"The cavern's coming down!" Someone shouted behind me as a wagon-sized rock fell from the central column and crashed into the floor. The vine wrapped around it had pulled a section of the column out of line from the rest and the column was proving too weak to hold the weight.
"Fortify the column," someone else shouted.
The Treek looked me dead in the eyes. "It's a shame to kill another Treek when there are so few of us left, but I guess if you're not going to protect other Treeks, you don't really count."
That smug jerk. I could see how the war could push someone this far, but still, he was even willing to kill his own if they stood in his way. There was nothing left in him that I wanted to emulate. He was a Treek. He was good at nature magic. But he was wrong. There were other ways forward—ways other than killing. At least I hoped so.
He began to squeeze the vines that held me. My arms twisted inward further than they should be able to and it became hard to breathe. Vines popped as the pressure grew. I tried to get my chest to rise and fall with an inhale, but the pressure was too much.
"What? Cat got your tongue?" said the Treek, toying with me.
Then there was a blur of orange and black behind the Treek.
"No. Cat's got you," I whispered.
The blur slammed into him. I followed with my eyes and found Tigala, in tiger-form, tackling the Treek to the ground.
She stood on his chest with her face so close to his that he probably felt drops of spit as she spoke. "Should I kill him, Kaia?" she asked without taking her eyes off of him.
The Treek was breathing heavy and shaking. "What is this?"
"Shut up!" spat Tigala.
I tried to respond but it was getting hard to muster up enough breath to form the words.
"Let her go," Tigala said to the Treek.
The vines loosened and I dropped back down to the ground gasping for air. I regained my breath and stood to my feet. I hurried over to the Treek as Dwarves scrambled around us to keep the cavern from collapsing in on itself. "What is your name?" I asked.
"What?" he asked, incredulous.
"Tell me your name," I said again.
"It's Riak," he said.
"Leave, Riak," I said. "Leave now, and my friends and I will leave you alone."
"You're friends?" said Riak. "You're disg—"
"Leave!" growled to Tigala. She shoved him to his feet and he looked back at me, confused. Then, he ran toward the main exit of the cavern, disappearing into the chaos that surrounded us.
Dwarves were raising pillars of stone to try and fortify the central column while others were still occupied with the guards and Gnome captors. I saw Marv and Abigail not too far away. "You're good?" I said to Tigala. She nodded. "Let's find Marv's wife and get out of here then."
I found Marv in a cloud of dust slamming his fists into lengths of rock that fired at him from the ground. Abigail was nowhere in sight. Marv's attacker had his back to the crumbling column and wore the pink glow on his temples. Getting them out of here without badly hurting them was going to be nearly impossible.
We rounded the corner as someone else stepped out from behind a mound with their back to us. I ran into him and he shouted with fright. It was Lolan's voice.
"What are you doing down here?" I said. I had never known him to prefer close combat, but as he straightened himself up, I saw his sword drawn and held in front of him.
"Arrows might kill someone, and we're trying to save most of the people attacking us. I thought maybe I could help more down here."
"Come on. We're going to get Talia," I said.
"Yeah. Lead the way," said Lolan.
The tower continued crumbling as we ran. The Dwarves that were competent in earth magic were doing their part to hold it in place, but there weren't enough of them, at least not enough of them that weren't trying to escape or locked in combat with the guards or Gnomes. We were going to have to be quick.
We ducked past the column and a large stone fell crashing into a lower section of the pillar and then plummeting towards us. I saw it too late and tried to roll out of the way. I scrambled but knew it wasn't enough. Then I heard the rock impact. But I didn't feel pain. I looked down at my legs and saw them still intact. The boulder rolled to a stop next to me and I raised my eyes to find Marv in his stone suit with a fist in the direction of the boulder. He looked at me and then something struck him in the back—a stone launched by the guard he had been facing down earlier. More rocks catapulted toward him and he yelled "Go get my wife!" as he charged headlong into the flurry.
