"They'd kill us too if given the chance," said the Treek, snaking his vine around the central column of the cavern.
He wasn't wrong. They would try to kill us if the tables were turned. The looks on their faces when they saw me said it all. Treeks are scary and dangerous to them. In their eyes, a Treek wouldn't ever help them and they would never help a Treek. It was the way things worked.
But we couldn't knock down the column without warning. They'd die. They weren't Treeks, but they were people. They were victims just like this Treek...just like me.
But he was the first Treek I had met in seven years. There was so little that I knew about our people. Maybe he'd even know if my parents were here. I couldn't risk losing that information.
Behind me, were screams as Dwarves were no doubt spotting the loose tiger in the cavern. I heard a yell and looked to see Marv standing on top of one of the piles of rocks in stone golem form—bronze light seeping through the separate rocks that made up his armor. "Help us fight and we can free you. There are other races here to help," he yelled before a stone flew into him, launching him into a nearby mound. I was glad to see that his stone shell seemed to take most of the impact because he stood back up looking ready to fight.
"We can't do this," I said. "We can find another way out." I had to dodge another stone column, rolling to one side and behind another mound.
"They're going to kill us. Sooner or later, they will. It's what they do. It's what they all do." he said. He was now ducked behind the far side of the dirt to stay out of view of the Dwarves, but still controlling the vine to wrap around the central column, growing stronger by the minute.
I looked over, wondering if Chipry was okay, and saw five of the worker Dwarfs encapsulate guard Number Four in stone while he tried to shoo off Chipry. I made eye contact with one of the Dwarves. He looked scared, either from seeing another Treek or the situation; I couldn't tell. From where they stood they probably couldn't see the vine around the column.
Chipry flew back to where I was, hunkered down by a mound and I sent him after Number Three this time. I looked back and saw the Treek give a tug with his vines. The column didn't break, but the pull did make it crack. A few rocks and a spray of dust shot out.
"We can't do this," I said. "You need to stop." What am I doing? I thought.
"There is no other way. War is the only way. Kill or be killed. There's only a handful of us left and you're really going to tell me that there's another way? No. They burned those bridges a long time ago." He pulled again at the column and new cracks formed, causing another spray of rocks.
"Stop! You're going to kill them," I yelled. "Some of those people are my friends. We're different but we're learning to adapt—to work together. You can come with us. Just please stop!"
"You're friends with them? Man, you're pathetic," he said, and I saw him turn to give one more pull on the column, but I didn't let him.
I stood and used the vines that I had been growing to wrap around his arms, pulling him to the ground.
"Let me go!" he shouted. "You're really going to stand in my way to save other races? The people that hunted and killed our loved ones?" he said.
"There's another way," I said, not sure I believed the words myself.
"We're the last of our kind, trapped underground enslaved alongside one race by another. Survival is the only way. Now let me go or I'll have to take you out first," he said.
Was I really doing this? Picking a fight with the only Treek I had met in seven years? Choosing to betray the one thing I had been searching for that whole time? Was I going to have to fight him to keep him from killing another race? How did things get this convoluted? A week ago, I was just a Treek looking for more Treeks. If I betrayed him, my own people, what did that make me?
Through the mounds of stone I caught a glimpse of Tigala in her tiger form, the scar still visible across her face despite her altered appearance. For a brief moment, we made eye contact. She nodded at me, and I nodded back. We were in this together. All of us. I couldn't let this Treek hurt them. Not after what they had done for me.
I began growing more vines to bind the Treek further, but he saw the motion and sprung to action. He brought his legs above him and swung them in opposite directions, using the momentum to twist himself around into a kneeling position. It put enough strain on my unprepared vines that some loosened while others snapped. He slipped his arms free and I felt his magic push against mine.
I have always had a sense of my own magic. I think everyone does. It's like a river that you can stick your hand in to direct the flow. The more you practice certain techniques, the easier it becomes and the more energy you can direct. I've always worked on my own though, directing that flow with my hands only. Working with this Treek earlier was like having more hands to direct flow, but now that I was working against him, I could truly sense how much better at it he was than me. He uncoiled my vines and the proverbial river dried up where I was trying to direct it.
I shot more vines at him, but he deflected those as well, leaving the ones that had previously bound him to fall beside him.
"No wonder you want to save them. You were probably raised by them or something. That's why your magic is so weak." He sent a torrent of smaller vines at me, creating them in an instant. They attacked like small snakes striking in unison.
I used a vine to swipe at them, but there were so many that I only managed to stop half. The rest struck at me, forcing me to dive and roll behind the closest stone mound. A few of the smaller vines struck me and wrapped around my arm and leg. They pulled at me. I drew the knife from my hip and began slicing them.
