Zef looked at his empty plate, sad that he had already finished the dish. It was nice to take a day off the day before and fill his belly, but he still wished he had more.
"Weren't the girls supposed to be back by now?" asked Lolan.
"Eh, who knows. I have learned not to question how long a girl takes to go to the bathroom. Most of em don't like that kind of thing," said Zef.
Zef didn't miss the embarrassed chuckle that Lolan let out.
"Should we be worried though?" Lolan asked. "Those Elves are still out there. They might be looking for revenge since me and Kaia ruined whatever plan they had."
"Yeah, I guess that's true. We can try and climb that tree and check on them from a distance," said Zef. He stood and patted his round belly.
Lolan followed Zef out of the tavern and over to the tree where they camped. Lolan jumped up and grabbed a branch. He swung a leg over and pulled himself up into the branches. Then he looked down at Zef who was standing there with his eyebrows raised.
"I'm little short," said Zef with a grin on his face.
"Oh, right," said Lolan as he climbed back down. "Should I pick you up? Or do you want to climb me?"
"Hmm," said Zef. "I can try climbing."
Lolan got into an awkward position and Zef stepped on the half Elf's thigh. Zef grabbed his shoulders and pulled himself up onto Lolan's back. Then he pushed himself up onto Lolan's shoulders.
Lolan stood up straight and lifted Zef to the point where he could grab a stray branch. He wrapped his arms and legs around the branch and hooked a leg on the trunk to use as leverage and swing his body upright. "Ah, there we go," he said.
Lolan joined him in the branches, but he had only been up there for a moment when they heard the distant flapping of giant wings.
"That sounds like..." Lolan started. Both of them looked past the wall in the direction of the noise. "...oh no."
Zef's heart sunk. "We need to go out there. Maybe we can get there in time," he said
"No way," said Lolan. "The dragon is going to be there in seconds. Maybe it won't notice them."
The pair watched from the tree in anticipation as the dragon drew closer. It neared the end of the tree line when Zef let out a breath of relief. Then he noticed a dark cloud above the forest.
"The Elves. They're going to—" Before Zef could finish his sentence a bolt of lightning struck the winged beast. The dragon screamed and changed its course toward the treeline.
"We need to go, now!" said Zef in a panic.
"We can't. We would never get there in time. We need to protect the colony," said Lolan.
Zef took a deep breath and stared with wide eyes. He took a moment to think and said, "You're right."
Lolan jumped to the ground and reached up to help Zef down. Already the guards were yelling from the top of the wall. Horns were sounded and people began to look around for some kind of understanding of the approaching threat.
Zef ran towards the town square, ignoring the pain in his old knees. He drummed up a simple illusion spell with a swirl of purple energy at his hand. He threw it forward and an illusory gong sounded throughout the square. Faces turned to him.
"It's a dragon. I know. You think I'm lying, but we may only have seconds before it attacks. We need anyone who can fight fire to protect the colony. The rest of you, hide in the tunnels with the Dwarves."
Some looked at Zef confused, while others began to panic and scatter about the square.
Zef searched the crowd for a group of Dwarves. Among them he saw Dunnel. "You need to make sure that anyone who can't fight has shelter in the caves. Otherwise we'll all be dragon food."
"You can't be serious. Dragons don't—" Dunnel started, but his protest was interrupted by the distant howl of the dragon.
"Dragons don't exist, but neither does mind-control magic," said Zef.
Dunnel's expression changed as he looked in the direction of the sound.
"Now," said Zef. "We don't have much time. Send any capable Dwarves to help protect us from the flames."
Dunnel nodded his head quickly and said, "If you can't fight, come with me." He threw his meaty arm in the air to mark their direction.
In the distance, they could still hear the wingbeats and what sounded like distant burning. Zef was afraid of what that might mean for Kaia. They had gotten through sticky situations in the past, but how much could he count on luck to get them through another one? He did his best to put the thoughts out of his mind.
"Come on," said Lolan. "We need the Saurians."
The Saurians? This wasn't going to be easy.
They approached the hill and looked down at the encampment. People were scurrying about. Some headed to the Dwarven tunnels while others peeked out of their tents looking at the sky in confusion.
Zef mustered up as much magic as he could. Audible illusions weren't his forte, but he had to try. He had to get as many people ready as possible. The magic swirled around his hands and he raised them to his mouth. A booming voice bellowed out. "A dragon is at our doorstep. It will destroy us all if we cannot work together and fight it. We need Saurians to douse the flames, Dwarves to build us protection, Humans to redirect, Avians to predict, and anyone else who wants to make a name for their race. Come now and help us wi—"
Zef didn't get to finish. Behind him, there was an eruption of heat and flame as the dragon blasted through the palisade and set the lodge up in flames. There were screams of people burning alive as the monster landed with a thunderous crash.
