By Jayde Holmes
Part 1: The Man With the Axe
Five bladetails explored the black forest, walking with intelligence not natural to their kind. The One That was Different had been unsure about this adventure. They had doubted they could comfortably possess a bladetail, but with help from The One That was Good at Being a Predator, they found themself feeling at home in the pack.
Bladetails were the largest land-based predators in this area. They had sharp claws at the end of all six legs, two rows of deadly razor teeth, two bony protrusions sticking out the back of their necks for telepathic communication, and a long tail adorned with the hooked blade that most people thought of first. Different had expected the tail to constantly be in the way, but their bladetail’s instincts kept it in check. Bladetail fur was so dark that here amongst the thick bush they blended into the shadows despite it being midday.
The leaves and mosses of the rainforest soaked up the light and no plants were bioluminescent this early in the day. All around Different’s bladetail the world was shades of darkness and shadow, with only tiny flecks from adventurous flowers or toxic animals to break it up.
Their bladetail could see just fine. Everything that moved was crystal clear to Different, and the air was alive with the scent of life, potential food, and the promise of imminent rain. Even though this part of the forest was usually thought of with fear, Different felt all-powerful. Nothing would hurt them while they were possessing a bladetail.
Another person’s thoughts entered their mind. It was The One Overlooking the River Near the Filter. Her feelings, concepts, and mental images emerged from the group mind and jumbled around Different’s individual mind for a split second, then emerged as a fully formed idea, conveying the following meaning;
(I’ve never been unable to see other host-trees before. It’s eerie; I can almost imagine doubting my own existence.)
Different looked up and saw the canopy. Trees much larger than host-trees stole all the light with giant leaves. They couldn’t imagine their host thriving here.
They reached into the back of their mind. Past their conscious individual thoughts into the group mind, where their instincts were stored, and their thoughts were processed along with those of everyone else in the forest. None of it was understandable to Different, but by reaching into it they could sense the minds of other individuals in the forest. They found River Overlooker’s mind and sent their own ideas to her;
(I’m used to seeing large areas without host-trees, so this place isn’t bothering me. But trying to imagine if my host grew here is disturbing.)
Different felt River Overlooker’s dread. They began debating whether the trees that grew here were a menace or beautiful in their own way. While they were having this conversation, their bladetails were not interacting with each other. Different’s was stalking a large fluffy insect that crawled over the roots of a thick-trunked hill tree, while River Overlooker’s was being groomed by Predator’s.
(I think it’s good that different parts of the world look different) River Overlooker told Different. (There wouldn’t be much point exploring otherwise.)
(That’s true) Different replied. (But the Green World still makes me uneasy.)
(Yes, I can feel how you feel about that) River Overlooker told. (What does it look like right now?)
Different let the fluffy insect go and focused on the light-perceiving organisms attached to their host-tree. They had grown two different species; a moss that could see basic shapes and flatten itself into Different’s bark whenever threatened, and a squishy, fungal smart-cluster with a sense of hearing. Together, the organisms seeped the tendrils through the bark of the host-tree and attached to Different’s true body, providing them with constant awareness of their host-tree’s surroundings.
They ignored the fence and the dark rainforest to the north, instead looking out over the Green World that stretched to the south. There were few big trees on that side of the fence, and the ones that Different could see had brown bark and bright green leaves. The land was mostly flat or mildly inclined, with the exception of the Smaller Strange Hill two-hundred meters south of Different’s host-tree that was crowned with a fin of incorruptible metal. The landscape was so empty that if Different was there possessing any animal with good eyesight, they knew they would see the river that flowed through this valley. If they had a flying creature with exceptional vision, they could see everything from here to the small mountains that boxed in the valley. The only significant landmarks close-by were the shelters the Humans had made at the foot of Smaller Strange Hill. Two large buildings made of the same wood as the alien trees and topped with giant dried leaves, as well as a less sturdy structure where the Humans kept other animals. The only animals not kept in this shelter were the small fat-curly-tails, which had their own shelter. Fences divided this Human habitat up in ways Different neither understood nor cared about.
