I couldn't stand it. Why was he so stupid to help those Elves—to be the last one out in the open? Did he know how to teleport? Did he have some trick up his sleeve like he always had? He couldn't die. I still needed him.
No matter how much I tried to be a face for what we were doing here, it wasn't me. None of this was me. It was all a facade. I was just a mirror reflecting the people that got me here—reflecting Lolan, and Tigala. Reflecting Zef. How was I supposed to know what to do without him?
I shrugged my way out of Tigala's grip and began pacing. Tears rolled down my cheeks as I stared out the doorway, waiting for the moment the rocks stopped falling. I needed to go out there. I needed to know he was okay. The others in our group, they trusted me, they supported me. But Zef was the only one who believed in me. I couldn't do it without him and I couldn't imagine it.
There were noises around me. People were talking or screaming or something. I didn't care. I didn't see anything other than the downpour of rocks outside the doorway. I stopped pacing and stood by the door. The earthquake seemed to be slowing down. Rocks fell at a slower pace and most of them were smaller than the ones before—the one that hit Zef.
I tried to gain my composure. "I'm going out there as soon as it's clear," I said to Tigala. I wasn't taking no for an answer.
"So am I," she said. I looked up and was surprised to see tears soaking the fur on her face as well. I hadn't realized what Zef might mean to her too. I hugged her, she wrapped an arm around me, pulling me tighter than was comfortable.
The shaking finally stopped and her grip on me loosened. I looked out the door. It was clear enough, and Tigala must have agreed. We both ran out the door. I looked at the ceiling and saw daylight now spilling into the cavern through massive holes. I wasted no time and began growing vines from any patch of dirt I could find. I jumped off the ledge before Tigala had finished transforming into her owl form. The vines caught me, straining under the weight and threatening to snap. I didn't care. I needed to find Zef.
They lowered me down to the ground floor of the cavern which was now higher than it had been due to the thick layer of fallen rock. I began digging with my hands as well as roots, looking for any signs I could find of Zef. I tore through the stones with my bare hands, ripping the skin and drawing blood. It didn't matter. Zef might not have long.
I dug and dug. Then, I heard a cough to my right. I scrambled to the location, careful not to put my weight on him and began uncovering the rock. I saw his beard first, and followed it to his smile, even in the current circumstances. Did he know how dire this was?
"Zef. Are you okay?" I said, choking back more tears. I pulled rocks away from his face. He had a fresh gash across his cheek. The blood ran down and into his white hair, staining it brown.
Zef coughed again, blowing a cloud of dust into the air.
"Zef," I said, frantic. "Zef. Stay with me. We'll get you out of here."
Zef smiled again. "It's okay Kaia. You can let me go."
"What? No! I'm getting you out of here."
"My—" he coughed again. "My legs were crushed. And the rocks did too much damage. I'm dying Kaia."
"What? No. We'll get you out. We'll find a healer. We're going to get you help!"
He smiled again. "It's okay. My journey ends here."
How could he give up so easily? We couldn't lose him. I couldn't lose him. I needed him to help me through this. I needed my friend.
Tigala landed behind me and began the transformation back into her Beastfolk form. She stepped forward and looked down at him.
"Help me!" I yelled at her. "He's stuck. We can still save him. Where's that healer?"
Tigala bent down and touched Zef's shoulder. The orange light radiated across his body. She shook her head. "There's nothing we can do."
"Yes, there is! Help me dig him out!"
"If we move him it's just going to make it worse," said Tigala.
"She's right, Kaia," said Zef. His voice was soft and fading.
I broke down. My head dropped and the tears poured down my cheeks. "We can't lose you," I said. "We can't do it without you. I can't."
"Kaia," he said. "Yes, you can. You are the leader of this movement. The colonists follow you."
"But I'm still not sure I believe all of this. I hate Malcolm for doing this to all of those slaves. I hate him for sentencing my parents to die." I looked Zef in the eyes. "I hate him for this, and I want him to die."
"Kaia," Zef said again. "You know where this cycle leads. You know how it affected your family."
"I don't care! He needs to die!"
