In tiger form, Tigala dove into the room, aiming more to disarm Lobo than attack him outright. She crashed into him, forcing his shapeshifted sword out of his hand. The blade glided on the floor as Tigala turned back to Lobo, growling at him all the while.
“Don’t do this,” she roared.
“I would say the same to you, but you’ve already made your choice.” Lobo held out his hand, letting Mila toss his sword back to him. The hilt landed directly into Lobo’s grey-furred palm. “I guess I’ll have to go through you then.”
I used the branch I had been readying earlier to grab Mila. She seemed to be the bigger threat out of the two, because of her longer reach. I wrapped the branch around her chest and arms. She tried to push her way out, but she was trapped. The bark was too tight around her chest, and no amount of pulling from her hands could break her free.
Torm started to grow. After a moment, the oversized warthog had to bend his head to keep from bursting out of the treetop hut.
He went for Lolan first, despite being armed with a sword. Lolan swung at the slow meaty hand and it connected, creating a growing trail of blood down the Beastfolk’s fingers. Torm pulled his hand back and then laughed in a deep voice. This time Lolan charged him. He ran underneath the warthog Beastfolk’s legs. Torm waddled around to try and find his whereabouts.
The bear Beastfolk ran into the room, focusing on Zef. Even without Tigala, they matched us in number, and they were better trained than us. They were warriors. Zef began conjuring a spell right away. He did a funny little dance where he stood as the bear Beastfolk confronted him. Zef leaned forward and puffed up his cheeks. His mouth opened wide open and blew out a thick cloud of smoke that filled the room. The whole treetop hut was quickly masked in thick smoke.
The bear Beastfolk and Zef disappeared in the darkness just before they met. All that was left, all that was visible to me, was Lobo and Tigala.
Lobo had cast aside his machete. He snapped his jaws at tiger-form Tigala and said, “You want a fight? Let’s go!” He bent forward as his body began to rearrange. The fur on his body grew thicker, and his hands were replaced with clawed paws. His back hunched in an unnatural way as he stood on all fours, growing a foot or two taller than Tigala. Bone stabbed out of the skin on the ridge of his back and joints. He had turned into a dire wolf making even Tigala look like a mere kitten in comparison.
Nonetheless, Tigala dove at him and the fight began. The two tussled in the middle of the room, disappearing in the smoke, and then reappearing a moment later.
I had to do something. Zef’s smoke had provided some cover for us to possibly escape without getting killed, but I couldn’t leave Tigala behind. And I didn’t think the Beastfolk would let up until I was dead.
I ducked low in the smoke to remain hidden and poked my head out just enough to get a view of my surroundings. I was still maintaining my tree magic on the branch wrapped around Mila, the cow Beastfolk. She was struggling to break free, using her transformation magic to try and push the branch or slip out of it. Luckily, the branch was in place for now. She couldn’t escape without me noticing.
Then I smelled something. It was the smell of rot from before—the smell of troll’s blood. I looked for the door and saw the nearby trees shake. Before I could react, two trolls launched themselves from the trees and landed on the walkways. One had a trail of blood on its stomach but no wound, but the arrow hole higher on his chest still hadn’t healed. The other troll walked with a hop in its step due to its leg that healed backward. I had to guess that it was the one we threw from the treetops earlier.
Great, I thought. This couldn’t get any worse.
And then it did.
Three more trolls dove from the trees onto the walkways, a little further back than the first two.
They saw Mila hanging from the trees like fresh bait and came rushing after her on all fours. Their oily black hair flicked back and forth with each stride. I couldn’t let them tear her to pieces so I dropped her onto the deck and stepped out. I readied my branch at her side.
She looked down at herself, and then at the branch, incredulous. Then she saw me and tensed. This isn’t going to work.
Before she could act I said, “We need to work together. There’s too many of them.” Mila didn’t seem to like that idea. She ran at me, readying her fists. She was quick, using bursts of magical energy to connect each punch and kick sooner than I could anticipate. She landed a fist against my jaw, and then another to my gut before I could react. And then, the trolls joined us.
