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6.3 Roots

# 2417 12 - 16 mins. 9

"Run," said Zef in a quiet voice.

I looked over at him and found him looking back with wide eyes. Was he scared? That was a first. Usually, he'd be joking in a situation like this. Him being scared was more terrifying than the fact that a group of mind-controlling Gnomes had just seen through his illusion and were now coming after us.

I didn't wait. I climbed to my feet, ready to run, but I heard a voice below us. "I don't have time for this. Let me go and then you can take care of your problem." I could tell by his voice that it was the plainly dressed male Gnome.

"Let's go," I whispered, and we all began running down the tunnel towards the exterior of the mountain. The dim light from lanterns in the cavern quickly faded and we were back in the dark.

Running in the dark is scary. Any little bump or turn in your path has the potential to crash you into something and give you a bloody nose or worse. I ran with my hands in front of me. I probably looked like an idiot, but that was the least of my worries.

It only took a few moments before I could hear something echo through the tunnel behind us. I turned to look, slowing in my run slightly. At the opening, I could now make out the two Gnomes in pursuit of us. A familiar purple glow lit their faces.

My slowed speed didn't help our pace though. Lolan, unable to see me in front of him, slammed into me, and we both crashed to the ground. I felt some fur graze by me as well, but Tigala seemed to maintain her footing.

Havik and his enforcer seemed to pick up their pace at the sound of us falling. We climbed back up without a word and kept running.

We had to find a way out of this. There was a chance we could reach the exterior of the mountain before them. Half of us had longer, normal-sized legs at least, although, Marv and Abigail seemed to be even slower than the other small folk. Maybe that wasn't such a great plan, especially considering how long it took us to walk in that far.

Maybe if we could hide in the stone somehow. Zef's illusions probably wouldn't work because that other Gnome was able to detect them, but Abigail knew earth magic.

I began looking around for some kind of definition in the darkness and I saw the bronze glow of the symbols that made up Crag's face. They were bobbing in the darkness like he was being carried. I shifted my run in Crag's direction and began waving my arms around until I hit something wiry. I patted it a couple of times trying to figure out what it was and heard a response of, "Will you stop?"

Marv didn't care much about subtlety at the moment, speaking at normal volume and swatting my hand away from the top of his head.

"Marv, we need Abigail to make a place for us to hide in the rock," I said in a half-whisper.

"I said no magic," was his only response.

"Magic might be the only way to keep her safe right now," I said.

There were a few moments of panted breaths and then Marv groaned with anger and said, "Can you do it, Abigail?"

"I—I don't know. I can try," she said, just beyond where I could see the glow of Crag.

"Everybody, stop!" I said, again, in a half-whisper, but it was enough. I heard the footsteps around me slow and then stop altogether. We waited in silence, watching the purple glow behind us growing brighter by the second.

Then a bronze light lit the wall beside us. It was a small section, but it still gave us hope that we could avoid becoming mind-controlled prizes for the Gnomes. She pushed and a small chunk of the wall came free.

"I don't think I can do it fast enough," she said. "It feels like the wall is hollow though—like there's another tunnel on the other side."

"You need to try," said Zef, trying to sound patient.

I heard the clatter of arrows behind me as Lolan readied his bow.

"Can't we take them?" asked Tigala. I saw the orange glow as she began to shift, probably into her tiger form.

"If they're mind-controlling people and able to sense my illusions just by being kind of close to them, then no. I don't think we can," said Zef.

I tried to grow something, but rock isn't a great catalyst for plant growth, not even for mushrooms. I pulled out my dagger instead.

I saw the faint bronze glow of Abigail's magic out of the corner of my eye again while a purple glow illuminated our pursuers. They were getting close, and Abigail's inability to perform under pressure wasn't helping.

"Come on, Crag," said Marv. "They have my wife and they're not about to take back my daughter." Marv stepped forward, dropping Crag to the floor. Crag jumped out and made a sound that resembled laughter, as much as two stones rubbing together could sound like anything. The runes on his face grew brighter as he pulled chunks of the walls towards him. Rocks ripped from the tunnel and began floating toward the strange little rock creature until my view of the Gnomes was almost completely obscured, but Crag didn't make Marv into another rock monster as he did with the flash wolves. Instead, gravity returned to each of the rocks and they fell to the floor in a heap with Crag at the center. After a moment, the glow returned as Crag dove out on our side of a pile of rocks. The mound completely blocked our view of the Gnomes.

Then there was an eruption of noise. The sound of shifting stone and the scream of a large creature. I whirled around as Zef lit his staff, and I feared the worst. But once my eyes adjusted, I didn't see anything aside from more tunnel. The sound continued but there was no source to it. No rocks were moving, not creature was charging, and the sound was too close for it to be something further down the tunnel.

"Sound illusions," said Zef. "They're trying to slow us down."

"Look, Dad," said Abigail. "Crag opened the wall too."

I looked behind me and saw Marv, Abigail, and Crag staring into a tunnel that ran parallel to the one we had been traveling.

"Let's go," said Zef.

We ran into the tunnel and immediately noticed a difference between it and the previous tunnel. The previous one was smooth with a flat walking surface. The walls weren't smooth, but they held marks like they had been broken chunk by chunk. Based on what I had seen of Dwarven magic, earth magic, it looked like the entrance tunnel could have been carved by Dwarves.

