"So, it's not going so well, huh?" I asked Raffa as he walked next to me in the woods. He was imposing, even when on my side. Tigala made me feel the same way.
"No. Not great," said Raffa. "Lobo won't work with me anymore, and he has been telling the rest of the Beastfolk not to either. Some are still open to it, but they are all wary of me."
"Yeah, it makes sense," I said. "Well, thanks again for warning us, and sticking up for me against their hunting party."
Raffa nodded. "I am in your debt. So is Lobo, but he'd never admit it." He paused. "He still wants you dead, you know?"
"Oh, I know," I said. "He gave me no doubts about that. I'm sure we'll see him soon. It's just a question of when."
"Hopefully he'll find someone else to hate before it comes to that. Not likely though," said Raffa.
Yeah. Not likely.
"Sorry about Tigala," I said. "She's still not so sure about you either. She doesn't like traitors, and since you've been on both sides of this thing..." I trailed off.
"Yeah. I get it. I didn't make myself seem very trustworthy. I hope to prove that I am," said Raffa.
"Good. We appreciate it," I said.
Up ahead, Tigala was walking alongside Zef. I could hear the distant spattering of water on water and rock. The two pulled apart the bushes and Tigala walked in. Zef looked back to check on us and smiled like he had found something special. When we caught up, I saw the waterfall in the distance.
It was a beautiful sight. I could barely remember the last time I had seen a waterfall. They seemed so mundane back then when I lived in the forest and bathed in the streams. But after living in Brighton for the last 7 years and seeing nothing but mud, stone, and thousands of Humans, it was a very welcome sight. It was nostalgic even.
Raffa joined me in catching up with the rest of the group and we began to slow our pace. No one needed any reminders to be quiet as we crept toward the falls. The stream that it fed bent and turned to several smaller waterfalls leading down the hillside. At the base of the falls, the water pooled, creating what looked to me like the perfect swimming area. I didn't know if I would get a chance to use it given the circumstances, but I hoped so. I needed a bath. I'd been through too many grueling situations lately to go without a bath.
We approached the waterfall in our group and Zef's illusions covered us. The purple glow faded to a shifting mirror-like pattern, reflecting imperfect patterns of the forest around us. It was the kind of thing that probably wouldn't catch your eye with just a glance, but on further inspection, it would probably give us away.
We passed by the trees onto the riverbank for a better view. The waterfall was tall and narrow. Several smaller cascades were shooting from the rocky cliff. The pool where it all landed was an inviting aqua blue. Mist hung in the air and settled on my skin.
We walked along the bank until the sound of the falls was all but deafening. The river was dotted with large stones, some as big as Raffa. Navigating the bank was difficult, but we managed. As we walked, I kept my eyes peeled for signs of others, but I found none. I thought once again of Chipry. He'd be so useful right now. I could tell him to search and... well, let's be honest. He probably just would have found me a berry patch. I wouldn't mind some berries right now though.
No signs of other people in the area. I looked at the waterfall itself to see if there was anything strange going on with it. Still, nothing. I tapped Zef on the shoulder and pointed at the far side of the river. He nodded and I led the group across stepping stones to reach the other side. No signs of other people there either.
I don't know what I expected really. I guess we had been in the right place at the right time a few times already, but it couldn't keep happening that way. We got lucky.
Once we had searched the area for an hour or two, I was beginning to get bored of studying the same rocks. "Did you guys see anything?" I asked the others.
Zef looked my way. He held the illusion and didn't speak.
"Nothing," said Tigala. She was in her dog form now and had been sniffing away at the ground.
I looked at Raffa. Nothing from him either. Lolan shook his head too.
"What do we do now then?" I asked.
"We could keep searching," said Zef. "Maybe we'll find a clue somewhere."
"I don't know," I said. "We've been at it for a while and even Tigala can't pick up anything. What if it was just one random person here before? We're not working off of much information."
Zef nodded. "Yes, it could be. But there has to be something. We can't just lose track of them now."