One dove onto her, tackling her inside of the hut. They disappeared inside of Zef’s smoke cloud. Another charged me, but I used my branch to smack it off of the bridge. It knew what to do this time though. The troll wrapped its arms around the branch and held on. I tried to shake it off, but it climbed further up the branch until it was out of sight, somewhere above the large hut.
As I tried to shake it free, a third troll crashed into me, sending me hurtling into darkness. I skidded across the wooden floor, my hardened skin saving me from the brunt of the impact. I could hear the troll’s snarls nearby in the cloud of smoke.
I backed up and found myself on the wall, opposite of the doorway I was thrown through. The troll’s snarls grew louder and I could hear him swiping his claws through the smoke. There was a swirl of shadow in front of me. It was getting closer.
“Zef!” I yelled, hoping Zef would hear me over the commotion. No response.
The troll dove for my voice, forcing me to duck to the side. It slammed into the wall and made an inhuman groan. I backed into the smoke and out of the troll’s sight before it could get ahold of me.
I bumped into something—some sort of table. I ducked underneath it, still hearing the clacking of troll jaws nearby as I yelled with all of my might: “Zef! Clear the smoke!”
In an instant, the smoke was gone. I saw ahead of me the gnarled black toenails of the oily green-skinned monster. It twisted, ducked its head low enough to make eye contact with me, and gave a crazed grin.
I yelled, “Trolls! We need to work together!” as the troll charged.
It crashed into the table, smashing it to pieces as I slipped away on the opposite side. I looked around and found no one heeding my warning. I shouldn’t have expected any different.
I formed a glow of green energy on the wall and began growing a branch out of the still-living wood. It worked, but it was slow to manifest. The troll saw the spot and slashed at it, sending splinters across the room.
But something strange happened. His slash continued past the mark I had created and broke into one of the green magical veins. A stream of green light poured out of the puncture and seeped into the wood around it. Then, the wall began to crack. It flexed and popped and something like a limb pulled free of the wall, then a leg. A head came next and the swirl of magical energy centered around what would be the chest area. Out of the living wall broke a creature made entirely of tree, powered by the careless release of nature magic by the troll’s wild swing.
“That’s not good,” I said to myself.
The tree monster attacked the troll in a wild fury, giving me a moment to spare. I looked around the room and saw ongoing fights between the Beastfolk and my group. Mila and the other troll were wrestling in the middle of the room.
“Stop!” I yelled. “There are three more trolls coming, and fighting in here is dangerous with these magical veins. We need to work together to get out of here!”
Lolan was caught by the bear Beastfolk. Lobo and Tigala were circling each other snarling. Torm, in his enlarged state, was having trouble pinning down the old Gnome. None of the Beastfolk listened to me.
“We can handle ourselves,” said Lobo. “It’s your ragtag group that wants help from us, and we don’t help our enemies.” He looked back at Tigala. “Especially not traitors.”
Before I could respond, the troll tossed the tree monster in my direction, forcing me back into the fight. I should have expected as much from Lobo, but I still had to try.
The tree monster skidded across the floor and began thrashing at me. I pulled out a dagger but had little else to work with. I tried slicing the creature, but its body was harder than my own. My skin only resembled tree bark. It was only a little rougher than the skin of other races, but this was actual tree bark. The knife hit one arm and was ripped from my hand as the creature swung wildly. It flew across the room.
In the meantime, the troll that had created the tree monster was staring at the veins, seemingly confused. It slashed the veins several more times but received a different result each time. A branch shot out of the wall and began whipping around. Another slash caused large thorns to grow out of the wall, and another made the wall itself taller. The rest of the room maintained its height while the wall stretched. I heard a groan and snap above me as the roof shifted, causing light to spill through.
Chipry saw the commotion from his perch outside and swooped in. He attacked the face of the tree monster, but it didn’t affect it like it would a normal animal. It was unphased, showing no disruption to its chaotic swings. One arm hit Chipry and sent him flying.
“Chipry!” I yelled as he hit the wall nearest to me, but I had no time to check if he was okay. The tree monster was on me again, while the troll continued to slash the magical veins in an attempt to create another. I tried swatting away its arms with my own and received a fresh gash as a result, but the synchronized motion gave me an idea.
