I felt the heat and knew this was it. My eyes were closed tight anticipating the pain. But when it came, it dissipated just as fast. I opened my eyes and saw that the Human was no longer standing over me. He was on the ground getting attacked by a tiger—Tigala.
I used my magic to untangle the vines from me and sent them to wrap around Malcolm's limbs. He squirmed and tried to get free, but the combination of plants and a tiger kept him down.
Now that we had him pinned, I tightened the vines tighter than I normally would. They wound around his skin and dug in, slowly crushing him.
"Kaia, what are you doing?" said Tigala.
"He needs to die for what he did," I said. "You don't come back from that level of evil."
The fire that trapped Zef dissipated as Malcolm clutched at the vines and gasped for breath. Zef saw what was happening and ran toward us.
"Kaia," said Tigala. "Not like this. I know the feeling better than most, but everything we've been working toward is pointless if you kill him now."
I stopped for a moment. "I don't think I care," I said. "He killed my parents. He made me an orphan. He forced me to figure out life on my own, to trust no one, to fight for my survival. Things I should have had a parent to help me through, questions that are still unanswered about who I am, he took that all away from me."
I continued tightening the vines.
"Kaia," said Zef. "This isn't the way."
I looked at him, but I couldn't agree, not against a monster like Malcolm.
In an instant, two claws hit my chest. Tigala dove on me, leaving Malcolm only pinned by the vines.
"What are you doing?" I asked.
"Stopping you from doing something you'll regret," said Tigala. "Let him go."
I was about to say no, but before I could, Malcolm waved a hand. I leaned to the side to see what happened. He disappeared in a flash of violet magic leaving the vines behind. A moment later, he reappeared where he had been standing when we first saw him. "Don't worry," he said, looking me in the eyes. "It'll all be over soon."
He threw his hands down at the floor—at the monster sleeping in the island. Pink magic poured out of him.
"Stop him!" I screamed, throwing a pointed finger at him. Tigala jumped off of me charging at Malcolm. I stood and followed after. But we were too late.
The ground began to shake. The breathing of the monster grew heavier beneath our feet. Each step I took was more unstable than the last.
Malcolm just laughed as he poured more of his mind magic into the creature.
Rocks began to break off of the walls. Hill-sized muscles flexed beneath me, and I fell to the ground. Then the floor under the Human began to lift. Dirt and rocks shook loose as the Human was lifted above us. I slid off of the creature toward the edge of the cavern. By the time I could spare a glance at Malcolm, all I could see was the silhouette of the giant monster's head.
It was massive, bigger than the whole body of the dragon we had fought. It looked similar though, with black scales and the face of a lizard. It had sharp points protruding from it in a ridge above its temples and along its jawline. The monster's eyes glowed a pale yellow as it opened its eyes.
Malcolm disappeared in the darkness, still riding the head of the creature the last I saw him. The head continued to rise, and with it, the neck of the creature pulled free of the floor in front of me.
Screams rang out behind me as workers and colonists realized what was happening. We had to get out of here.
I looked to where I last saw Tigala. She was transforming. Wings stretched out of her back. She would be okay.
Geralt, on the other hand, was still unconscious against the wall. I couldn't leave him.
I ran, climbing over the awakening monster in the process. I slapped his face. "Wake up!" I yelled. I shook him.
It wasn't working.
Zef joined me at his side. "Is he okay?"
"I don't know," I said. We made eye contact. "What? Don't look at me like that. That Human killed my parents."
"I wasn't. I—" He hesitated and the conversation stalled in an awkward silence as we stared down at Geralt. Was he judging me? Was he right? I didn't know, but I also wasn't sure I cared. How could there be redemption for someone like Malcolm? He was a killer, ready to kill anyone in his way.
"Are there any plants you can use to wake him up?" said Zef in a cautious voice.
I couldn't think of anything. Maybe something with a strong scent? I grew a patch of peppermint plants and tore them free, crushing them in the same motion and waving them under Geralt's nose. He shook and opened his eyes.
"Are you okay?" I asked.