Zef didn't respond right away, taking a moment to gather his thoughts. "He doesn't need to die. He needs what we all need. He needs family, love. He needs—"
"He doesn't deserve those things. He's passed that point."
"He may be," said Zef. "But killing him makes you no better."
I didn't know what to say. Was that true? Or was that just the cyclical logic that parents to trick their kids into doing what they want? If I did—if I killed Malcolm, would it help anything? He had already left his slaves behind. He was strong. He would no doubt cause more destruction if I let him live. So why should I let him live?
"Not if I'm stopping it from happening again," I said.
Zef gave a slight nod. "True. But we don't know yet if that is the only option. It's up to you to decide what needs to be done now, but going after him for revenge will only undermine what we've done so far."
"I—aghh," I said. I didn't know what to say. Maybe he was right, but I also didn't want to hear it.
Zef started coughing again, and a spurt of blood came out, soaking into his already stained beard.
I leaned forward and reached for him, but didn't know what I could do. Was this really it? He was the one who brought us all together. I couldn't lose him.
He saw the sadness in my eyes and smiled one more time. "It was never going to be me that did this. It was always you. You have more strength than you know. How we use our strength shows who we really are."
His skin was growing paler by the second and I knew he must not have long.
"Take care of the of the others for me," he said. "And if you meet my daughter, please tell her I love her."
He gave a final smile, and then the life left him.
I broke down, burying my head in my hands. Tigala draped an arm over me, and we cried together for what felt like an eternity.
My throat was raw and my face was drenched. Finally, I looked up at the collapsed cavern around us. I didn't dare look in his direction, in fear I wouldn't be able to keep myself from falling back into despair.
The cavern was in shambles, which is saying something for an excavation site. The rope bridges that connected platforms mostly hung loose with frayed ropes and missing planks. The ground was a bed of gravel and boulders that filled the gaps between excavation mounts. It formed a relatively even floor, ignoring the occasional boulder or stalactite that stuck out of the rubble.
I turned, scanning the cavern, and my eyes met the group of slaves that had shared a shelter with us. Most of them shied away when I noticed them, but one stepped forward. It was the Elven mother whose child was saved partially by Zef.
"I'm sorry," she said, with lines through dirt on her face where tears had travelled. "Is there anything we can do?"
I looked around, bewildered. Where were we supposed to go from here? I thought of Zef. He would have wanted me to continue. To do whatever I could to end the pain that we all felt. I wasn't sure I had it in me.
I shook my head. "I guess you could search the rubble for survivors," I said. My voice was hollow.
The Elf nodded and said, "We'll do what we can."
She turned back to the group standing on the cliff above us. There was some chatter, and then several of the previous slaves descended to the rubble, scanning for signs of others.
I looked to Tigala. The fur on her face was dirty and wet. "Do we bury him?" I asked.
"I think we should."
The two of us silently gathered more rocks to put over Zef. We stacked the rocks one by one, making a mound above him. When the stack was about up to my waist, I grabbed a handful of dirt and placed it on the mound. I stretched out my hands and a green glow bloomed from the top of the mound. I focused, taking my time. Zef deserved it.
My magic formed roots and a sprout. I pushed the sprout taller and strengthened it. I grew branches and leaves, and then more. I kept pushing, kept growing it. A rough texture formed on the stem and hardened into bark. It stretched and aged as I continued to grow it taller. The tree stretched taller than me now with several branches forming a small canopy above our heads. The roots tunneled through stone and found earth beneath. They formed a tangle over Zef's resting place. Finally, when the tree stood tall enough to be seen from anywhere in the cavern, I was finished.
"He was only a small Gnome," I said. "But he was as tall as a redwood." The statement brought tears back to my eyes as I looked up at the tree that towered over us. "We won't forget you Zef."
Tigala wrapped her arm around me and we stood there staring at it for some time. I didn't know how long it had been when I was stirred from my thinking.
In the distance of the cavern, there were voices. A group was throwing rocks out of the way. It looked like the group we had come in with.
I looked up at Tigala again, and then back at the tree. I gave it a final nod and smile.
"Come on, let's go find the others," said Tigala, and together we walked across the rubble.