I heard the crunch of leaves behind me as we searched around the base of the tree. I turned to look, but no one was there. That Beastfolk 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?” asked Lolan. I turned to him as he tugged on a vine tied to a tree. Realizing what he had done, I ran. Chipry startled and flew to a nearby tree branch to watch.
“Get close!” I yelled. Lolan and Zef huddled up next to me as I looked up and saw a counterweight fall from a ledge built into the tree. The vine went taut, along with four others, as the weight fell. The ground shook beneath us, almost knocking us off of our feet. A platform hidden beneath the forest brush lifted the three of us up into the treetops, suspended by vines at each corner.
The makeshift elevator came to a resting point at the bulbous overgrowth 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 thought.
I hopped to the walkway first, following the path 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.
Skittering out of the foliage, a giant brown spider with glowing blue markings crawled down the tree trunk. It maneuvered to block my path as it clicked its wet mandibles together.
How are there more of these? I thought. We’re nowhere near the veins of teleportation magic.
Thinking fast, I used my magic to pull at the branches above. The spider saw the green glow, and instead of lunging, it took a step back. It made me think the spider wasn’t quite right in its mind.
“Spider!” Lolan shouted. I could hear the sound of him pulling out an arrow and nocking it. Before he could fire, a shimmering purple light washed over me. Purple particles floated about and joined together, forming a shape around me. The illusion was larger and bulkier than I was, enveloping me. When the magic had fully set, I found brown furry claws extending from my hands 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. For whatever reason, it didn’t react. 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 that two of its front legs were shorter than the rest. They weren’t touching the ground, but they followed the same curvature as the others. I looked into the spider’s eyes. Sure enough, there was a wound across its face.
“Wait!” I said, trying to halt the others from attacking while keeping my eyesight locked on the spider. “It’s Tigala!”
Lolan kept his arrow nocked as he loosened his posture. Zef dropped the giant bear illusion he placed over me. As he did, a voice came from the forest below.
A wolf-like Beastfolk stared up at us. “This is our territory,” he said. With him were a boar, cow, and a bear-like Beastfolk—the reality of what Zef could only make illusions of.
“We found this place 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 from the wooden planks we stood on. I looked down and saw an orange glow. I couldn’t affect dead wood with my nature magic. It must be something only a shapeshifter can do.
Small spines began to stick out of the wooden planks, forcing me to change my footing to avoid being stabbed. As I adjusted my stance, Tigala jumped at me in spider form. Her long legs pushed me down and made me land on the sharp spines. They dug into my backside, each needle was sure to draw blood.
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. “Tigala, what are you doing? Let me up,” I pleaded, hoping she had even a trace of sympathy for me. No such luck. She grabbed ahold of my arms and quickly bound them with thick web.
I heard the snap of Lolan’s bowstring and then saw an arrow clatter on the wooden walkway next to me. Orange light radiated from it, revealing the sharp bend in the shaft of the arrow. It would be impossible to fire.
Tigala finished wrapping me up in her silk, crawled up the tree trunk, and dove onto Zef next.
“Tigala, stop!” I begged her. “We could help each other. You don’t have to do this.”
Tigala and Zef were both silent as she wrapped him up. For Tigala, it was probably due to her alien mouth and vocal cords, if spiders even had those. And Zef? Who knows? He was probably enjoying it in some odd way. I imagined him saying ‘Wooh. This is fun!’ as the giant spider spun him in circles.
I looked over, arching my back against the sharp spines of the walkway, and spotted Zef smiling. He was now 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. It wasn’t directed at us. “Go stop the boy, Torm.”
After that, I didn’t hear anything for a few moments. My back was still against the spiked platform, only thinly protected from the spines due to Tigala’s web. Then came a loud crunch of leaves. Then another. Next, the tree shook. I could hear a repetitive crunch of tree bark below me, working its way up the tree.
Lolan tried to use his bow once more, and this time I saw the arrow bend just before he fired it. Instead of the usual whir of an arrow fly, it clattered on the edge of the platform and then fell off, far down to the forest below.
The shaking continued, causing the tree branches to sway with each impact. There was a louder crunch of dry boards as Torm, I guessed, walked across the platform where we all were. Another arrow clattered to the ground. 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 onto the platform behind him. Then Torm picked Lolan up by the shoulders.
He carried Lolan past me, threatening to collapse the platform with each step. The Beastfolk threw Lolan through the doorway of the treetop house, just beyond me.
A few moments later, the rest of the Beastfolk arrived on the platform that we had used. The bear picked up the webbed Zef and the cow picked me up. They threw us both into the treetop home where Tigala was now wrapping Lolan in silk.
When we were all secured, Tigala transformed back to her usual bipedal-bobcat self. The group walked out of the treetop home, except for the wolf who 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 farther into the treetop village. Beyond the doorway, more walkways connected to rope bridges, each as old and frayed as the forest around it. Torm, the boar-like Beastfolk, shrunk back down to normal size to cross the bridge. Each nearby tree had a similar growth to the one we were inside of. The trunks stretched outward, forming hollow bulbous rooms 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.”
Out of eyeshot Tigala bared her fangs but made no attempt to growl. “I’ll do better next time, Lobo,” she said as she walked behind him.
“You’d better,” he said, barely audible from the distance.
Trapped in spider silk without my dagger, I wasn’t sure what to do. 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 happen on their own. Someone must have shaped them.
And that someone must have been a Treek. I could feel it, how close I was. There were Treeks who lived here. Maybe the Treeks from the first colony. I had to get out so I could find them before Lobo and his crew did. Who knows what he would do to them?
The room was open with a small table against the wall. In the middle of the room was a stone slab, which had to be a fireplace. Two hammocks hung just above. The walls were covered in what looked like the same kind of bark as its exterior.
I looked on the table for something sharp, but there was nothing but a few scattered papers. I 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 made it hard to bend my legs, but it wasn’t impossible. I rolled once, then twice over the rough wooden floor until my cheek hit the slab. 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 break some of the threads. Every movement was tiring. Each saw stroke seemed to require every muscle in my body. After working on it for a couple of minutes, I was left panting. Beads of sweat fell down my forehead, soaking the dusty floor beneath me.
I heard footsteps behind me. Zef’s stocky footfalls stepped over me and onto the fire rock. Only a few strands of spider silk clung to his colorful clothes.
“Need some help?” he asked, smiling down at me.
“How did you do that?” I asked.
He held up his hand, forming a circle with his fingers. “I used your knife,” he said.
I looked at his belt and didn’t see a knife anywhere. “What?” I said. Was this another trick? I 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 gripped nothing as he put the fist to silk. 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 held it in front of him while Tigala wrapped him up.”
Zef finished cutting me free as 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 saved us from being trapped here. That’s all that mattered. We still didn’t know if there were inhabitants of this treetop village.
As if the thought had summoned it, when I stood up I heard a rustling among the branches. It was 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. It clung to the branches with lanky arms and long bony fingers. A large crooked nose came to a sharp point above its mouth, revealing jagged teeth even while closed.
“Tigala! Look out!” I shouted.