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3.4 Shoot

# 2317 12 - 15 mins.

I rushed into the center of the room where the body laid and began to roll it over. The body was limp, giving me no help in moving it. It rolled over its lower shoulder and settled onto its back. The glaring green of the veins beneath the body made it hard for my eyes to focus, but details were less important with what hit me first.

A wave of putrid gas slammed into my nostrils—the smell of decaying flesh. Bugs stirred into the air, whizzing by my ears, and my eyes finally focused on the corpse.

A dead Beastfolk?

The rotting Beastfolk corpse in front of me looked like a deer. He had antlers on top of his head that dried moss clung to. He wore simple clothes and a thick vine was stretched from the epicenter of the magical veins, wrapping around his legs.

A Beastfolk? I thought again. Why would a Beastfolk be in a Treek village at the center of some kind of nature magic well?

"Hey, guys. We better hurry it up. Lobo and his group are getting past those illusion walls," said Lolan as he kept guard at the door. I heard him take a couple steps toward me and say, "Woah. Did he do nature magic? Or was he just attacked by it?" asked Lolan.

"I—I don't know," I said.

"That is interesting," said Zef. "From my understanding, the last web of magical veins like this contained teleportation magic. Its something Gnomes can do, and we found a Gnome at the center."

"Gnomes can teleport?" asked Lolan.

"Some," said Zef. "Or so I've heard."

"So what do you think these veins are? Didn't you say something about a magical explosion before? Do you think that Gnome created the veins there? Did this Beastfolk create them here?" I asked. I wanted answers. My people were supposed to be here, not more Beastfolk.

"I don't know. I guess it's possible, though I can't imagine one person doing this kind of thing on their own. Maybe this was already a place of power, or others helped somehow.

"And I have no idea how a Beastfolk would even attempt Nature magic without harming themselves badly. Even if they did, one Beastfolk couldn't create this big of a reaction."

"What if he figured out how to do magic outside of his own race?" asked Lolan. I gave him an unbelieving look.

"The last person who tried that was torn apart by the opposing magics," said Zef, echoing my sentiment.

Zef walked back to the door and looked out. He waved his hands, probably creating more confusing illusions for our pursuers. I didn't have time to think about that. I had too many questions.

I rose from the body, not sure I could keep from hurling if I spent another second crouched over it, and I began to search around the room. I picked up the book and began flipping through the pages. There were illustrations of plants and movements used to grow and shape them with nature magic. It was more written magic—another taboo among all races.

Alongside each illustration was a block of text that was written in some language that I had never seen before. Each character looked foreign. I kept flipping through looking for anything useful, but with most of the pages torn out, there wasn't much to work with.

Lolan walked over to me with a paper in his hand. He held it out for me and I looked up at it. "Hey, look at this," he said, still looking at the paper.

On the page was an illustration of a humanoid plant creature, similar to the one I had accidentally created out of the green veins. A smaller illustration near the bottom of the page depicted a person, devoid of race, moving their arms. A plant creature stood next to it in the same position as the person as if mimicking its movements.

Treeks can control plant monsters? I thought with wide eyes. I grabbed the paper from his hands without thinking and examined it more closely. I turned the page over and found another illustration of the creature. The sketch was lightly drawn with the center of the plant monster's chest being the only part marked with dark lines. It looked like a large clump of fertile soil was held there, each vine and branch extending from it to make up the walking plant creature.

It made so much sense. I have never removed plants from the ground because that would break my connection to them. Plants can't really grow without something to root themselves too, so my magic doesn't work without some kind of dirt. But I had never thought of bringing the earth with my plants. It was a monumental shift in my understanding of the magic I wielded.

"I'm gonna keep this," I said, not looking up from the page.

"Okay," Lolan said as he walked back to the door.

Outside of the treetop hut, there was a rustle in the nearby trees. "Not again," said Lolan. He went to draw an arrow from his quiver and found it to be the last one.

I guess he did go through a lot of arrows today. Lobo had made several of them unrecoverable too.

Lolan put the arrow back, strapped his bow to his back, and pulled out the sword instead.

There was another rustle and Zef began making doubles again. As he ran around the room, leaving copies behind, he said, "These trolls, they stop regenerating when hit with fire or acid. Any ideas?"

"I could probably get some citrus acid. Would that work?" I asked. I was already searching through my magic for a nearby branch.

"One way to find ou—" Zef was cut off by a troll diving into the room and landing directly on him despite the four or five duplicates he had managed to create. The creature was three times his size and pinned him to the ground with an arm that was far shorter than the other— it was the one Lolan had chopped off earlier.

I saw a look of fear come across Zef's face for a moment, and I became more nervous than I had already been. Zef was always so happy, so confident. His fear scared me more than the troll.

The creature raised its full-sized claw above its head, ready to strike Zef and I barrelled toward him, slamming into its side with my shoulder. Unfortunately, the troll was much bigger than me too and my bull rush only put it a little off balance. It swung its long claw at me and sent me crashing into the edge of the hut's entrance, my ribs taking most of the impact.