They looked at the alien scene and enhanced the visualization with memories of seeing and smelling it through other animals. They noticed that there were Humans gathered around the buildings but could not make them out clearly with just the light-perceiving organisms, so they imagined them. They showed the entire scene to River Overlooker, whose admiration came to Different instantly.
(I wish I could visualize that well. You’re so good for someone so young.)
(You’ve always been able to show me your surroundings) Different told. (Have you seen the insect I was stalking? I would like to see where it lives.)
(Sorry, I wasn’t watching it) River Overlooker told. (I just asked Predator what he thinks about parts of the worlds with no host-trees. He thinks its selfish for us to expect everything in the world to be dominated by us. And he reminded me that host-trees from a different forest are much scarier than light-hogging trees. He wants to see the Green World too.)
A few seconds later, Predator reached out to Different and asked about the Green World. He continued to groom River Overlooker’s bladetail while Different showed him what the other world looked like.
(That is so bizarre) Predator told, his discomfort over the view overcome by curiosity. (How can those plants get enough light? Are you sure you’re seeing it right?)
(You’re welcome to come and see for yourself one day.)
(I think I will. River Overlooker said you were looking for a fluffy insect. I saw it crawl under that leaf.)
Different sniffed the leaf Predator had thought about and knew by the sweet smell of tree sap they had found the insect. They raised a paw, intending to pull away the leaf and chase the insect, but stopped themself. The insect wouldn’t satisfy the bladetail, which wasn’t even hungry. Different knew these insects felt no pain, but they had grown fond of the small creature. They let it hide.
Predator stopped grooming River Overlooker and looked towards the bladetail being possessed by The One That Enjoys Finding Hidden Things. Finder’s bladetail was watching the whole group in anticipation, and The One That Knew a Lot of Memories had already joined her. A second later River Overlooker followed Predator over to the others. Then Finder reached out and shared their thought with Different.
(I’ve found something interesting) Finder told. (You should come closer.)
Different joined their playmates and watched as Finder placed a paw on a rock. Once she was sure she had everyone’s attention, she kicked the rock and the undergrowth caught on fire. Different and the others jumped away from the flame, but their fear was short lived. Their bladetails were calmed by the happy feelings they picked up from Finder’s animal. Different couldn’t detect this second-hand empathy, but even though they had displaced the bladetail’s thoughts, some instincts were too primal to override. They walked closer to the fire.
Once the shock wore off, Different realized how the trick worked. The ‘fire’ was a tiny lizard swarm, made of miniscule reptiles whose wings and telepathy tendrils lit up. Sharing one mind spread across hundreds of bodies, the swarm flew in a frenzied imitation of flames. Their mouths hissed and cracked in unison, mimicking burning leaves. The only thing missing was heat.
(That is amazing) Different told Finder. (How did you find that?)
(What is with you and Know-a-Lot?) Finder said. (They were just sunning themselves on these rocks. They were camouflaged to begin with. I don’t know how they communicate so well or how they retain their body heat. Stop asking me so many hard questions.)
(I’m sorry. I was just curious. Thanks for showing them to us.)
The group played with the fire-swarm for a while before moving on. They continued weaving through the thick trees, often pausing to examine new wonders or watch prey animals flee in terror. Small raindrops seeped through the canopy, and as the trees around them got shorter the rain fell harder. Predator lead the group towards some caves he’d visited before. Different couldn’t help but detect a nervous excitement to Predator’s thoughts.
(I feel there is something you aren’t telling me about these caves) Different told.
(I’ve told you everything I told the others) Predator replied.
(Now you’re being evasive.)
(I don’t want to scare anyone) Predator told. (But last time I was there I found an abandoned sky-dominator nest.)
