"So, what changed your mind, Marv? I thought you were going to hang back and keep Abigail safe," I said.
He looked back at me with no sign of amusement. "Something was coming after us in the tower."
"What was it? Something big enough to get in?" I asked.
"I don't know. I didn't see it really. It landed on the roof and started tearing at the vine wall you made. So we ran downstairs."
"How'd you get away?" I asked.
Zef chimed in. "I think it heard them and chased them down to floor level. They ran, and luckily Lolan and I were arriving right then. I drew another ogre with my magic, and it didn't seem to like that very much."
"That's when I saw the mountain and remembered," said Abigail.
"That's also when I realized that tower isn't all that safe," said Marv as he put a hand on Abigail's shoulder.
"Makes sense. Well, thanks for coming. We can use all of the help we can get," I said.
Marv didn't respond and I couldn't tell if it was because he didn't entirely choose to be there or if it was something else. I'm sure he wasn't happy Abigail was out here in the wild with us.
Lolan stood nearby watching the conversation, not engaging much. It was a weird group of people, and he had been through a lot in recent days. I wasn't surprised he was distant.
"So, we're going up then?" said Zef, and everyone turned to look at Abigail.
"I think so," she said hugging her dad's arm.
"Before we do, I need to know that all of you are going to protect her," said Marv. "I'm not going up there unless I have your word." He stepped forward and stared us down. He wasn't actually a coward. He was actually a pretty brave guy when he had something to protect. Maybe he was just lacking hope. He had lost hope that he would ever be able to see his family again and now he had little hope that he would be able to keep Abigail safe. That seemed to fit his back and forth of bravery and cowardice.
"You have our word. We will do our best to protect both of you," said Zef. I nodded and the rest agreed.
"Okay, let's go," he said, and we began our climb.
The base of the mountain was littered with rocks and boulders of all different sizes. Climbing them was a mix of walking and crawling on all fours to avoid rolling an ankle. The smaller folk, Marv and Abigail especially didn't seem to have many problems finding footing, but Tigala, Lolan, and I were a bit more wobbly. It was not our favored terrain, you might say. We stayed behind Zef and the Dwarves to avoid kicking down loose rocks at them.
I crawled next to Lolan and said, "How are you doing? No new injuries in that hydra fight?"
He shook his head. "Nope. I hung back and only took clear shots. I probably didn't help a ton, but no creature likes an arrow in the eye, even if it regenerates and has multiple heads." He smiled and then slipped on a rock, sending it tumbling behind us.
"Yeah, well that's good. I'm glad you're finally feeling better and didn't get hurt again. I don't know why you always seem to take the hardest hits."
"All I have is a bow and a sword," he said.
"Yeah, I guess that's true," I said. I pointed at the top of my ear. "No one saw?"
He looked away and shook his head. "No, not that I know of."
"Well that's good," I said. I looked around to make sure no one was within earshot. "Have you ever tried doing magic? Like, do you think you could do storm or fire magic? Both maybe?"
"I've tried a little bit of storm magic. My sister—my cousin tried to teach me some," he said.
"And it didn't work?"
"No, I couldn't figure it out. I made a little spark of static and it fizzled out pretty quick."
"Well, that's something at least. Maybe you could do it if you practiced more," I said.
"Yeah, I don't know."
"What about fire? Have you ever tried that?"
"No. I've never been around Humans until recently. I wouldn't know where to start."
"I can show you. I've tried, and I've watched Humans learn fire magic," I said.
"What do you mean you've tried? Do you know how dangerous that is? Our history books are only a fraction of what they should be because of someone trying other magic," he said. He was starting to raise his voice.
"Shh. It's not a big deal. What else do you expect me to do—a kid, living on my own among the Humans? Besides, I didn't get anywhere, but I did learn some of how they use and summon the fire," I said. "Do you want to try?"
"I don't know. I guess I am part Human. I when you tried nothing really happened?" he asked.
