The tiger charged at me. Her stride was lopsided with the shortened leg, but she was still faster than I could run. I searched around frantically for something of use. I shot small vines out of the ground, timing them with her steps. Right before the front foot landed, I yanked at it. But she was ready for it. She adjusted her foot at the last second, and I was forced to improvise.
I twisted the vine quick enough to snag the hind leg furthest from me. That one, she didn't see coming. I tugged hard and it threw her sideways as her front feet were on their way down again. She crashed into the ground, shoulder first, and slid into a nearby bush. I wasted no time, using the bush to my advantage. Branches sprawled, consuming the tiger and pulling her in. One down... for now at least.
To my right, Lolan ran at me with his blade drawn. He wouldn't be as quick or strong as Tigala in her tiger form, but the blade proved a problem. He sliced at every vine I shot at him. It wasn't working. I grew a thin thicket of thorns to block his path for a moment and then focused on the tree beside me while he navigated through it.
What can I do with a tree? I thought. They're too slow to use offensively. Defense then?
I focused my magic on the tree and grew the bark at an odd angle out of the trunk. I pressed my arms up against it and grew the bark into handcuffs that covered the whole of each forearm. With a twist of my hand, the life left the portion connecting them to the tree, and I had tree bark bracers. That should help.
I reached out, unsure where to use my magic and realized that the bracers still had some life in them. Though trees took longer to grow, it seemed they also took longer to die. I used the life while I could, stretching long rigid spikes along.
Lolan was on me in an instant. He raised his sword high and swung, but he wasn't exactly a skilled swordsman. He preferred the bow. I saw the swing coming and threw up my armored arm to intercept. I twisted my arm, wrenching the blade from his hand, and shoved him backward with the other. Vines launched from the ground around his arms and legs.
"You're doing it all wrong," said Zef.
"What do you mean. I just fended both of them off on my own," I said.
"Temporarily," he said. "We don't need temporary wins, especially up against the Arcus. They have a ton of ranged potential. When you take someone out, you need to do it quickly and permanently."
"You mean kill them?" I asked. I wasn't sure I was comfortable with what he was suggesting. It didn't seem like him to condone killing.
I ungrew the vines around Lolan letting him free. I looked to Tigala, but she was already out of her bonds and on her way over. I guess Zef was right. I was good at slowing people down, not stopping them.
"No, I don't mean killing them," said Zef. A purple miniature explosion burst from his hands as he said, "But there's no spark to it.".
"I created these," I said, holding up my bark armor. I was pretty impressed with it even if he wasn't. It's not easy being creative when you're given such a blank slate and no one to play off of. But then again, that's why we were doing this, to expand.
"Yes. And that was good. Quick thinking," said Zef. "But I think you can do more. You're our most versatile member at range. The variety of plants that are out there is endless. Do you know of any plants that can do something other than flail?"
I thought for a moment. I had done some improvising with mushrooms as shields and cushions since we arrived at Daegal, but I hadn't really thought of things that plants could do.
"What do you mean?" I said, unsure of where to go with it.
"Tricks," said Zef. "It's time to get tricky because we won't make it playing straight against those guys."
"I don't like tricks," I said.
"I know," he said with a smile. "But there's a reason you don't like them. You don't like being made a fool of. For you, it's bad, but against someone that wouldn't bat an eye before killing you, it may give you the time you need to save your life or the lives of others. You're a straight shooter, and they look like they are too. Give them something their not ready for."
He did make a good point, but what would I use. I thought back to the plants around me where I grew up, back when I was still with my family. It was a temperate forest, with dense brush. Many of the things there were just simple plants. Then I remembered the small trees that used to startle us and force us to check for intruders. Their seed pods were like miniature pumpkins that exploded when ripe. They fired seeds and a hard woody shell into the forest at random. That season was always tense for us. We were constantly checking if someone was nearby even though we knew it was probably just another ripe seed pod.
"How about this?" I said. I grew the small tree out of the ground and made it narrow and spindly. I grew the flowers and then the seed pods grew from the same buds. They started as a light green but quickly faded to gray-browns. Then, one at a time, the exploded. Seeds shot into the forest, hitting me and the rest of the group. One landed in Lolan's mouth before he learned to cover his face. He choked on it, spat, and continued coughing to remove the woody remains. Tigala was leaning against a nearby tree trunk watching. She only lifted an arm to shield herself.
Zef smiled at me. "Perfect. What else you got?" he asked.
"I don't know," I said. "Believe it or not, I didn't get a lot of time in the woods for most of my life. I snuck around the city and only used my magic minimally."
"Aren't there plants that make poison and stuff?" asked Tigala.
"Yeah, there are," I said. "I didn't encounter enough of them to know how to grow them though."
"Would that apothecary know of any?" asked Lolan.
"That's a good thought," said Zef. "We can ask her when we head back to the colony." He stopped and tapped his finger on his chin. "You know what? There are these hallucinogenic mushrooms that the Gnomes used to use to enhance their illusions. Some would use them just to waste away in images, but I bet they could be used against enemies too."
"Do you know where to find them?" I asked.
Zef shook his head. "They were cultivated in a few Gnome cities, but I don't know where they grow indigenously. Maybe I can get some from one of the Gnomes at the colony. I'll have to ask around."
"Are you still on good terms with the Gnomes?" asked Lolan. He had finally cleared all of the wood from his mouth.
