It was dark out. I could hear people shuffling around, making arrangements, retelling the story of the doom drake's awakening. I couldn't bring myself to join them though. There was too much going on. Zef was gone, and I nearly lost my own life again the previous day. There was so much to do. So many people were relying on me—expecting me to carry them forward and rally others. It was up to me to make sure that none of the people using the Gnomes' teleporters were going to take advantage of the knowledge. I didn't know if I could handle it all. And I still couldn't decide if it was a lost cause to begin with.
"—doing okay?" asked Tigala.
"Huh," I said.
"Are you doing okay?" She looked at me with concern on her face. She stood in the living room of the ruined Gnomish house that we had claimed in Birdsbane. It was the same house that Zef had brought us to. Lolan was behind her, closer to the door. He sat down, leaning against the wall.
"Yeah," I said. "I'll be okay." I looked back down at the mossy floor. "It's just a lot. Maybe we can pull this off if we get everyone fully invested, but that's a big 'if'."
"Yeah," she said. "I don't know if we can do it. But we don't really have another option."
"We haven't had a second to rest either," said Lolan. "Ever since that dragon attacked the colony, we've been going at it, full tilt."
"Yeah," I said. It made me think about them. Were they feeling the same as me? Were they struggling with the same things or did they have other burdens?
"How's Brendell doing?" I asked Lolan.
"He's stable," said Lolan. "I think he might lose at least one of his hands. I hit him pretty hard."
"Sorry to hear that," I said. "Are you scared?"
"Yeah," he said. "He spent most of his life tormenting me. I don't know what he's going to think when he finds out that I saved him. It may bruise his ego and make him dig in his heels further."
"You've got us though," I said, barely feeling like I meant it. "We're here for you when he does wake up."
"I know. I'll be fine. I know I'll be alright because I have you two now." He gave me a confident smile.
"What about you Tigala?" I asked. I had almost forgotten what brought her here in the first place. "Did your pack survive the collapse?"
"Only one of them," she said. "Katan made it out."
"That's great," I said feeling some hope with the news. "Where is he?"
"He was injured. Lobo is the one that pulled him from the rubble. I tried reaching out once already, but it looks like Lobo has been whispering in his ear. He didn't want to see me just yet."
Lobo. That guy is only trouble for us.
"Sounds about right," I said. "Do you think we need to worry about Lobo? Is he going to try and sabotage this whole thing?"
"I don't know. I don't think he's that stupid, but his stupidity has surprised me before."
I could agree with that. I didn't even want to think about him, but it was important.
"Where are they staying at the moment?" I asked.
"They're camped at the outskirts of town," said Tigala. "They holed up in an old leatherworker's shop."
"Good to know," I said. "We'll have to keep an eye on them." I just couldn't help planning and preparing. Even when I wanted to relax and decompress, I went right back to problem-solving.
I returned my gaze to the floor. I needed to stop.
"Why don't you come out to the campfire?" said Lolan. I met his eyes and saw the concern in his face as well.
"I'm not sure I can handle it right now," I said. "I think I need a break. Maybe some sleep will help."
"Maybe," said Lolan. "But I think talking to others might help more. We don't have to talk about preparations or anything like that. Just a bunch of different races sharing a friendly campfire. I hear the Saurians made some fancy wine."
"I really don't think—" I started.
"Just give it a try," said Lolan. "We'll be with you and you can come back and rest whenever you want."
I looked over to Tigala.
"You could use a break," Tigala said. "Come on." She reached out a hand. I groaned and grabbed her arm to pull me to my feet.
"Just for a few minutes," I said.
We walked out the door over to what was once the marketplace at the center of town. There was a bonfire surrounded by a group of people sitting on improvised chairs made of boxes, wooden beams, and large stones. There were smaller groups that talked among themselves. Many of the races stayed with their own, but there were a couple of sub-groups with mixed races.
As we walked up the conversations around the fire hushed and then stopped altogether. They all looked at me, the same look of concern on their faces. I knew this was a bad idea. Why was everyone looking at me like that? Was it that clear, how hard this was on me? Did they think I wasn't up to it? Was I making them question their choice to work with other races?
I looked up at Tigala with a furrowed brow.
"Come on," she said. "Just give it a try."
Tigala and Lolan led the way to an open spot around the fire. It was nestled in between a group of Elves and the Saurians. Both groups looked our way as we sat. I sat quietly and looked at the fire.
It danced and curled, licking into the air. It was hot, even from a distance. Was this our fate? Were we to go up in flames just like the remains of these ruined houses?
Lolan walked up with a few stone cups and handed one to Tigala and one to me. I took a sip. It was good—slightly sweet, not too strong. It was unlike anything I had ever drunk before. Did the Saurians have a way to use their magic to make wine? I couldn't think of a way, but I also had no clue how to make wine in the first place.
