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5.6 Growth

# 2033 10 - 14 mins.

The sun beamed through the web of vines, rising just high enough in the sky to land one of its rays directly across my eyes. I groaned and rolled over. I heard wings flap and then felt Chipry land in my hair. It was loose from sleeping and covered my face in a tangled mess—exactly how Chipry liked it. He hopped around, probably looking for bugs. Please don't find any, I thought, but who knew what he'd find given the last few days of fighting zap-wolves, sleeping in a jail cell, and then an abandoned building. It wasn't my favorite way to wake up, but I let him be, in case he did find anything.

I looked around the room and saw Marv, awake. Abigail was sleeping next to him on the hard wooden floor. Tigala opened her eyes as I moved to a sitting position, but she didn't get up.

I tiptoed over to Marv and whispered, "Are you sure you're not going to come today?"

He nodded. "I need to keep her safe." He said. "You can take Crag if you want. Maybe he'll work for you."

I reached down and grabbed Crag. He was heavy, forcing me to shift my weight to stay balanced. Crag sprung to life with his bronze glow.

He sat in my hands with floating arms and legs and looked up at me with the glowing lines and dots that made up his face. Crag waved at me and then jumped out of my hand onto the floor with a loud thud. Tigala jumped up at the sound, but Abigail kept right on sleeping. She must have been exhausted from the previous day.

Crag hopped over to Marv and began trying to dig through his pockets.

"Crag, can you come with me today?" I said, still whispering even though it probably didn't matter.

The little rock creature looked back at me and firmly shook its head.

"Come on. We need your help." I said. He didn't even look, and just kept annoying Marv. I tried to grab Crag again, but he whacked my hand with one of his floating rock limbs and continued his pestering.

"How do you turn him off again?" asked Marv.

"Rotate the halves of him again, I guess. But I can't carry him the whole way. He's heavy."

"I still don't know why he likes me enough to annoy me but not to help," said Marv as he swatted at Crag, who was now trying to steal Marv's boot.

"Yeah. That thing is strange," I said, drawing what looked like a glare from Crag. "Well, if you're going to stay here, can you keep an eye out for Lolan and Zef? Hopefully, they'll be out this way today at some point."

"Yeah," said Marv.

Tigala was eating some leftover vegetables and fruit from the previous night. "Are you ready to go?" I asked.

"Yeah," she said. I grabbed a handful of raspberries to eat as we walked, and then we climbed down the ladder.

"So, any ideas where we should go?" I asked.

"She came from that way," said Tigala, pointing in the general direction of the tree we found her in. I looked at the tree and continued looking past it until my eyes stopped on a mountain in the distance.

"So the mountain, I guess," she said, finishing her thought.

So we walked that direction. We were silent until we reached the tree where we found Abigail.

"Do you want to look around?" I said. "Maybe she left tracks, something to follow."

"Yeah," she said, and she began shifting forms. This one was different though—a form I hadn't seen before. Her fur turned to patches of brown, black, and white in an irregular pattern across her back. The fur on Tigala's face turned mostly brown with some white on her growing snout. Large ears hung down and swung to the bottom of her jawline. It took longer than her usual to transform, but when she fell to all fours, she stared back at me as a hound, a little below the height of my hips.

"Woah, that's a new one. How many different animals can you change into?" I asked.

Her voice was gurgled, less understandable than her tiger form. "About twenty. I don't like this one much."

"Why? I mean other than it not being a good attack animal, it seems useful. Dogs are quick and inconspicuous."

"Yeah, but they're also small. If I get hurt in this form, it's a bigger wound when I turn back. And it takes longer to change because it's so much smaller than me." She shook her head, making me think it hurt to speak like that. It definitely didn't sound pretty.

"I'll keep an eye out then," I said as I began scanning our surroundings for threats as well as tracks. I whistled and sent Chipry to look around above us. "Do all Beastfolk know that many forms?"

"No," she said. "We all learn one when we learn to use magic. We have a tradition, the Passage. You go on a hunt with your mentor to learn your first form of whichever animal you're hunting. I know more because I spent a lot of time hunting, and learning new forms. But most Beastfolk only know the form from their Passage."

"So Lobo took down a dire wolf?"

"That's what he says," said Tigala.

"Woah," I said, nodding my head. He was a pretty crazy person to have as an enemy, and it seemed like being his ally wasn't exactly easy either. "Why'd you end up working with him anyway?"

Tigala's hound snout snorted and she stopped sniffing for a moment. "I know him, and I thought working with Beastfolk, even jerks like him, was better than working with you and a Gnome. I think he let me join them just so he didn't have to watch a Beastfolk disgrace their own race, but he already didn't like me when we got here. It was never going to work out."

"Sorry," I said and looked down. "I know what that's like. Not being with your own people. ...It's lonely."