"Here we go," said Zef under his breath. He looked up at Lolan. "Now's a good chance to practice that fire magic."
Lolan's face was painted in a panic. He drew an arrow and fired at the creature. The arrow pierced the skin, but only went deep enough for the arrowhead to sink in. The dragon didn't seem to even notice. Instead, it took a step forward through the lodge and screamed.
People in the square started to react. Some ran, but others fought back. A group of Dwarves immediately began raising walls like bunkers to protect from the flames. A group of Beastfolk backed up and began transforming. Sungura was among them. She grew two extra pairs of arms from her sides and grabbed swords to fill all of them from her back.
A group of Avians charged the creature with weapons drawn. They screamed warcries attacked the dragon in formation. The dragon snorted and fought back. It sent a claw at one and swung its tail at another, but the Avians were too quick. They knew what was coming and reacted before the dragon could land a hit. The claw and tail slammed into the ground making even less of what used to be the lodge. It screamed again and then took a deep breath.
"Run!" Zef said, grabbing Lolan's arm and causing him to miss as he loosed his arrow. He pulled him behind a rock bunker just in time for the fire blast. The heat washed over the rocks.
It was painful, even without the flames coming in direct contact with him. He could feel the heat shriveling up the wiry hair on his head. And the fear of this unknown creature washed over him again. The fire subsided and Zef took a deep breath like it wasn't an option before that point. What do we do against that? he thought.
Zef looked over at Lolan who looked at least equally scared as he was. Zef tried to muster some false optimism, giving a slight smile and chuckle. Lolan just stared back with wide eyes.
Past Lolan, Zef spotted the Dwarf that erected the wall hiding beside them. He looked at the two of them wary of having them so close. It was one of the Dwarves that had been in the colony from the start. He looked scared in general, but at the moment that fear was directed at Zef. He must have heard of the Gnome captors.
Zef nodded at the Dwarf and then peeked over the wall at the creature. As his eyes crested the wall he found the creature snapping its jaws at nearby Humans attacking in formation with spears.
Zef also looked around the 'battlefield', though it could barely be called that after only a few seconds of battle. It was littered with ash. Buildings were well on there way to toppling and there were several burnt remains Zef could only assume were once people.
His attention turned back to the dragon as it grabbed one of the Humans in its jaws. The woman screamed as the dragon tossed her up into the air. Zef looked to the nearby Avians hoping they would do something to save the woman. One looked like he was ready to fly up and intercept her, but didn't follow-through. In a moment, the dragon blasted the woman with fire and then caught the burnt corpse in its mouth.
There were screams as people attacked the dragon's chest, legs, and wings. It roared back at them and then took to the air. It raised itself higher and then went for a dive. The dragon swooped and knocked down several warriors while catching two in its claws. They too were dispatched quickly. With no help from the other races.
This was not an enemy that could be fought.
We need to run, thought Zef. But he couldn't. Kaia and Tigala might still be out there. They might be in trouble. They might be suffering from the monster's previous attack. He couldn't leave now.
"We need to find Kaia and Tigala," said Zef quietly to Lolan.
"What do you mean? We need to help," said Lolan.
Zef kept his eyes on the dragon. Below it people were fighting and doing their part to take down the beast, but it was unorganized, scattered. The dragon took another dive, and instead of working together to hold it back, the group scattered to either side, leaving a Gnome to get fried to a crisp by a blast of the dragon's fire. Zef heard a cheer from the Dwarf he shared the bunker with and looked over at him. The Dwarf glared back, unashamed of his rejoicing.
"We can't help if they won't help each other," said Zef. "The only way we get through this with the least amount of casualties is if we work together. Let's find Kaia and Tigala. Then we'll figure out what to do next."
Lolan hesitated, looking from the battle back to Zef. Then he nodded. They found an opening after the dragon's dive and ran for the back exit of the colony. As they did, Zef peered down into the colony below. He only saw Dwarves heading into the Dwarven tunnels, while other races were being turned away. Many others were running for the back and front exits of the colony as well. Many of them were warriors, unwilling to fight for people other than their own. This was not good.
They reached the back gate and several other people filed through it with them. There was a group of Humans, a group of Saurians, and some other stray races. All of them looked like capable fighters. Some of them he knew to be capable fighters. But as soon as they exited the gate they made a b-line for the closest woods.
Zef wasn't surprised by it, but he was disappointed. They might have actually been able to fight this thing if people stuck together and used their magic in tandem. They might have a shot of taking down the enemy's dragon and still having a place to live, but not like this. Not with every race for themselves. That would only secure the victory for the Arcus.
They rounded the edge of the colony and looked out. And there, in the distance, was Kaia riding a tiger toward the colony with a group of Elves running alongside her.