(A sky-dominator?) Different asked. They had never seen a sky-dominator before, and their concept of the animal was different to Predator’s. Predator thought of sky-dominators as majestic reptiles that flew amongst the clouds and came to roost only to guard their beautiful treasure-lined nests. Different thought of sky-dominators as apex predators capable of carrying a bladetail into the sky and ripping it in two with little effort. Different would not die if the bladetail died, but they had been warned that experiencing death was unpleasant and could cause a years-long mental breakdown.
(Your worry is unwarranted) Predator told. (I didn’t see any recent signs of habitation. Shepard is keeping them upriver. We’ll be able to examine this nest safely.)
(You’ve been wanting to show us this the entire time) Different told. (I can feel your excitement.)
(Don’t tell the others. I want it to be a surprise) Predator told.
(Are you nagging Predator now?) Finder asked. (He told me he can’t answer questions because you’re keeping him occupied.)
(I’m just having a conversation with him) Different told. (It’s not my fault he can’t do two conversations at once yet.)
They walked for a while, with Different worried that they wouldn’t be able to possess the bladetail for long enough. As the rain got heavier the trees thinned out and they arrived at a small sandstone mountain dotted with caves. Predator ran to the nearest opening and the group followed without hesitation.
Except for Know-a-Lot, who stopped just before the entrance to look at something.
After a few minutes, Predator walked to the edge of the cave. Predator and Know-a-Lot’s thoughts reached Different at the same time.
(Come look at what I found) Know-a-Lot told. (You especially will find this interesting.)
(Know-a-Lot found a host-tree outside) Predator told. (I think it may have synapse buds; he’s doing that thing where he makes his thoughts vague, so I can’t tell if that’s really what’s special about it.)
Different walked back into the rain with Predator and Finder. River Overlooker stayed inside.
(You don’t want to come out?) Different asked her.
(I see no reason why I must see this host-tree with my bladetail’s sensors) River Overlooker told. (I’d rather get dry.)
Different realized that River Overlooker was right; leaving the cave was stupid. But Know-a-Lot did love the drama. They went to the tree. It was definitely a host-tree; mottled bark with thick leaves so dark they seemed to suck in any nearby light, but there was something off about the way it looked. This one was about the same height as Different’s, but thinner. It did indeed have synapse buds poking out from the bark, like small fungal buttons. Different reached through their roots into the group mind, intending to greet the stranger, but in the place they were standing Different found no other minds. Telepathically, they couldn’t sense the person in front of them, even though the bladetail’s senses told them they were there.
(I can’t reach them) Different told Know-a-Lot. (Can you sense them through the roots?)
(No) Know-a-Lot replied. (I’m thinking their host-tree might be part of a different Forest. Do you think you could cast your thoughts through the air and guide them here?)
(I’m not that good at reaching out through the air. Maybe Predator could do it?)
(I just asked him. He said he might be able to, but not while possessing the bladetail.)
Predator approached the tree and began sniffing it. He then sent out some vague frustration, which Different assumed was due to the rain making it harder for the bladetail to pick up helpful scents. Predator followed the roots of the host-tree, and within seconds had gotten everyone but River Overlooker examining the area. There wasn’t much soil covering the roots, so it was easy to follow them. They found five other saplings connected to the roots, none with synapse bulbs. They couldn’t find any roots leading away from the rocks towards the rest of the forest.
(I think these host-trees are part of a different clonal tree colony) Finder told.
At first Different could only respond with awe and disgust. By the time they were able to send more direct thoughts to Finder, they were being bombarded with thoughts from the others.
(Has Finder told you their idea yet?) Predator asked.
(I knew it, I knew it) Know-a-Lot told, venom now in their thoughts. (It’s a different Forest, hiding within our own.)
(Did Know-a-Lot really find a new forest?) River Overlooker asked.
(It seems he did) Different told. (You sure you don’t want to come out?)
(You show me. Then I’ll show you what I found. There are interesting things here too.)
