"My name is Kaia. I'm here with your father, Marv. I'm going to come get you," I said. I began climbing the tree, using my magic to bend branches to me and make easy foot and handholds. At the very top of the tree, I found a very small Dwarven girl with her arms and legs wrapped around the trunk. It was hard to make out any more details than that in the dim light.
Our eyes met and she yelled. "Ahh, daddy!"
I heard a groan down below us and Marv's voice came through. "It's okay, sweetie. She's my friend."
Friend? When was the last time someone had called me a friend? Had I ever been referred to as someone's friend?
"Um, yeah," I said. "Let me help you out of this tree. We scared the wolves off." I was close enough to grab her, so I stretched out my arm to offer her help. She looked at me and leaned away, still unsure if she wanted to trust me. Then, after a moment, she leaned back toward me and let me catch her in one arm. She felt stiff as I held her as if she was trying not to touch my skin. She was quiet the whole way down the tree as I used my magic to make a temporary staircase out of branches.
Abigail had to have been close to the same age I was when I had lost my parents. How long had she been missing? Was she alone? Was she wandering these woods that whole time? The questions piled up in my head. I knew that loneliness all too well—the fear of having no one, the obsessive desire to see your family walk around the corner at any second. Those were dark times for me, some of the worst of my life, and I knew there was always a possibility of it happening.
We reached the bottom of the tree and Marv must have heard us touch down. He seemed to be weak and battered from that rock body he didn't yet know how to use. Still, he forced himself to his feet and took a few weighted steps around the pile of rocks to face his daughter. He held his arms out as his body threatened to give out from its own weight. I set her down on the ground and she ran to him, knocking him back onto the pile of rocks once more.
Tears ran down Marv's face. His sobs were echoed by Abigail as she cried into his chest. I watched the two, so happy to be together again and I began to choke up too. My eyes began to water and even though they were Dwarves, I couldn't help but imagine what it would be like to find my father again. Would he let out sobs of joy? Would he have been searching for me and risking his life to find me or did he give up a long time ago? A tear rolled down my face, then another.
I turned away and wiped the moisture from my cheeks and nose. I couldn't be weak. Not now. The world only takes advantage of weakness. To be weak was to lose.
I turned back to the two. "Come on. We need to get out of here before something else finds us. We barely made it out of that one."
Tigala walked over still holding her tiger form. "I can carry one of you on my back," she said.
"Abigail, can you run?" I asked. She looked back at me, her wet cheeks reflecting the moonlight. She nodded and rubbed the tears from her face.
Marv climbed onto Tigala and we ran back to the tower which we could still see sticking out above the forest between breaks in the trees. I whistled to Chipry along the way to make sure he was still okay and after a few minutes, he flew back down to me and landed on my arm. I was glad to have him back close to me where I knew he was safe. I held him close cupping one hand over his back as I ran so that he wouldn't fall off in all of the commotion.
When we reached the tower again, Abigail and I climbed back up to the second floor, while Tigala had to carry Marv most of the way up the ladder and then shove him through the trap door. I sat down with Chipry against the wall, petting him and growing berries for him to eat. He chirped and hopped on my lap while Marv talked with his daughter.
"How long have you been out there? Are you hurt?" he asked.
"No, I'm okay. I think I was wandering for a day," she said while leaning on her weakened father's chest.
"Where did you come from?" asked Marv. He hesitated and then continued. "Where...Where is your mother?" He gulped as he looked down at his daughter.
She shook her head. "I don't know," she said.
"What do you mean? Can you describe it? Do you know the direction? Is she still out there?" Marv said. His voice was cautious like he was afraid of the answers he might get.
"I don't know," she said again. "I—I don't remember."
"You don't remember any of it? Did someone take you? Which direction did you travel to get here?" Marv's questions were overwhelming even for me. I shared the same thoughts, but he was so upset that he wasn't giving Abigail a chance to answer all of them.
"Dad, I don't remember anything."
Marv went silent. His mouth dropped open and he stared, trying to make sense of what he had heard. "What's the last thing you remember?" he asked, taking time to find the words as he spoke them.
"I was in the colony with Mom. She was making soup for dinner...I asked her if you were still going to come to Daegal." She looked down at the ground with a quiver to her lip.
"Oh, baby. Of course. I was on my way. I came as fast as I could." Marv said, He pulled a small wooden deer from his pocket, eyed it with a look of admiration, and said, "I told you I'd give it back."
Abigail grabbed the deer and looked at it again, the tears dripping from her face.
Marv waited a few minutes for Abigail's sobs to die down again before asking, "Do you remember what happened after that? After you talked to mom?" asked Marv, studying her face.
Abigail used her forearm to wipe tears and snot from her face. "I don't know. Then I was alone in the woods." She looked up at Marv's face with a red nose moist face. "I looked for Mom, but I couldn't find her. She was just gone," she said through the sobs. "I called for her and then I started to hear some strange noises, so I ran." She sniffed and wiped her face again. "Is Mom okay?"
He drew in a deep breath and his eyes bounced around the room while he processed. "I think so. Everything's going to be alright." He stroked her hair and the only noises in the room were the involuntary gasps and sniffles that follow a hard cry.
When she had calmed down enough to look around the room, she looked at me feeding Chipry and she looked at Tigala who was sitting near me in her normal Beastfolk form. I heard her whisper to Marv, "Are we safe here?"