"Ugh, what?" he said. His eyes focused on the monster actively climbing out of the cavern and his eyes went wide.
"Come on," I said. "We need to go."
We ran, searching for the quickest route away from the monster. Its head was now reaching for the top of the cavern. It stopped momentarily as it pulled a leg free. The sound was deafening. Rocks pulled apart like it was sand and a claw as big as a house pulled free.
What were we supposed to do? Was this thing now under Malcolm's control like the dragon? What was he going to do with it? And if he had the monster, what hope was there for anyone to stop it? And what hope was there for the slaves? The victims of Malcolm's abuse were still in here, trying to find their way out. Would any of us make it out of here?
I wished I had more time to figure something out. But our time was up. The creature uncovered more of itself by the second and more people were swallowed up into the earth in its wake.
The earth beneath us began to crack and separate. Another leg was pulling free.
"This way!" I yelled. I pulled Geralt behind me as we ran with Zef keeping pace. We sprinted for the spine of the creature where the sail-like fins stuck up. Rocks pulled away from beneath our feet and Geralt was struggling to keep his footing.
Then a wyvern landed next to us. Tigala roared. "I can't take all three of you," she said.
"I'll find a way out on my own," said Zef. I looked at him. Was this because I snapped at him? I couldn't leave him.
Geralt was the most hurt and slowest due to his armor. "Take him," I said, leading Geralt over. "Zef and I will go on foot. Show us a safe path out of here."
Tigala took flight and a monstrous roar broke through the cavern. It shook me to my core. It was strong enough that I wouldn't have been surprised if the cavern collapsed at that alone. I looked back and the creature's head smashed through the ceiling. It was too far away for me to tell if Malcolm was still on top of the monster's head, but I couldn't imagine he was. I wasn't going to get that lucky.
Rocks began to rain down as the cavern collapsed.
"She's heading to that doorway," said Zef, pointing to a ledge with an opening into the cavern wall.
We ran for the spot, half sliding and have stumbling forward as the ground moved around us. Another leg pulled free beneath us. I jumped and then turned back with an outstretched arm to help Zef across. He lept and barely caught my hand. As his feet touched down, the floor gave out beneath him. I hauled him up, and we continued our charge toward safety.
Tigala landed on the platform outside of the room. It was at the top of a staircase ahead of us. She began transforming back so she could fit through the door. Geralt was helping a group of Elves into the room that we headed toward.
We climbed the staircase leading up to the platform. Rocks rained down around us. Large stalactites broke from the ceiling and fell down like massive spears.
I spared a glance at the monster. I was beginning to realize now that despite the huge scale of the cavern we were in, the monster was several orders of magnitude bigger. Whatever it was, it was not something anyone wanted to try and stop.
We reached the top of the stairs, watching as the last of the Elven group made its way into the room.
"Look! We need to help," said Zef. He pointed to three Elves straggling behind the group. A mom walked with the dad's arm draped over her shoulder, struggling to move him. A small boy walked close behind with a look of terror on his face.
Zef was already headed in their direction before I could say anything. I followed and ran to the dad. "Let me help," I said, grabbing his free arm and draping it over my shoulder. They looked at me with wide eyes. They were cautious, but they didn't refuse the help. Zef went to the boy's side, trying his best not to scare him and to help him forward. They were a few steps behind us when I heard the impact.
I turned to see a boulder had slammed through the stairs, creating a large gap with the parents and me on the top end and Zef and the boy on the bottom. The boy hung from the ledge screaming as Zef scrambled to pull him up. The parents were hysterical, screaming for their son. "Calen!" screamed the mom. Was that the boy's name?
"Don't let go," I yelled to the boy. "I'm going to help you up, but it's going to take a moment."
The boy cried for help. I grew a long vine from dirt that had piled on a ledge below the stairs. VInes were what I was good at. It grew at a decent pace despite the lack of nutrients in the soil. I stretched it to the boy.
The mother, realizing there was nothing they could do looked at me as if she still wasn't sure if I was trying to help or harm them. She spoke slowly with tears in her eyes. "Is there any way we can help?"
