Why did they send the girl out here again? thought Tigala. Hasn't she been through enough?
She walked through the canyon that formed at the base of the tall mountains. The Avians walked ahead through the thin stretch of navigable terrain, the Beastfolk walked behind. Tigala walked in the middle with Marv, his strange little rock child, Tibil, and Abigail.
The girl looked broken, like she hadn't slept. She had bags under her eyes and the spark had gone out of her. It wasn't safe out here for children anyway, but she seemed especially unfit for the situation now. There was a dragon. There was an Elf that could fly and command the winds. There could be an army. It was no place for a young girl.
The memory of Gatooli came back to her. They weren't much older when they decided to help protect their village. She pushed the thought away. She couldn't afford to lose focus now. Not with Lobo behind her and the enemy ahead.
She matched pace with the girl. "I'm sorry about what happened. I lost my parents too."
Abigail continued staring at the ground as she walked, only raising her head slightly when Tigala spoke. There was no response, but when Tigala decided that the girl just needed space, Abigail said, "I guess there are a lot of us."
"Yeah. There are," said Tigala.
"Does it get any easier?"
Tigala took a deep breath. "No. But you get used to it."
"I don't want to forget her," she said.
"No. You won't forget her," said Tigala. "You'll forget some things, but you'll remember who she was and what she meant to you. The important thing is to decide what you'll do with that memory."
"What do you mean?"
This wasn't exactly something she was good at. Kaia was always better at talking to others. "I don't know," Tigala said. "I didn't know how to deal with it. I blamed people. It distracted me from the pain for a while, but nothing is going to bring them back."
"So don't blame people?"
"Yeah, kind of. Everyone has been hurt by the war. Everyone has losses. Use that memory to see find the losses in others. Be a better person, for the ones you lost."
Abigail paused. "Is that what you did?"
"It's what I'm trying to do."
Abigail nodded. "I'll try too."
The girl met her eyes in a sign of gratitude. Feeling a bit unsure about the social cues, Tigala left it at that.
Up ahead, Tigala could see the end of the pillar mountains, opening up into the plains where the valley sat. If they were going at the right pace, they should be approaching at about the same time as the other groups. But this was an information-gathering mission. If everything was going as planned, and surprisingly it was on their end, then they shouldn't actually see any commotion on the other fronts.
Tigala let herself lose pace with the girl as she kept her eyes on the groups and their surroundings. The Avians were staying on the ground and only occasionally creating white flashes as they used their magic to study certain paths and landmarks. Kricoo was among them, and despite knowing so much, she seemed to be mostly left at the back of the pack. She held a stick out in front of herself to test for obstacles that her magic missed.
Tigala snuck a glance back at the Beastfolk behind her too. They had been quiet for most of the trip, not amongst themselves, but there was none of the usual harassment from Lobo and his core group. He had added more to his group and was now acting as the representative in Sungura's absence. It was bad enough for Tigala that he was in charge, but it was bad for everyone else too. He was not the kind of person that should be in charge of anyone, yet he always found himself in that position.
She thought she caught Lobo's glance from the corner of her eye and snapped her head forward again. The worst thing she could do was let him know that she was worried about him.
As Tigala and the Dwarves rounded the corner of the last mountain pillar, they could see their target. In the middle of the valley was a building. It looked like an old ruined church, probably made by the Humans. Surrounding it was a mass so thick that she first thought it was a forest of strange small trees from the distance. But no, it wasn't plants at all. It was moving. And it wasn't just blowing in the breeze, it was...walking.
"Are those people?" asked Marv. The rock creature that he called Crag was sitting on his shoulder.
"I think so," said Tigala.
"That's a lot of people," said Tibil. "And they're all different races."
He was right, either there were a lot of children in sea of people or there were smallfolk mixed in with the tallfolk.
"Do you think they're all under his control?" asked Marv.
No one answered. They just stared.
Up ahead, the Avians had ducked behind a low hill waiting for the rest of the group.