Lolan rushed the creature next with his sword above his head, yelling, but I couldn't tell if it was out of fear or excitement. Just before he swung, the creature reached up with its good hand and grabbed the blade of the sword. It snarled as it squeezed the blade tighter and more tar-like blood squeezed from between his fingers. Lolan tried to pull the blade free, but the troll's grip was too tight. The troll shook the sword and Lolan was tossed as well, landing near the doorway on the side opposite of me. Lolan wheezed in pain holding his chest once again. He wasn't doing so well.

The troll threw the sword and then raised its claw one final time with intent and probably the ability to strike Zef dead in one slash. I tried to pull in a tree branch, or vine, or even a leaf to try and help, but all of the branches I could see were too far to make it in time. I closed my eyes dreading what might happen next.

A howl erupted in the treetops that sounded unnatural. I opened my eyes and saw Zef covered in gore. A lump formed in my throat as I tried not to look away again. The troll stepped back, away from its fresh kill when I realized that it was covered in blood and guts too. A foul smell filled the air and I began to make sense of what I was seeing. The mess that covered Zef was black like tar—troll's blood.

Zef stood and troll innards slumped off of him onto the floor. In his hand, he held something that was only visible where it was covered in blood—my invisible dagger.

Zef immediately began creating more doubles as the troll staggered backward toward the doorway. I reached out for a tree branch and swung it down. I wrapped the greenest part of the branch around the troll's neck and pulled it back. It clawed at the branch but I was growing it as fast as he could break it, rewrapping it around him each time.

"Does anyone have any fire or acid?" said Zef, reminding us that throwing it from the trees probably wasn't enough.

I grew two lemons on the edge of the branch and made them so plump that they burst under their own weight. The citric acid ran down the creature's body. An arrow flew into the wet spot on its chest where the citric acid ran down. The troll screamed but that wasn't any different from before.

"Did it work?" asked Lolan. "That was my last arrow."

"I don't know," I said through clenched teeth as I continued to barely keep the troll back from us.

I looked back at Lolan. The rounded features of his face were especially noticeable in tense situations. The blood rushing to his face made them more pronounced. His half-Human features brought an idea to my mind.

"Can you do anything?" I asked.

"I just did!" he said. He recovered his sword and held it out at the troll in case it broke free of my grip.

He looked back and squinted in confusion. Then it seemed to click. His eyes opened wide and he let out a silent, "Ohh". He shook his head in response.

I sighed. It would be nice to have some fire magic on our side right now.

We weren't given much of a chance to try anything as the Beastfolk warband rounded the corner, coming into view behind the troll. Lobo ran forward with his machete-shaped metal rod. He ran it through the creature's back and it poked out through the open wound that Zef had made earlier. Torm stepped in next in his enlarged warthog-Beastfolk state, grabbed the troll by the shoulders and threw him off of the platform. I heard another crunch as it crashed into a nearby tree before the thud of it hitting the ground.

"I thought we told you to—" Lobo stopped mid-sentence as he saw the dead Beastfolk in the middle of the room. He took a couple of deep breaths while his face contorted with anger. "Did you do this?"

"He was like that when we got here," said Zef in a solemn tone.

Lobo walked into the room, not threatened by us in the least. He leaned down over the corpse of the deer Beastfolk, examining it. Torm shrunk back down and walked in to flank him, in case one of us tried something, I assumed. Mila and the bear Beastfolk stayed outside, with Tigala the farthest back, resting against the posts of the closest bridge.

"You had to have done this," said Lobo. His voice was quiet and fierce, slowly growing in volume. "There's a dead Beastfolk here at the center of these green magical streams. It's nature magic, and you're the Treek. Your people have done this before, why wouldn't you do it again?" He stomped toward me with his accusatory machete pointing at me.

Zef tried to cut in. "She's clearly been dead a long time. She couldn't have—"

Lobo's snout whipped around to Zef. "Enough from you too. You and your impish friends have plagued our kind for years. Keep your mouth shut unless you want to die like your friend."

I began breathing heavy. He's going to kill me? I looked at Tigala. She looked tense, conflicted, not as uncaring as I expected.

Lobo reached back with his blade ready to gut me. I had my nearby tree branch creeping closer, slow enough that Mila and the bear wouldn't notice it.

"Lobo, wait!" Tigala said stepping into the hut. She was scowling, which seemed to be her default, but she looked concerned, worried maybe. She glanced at me, making eye contact and then back at Lobo.

"Don't tell me. You don't want her to die because you're a traitor, just like I suspected," said Lobo.

"She didn't do it. We saw this before, in the cave we found," Tigala said.

"There's a dead Beastfolk," he growled back, "surrounded by nature magic. She killed him. Now step in line or I'll go through you to get to her."

"She didn't do it!" said Tigala. Her voice cracked with anger.

Lobo spoke in a quiet tone. He looked like he knew exactly what he was doing, poking the tiger. "You're even worse than the Treeks. You're worse than the Gnomes who gave you those wounds, who killed Gatooli. You're worse than our enemies because you pretend you're one of us. But you're not. You're a disgrace."

Tigala was furious. You could see it in her face. The look of concern was gone, leaving behind only rage. She breathed heavy and tensed all over. Lobo didn't care. Instead, he turned back to me, intent on cutting me open.

Then three different things happened at once. Lobo stabbed at me with the machete while I tried to bring in my branch to stop him. And somewhere in that split second of chaos, I saw a transformed tiger claw come slashing through.

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