"Do you remember before all of the fighting started, Zef?" asked Lolan.
"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 and glanced at me. He was about to mention the start of the war. The Treek plague. He was smart to have stopped.
"Before everyone joined in," he finished.
"What was it like? Did different races actually get along?" Lolan asked.
"I guess it depends on what counts as getting along, heh. There was some trade between races, but people still fought. Treeks, Elves, Gnomes, and Beastfolk always fought over the forests, Avians even joined the fray occasionally. Saurians and Elves fought over the oceans. Gnomes, Dwarves, Avians, and Beastfolk fought over the mountains. Land has been running out for a long time. The battles were less focused and frequent than now, but this war has been waiting to happen.
"Do you remember it or are you too young too?" Zef asked looking to me.
"I only remember bits and pieces. Some smells, a treetop village, a community. It's something I've never had since. It's why I'm here." I said.
"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 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? 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?
"Do you really think this land is going to be free of other races for very long?" said Zef. His voice was careful.
Honestly, no. I didn't. "We have nowhere else. It's all we have to work with," I said.
Zef seemed to understand my frustration enough to say no more. He was right, this land was going to become a warzone like everywhere else eventually, but that didn't give him the right to stomp all over the few dreams I had. I walked a distance from the two of them, and Chipry landed on my shoulder as we continued toward our destination.
Tigala had never shown up that morning to join us. We stopped by her hut and found it empty so we continued on our way.
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. Coming out here without a huge shapeshifting tiger-lady seemed pretty dangerous. I was hopeful that if it came down to it Zef could keep us out of sight if we got ourselves into trouble.
The forest was so beautiful after the previous day's rain. Each plant glistened with beads of water hanging from them and the wet dirt of the forest 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 around me. It and the other plants I sensed felt more dense and nourished—less flimsy.
The thought brought me to wonder what other ways Treeks had learned to use nature magic. I only knew the small amount that my mother had taught me, but how far did it reach?
Back in Brighton, I had seen fire used to spread flames, to heat metal and make it malleable, to create domes of protection, and I'd heard that powerful fire mages could even use it to fly. Who knows how they do that, but there had to be more to nature than just growing plants and moving them, right? I thought on the idea more as I walked.
"Hey Kaia, you might want to see this," said Zef staring at the ground in front of him. I was still annoyed, and I didn't want to deal with his chipper disposition at the moment. 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 for the color.
If it really was some kind of magic, then green would be my color—nature magic. I reached out again and could feel 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 just sensing the magic was like wading through a waist-high river after a heavy rain. One misstep and it would drag you away in the current.
"What are these things?" Lolan asked.
"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—dangerous," I said, still staring at it.
"Can you use it?" asked Lolan.
"I don't know. I'm afraid to," I said.
"We'll help if you want to try," said Zef.
"You don't know nature magic though, and it feels like 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 just tried something small, I'd be alright—something that couldn't ever pose a real threat. It was intriguing enough that I had to try something.
"Okay. I'll try," I said.
"Wait, can I borrow a knife?" said Zef. "Just in case."
"Sure," I said and handed him one of the two knives tucked into my skirt.
I looked back at 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 float and ripple outward.
I made the seed germinate and produce its first shoot, stretching out of the green vein on the forest floor. It was so easy, so smooth, so quick—better than the best soil I had ever used nature magic on.
Then I grew the sprout. It grew an inch and then 10, then a few feet. It was moving much faster than ever before. I began to lose my grip on the plant as it expanded out of my control and grew faster than I had ever seen with my magic. I tried to stop it but it kept growing. It reached about eye level and began thrashing and whipping around. Arm-like limbs stretched out and began clawing at us.
The others jumped back and Lolan readied his bow as Chipry retreated to a nearby tree. I stopped growing the thing, but it continued without me. I finally used my magic to drain the life from its base, causing it to break itself free of the vein with another swing of its limbs. The thrashing plant, now 8 feet tall, fell like a tree. It crashed into the dirt next to me and I breathed a sigh of relief.
Then, it started to move again. Like an arm, one of its branches moved under itself. Then another asymmetrical limb on the opposite side did the same. It's stem or trunk bent like knees and the plant lifted itself onto feet made of two separate clumps of roots. It twisted the top of its stalk like a head and began thrashing in my direction.
A flurry of vines came lashing out at me as I tried to run. What is this thing? How did I just make that? I managed to think as my mind raced faster than my legs.
The vines caught me by the ankles and swept my feet out from under me. I landed on my face with the wind knocked out of me. Rolling over as quickly as I could manage, I raised my arms to protect my body. It whipped a tentacle across the rough skin on my face with enough force to cut the top of my cheek. Another hit my stomach. I didn't have time to check if it drew blood.
The creature pummeled me with its limbs until I reached out with nature magic in desperation. I could still feel it, the plant that the creature was made of. It fell different than the plants I had grown and controlled before, but it was similar. It tried to hit me, but I deflected one vine with a flick of magic. Another came and I pushed that away too. I tried to control it's larger limbs, but I couldn't quite understand the structure.
I stopped the whipping vines from hitting me long enough to get to my feet. I pulled a dagger from my hip and ran at it, pushing the vines away as they swung at me. With a slice deep into its midsection, the creature split and toppled to the ground. Green energy spilled out of the wound and dissipated into the air.
I stood over it breathing heavy and then looked back at the others.
"Why did you make that? Couldn't you have started with something smaller?" asked Lolan in almost a yell. His eyes were wide, still fixed on the creature. I looked too and saw there were two 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 said, "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 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 my arm in an irregular pattern, as it crawled between the rough raised parts of my skin. I looked at the cut on my stomach. It was bleeding but not much. The cut on my cheek also left some blood on my fingers when I went to touch, but it wasn't dripping.
"Oh, um, yeah," I said after getting a chance to see how bad the cut was. He pulled the fabric tight around my arm and tied it in place. After a moment, the blood began to show through.
"We might need to change it a few more times. Good thing I've got all of the torn canvas from my tent," said Lolan. I wasn't sure if he thought that was funny or depressing. Maybe both. I gave a half-smile in response.
"We should keep going then. Who knows where that other search party is. I definitely wouldn't mind some more free meals," said Zef, smiling and rubbing 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 web of veins pulsing with the glow of nature magic. 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 had ever seen and walking straight towards it. Poking the bear, so to speak.
We walked deeper into the forest and the veins grew more numerous. They started to become visible all around us. They were climbing tree trunks, stretching from the forest floor and disappearing in the canopy above. As long as things stayed calm, everything should be alright. 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 there. Let's spread out."
"But not too far," said Lolan.
We split up and began wandering around, looking for some kind of epicenter of whatever caused these magical veins to appear. They seemed to 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 were near the missing Treeks? I pondered the thought so loudly that I might have even said the words.
I felt the rough tree bark on my hand and 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. I yelled to the others, "Over here. It's a Treek village!"