Do you remember before all of the fighting started, Zef?” asked Lolan. We walked in a line through the woods, with Zef in the middle and Lolan to his side, opposite of me. Despite the topic, it was a nice day to be in the forest, even if we might run into a Beastfolk search party unannounced.
“There’s always been fighting,” he said. “There’s just more of it now. But yes, I remember before this war started, before the—” he stopped himself as he glanced at me. I knew where he was going. The Treek plague. He was smart to have stopped.
“Before everyone joined in,” he finished.
“What was it like?” Lolan asked. “Did different races actually get along?”
“I guess it depends on what counts as getting along, heh. There was some trade between races, but people still fought. The Treeks, Elves, Gnomes, and Beastfolk had always fought over the forests; Avians even joined the fray occasionally. The Saurians, Beastfolk, and Elves fought over the oceans. The Gnomes, Dwarves, Avians, and Beastfolk fought over the mountains. There’s only so much land to go around. The battles were less focused than they are now, but this war had been waiting to happen.”
Zef turned to me. “Do you remember it, Kaia? Or are you too young?”
“I only remember bits and pieces” I said. “Some smells. A village in the trees. A community. It’s something I’ve never had since. It’s why I’m here.”
“To find your people? What will you do when you find them?” asked Zef.
“I don’t know,” I said. “I guess I’ll help rebuild that community here, away from the other races.” Zef listened with creased eyebrows.
“What? Why are you looking at me like that?” I said.
He quickly brought back his usual cheer. “Heh, no reason. I was just thinking.”
“About what?” I said, prodding him further. “The Treeks? Do you have a problem with my plan?” I started breathing heavy. My nerves got to me as we approached a possible run-in with the Beastfolk search party. It put me on edge. But still, who was he to say anything about my ideas?
Zef’s winced. “Do you really think this land is going to be free of other races for very long?” His voice was careful, restrained, free of the cheerfulness that he often used as a mask.
But he was right. I didn’t believe Daegal would stay isolated forever. “We have nowhere else. It’s all we have to work with,” I said.
Zef seemed to understand my frustration, at least enough to say nothing more. This land was going to become a war zone eventually, just like everywhere else. That didn’t give Zef the right to stomp all over the few dreams I had. But, he wasn’t pushing it, so I wouldn’t either.
I walked a short distance from the two of them, giving Chipry enough room to swoop down and land on my shoulder. Traveling without Tigala was unsurprisingly peaceful. She did not show up that morning to join us. We stopped by her hut but found it empty, so we continued on our way. It was one of the easier decisions we made as a group.
As we walked I thought about our previous outings and the creatures we faced. Rodrigo wasn’t kidding about this place being dangerous. There wasn’t a day out here that we hadn’t almost died. Even though I didn’t like Tigala’s presence, I knew she was a big reason we were safe as a group. I was hopeful that Zef could at least keep us out of sight if we got ourselves into trouble.
The forest was beautiful after the previous day’s rain. Each plant glistened with beads of dew hanging from their leaves. The wet dirt of the overgrowth looked even more rich than normal. The plants seemed to enjoy it. I reached out with my magic and made a maple tree drop a few spinning seeds.
Using my power made me wonder what other ways Treeks had learned to use nature magic. I only knew the small amount of what my mother had taught me, but how far did it reach? Could I be capable of much more than I am now?
Back in Brighton, I had seen fire used to spread flames, to heat metal and make it malleable, and to create domes of protection. One time I had heard that powerful fire mages could even use it to fly. I didn’t know how that was possible, but there had to be more to nature than growing plants and moving them, right? I thought about the idea more as I walked.
“Hey Kaia, you might want to see this,” said Zef as he stared at the ground in front of him. I wasn’t ready to deal with his chipper disposition at the moment, but I walked over anyway.
On the ground in front of him was a faint vein, pulsing with green magical energy. It looked exactly like the veins from the cave, except it was green, not purple.
I thought for a moment. If it was magic, then green would be my color—nature magic. I reached out and felt it pulsing and swirling. It was strong—a well of surging power. The thought of tapping into it and using that power made me nervous. Even sensing the magic was like wading through a waist-high river after a heavy rain. One misstep and I would be dragged away by the current.
“What are these things?” Lolan asked, stooping down to get a closer look.
“You feel it, don’t you?” said Zef, looking at me.
I nodded. “It’s some kind of magical pool or river. But it’s strong. Maybe even dangerous,” I said, still staring at it.
Lolan backed up at my warning. “Can you use it?”
“I don’t know. I’m afraid to.”
“We’ll help if you want to try,” said Zef.
“You don’t know nature magic though, and if I do mess it up, the consequences are going to be very...naturey.”
I thought about it for a moment and mentally worked out what using the vein would look like. Maybe if I tried something small, I’d be alright, something that couldn’t ever pose a real threat. If this vein was filled with nature magic, then I had to try something. Right?
“Okay. I’ll try,” I said.
“Wait, can I borrow a knife?” said Zef as he came up to me. “Just in case.”
“Sure,” I said and handed him one of the two knives tucked into my skirt.
I took a deep breath. I looked back to the vein, reached out, and began to shape a seed inside of the magical energy, like I had done so many times before in soil. The vein grew brighter. Everything I was doing seemed to make the energy float and ripple outward.
I made the seed germinate, creating a shoot that stretched out of the green vein above the forest floor. It was so easy, so smooth, so quick—better than the best soil I had ever used nature magic on.
