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 looked at us. It bared its crooked teeth before turning its attention back to the tree-dwelling that contained the Beastfolk. The thing shifted among the branches, as if it was second nature, crawling about to get a better vantage point.
There was no response, but Tigala poked her head out from the corner of the tree to look at us. Noticing we were unbound, her look of curiosity transformed to anger. She began walking toward us before the green creature dove out at her. Tigala was tackled out of sight, growling as she fell.
“Come on,” Zef said. “We have to help.”
I wasn’t quite sure what to do. On the one hand, Tigala had helped us—helped me even, but she was also quick to betray us. She was more loyal to her own than she ever could be to Zef, Lolan, and I.
“She might just tie us up again,” I said. Part of me wanted to help, but it was the part of me I learned to suppress to keep myself safe.
“We can’t 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. All I remembered was that they were notoriously 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. His steady expression was fixed on me, waiting for my response.
I guess he was right. Despite her betrayal, she was still one of us in a way. One of the outcasts. Even though 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 as to work with other races. Especially a Treek.
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.” Lolan picked up his bow from the walkway and we started toward the Beastfolk when another green creature landed on the bridge in front of us. The troll snarled as his massive frame blocked our exit. We slowly backed up into the treehouse and it followed, cornering us.
The humanoid shape was a silhouette in the doorway. Its back was hunched over, but it was still a head taller than me. Its oily green skin and thin black hair reflected the ambient forest light. A foul stench of rot emanated from its pours.
An arrow flew and tore the creature’s flesh by its shoulder. I turned to see Lolan nock another arrow as the troll roared, revealing gnarled jagged teeth.
It leapt into the room and took a swipe at Lolan, barely missing as Lolan rolled out of the way. He held his chest, panting. We couldn’t afford to let this fight go on long.
I wasn’t sure how I could help without access to soil. I still had my dagger, but there was no way I was going to get close enough to attack the troll directly. 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. I didn’t have time.
I started focusing on the tree nonetheless. Maybe I could feel for nearby branches with my magic, even though I couldn’t see them.
The troll screamed as it threw its abnormally long arm at Zef. The Gnome 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, slicing straight through to the floor. Zef dissipated and I heard a chuckle behind the troll. I looked at the sound. The real Zef was standing behind the monster, unscathed.
Zef waved his arm, conjuring a swirl of purple energy. He stood still for a moment as the magic settled. Then he ran again, leaving a still image of his previous self behind.
Motionless images of Zef started appearing around the room as the Gnome ran. Blinded by anger, the troll smashed his fist down at the illusions, missing the real Zef each time.
I did my best to dodge out of the way with every one of the Troll’s blows. As I dodged I saw Lolan holding the sword we had found back in the spider cave. His hands shook, clearly not used to the weight. His breathing was erratic. It was obvious he hadn’t recovered from his battered ribs yet.
I continued trying to reach out with my magic, avoiding the green glowing veins in my search. I could feel the hanging branches beyond the tree-dwelling we were in, but I struggled to get a sense of where everything was in relation to myself. I found a bush that seemed far away, below us. I soon found a tree branch that I shook with my magic, but I couldn’t place it outright.
I tried finding another branch, but the troll finally turned its attention to me. I dove to the side as it smashed the wooden table behind me, leaving only splinters of wood in its place.
The troll recovered and swiped at another Zef clone. Lolan was ready for it, swinging down with his sword. The blade connected, carving through flesh and bone, only stopping once it dug into the floor of the house. The creature’s forearm and hand fell to the floor at its feet.
The troll howled in pain as it held the stump of its arm up. The foul stench of the monster became almost unbearable as blackened blood poured down from the creature’s wound. It looked at us with what might have been fear. The troll took one last swipe at the Zef clones and jumped back into the nearby treetops.
“Nice hit,” I said.
“Thanks—” Lolan began to respond as the severed troll arm twitched in front of him. He jumped and backed away.
I chuckled. Lolan’s act of bravery was pretty intimidating, but now he was afraid of a twitching arm. But then it kept twitching, over and over again. The arm sprung to life and crawled after Lolan, it’s fingers dragging the rest of itself toward him. It left a putrid trail of gore where the raw flesh dragged on the wooden floor. It wasn’t fast, but it sure was creepy.
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 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. We followed.
I poked my head out to make sure nothing was hiding outside the door. The coast was clear. We ran across the treetop bridges and walkways to reach the Beastfolk party, and with them, Tigala.
Chipry flew by, 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 fighting back a third troll on the edge of a platform. Tigala was pinned with only one shoulder still on the wooden walkway. Below was a fifty-foot drop to the forest floor.
She was in tiger form, but it didn’t do much to help. The troll had pinned her good and was trying to take bites at her face. Tigala’s paws were holding the troll’s face just high enough off of her that its needle-like teeth didn’t connect.
I knew that if I swung with a tree branch at the troll it would likely knock it off the platform, but it would probably push off Tigala as well.
Tigala shoved it with one foreleg, creating an opening to attack, and she 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 struck the troll in the ribs, but the creature only screamed again. Lolan huffed with frustration as he pulled another shot from his quiver.
Lobo’s voice shot out of the building near us. The Beastfolk. “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 have to tell the colony you were dead when we found you.”
“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 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 a further platform as Tigala barely held on to the one closer to us, digging her front claw deep into the wood. Unlike the Troll, she couldn’t regenerate. If she fell she could die.
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 crashed into a tree trunk with a terrible crunch before continuing its descent. It slammed onto the forest floor and laid there, limp, bent in ways it shouldn’t be.
“I told you to leave us alone,” said Lobo as he snarled at me. His bared teeth didn’t scare me. But he began to charge directly at Lolan, 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 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 in size with each step. Lobo pulled a metal rod from his back and began to shape it with magic. The bear showed no signs of his magic, if he even knew how to use it. The cow Beastfolk glowed an orange light over her arms, hanging back behind the rest of the group.
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 path. I looked back and saw Lobo’s metal rod now in the shape of a machete. He sliced through my branches like they were nothing. However, it did 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 hard, pulling me off my feet and to the edge of the platform.
“Nicely done, Mila,” Lobo called out.
I clawed as best as I could, digging my fingers into the weathered wooden planks but to no avail. I found a gap in the wood and held on to keep the cow, Mila, from dragging me off entirely. “Help!” I yelled. Zef and Lolan came running for me. 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. Then we continued into another one of the treetop homes.
This house was unlike any of the others we had seen. It was still a magically-made growth in a tree, but it was much bigger. It was like a banquet hall compared to the others. Loose sheets of paper were scattered all about the room, each torn and weathered as if they were ancient. A book was laid open, dozens of pages ripped from its spine.
I almost forgot about the green glowing veins as we traversed the treetop village. They were so commonplace here, but there was no missing them in this room. They all seemed to stem from here, converging in the center of the floor. The green glow tinted everything we saw and my heart began to beat so fast 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.