Trial by Fire

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A sinister darkness enveloped Tulip’s band of warriors. Their company was Nike, a now unbound sullen two-spirited Erodesean, and Onyx, a giant among his kind. In the absence of the Grand Star, there was nothing but blackness. The occasional shift in the bushes, howl of the wind, and rustle of gear could be heard, but aside from that, it was silent. About 100 strong, the company nervously made their way through the forest. Tulip, with Nike and Onyx in tow, were in the middle of the formation. To everyone’s surprise, Tulip launched a long slender wooden arm in the air, her hand glowing a bright blue.

In a matter of minutes a camp was erected. Camp consisted of nothing but small green and brown hovels that could be deconstructed in moments. There would be no light and apparently no meditation. Tulip quickly made her own hovel out of mud. Her expertise on display, she whispered to the nature spirits for their life. They obliged. Deftly, she spun and sewed together twine and mortar, binding them with the mastery of a member of the council. After she had finished, she’d motioned for Onyx and Nike to follow her into the structure.

The hovel was basic and consisted of nothing but a table with three chairs. Erodeseans are known to be spartan in their furnishings, but even this was exceedingly bare. Tulip motioned for them to take a seat opposite of herself. The ground littered by dead leaves crunched under each step, seemingly groaning under Onyx’s weighty frame. Nike, lithe as ever, floated into the room with a genetic grace indicative of xyr spirit. As they took their seats, Tulip’s hunter-like yellow eyes seared a hole in the two growthlings.

“So we meet again. Welcome to the great frontier. A little less aesthetic than the classroom, but I assure you the Crystal Forest is anything but boring.”

Tulip’s voice was melodic, but with crimson red eyes Nike seemed to challenge it with sarcasm.

“It’s nice to see you again Council Member Tulip.”

Onyx remained silent, his timid blue eyes clearly betraying his nervousness. Tulip shifted in her seat and briefly sucked in her full lips. She made a popping sound, then pursed her mouth. Slowly, her benign features decayed and melted. To students of Osk University, Tulip was always scary, but in a professorial-student way. Now, she was much taller at ten feet. With eyes like a wild beast, bladed forearms, blackened bark, dangerously sharp claws, and a purple tongue, she looked like a monster in the stories parents tried to scare saplings with. Perhaps she was.

Onyx’s eyes went white with worry and Nike’s flame retardant stare turned a watery blue. Tulip curled her lips into a grin and blinked her eyes like a forest predator. As she put her hand on the table both Nike and Onyx lurched back in their seats. Tulip laughed, the sweet giggles seemed to have been stolen from the woman they had known before.

“Relax. I will not eat you. You will give me a moment of your time and consider my offer.”

The pair vigorously nodded their heads in agreement eager to not anger their former teacher.

“Have you ever heard of a… vampire… a zombie?”

Onyx and Nike both shook their heads in agreement with the word vampire, and disagreed with zombie.

“Good. So, what do you know of these vampires?”

Tulip kept her unwavering smile on the pair while they sat petrified, unable to speak.

“We can talk, or I can make you talk. Your choice.”

To Tulip’s surprise, Onyx spoke up while stuttering.

“V-vampires are… or w-were a myth. Uh… they don’t tend to the forest, they eat it.”

Tulip giggled once again, visibly amused by his answer.

“I am so happy that you spoke up Onyx. I would’ve bet on Nike taking the initiative, but I was wrong. Hopefully, I am not wrong about this.”

Tulip held out her huge emaciated hand palm up on the table once again.

“Grab my hand.”

Her eyes meant business and the two did as they were told. After three seconds Tulip gently took her hand back and smiled once again.

“So it is true.”

Nike and Onyx looked at each other in fright and then back at Tulip while they simultaneously said: “What?”

Tulip looked in awe at the pair

“You’re Nami and Rema.”

Jaw ajar, Nike looked at Tulip like she was crazy. Onyx put his hands on his head shielding his eyes.

“You two. Recover!” Tulip said sternly and with straight backs Onyx and Nike sat at attention.

“You won’t be able to move your body, unless I will it. Now, will you hear my proposal out?”

Tulip laughed at herself and motioned to her head.

“Of course, you can’t speak. Here is the rundown. There are three types of Erodeseans: The tree huggers that I and many others taught you to be are called Lunu, the animal eaters are Nami or what we would call ‘zombies’, and the rest of us are Rema or ’vampires.’Lunu provide and sacrifice energy to the land, zombies feed on anything animalistic, and vampires feed on plant life. There was once a careful balance, until our ways of life were politicized.”

Tulip closed her eyes for a moment then continued speaking.