River Overlooker didn’t have the knack for making her thoughts vague that Know-a-Lot did, so Different knew immediately that she had found a sky-dominator nest. The leaves and branches were falling to dust, but some of the shiny objects surrounding the nest still held their luster. River Overlooker hadn’t been looking to describe the nest, so Different couldn’t learn any more about the shiny objects or eggshells from just those thoughts.
(Would you be able to show me in better detail?) Different asked.
(I don’t know if I’m good enough at visualizing yet) River Overlooker told.
(Just your concept of the nest showed me a lot. Why don’t you give it a go?)
Different felt River Overlooker’s doubt, but she sent them a visualization, showing the nest in impressively clear detail. Broken eggshells towered over the nest like mountains, and the shiny objects were a mix of natural minerals and stolen tools. There was one tool that fascinated River Overlooker more than the others, so it was the most noticeable thing to Different.
The tool had two distinct sections. The top section reminded River Overlooker of both a telescope and a fat jar, so Different got those impressions too. It was a smooth barrel, with what looked like a lens at one end. From the bottom of it came a handle that would fit comfortable in a Human or biped hand, with a thin lever attached to the front. At first Different assumed it was made of metal due to how shiny it was, but River Overlooker saw that it was made of a different, unknowable material.
(That’s a Human tool) Different told.
(I think it’s lost-tec) River Overlooker told, thinking of a range of other mysterious items that had survived from the distant past. (I see Humans sneaking around near the filter looking for stuff like this all the time. I wonder what it does.)
By now Different, Predator, Finder and Know-a-Lot had moved to the mouth of the cave, so they could avoid the rain as they examined the host-tree. Different looked inside the cave but couldn’t see River Overlooker’s bladetail. The thought of Humans made Different concentrate briefly on the view from their host-tree, where many Humans were gathering outside the houses and looking towards the Forest. Usually, the Humans went out of their way to ignore Different and the rest of the rainforest. They hadn’t had one get close enough to touch their tree since the youngest child of the family started to walk. The attention made them feel uneasy.
(Did you want to see the person from a different forest before we tested the lost-tec?) Different asked.
(Finder is about to show me) River Overlooker told. (Is she alright? This is usually her main interest. I feel some fear from her, but you know how much we’ve been annoying each other lately. She won’t tell me what’s wrong.)
(I’ll ask her) Different told. They reached out to Finder and noticed right away that she was troubled.
(What’s wrong?) Different asked.
(Predator and Know-a-Lot haven’t been repeating their argument to you?) Finder asked.
(I’ve been thinking with River Overlooker) Different told. (Maybe they felt I was too pre-occupied.)
(That’s probably it) Finder told. (They’ve stopped updating me too in the last few seconds. Their arguing with each other, and I don’t think they have the focus to keep us updated on the conversation.)
(What are they arguing about?) Different asked.
They were answered with a wave of disgust from Finder. Once the initial reaction was out of the way, Finder’s thoughts painted a clear picture of Know-a-Lot ripping open the host-tree and examining the person inside. Different took a moment to convey their shock to Finder, and then turned their attention to Know-a-Lot.
(You want to kill a person?) Different asked.
(It’s not a person yet) Know-a-Lot told. (I want to know what we look like inside our trees.)
(We don’t know if it’s a person or not) Different told. (Just because we can’t communicate with it, doesn’t mean it isn’t thinking. Do you think all the other Forests aren’t full of people?)
(Are you arguing with Know-a-Lot too?) Predator asked.
(Does he really think that stranger isn’t a person?) Different asked.
(It probably isn’t) Predator told. (But I’m not willing to take that risk just to satisfy Know-a-Lot’s curiosity. There could be more roots underground that lead off somewhere. After all, your host-tree looks to be on its own too.)
(You’re getting too emotional over this Different) Know-a-Lot told. (We followed the roots; this clonal-colony is too small to hold a group mind large enough for thinking people. And none of the other host-trees we found had any synapse bulbs.)
