I heard the crunch of leaves behind me as we searched around the base of the tree. I turned to look and saw no one there. The other search party was supposed to be around here somewhere. Had they caught up?
I studied the forest and looked for movement. Nothing.
"What exactly are we looking for? Something like this?" said Lolan as he tugged on a vine. Realizing what he had just done, I ran to him. Chipry startled and flew to a nearby tree branch to watch.
"Get close!" I said. I looked up and saw a counterweight fall from a ledge built into the tree. When the rope connected to the weight went taught, the ground beneath us shook, almost knocking us off of our feet. A platform pulled free of the forest brush and vines that were hidden against the tree pulled us up into the treetops.
The makeshift dumbwaiter came to a resting point once we reached the bulbous growth on the tree. Wrapped around the tree was a wooden walkway, held in place by several well-placed tree branches. All of it was built with the help of nature magic. Maybe I do have a chance of finding a family, maybe even finding my family.
I hopped off the floating platform on to the walkway and began following it around the stretched tree trunk. I rounded the corner and saw an opening into the tree, but before I could reach it, a rustling in the branches above stopped me in my tracks.
Out of the foliage, a brown spider with glowing blue markings crawled down the tree trunk ahead of me. It dropped to the platform and blocked my path, clicking its mandibles together.
How are there more of these? I thought. We're nowhere near the veins of teleportation magic.
I began using my magic, pulling at the branches above. The spider saw the green glow, and instead of lunging, it took a step back in a way that made me think it wasn't quite in its right mind.
"Spider!" Lolan shouted. He must have come into view of it behind me on the narrow wooden walkway. I could hear the sound of him pulling out an arrow and nocking it, but before he could fire, a shimmering purple light washed over me. Purple particles floated along and joined together, forming a shape around me. The image was larger and bulkier than I was, enveloping me entirely, but I could still see through the purple haze. When the magic had fully set, I found brown furry claws extending from my hands, a thick body, and large powerful jaws sitting well above my own head. Zef had made me look like a grizzly bear.
Still working on my own magic, I raised my arm to swing a barbed tree branch at the creature and paused. The spider still failed to lunge at me despite the creaking branch above it. It only took another small awkward step back.
I stopped before slamming it with the branch and realized, two of its front legs on the left side were shorter than the rest. They weren't touching the ground, but they followed the same curve as the others. I looked at the spider's alien eyes. Sure enough, there was a wound running across its face.
"Wait!" I said, looking at the others while keeping the spider in my periphery. "It's Tigala."
Lolan kept his arrow in place but loosened the tension on the bowstring, and Zef dropped the giant bear illusion he placed over me. As he did, we heard a voice from the forest below.
"This is our territory." I turned and found the wolf-like Beastfolk looking up at us. With him were the boar, cow, and a bear-like Beastfolk—the reality of what Zef could only make illusions of.
"We found it first," I said. "Deal with it."
The wolf-man shrugged his shoulders, smug. "You asked for it," he said. He raised his arms and I heard popping noises on the cut wooden planks where we stood. I looked down and saw an orange glow. I could never affect dead wood myself, it must be something only a shapeshifter can do.
Small spines began to stick out of the wooden planks making it hard for me to find a spot to stand that didn't hurt. As I adjusted my footing, Tigala in spider form jumped at me. She caught me off guard and I landed on the sharp spines. They dug into my backside and probably drew blood in a couple of places.
Tigala immediately began to spew spider silk on me as I fought and clawed at her. The bed of thorns I laid on wasn't helping me gain any leverage, making it hard to actually hurt her in any way. Not to mention, it made every movement painful.
"Tigala, what are you doing? Let me up," I said, hoping she had even a trace of sympathy for me. No such luck. She managed to grab my arms and web those too.
I heard the snap of Lolan's bowstring and then saw an arrow clatter on to the wooden walkway next to me. Orange light faded from it revealing an arrow with a sharp bend in its shaft, making it impossible to fire.
Tigala finished wrapping me up in her silk, crawled up the tree trunk, and dove onto Zef next.
"Tigala, stop," I said. "We could help each other."
Tigala and Zef were both equally silent as she wrapped him up. For Tigala, it was probably due to her alien mouth and vocal cords, if spiders even have those. And Zef? Who knows? He was probably enjoying it in some odd way. I imagined him saying 'Wooh. This is fun!' as a giant spider spun him in circles.
I looked over, arching my back against the sharp spines of the walkway, and saw Zef smiling slightly as he was bound with his hands together neatly in front of him. I rolled my eyes.
I heard the wolf man's voice below. "Oh. So now you want to help us? Now that we've won. No. We don't need or want your help," he said. After a pause, I heard him say something in a quieter voice, not to us. "Go stop the boy, Torm."
After that, with my back still against the spiked platform forty feet off the ground, I didn't hear anything for a few moments. Then there was a loud crunch of leaves, and another. Next, the tree shook. It shook again. I could hear a repetitive crunch of tree bark below me, working it's way up the tree.
There was another snap of Lolan's bow, and this time I saw the arrow bend just before he fired it. Instead of the usual whir of an arrow, it clattered on the edge of the platform and then feel off, to the forest below.
