We arrived back in the colony and noticed a somber air to the place. The warm weather from earlier in the day had receded to overcast skies and a brisk breeze. I could hear the claps of thunder from a distant storm.
When we walked through the rear gates, we could tell something was different. The Dwarves had been keeping mostly to their encampment now that most of the other Dwarves and I were no longer in need of the apothecary's help. But now, they were all in the town square, gathered around the apothecary building.
"Oh no," I said. This could be what I feared, what I had been trying not to think about the past few days.
Raffa looked around at us. "What? What happened?" he asked.
None of us responded.
I ran to the huddle of Dwarves and looked over them. There at the center of the group was Marv, with trails of tears running down his cheeks.
I searched for Abigail but didn't see her anywhere. Maybe inside? I ran to the window at the side of the building. Abigail wasn't inside, but I could see the table where Talia laid previously. Someone was still there. A body was draped in cloth. The general shape of a Dwarf laid still beneath it. My eyes welled with tears as I brought my hands to my face.
I dropped to my knees and wept there at the window. I wanted her to live. I wanted her to survive. I wanted Abigail to have a mother and Marv to have a wife. But it was never that easy. It was never easy.
I began thinking of all of the things that Abigail wouldn't get to share with her mother—all of the moments I didn't get to share. I thought of the birthdays I never got to celebrate with her. The things I had to learn about life on my own, or by observing others. There was so much I missed out on not having my own parents around, and now Abigail was destined to have a similar fate. To make it all worse, I was at least partially to blame. My actions lead to us not being able to get any medical supplies within the mountain. My actions led to her death.
And here I thought I was actually doing something. I thought I was helping people, and bringing them together, but it all ended in Talia's death. It ended with yet another motherless child.
"Kaia," I heard a familiar voice. I looked up and saw Marv standing next to me with a fleet of mourning Dwarves behind him. His face and beard were soaked in tears. He didn't say anything else, but when our eyes met, his lip began to quiver as more tears dribbled out.
"I'm so sorry," I said. "She deserved better—" I couldn't finish the sentence as my words caught in my throat.
Marv stepped forward and pulled me into a hug. I don't know how long we stood there. It was strange, even amidst the emotions of the moment, to hug a Dwarf. It was weird enough to be hugged. I couldn't remember the last time I hugged someone. But this was a Dwarf that wasn't particularly fond of me.
"I'm sorry," I said again after some time. "I'm sorry I couldn't save her."
Marv let go of me and looked me in the eyes. "No," he said. "She had the infection before we even got there. You're the reason I got to say goodbye."
I hung my head and cried some more. I hated that he and Abigail had to go through this. Those stupid Gnomes, or Arcus, or whatever they were. Why would they want to do this? Why would anyone do this?
Marv hugged me again. When he let go, I wiped my eyes as I heard the condolences of Zef and Lolan.
"I'm sorry, Marv," said Zef.
"Is there anything we can do?" asked Lolan.
"No. I'll miss her always, but no," said Marv. He took a moment to gather his composure and swallow down more tears.
"Where's Abigail?" I asked. "Is she okay?"
Marv shook his head. "She's not taking it well. She blames me." He looked down and straightened his lips. "I blame me too. If I wasn't so afraid of getting hurt again, we could have gotten to her sooner. We might have saved her." He looked away as the tears collected at the base of his eyes again.
"It's not your fault," said Zef. "We all have baggage from this war. We all cope in different ways. The important part is that we learn from the past."
"I can talk to her," I said. "Maybe I can help."
"Really?" asked Marv. "I don't know if she'll listen, but I could definitely use the help." Marv sniffed hard and used his meaty hair-covered arm to wipe away tears and snot alike. "I don't know how girls work. Even still. Maybe she needs help from another female."
"I'll talk to her," I said. "I'll do what I can."
"Thank you," said Marv. "But maybe wait until tomorrow or the next day. I think right now she might just need time to mourn. And if she has to hate on me for now while she processes, then so be it."
I nodded in response.
"We're having a funeral tomorrow," said a nasally voice. I looked up to find Cavel, looking cautious of butting in. "It's for her, and all of the ones we lost."
"Yes," said Marv. "We would like you to come."
I looked up at the others and said, "We'll be there."
Marv nodded and said, "Thank you." He wiped his face again with his arm. "I'd better take care of things. But thank you for your help."
I gave another nod. Words weren't coming out as easily as normal. Then Marv gave a slight smile as he made eye contact with the others and departed.
The Dwarves left us alone, and I stood after regaining my composure.
"Come on," said Tigala. She pulled me close with a single arm. "We've got that meeting with Rodrigo."
"Yeah," I said.
We arrived in the clearing to find Rodrigo already there. He stood tall looking impatient as he waited for us.
"Well, I was beginning to think you stood me up," he said.
I still was a bit of a mess with Talia's death on my mind. I didn't feel like responding. He seemed to notice the mood and didn't prod any further.
"Did you find anything?" he asked.
Lolan stepped forward, pulled the ring out of his jacket, and handed it to Rodrigo. Rodrigo eyed the half-breed carefully, trying to get a closer look with Lolan up close. He looked down at the ring and then back up at the group. "Where did you find this?"
"It was at the waterfall," said Lolan. "We were attacked by some kind of water monster and it broke a hole in the rock behind the falls. It was in there."
"Along with some sort of teleportation gate," said Zef. "It looks like a stationary tool used to travel to far away places quickly."
"How do you know?" asked Rodrigo, though he continued to study the ring.
"I tried to use it," said Zef. "I don't know teleportation magic, but it feels familiar. I also don't know what else you'd use a door like that for."
"And this ring, it was near it?" asked Rodrigo. Zef nodded.