(You want to rip one of our kind from their host-tree?) Different told. (If they are thinking, that’s a terrible way to murder someone. And it would be murder if they are thinking. Even if they aren’t thinking, that’s still a painful death to give something the bladetails can’t eat.)
(What’s wrong Different?) River Overlooker asked. (I know your thoughts are occupied, but you seem upset. Is it the same thing troubling Finder?)
(Yes) Different told. (Know-a-Lot wants to rip open the host-tree so he can see what we look like inside.)
(Is the one in the host-tree a person yet?) River Overlooker asked.
(We don’t know) Different told.
(Even if it isn’t, why would anyone want to cut open a host-tree? Apart from what happened to you) River Overlooker told. (Seeing our true bodies would be disgusting.)
(I don’t think I looked that disgusting) Different told.
(You’ve seen your body?) River Overlooker asked.
(They had to cut my host-tree in places so my synapse bulbs could get out) Different told. (One of the bladetail’s swipes took too much wood.)
(I remember you telling me about that) River Overlooker told. (When you were explaining how your fruiting bodies were destroyed.)
(Yes. That was also when I saw myself. Or rather, the Local-Healer showed me how she saw me.)
(Well she’s a healer, she’s used to seeing disgusting things. You should show that memory to Know-a-Lot. If you satisfy his curiosity about what we look like, he won’t want to rip open that host-tree.)
(Good idea, I’ll show everyone) Different told. (You let Predator and Finder know the plan. I’ll discuss it with Know-a-Lot.)
Different didn’t bother discussing anything with Know-a-Lot. They just showed them what the healer and seen and shared with Different all those years ago.
A small sapling of a host-tree with a gaping hole in the trunk. Inside the Healer had seen Different’s actual body; a thick pale mycelium straining against the inside of the tree. String-like hyphae connected the fungus to the tree, linking all Different’s sensors to the tree and draining its nutrients. The thought-carrying hyphae were the thickest and were spasming violently as the healer and the rest of Different’s rescuers hacked away at the host-tree looking for synapse bulbs. The Healer had examined Different long enough to notice the meatier parts of their body that housed their brain, and the small chitinous claws scatted throughout that would have been used by the embryonic Different to force their way into the host-tree and hollow out a home within its trunk.
Different showed Know-a-Lot that inside the host-trees, people looked like globs of meat coated in pale mold and angry little claws. They tried to ignore the gash in a particularly fleshy part of the mycelium.
Know-a-Lot was interested in the sight. They thanked Different, but soon their excitement turned to disappointment.
(Thank you for showing me that) Know-a-Lot told. (It answers a lot of questions. But it’s your memory of someone else’s memory. And the Healer de-emphasized a lot to make it easier for you. I’d rather see it for myself.)
(What is so good about seeing it for yourself?) Different asked. (You’re going to hurt a living creature, just for a slightly clearer idea what we look like? Even if they aren’t a thinking person, they’ll still feel it.)
Different sent the Healer’s memory again, this time focusing heavily on the gash. Know-a-Lot replied with guilt, uncertainty, and a notion to think about the issue out of the rain.
(Did it work?) Predator asked. (Did you get Know-a-Lot to shut up about the foreigner? And no, I don’t want to see what you look like inside your host-tree.)
Different reached out to reply to Predator, but before they could their attention was drawn back to their host-tree so suddenly they almost lost their hold on the bladetail. The light-sensing moss had hidden within the bark. Different forced it back out and saw the Humans gathered around. Their voices were loud and their gestures energetic. Different didn’t know much about Humans, but they had been observing this group long enough to see their alpha male was holding a tool capable of cutting down trees.
(Different what’s wrong?) River Overlooker asked. (You just sent a danger-thought throughout the whole group mind.)
(What is it Different?) Predator asked. (Is it your tree? Is it the Humans?)
(Is that a danger-thought?) Finder asked. (Is your host-tree being attacked?)
