Once we had traveled far enough that the screams of the giant lizard and the battle cries of women and men faded out behind us, we stopped to take a break. I leaned against a tree.
"So what do we do now?" Marv said. He was slumped against another tree with his hair a mess, hanging over his face in strands.
"I would say we could live in that treetop village, but all of those trees are probably alive now," I said. "Oops."
Tigala didn't seem amused. "We could go to the tower," she said.
I thought about it. We could probably stay on the upper floor and avoid the spiders. "Do you think Rodrigo would come after us there?"
"I don't know. We'd probably be able to see him from far off in there," said Tigala.
"Yeah. I guess so. He's probably afraid I would bring the whole forest down on him anyway," I said, chuckling to myself. No one else was laughing. "Too soon?" They gave me no response. Marv still hardly knew what I was talking about and Tigala didn't seem to joke much. This was going to be an adjustment after spending so much time with Zef.
"Okay. Let's go to the tower. Lolan did say he'd meet us at the cliff, so we'll be able to watch for him from there," I said.
We picked ourselves back up and began our march toward the ruined tower. It was silent at first and I noticed Marv still looked at everything like it were alien to him. It was funny because this was where I felt most at home. Much more than I did in the alleys, abandoned buildings, and sewers of Brighton. This was where I grew up, under the shade of green leaves.
Nonetheless, I tried to make the journey pass by faster. "So how did you end up here all alone, as the town drunk?" I asked. Maybe that was too far, but I was genuinely curious.
His face turned red and he bowed it toward the ground. "Hmm, yeah. Well...I sent my family first," he said. "My town, Hallum, was a big supplier of metal and coal for our military, and we had heard rumors that the Saurians might attack soon to cut off some of the supply." He swallowed like he was trying to keep his composure as he continued. "I don't have many skills, and we never had a lot of money, so I sent my wife and daughter to the new land first to keep them safe. They joined the first Dwarven colony."
He coughed. I wasn't sure if it was because there was something in his throat or because he was trying to mask the sadness that was starting to show through his shaky voice.
"When I finally got here, there was nothing left," he finished.
"So you got here when they first discovered the missing people?" I asked. "What was it like?"
He looked up at me and then stared into the distance as he walked. "It was strange. It was like no one had actually left except there was no one there. There was food left out, and all of their belongings were left behind. There was no blood, no sign of struggle, just a colony with no people."
"I heard it was the same kind of thing for the Beastfolk," said Tigala. "We don't tend to keep a lot of gear with us, but there was no trace of the people, just a collection of lean-tos."
I didn't understand how something like that could happen. How could entire colonies of people disappear? I guess now that I knew teleportation magic was a thing, maybe they could have been teleported by something like those veins in the cave, but that seemed unlikely, even for Daegal.
The Treeks must have been caught up in the same thing. I had only heard secondhand that their settlement was in a similar state. Whatever happened, all of those people could be stuck somewhere on this island. Or they could be multiple places. Who knows?
Either way, I needed to find them. They were my people—some of the last of my people. I couldn't just let them disappear. I couldn't give up on the only people that would truly get me. Sure, I had Zef, and Lolan, and Tigala, but we were different races. Our alliance was destined to be temporary from the start. Races don't work well together. And even though Tigala had chosen to save my life over staying with her own people, she would probably go back to her own once she found them. Then the war would pick up where it left off. Right?
I realized that I had been thinking for a while. And brought my thoughts back to the conversation, to Marv, who was walking with his eyes focused on the ground in front of him.
"So why didn't you go after them—your family?" I asked.
"I did. We did," he said. "I bought a ride over with several other families, many of which knew people in the first colony. The boat waited while we went out searching for them, but most of us aren't woodsmen. We prefer to be under the ground, not above it. We went out searching and we got attacked by deepmites. I think we stumbled into their nest."
"What's a deepmite?" I asked.
"They're these giant burrowing bugs. They usually burrow deep underground, but these ones were near the surface. We weren't ready for them above land. They surprised us, and I was one of the few that got away," said Marv.
"Geez. So then you came to the colony when you heard?" I said.
"I didn't have much choice. I didn't have the coin to go home and I wanted to find my family, so I stayed with some others in the first Dwarven colony for a couple of weeks hoping the missing people would return. Then a Dwarven ship showed up telling us about the treaty and the new colony. They brought us over here for free."
