The giant bipedal tree strode through the forest in the distance, each footfall like a miniature earthquake. Is that really something I created? Could I do it again without the remnants of some old magical explosion? I was amazed and had so many questions. I didn't know where to begin to think about it.
I looked at Raffa. He had a look of surprise and maybe fear on his face as he stood there staring. After a moment he seemed to snap out of it and began backing up to Lobo's body. He stood over Lobo as he started to turn back into his Beastfolk form.
"Stay away from me," he said as he reached for Lobo's arm and slung it over his shoulder.
But before he could, there was a deafening sound. A flash of green energy was followed by sounds of tearing and popping so close that it sounded like it was the earth beneath us was pulling up. I looked down as the ground started to shift. It was pulling up. A tall thick tree next to us had begun to uproot itself, knocking us off balance as it struggled to free itself from the earth.
"Run!" I yelled, and no one hesitated. We sprinted away from the tree, as fast as we could. Adrenaline pumped through my body. The tree behind us had fully uprooted itself and began stomping after us. Each footfall was followed by a spray of dirt and enough force to almost knock me off of my feet. I looked back and found Raffa running the same direction as us, but Lobo wasn't on his back.
"Where's Lobo?" I yelled.
Raffa only pointed toward the base of the tree that was chasing us. Lobo's gray-furred body was wedged into the tangled roots of the walking tree's feet.
All of this could have been avoided. We could have just left without issue if Raffa stopped being so scared of a young girl of a different race. All because of something my people did years ago. Had it ever occurred to him that one action does not define an entire race? Had anyone considered that?
"Agh," I yelled in frustration and slowed to match pace with Raffa, who was behind the rest of the group. "Lobo's riding the tree," I yelled to the rest of my group.
Another footfall landed, shaking the earth and getting dangerously close to Raffa and I. Lobo's body bounced some but his leg seemed to be caught. The foot he was on was planted on the ground for the moment, so I turned and ran for him.
Raffa tried to do the same, but while he was preoccupied with keeping an eye on Lobo, he didn't notice a separate thrashing plant pull up a root from the ground in front of him. His foot snagged it and he went down. I, at least, had a general sense of the plants around me with my magic, allowing me to be a little more aware.
I reached the root-clump foot just in time for it to lift off of the ground again. I dove and grabbed on, dangling from the foot as it lifted. I struggled to pull myself up and then crawled over to Lobo's body. The foot landed with a crash that knocked me back to the edge of the giant's foot, and I crawled back to Lobo again while the foot remained planted. This time I dug my feet into the roots to keep myself ...rooted, I guess.
"Let him go!" shouted Raffa behind us. He was now chasing the giant tree, trying to catch up to me and Lobo on the foot. "If you hurt him.." he yelled, but the end of his sentenced was replaced by panting as he ran.
I grabbed Lobo's arm and pulled, but he wouldn't budge. I looked him over. One of his legs was deep in the roots like mine, except it looked impossible for his foot to ever fit through the hole it was stuck inside of—like a living wood shackle clamped around his ankle. As I looked, the tree began another step with the foot we were riding. We were lifted off of the ground and I noticed some of the roots shifting with the step. Maybe they locked around him after his foot fell in. Great. Right when my magic isn't working.
I tried to move it with my magic, but it was no use. Trees were harder to affect than plants, and roots were the oldest part of the tree. Of course, creating an entire living forest had tapped me out in a sense too.
I pulled my dagger from my hip and reached down into the hole. I began sawing at Lobo's wooden shackle, but the tree didn't like that. It let out a groan like a tree does when it has too much snow on its branches—the sound they make before they snap. The tree flexed and stomped its foot hard, slamming my face against a root. Blood instantly began pouring from my nose and freshly split lip as I was knocked free of my own leg brace and almost bounced right off of the root clump again.
I heard Tigala somewhere below me yell, "Leave him! He tried to kill you. He tried to kill me! He'll do it again!"
I crawled up again and continued sawing at the roots. I was getting close, but the cutting drew another creaking howl out of the living tree. This time, it lifted its leg off of the ground and twisted it back and forth to try and swing me off. I held on, wrapping one arm in the tangle of roots. Then the foot slammed down once more. I was ready for it with my free arm protecting my face. It still knocked the wind out of me though.
