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3.3 Shoot

# 2449 12 - 16 mins.

That was dumb. Why did I say that? Now she's going to know we're free. I thought, mad at myself for warning Tigala.

The creature lurking in the branches turned to look at me. It bared its crooked teeth and then looked back at the tree dwelling that contained the Beastfolk. The thing shifted among the branches like it was second nature, moving to get a better vantage point.

There was no response, but Tigala poked her head out from around the corner of the tree to look at us. She saw us standing and unbound and her look of curiosity turned sharp with anger. She began walking toward us and the green creature dove out at her. Tigala growled as she was tackled out of sight.

"Come on. We have to help," Zef said.

I wasn't quite sure what to do, myself. On the one hand, we knew her. She had helped us—helped me even. But she had also gone back on all of that. She was more loyal to her own. "She might just tie us up again," I said. Part of me wanted to help, but it was the part of me I had learned to suppress to keep myself safe.

"We can't just let her get eaten by that troll," said Zef.

So it was a troll then. I thought. I had heard about trolls. The Humans used to have a rhyme about them that I couldn't remember. It was something about them being hard to kill.

"Won't the other Beastfolk help her?" I asked.

"We won't go too close, but we need to make sure she's okay. ," said Zef. He looked up at me, with a steady stare, waiting for my response.

I guess he was right. Despite the betrayal, she was still one of us in a way—one of the outcasts. Even now that the Beastfolk accepted her back, it seemed to be done more out of a desire to preserve their own honor than hers. They couldn't stand seeing a Beastfolk stoop so low that they worked with us.

I didn't like the thought of her tying us up again, but I didn't plan on letting her either.

I sighed and said, "Let's go." We walked toward the front door when another green creature landed in front of it, skidding to a halt. He blocked our exit and snarled at us.

The humanoid shape was a silhouette in the doorway. Its back was hunched and even so, it was a head and shoulders taller than me. It's oily green skin and thin black hair reflected the ambient forest light, and a foul stench of rot penetrated our nostrils.

Lolan fired an arrow at the creature and hit it in the shoulder. The troll roared in pain showing its gnarled jagged teeth.

It lept into the room, took a swipe at Lolan, and barely missed as Lolan rolled out of the way. He was breathing heavy and holding his chest. We couldn't afford to let this fight go on long.

I wasn't sure how to help. I had a dagger but I wasn't sure I wanted to get close enough to the thing to plunge it into the creature. I couldn't see any trees close enough to help either, aside from the one we were in. It would take a lot of time to move an old tree trunk like this one though.

I started focusing on the trees nonetheless. Maybe I could feel some nearby branches through my magic, even though I couldn't see them.

The troll screamed and launched another abnormally long arm at Zef. Zef didn't move from where he was. He just stood there smiling up at the creature.

"Zef!" I yelled as the claw came crashing down on him and continued straight through to the floor of the house. Zef dissipated and I heard a chuckle behind the troll. I looked to the sound and the real Zef was standing, unscathed behind the monster.

Zef waved an arm over his head and a swirl of purple energy floated down onto him. He stood still for a moment as the magic settled and then he ran, leaving a still image of his previous pose behind.

Motionless images of Zef started appearing around the room as he ran and the troll swatted at all of the wrong ones.

Lolan pulled out the sword we had found back in the spider cave and held it in shaky hands. He was breathing heavy and still wincing with each deep breath due to his battered ribs.

I continued trying to reach out with my magic, avoiding the green glowing veins in my search. It wasn't easy, like walking through a maze blindfolded. I found things but it took some mental feeling around to get a sense of what it was and where it was in relation to myself. I found a bush that seemed far away, maybe below us. I reached out again and found a tree branch. I gave it a shake with my magic but didn't see it anywhere.

I found another, but before I could try and determine it's location, the monster barreled toward me. I dove to the side and it smashed through the wooden table behind me, leaving only shreds of wood in its place.

The troll recovered and swiped at another Zef clone. Lolan was ready and swung down at the arm. The sword connected, carving through flesh and bone, only stopping once it dug into the floor of the house. The rest of the creature's forearm and hand fell to the floor next to the sword.

The troll howled in pain as it held its shortened arm up. The foul stench of the monster became almost unbearable as blackened blood poured down from the creature's chopped arm. It looked at us with what might have been a look of fear, gave one last swipe at the Zef clones guarding the door, and jumped out and back into the nearby tree branches.

"Nice hit," I said.

"Thanks—" Lolan began to respond. He was cut off by a twitch of the severed troll arm in front of him. He jumped and began backing up.

I started to chuckle. Cutting off the troll's arm was pretty intimidating, but now he was afraid of a twitching arm. Then it twitched again...and again. The arm sprung to life and crawled after Lolan, it's fingers dragging the rest of it across the floor toward him. It left a putrid trail of gore behind it. It wasn't fast, but it sure was creepy.

Lolan continued backing up and Zef stepped forward and grabbed the arm. The hand tried snapping at him, but it didn't have enough leverage or reach to grab him from where he held it.

"These things are pretty nasty," he said. "I've even heard stories that a whole new troll can regrow from an arm like this."

"Regrow?" I asked.

"Yup. They regenerate. That one you just chopped the arm off of will be back. He'll have a brand new arm too," he said, smiling as he spoke.

"Oh, great," said Lolan with a hint of worry in his voice.

