I left the Treeks behind me, climbing the rubble up to the level where the others searched and helped people that were buried and injured. I wasn't sure what to do. I could help, but I didn't have the piles of dirt that Palem and Kadero did. I didn't have the Treeks, and I wasn't ready to face Lolan and Tigala.
I knew I couldn't turn my back on this. I knew I couldn't just let more people die, but I was so tired. I was tired of losing people I cared about. I was tired of fighting. I was tired of everyone being against me every step of the way.
I looked around the cavern and noticed a pile of rocks that I had seen earlier. It had previously looked like just more stone, but from my current angle, I could see that it was actually the stalactite that hung down over the cavern—the command center. The bottom half of it had broken off and crumbled in the commotion.
I walked to it with no particular goal in mind. Maybe I'd find something, but I had no clue what that something might be.
The room leaned sideways on the pile of rubble. Glass was shattered about the rocks, and the flat floor of the room stood upright out of the pile.
I climbed up the pile and kept my eyes peeled for anything interesting. I saw the table that held the map we were looking at. It was cracked in half. The map was torn and pinned under some rocks. I uncovered it and rolled it up before putting it in my bag.
As I dug I heard footsteps approach.
"Kaia," said Geralt as chipper as ever. "Are you okay?"
"Yeah," I said. "Just looking for something to help us I guess." I didn't look up at him.
"Well, I can help!" he said like he was excited about it. His voice was a little shakier, but maybe that was still just shock from the collapse.
"I think I just want to be alone," I said.
"No problem," he said. "You won't even notice I'm here."
Not the response I was hoping for.
"You know, we were lucky to get to the room in time," he said, ignoring my request for solitude. "I think that we—"
"Geralt," I said. I wanted him to stop, but I was trying my best not to be so blunt as to tell him that. I didn't know how to say it. Instead, I went with: "Why are you always so confident."
"Because. I'm a hero of the people!" he said, cocking his chin to the sky.
"Cut the act," I said. "It's just us. You can't seriously be like that all of the time."
He was taken aback at that. His eyes scanned the rubble, and then his head dropped. "You're right," he said. "I'm not confident. I—I want to be, so I act like I am. Fake it until you make it, right?" He gave a half-hearted smile and spoke like the I had knocked the wind out of him. "Wallace and Seth are dead," he said, no longer pushing the rubble around.
"Oh, I'm so sorry," I said wishing I hadn't been so harsh. "Did you know them well?"
"Seth was my friend from childhood. He believed in me. Or at least, he put up with me. I didn't know Wallace very well. He kept himself at a distance, being a hired hand. But I think he was starting to like us."
"I'm sorry. It's horrible what happened here," I said.
"It is." Geralt paused, as he continued staring at the ground. "You know why I like you?"
That was an odd question. "No. Why?"
"I like you because you don't care. You put up with me too, like Seth did."
"Can I ask why you do the whole charade though? Why not just say you're not confident instead of pretending to be something your not?"
"I don't know anymore. I think I do it as a defense mechanism."
"Defense against what?" I asked.
"Against disappointment—disappointing myself, my father. I read stories of legends when I was a child. I still do. I love the unknown worlds, getting lost in the adventure. I always dreamt of being one of those heroes, so did my father.
"But I'm not. I'm not built for it."
"So you pretend instead?" I asked.
"My father always wanted a son, so when he had me and saw that I was more interested in reading about heroes than being one myself, he was furious. He threw away my books and forced me into training at an early age. But despite all of the training I've been through, I didn't take to it. I'm not coordinated or muscular. He sent me here when he finally gave up on trying to force me into the masculine role he had set out for me. I'm not a hero. I'm not a fighter. It's not my passion."
"What is your passion?" I asked.
"I'm a storyteller. I can't do those things in real life. I don't even want to. I want to tell tales of the people who do. People like you. I act like a hero because it's the closest I can get to doing what I actually love while still fulfilling a role that my father sees as somewhat honorable. It's a chance to relive some of those books that I love so much.
"It doubles as a sort of buffer too. I don't fit in with these people. They're all so strong and powerful, and they can tell from a mile away that I am not. So if I act like loon, they stay away from me and save me the embarrassment."
"Wow," I said. "I'm sorry you have had to do that. It sounds like your dad needs to loosen up."
