I rushed toward the center of the room and kneeled next to the body. It definitely wasn’t a Treek. The patchy skin was cold and lifeless, and its limbs were limp, giving me no help in moving it. I rolled it over and settled the body on its back. The glaring green of the veins beneath the body made it hard for my eyes to focus, but details weren’t as important with what hit me first.
A wave of putrid gas slammed against my nostrils—the smell of decaying flesh. Bugs stirred into the air, whizzing by my ears. After recoiling from the smell my eyes finally settled on the corpse.
A dead Beastfolk? I thought.
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. His clothes were simple. A thick vine stretched from the epicenter of the magical veins to his legs, binding both together.
Why would a Beastfolk be in a Treek village, especially at the center of some kind of well of nature magic?
“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. He took a couple steps toward me and said, “Woah. Did that Beastfolk use nature magic? Or was he attacked by it?” asked Lolan.
“I don’t know,” I answered.
“That is interesting,” said Zef. “From my understanding, the last web of magical veins like this contained teleportation magic. It’s 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?” I asked. “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 wanted answers. My people were supposed to be here, not a dead Beastfolk.
“I don’t know,” Zef said simply. “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 a stern look. I wasn’t convinced.
“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 illusions to confuse our pursuers. I didn’t have time to think about that. I had too many questions.
I stepped away from the body and began to search around the room. Despite many of the pages being ripped out from its spine, I took a look at the book and flipped through what was left. There were illustrations of plants, along with the movements used to grow and shape them with nature magic. It was written magic, another taboo among all races.
Alongside each illustration was a block of text in a language I didn’t understand. Every character looked foreign. I kept flipping through each page to find anything useful, but there wasn’t much to work with.
Lolan walked up to me. “Hey, look at this,” he said, a sole page in his hands. 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 was drawn 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’s chest being the only part marked with dark lines. It looked like a large clump of fertile soil was suspended there at its core. Each vine and branch extended from it to make up the walking plant creature in full.
It made so much sense. I had never removed plants from the ground because that would break my connection to them. Plants can’t grow without something to root themselves to. My magic doesn’t work without soil of some kind, 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 rustling in the nearby trees. “Not again,” said Lolan. He went to draw an arrow from his quiver, only to realize it was his last one left. Lolan put the arrow back, strapped his bow to his back, and pulled out his sword instead.
I could hear more movement in the trees. Zef began making doubles again. As he ran around the room leaving copies of himself behind, he said, “Trolls 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 to do some magical grafting on.
“One way to find ou—” Zef said before being cut off by a troll diving into the room. The monster landed on him, ignoring the many illusions scattered around the room. The creature was enormous, but as he pinned Zef to the ground I noticed one of its arms was far shorter than the other. It was the same one from earlier.
I saw fear come across Zef’s face, and I couldn’t help but feel nervous. 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 kill him, but I jumped in the way. Using the full force of my body I slammed into its side with my shoulder. Unfortunately, the troll was much bigger than me, and my bull rush only threw it off balance a little. It swung its claw at me and sent me crashing into the edge of the hut’s entrance, my ribs taking most of the impact.
Lolan pulled his sword above his head as he charged, 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. It snarled as it squeezed the edge. Tar-like blood squeezed out from between his fingers. Lolan tried to pull the sword free, but the troll’s grip was too tight. The troll pushed Lolan aside, causing him to land near the doorway on the side opposite of me. Lolan wheezed in pain as he held his chest.
With no use for it, the troll threw the sword down on the ground before returning to Zef. Raising its claw one final time, I knew Zef would be killed with a single 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 away. I closed my eyes, dreading what would happen next.
A howl erupted from the treetops. I opened my eyes and saw Zef covered in gore. The troll stepped back, away from its fresh kill as a foul smell filled the room. Blood and guts covered the troll’s body as well. I began to make sense of what I was seeing. The mess that covered Zef was black like tar—troll’s blood.
Troll innards slid off Zef’s shirt as he stood up. In his hand was something that was only visible where it was covered in blood. My invisible dagger.
Zef immediately began creating more doubles as the troll retreated toward the doorway. I reached out for a tree branch and swung it down. Like a whip, I used the greenest part of the branch to constrict the troll’s neck. It clawed at the branch, but I did everything I could to reinforce the bark. As the creature’s claws tore through the wood, fresh bark quickly took its place.
“Does anyone have any fire or acid?” begged Zef. Thinking fast, I grew two lemons on the edge of the branch and made them so plump that they would burst under their own weight. The lemons exploded outward, raining citric acid over the troll’s wounded body. An arrow from Lolan flew by, puncturing another hole into the beast for the acid to seep into. The troll screamed in agony.
“Did it work?” asked Lolan. “That was my last arrow.”
“I don’t know,” I said through clenched teeth. I continued to barely keep the troll back from us by rebuilding the tree branch.
I turned my attention to Lolan. The rounded features of his face, a key Human trait, were especially noticeable now. The blood rushing to his face made them more pronounced. His half-Elf features brought an idea to my mind.
“Can you do anything?” I asked.
“I just did!” he said. He recovered his sword and took hold of it, in case the troll broke free of my grip.
He looked back to me and squinted in confusion. I raised my eyebrows, 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.
The muddled footsteps of the Beastfolk came into earshot. They rounded the corner, coming into view behind the troll. Lobo ran forward with his machete, attacking the creature’s back without a second thought. The blade poked out through the open wound that Zef had made earlier. Torm, the warthog Beastfolk, stepped in next. He grabbed the troll by the shoulders and threw the creature off of the platform. Gargled screaming was all I could hear as the Troll tumbled back to the ground.
“I thought we told you to—” Lobo stopped mid-sentence as he saw the dead Beastfolk, still left in the center of the room. He took a deep breath 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. He knew we were no threat to him and the rest of his Beastfolk party. He leaned over the corpse of the deer Beastfolk, examining it. Torm shrunk back down and walked in to cover Lobo in case one of us decided to try something, I assumed. Mila and the bear Beastfolk stayed outside, with Tigala the farthest back. She rested against the posts of the closest bridge.
“You had to have done this,” said Lobo. His voice was quiet and fierce. “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 machete pointing straight at me.
Zef tried to cut in. “That Beastfolk has clearly been dead a long time. Kaia couldn’t have—” Lobo’s snout whipped around to Zef. “Enough from you too. You and your impish brethren 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 stepped back as he moved forward. I still had my nearby tree branch. I let it creep closer, slow enough that Mila and the bear wouldn’t notice it.
“Lobo, wait!” Tigala said, stepping into the hut. Her expression was mixed. It looked as if she was scowling, but hints of concern were clear on her face. She glanced at me, making eye contact before returning her attention to 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!” cried Tigala. Her voice cracked with anger as she stepped closer.
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.”
The look of concern on Tigala’s face was gone, leaving behind only rage. She was furious. But Lobo didn’t care. Instead, he turned back to me, intent on cutting me open.
Then three different things happened at once. Lobo charged and 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 come clawing through.