“A civil war broke out between the three groups leaving the Nami and Rema almost hunted to extinction. This happened over three thousand years ago, having been scrubbed from history leaving nothing but myth and legend. Secret covens of the remnants of the Nami and Rema remain today, but we are still at war with each other over historical grievances.”

“As our numbers secretly swelled over the centuries there have been many attempts to send us back to the Great Tree. None have succeeded. Now, with the situation having boiled over, war is upon us once again. Most of the Lunu, Rema, and Nami have gathered their nations and prepare for open conflict, but without Rema and Nami fighting together, we don’t stand a chance.”

“There was a rumor of highly gifted individuals being blessed with mixed sap. I have tried for hundreds of years to find the two who would lead our nations to unity and it has led me to you.”

Tulip got up and paced for a few seconds looking worriedly at the pair. She sucked in her lips, her yellow eyes briefly turning pink. She let out a long sigh, then turned to face Onyx.

“There is another reason I had you two sentenced. It was for your safety. I having to break the news to you both. Onyx, your parents did not die honorably in combat against the Easterners. They were slain while they fought valiantly against the Lunu.”

Having visibly deflated, Tulip created an apparition in the middle of the table. On it were two figures who were fighting side by side. Many dead Erodeseans were piled on each side of them. A sappy hot tear slowly ran down once of Onyx’s gnarled cheeks as he recognized his parents. The male Erodesean, Onyx’s father, stood a modest eight feet as he held two assailants draining them quickly until they were husks. The female Erodesean was locked in combat with three foes. The pair ended up separated as many more Lunu joined the fight. In minutes, both were felled but not without the death of countless Lunu. Onyx’s eyes blazed red as hot sap dripped onto the table.

Then, Tulip turned to Nike.

“You know that one can never be untruthful to the spirits. I show the truth, because I was there. The Great Tree made our visions impossible to fabricate, as you would know well Nike…”

Before she could start, Nike’s eyes matched Onyx’s. The violent red flashed with anger. Soon another apparition appeared on the table. This time, it was Nike’s parents. Her mother and father were meditating together, both smiling as their energies mixed. Outside their treehouse a slender figure secretly made its way through a wall, startling the pair. It was Tulip. She motioned for them to leave, but they seemed adamant they would not. The trio yelled back and forth, Tulip becoming more and more frantic with her attempts to get them to leave. Minutes later, Lunu came in from all sides, shifting away the walls like water. Tulip savagely ripped the nearest Lunu in half as Nike’s parents cowered. Three more Lunu were felled as Tulip deftly dodged in between strikes, her claws searing through wooden flesh. Tulip was efficient, but she couldn’t keep their attention while also defending Nike’s parents. One Lunu dodged a killing blow from Tulip only to slice deep into the neck of Nike’s mother with their elbow blade. Catching her off guard, another Lunu quickly stabbed Tulip in the midsection which forced her to disengage. Nike’s father jumped over the dying body of his wife wailing as the Lunu mercilessly bludgeoned him to death. Tulip seemed to make her escape, bleeding sap as she was pursued by at least a dozen Lunu.

As the apparition faded away Nike and Onyx’s eyes cooled to a crimson red, then to purple.

“I know it is a lot and I will not hold it against you if you deny my offer. They have taken our families and butchered our loved ones, buried our history and denied our existence, and now seek to destroy us entirely. The Lunu... they must be stopped and I have a plan. The two growthlings that sit before me now are the equivalent of Erodesean royalty. Your gifts are beyond those of mere tree-borne like myself. Will you allow me to hone them? Will we seek justice for those who have wronged us? It will not be easy, that I promise, but nothing meaningful ever is.”

Tulip raised her chin and looked down at the two.

“Or will you leave here, and forever cower in fear from our oppressors?”

Tulip snapped. Nike and Onyx fell over due to the sudden permission to move. As they both got up, red fire lit up their eyes. Onyx, a quiet young male Erodesean who secretly blamed himself for his parent’s death, had never before met rage. Now, he embodied it. Nike, the often fiery, energetic, privileged two-spirited wild-child had lost all of xyr good humor. All that was left was sadness and hatred. Slowly, the structure had begun to disintegrate, the dark miasma of energy grew from the pair eating everything nearby. Tulip curled her lips in a sinister smile and spoke.

“Your spirits tell me all I need to know. Now sleep, young royalty.”

In the dead of night there were two resounding thuds. Sentries rushed to Tulips hovel to find Tulip seated at a half burned table with two figures slumped on the floor.

“Your highness, is everything okay?”

Tulip smiled and nodded in approval.

“Yes. Send word to Poppy and Xilo that we move out to Wenshe at first light.”

The sentries moved quick and silent through the night stirring not a leaf in their wake.

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