The shaking continued and caused the tree to sway like a flower in the wind. There was a louder crunch of dry boards as Torm, I guessed, reached the platform where we all were. Another arrow clattered to the ground and I saw the boar-like Beastfolk standing twice his usual height with swollen muscles. He snatched the bow from Lolan's hand and threw it down at the walkway, and then picked him up by the shoulders.
He walked past me, threatening to collapse the platform with each step and threw Lolan inside the treetop house just beyond where I was stopped.
A few moments later, the rest of the Beastfolk arrived on the platform on the same elevator we had used. The bear picked up a webbed Zef and the cow picked up me. They threw us both into the treetop home where Lolan was now being dressed in silk as well.
When we were all secured, Tigala began to transform back to her usual bipedal-bobcat self. The group walked out of the treetop home and the wolf stopped at the doorway. He turned around and looked straight at me. "Stay out of our territory. We won't be so kind next time," he said.
He called this kind?
They walked deeper into the treetop village. Beyond the doorway where more platforms connected by rope bridges that looked old and frayed. Torm, the boar-like Beastfolk, shrunk back down to normal size to cross them. Each nearby tree had a similar growth to the one we were inside of. The trunks stretched outward, forming a hollow bulbous room inside their trunks.
I couldn't believe I fell for it. I let my guard down because it was Tigala, but I knew she didn't come with us this morning for a reason. Of course she's back with the Beastfolk. But why did they decide to allow her on their team now, after she had worked with us?
I heard the wolf say, "You could have done that quicker, Tigala," as they walked away. "Don't make me regret letting a betrayer like you join us."
Tigala was walking slightly behind him and turned her head to show her teeth to him like she was growling. But she made no sound and he didn't even bother to look. Instead of letting out a growl, she spoke through her teeth, "I'll do better next time, Lobo."
"You'd better," he said, barely audible from the distance.
I looked around the semi-natural treehouse that we were placed in. It looked like the kind of thing that mother and father had told me about. It was a treetop village and it could have only been crafted with nature magic. Hollowed growths like this don't just happen on their own. Someone must have shaped them.
And that someone must have been the Treeks. I could feel it, how close I was. There were Treeks who lived here. Maybe the Treeks from the first colony would even be here. I had to get out so I could find them before the Lobo and his crew did. Who knows what he would do to them?
The room was open with a small table against the wall. A stone slab raised up the ashes of an old fire in the middle of the room and two hammocks hung just above standing height in the dark wooden attic of the room. The walls were covered in what looked like the same kind of bark that covered its exterior as if the tree had grown around an object the size of the room and then the object was removed.
I looked on the table for something sharp and found nothing but a few scattered papers. Finding nothing, I then looked around the rest of the room for something else that could cut us free. My eyes settled on the stone slab that once held a fire off of the ground.
I worked and wriggled my way across the floor. The tight spider silk that held me made it hard to even bend my legs, but not impossible. I rolled once, then twice across the rough wooden floor until my cheek hit the slab of blue slate. With a few more awkward shimmies, I landed my silk-covered forearms on the sharp corner of the rock.
I began jerking my body back and forth trying to snap some threads. Every movement was tiring. Each saw stroke seemed to require every muscle in my body to contract. After working on it for a couple of minutes, I was left panting, with beads of sweat running down my forehead.
I heard footsteps behind me. Then Zef stepped over me onto to the fire rock and smiled down at me. Only a few strands of spider silk remained dangling from his colorful clothes.
"Need some help?" he asked, smiling down at me.
"How did you do that?" I asked.
He held up his hand, his fingers forming a circle. "I used your knife," he said.
I looked around didn't see it anywhere. "What?" I said. Was this another trick? We didn't have time for this.
"I change appearances. It's what I do," he said. He cracked a wide grin and then bent down next to me. He brought down the hand he had just shown me against the spider silk, his fingers still forming a circle shape with nothing in the middle. I saw pressure against the silk in a line above his hand. With a sawing motion, the line of pressure started cutting through the silk.
"You turned my dagger invisible?" I said with wide eyes.
Zef chuckled. "Don't lose it!" he said, smiling as he cut. "It will only last a little while longer though. To make it permanent I would need to spend much more time on it."
Lolan walked up as Zef continued to work on my bonds and added, "He just held it in front of him while Tigala wrapped him up."
Zef finished cutting me free and I looked him in the eyes. The wrinkles at the corners of his eyes were more pronounced as he smiled. "Nicely done," I said. It wasn't the sort of magic I was used too, but he had shown it could be useful if done right. It kept us from being left to be eaten by whatever roams the treetops of the forest.
As if the thought had summoned it, when I stood I heard a rustle among the branches near the house that we had last seen the Beastfolk enter. I squinted my eyes and saw a dark green humanoid shape lurking among the leaves of the shorter tree. It clung to the branches with lanky arms and long bony fingers. A large crooked nose came to a sharp point above a mouth that displayed jagged teeth even when closed.
"Tigala! Look out!" I shouted.