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13.4 Ficus

# 2916 15 - 19 mins. 11

I looked over at the group of Saurians as they marched through the forest in silence. They were big. Like the Beasfolk, they were a head and shoulders taller than the Humans and Elves on average. It didn't help with my fears of them already.

Their sharp teeth showed through the edges of their mouths as they exhaled and stared forward with unnatural expressions. They walked in a loose formation with one of them at the head of the group, leading. He hadn't acknowledged me yet as far as I knew, instead keeping his eyes on the water in the distance.

I looked around at the trees before I approached. I saw movement out of the corner of my eye and turned to find it. It was a blur of color—familiar colors. It dove toward me and I didn't resist. The blur landed on my head and nestled into my hair with a chorus of chirps.

"Chipry!" I said. I was so excited to see him. It had only been a couple of weeks, but I hadn't realized how much I missed him. I reached up and grabbed him out of my hair. He did a dance on my hands as I held them out for him.

"Where's your girlfriend, Chip?" I asked. The Gnomes were starting to give me funny looks, seeing me talk to a bird. I didn't care.

I searched around the treetops and saw another bird on a branch. She looked a little more reluctant to come down and stood their chirping at Chipry instead. I followed the branch with my eyes and saw a nest at the crook of the tree. Were there eggs in there?

I stopped and grew a few wintergreen berries from the ground and fed them to Chipry. He tweeted a thank you to me.

It was so good to see him, now more than ever. My group was gone and I was starting to feel pretty lonely. Even surrounded by people and with my Dwarven bodyguards, they weren't my people. They weren't the ones I had grown closest too and learned to trust. But the thought brought me back to the reality of the situation. I was about to go into a very dangerous situation. I was already in one technically, and it was still no place for a bird like him.

Chipry might have seen my mood sour, as he climbed up my arm and tweeted near my ear. I put out a finger for him to jump onto and held him in front of my face. "Chip, one of us needs to get through this," I said. "One of us needs to see the other side of whatever this mess is. Go back to your girlfriend. I'll see you again soon." I handed him one more berry, waited for him to chew it, and then tossed him into the air. Chipry fluttered and then landed on the branch next to the other bird. He watched me as I walked away, and I watched him.

I was so relieved to see that he was still alive. It was good to see that he was happy, that he had found what he was looking for, and so far, it was working out. Hopefully it would stay that way.

On the other hand, seeing Chipry couldn't have been worse timing. I was already feeling on my own, and now I had to say goodbye to my first real friend—again. It hurt and didn't make the task of talking to the Saurians any easier.

Still, I had to do it. If this was going to work, I needed to be here. At least that's what Kricoo made it sound like. And after all, I never thought my best friend would be a bird. Maybe this would be another happy coincidence, though I doubted it.

I took a deep breath and began walking over toward the Saurians, picking up my pace to catch up with the Saurian in the lead. He was a blue Saurian that wasn't as bulky as some of the others. It was the Saurian representative. He wore a bit more clothing, if you could call it that, than the others did. A few extra straps ran across his chest on a diagonal to hold up a small satchel situation on his back.

"Hi," I said.

What a stupid way to start, I thought. I'm supposed to be leading these people against an insurmountable foe and I start conversations with towering lizard men with 'Hi'?

The Saurian glanced at me and then turned his head forward again.

"I want to help," I said. "I came with you and the Gnomes to show that we do believe in this. We think working together is the only way forward, and—"

"You may think that, but have you tried it on a scale like this?" said the Saurian. "We tried cooperation in the colony, and look where that got us. Many of my people have been killed trying to defeat a dragon. The colony, our attempt at cooperation is in ruins, and you think making some speech is going to unite us? You're wrong. We cannot work together."

"I—," I didn't know what to say. I didn't expect them to be happy to see me, but I wasn't expecting that kind of reaction. "So why did you come?"

"Because if people are sharing information, then we want to hear it as well," said the Saurian.

"But you don't want to share any you have?" I asked.

"Only what we have to," he said.

No, then.

"Well, I think we can cooperate," I said. "I think we're better than just fighting each other. We need to be."

"Do what you want with your own life, but I speak for the Saurians," said the representative.