"We could go after that dragon," said Tigala with her growly dog voice. She had a strange smile on her face due to her jowls.
"No thanks," I said. "We all know that's not a smart move for me."
Zef continued studying the ground, determined to find something.
"I'll look around a little more," I said, smiling at Zef. He looked back at me with wiry grey eyebrows creased. "But I'm gonna look from up there?" I said, pointing at a ledge partway up the cliff behind the waterfall.
"You think you'd find something up there?" said Lolan, not picking up on my implications.
"No," I said. "I want to jump off of that into the river." I smacked him with the back of my hand. "You want to come?"
"Oh," he said. He looked up at the cliff and back at me. "Sure," he said with a shrug.
I ran over to the foot of the cliff and began climbing up the jagged stone. Despite the steep incline of the cliff, it was an easy climb. The breaks in the stone created something like a staircase. Some spots were easier than others, but in a minute I was a quarter of the way up the waterfall with the water crashing down beside me. It was hard to keep my eyes open with the relentless spray of water. I looked back to see if Lolan was still behind me and found him at a much lower ledge, only about his height from the water to where his feet now were.
"I'm good down here," Lolan yelled up to me over the pounding of water. I had already forgotten that he was afraid of heights.
"Suit yourself," I said. I looked back at the shore where Tigala, Raffa, and Zef stood. "You guys coming?" I yelled.
Zef was still searching, turning over rocks, and placing them back gently, then looking behind trees. I'm not sure why he was so into searching when it looked like there was nothing we could do.
Tigala was transforming back to Beastfolk form. When she finished, she waved at me and then dove into the clear water. I jumped in after her.
With a quick rush of wind, I fell through the air and crashed into the water. It was crisp, but it felt good with how warm it was. I sank into the blue waters and slowed almost to a halt by the time my feet touched the rocky bottom of the river. Then, with a push of my legs, I launched myself back to the surface of the water.
I took a deep breath and immediately began laughing. It had been so long since I had done something like this. Not only was I exploring nature and swimming in a river, but I was having fun. I couldn't contain the joy it brought me after seven years of hiding. After years of scraping by and being afraid that someone saw me. After only being able to confide in Chipry. It all washed away in the fresh cool water.
Tigala was swimming along next to me. She surfaced and I saw the wet fur matted down on her face and shoulders. She seemed to like the water well enough despite looking like a cat.
Lolan was still on the ledge. He still had all of his Elven garb on, fearing Raffa might do something with the information if he found out that Lolan was only half Elf. Like Tigala though, Raffa might not even notice. Still, it was probably better he was safe than sorry. He stood on the ledge looking down at the water below.
"Come on! Jump!" I yelled.
He looked up at me and then back at the water. Lolan took a deep breath and then he jumped in too.
Zef was still on the shore with Raffa. The old Gnome was standing in place looking around the area. He was still hoping to find something. It seemed like a lost cause to me. There was no real evidence that something happened here. It could have just been someone passing through. And it makes sense that they would have stopped here to fill up on water.
What didn't make sense was that they were out here before the rest of the colony. It could have been a colonist or one of those storm mages, but it was odd. Still, I didn't know what he expected to find. It had been at least two weeks since they found that footprint. It was long gone by now.
"Come on, Zef," I said. "We'll look some more in a bit. Just relax for a few minutes."
He looked over at me in the water. He sighed like he was disappointed. Then he threw down his staff and took off his jacket and shirt. His chest was bare, showing his pale skin that looked like it had never seen the light of day. He had a round belly that his pants tried to tuck in.
Zef climbed up one of the boulders on the shore and said, "Yahoooo!" as he dove into the water. The splash that he made looked enormous. It was like a tidal wave was going to crash down on me. I tried to swim out of the way, but I was too slow. When it impacted, it was only a few drops of water. An illusion. Of course.