I had read about Treeks creating and controlling creatures like this, from the book in this very room. Maybe I could control it.
I kicked the creature in the chest, knocking it onto its back. I tried to focus on the energy inside of it. The green glowing power in its chest pulsed with life. I focused on that. It was different than working on normal plants in traditional soil. It felt strange, like molding clay that had already been partially shaped by someone else. The clay was hardened… but I could still shape it, as long as I tried hard enough.
The creature was back to its feet by the time I took control of it. It stopped in its tracks and I began to mentally take stock of how it worked. I moved an arm, and then its leg. I could do all of it with my own body easily, but puppeting another being was strange. I made the creature take a step, and then another. The unsynchronized steps caused the tree to tumble forward, falling on its bark reinforced knees.
I made it stand up, in the same way a walking toddler would, with its arms and legs spread further than necessary. But I was comfortable enough to keep controlling it. I set the tree’s sights on the troll.
Another bark creature was peeling away from the wall as a result of the troll’s most recent attack on the veins. The troll grabbed it, and ripped it the rest of the way out, snapping off its leg. He threw the thrashing tree monster at my own minion. They collided and crashed to the floor. I had the plant monster in my control wrap its arms around the other to at least keep it under control.
The troll howled with anger and slashed another vein. This blast of energy started to warp its arm instead of growing anything from the wall itself. The troll’s arm grew a bark-like texture, turning it into a wooden club instead of an oily troll arm.
I looked around for an escape and saw that the other trolls had entered. Each one joined the ongoing fight. Lobo tried throwing Tigala at a troll while a third tree monster confronted Torm and Zef. The bear Beastfolk was barely holding off another troll from ripping an unconscious Lolan to shreds. Mila was fending off two more trolls. On top of all of the chaos was a thunderous groaning that continued to grow louder as the lopsided tree tried desperately to hold itself together.
The troll in front of me that had been slashing the veins got fed up and decided to take me on its own. It went down on all fours before galloping forward.
We are going to die here, I thought to myself. In the last seconds before impact, my eyes centered on the converging green veins where the dead deer Beastfolk lay—the magical well.
It was nature magic, and I knew nature magic. Jumping off of that proverbial cliff couldn’t be worse than being torn apart and eaten by a troll. Right?
I focused on the center of the veins and put all of my might into shaping the magic. I stepped off of the magical ledge, diving headfirst. The magic rushed around me, pouring out of the center of the hut. It was so much more power than I could ever muster on my own.
I used it to sense the nature around me, and it was like I was looking with my own eyes. A detailed map of the plants in the area filled my mind, everything glowing with green. I searched for the spot where the troll was and pushed out. Hundreds of branches shot out of the wall, wrapping around the troll and pulling it into the wood behind it. It tried to scream in pain, but it couldn’t be heard over the crackling of bone and flesh.
I searched out the others using my eyes and the map in my mind. One by one, I crushed the trolls, each time more effortless and reckless than the last. Despite my best efforts to use only what I needed, the power bubbled over and pushed me to use more and more of it. The room erupted with branches, vines, and leaves, erasing all traces of the trolls’ existence.
I reached for the tree monsters next, each one glowing brightly in my mind’s eye. I tried to seize control of one and they all froze in place. Now it was easy to control them—like moving my own body. They all ran to the center of the room at my command and began tearing each other apart.
The magic pulsed through and made me feel invincible yet deeply unstable. It was draining and invigorating at the same time, but I had to let go. Using it on the Beastfolk would be sure to kill them.
I tried to let go… but I couldn’t. I looked down, seeing that my hands glowed bright green. My vision was washed out by a green glow. Everything around me was seeping in nature magic.
I tried again to leave the magic behind, to stop using it. I pushed harder, desperate to will it out of me. I pushed and yelled as I forced the last of the energy back into the veins it came from… but energy like this couldn’t be so easily contained.
I let out a sigh of relief as the glow left my hands. I let go of the well, and that’s when everything went wrong.