"Right," I said. "Well if you change your mind, you know where to find us." I looked up at him again and he didn't even glance my way this time. I took the cue and slowed my pace to let him pull ahead of me.

We were nearing the edge of the woods now, and I noticed that we weren't actually as close to the shore as I had thought. At the edge of the woods wasn't sand or a cliff to the ocean. Instead, there was a trampled muddy path wider than the crowd of our search party. The path was torn up dirt that resembled the pit left behind when a tall tree falls during a storm. Could it be the trees that came to life when I blew up that well of nature magic? Could they have come through here? It was a scary thought, especially given all of the other challenges we were facing. We didn't need to add angry trees to the mix.

I walked in between the groups as we reached the torn up path. The Saurians stopped to study it, some of them bending down to sniff it. The blue Saurian representative bent down and picked up a clump of dirt in his clawed hand.

The Gnomes on the other hand tried to avoid it, staying on the tree side of the path. It made sense. With their shorter legs, walking over the uneven ground would make them even slower compared to the Saurians.

Porthos approached me. "You know what that is?"

"It might be the trees," I said.

"What?" he said.

"My group, we ran into some magical veins full of nature magic. We got in a fight and had to defend ourselves, and those veins exploded, bringing the trees to life," I said.

"No, that's not it," he said like it was a stupid assumption. "Those are the marks of the terrataggers," he said. "We've run into them before. They dig up large amounts of earth to find bugs and moles and such. They're big, but they don't generally go after people."

I hadn't heard of terrataggers before, but maybe he knew something I didn't. "I hope you're right," I said.

Porthos smiled at me. "I am," he said.

"Come on. Keep moving," said Sillius from the middle of the group, and the Gnomes continued walking. The Saurians took a few more moments to study the disturbed path and then continued on the other side of it, closer to the water. I found myself between the two groups with the three Dwarves. They walked with sturdy feet despite the uneven terrain of the torn up path.

"So, did you find what you were looking for over there?" said Porthos. He stood at the edge of the Gnome group as close as he could without getting his nice clothes dirty. "They're terrible, right?"

He was right. I wasn't sure they were a group we could work with. If they made no attempt at it, was there really anything I could do? But I couldn't just give up. Not when we were so close to actually making progress against our unknown enemy.

"I think we could make it work," I said, unsure of the words as I said them.

"Sure," said Porthos with a grin. I couldn't quite tell if he was being sarcastic or not. Given what I knew of the Gnomes, it was probably sarcasm.

I looked at the Dwarves. "How are you guys? Are you okay?"

Cairn was the one to speak up this time. "It is a bit scary working with two groups that don't want to work together," she looked down, afraid to look me in the eyes as she said it. "Are you sure this is going to work?"

"No," I said in a hushed tone. "But we can't just let them attack each other out here."

"Maybe we should just keep them apart," said Dunnel. "This path seems to be doing a good job at that."

"Maybe," I said. "But I think we can do better than that."

Maybe he was right. Were we here just as peacekeepers? Was that the way to satisfy Kricoo's predictions? It sure would be helpful to have her here right now. But I didn't, and whatever she saw, whatever it was that told her this setup was better, it knew that I would be out here on my own. And I couldn't help but think that I had to do more than just keep the peace. There was more to this world than just keeping the peace. I had seen it in my own search party. I had seen it in Tigala most of all, the last one I ever thought would be on my side.

I looked at the Saurians. They continued in their huddled mass, close to the water, where they would be most dangerous, with endless ammunition. There were a few of them still making it off of the rough ground where I walked with the Dwarves. Three were huddled tightly around a fourth. It was hard to see, but through the scaled legs, I saw one Saurian who walked with a limp. The others weren't helping him along, but they were doing their best to not let anyone notice the injured Saurian.

"I wonder what that's about," I said.

"What?" said Dunnel.

"There's a Saurian over there who's limping, and the others are trying to keep him hidden." I nodded in the direction of the group, trying not to be too conspicuous.

The Dwarves turned their heads. "Hmm," said Dunnel.

"That one was wounded during the dragon attack," said Hartol. So he did speak.

"You saw it happen?" I asked.

Hartol nodded and his mouth twitched as he deliberated between looking back at me or somewhere else.

"Why did he come then?" I asked. "He should have stayed at the colony for medical attention."

