I stood staring down at the vat of acid below me. The guards with a staff at my back, urging me slowly forward. It was too late. I turned to Tigala and gave the slightest of nods, and she started her transformation.
"Wait," came a voice behind me.
The guards stopped me, holding me just inches from the vat below. I saw Tigala pause her transformation for a moment. I breathed heavily as I stared down at my fate.
Those were the longest seconds of my life. I wasn't sure if Amara was trying to find her words or if it just felt like a long time because I was staring into that bubbling liquid knowing it would be the end of me.
"Turn her around," said Amara.
The guards prodded me to turn until I faced the general. She stood, next to two confused Gnomes in the viewing area. Her face was red, and she was breathing heavily.
"Why did you care?" she asked.
"What do you mean?" I asked, afraid of saying the wrong thing at such a crucial moment.
"About my dad. Why?" she said. She looked at me with a raw expression that I was having a very hard time reading. I couldn't help but feel like my response would determine a lot here, or maybe nothing at all. I thought through a response. I didn't know what she was looking for, and even if I did, would giving her the 'right' answer make her madder? No. My only option was to be genuine.
"He was my friend," I said. "I had no one, and I went to Daegal to find my people. When I first arrived, he was willing to treat me like a person instead of an enemy. He made us laugh, shared knowledge that was far beyond me. He brought us all together." I looked down at the others. Tigala was still in her Beastfolk form. Good.
"I eventually found my people, but when I did, I realized that I already had what I was looking for. I wanted a family, and Zef, your father, gave that to me."
Amara stared at me with the same unreadable expression. Is she just toying with me? Why does she want to know this now? My mind stirred as I waited for her response. Had I said too much? Or not enough?
Amara finally broke her stare and looked at the ground. "And he said he loved me?"
I looked at Tigala and Lolan, and then back at her. "Yeah. I got the sense he cared about you a ton."
Tears poured down her face as she dropped to her knees. She covered her face as she sobbed. The two Gnomes next to her exchanged a look of confusion. I got the feeling they were more of coworkers than close friends.
I stood there between the guards who mirrored the looks of the other Gnomes. They weren't sure what was going on either.
After a few moments, Amara finally spoke again. "Let her go," she said.
"In the vat?" said one of the guards, confused.
"No. Let her free. Untie them."
"General. Are you sure you—" started one of the guards.
"I gave an order," shouted Amara. I still wasn't sure what to think. Why would she change her mind so suddenly? I got the feeling it was more than what I had said.
The guards untied my ropes and pushed me forward with a shove that didn't match Amara's tone.
I stood on the platform facing her as she regained her composure.
"I don't know why, but I believe you."
I gave a sigh of relief. It worked. I couldn't believe it, but it worked. We survived! We had a chance to win this war!
"I know it sounds impossible," I said, "that we have all become friends—that we could put aside our differences, but it's not. We're here because we need help, but we're here to help the Gnomes too. That monster has threatened to destroy the world before. And it will this time if we let our differences keep us apart."
"Right," said Amara. "What do you propose we do then?"
"We need everyone's help, but the Gnomes have the most mobility out of all of us. We want to send the colonists back to their people to convince them to help too. Then, if you'll allow it, teleporting would help us keep up with the monster."
Amara wiped the tears from herself, composing herself as she considered the request. "That's a huge request considering the other races don't even know about our teleporters. We'd be making ourselves vulnerable and we don't even know that the other races will help. How can we be sure that this will not set our people up for attack?"
I didn't have an answer. It was a gamble either way. I opened my mouth to respond but someone else beat me to it.
"The colonists trust her," said Sillius as he walked in with Porthos. "Their group has done more to find the colonists than anyone else, and I believe that if she is able to talk to them, they will respect her wishes."
Amara turned to Sillius. "That still doesn't mean that the other races will help."