The Treek stepped around the corner. "Oh, I thought I had you pinned already. I guess you're tougher than I thought...at least a little bit."
He began pulling more vines from the pile of dirt behind him, but while he did, his feet pulled out from under him. I used my vine to wrap around his ankles and knock him down. I tried to throw him with it, but before I could, I felt his magic flood mine out. He rolled in the dirt and got back to his feet quickly. He said nothing, but he didn't look happy.
Four vines grew behind his back, as thick as his arms, and he summoned them forward without looking. I raised another to add to the one he had just shrugged off, and then the thorns grew on his. Like serrated blades, they swung violently at me. I swatted at them with my own, but this was a losing battle. He was too quick with four vines to my two. Mine were thicker, able to take a heavier beating, but it didn't matter with how quickly the attacks came. A vine swiped to my right and I blocked with my own, then another to my left, while a third slammed into the base of the first vine again. My extended limbs were being shredded.
Another swing cut through the right vine and slashed my stomach. It stung and I could feel the warm blood start to drip down my belly. Time to move, I thought.
I ran to the side, swatting at a final vine with my remaining one and then tried one of his tactics. When more vines swung at me I pushed against them with my own magic. It slowed them, but I wasn't able to stop them completely. Still, they slowed enough that only one of them managed to slice my thigh while I outran the rest.
I didn't know how to win this fight. He was too strong. He knew nature magic so much better than me. Why did he have to be such a jerk about it? I could learn so much from him—about magic—about our people. But instead, he was probably going to kill me before he killed my friends and the first original colonists we'd found.
I ran and I continued running, around the central column. I couldn't take him on my own, but at the same time, everyone looked busy. Havik and Zef were locked in a confrontation of portals and illusions. The sword-wielding Gnome was taking on TIgala, while Lolan tried to give her openings with well-timed arrows. Even Abigail and rocksuit Marv were in the fray, working together to take down one of the Dwarven guards without killing her. It was up to me to stop this Treek from killing them all.
Chipry was flying above me as I tried to think quickly. I was pretty sure the Treek's vines would be too quick against Chip, and I didn't want to risk him getting hurt again.
Another crack echoed from the pillar above me and I saw the vine wrapped around it was even bigger than before. He was going to get his way, whether or not I worked with him. That gave me an idea.
I charged around the pillar straight for him this time despite his advantage in power. If he wanted my help, he'd get it. He was standing in the middle of a swarm of the smaller vines he had used on me before. They stood upright, swaying slightly with his motions like they were all being moved by some invisible tide. He spotted me and sent a handful of the vines at me. I reached out with my magic at the same vines and added to his push. The vines shot even faster at me, but I knew where they were going, and he wasn't ready for the extra power. I ducked to the side and they overshot me.
He tried to use the same vines to swing back at me and once again, instead of trying hopelessly to fight it, I added to the momentum of the swipe. I ducked earlier, knowing they would be there, and they swung past me, slapping against the Treek's arm and face. The look of amazement told me that this wasn't an approach he was used to.
I was close now. By his next attack, I would reach him. He sent the rest of the thin vines after me, and I added to the power again, dodging right this time. But this one felt different. His magic seemed to leave the plants before they would have hit, making them speed up and then slow down again. But it didn't matter. I was already to him. I used my dagger to swipe at the bases of the vines that still held a perimeter around him and I swung at him with a rock in my other hand.
Before I did, I hesitated for a split second. He was turning back to look my way, and as if in slow motion, I thought about what I was giving up. He could have been my friend or more. He was strong. He knew my struggle. He had to scrape his whole life to survive this long, and he probably lost his share of loved ones along the way too. Despite our differences and the short amount of time we had spent together, I knew him, and he knew me.
It was an enticing thought—letting him finish what he was doing and then hiding with him, another Treek, while we protected each other from the rest of the world. I could learn. I could be somewhat safe. I could maybe live a life like I once had. But it was never that simple.
Sooner or later this racial war would come find us. The lack of land would push us right back into the chaos and we would suffer. There would be more loss, more pain. There had to be a better way.
I heard a noise, but with all of the commotion and adrenaline, I didn't know what it was. I was wholly focused on stopping this Treek from hurting my friends. I swung the rock at him, but just before it hit, a vine snagged my arm, holding it in place. more vines wrapped around my legs and then my arms, squeezing tightly. The Treek smiled at me and threw an arm down. A crunch and pop caused the central column to begin crumbling. My hesitation had cost me.