"Saurians value strength," said Hartol. "When you lose your strength, you are no longer valuable in their society. If you are old and weak, you are respected, but you lose your status as a warrior. And to be a warrior is to be a hero."

"So that Saurian is trying to push through his injury to maintain his status as a warrior?" I asked.

"I believe so," said Hartol. Again his eyes darted around, unsure of where to settle.

"How do you know so much about them?" I asked.

"It was Hartol's job to study the other races," said Dunnel. "He supplied the Dwarves with information on how to best fight our enemies before he came to Daegal." Dunnel gave him a look that may have been disappointment.

"Ahh," I said. "Well thank you for the information. I think I can work with that."

Hartol gave a quick nod and moved his gaze back to the path ahead.

"I'll catch up in a minute," I said.

The Dwarves looked up at me, looked at each other, and then Dunnel said, "Holler if you need us."

"I'll be fine," I said as I stopped walking with them. Instead, I focused on the loose soil beneath me. A green glow formed in the earth and I began to craft the beginning of a plant. I grew roots, the first leaves, and then the plant's stalk. I grew it taller and thicker until it was about the height of me and about the thickness of my arm. It took more than a minute, but I expected it to. When it was a good height, I grew two branches at about the height of my eyes. Then I sucked the life from the base and excess foliage at the top of the sapling. I was left with a crutch, fit for a Saurian.

I ran back to catch up with the group and found the injured Saurian still surrounded by the others at the edge of the group. I brought the crutch with me and approached. When I got close enough to make the Saurians uncomfortable, one of the protectors glared at me and said, "Back up or we'll have to attack."

"I have a gift," I said.

"We don't want gifts from a Treek," said the protecting Saurian.

"Stop," said the injured one in the middle. His voice was raspy and he peered at me around the others. Some of his scales were turning white or flaking off. I wasn't close enough to tell, but I got the feeling that this Saurian was old. "Come. What have you brought us?"

I stepped forward holding the crutch out front. The Saurians that were protecting the old one looked at each other and then each took a small step to the side.

"It's a crutch, to help you walk," I said. It felt so forced.

If they were too defensive they might think I was mocking him, but the older Saurian looked at me and showed his teeth. It was different than any other expression I had seen from them. It took me a moment to make sense of it, but the giant old lizard was smiling at me. He hobbled forward past his guards and I handed him the makeshift crutch. He took it under his arm and tried it out. His steps were much smoothers and he looked like he was in less pain.

"Thank you," he said, still shining his jagged smile at me. "You know, there are many of us who do agree with you."

"Really?" I asked. "You're representative didn't want anything to do with me."

"Don't mind Srak. He too is playing his role," said the old Saurian, quiet enough I wasn't sure his protectors would be able to hear. "I'm not sure this is going to work, but if this island is as bad as it sounds, we might not have much of a choice."

"Yeah," I said. "Well, thanks. It's good to know we have some people over here willing to cooperate."

"You're in a difficult spot," said the old lizard. "But I think some are starting to see the merit in what you're doing. Don't give up hope."

It was strange to get encouragement from a Saurian, a race that I was so scared of. But looking in his face, I could see past the scales and sharp teeth. This wasn't a giant lizard. It wasn't a predator looking to eat me. It was a person—a person who was hurting just like me.

I smiled back at him.

"My name is Garlar," said the old Saurian.

"Kaia," I said. "It's a pleasure."

But talking to the Saurians couldn't be that easy, could it? Right then, a loud noise broke through the relative quiet of the shore.

CREEAKKK

I turned to face the sound. A canopy of trees and bushes shuffled in the distance ahead of us, but beyond that, it looked like some of the larger living trees were fighting something. The best we could do now was avoid them and hope they weren't where we needed to be to spy on the dragon's lair.

"The trees are moving", yelled a Gnome.

I looked back at Garlar. "Go," he said. "It looks like you're needed." The Saurian gave me a nod and then used the crutch to shuffle back to his people.

The Gnomes were now running straight for the thrashing trees. I ran to catch up finding Porthos near the back of the group. "What are you doing?" I asked.

"Our people are up there," he yelled back.

I looked back at the largest tree raising a claw-like limb, and there at its base was a swirl of purple magic.

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