Porthos nodded. "You're right. But if there is one thing I know about Kaia, it's that she has a way of understanding others. She's genuine. And people see that in her. I have no doubts she and the others will be able to convince the other races by following her example. After all, she did convince you." Porthos gave Amara a smirk.
Amara seemed to consider it, lowering her eyes. When she looked back at me she said, "Very well. We will open up the teleporters to the people that Kaia designates." She looked back at me. "But if we have problems, it is on you. I'm trusting you to keep our people safe."
That was a lot of weight on my shoulders, but it was what we needed. There was no other way to get people to their respective capitals otherwise. We needed to mobilize as soon as possible. This was our chance. "I won't let you down," I said.
I looked down at the colonists. They had collected at Birdsbane, settling into the various ruined houses just until we could figure out how to move forward.
"We need as many of you as you can to talk to your leaders. We need everyone's help in this fight, and we're not going to get it without convincing those in charge. If you want to volunteer for this, please come talk to us. We have a way to transport you quickly and get our armies mobilized."
It was weird to be making military preparations, like I was a war leader or something. In fact, war was what I was trying to stop. I wanted us to stop fighting each other so we could accomplish so much more. But to get there, we had to fight first, and we had to do it together.
Amara stood behind me. "This is Amara, the current leader of the Gnomes. She has agreed to help us move around. But your actions are on me, so I'll be making sure we are only sending people who are serious about the cause."
The colonists looked back at me. Many nodded along. Others looked overwhelmed with anxiety about the current situation. Others just look tired. I got that. We had all been through a lot.
"Thanks for all of your help," I said. "The rest of you who don't feel like they can aid in convincing leaders are welcome to continue our recovery efforts. Let's help anyone who may still be stuck in the rubble and those that were injured in the rise of the doom drake."
I gave a final nod to the group and turned back to Amara. "Does that sound good?" I asked.
"Yes. Hopefully, they will follow you like Porthos and Sillius said," Amara said.
She still seemed defensive, unsure. It made sense. it's not easy to rewrite your cultural biases. I would know. She was allowed to take her time.
"Good," I said. "If you do have any problems, let me know and we can take care of it."
I wasn't sure what else to say. It was still weird to look at her. I could see Zef's features in her. If I ever got to see her smile, I was pretty certain it would match Zef's. And it hurt on a level to see the similarities of the friend I had just lost. Although, maybe she was feeling the same way spending time with Zef's friends.
"Can I ask why you changed your mind?" I asked.
"I'm not sure myself," she said. "I still am mad at my dad for leaving me and betraying his people. I'm angry that he chose other races over his own motherless daughter."
"He left you?"
"It's a long story. I might have had something to do with it too."
"I'm sorry," I said.
"It's fine." She paused as she thought. "I think what changed my mind was hearing about your friendship. I grew up being told that other races were evil. I'm still not sure I believe any different. When my dad left me, it was because he couldn't support me being in the Gnome military. He wanted us to learn to cooperate, just like you do. I didn't think it was possible until I heard you and the others talking about Zef in your cells."
"You heard that?" I asked. I had no idea anyone was around except for when Porthos showed up.
She nodded. "We're Gnomes," she said. "We have ways of being discrete." She gave a half-smile, and even in that, I saw a hint of Zef in her.
"Well, if it makes you feel any better, he convinced me too. I didn't think it was possible, even when I first came to Daegal. But Zef was the one who pushed me out of my comfort zone. He was the one that orchestrated our group coming together. And all I'm doing is carrying on his legacy. I'm not even sure all of the time. It's a process, unlearning the hatred and learning love, and understanding instead."
Amara didn't respond. She opened her mouth like she was going to say something, and then nodded instead.
"I'm not sure how Gnomes handle funerals, but if you want to pay your respects, he is buried under the tree over there. I hope you don't mind. I grew it as a tribute to him. I didn't know I was going to meet you so soon—"
"It's okay," she said. She stared in the direction I pointed and a smile finally came to her face—Zef's smile. "I think it's fitting."