I looked at the boy, Calen. He was terrified and shaking. Zef, who was about the same size as the boy, was having trouble pulling him up. It wouldn't be long before Calen lost his grip. "Keep him calm," I said. "Almost there."
The mother began comforting her son. "We're going to get you out of this," she said in a tone that made it sound like she wasn't sure she believed it herself. "Calm down, Calen. Focus on your grip. She's almost there."
The boy calmed down and it looked like he might be able to hold out. But the floor was still slowly crumbling. A piece gave way but Zef held him with one hand, straining to keep him steady. I had seconds, if that. The boy's fingers slowly slid from Zef's hand. Calen fell. His parents screamed.
My vine wasn't ready, but it would have to do. I whipped it toward him and it wrapped around his chest. It went taught and held his weight, but I didn't have much control over the speed he was falling at. He swung back toward the rock wall.
"Cover your head!" I yelled. He tried to reach his hands up, but the swing made it hard to do. Still, he managed to pull his head forward enough that his back hit the wall first and took most of the blow. He gasped for air, but at least he was breathing. His parents were still screaming—the father more manic than the mother at this point.
"I've got him!" I yelled to the parents. I had focused mostly on my roots, digging them into crevices for this exact reason. They needed to hold, and they did. I began growing the vine so I could pull him up.
Chunks of the cavern rained down around us as I pulled the boy up. I glanced at Zef, still stuck on the far end of the staircase. He looked back at me and gave me a nod of assent. He wanted me to save the boy first.
I strengthened the vine and pulled Calen up. I placed him down on the higher end of the stairs with his parents and me.
The mother grabbed her boy, sobbing as she held him. I teared up as the thoughts of my own parents flooded back into my head. Malcolm had taken them from me, and he thought it was funny. If they were here, would they be just as happy to see me safe? Would they hold me and sob with happiness?
The mother looked up at me. "Thank you," she said with tear-filled eyes.
"You need to go before something else happens," I said.
She nodded, picked herself up, and served as a crutch for the dad while holding Calen's hand with her free one.
Now that I had the vine up to our ledge I extended a branch from it toward the lower end of the stairs where Zef waited. The rocks fell around us faster and in bigger chunks than before. One slammed into the edge of the ledge behind me, breaking off the staircase we were climbing when we had first spotted the Elves. Another slammed into the wall above us and bounced over us, spraying smaller rocks at us. We stood closer to the wall to dodge the majority of it.
My vine had finally reached the other side, but it was still a bit precarious. I grew more branches trying to make a wider walkway for Zef. Our eyes met again. He looked nervous.
"Kaia!" said TIgala behind me. I didn't dare take my eyes off of the vines, but it sounded like her voice was coming from the room at the top of the staircase—our destination. "It's coming down!"
I couldn't yet. I had to make sure Zef was okay.
Another boulder crashed into the stairs behind Zef. He jumped at the noise as his section of the staircase began to come loose. He didn't wait any longer for me to strengthen the vine bridge. He ran across it like crossing a tightrope. When he was close enough that I was sure he'd make it across, I ran for the door.
I glanced over my shoulder to make sure he was behind me. We were almost there.
Then, I heard a large crash above us. I sprinted for the door where Tigala was yelling. I couldn't make out any words. Whatever had hit the wall broke large chunks of it off, creating a scattershot that rained down on us. I dove in the door right when I heard the impact of something behind me. I looked back to make sure Zef made it in safely.
I didn't see him.
"Where's Zef?" I screamed. I climbed to my feet and ran back toward the cavern, but someone held me there. I looked down to see a furry tan arm. "Let me go," I screamed at TIgala. Zef's out there.
"If you go, you won't come back," she said.
Through the cloud of dust, I could make out the purple of Zef's jacket. A rock bigger than me rested on his legs.
He made eye contact with me one more time and nodded. He mouthed the words "It's okay."
The earth shook around us with an earsplitting crack and the cavern came down on top of my friend.