"No," said Zef. "But I'm on better terms now. They still don't like me, but it seems there is a bit of respect there for bringing in the first proof that the colonists are still alive."
"Must be nice," said Tigala. "The Beastfolk all hate me."
"Hey," I said. "At least you have people around to hate you," I said it as a joke, but it kind of hurt to speak the words. I thought of Riak. I thought of the answers I'd never get.
"Hey, what about that living tree thing you did in the forest that you brought to life," said Lolan. I'm not sure if he knew I was thinking about the fact that I had no people or if he just made a happy mistake to distract me from my thoughts. "Can you do that again in a more controlled way?" He hesitated like he was trying to word it correctly.
"I don't know," I said. "That's a good point. I haven't had a chance to try that again since that whole mess. Might as well add it to the toolbelt if I can."
I reached into my bag and pulled out the piece of paper with the illustrated instructions.
"You shouldn't use that," said Tigala. "Written magic is dangerous. It's going to get you or all of us killed."
"I can't even read it," I said. "I'm just looking at the pictures."
"Either way. It's dangerous. I don't think we should mess with that," said Tigala.
It was odd that she was so adamant about following the rules of magic, although, if anyone had followed rules out of the four of us, it was her. Heck, she was still just another Beastfolk warrior up until a week or two ago.
"I'll be careful," I said.
She folded her arms and lowered her head. I knew she didn't like this sort of thing, but how bad could it be. And why was everyone so afraid of written magic anyway. I mean, I knew it was supposed to be volatile. And people also claim that it was part of what created the thing that broke our history books so long ago, but could a couple of pages really be that horrible. I didn't really need them anyway. I had studied them enough to know what I needed to do. I looked at them more for assurance that I was getting them right.
I focused my energy on the earth in front of me. I forced a green glow into existence and from it sprouted a small seedling. The energy fed it faster than was possible with sunlight and water. It grew quickly. When it reached my waist, and the root clump had grown to about the size of my head, I bent the stem over to the ground. I pushed the top of the plant into the ground, using it as leverage to tear the root clump from the earth. It pulled away with soil attached. I twisted the root part of the clump, to encase the fertile soil, and then I began growing more pieces of the plant from the dirt now held at the level of my waist.
I started with another shoot towards the ground to stabilize it. It stood up on its own, but it was fragile and hard to balance. When the second shoot touched down, I was able to use the two limbs as legs. I put down another, just to make sure I wouldn't lose the whole thing to a hard breeze. After that, I grew arms that extended from the top of the root clump, now at the plant creature's core. I twisted more branches around the limbs to make them stronger and less fragile. Then, as a finishing touch, I bloomed yellow flowers along its arms, chest, and legs.
"Cool," said Lolan standing back from it. "Can you control it though? It's not going to start attacking us, is it?"
"No, it's lifeless, aside from the plant parts of it at least," I said. "It won't move unless I move it." I pushed my magic into one of its arms and made it wave. Lolan flinched and then eased as he saw what it was doing.
"Can you make it attack me?" said Tigala.
I shrugged. "I'll try," I said. I focused on the creature's limbs. It was hard to control. It was like if my legs were just columns that I had to lift with my hands each time I wanted to take a step. Each step was deliberate and slow. The joints were stiff, and it was hard to bend it without pushing it to break. I took one step, and then another.
It was extremely slow at first. So slow that Tigala didn't even stand up straight. She just watched, leaning against the tree. But as I got used to controlling the thing, I was able to pick up speed. It lumbered over to her with big awkward steps that felt more like jumps than a stride. Still, the little twig monster ran at her and I raised one of its arms to swipe.
She stood as it got close, but she still wasn't nervous in the least. She swiped a claw at the attacking limb and sliced it clean off. My twig creature stumbled at the shift in balance now that it had one less arm. I righted it and then went for another swing with its other arm. She sliced that one clean off as well.
"Hey," I said, disappointed that she disabled my creature so quickly after how much work it took to make it. She looked at me and shrugged, but I was already working on a fix. I regrew limbs out of the stumps that Tigala had made at the creature's shoulders. This time I grew writhing vines from the spot. That was something I was used to.
She hardly even noticed what was happened by the time one of the new flexible vine arms coiled around her arm. Her free arm was the one that was missing a hand, so she couldn't even cut it off. It climbed up her arm and she tried to pull her arm free. I held her arm still.
With the vine-covered arm as an anchor, I had the creature swing its legs into her chest. The impact forced her to step back to regain her balance. She tripped over a stationary root when she did, and then she was on her back with my plant monster on top of her.
"Woah," said Lolan.
I backed up the vines on Tigala's arm and tried to make the plant creature retreat. She wouldn't have it though. As soon as I uncoiled the vines from her arm, she smacked the thing, sending it flying into a nearby tree.
"Well done," said Zef. "That's a new one."
"Thanks," I said. "I'm pretty happy with it myself. I can see why someone took the time to write down a technique like that. That could be very useful."
"Yeah. It could," said Lolan. "I need to learn some stuff too. All I can do right now with fire magic is burn down a house."
"Isn't that what you do with fire magic?" said Tigala.
We heard footsteps in the woods behind us, and we all whirled around to see who it was. Before he was visible, I heard his voice.
"There are many things you can do with fire magic," said Rodrigo. "You'd be wise to know them yourselves."
I breathed a sigh of relief. I mean, yes, we had been waiting for him, but you never know who, or what, is going to pop up on this island.
He continued, "But that's for another time. I think I've got some information that you'll want to hear."