(What was that Different?) Know-a-Lot asked. (Did my thoughts scare you? I am so sorry. Let’s go inside. I am sorry, I really am.)
Different couldn’t respond to their playmates. This group of Humans had only recently driven out the previous group, and already Different had come to be weary of them. The old Humans had tied a rope around their host-tree, which Different was told would tell other Humans not to cut down the host-tree or damage the soil around it. They were grateful to those Humans, but every instinct they had told them not to interact with those strange, toxic creatures. Different’s fear of the Humans was strengthened when the new ones arrived and set fire to the old shelters.
Now the alpha Human wanted to chop their tree down. He wanted to get rid of Different the way he got rid of the other Humans. Different hadn’t been so terrified since that first day of their thinking life, when they had tried to cast their thoughts to the wind only to find they were trapped in their host-tree.
The fear paralyzed them, but their danger-thought was weak and would soon get lost in the group mind. Only those closest to them physically and socially would detect it in time. The closest person to Different in both these aspects responded to them at the same time as their playmates.
(What’s going on?) She asked. (Think clearly and quickly, I can help you.)
This person was much more mature than Different and their playmates, and therefore much more complex. She had lived for hundreds of years and seen the forest through several crises. She was a person with power, who the rest of the forest looked to for guidance. She was the One-Who-Made-Decisions-On-How-The-Forest-Interacted-With-Foreigners. The-One-Who-Has-Proven-Herself-The-Strongest-Strategist, both in games and in real life. The-One-Who-Protects-The-Forest. The-One-Who-Is-Kind-But-Ruthless-Enough-To-Protect-The-Forest. The-One-Who-Used-A-Sky-Dominator-To-Fight-A-Human-Atop-The-Filter-Tower.
She was the Strongest. Her host-tree was roughly sixty meters from Different’s, but she was within the fence and surrounded by rainforest. Being Different’s neighbor, she should have been their mentor. Her duties and Different’s unexpected arrival in the world prevented that, but she was still there, and Different felt safe around her.
(The Humans want to kill me) Different told, showing her the Humans as they made their strange cries and pointed. (They’re going to cut me down.)
(You need to send me a clearer visualization) Strongest told. (How many Humans are there? Why haven’t they attacked yet?)
(Different? Different? What’s happing?) River Overlooker asked. (Your bladetail is freaking out.)
(There are three Humans) Different told Strongest. (The Alpha male and two subordinate males. The subordinate males are between me and him.)
(This wouldn’t be a decision they’d make lightly) Strongest told. (Different, possess an animal. Any animal. I’ll be there in something bigger as soon as I can, you just need to delay them.)
(What’s happening?) Predator asked.
The three Humans finished their argument. Their calls went silent as the alpha male pushed past the betas and swung his axe into the empty host-tree next to Different. Different’s tree was the only one beyond the fence that was thriving. Whilst several plants had established themselves here, the toxic soil of the Green World and the aggressive native plants prevented them from getting established. The uninhabited host-trees were so brittle that the patriarch fell his target in a single swing. Panicking, Different showed the carnage to Predator.
(Get another animal) Predator told, stressing that he knew possessing a new animal so soon would be hard, but that it was vital. (Just try it. I’ll be there soon.)
Possessing another animal. Strongest had said the same thing. They pulled their attention away from the Humans. The patriarch was swinging his axe at another host-tree, while the two beta males eyed the rope around Different’s trunk. They then moved towards the fence and began digging up the Black soil and ferns. What would come first? Would the Man with the Axe cut down Different’s tree, or would the Men with Shovels rip up their roots?
Different tried not to think about that. They blocked out the thoughts of their playmates and focused on their synapse bulbs. They cast their thoughts into the air, and the world became a sea of blackness, with the telepathic receptors of thousands of animals and plants acting as light beacons. Their thoughts were pulled to the nearest mind, but it wasn’t anything useful, so Different locked on to a different mind and their thoughts continued flying. Their synapse bulbs ached, and their attention threatened to wane with every target change.