I gasped for air as I climbed back one more time. The cut in the root was deep enough that I thought I could break it. I tucked my knife back into the holster on my hip and reached both hands down, grabbing each side of the partially cut root. With a heavy tug, there was a pop and the root broke apart.
I tried once to grab Lobo and get out before the tree could react, but tripping over roots and having gravity change with each footfall made it hard to do anything. By the time I broke the root and wrapped an arm around Lobo, the tree kicked its foot forward, launching us into the forest.
I used one arm to try and spin a few plants together where we were about to land, but it still hurt. We impacted and bounced and rolled and skidded across the forest floor. If I thought everything hurt before, I hadn't even felt pain until now. I was gasping for breath, noticing new bruises or cuts I had with each passing second. And not because I could see them. No, I wasn't even looking for them. I stared up at the canopy of trees and could feel the new pains of my battered body.
There was another loud groan and the popping of roots nearby as a third tree uprooted itself from the ground and began walking away from us.
The tree that held Lobo had kept walking and I could now see its back as it strode away. Tigala and Zef got to me first.
"That was stupid," said Tigala. Her tone was almost motherly.
"Yup," said Zef, cheery as always. "Nicely done."
Raffa approached next. I was too beat to stand, to worry about my safety. I watched from where I laid on the ground as he stomped over to me with Lobo slung over his back once again. He swung forward a hand covered in brown fur. I tensed, fearing a possible attack, but he held it there above me. I reached up, grabbed his hand, and he pulled me to my feet despite my body's protests of pain.
"Thank you," he said with a solemn voice.
"Um. Uh—yeah," I replied. I didn't quite know what to say.
"I'll join you out of the forest and back to the colony if you're truly trying to help," Raffa said. His voice sounded kind, noble. I could hear it more clearly now that we weren't in the heat of combat and he was back in Beastfolk form.
"Yes. We want to help," said Zef.
Raffa nodded, and Tigala almost cut him off as she said, "Come on. Let's get out of here."
We ran through the forest. My body ached the whole way. More trees sprung to life as we ran. Luckily, they were all far enough away that we avoided them without too much trouble. We encountered a few more of the people-sized tree monsters as well, but with Tigala and Raffa's strength, Zef's illusions, and my limited nature magic, they didn't cause too much trouble for us.
Once we passed the end of the last green vein, the forest seemed to calm everywhere but behind us. More trees pulled themselves from the ground behind us, their cracks and pops muffled by brush and distance.
When we finally reached the edge of the forest, we stopped to catch our breath at a stream. I collapsed in front of it. As I caught my breath, I looked at my reflection in the stream. I was a wreck. Dried blood was crusted to my upper lip and chin. My hair was loose and frizzy and my body was covered in cuts and bruises. I splashed some water on my face and tried to rub the blood from my face. I took a drink and leaned back as my body began to sway. Zef lowered down Chipry next to me by the bank of the stream to take a drink. "Hey, Chip. Are you going to be okay?" I said, but the words felt wrong in my mouth. The world began to spin around me as my heart slowed. I heard a muffled voice and saw Zef's wrinkled white face looking at me, his eyebrows raised with concern. Then my head rolled back and I was gone.
I woke up to a familiar bouncing. On top of the pain in my chest and legs and neck and...well everywhere, my head pounded too. I stretched and felt soft fur under me once again. More muffled noises, clearer each time I heard it.
"Huh-huh...Kuh-uh...Kaia!" It was Tigala, giving me a shake each time she said my name.
I opened my eyes despite their protests and the light made my headache pound at the inside of my skull. I squinted and said, "Ugh, what?"
"We're back. It's not looking good," she said.
"Wh-what?" I mumbled. She set me down on the ground, holding me up by one arm. I could support my own weight, but only barely. My vision came into focus through squinted eyes and I saw the palisade of the colony not too far off from where we were. The gates were open as the sun was setting and I saw a small group of people by the opening. I squinted and saw the white tusks sticking off of one of their faces. Torm. He was talking to a Beastfolk that looked like a Rabbit. She had gray and long ears tied together above her head. She was another one of the representatives. Next to her was a Human wearing a long red coat with his hair pulled back into a pony-tail. Rodrigo. And Mila was nowhere to be seen.
"They beat us here. This will be an uphill battle," said Zef.
A knot formed in the pit of my stomach as Rodrigo looked up from the conversation. He saw us, and even from the distance, I knew he was staring directly at me. His rage could have burnt down a forest.