This new one was completely different though. It was smaller, enough that I had to keep my head lowered as I walked. And nothing was smooth. It didn't show the pockmarks left behind from earth magic either. This one looked like whoever or whatever carved it did it in a very specific way. The whole thing was round and carved in a series of repeating ridges. It was almost as if something had burrowed through.

Our run slowed to a walk as we entered the new tunnel in the direction of the Dwarven slave camp. "What made this thing? Are we sure we want to be in here?" I asked.

"Rock worms," said Lolan. "I think that's what made this."

"What? Like earthworms?" I said.

"Except a lot bigger, with jaws powerful enough to chew through stone," said Lolan.

"Where did you hear about those?" I said, not sure if he was just trying to scare us. It didn't seem like him, but I had never known him to have a lot of knowledge about the world.

"The Stoneguard provoked some of them into attacking the Elven city of Jelthar. It's where Wik—it's where a famous Elven general got his start. The Dwarves made the rock worms tunnel in and when the worms sprang up and started wreaking havoc, the Dwarves were right behind them ready to do cleanup."

I gave him a curious look in the dim purple glow.

"What? I didn't have a lot to do other than hunt and read growing up," he said.

"So those are bad, right. We don't want to get in a fight with one?" asked TIgala.

Lolan shook his head. "They're about as thick as this tunnel as far as I know. No, we don't want to fight them."

"Great," said Tigala.

"We should really get out of here," said Zef.

"Why? They're Gnomes. They don't know earth magic," I said.

"But they can teleport. And besides, they have all of those Dwarves in their thrall," said Zef. "They're bad news, maybe worse than whatever created these tunnels."

Geez, that was a scary thought. Two Gnomes could actually be as strong as a worm with a body the size of a tree trunk? But worse than that, Zef was spooked. Zef was always the one who kept his head when we were in danger.

"Yeah, uh, let's keep moving," I said. "The Treek I talked to said he'd create a distraction in an hour or so. I don't know if that still is the case, given the situation, but maybe we can get more information about your mom." I looked at Abigail as I finished the sentence. She looked up at Marv and he just held his flat expression.

We picked up our pace and stumbled over the irregular ridges of the tunnel by the light of Zef's purple torch. The small folk didn't have much issue as they still could stand up straight in the tunnel without any fear of hitting their heads. For Tigala, Lolan, and me, it was a different story. Still, Marv seemed to be the slowest of us, taking up the rear of the group.

"So, Crag actually helped when you asked him too. Do you think he's starting to like you?" I asked.

"I don't know. There's no reasoning with this thing," he said.

"I think he's starting to trust you," said Zef. "...to do the right thing." He didn't look at us when he spoke. He was distracted, with a nervous look on his face.

"What do you mean?" I said.

"I think I've run into one of those things a long time ago. I fought a Dwarf in a rock suit. At the time, I didn't know it was that though." Zef pointed at Crag hopping along next to Marv. "Rocklings, I think they are called. I heard tales of the. Bonding with mighty warriors later and I'm only connecting the two things now. They're supposed to bond with mighty warriors."

"I think you got your facts wrong," said Marv. "I'm no warrior."

"I think you could be if you have yourself a chance," said Zef. "Maybe Crag feels the same way."

Maybe he was right. The only time I had seen Crag help Marv was when Marv had already chosen to fight. It was when Marv chose hope when there was none. Maybe Crag chooses to help when Marv is choosing courage over cowardice.

Marv didn't respond, lost in his own thoughts.

"If that's true, all you have to do is show Crag that you're being courageous and he'll help," I said. I looked down at the little rock thing and it smiled back at me with its bronze rune face.

Marv drew in a deep breath. "Let's hope it's that easy,"

I was surprised that he didn't sound angry at me for getting him into this mess. Maybe he agreed with Zef's assessment. Or maybe the mention of his wife gave him hope. "So you're in? You want to go get Talia now?"

"I'm trying to be. They said she's down there," he said, looking up at me. "Please don't make me regret this. I—I can't lose them again."

"I'll do my best," I said.

There was no noise behind us yet, which was definitely a good sign. The Gnomes hadn't made it into our current tunnel yet. Although, maybe it meant they were ready for us whenever we came out. Or maybe they knew where we would come out and were already coming toward us from the other direction. Then again, they had no way of knowing where we were without gaining access to this tunnel.

I made my way forward to Zef. "So, you have a plan?"

"I know where this comes out," he said. There was a hole near the top of the cavern where the Dwarves were that looked to be about this size. As long as this tunnel doesn't loop endlessly, we should be there soon."

"Then what?" I said.

"If we can get back there before the Gnomes do, we should figure out a way to get the workers to help," He looked up at me and said, "Maybe you shouldn't be our representative."

"What?" I said. "I'm going down there. There's no way I'm losing another Treek."

"I'm not saying you're going to lose him—" he started.

"If I don't go down there the Dwarves will use the chaos as an opportunity to kill him. Did you see the way they looked at me? They're just like everyone else, afraid of other races," I said, starting to raise my voice.

"Can you blame them?" asked Zef. "They're currently prisoners of another race that is mind controlling some of their own and forcing them to do slave labor."

I huffed. Sure they had a reason to fear other races, but that didn't mean I was going to let this opportunity slip away. I needed to get that Treek free, one way or another. "I'm going back down there," I said.

"Okay," he said. But maybe we should have Marv talk to—"

There was a noise behind us in the tunnel. It was Havik's voice, "Don't think you're getting away from us that easy!" he yelled. The voice echoed all around me like it was right next to me and far away at the same time.

Zef looked at me with panic painted on his face. "They're close!"

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