I woke up in the same pile of dirt I had previously slept in, the day I first saw the dragon. It was the main room of the Gnome house near the center of Birdsbane, as Geralt called it. When we arrived, he made sure everyone knew how the town got its name, though many chose to ignore him.
I climbed to my feet and found Lolan and Zef still passed out on the floor, but Tigala's spot was empty. That wasn't good.
I tiptoed by the boys and looked in a couple of other rooms. One looked like a kitchen of sorts, with strange holes in the wall that I had to assume were used as some sort of furnace. The next had a bed that was lopsided and covered in moss but still couldn't find her. I started walking faster, uncaring if I woke the others. I stepped out the front door and didn't see her anywhere. There were no footprints and no marks of a struggle in the dirt and rubble. I turned to look back at the house and saw Tigala's ears poking above the crest of the roof. I let out a sigh of relief and then began climbing up the building.
I grew a single vine to push me up as I climbed the odd angles of the house. "What are you doing?" I asked as I reached the roof. "You had me worried."
She grunted. "I couldn't sleep," she said. "I came out here to keep watch."
"From what?" I asked. She was positioned to watch the mountainous pillars in the distance. "You really think the wyverns would come down here?"
"No," she said. "I'm worried about Lobo. He wants us dead."
"Oh," I said. I was pretty sure she was right, but it hadn't been on the top of my list of things to worry about. He was definitely dangerous, and not someone you would want as your enemy, but with dragons and island monsters, Lobo hadn't crossed my mind much. "Do you know where they set up camp?"
Tigala pointed one finger in the same direction she was looking. I followed it and found an armadillo Beastfolk sitting by the door of a tall building.
"Have they done anything?" I asked.
"No," she said. "But they're not going to do it when we're ready for it. He's a snake. He'll strike when you least expect it."
"You think there's any chance that he actually might want to help in some way or another?" I asked.
"No," said Tigala. "He's a coward, afraid to take any blame himself. Instead, he finds people to blame and hates them for all of the wrongs that have happened to him." She looked down at her feet. "I used to be that way too. Maybe I still am in some ways."
Maybe I was too. I was so certain that Tallesia was behind all of this that I didn't take the time to think of any other possibilities. Maybe I was just doing the same thing after all.
I couldn't dwell on it though. We needed to act right now. Because at the end of the day, there were still probably people being enslaved by whoever we were up against. There were people who had been ripped from their loved ones. Whatever the situation actually was, there were people who needed us, and I couldn't afford to sit around and contemplate every one of my actions. The best I could do was learn from them, moving forward.
"We'll just have to be careful," I said. "Hopefully, with the cooperation of so many others, we can stay safe out there."
"Hopefully," Tigala said, still staring at Lobo's camp.
We sat in silence for a while. She watched the armadillo Beastfolk guard while I watched the wyverns darting between towering rock pillars. They were still fun to watch from a distance, even if they had almost killed me the last time I ran into them. My eyes drifted to the largest pillar, where I had seen the dragon. The top was still blackened from dragon fire. The once beautiful pillar was now just one more pockmark of war.
I tried not to think about it. Those thoughts weren't helpful now. "Come on," I said. "Let's go inside and check on the boys."
I stood and looked back at her. She took a deep breath and then followed as I climbed back down the roof.
Inside, Lolan and Zef were both awake but still hadn't moved from where they slept. Lolan sat up, leaning on his arms when we came in.
"So, are we ready to see what is happening on this island?" I said.
"Yup," said Zef. "I hope we get too."
Lolan looked nervous. "Yeah," he said.
"Are you sure?" I asked.
"Yeah," said Lolan. "I'm ready. I'm with you. But I'm also a bit nervous."
Right. The Arcus, I thought.
"Do you think people we are up against are actually the Arcus?" said Zef.
Lolan shrugged. "That person going up the cliff sure looked like Wikith, the one who took my brother. He moved like Wikith and dressed like him. But I could be wrong I guess."
"I'm not so sure it was the Arcus now," I said. "Tallesia says she knows a good deal about them, and she was pretty convincing. I don't know. If these people do know multiple kinds of magic, it wouldn't be hard for them to look like the Arcus just like they pretended to be Gnomes."
"We still don't know any of that for sure," said Tigala.
"You're right," said Zef. "We're basically going into this blind."