The found a climbingclaw draped over the branches of a nearby empty host-tree. Different’s thoughts entered its brain, and after a brief feeling of shock, their thoughts replaced the climbingclaw’s. They stood up, shaking and disorientated. It was too soon after possessing the bladetail, and the climbingclaw’s body was too different. Smaller, lighter; still a predator, but less lethal. They attempted to jump down the tree but landed on the climbingclaw’s back. Once recovered, Different ran the creature to the fence.
When Different returned to their tree, the Man with the Axe was standing under their leaves, the axe shaking in his hand. The two beta males had stopped digging and were watching the patriarch in silence. The climbingclaw was only as tall as the Human’s knees, but it had sharp teeth and claws.
Different ran towards the alpha Human and dug their claws into his leg. There were screams, and then the man started kicking, trying to shake the climbingclaw off. Different held on tighter and sunk their teeth into his flesh. They stayed latched on, tasting poisonous Human blood until the blunt side of the axe came down and knocked them off. They took a patch of skin with them.
A beta male kicked Different away, and then all they could do was watch and empty the climbingclaw’s bladder in terror as the alpha once again approached their tree with the axe.
(Different don’t worry) River Overlooker told. (Predator is coming. They found another bladetail closer to the fence. You’ll be alright.)
Different couldn’t organize their thoughts well enough to send them to River Overlooker. All that went through their mind was that Predator would be too late. They would be chopped down.
There was a rustle from the bush, and a strange four-limbed creature jumped over the fence. At first Different though it was another Human. A naked, strong male Human. Then Different realized that its skin was the shade of ashes and its dark hair grew all over its back. Two bony protrusions extended from the base of the skull and curled around the jaw, more conspicuous than most telepathic receptors. It was a speaking biped, the kind of creature Strongest used to communicate with Humans. There was a leather strap around its hips, and hanging from it was a long Human tool with an elaborate handle housed in a lacquer tube.
The biped jumped on top of the man with the axe, kicked his weapon away, then started punching him in the face. Repeatedly. Blow after blow connecting with a sickening thump, as the Human’s face became a bloody pulp.
The beta Humans rushed the biped, holding their shovels as weapons. The biped didn’t even look around. It stood up, pulling the tool out of its tube, revealing the sharpest steel blade Different had ever seen. In the same movement, it turned and sliced through the air, connecting with one of the Human’s faces. It was the lightest touch with only the tip of the blade, but the bridge of the beta’s pointy nose was sliced clean through, and a waterfall of blood flowed beneath his eye. The Human dropped his shovel and crumpled to the ground with the most painful shriek Different had ever heard.
The second Human swung the shovel at the biped, who met it effortlessly with the blade. The blade was now stuck in the wooden handle of the shovel. As the Human tried to pull his shovel away, the biped leaned back and landed a kick in the abdomen. He staggered back, and the biped followed through with a punch before grabbing the shovel and ripping both weapons from the Human.
Other Humans were pouring out from the house. Different’s climbingclaw shivered as the noises got closer. They weren’t familiar enough with Humans to differentiate between mere shouting and language. They stayed rooted to the ground as the biped held up its sword and approached the Humans. It began making sounds, and the Humans stopped.
(You’re safe now Different) Strongest told. (That’s me as the biped.)
(There are still too many Humans) Different told.
(Females and children) Strongest told. (Sorry I wasn’t communicating with you. I wanted to reassure your playmates you were safe, and there were others who sensed my panic.)
(You were panicking?) Different asked.
(Of course. He almost got you.)
(I thought you didn’t like having to watch over an immature person) Different told.
(I still want to keep you safe) Strongest told. (Can you make the climbingclaw stand? Is it hurt?)
(It’s leg hurts, but there isn’t any blood. It has swallowed Human blood and skin.)
(It should recover. I’ll get Local-Healer to have a look. Now Different, don’t be afraid; the females are going to come closer so they can help the males back to the house.)