Encouraged, I grew the sprout further. It rose an inch, and then ten, then a few feet, growing much faster than anything I’d grown before. I began to lose my grip on the plant as it expanded out of my control. I tried to stop it by pulling away, but the shoot kept growing. It reached about eye level and began thrashing and whipping around. Arm-like branches stretched out and began clawing at us.
I jumped back as Lolan readied his bow. Chipry retreated to a nearby tree. It continued growing without me. I finally used my magic to drain the life from its base, causing it to break from the vein with another swing of its limbs. The thrashing plant, now eight feet tall, fell like a tree, forcing me to scuttle away on all fours. It crashed into the dirt next to me as I breathed a sigh of relief.
It began to move again. One of its branches moved under itself to prop its body upright. Then another asymmetrical limb on the opposite side did the same. The plant lifted itself onto feet made of clumps of roots. It twisted the top of its head-like stalk and began thrashing in my direction.
I ran as a flurry of vines came lashing out at me. What is this thing? How did I make that? I thought as my mind raced faster than my legs.
I heard the snap of a bowstring. I looked back but the creature was still chasing me right through one of Zef’s illusions.
The vines caught me by the ankles and swept my feet out from under me, causing me to land face first. Rolling over as quickly as I could manage, I raised my arms to protect myself. Earthen tentacles swiped at my face with enough force to cut skin. Another hit came at my stomach, but my forearm took the brunt of the damage. Zef charged in with the dagger raised, but a stray tentacle smacked him and sent him rolling. In my desperation, I reached out with nature magic.
I could still feel it, the plant that the creature was made of. It felt different than the plants I had grown and controlled before, but it was still similar. It tried to hit me again, but I deflected one vine with a flick of magic. Another came and I pushed that away too. I tried to control its larger limbs, but its odd structure made it difficult to manipulate.
I stopped the vines from hitting me long enough to get on my feet. I pulled a dagger from my hip and ran at its tree trunk body, pushing the vines away as they swung at me. With a slice deep into its midsection, the creature split, toppling to the ground in two halves. Green energy spilled out of the wound and dissipated into the air.
I stood over it as I tried to catch my breath. Zef and Lolan regrouped behind me.
“Why did you make that? Couldn’t you have started with something smaller?” asked Lolan, almost raising his voice. His eyes were wide, still fixated on the creature. I followed his eyes and saw that there were three arrows sticking out of its side. I hadn’t even seen them impact while the thing attacked me.
“I did. That was supposed to be a plant this big,” I said, showing the height between my fingers.
Zef sighed. “There’s too much energy in there. It’s not something you that is easily controlled.” I nodded. Having that much raw magical energy nearby was dangerous. There was no telling what could happen if it was unleashed in the wrong way. And of course, it had to be nature magic this time. If something went wrong I would be the only one with any kind of control over it.
“You okay?” asked Lolan. He approached and pulled a shred of fabric from his bag. It looked familiar. Maybe it was a part of his ruined tent.
“May I?” he asked, holding the fabric up to my arm where I received the worst of my cuts. Blood was running down it, following the easiest path between the rough raised parts of my skin. I felt for the cut on my stomach, but luckily the bleeding there wasn’t as severe. I was okay for the most part.
“Oh, um, yeah,” I said. Lolan pulled the fabric tight around my arm and tied it in place. After a moment, blood began to show through.
“We might need to change it a few more times. Good thing I’ve got all of this torn canvas,” said Lolan. I wasn’t sure if he thought that was funny or depressing. I gave a half-smile in response.
“We should keep going,” said Zef. “Who knows where that other search party is. I definitely wouldn’t mind some more free meals.” He smiled as he rubbed his tiny round belly. He was such a strange little man.
“I’ll lead the way, I guess,” I said.
It was ominous walking deeper into the forest, with a web of green veins pulsing in every which way. It wasn’t safe. I’d spent so many years being cautious. Sure, I did dangerous things, but they were calculated. I knew what I was getting into and how to stay out of trouble.
This, on the other hand, was different. This was seeing something completely unpredictable and more powerful than I could imagine, and I was walking straight towards it. Poking the bear, so to speak.
The veins grew more numerous. They climbed up tree trunks, stretching from the forest floor and disappearing in the canopy above. As long as I didn’t try reaching out to them, everything should be alright. At least, I hoped that would be the case.
We reached a point where the veins seemed to be everywhere, crawling under bushes, up trees and even through a small creek that ran by. “The center should be around here somewhere,” said Zef. “Maybe we’ll find something interesting. Let’s spread out.”
“But not too far,” said Lolan, concerned.
We split up and began wandering around, looking for some kind of epicenter of whatever caused these magical veins to appear. They were spread out in every direction I looked, growing further apart. It was as if I was already at the center, but there was no clear convergence of the glowing lines. The others didn’t seem to be having much luck either.
Maybe nature magic worked differently. Or maybe these veins were created in a different way than the ones in the cave. I leaned my hand against a tree as I thought about it.
There was a dead Gnome near the center of the veins in the cave. Maybe he had something to do with creating them. So would a Treek have created these? Is it possible that we are near the missing Treeks?
I felt the rough bark on my hand as I looked up to the treetops. There, between the leaves, I saw a swollen tree trunk, about forty feet off the ground. I knew that the only way to make something like that was with nature magic.
I ran to the base of the tree and began searching. “Over here!” I yelled to Zef and Lolan. “It’s a Treek village!”