Rodrigo gave a short sigh and looked between us. It was a look I had seen before when we first came to him asking for information. He was deciding whether or not he wanted to tell us something.
"What?" I said. "What do you know? We need all of the information we can get to stop them from doing any more damage." My voice was still raw from crying.
It was annoying that he was thinking about it so much. This whole thing is so much bigger than our hatred of each other, I thought.
Finally, he said, "This belongs to Tallesia."
"How do you know?" asked Lolan.
"I spent many days here," said Rodrigo, "even before you all came. This colony took a lot of work to set up and coordinate. I have worked with her for a few weeks now, and a lot of that time was spent sitting across from her at the table."
"And you're positive it was that ring?" said Zef.
Rodrigo nodded. "At least it was one that looked just like this if it wasn't this one. It's the exact design. But I'm not convinced she's behind all of this. Sure, she's arrogant and proud, as many Elves are, but she doesn't seem the type to be pulling all of the strings behind the scenes. She seems like she has something to prove, to herself and others."
"What do you mean," asked Tigala. She had been quiet for most of the conversation, but I got the feeling she didn't like Rodrigo much.
"It's just a feeling," said Rodrigo. "Her personality doesn't line up. She lacks too much confidence to be some grand mastermind that is using unheard of magic and taming dragons."
"Still, we need to do something," I said. "We can watch her, and wait for whenever she sneaks off to do something shady. We need to stop this before anyone else gets hurt."
"I agree. But it doesn't line up that it's her," said Rodrigo.
"Maybe it's not her, but if her stuff was there, she has to be involved," I said. I was getting tired of him trying to defend her. We found our culprit. It was time to act. What did he care about an Elf anyway?
Zef gave an apologetic smile to Rodrigo and said, "We'll keep an open mind. But we do need to look into it."
Rodrigo nodded. "Very well. And remember, I have nothing to do with this."
"Of course," said Zef.
"Well, unfortunately, I have no new information for all of you today. Things seem to be fairly quiet for the time being, but I am still keeping an eye open for interesting information. I appreciate you sharing this with me." He walked over to Lolan and handed back the ring.
"We'll head back first," I said, and I turned to leave, not waiting for the others to join me.
That night we took shifts. The representatives were still partially displaced outside of the ruined Lodge. They slept in tents, separate enough from each other that it was easy to see if one tried to sneak out.
We were situated under my tree with a pretty clear shot to Tallesia's tent. Lolan and I went to sleep first while Tigala and Zef stayed up, although I was curious to hear what the two of them would talk about together, I needed rest so that I could be alert during my own shift.
Tigala woke me in the middle of the night by poking my back through my hammock. Once I rubbed the sleep from my eyes, I asked, "Anything?" Tigala shook her head.
Zef and Tigala found spots to lay beneath the tree and Lolan and I stayed up to watch the Elven tent for anything suspicious.
He climbed up the tree to sit with me among the branches. It was a better vantage point from up there.
"So, you think we'll find anything interesting?" I asked.
"I don't know," he said. "It makes sense that she is in on it. Being a representative and all. The Arcus is a group that enjoys power and resources. So I can't say I'm surprised."
"What do you know about them?" I asked.
"Not much on a personal level. I just read the history books of their battles. They're strong fighters and they're creative. When they shouldn't be able to win a fight, they always seem to come up with a solution."
"What happens if we get caught snooping around?" I asked.
"I don't know. They might try and kill us. But that kind of stuff wasn't in the history books. They are a serious group with some major battle experience. Let's hope it doesn't come to that."
I nodded. I didn't want to just sit there staring at a tent flap the whole morning. My mind kept wandering back to the sad news from the day, I didn't want to be thinking about that all night.
"So you said you grew up with your cousins? How did that happen?" I asked Lolan.
"Yeah. I never knew my parents. Or at least I don't remember them. They died when I was really little and my uncle took me in. Though it never actually felt like he wanted to. It felt more like an obligation than an act of kindness."
"What about your cousins, were they nice?" I asked.
"Eh," he said. "Brendell was a bully. He hated me for being a half breed and constantly pushed me around to try and toughen me up." He looked down at his arm and held it with the opposite hand. "He's also the one who saved me from them though."
"The Arcus? Why'd he do it?" I asked.
"I don't know. I hope I get the chance to ask him someday. I tell myself that it was because he actually cares about me and he bullied me because he was so screwed up from the people he lost to the war."
"Yeah," I said. "Aren't we all?"
Lolan nodded and then sighed. "Ashlynn was my other cousin. She was my only friend."
"That's so sad," I said. "Then again, at least yours was a person. All I had was Chipry. He couldn't even talk back to me."
"You always seemed like you could kind of understand him," said Lolan.
I laughed and then saw Tigala roll over with a grumpy look on her face below. I tried to quiet my voice. "No, most of that was just me going crazy. You need someone to talk to when you're living on your own that long."
"Oh, I thought maybe it had to do with your magic or something. You know, trees and birds, talking to each other." He blushed and shrugged.
I shook my head with my eyes on Tallesia's tent. "Nope. But even though I couldn't understand him, I still miss him."
"Sorry. I'm sure he's happy out there in the forest with his own kind though."
"Yeah. I hope so."
At that point, I began to notice a change. It was slow, so it crept up on me at first, but now I could see that the square was covered in a low hanging fog. It slowly turned buildings at the far end of the square into fuzzy silhouettes, and the representative's tents were starting to be harder to see as well. I looked over at Lolan. "Elves can create fog, right?"
"Yeah," he said, nodding. Then he looked out toward the square and back at me. "Oh. Yeah. Should we wake the others?"
"No," I said, "Let's make sure we know that this is actually Tallesia first."