The bobcat Beastfolk stomped out from under the canvas, like a lion defending its kill. A fresh bandage was wrapped around her left arm, and fresh ointment covered a wound across her face. She stared at Lolan and me—her chest rising and falling.
I looked behind us. Zef had disappeared. This must be why they call the Gnomes tricksters, I thought.
I turned back to the Beastfolk, ready to defend myself at a moment's notice. "Um, this is Lolan," I said as he stood beside me. "He's hurt. Is there anything you can do?"
"Why would I help you... or the Elf?" the bobcat said, growling her words through clenched teeth.
"Yeah. That's kind of what I expected," I said.
Anger began to boil inside me knowing that Zef had set us up. He's probably laughing at his campfire right now, I thought. At least he would be alone, with no one to share in the humor at our expense.
I thought about that for a moment, remembering the orb in the coals of Zef's fire. Zef didn't go searching today. And based on this Beastfolk's current state and the other empty lean-tos nearby, neither did she. She had fresh bandages. Could she be resting to let her wounds heal?
She didn't seem like the type to sit back and rest. Plus, Rodrigo had told us we need to contribute if we want to stay in the colony. She must not have a search party to work with either.
I peered to Lolan, who still hung from my shoulder. I returned my attention back to the Beastfolk. "We'll let you join our search party if you take a look at him," I said. I was afraid of the words I spoke, but it was rare that someone would actually defend me. I needed to help Lolan.
"I'd rather rot here than work with a Treek and an Elf," she said.
Footsteps rang close behind us, and I turned around. Zef stepped around the corner and joined the conversation. The Beastfolk's bobcat-like face tensed as he appeared. "And a Gnome too? This offer keeps getting worse," she said.
"You're looking for people that went missing here," said Zef. "The other Beastfolk told you not to come to Daegal, but you did anyway. They don't want your help. So...you need us."
She growled. "How do you know that?"
"I wasn't too far away from you at Rodrigo's speech."
Of course, I thought. That must have been when she was talking to the wolf Beastfolk.
"Be careful where you stick those ears, goblin," the bobcat snarled. "We Beastfolk are likely to eat them."
I was pretty sure that was a threat, but it came off more weird than intimidating. She took a deep breath as she stared at us. Her exhale seemed to release some of the tension she previously had.
"I don't know how to heal anyway," the Beastfolk confessed. "You're asking the wrong person."
"But you know transformation magic, right? Couldn't you at least use that to see if any major damage was done to him?" I asked.
She glared at me and stepped forward. My heart skipped a beat, imagining what she could do to me while I was vulnerable, with another body holding me down. Even without transforming, she towered over me. Easily over six feet. Maybe more.
Her clawed hand, covered in blonde speckled fur, took hold of Lolan's bare wrist. An orange glow formed on his arm. It stretched up, through his skin and into his shirt. The Beastfolk shook her head.
"You've got one broken rib, the rest are bruised. You'll be fine."
I breathed a sigh of relief. Now for my end of the bargain...
"We leave at dawn," I said. Was I really doing this? Making deals with my enemies? Working with other races?
She looked over my shoulder and then returned to her hut. "I don't want to join your ragtag clan," she said. "Go away before people start getting nervous."
That was it, I suppose. Zef led the way back to his tent. I noticed the Beastfolk search party, lead by Wolf-man, starting down the hill as we left the bobcat's hut. When we reached Zef's tent, the metal orb still glowed among the embers of his fire.
"I knew you'd come around," Zef said, smiling as always.
"You tricked me. I had no other choice in that situation," I said. My eruption startled him.
"No. I warned you that you wouldn't like it. You need help anyway. The two of you barely made it back today, and he'll be even less help tomorrow." he said, pointing to Lolan. The Elf didn't disagree.
I glared at him, but before I could speak, Lolan did. "I'll be part of your search party," he said, looking at Zef. He concluded the statement with a cough, causing him to hold his side and wince in pain.
I looked at Lolan, then Zef. "I'll do it, but don't try anything like that again. Keep your games to yourself."
Zef looked a bit ashamed, despite being 50-some-odd years older than me. "Sure. No more tricks," he said. I didn't believe him, but there was no point in pushing the subject further.
I looked at Lolan. "Where do you need to go?" I asked.
"Back to my tent is fine. I think I can walk, just slowly," he said.
The two of us walked over to his tent at the edge of the Elf and Human camps. His breathing was shallow, but he still managed to walk despite a twist of pain in his face with each step. He sat down outside his tent and began to start a fire.
"Need any help?" I asked. He had me grab a bag and pour some rice and water into a pot. Then he hung the pot over the fire.
He looked up at me. I was still standing in his camp and unsure of what to do with myself.
"Thanks," he said. "For saving me from that Ogre. How did you lose it?"
