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6.1 Leaf

# 2386 12 - 16 mins.

"There's a Treek down there," I whispered to Lolan who was laying on his stomach next to me, peeking over the edge.

Lolan followed my eyes to the Treek wielding vine-like roots. The Treek commanded the plants to burrow into cracks in the stone and break it apart. "Why's he working with Dwarves?" he whispered back.

I shrugged and kept watching. "I need to go talk to him."

"How are you going to get past all of those Dwarves?" he said.

"I don't know. They're okay with that Treek, maybe they won't mind another."

The look he gave me conveyed more than words could. He thought it was a dumb idea, but I had to do something. I couldn't just walk away. Not now. Not with another Treek in my sight.

I scooted back into the tunnel and set Chipry on a ledge along the wall. "I'll be back soon, Chip. Stay here," I said.

"What are you doing," whispered Tigala.

"I'm going down there. There's a Treek helping them," I said.

"You can't just walk in there. You're going to alert them that we're here," she said with a bite to her words.

"I don't think it's a good idea," said Zef, joining the conversation. "That Dwarf just tried to kill us."

"That's a Treek," I said. "I haven't seen another Treek in over seven years. You all had a chance with your people, but I didn't. This is my chance with mine." I started to tear up as the emotion got the best of me. Still, I did my best not to raise my voice above a whisper.

Chipry flew back to my shoulder, seeing that I was upset. "Thanks, but you need to stay here, Chip," I said as I placed him back on the ledge.

"Then at least let us help," said Zef.

I stared back at them for a moment. Tigala didn't look happy about what I had said, but she made no objections to Zef's statement. Lolan stood silent too. "Really?" I said.

"Mhmm," said Zef. Tigala nodded. "But, before you go, let's look a little longer. Maybe we can find out more about them so that we know what we're getting into."

I nodded and we crept back over to the ledge.

I studied the Treek some more, too anxious to focus on much else. He looked older than me, maybe in his late twenties with dark grooved skin and black hair that stretched down to his shoulders in wiry strands. He seemed to be pretty good at nature magic too. He used the roots like extensions of his own arms, growing them behind himself and trusting them to mimic the motions of his arms.

Zef nudged me, interrupting. He pointed down at the female Dwarf that had previously been throwing boulders at us. Then he pointed at his own temple. I cocked my head, unsure of what he was trying to communicate and then looked back at the Dwarf.

She was patrolling, watching the other Dwarfs that were working on the stone column at the center of the room. She turned her head as a deafening crack signaled a wagon-sized stone being pulled from the column by a group of Dwarves. With her head turned, I saw the pink glow on her temples again.

What is he getting at? I wondered. I gave Zef a look with an eyebrow cocked, trying to show my confusion. He pointed again with his finger in a circular motion. I took the cue and looked around the rest of the room. Several other Dwarves were surveying the room like the Dwarf that had attacked us. Every single one of them wore a pink glow coming from their temples as well. There were five that I could see and they were keeping an eye on maybe 20 Dwarves and the one Treek, who all worked on the stone column.

I scanned the rest of the room and couldn't see the pink glow coming from any of the workers, just the stationary Dwarves acting as guards—each of them perched on a mound of rocks.

They're being forced to contain their own?

I scooted back from the ledge again and so did the others. "What do you think is going on down there? Why would those Dwarves turn on the others?" I said.

Zef said, "I think its some kind of magic."

"There's only eight forms of magic. What would it be?" said Tigala, unbelieving of Zef's assumptions.

"I don't know. I guess the most likely is probably illusion magic. Maybe they're being fed illusions to control them. Maybe they don't think they're guarding other Dwarves. Everyone else might look like Saurians, or Humans, or something like that," said Zef. "Besides, we still know very little about magic and how it works. I don't think it's beyond reason that there are more forms of magic than what we know."

"So, if they are looking through an illusion, they probably wouldn't even notice I was there as long as I look like I'm one of the workers, right?" I asked.

"Sure, but that's a big 'if'. Whoever did this spell is incredibly powerful to have it last for as long as it does and on multiple people. Maybe they also set up outsiders to look like cave trolls so they attack them on site. We have no idea what we're working with," said Zef.

"I need to get down there, one way or another," I said.

"I'll come with you," said Lolan.

"No. I don't want you getting hurt again. Besides, you don't look the part and you're better at covering me from range if I need it," I said.

Marv butted in with a growl to his hushed voice. "Hey, don't you think about killing those people. They're not disposable just because some of 'em are seeing illusions. They're still people. They're my people,"

I wasn't really thinking about the Dwarves down there. I guess they weren't technically enemies, even though they might treat me as one. Even without the illusionary vision, they might treat me as an enemy. But I was still surprised I had worded it the way I did like they were disposable. Marv's wife could be down there. "Right, I didn't mean to kill. Just to distract." I shrugged, hoping that was enough to smooth it over.

"This is a stupid plan," said Tigala. "But if you need to go down there, I'll go with you."

"How would you fit in more than Lolan?" I asked raising my eyebrows at her.

"I've never..." She looked at Marv and Abigail and then reworded her statement. "I can't change into a Dwarf, but I think I can get close—enough to blend in, at least."

"Okay. If you're sure," I said.

She only nodded.

"I can come too," said Abigail. "I can look fo—"

"You'll do no such thing," said Marv.