Tigala and the Dwarves joined them, laying on the hill and watching the shuffling sea of people while the Beastfolk caught up. But as she got a closer look, she could see more of these people. They were walking aimlessly. None of them looked like they had an intended destination. It was as if they had an area they were assigned too patrol far too heavily. Tigala had been in battles, and she couldn't imagine sending that many people to patrol an area so tightly. It didn't make sense.
Another detail she had missed before was the faint glow rising up beneath them. It was a sickly greenish-yellow—a magic she had never seen before. That didn't look good.
She heard the Beastfolk approach and turned her attention to them. She doubted they would attack her in the midst of everyone else, but she didn't want to let her guard down.
Without a word to Tigala, the Avians, and the Dwarves, several of the Beastfolk began to transform. They shrank down as they morphed into their new forms.
"What are you doing?" asked Tibil.
"We cam here to get information didn't we?" asked Lobo. "We won't get much hiding behind this hill."
"We all need to be careful not to be seen," said an Avian with a speckling of black and white feathers.
Lobo grinned. "Don't worry, we can be much more subtle than you and the other bird people."
"Watch your mouth," said a tall Avian with the look of a falcon—brown feathers and a yellow hooked beak.
"What are you going to do about it?" asked Lobo. He had Torm to one side of him and a bat Beastfolk to the other. It seemed he added another to his inner circle. And having bodyguards to either side of him showed that he was ready for a fight at any moment.
An older Avian put his hand on the falcon Avian's shoulder and the falcon backed down. They couldn't afford to fight so close to the enemy's camp, if that's what this was.
"We should go too," said one Avian, quietly enough that the Beastfolk wouldn't be able to hear.
"We can't," said another. "He is right. We're too big, too obvious. And it would be a difficult flight to the middle and back. We should conserve our energy and do what we can from here. We have other means of investigating."
"But how do we keep an eye on the Beastfolk?" said the first Avian. "How do we know they're not tipping off the enemy to us, or making matters worse?"
"We don't," said the second. "Not for sure."
"I can go," said Tigala. It was the last thing she wanted to do, honestly. She wished she wasn't so protective and jad chosen to scope out this place with a different group entirely. Many of the Beastfolk hated her or were unsure about her at best. And to be alone with them in a potentially dangerous situation, it wasn't a good plan.
Tigala glanced at Kricoo, the Avian who had warned them about the potential danger if Tigala's group didn't split up. She wasn't sure she believed all of this prophecy. She wasn't sure the Avian's magic worked all that well, but in the case that Kricoo was right, Tigala needed to do her part.
"They all hate me," said Tigala. She motioned at the Beastfolk. "I'll keep you informed on anything we find."
The falcon Avian approached her and looked her up and down. It felt like a challenge, and if it had happened to Tigala before she came to this island, she would have attacked. But she chose to ignore it. "How do we know we can we trust you?" asked the Avian.
"You don't," said Tigala. "But I can blend in like many of them can. And I'm all you've got."
The same older Avian from earlier stepped up next to the tall falcon Avian and said, "We would appreciate that. Tigala, is it?"
"Yes," she said, unsure of how they knew her name.
"My name is Arayoo" he held out a feathered hand to her.
Tigala shook the hand, feathers meeting fur. She could remember battles she and Gatooli had been in against the Avians. It felt like just yesterday that these people were just another enemy. And now they were allies, maybe. One could hope at least.
"We'll keep an eye out for danger," said Arayoo. "If you see this one while you're out there, try to get everyone back." He pointed at the tall falcon Avian who didn't seem to be happy with the assignment.
"Okay, I'll do what I can," said Tigala. Then she turned back to the Beastfolk. Most were transformed by now. A large group of humanoids was reduced to a flock of various birds.
The bat that was next to Lobo had transformed into a vampire bat. Something to look out for.
Tigala began transforming too. She couldn't go wyvern without alerting everyone nearby of an approaching enemy, so she turned herself into an owl instead.
She was about to take to the air when an Avian stopped her. It was Kricoo. "Don't go off course," she said.