Marv huffed a breath as he broke from his thoughts. He nodded and said, "Yes. Yes, we are. That's Tigala and Kaia. Oh and Kaia's bird. What's her name again? Chirpy or something?"
"It's Chipry, and he's a boy," I said, correcting him. I held him out and said to Abigail, "Do you want to meet him?"
Abigail looked up at her father as if asking permission. Marv nodded and she let out a hesitant "Okay."
I grabbed a berry from the plant I had been feeding him and threw it over into her lap. It landed in the loose fabric of her dress that draped over her legs. I whistled and pointed, and Chipry fluttered over to her.
Abigail let out a small childish shriek and clung to Marv's arm, but Chipry landed next to her on the floor first. Then he hopped forward and up onto her leg where he found the berry. He snatched up the fruit and then gave several curious looks to Abigail and Marv before he flew back over to me.
"He's cute," she said, smiling with puffy tear-stained cheeks. "Where did you get him?" she asked.
"Oh, uh, we kind of found each other back in Brighton. I was hiding out on a rooftop at the time, and I saw him and began feeding him some berries that I grew. He kept coming back for more over the next few weeks, and eventually, he just stuck around. I don't know where he came from, but I think we were both just lost, looking for our own families. It only seemed right that we stuck together."
"Well, you're in good company here," said Marv looking down at his daughter again.
"I don't know I'd call the people on Daegal good company. But yeah, a lot of people looking for their families here," said Tigala.
She was right. I wouldn't call them good company either. So far, the good company of Daegal had and only hated me for things my people did years ago, tried to kill me, and then framed me when I tried to defend myself. Definitely not good company.
"What is that on your head, Abigail?" said Marv. He was still looking at the side of her head and thumbing at her temple.
"Huh?" she said reaching up to where his hand was. "I don't feel anything."
"There are some pink lines or something," Marv said. That piqued my interest.
I stood up and placed Chipry on my shoulder. "Can I see?" I asked. Marv nodded, looking concerned as I walked over.
The moonlight shined through a window illuminating the side of Abigail's face, and there on her temple was a faint pink glow.
"Have you ever seen this before?" I said to Tigala over my shoulder.
She walked over and took a look. "No. Might be magic. Illusion magic is purple. Maybe a certain type of it turns more pinkish."
"Could that be why she doesn't remember? Gnomes messed with her head?" asked Marv.
Tigala shrugged. "I don't know. It's not something I've heard of at least, and I've fought my share of Gnomes. It seems close to their style of magic though."
"Maybe they're learning new tricks," I said.
"I don't think Gnomes have ever stopped learning new tricks," Tigala said.
"Zef might know something," I said. "Hopefully he'll come looking for us soon."
Tigala snorted. "If they let him leave."
I sighed and walked back to the wall where I slumped back to the ground. I thought about Zef and Lolan up against that house-sized lizard. I didn't even know what it was called. Zef would probably know that too, but he wasn't there to tell me. The better be okay.
It felt strange being without them. I had only spent a handful of days with them but somehow being with them felt more right than being on my own. Even if I had Chipry, Tigala, and Marv here, I felt lacking.
Maybe it was that more people meant a stronger group, especially among the dangers of Daegal, but it was more than just that. I guess I cared about them. As difficult as it was to admit, I worried about them. I wanted them to be safe not just for my safety but for theirs as well. They were good people, as far as I could tell, and they deserved better than to be locked in a cell or eaten by a rapid-healing lizard monster.
I couldn't believe I was thinking those thoughts, considering people of other races as good and people I cared about. It was against everything I had ever known. And what made it all even more strange was that I was pretty sure they felt the same about me. Even though they didn't stick with me on this decision, I was pretty sure things would pick up right where they left off when we saw each other next. It was odd and even scary in a sense.
"So what do we do now?" I asked. We had found the first of the missing people. Abigail seemed to be in good health even though she looked a little malnourished. That meant there were others. That meant that the Treeks that came to Daegal were probably out there too. That meant that I could finally find a family of my own—maybe even my actual family.
"We should head back to the colony," said Marv.
"What?" I said, incredulous. "Your wife might be out there. She could be alone with those wolves right now. Besides, you heard Rodrigo. He said he's going to kill us."
"He said he's going to kill you," said Marv. "I can't go looking for her. I'll die. And I can't just leave Abigail somewhere while we look. I can't lose her again."
"I can help, Dad. I think I learned some earth magic in the time I can't remember. I'm pretty sure I did some tonight," said Abigail.
"I told you to stay away from magic. It only leads to trouble. Besides, the colony might take us in if they know we found you. It will be safer there." Marv said.
"But what about Talia?" I said. I couldn't believe he was giving up so easily, again.
"I'm not a fighter. She'd understand."
"You just turned into a rock monster! Figure out how to do it again and maybe you could have both of them." I said, starting to raise my voice. What a coward!
"And look at me now," he said, pointing at his bruised and scraped arms. "I can't figure out the thing. It doesn't like me. It helped me once when I was almost dead anyway. How do I know it will do it again."
Crag was quiet at the moment—indistinguishable from a normal rock and sitting next to Marv's bag.
I looked at Tigala. She was sitting against the wall trying to look like she didn't care, but I could see the hint of tension in her face. She caught me looking and shrugged. "I don't have a reason to go back to the colony. I'm not sure it's safer than out here, and I want to find my pack."
I looked back at Marv. "You can do what you want, but we're going to search tomorrow."