I woke up to my body being jostled around. It all hurt. Every muscle felt overworked. Each movement flared the pain radiating through my body. I groaned as I opened my heavy eyelids.
“Oh, good. You’re awake.”
I opened my eyes to see Zef running next to me.
I groaned again in response. Under my hands, I felt fur. My heavy eyes blinked as I turned my head. I was draped over a blonde coat of fur with brown spots—Tigala’s fur. Hanging over her shoulder, I looked across her back and found an unconscious Lolan on the other side.
Tigala’s run came to a halt, and she stooped down to the ground, placing my feet on the surface. “You need to run if you can. We’re too slow with me carrying both of you,” she said.
I stood on shaky legs and looked around. The forest was different now, like it was moving alongside us. I blinked my eyes hard and looked again. It was moving!
Bushes and plants were thrashing about, still rooted in the rich forest soil. Branches swatted back and forth above us. The veins of energy occasionally burst, releasing magical blasts into the greenery around it. More thrashing plants added to the other hoards of hostile foliage.
A tree creature, like the one created by the troll, barrelled out of the foliage, thrashing wildly. Tigala quickly shapeshifted her good hand into a claw and struck the monster in the chest. It stumbled back before coming at her with another charge. Tigala grabbed the monster by its neck and kicked hard at its waist while pulling up. The head popped off as the body toppled over. The green light emanating from its core faded, and it lay there, unmoving.
“There’s more of them?” I said, amazed.
“Looks like whatever you did animated the whole forest. Nearly every plant we’ve seen so far has been affected.” Zef said.
“Woah! That really happened?” I said, wishing it was a dream.
“I’m afraid so,” said Zef.
I shook my head. “Wait, where’s Chipry?”
Zef showed me Chipry held in his cupped hands. He looked a little worse for wear, with ruffled feathers and tired eyes. “I’ve got him. I grabbed him before the tree hut blew. He might be hurt, and my magic isn’t much help right now anyway.”
“Be careful with him,” I said.
“Come on. We need to move. Can you run?” asked Tigala as she looked at me.
“I think so,” I said.
She barely waited for me to answer before she led the way through the forest. Lolan still hanging limp on her back.
That poor kid. He can’t catch a break. I hope he’s okay, I thought.
We ran, dodging animated branches and bushes that flailed about. The smaller plants at our feet tried to trip us up and hold our feet down. Most of them were too weak, however, only serving to be broken at the stem as our feet sprinted forward.
“Can you help at all? Calm the plants maybe?” asked Zef.
I tried to use my magic to attempt to control some of them, but it was no use. The energy was more chaotic than anything I had felt with my magic before. Like a wildfire, the magic fired at random and then dissolved into the air. Controlling it was like trying to catch a fly with my feet. I could slow the plants at best, but there was no way I was going to control them or use them in any way.
“Not really. I think I’m tapped out,” I said.
“That’s what I was afraid of,” said Zef.
The path forward was full of overgrowth. Tigala hurdled over a fallen tree while Zef and I slid under it. I thought I saw something through the brush. I stepped on a branch of the fallen tree to get a better view and found one of the Beastfolk fighting off three more tree monsters. On his shoulder, he carried Lobo, unconscious. It was the bear Beastfolk.
“Hey, the bear Beastfolk is over there. He’s out-numbered. He has Lobo with him,” I said. Everyone else stopped to look.
“His name’s Raffa, and who cares? They did this to themselves,” said Tigala.
“I’m the one who created the living forest. We can’t just leave them here,” I said.
“Yes, we can. You did this because they made you. That’s what they do. They push until you break. Except this time it backfired,” said Tigala.
Zef said, “I think we should help. Think about what happens if we show up at camp and all but one or two of Lobo’s crew return. They’ll probably suspect we did it because we were closest on the map.”
“I’ll vouch for you,” said Tigala. Her face wrinkled more and more with anger the longer we spoke.
“They’ll think you helped us plot whatever this is. You’ve worked with us before. It’ll look like we planted you to lead Lobo’s team to the right place. We need them. At least one of them,” I said.
“Ahgg,” Tigala grunted. It took her a moment, but she knew we were right. She stomped off in the direction of Raffa. Zef and I followed.
We ran through the forest hacking at anything around us that moved. Up ahead, Raffa had destroyed one of the tree monsters, but the other two remained. He fought one head-on while the other tried to sneak around him, where Lobo’s limp body was vulnerable.
“Raffa!” I shouted, trying to warn him of the attack. He whirled around with a confused look on his face. The sudden movement set the tree monster off course when it lunged after him. Raffa made quick work of the tree by swatting him away, protecting Lobo all the same. Well, that kind of worked, I thought.
Raffa roared and then began to shapeshift much like I had seen Tigala do before. There was an orange glow as his bones reoriented themselves. Now he was an actual grizzly bear instead of his normal Beastfolk form. Lobo slid off of Raffa’s back without an arm holding him in place. Raffa stepped over his unconscious body to protect it. He turned to Tigala.