He surfaced and spit out a stream of water and began chuckling. He knew the reactions it would have gotten him. I'm sure just the thought of it amused him. I shook my head, but couldn't help but enjoy his amusement.
I looked over for Tigala and didn't find her. Instead, I saw a large octopus in her place. It's tentacles pulsed in unison, launching it across the water.
It wrapped a tentacle around me and pulled itself closer. Its head surfaced, revealing the scar across its face. It was Tigala in a new form. She pulled herself closer and released a black inky cloud around me before swimming away. I laughed again. It was fun to see all of the ways magic could come into play when we were just swimming.
"You coming in, Raffa?" yelled Lolan. He still had his hood over his head. He looked ridiculous, with the wet fabric sticking to his head, but I did get it. He needed to keep his secret.
Raffa stood on the shore. "Shouldn't we be looking around some more?" he said. "The sooner we find those missing people the better."
He was right. I felt the same way, but we needed a moment to unwind and get clean. I had almost died a handful of times in the last few weeks due to my relentless search for the missing people. I just wanted a little bit of fun with the people I had grown to appreciate here on Daegal. Plus, those same people had been telling me that I was jumping into things too quickly anyway.
"We'll search some more in a little bit," I said. "We're just having a little fun first."
"Yeah," said Zef. "Plus, we stink."
That too, I thought.
Raffa looked conflicted. "I'm going to walk around some more."
"Okay. Suit yourself." I said.
Once Raffa was out of earshot I looked at Lolan. "Can you heat up the water at all?" I asked.
"Oh," he said, pursing his lips like he wasn't sure himself. "I can try."
He swam over to a nearby stone and sat on it. He began to concentrate and I watched his expression change. I forgot that he was so new to fire magic that he still had to delve into his past every time he wanted to use it. Maybe it wasn't the greatest idea right now.
"Nevermind," I said. "Don't worry about it." He looked at me like he might have been puzzled but also slightly relieved.
"Here. Watch this," I said. I wanted in on all of the magical fun too. I reached for the plants growing from the bottom of the stream. They were small plants without much substance to them. But I strengthened them and began growing them up and weaving them together to form a kind of submerged bed. I lifted up Zef with it, allowing him to float on his back above the water. Then Lolan jumped back in and I did the same for him. Then I lifted Tigala.
As soon as Tigala felt the plants touch her she spun around and began swiping at them with her claw. When I saw her reaction, I pulled them back. Tigala climbed out of the water onto a rock and looked back at me. She breathed heavily and looked like she was about to attack me. "Not in the water," she said. Tigala turned and stomped off into the forest.
I looked at Zef. "What's her problem?"
Zef climbed down from his waterbed with a serious look on his face. "It's just a guess, but the deathweed," he said.
I hadn't thought about it, but underwater plants were what had started that plague from my people. I wonder if she had experienced it, maybe lost someone to it. I wouldn't be surprised if she had. And if she had, I could see how that would upset her.
I sighed, wishing I could undo what I had just done. Sure, it was harmless and just in fun, but even if we were getting along, there were still scars there that couldn't heal so easily, and I had probably just ripped at one of Tigala's.
"Do you think I should talk to her?" I asked Zef.
"I'd let her cool down first."
I sighed again. I didn't create the deathweed. I barely even remembered when it happened, but my people did, and that was enough to bring back some horrible memories.
The joy I had just been feeling drained out of me. I went and sat on a rock by the foot of the waterfall. Water splashed on me and dripped off.
Lolan swam over. "It's okay. You didn't know."
"I know. But it's not okay. Whether I want people to forget the horrible things my people did or not, it's always going to stay with them." I looked in the direction I had last seen Tigala go. "She deserves to be upset. She probably lost people to things like that. She probably saw people die to it. She's allowed to be upset about that. It just sucks, you know?"
"Yeah. It does," he said. "There's a lot of hatred, and I don't think most people know how to deal with it."
"Yeah," I said. "Her especially. When she's upset, she's angry and nothing else. I just hope it doesn't make us lose her."