"I'm sorry," I said. "You really can't fight?"
"I tried to once, and it lost me my best friend," he said. He had such a sad life. I felt bad for him. I couldn't imagine being beaten down so much without any means to change your situation. No wonder he just drank at the colony.
Marv pulled his backpack off and reached in. "All I have to show for that one fight is this weird rock."
In Marv's small dense hands sat a gray stone. It was shaped like an oblong cube about the size of someone's head, and the top and bottom both came to a point. Its surface was smooth aside from decorative etchings carved into it in hard lines. Even though it was only stone, there seemed to be a shine to it depending on how you looked at it.
"I considered using it in trade, but I just can't bring myself to get rid of it for some reason. It feels important. At the very least, if it is valuable, I want to keep it around until I can use it to help me get my family back," said Marv.
"Does it do anything," I asked.
Marv stared at the sculpture. "I wish I knew. It was just in with a pile of other valuables."
"Can I see it? It looks magical." He handed me the rock. It was heavy—hard to even hold with a single hand, though Marv didn't seem to have much trouble. I saw the faint glow of energy tracing the foreign characters. I twisted it in my hands looking for any kind of trigger or way of activating it.
Then I had a crazy idea. I tried using my magic to affect it. I searched for it with my magic, like searching for a lost thought. It was there somewhere, but I could even figure out the path to get to it. I pushed and still came up short.
"When you tried to learn earth magic, how did they teach you to find it?" I asked.
"Why?" he said. "That's for my people. Only a Dwarf needs to know that."
"I know. Look, I'm not trying to hurt you or take advantage of the Dwarves. I just think I can get this thing to do something," I said.
Tigala walked closer. "I don't think that's a good idea."
"Oh, come on. We just survived a walking forest. There's no way this thing is as powerful as those veins." I looked at Marv. "You can just take it back if it goes too far."
He looked at Tigala and then back at me. "He told me to be sure of myself. Confident. He said having a steady mind would give me the strength I needed to balance the earth."
"So just compliment myself?" I asked.
"No. Overconfidence isn't balance. Think of something your sure of. Something you know your purpose in," he said.
Tigala watched with wary eyes.
"Okay," I said. I closed my eyes and tried to think of something I knew my purpose in. I thought of Daegal and the colony. I thought of searching the wilderness and finding the missing people—finding my people. None of it stuck. Even if I had already played a part, how could I be sure I would be the one out of that whole colony to find anyone? I thought of our group. As strange as it was, I was more sure of that than anything else on this island. Lolan, Tigala, Zef, and I—we were doing something. We were working together. And as strange as it was, I was beginning to feel like I could trust them and they could trust me. Two of them weren't with us now, but they would come back and we would keep going until we found our people. I focused on that, on our strange little rag-tag group, and I pushed that energy toward the rock in my hand.
It was subtle, but the faint glow grew brighter. A few thin bronze lines showed across the ridges of the stone, stayed for a moment, and then faded away.
I sighed. "Well, it was worth a shot," I said. I went to hand the rock back to Marv, but then pulled it back a moment before he grabbed it. "Wait. The lines!" I said.
I pressed hands against either side of the stone and began trying to pry it and move it along the edges where the bronze glow showed through. It wouldn't budge. Then I tried twisting it along the edges. I pushed with all my might until I felt it give, just a hair.
I looked up with a smile showing beneath wide eyes. "Here. You try." I said, handing it back to Marv. "Try sliding it along that seam."
Marv grabbed it with his stubby hands and squeezed and twisted the rock along the line I had pointed out. He pushed, and the stone split in half at its points, rotating around its center. He had to readjust his hands to give it another push and the stone halves twisted the rest of the way in opposite directions to touch once again, forming the same stone shape, just upside-down now.
The light beamed out of it, and Marv looked up at me just before dropping it to the ground and backing up. Tigala and I did the same, hiding behind nearby trees and peaking out. The stone hit the ground and then shook. A smaller rock broke free from it, and then another, both floating beside it. Two more small rocks broke off and pushed the stone upright. The runes on its front lit up creating a pattern that resembled a blocky face. It stood looking back at us, floating above the two stones that looked like legs, and waved at us.