I heard laughter off to my left. I looked and saw one of the mixed-race groups.
"We would make these wings out of the leather stretched across the lightest wood we could find," said an Elf. "Then, one person would call the storm while the rest of us jumped off the cliff. It was a blast." He laughed as he retold the story.
"That's amazing," said a Dwarf. "I've always wanted to fly. The closest earth magic comes to that is launching yourself in the air with a good rock push. But then you have to be skilled enough to catch yourself without breaking both of your legs."
"A flying Dwarf?" said a Gnome. "I'd pay to see that." He let out a heavy laugh.
"Hey, I can be agile." said the Dwarf. "My sister was a dancer."
"A dancing Dwarf?" said the Gnome. "Okay, two things I'd pay to see."
The group erupted into laughter, even the Dwarf. They weren't just cooperating. They weren't tolerating each other. They were enjoying each other's company. It was the first time I had really seen it outside of my own group. How did that happen?
I looked up at Lolan nudging my head toward the group. He didn't say anything and smiled instead.
"They're getting along," I said. "They're having fun."
"I know. It's pretty amazing huh?" he said.
"How?" I asked.
He didn't get a chance to respond. An Avian approached me. She was bright red with black feathers around her eyes like a cardinal, though it did look like a layer of dust and dirt had dulled her colors. "You're Kaia, right?" she said.
I looked up at her confused. I was pretty sure I would remember a cardinal Avian. "Yes," I said.
"Hi, um, my name is Taryn," she said. "How do you do it?"
"Excuse me?" I said. "Do what?"
"How are you able to always stay one step ahead? How do you keep your composure in the face of danger? You always manage to know what to do next. You know what's best for us before anyone else does." She sounded giddy. It was like I was some well-known hero or something. But I wasn't. I was a Treek. I was a person without a people.
"I don't know what you mean. I don't think I am. I feel like I'm always ten steps behind."
"No way," she said. "You found us before that doom drake crawled out of the ground. You found the Dwarves and saved them. You took the fire out of a dragon! Didn't you?"
"Uh, yeah. I guess I did those things. But that's—" I said.
"Then you're a hero. You saved us. You gave me another life. You brought me back to my sister. She looked over her shoulder at a yellow-colored Avian in one of the mixed-race groups. "I don't know how I could ever repay you."
"Repay me?" I said. "No, I don't need to be repaid. I did it for myself too. I wanted to save my people too."
"Well, at the very least, thank you for saving me and giving me back my sister. You shouldn't be so hard on yourself. You created this. You made all of this possible." She spread her wings, motioning at the collection of races around the single campfire.
"You're welcome," I said. But I couldn't take all of the credit. I was nothing on my own. "You're wrong though. I didn't do any of this. None of this would have happened without my friends. Tigala and Lolan are as much to thank for this as me, if not more. Zef too. They pushed me to keep going every step of the way. They made this possible, and every other person that believed in us. Every person that died trying to help us get here. They all deserve thanks. We are not the result of one person's actions. We are a people, and it is up to all of us to continue to tell others what we've learned. It's up to us to teach others to give up their hatred."
The Avian looked at me now with a curious look. She stood there for a moment studying me. "Wow, you're even more amazing than I expected." She smiled big through her orange beak. "Other people may have helped, but that doesn't change the fact that you've been leading the charge every step of the way. I'll let you get back to enjoying the fire, but know that we appreciate you."
I nodded. "Thanks. It's hard for me to understand it, but hearing that does help."
The Avian smiled one more time and then returned to the group with her sister.
"That was weird," I said.
"It's true though," said Lolan. "We have already made a difference. You have made a difference. If it weren't for all of our expeditions, none of this would have been possible. Maybe you blame yourself for the collapse when we found the Dwarves, but this one would have happened either way. We were lucky we got there when we did. If we didn't push as hard as we did, all of these people might have been dead. We saved these people, and that's thanks in a big part to you."
"But why me?" I said. "You were there too. So was Tigala. Heck, Geralt was there."
"Hey, I resent that," said Geralt. I looked over to find a grin on his face. He sat among some of the Beastfolk at the fire.
"Sorry, I didn't mean—" I said.
"It's okay. I am not the strongest fighter," he said. "But I am valiant!"
"Haha, very true," I said. I turned back to Lolan and Tigala. "But still, what about Zef. He died to free them. Why do I get all of the credit?"
"Because you have already lost everything," said Tigala. "You have more reasons than any of us to hate. You lost people close to you, sure. So has everyone else. But not a single one of us has lost their whole race. You have every reason to want to tear us all to pieces, but instead, you put your life on the line for others over and over again. That Avian was right. You're a hero."
I didn't know what to say to that. Then a voice rang out.
"Here's to Kaia," said Geralt raising a cup high above his head. "Wherever tomorrow leads, we owe our lives to her selflessness."
The crowd cheered in agreement.