"Come on. Tigala might be up against one on her own," Zef said as he headed to the doorway.

I poked my head out to make sure nothing was hiding just outside the door and we started running across the treetop bridges and walkways to reach the Beastfolk.

Chipry bounced from tree to tree following us as we ran. He probably wanted to stay away from all of the commotion, and I wanted him to as well.

As we crossed the swaying rope bridges, I saw the one-armed troll jumping from tree to tree. Then on the other side, I saw another. I wasn't sure we could take on a group of these things, especially if they wouldn't die.

We came around the corner and saw Tigala still struggling with a third troll on the edge of a platform. Tigala was pinned with only one shoulder still on the wooden walkway. Beneath the other was a fifty-foot drop to the forest floor.

The troll had pinned her, in her tiger form, and was trying to take bites at her face. Tigala's paws were holding it just high enough off of her that the needle-like teeth didn't connect.

They were tangled up enough that if I swung with a tree branch at the troll it would likely knock them both off of the platform.

She shoved with one foreleg, creating an opening to attack, and dragged her claw against the troll's skin. It howled and then snapped back at her with its jaws. The wound on its ribs began to close up even as we watched.

I started empowering a tree branch above them to swipe at the troll, but I didn't move it just yet. I let the magic sit there in the branch as I waited for an opening.

Lolan fired an arrow, aiming high to make sure he didn't hit Tigala. The arrow whizzed passed the two and clattered against a tree in the distance. Lolan huffed with frustration and I heard more clattering as he pulled out another.

Lobo's voice shot out of the building near us. "I thought I told you this is our find," he growled, stepping out into our view. He bared his teeth as he spoke. "Get out of our way or we'll make you...again."

"She needs help. She's wounded." I said.

"She can handle herself. She needs to prove to us that her time with you didn't make her soft. And if she doesn't, her loss." said Lobo. Torm and the others stepped out to back him up. They were fully in support of his stupid plan.

The troll swung a claw down at Tigala's face. She rolled and kicked in response, launching the troll into the air and rolling herself right over the edge.

The troll tumbled onto another nearby platform and Tigala barely dug her one set of front claws into the platform to keep her from falling to her death. She dangled with one claw dug into the wooden boards of the treetop platform.

As soon as the troll was off of her I took a swing with the branch I was preparing. I didn't care about Lobo and his stupid rules. He thinks this is how you treat your own just because they're weaker? Because she was wounded and had no other options than to work with us, he thinks he can torture her? Screw him. Screw this war.

Tigala didn't need this. No. She was one of us now. Even if she was the last to find out.

I slammed the branch into the troll and launched it into the backdrop of trees. It sailed into a nearby tree trunk with a terrible crunch and then continued its descent. It slammed into the forest floor and laid there, limp, and bent in ways it shouldn't be.

"I told you to leave us alone," said Lobo as he snarled at me and bared his teeth. He tried and failed to suppress the yell and then charged at Loan, Zef, and me.

As much as I wanted to give Lobo a bloody nose at the very least, I was pretty sure we couldn't take him and his group. They were Beastfolk military, and I was basically a street thief, Lolan was a hunter of some sort, and Zef was a trickster, I guess.

I looked at the charging group of beasts, Torm, the warthog, grew with each step. Lobo pulled a metal rod from his back and began to shape it with magic. The bear ran with the group, showing no signs of how he might use his magic if he even knew how to use it, and the cow hung back behind the group, an orange glow forming on her arms.

Yeah, I'm okay with being a coward sometimes.

"Run!" I yelled, and the three of us sprinted in the opposite direction. I began lowering tree branches behind us to block the paths to us. I looked back and saw Lobos metal rod now in the shape of a machete. He used it to slice through my branches like they were nothing. However, it did manage to slow them down enough for us to gain some distance.

We ran for another house among the trees, hoping to get out of view. As we neared the end of a rope bridge I felt something grab my ankle. I looked down and saw a black and white spotted hand wrapped around it. A thin elongated arm with a matching pattern stretched all the way back to the cow Beastfolk. She smiled and then yanked, pulling me to the edge of the platform.

Lobo called out, "Nicely done, Mila."

I clawed as best as I could, digging my fingers into the weathered wooden planks. I found a gap and held on to keep the cow, Mila, from dragging me off entirely. "Help," I yelled. And Zef and Lolan came running. Zef waved his hands around as if he were drawing the outline of a wall, but I didn't see the effect. Lolan fired an arrow in Mila's direction. I didn't hear an impact but, a moment later, the hand on my ankle released and Zef helped me back to my feet.

Zef waved his hands a few more times building illusionary walls to block the Beastfolk's view of us. I used a couple of branches to smash two of the rope bridges we had crossed, and then we continued on into another one of the treetop homes.

This house was unlike the others we had seen. It was still built inside of some magic-made growth in the tree, but it was much bigger. It could fit ten people across it with their arms stretched out—a banquet hall compared to the first. Loose sheets of paper were scattered all about the room and looked ancient. A book laid open with many of its pages ripped down to the spine.

I almost forgot about the green glowing veins as we traversed the treetop village because they were so commonplace here, but there was no missing them in this room. They all seemed to stem from there, converging in the center of the floor. The green glow tinted everything we saw and my heart began to beat so fast I thought I wondered if the others could hear it.

There at the center of the room, where the veins glowed their brightest, was a figure laying face down—unmoving.

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