(You’re going to let them live?) Different asked. (They’re dangerous beasts. They need to be put down.)
(If I kill them, then we’ll all be in danger) Strongest told, with a visualization – or maybe a memory – of a Forest on fire emphasizing her warning.
(Different) Predator told. (I found a new bladetail closer to your tree, but the Strongest told me to take my time. Are you alright?)
(I will be) Different told. (Strongest saved me. Are you alright switching so soon?)
(I will be. Know-a-Lot and Finder tried to find new creatures, but they can’t do it. They’ll need a rest.)
(And River Overlooker?)
(She stayed in hers. She told me she had found a piece of lost-tec that’ll help you next time the Humans come too close. She was scared though.)
When Predator thought of the lost-tec River Overlooker had found, he thought of River Overlooker biting at the handle of the piece she had shown them earlier, and a ray of light shooting out of the jar/telescope part and causing the straw of the nest to burn to a crisp with barely a flame.
(You want to give me the losttec?) Different asked River Overlooker. (But you love shiny treasures.)
(I am so sorry I couldn’t get in a closer bladetail and go help you) River Overlooker told. (I wanted to, but I didn’t think I could jump into another one so soon. I was going to try, but then Know-a-Lot and Finder tried and they had trouble sending out their thoughts. I knew I wouldn’t be able to. I can’t cast thoughts in the wind as good as you and Predator. I’m so sorry I couldn’t help.)
(It’s alright) Different told. (I’m safe. Strongest was there. The Humans are going back inside now.)
Different showed River Overlooker the scene before them. Strongest’s biped was still holding its blade. She didn’t even bother to turn around as the female Humans retrieved their males. The Man with the Cut was still screaming and had to be carried by two women. The rain started to fall in scattered droplets as the Humans retreated. The last one back was the smallest female, whose face was already wet.
There was a rustle in the undergrowth, and a bladetail walked into the Green World and surveyed the situation. Predator made their way to Different’s host-tree and sniffed the bark.
(What about you?) Different asked River Overlooker. (Are you safe now that the other bladetails aren’t possessed?)
(They were aggressive at first, but the alpha is leading us back now) River Overlooker told. (They seem weary of me, so I’m hanging back. I’m bringing the lost-tec with me. For you.)
Finder and Know-a-Lot reached out to Different, both explaining that Predator had told them Different was safe. Like River Overlooker, they were both distraught at being unable to help. Different took their time reassuring and thanking their playmates, while Strongest’s biped examined and patted Different’s climbingclaw.
(The Local-Healer is ready to take over the climbingclaw and take it to her tree now) Strongest told. (You can release it now.)
Different found that they didn’t want to release the climbingclaw. They wanted to be as alert as possible in case the Humans returned. Strongest sensed their hesitation.
(It’s alright) She told. (I’ll guard you until nightfall. The Humans won’t be able to hurt you because only the small moon will be out, and it’s not a Bright Galaxy Year, and they have terrible night vision.)
Different let go of the climbingclaw. It struggled and hissed for a few seconds, then went docile as the Local Healer took control. As the climbingclaw limped away, Different tried to make sense of their thoughts.
(What happens now?) Different asked.
(I need to think about this) Strongest told. (Killing them is too risky. Besides, they think. I need a diplomatic solution.)
The Humans weren’t going anywhere. Strongest was going to negotiate with them, not kill them. Different felt so angry with Strongest at first, but then realized that even if she did kill all the Humans, more would arrive. There seemed to be an endless wave of them downriver. Strongest sat her biped down amongst Different’s roots, and the two were left to their thoughts as screams and wails simmered down in the Human house.
There were a lot of things that made Different different from other people. Their lack of sexual characteristics, their lack of a mentor, their status as naturally spawned, and the view from their tree were all strange. Now though, they realized that there was one terrifying difference between them and the rest of the Forest that would define them for the rest of their life.
They would have to interact with Humans, whether they wanted to or not.
To be Continued
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