick. Like a wooden drill, the stick spun on the plank, creating friction.
I looked at Palem to see if he was going to join. He nodded and groaned as he stood to his feet. We sat around the pile of sticks while Kadero drilled away. Already, the plank of wood beneath the drill was starting to blacken from the friction.
"So," said Kadero. "What are you best at with your magic?"
I hadn't thought too much about it before. I didn't really have anyone to compare to, so everything I did was what I was good at I guess. "I prefer vines mostly," I said.
"Ah, yes," said Kadero. "They are a very versatile weapon."
"Palem was also just telling me I might be skilled with animated plants. I've made a few on purpose, and a lot by accident."
Kadero raised an eyebrow, and even Coran perked up where he sat next to his father. "Can you show us?" said Kadero.
"Uh, sure," I said. "But first, how are you able to grow so much down here. I'm finding mostly rocks, no fertile soil."
"Ah," said Palem. "That would be me. I was working on attracting some ants that formed piles of dirt. They're stored in the pack on Bubba."
"Oh, so you brought dirt with you?"
"Right. It helps when you're out of your element," said Palem.
I couldn't believe it hadn't occurred to me before. I guess that was one of the downsides of not knowing anyone of your own race.
"Do you mind if I grab some?" I asked.
Palem smiled and stretched out a hand toward Bubba. I approached the beast. It was a big animal. It was still laying on its side, its grey-furred chest rose and fell. I reached into the back and grabbed a mound of dirt in my two hands. I brought it over to the campfire and set it down in front of me.
"Okay, we'll see how this goes. I don't have a lot of practice with it," I said.
"Take your time," said Kadero.
I focused on the small mound. It was a sticky kind of dirt, holding its shape in a clump fairly well. I poured my magic into it. The green glow emanated out and I pushed the sprout up. It stretched and leaves unfurled.
I tried to keep what Palem had said in my mind. I needed to be hopeful and focused on growth. I tried to think of something hopeful. I imagined the group around me somewhere else. We were in the woods, building houses out of trees and vines. We had a Treek colony of our own.
While I imagined I pushed the plant further, willing it to grow and take a shape that could grab the root ball.
I imagined the people of our village. It was small. There weren't many of us left. I tried to imagine our relationships. Coran hadn't liked me much, but maybe he would grow to. And Palem seemed to like me enough. So did Kadero. But for some reason, it felt hollow—empty. Was that really it? A colony of the last of us holding out as long as we could? Was surviving around people like me really all that I wanted?
The plant slowed. The growth looked unhealthy and spindly, and a couple of the leaves turned black. Maybe I wasn't as hopeful about that as I had once been. But why not? These were my people. This was what I had always wanted, to be with other Treeks, and now imagining our future together was making my magic unusable? I didn't understand.
I looked at the other Treeks and gave an apologetic smile.
Maybe I just shouldn't think about anything at all, like previous times I had grown plant monsters.
The plant picked up a little, growing new leaves to replace the damaged ones. I focused on new growths of the stem instead of the original main stem. It did grow, but it was still slower and more forced than before. What was different? Was it just that I had the knowledge now?
I thought about the previous times I had done it. I grew plant creatures when testing my capabilities with Lolan, Tigala, and Zef. I did it again with the before I created the wandering forest. Every one of those times I was with my search party.
I thought about them, and the plant began to grow faster. It strengthened, growing a sturdy stem. New branches came out of it and I almost couldn't keep up with the magic.
I thought of Tigala, and the change we had brought. I thought of her faith in me. I thought of Lolan, and how he a chance me, defending me from an ogre and many monsters since. I thought of his willingness to grit his teeth and keep pushing forward no matter what. I thought of Zef—how he died to save others and believed in me to carry on his legacy.
Without putting much focus on it at all, the plant reached down, grabbed its root ball, and folded itself into a humanoid shape. The little plant monster had bark that hung down from its chin in what looked like a long wooden beard. A tail hung off of its lower back.
"Bravo," said Kadero. "I wasn't sure if you were going to pull it off at first, but that is very well made."
I looked away. "Thanks."
"Can you make it do anything?" asked Coran, forgetting about his distaste for me.
"Uh, yeah." I moved my hand in a circular motion and the tree monster waved at the three of them. "Can you guys not do this?"
"No," said Kadero. "I am very skilled with trees and offensive abilities, but I never could create things like that."
"I've always wanted to learn," said Coran.
I looked at Palem. He smiled and nodded at me. Could he tell how that exercise made me feel? I still wasn't sure what I thought of it myself.
Kadero almost had a flame now. He had stopped the spinning for a moment while I called my plant creature into being. Smoke was starting to pour out of the wood plank now.
"What do you plan to do next, Kaia," Kadero asked while gritting his teeth as he drilled.
"I don't know?" I said. "You mean you want me to grow something else?"
"No, I mean, now that you've found us. This is what you came here for right?"
"Oh, yeah. It was." I hadn't thought too much about it. "What are you planning on doing now?"
"We'll get as far away from here as possible," he said. "We'll leave as soon as Bubba is back up and ready. Probably at night to avoid getting ambushed by the others out there." He nodded his head toward the rest of the cavern.
"I don't think anyone is going to ambush you after that," I said, referring to the giant monster that just crawled out of the earth. "You don't want to help? That thing is going to kill thousands of people if we let it go."
"That's their problem," he said, looking toward the rest of the cavern again. "One of the benefits of being a small group is that it's easier to move around. As long as it's focused on other people, we're safe."
"We're talking worse than the Treek plague," I said.
"Don't call it that," said Kadero as the kindling he had collected burst into flame. He burried it in the pile of sticks and blew on it. The sticks caught fire and the flame grew. "That wasn't us. If it was, we were set up. And if it's going to be worse than that, then they'll get what they deserve for massacring our people."
He looked at me with anger in his eyes now. The flames formed shadows on his cheeks and the bridge of his nose.
We had suffered a lot of losses, and Kadero had just lost his wife. But I still wasn't sure if I could follow the thinking. That monster was sure to massacre thousands of people, and he wanted to do nothing—to hide while the world burns.
More importantly, was I okay with that? To go with them was to ignore everything we had accomplished on Daegal. It meant walking away from the companions I had made. It meant ignoring what Zef died for.
"I—I can't do that," I said.
"Can't do what?" he asked.
"I can't leave the rest of the world to die while I could have done something to stop it."
"You can't stop that. It's enormous. And you can't help if you're dead."
"You also can't help if you don't try," I said. I glared back at him now. I knew that people hated other races. I knew that the Treeks were slaughtered all throughout the world, but did that really extend so far that we could watch the same happen to others without feeling remorse?
Although they were Treeks, I couldn't bring myself to stay with these people. I couldn't believe what I was considering. All of my dreams, and fantasies of finally being back with the Treeks. Learning from them, growing old with them, maybe falling in love with one, it wouldn't happen. If I walked away, I wasn't just walking away from a few angry people of the same race. I was walking away from my heritage, my culture, my history. Could I really do that to help people who wouldn't do the same for me?
"You'd have to be a fool to think any of them will change," said Kadero. The fire was in full force now, creating dancing shadows against the cavern wall.
I stood and took a deep breath. "I'd rather be a fool than a coward."
With a wave of my hand, my tree creature jumped into the fire. I watched it burn for a moment, and then turned and walked up the slope and out of their hiding place.