"Yeah." I thought about it for a moment. On the other hand, I kind of had to disagree. We were going into this without much information, but we had all of the races, or most of them, working toward a common goal. We were sharing knowledge and combining our efforts. We had made progress, and that alone was something to be encouraged by. Still, we did need to be careful. We didn't know what we were walking into.
As I was thinking about the situation we were in, something strange started to happen. At first, I thought I was just standing on a loose floorboard, so I stepped to the side, but the motion continued. The house itself was shaking. It was subtle at first but quickly grew to the point that the dust in the walls was shaken loose all over the room. A strange sensation grew in my stomach as a crack shot through the exterior wall.
"What's going on?" said Lolan.
"It's an earthquake!" said Zef. "Get outside!"
We ran for the door in a hurry and made our way into the road out front. As our legs wobbled beneath us, we watched several other houses empty out as well. The Dwarves rushed out but didn't look too shocked by the situation. The Avians however seemed terrified, with many of them taking flight to avoid standing on the shaky earth. The Gnomes also poured out of their houses looking nervous.
I stood there and watched as the house in front of us shook. The top of it was now visibly swaying with the movement. A beam snapped and another crack formed in the roof of the oddly shaped house.
Then, the earthquake slowed down slightly. In another minute, the motion was almost entirely gone. Everyone looked around in fear.
"Why are we having earthquakes all of a sudden?" asked a Gnome.
"It's just an earthquake," said one of the Dwarves. "It's nothing to worry about."
It probably wasn't anything to worry about, but I couldn't get what that Avian had said out of my mind. There might be a mountain-sized monster underneath this ground. I looked around for the Avian that had told us about it—Kricoo. I found her staring at the ground with her glowing white eyes.
"Do you know what that was, Kricoo?" I yelled to her.
She looked up, though I knew she couldn't see me. Not with her eyes, at least. "I think that was the creature," she said.
That was exactly what I was afraid of. Whatever the Arcus, or whoever was doing, it was only a matter of time until that thing woke up. One more reason we couldn't afford to figure out all of our issues with each other before taking them on. We needed to fix this and we needed to do it now.
"Are we in danger?" I asked.
"Yes," she said and my heart dropped. "Um, well."
"What is it?" I said.
"We're seeing danger from the island, from whatever is down there," said one of the more colorful Avians. He looked like some sort of parrot, with light reds, blues, and greens running through his feathers. "But I don't think it's immediate danger. We might still have some time."
"Good," I said. I looked around to see if anyone else had information. It was still so strange to see them all looking back at me—looking for answers, and direction. No one spoke so I continued. "This is just one more reminder that we need to work quickly. We'll search the valley today and gather back together afterward to figure out how to approach them."
I still wasn't sure we could do this. I wasn't sure we could stop them. And I was even less sure that we actually could work together, but it was our only shot. We had no more help coming, and even if they did, it would probably take weeks to get here. If we were going to stop this all from happening, we needed to act now.
"If you run into trouble, and need help, make a signal. Send someone for help, create a beacon, whatever you can do. If any of you see a sign that someone needs help, go help them. Remember, this is bigger than the problems we have with each other. We need each other for all of us to survive."
I looked out at the crowd and examined everyone's faces. Some were definitely more supportive than others. Some faces looked skeptical. I didn't blame them. I was making a lot of claims and didn;t even have all of the answers myself. My eyes continued scanning the crowd and fell on the Saurians. They were scary. At least Beastfolk and Avians still kind of had some features that reminded me of my own people, but Saurians? The only thing I could really relate to was the scales, but that was still nothing like my bark-like skin. Their faces were menacing and their teeth sharp. The tails swung around behind them like they were itching for a fight.
I was ashamed to think that way about them though. They were people too, just like me. Just like Tigala and Lolan and Zef. Thinking that way made me feel like such a fraud while trying to lead a mixed-race army while judging some because they were a different race.
Then, my eyes landed on Lobo. He grinned back at me, and a grin out of sincerity. No. It was a reminder. He wanted me to know that he was coming.
I took a deep breath. "Let's head out. Meet back here at dusk and we can talk about what we discovered and figure out what to do next." With that, the group dispersed. We had already discussed our approach the previous day. The Saurians and the Gnomes were to go along the shore to the northern side of the valley. The Avians were to go south with the Beastfolk. The Dwarves insisted on going with us, the Elves, and the Humans straight at the center of the valley.
I turned back to my group. "Are you ready?" I asked.
"No matter what," said Zef, as he smiled back at me.