"Maybe," said Geralt. "But that's why I wanted to help you, because you looked past my facade. I came into the colony screaming about dragons, and you ignored how strange I am. You just listened. You let me be different and still treated me like a person."
I gave him a slight smile. "Well, I'm glad I could be a friend in that place."
"You're more than just a friend, Kaia. You're a hero. You're a leader. You're all of the things that I could never be. Someone I would be honored to tell stories of."
"I don't know about all of that," I said. "I'm just a lone Treek. I can't even lead my own people." I glanced back at where I had come from, the group of Treek prisoners.
"You can't convince everyone. That's beyond anyone. What makes you a great leader is that you stick to your principles despite the odds. You fight with all you've got. You're an example to the rest of us—a finder of the lost. People rally around you because you are who we want to be."
I wasn't sure what to say. It was a lot to take in. I had no idea I meant so much to him, and that I might mean as much to others. I looked out around the rubble at the various groups searching. There was a group of Saurians blasting rubble free. Elves used wind storms to blow large piles of dust. People I knew and people I didn't, all working for a common goal. They were all hurt in their own right. All of them had lost people close to them. All of them were looking for safety, for peace.
"So whatever you do, and for whatever reason, just know that you did something hear." said Geralt. "Even if that monster destroys us all, we'll die knowing that we are capable of more. We're capable of putting our differences aside and caring for people that we have every right to hate. We are better than the wars that have hurt us all."
"Thanks," I said, unsure of what else I could say. "That really means a lot."
"Of course," he said, still lacking the usual flair to his voice.
"So is this the new you then? Thoughtful and caring?"
"I suppose not," he said, standing to a triumphant pose with one leg leaning on a higher rock. "I have appearances to maintain." He ended the statement with a cheeky grin. "Now, I'm off to slay some dragons!"
I couldn't help but laugh as he turned back to the rest of the cavern.
I stayed where I was atop the rubble. I looked back down at the ground after he had left and saw something where Geralt had been standing. A thin chain laid there, pinned in a spot that must have been revealed as rocks shifted beneath Geralt's feet.
I dug through the rubble, uncovering more and more of it with each stone. When I finally had it free I held it up to inspect it. It was a necklace with a round medallion on it. The medallion was an old metal, with dark shadows in the crevices of it. It was stylized to look like a dragon that was laying down. It curled its body around 8 gemstones of various colors. I studied the gems. Yellow, green, blue, purple, white, red... They were the colors of the different types of magic. I turned it over and found a stylized etching on the back that read 'SM'.
"What could that stand for?" I said to myself.
My thoughts were interrupted by a commotion a distance from me. I looked up to see a group of people had clustered together in a small crowd. They were talking, and some looked ready to fight. But they weren't about to fight each other. Instead, they all looked up. I followed their gaze and found two Avians gliding down into the cavern.
They glided down on wide wings. The one in front had brown and black mottled feathers with blades tucked into a strap that ran diagonally across his chest. He looked like a skilled warrior. The other was bluish-grey with a spindly neck and long pointed beak.
What were they doing? And where were they from? They couldn't have been among the abducted colonists. They wouldn't have had time to climb up there and back by now. Even with flying.
Voices raised as people began to worry about the incoming threat. I saw Tigala and Lolan, standing near the front of one of the defensive formations. I shoved the medalion I held in my bag and ran to them. I couldn't let them get hurt.
The Avians touched down in the middle of the cavern at about the same time as I reached my friends. The Avians stood in the middle in silence.
"Glad you're back," said Tigala.
"Yeah," I said. "Me too."
The grey crane Avian raised his wings. "We mean you no harm. We came to help," he said, though the muscled dark Avian that stood in front of him suggested otherwise.
After a few moments of silence, I asked "Why?"
"Because I know what just crawled out of this cave."
He had more information? I took a step forward. Tigala grabbed my arm to stop me.
"Come with me," I said. "We need answers."
She took a deep breath and followed, as did Lolan, and several others.
"What do you know?" I said.
The dark Avian stepped between us and the grey Avian. Then the grey Avian spoke. "My name is Klaus, and this is my companion, Sparr. Before I explain, can you point me to an old Gnome named Zef? I'm having trouble finding him."