"Nope. I wilted some nearby plants and had a headache afterward, but that's about as much harm as it caused."
"Okay, what do I do?" he asked, still with a nervous look on his face.
"So, from what they were saying, it sounded like fire was a very emotional kind of magic. They said it's easier to feed it with your emotions, whether it be anger, or desire, or sadness, or whatever. I think anger might be the easiest though. All of the new students were told to think of something that made them angry and then act like they were throwing that anger back at the person who caused it."
"So just think of someone who makes me angry and pretend to throw my anger at them?"
"Yeah. I guess," I said.
He stood up on the uneven rocks and focused on a point on the ground. He began to breathe heavy and I backed up a few steps. Then he wound up motioned like he was throwing a hand-sized rock, and when he would have let go of the imaginary rock, a small puff of smoke shot out. The momentum of the swing shifted his weight and another rock moved from beneath him, sending him face-first into the mountainside.
I started laughing despite myself as he stumbled and tried to get back to his, sending more rocks tumbling down the hill.
"Did you just set me up so you could laugh at me?" he said half-smiling back at me. In my laughing fit, I stepped on a loose rock as well and started the struggle to get back on my feet. Then Lolan started laughing at me.
"Shh," came a voice from above us. It was Tigala. "We don't know what kinds of things live on this mountain. We should stay quiet."
We both got ourselves back to our feet and calmed our laughing fit. It had been a while since I had laughed so hard. I had almost forgotten what that was like.
I tried helping Lolan again, still smiling as I pictured him sliding down the rocks. It made it hard to say what I needed to. "So, I don't think you were mad enough. The Humans I saw learning it were visibly upset by the time they actually used magic. The teacher was screaming at them, trying to even get them mad at him. I'm not going to scream at you or anything, because enough people already want me dead, but maybe if you think about the worst things that happened to you, you'd be able to do it. Think about how you ended up here. The people you've lost. The people who have wronged you or the ones you loved."
Lolan stood still again, trying to concentrate. He stared at the ground and the more I spoke, the heavier he breathed. Whatever I had said, it seemed to be working. He set his jaw and furrowed his brow. His breathing grew heavier, deeper, and quicker. Then, with a yell, he threw both of his arms forward and burst of flame erupted in front of him. I could feel the heat, even from where I stood.
He pulled his hands back and the flame dissipated a few feet from him."Woah," he said as he looked at his hands.
"I told you to keep it—" started Tigala as she turned to reprimand us. She caught sight of the tail end of the flame and paused. "Did you do that, Kaia?"
From the angle she was looking at us, I could see how she would think that. Her view of Lolan was blocked by me, and I was the one who had already experimented with other magic in front of her. I looked at Lolan, who was still staring at his hands and I thought of his secret. "Uh, yeah. Yeah, that was me," I said.
There was a grinding sound above us, and a moment later, a boulder crashed against the mountain only about fifty feet higher than we were. It began to roll out of the way.
"Look out!" I shouted as I tackled Lolan to the ground. We hit the rocks and tumbled with them, getting jabbed and scraped all over as we rolled.
The boulder lumbered by us, picking up speed until it found its resting place among the sea of rocks below.
"Where did that come from?" asked Lolan. Above us, the trees gave way to a rocky slope. A ledge jutted out and on top of that ledge was a stout woman staring back at us. The only detail I could really make out of her was her wild unkempt hair. That and the fact that she was short enough to be a Dwarf.
"Hello. We're here to help!" yelled Zef, waving his tiny arms at the Dwarf. She disappeared behind the cliff edge, then another boulder came flying down the mountain toward Zef, Marv, Abigail, and Crag. Marv grabbed Abigail and held her sideways as he ran. There was no time to pick her up properly. The boulder rolled and lurched down the hill following an irregular path as it crashed into other clumps of rock. Some exploded, showering everyone with dust and pebbles.