"But I can look for Mom while I'm down there. We can't see her from up here. Maybe I'll see her or see where she might be."

"No. It's not safe. I'm not losing you again."

"Dad! I just came from here. If anyone will blend in, it's me," said Abigail.

"I don't want you to blend in here," Marv said. "I don't want you to be here. But since they won't take us back to the colony, here we are, putting you back in harm's way." He scowled at the rest of us now.

"I'll look for your mom, Abigail," I said. "What does she look like?"

Abigail shrugged Marv's hand off of her shoulder and said, "She looks brave." She let that sink in for a moment. Marv tried to ignore it. Then she continued her description. "She has blonde hair, usually braided, and a round small nose. Um, blue eyes, and freckled cheeks."

"I'll keep an eye out for her," I said. I turned to Tigala. "Can you make me a Dwarf too, at least until we get to the Treek?"

She scoffed. "No. I can only shift myself, not someone else."

"Oh," I said. "That makes sense." I hadn't really thought about the limitations of what she could do. "Zef, do you have any tricks to keep us hidden?"

"You're going to be pretty far away and moving, so that creates some problems. I think the best I can do is grow the shadows. If you stick to the edges of the room, I'll make it harder to spot you," said Zef. "If you run into any trouble I might be able to throw out a quick illusion too."

"That's good enough for me." I looked at Tigala. "You ready?" She was halfway transformed into her version of a Dwarf when I looked. She still had her blondish hair on top of her head, but she was about a third of her normal height with tan skin showing over most of her body. She was nearly naked, aside from a few strips of leather that she wore as a Beastfolk. For some reason, it looked more scandalous now that she was Dwar-like though.

"Do you have an extra shirt, Marv?" I asked.

He snorted as he shoved a shirt into my hand. I handed it to Tigala and said, "Put this on."

I looked over at Lolan and caught him looking away, flustered.

When Tigala was done, she was about the height of a Dwarf with bad proportions. She had a huge gut and her arms and legs were scrawny compared to the stockier build of Marv and Abigail. Her face wasn't quite right either. She still looked like Tigala but without fur, and she lacked the square features of a Dwarf. With her big belly, she looked like the slightest bump could send her rolling away.

I couldn't hold in a laugh as she stopped transforming. I did my best to suppress the noise.

"Shut up! I said I could get close." she hissed.

"I didn't know close meant you could turn into a watermelon," I said. I looked over and Zef and Lolan were now silently laughing with me. Abigail also had a smile on her face, but Marv held his scowl firm.

"Do you want me to come or not?" said Tigala.

I let my laughter die down and said, "Yes. I want you to come. I'll stop."

Tigala turned in a huff started walking toward the stairs. I turned to Zef and said, "You've got this? You think you can hide us?"

"Stay near the shadows and I'll do what I can," he said. "Don't do anything stupid." He smiled.

I nodded and followed Tigala down the steps.

As we walked, I saw Zef's purple light begin to craft an illusion beside us, casting an image of the wall behind the stairs instead of us. It was the kind of thing I was used to from him, but based on what he said, it probably wouldn't make it all the way to the bottom of the stairs.

We walked slowly, creeping along, trying our best not to kick a loose rock, or miss a step. Once we got a little past halfway down the staircase, the illusions started to grow thinner. We took a few more steps and they dissipated, only dimming the light in the area instead.

We ducked back as close to the wall as possible, hoping that the shadows would keep us hidden enough. We crept to the bottom of the stairs and tiptoed around the front side of them, our backs against the side of the staircase. I scanned the room and saw no one looking our way, so I motioned for Tigala to follow. We made a silent dash into a crevice along the wall, hiding between rocks as we took a better look at the scene in front of us.

The Dwarves kept up their digging undisturbed by us, but they didn't look happy about it. Groups of five or so Dwarves were chained together in rows, each group working on its own section of the room's central column. They wore dirty tattered rags and showed a lack of nourishment in their stomachs and limbs. They were far more scrawny than any of the Dwarves I had seen at the colony.

As we observed, one of the younger Dwarven boys collapsed to the ground. He had to be about 13 and he was thinner than most of the other Dwarves there. A guard, with pink glowing temples, saw him fall and began to yell at the boy.

"Get up boy or ye won't get food tonight either!" The boy didn't move and the guard began to act. He wound up and then threw his arm forward, flicking his fingers and a small rock shot out of the ground and whipped against the boy's back.

"Uuugggh," cried the boy, but he didn't get up.

The guard used his magic to make another small stone float in front of him and readied to launch it at the boy again, but an older female Dwarf with graying brown hair stepped in. She kneeled down next to the boy and said, "Get up. We can rest soon."

The guard didn't care, he launched the rock at them again and it hit the woman's shoulder. She tried not to cry out as a wound opened and blood began to run down her back. She strung the boy's arm over her shoulder and stood back up. The two got back to work, removing stones from the column with earth magic, and the guard seemed content.

I looked at Tigala with eyes wide, and then back at the Treek. I gave Tigala a nod and we stepped out of our cover to head towards him. Right as we did, there was a ripple of purple and blue energy across the room. With a whir of motion, a floating oval of purple-blue magic appeared above the ground and out of it came a foot. The foot was followed by a leg and then the rest of the body of a Gnome. He had brown hair that came to three points—one on the top of his head and one on either side. He stepped out of the magical doorway into the room and began to look around.

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