"Oh, um," I stuttered. "It came after me once it hit you with that tree. It tripped and almost slid off the cliff... Thanks for distracting him for me."
"Sure. Are you just assuming it was a he?" Lolan said. He seemed genuinely curious.
"Oh no. I had to go through that thing's legs to dodge it. I'm positive."
Lolan chuckled and then groaned with pain, holding his ribs. It was weird. I was having a conversation with an Elf like we were old pals—err, half-Human Elf, I guess.
As far as he knew, I still thought he was a full-blooded Elf. He still kept his hood up. He had all Elven garb on, but underneath it, he hid the rounded features of the Humans. Kind of like my makeup from only a day before.
Realizing I had been lost in my thoughts, I said "Well, uh, I'm gonna go. You're coming tomorrow?"
"Yeah, I'll be there. I'll be slow, but I can always help at range if we run into another ogre. I've got a whole other set of ribs that he didn't get the first time." Lolan cracked a smile.
What was even more bizarre about this was that an Elven-ish person was having a conversation with me. He was talking to me like I was a normal person—not focusing at all on the fact that I was a Treek. I didn't know what to make of it.
"Okay, well get some rest," I said to him as I parted ways. I began walking back up the hill. With all of the commotion today, I hardly noticed that the sun was setting.
I found my way to the tavern to claim our search area once more. This time, people didn't stop what they were doing upon seeing me, but conversations still hushed from my presence. I guessed they were starting to get used to having a Treek around. Yeah, right.
I approached the map and found additions made to it. An Elf with flowing blonde hair was drawing the beginning of a mountain range. A new forest here, a river there, slowly revealing Daegal. There weren't any particularly interesting findings that I could see—not yet at least.
I looked for my spot. The green pawn had been removed. I waited for the Elf to finish and then mapped the rolling forest and cliff that I had encountered. I left out the tower that I had seen in the distance. I didn't want someone else to beat me to it.
I dug through the box of pawns again, having trouble finding the green one amidst all the other colors. I found one pawn I hadn't seen before, wooden and missing paint.
Hmm, brown. All the colors mixed, I thought to myself. I placed the brown pawn on the map near the cliff I had drawn. It looked out of place among the other colors, but that made sense.
From there, I headed back to my tree. The sun was halfway past the horizon. I grew some berries for Chipry and me to share and then climbed back into my hammock.
The next morning I woke up and headed to the back gate to meet the others. Zef was already there waiting for me. He had a small backpack on and almost looked like a child, waiting to go play in the first snowfall of the year. As I went to him, I didn't fail to notice stares from nearby parties coming my way.
"Gooooood morning," he said, holding onto the 'good' for too long.
I inspected the Gnome for the first time. I had seen him before, but I never considered actually going into the wild with him. He was old. He had white untamed hair and a long white beard to match. His face sagged with loose skin and his legs and arms, unsurprising of a Gnome his age, were knobby. He brought with him a cane. It was a small weathered stick, with a knot at the top that rested above his hand.
"Hi," I said. "Are you going to be okay out there?"
He looked back at me with a smile. "I can hold my own."
I wasn't sure I believed him. Not only was he old, but Gnomes arguably were supposed to have the weakest form of magic: Illusion. I wasn't terribly invested in this whole thing anyway.
Chipry was singing his morning song as he sat on my shoulder. It was loud against my ear. I turned to him and saw, in the background, Lolan climbing the hill from the camps.
He had a bow in hand, and a quiver hung from his belt instead of resting on his back. He walked slowly, with deliberate measured steps. It was going to be a long walk.
As he approached, the stares from other parties became more noticeable.
"Feeling any better?" I said to Lolan as he approached, ignoring the gossip surrounding us. He shrugged in response, showing a sly smirk across his face.
We turned to leave for the gates, but a lone Saurian approached us. I turned around, terrified of what I assumed was an incoming attack, but the Saurian kept walking. I saw a scar across its red-scaled face and found a missing hand on the same side as the bobcat-faced Beastfolk. She doesn't want the other Beastfolk to see, I thought. Makes sense.
I was going to have to be extremely careful. I had made this deal to repay Lolan for helping with the ogre, but I still wasn't sure I could trust him or Zef. And they had never attacked me in broad daylight because of my race. Adding the Beastfolk to the mix definitely complicated things.
Now, everyone stared. We walked past a group of Saurians, who hissed at the disguised Beastfolk among us. Whispers turned to blatant conversations of disgust.
Once we were in the open field, Lolan spoke up when he could muster the breath. "Why is there a giant Saurian with us?" He said, concerned.
"It's me, you dimwit," said the shapeshifted Beastfolk.
"Oh!" Lolan said. I couldn't help but crack a smile at the exchange.
"So, where are we heading?" Zef said.
I looked in the direction of the cliff. "I know a place."