It missed everyone except for Crag, who was hit dead on. But instead of smashing him to pieces, Crag melded into the boulder and then out the other side of it, unscathed. It was as easy to him as pushing through tall blades of grass. However, the spin of the rock launched Crag up into the air. He made a high-pitched grinding noise that sounded like a gleeful squeal and then landed among the other rocks. He climbed back out of the rubble and bobbled over to Marv and Abigail.
I turned my head away as the remaining dust settled. "Maybe you should try talking to her, Marv. She's a Dwarf. She probably has issues with Gnomes, Treeks, and Elves," I said.
"She's just going to throw another boulder at us. We can figure out what's going on once we're out of her throwing range," said Marv.
"What if we lose her. That's probably a colonist up there. What if she runs away and we lose track of her. And what if you can stop her? It would save us all from being smashed into jelly and she might even lead us to Talia," I said.
"Yeah, that's Gemma," said Abigail.
He grumbled to himself and then said, "Hey. I'm a Dwarf. We came to help you and the other missing people," he yelled up the mountain.
The female Dwarven head poked over the ledge, looked right at Marv and then disappeared again. Then, there was another grinding noise.
"Dad, my foot's stuck!" said Abigail, panicking.
Another rock came tearing down the mountainside straight at Marv and Abigail.
"Crag!" Marv bellowed. Crag didn't move from the rock he was sitting on. "Agghh" Marv yelled. He looked back at me. I could see the struggle in his eyes. None of us could help, not even Marv, and his daughter was about to get smashed by a boulder because I told him to yell up at the Dwarf. Now, he could only run and save himself or stand his ground and die with her.
I tried to summon my plants, but there wasn't enough dirt to work with. Tigala wasn't in a helpful form, and Zef was all illusions.
Marv stepped in front of his daughter and pulled his pickaxe from his back. He screamed in a way that only rivaled my father's as he and mother cleared a path for me to run from the Humans. The boulder barrelled toward them, and he swung his axe at it. Then in an eruption of dust, the rock split in half, and continued down the mountain, right past Marv and Abigail.
Out of the dust where the rock had been split, Crag landed.
"You couldn't have done that earlier?" Marv yelled at the little rock creature.
Crag just shrugged his little rock shoulders.
I heard the shifting of more rock above us and said, "Zef, could you—"
"On it," he said, already using his magic to paint an illusion of more rocks, hiding us from the Dwarf's view. She peeked over the cliff, failed to find us, and launched a rock close by, but missing by enough that it wasn't a concern.
Abigail was still panicking, so I walked over to her and spoke in a calm voice. "It's okay. Take a deep breath. Can you use your magic to push the rocks away?"
Abigail's breathing slowed some and she nodded her head. She placed her other foot on a solid foothold, tucked her upper arms against her sides, and pushed out. A collection of rocks slid away from her foot and began tumbling down the mountain as she pulled her foot free.
"Can you walk?" I asked.
She nodded again.
"Come on. Let's get out of her path," said Lolan, leading the way.
Marv climbed over to me and Abigail and said, "I'll take her. Are you okay?"
"Yeah, I'm fine," she said in a hushed tone as he hurried her away. Crag followed along behind them, diving into piles of rocks like it was diving into a lake. He moved through the loose stone quicker than what seemed possible and would come up for air every so often before he did it all over again.
The Dwarf higher up the mountain continued to throw rocks and boulders off of the cliff, but Zef kept us hidden with illusionary walls of stone while the Dwarf continued to throw rocks at the last place she had seen us. When we finally got close to her level we peeked over rocks to get a closer look.
She stood on an uneven cliff, with an unnatural door-sized hole in the mountainside behind her. She watched the rock that she had just launched off of the cliff roll to a stop at the base of the mountain, dusted her hands off, and then walked back toward the hole in the mountain. Even from the distance, I could make out a distinct pink glow near her temples. She walked inside the hole, and it slid shut behind her like there was never a doorway in the first place.
"Did you see her head?" asked Zef.
"Yeah. That's where we need to go," I said.