"Yeah," she said. Tigala went back to work sniffing the area. She stopped in one area, sniffed away from it, and then followed her nose back to it. "I think she came from this direction."

She started heading in the direction of the scent and I followed, keeping my eyes peeled for anything dangerous. Chipry hopped along on the branches above us but didn't seem to see anything startling. As we walked, I spotted the peak of the mountain through the treetops, looming in the distance. It was right where we were headed.

We followed Tigala's nose for a few hours before we reached the base of the mountain itself. We followed Abigail's scent rather than the quickest path to avoid assuming where she came from. At the foot of the mountainside, large boulders sat in the forest as if they had rolled down from the mountain's peak.

"She came from up there," said Tigala, nudging her nose ahead of us. Then she furrowed her canine eyebrows and sniffed a few more times. "What's that smell? It smells awful."

"What?" I said. A moment later, Chipry joined us hopping around in the trees like he had seen something. Great, another dangerous monster to fight in this land of second chances.

I began reaching out with my magic. I felt the energy leave me and pushed it into several different nearby plants so that I would at least a little bit ready for whatever was coming.

This is gonna suck if it's another forest troll, I thought.

I heard the crunch of leaves, and then another, but they echoed off of the rocks behind us, making it hard to tell where the sounds came from. My eyes darted back and forth as we backed into the cover of the boulders.

Then, I heard a voice, "Hi, Kaia," said the little girl stepping out from behind a tree.

Her words were followed by, "Shhh. We don't know what's out here." It was Marv, reprimanding Abigail as she ran towards us. My shoulders slumped and I drew back in the energy I had readied for an attack.

I whistled, telling Chipry to greet the girl. He landed in her hair and she giggled in response. "Hi, Chipry," she said. Who knew I'd be so good at entertaining children.

I looked back to Marv, and behind him were Lolan and Zef. "What? How did you two get out here so fast?" I asked. It was now early afternoon.

"We knew where we were going," said Zef. "And we left when it was barely light out this morning."

"You knowing how to get to the tower doesn't explain how you got here so quickly," I said.

Marv spoke up in a quiet tone, looking over his shoulders as he did. "Abigail began to remember."

"How? What does she remember?" I asked. That was huge news.

"Not much. But she remembers this mountain," said Marv.

"So we came straight here," said Zef, "while you two wondered around."

"Hey, I can only do so much following her sent. She went in a lot of circles," said Tigala, half transformed back to normal. She walked up to Marv and sniffed with a half-dog nose and said, " Uckk! You need a bath."

Marv turned red. He sniffed his shirt and tried to hide the fact that he gagged a little. "I suppose I do."

"Is your arm okay?" asked Lolan, pointing.

I looked down at the dried blood soaking through the torn-off sleeve of my Human jacket. "Yeah. Lightning wolves."

"That sounds terrifying," he said.

"Yeah. It was," I said, chuckling.

"So they let you leave?" I asked Zef and Lolan.

"No, not exaclty. The Beastfolk all think you need to pay for what they think you did," said Lolan. "They wanted us to pay too, but the representatives couldn't agree on what to do. They held us for a couple of days after the fight with the hydra."

So it was a hydra. Huh, I thought. "How did you get out?" I asked.

"Rodrigo let us free early this morning," said Zef. "He was afraid that people might start acting on their hatred." We walked closer to the rocks now so we didn't have to make so much noise with our conversation.

"What? Rodrigo? Why?" I asked.

"Raffa told the truth. He said Lobo was threatening him, and he didn't know they were planning on killing you," said Zef.

"A little too late, Raffa," I said to myself. "Rodrigo told me he's going to kill me if I come back. I doubt anything will change his mind."

"Rodrigo played a big part in taking down that hydra. He was able to keep the heads from regrowing with his fire magic. I think he saved a lot of lives," said Zef. "I don't know if he'll change his mind about you, but he trusted us enough to let us free, at least."

I shook my head. "Wow, that's crazy. Any idea what provoked it the hydra to attack?"

"No, but it had a similar pink marking to what Abigail has on her head," said Lolan. I looked down at the girl and saw the mark, more faded now than the night before.

"They might be connected somehow," said Zef. He was standing on a small boulder so that he could be at eye level with Tigala, Lolan, and me.

I squatted down to look at Abigail. "And you remember this mountain? Do you remember anything else?"

She nodded and said, "I remember my mom. She looked scared."

I looked up at Marv. His face was white as he tried to maintain his composure.

"Do you remember where you were on the mountain when you saw her?" I asked.

She shook her head and then shrugged. "I don't remember. It was darker, and there weren't any trees. After that, I remember seeing your tower. I think that's why I went that direction."

I looked at the others. "I guess we climb then."

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