“Let me be. You won, okay?” yelled Raffa, mangy and worn even while transformed.
“We want to help!” said Zef. “You’ll both die out here otherwise.”
“I can handle myself,” Raffa said before swiping at the oncoming tree. His giant claw connected, sending the creature hurtling through a bush.
“He doesn’t want help. Let’s go,” said Tigala.
“We can’t leave them,” I said.
Tigala said, “Yes we can. They attacked us. They tried to execute you.” I hadn’t thought about it in those terms. They did try to execute me. Was I really better off saving them? Rodrigo would assume the worst, regardless of who we came back with. Even if I somehow managed to get one of them to tell the truth about this whole thing, Lobo would still be out there, wanting to kill me. In fact, saving him would make it worse. It would bruise his precious ego, being saved by a Treek.
I looked at Tigala with anger. The frustration she displayed on her face was obvious. I looked at Lolan slumped over her back. He had taken a chance on me, when we had fought the Ogre over by the cliff edge. I was alive because of that chance and it made me respect him. I needed to get him back safely and I needed more allies if we were going to make it out of here. And even ignoring all of that, they would die out here without help.
“I’m going to help him,” I said to Tigala, staring straight into her eyes.
I ran forward, my body still screaming from the aches of all of the torment it had been through that day, but I didn’t care. Raffa and Lobo were going to die out here without help. Even though they forced me to do it, it was my nature magic that got us here. I couldn’t leave. I was the one that awakened this forest. Treeks already get a bad enough rap without me adding an angry forest to the list.
Raffa saw me from the corner of his eye and could have swung a claw my way, but he hesitated. One of the tree monsters dove on his back as we locked eyes. He roared, furiously trying to swat the creature off of him. The tree lost its grasp as Raffa’s claws dug deep into the creation’s wooden body, pulling it away from the bear’s fur. Raffa threw the tree away, as if it was nothing more than a twig. Then Raffa stood on his hind feet and turned to the creature that had slid off onto the forest floor. He landed on it with both front paws and wrapped his powerful jaws around its head. There was a crunch and the tree creature went limp.
While Raffa was occupied, he missed the monster that he had swatted away. It was charging back into the fray, but it wasn’t after Raffa. It saw Lobo’s limp body, now behind the grizzly bear, and went for it instead.
I drew my knife and reached the creature before it could hurt Lobo. My knife struck it in the abdomen with enough force that the blade pierced its bark hide. When I pulled it back out, green energy spilled out of its side, running down the bark like alien blood.
It howled at me and began clawing at my face. I kicked it back and tried once again to use my magic. It still felt just as weak, but I had an idea. It had always been easier to drain the energy out of a magically made plant than to put it in. Maybe it would be the same with these creatures.
I focused on its heart, its core, and pulled, but it didn’t work as I expected. I was used to pulling the energy back through the ground as everything I had made was rooted in soil, but these creatures were not tied to the ground. Instead, I had to pull the energy straight out of them. I followed the energy to its source, its core, and drained it out of the small hole I had made in its side. It was working, but it was slow—too slow.
The creature tackled me to the ground. I continued to drain it despite the commotion. It raised a hand to slash me, but right before it struck, the creature stopped moving entirely. Its core went dark and it fell on top of me, stiff, like a puppet without its master.
I shoved it off, but there was another tree monster running into the clearing. It spotted Lobo’s unconscious body and hobbled toward it. Hoping I would have enough time, I focused on its core as Raffa got ready to intercept it. But before either of us could act, Tigala tore through it in tiger form. It rolled over the empty ground, and its energy dissipated into nothing.
Raffa looked at me with confusion. “What do you want from me?” he asked. “You’re not getting Lobo.” He stepped back over Lobo’s body for emphasis.
“We’re trying to help. We’ll be safer together,” I said.
He studied my face. “Why would you help me?” he asked.
I thought about it for a moment. It did seem wrong to work with other races. I had been told not to since birth, and it had been reinforced over and over again since then. But there was something here. There was something about this strange group I found myself a part of. Maybe they would all betray me eventually, but for the first time in a long time, there were people who knew I was a Treek and didn’t try to kill me whenever they had a chance. There were people that trusted me on some level.
I looked at Raffa and said, “Because whatever is going on here, on Daegal, it’s bigger than our racial hatred of one another. One less person out here means one less person to help find the lost.”
Sure, there were plenty of other reasons I wanted to help, but that was the biggest one. I thought of my mother and our magic lessons together. I thought of my father and the time we spent by the fire talking about what a Treek village was like. I had to find them. I had to try.
Raffa growled, his eyes darting between us. He arched his back and said, “I don’t need your help. Go away.” With that, the grizzly bear ran at me. I ducked back into the forest brush, and he didn’t pursue—a bluff charge.
Then, there was a loud groan from deep in the forest. It was followed by a ripping and snapping sound and then an earth-shaking slam. Everyone looked in the direction of the sound and saw an entire tree uprooting itself. Its trunk split into two massive legs like pillars and the tree began to walk through the forest.