Tigala narrowed her owl eyes. "What's that supposed to mean?" she asked through strained avian vocal chords.
"Stay on course to and from the tower," said Kricoo. "They don't like you." She nodded at the Beastfolk that were now taking off.
"I wasn't planning on going off course."
Kricoo nodded and begin to walk back, but Tigala stopped her this time. "Are the Avians on board with all of this?"
Kricoo stopped. "Yes, more or less. They're wary. There is a lot of danger ahead of us, but they are pretty confident that working with you and Kaia is our best chance at the least Avian deaths."
"It's just the least Avian deaths? What about the other races?" asked Tigala.
"I don't know," said Kricoo. "I'm still learning much of my magic. It can focus on things much better than before, but I have a hard time parsing all of it. The others aren't concerned with the other races."
"Hmm," said Tigala.
"I want this to work though," Kricoo said. "For everyone. I'm with you four at least."
"Good," said Tigala. "Thanks."
Kricoo turned back to the other Avians where she stood on the outside of their circle. Tigala took to the sky and flew up high. She needed to be out of range of any attack since she was shrinking her body down by so much. One wound could hurt her so much more once she transformed back. She couldn't afford it.
The other Beastfolk had already started toward the tower at the center of shifting crowd of people. Tigala followed. As she passed over them with enhanced eyesight thanks to her owl form, she could see the people much better. And to call them people wasn't exactly right. They were corpses. All of them looked like they had been dead for years. They wore ragged clothes, and flesh pulled off of them, exposing the bones of arms, ribs, and legs. They all limped aimlessly around in a contained unit. Their eyes were lifeless, but upon seeing several birds overhead, they groaned and reached at the sky.
Well, at least they weren't dangerous from the air. But what were they? Was there another type of magic that made the dead wander around? Is that what the pale green glow was? She continued on, almost reaching the tower at the center of the sea people, studying the strange dead corpses beneath her.
Then a bolt of lightning struck the ground to the west. Tigala changed her focus to that instead. She could see a person, a person in yellow robes at the base of the lightning strike. The Arcus. And that was where Zef and Lolan were supposed to be approaching. They could be in trouble.
Tigala turned in the direction of the member of the Arcus but then the advice from Kricoo came back to her. For whatever reason, she seemed to think that Tigala would be in more danger if she strayed from her course. She considered the options, looking between the Elf to the west and the Avians to the south. Could this one Avian even be trusted? What if she was pulling the strings to try and put Tigala in a bad situation?
Then, there was a gust of wind from the direction of the tower. Tigala turned to see another member of the Arcus emerge from the tower, walking on the wind. He was headed towards the lightning strike. Tigala looked at the tower where other Beastfolk were hovering, studying the strange building. It was covered in the pale green veins, nothing like the nature magic veins from the forest. Then she looked back at the two Arcus members to the west, knowing they could be about to attack her friends.
She strayed from her course. Tigala flew after the robed Elf hoping she could get there before whatever danger happened that Kricoo had warned her about. But she was much slower than the Elf. The corpses below her raised their arms to reach for her even though she flew high above them. Then a shadow passed over her.
Tigala looked up just in time to see the giant vampire bat dive after her. She swiped to the side, only getting clipped by the bat. The bat wasn't so tough. It scrambled to catch itself before crashing into the wandering corpses below.
She began to dive after the bat, but then something slammed into her back—talons. She turned her head to see a large vulture pushing her down. The two interlocked and Tigala began to spin as she crashed toward the dead people below.
She freed herself at the last second, inches from the grasping hands of the corpses below. She flew up higher, using the opening to check on Arcus that might be after Zef and Lolan. She had to help, but she couldn't help if Lobo's lackeys killed her first.
She flew back towards the Avians at the south—back on course. But the transformed Beastfolk weren't done with her. The bat swiped at her again, and it connected this time, driving her down again. Tigala fought to keep herself above the sea of death below, but then the vulture joined the plunge. Talons grasped her left wing which was already weak, and she plummeted.
Down, down, down, toward the hungry corpses.