Lolan pulled me back to my feet and we kept running toward the hallway at the back of the cavern. Behind us, a battle echoed and the whole cavern threatened to cave in on itself. It could be any moment, but I had pushed Marv this far. I had brought his daughter into this. I had hated him for giving up, and now, he was helping us. He had hope again. I couldn't let that hope die. I had to show him life could be better, even if I didn't fully believe it myself.
We entered the tunnel and found a damp stone staircase leading deeper into the mountain. At the bottom of the stairs, a lit brazier illuminated the hall with a dancing glow. The hallway ended at a sturdy wooden doorway.
"I got this," said Tigala. She pushed passed us in the tight hall and began tearing at the wood with her good claw. She ripped and pulled near the lock until the screws had little left to hold onto. Then she stuck her claw between wall and wood and pulled. The latched ripped free of the wood and the door swung open.
Inside, the light of the fire only cast a dull light into the room, but as soon as we stepped in, it was the smell that hit us. It was a stink of urine and excrement, like walking through a sewer, but this was no sewer. On either side of our path were wooden columns standing upright like tree trunks. The floor was covered in wood as well as the ceiling and walls. It was a prison for Dwarves.
Then, I heard a noise like crying, a sad whimpering off to our right. I looked and saw nothing through the dense wooden poles.
"Did you hear that?" I said to the others.
Lolan looked at me with furrowed brows. "Hear what?"
"Uh—" I said. Was I hearing things now?
Then Lolan swung around. "Who's there?" he said pointing his blade at the doorway behind us. I turned around to look and saw no one. "Someone said something," he said.
I drew my dagger and kept a wary eye out for any movement. There was another whimper off to the left this time. I turned and saw nothing again. Then there was a flash of purple energy as Havik appeared behind Tigala. He swung his arm at her and I dove at him with my blade. "Tigala!" I yelled. When I would have struck him, he vanished, and I fell through the dissipating purple energy, rolling to keep from stabbing Tigala.
"What?" said Tigala.
"It was Havik, the Gnome. He's teleport—" I started, but didn't have time to finish. I saw the faint glow reflecting off stone and turned to find the source. Havik appeared behind me swinging his blade, but before he could hit me, a sword swung at him. He ducked, and hopped into another portal, leaving us in the darkness again.
"Keen eyes," said Tigala.
"What?" said Lolan.
"Have keen eyes. Keep a lookout. I don't know how you hairless folk say it," said Tigala.
"Oh, right," said Lolan. He turned and walked backwards down the hall, keeping us safe from attacks from the doorway.
Then I heard Lolan yell. I turned around to see him charging down the hallway with his sword raised. He stabbed it downward with such force that when it found nothing to hit, Lolan stumbled and fell to the ground. A moment later, Havik appeared nearly on top of Lolan. He went to stab but hesitated.
"You're a half breed!" he said, looking with disgust at Lolan's uncovered face and ears. "You're the reason we fight this fight!" Havik yelled as he plunged the dagger at Lolan's chest, but I wasn't just going to let him monologue for the fun of it. I was already running at him and dove my shoulder into the Gnome's back. I guess Lolan had upset him enough to make him slip up.
A moment after I crashed into him, the Gnome vanished again, and I struggled to not dive straight at Lolan.
"Why would a Gnome care," said Lolan next to me on the floor. He looked scared, distraught.
"I don't know," I said. "Keep your hood down. Maybe we can hit him harder next time."
We pulled ourselves up, and I heard another noise like a groan. I hurried forward at the noise and the others followed. There behind the wooden cell bars was a single Dwarf woman. She was thin and dirty, with a trail of crusted blood running from a hole in her shirt. Her head was slumped down.
"Talia?" I said.
She didn't move. We're too late, I thought.
"Talia," I said, being more forceful this time.
She startled and lifted her eyes to look in our direction. "Who's there?" she asked with a faded voice.
"We're friends of Marv and Abigail. We're going to get you out of there." I said.
"How are we going to do that?" said Tigala.
"Lolan, can you use fire magic again?" I asked.
"I—I don't know," he said.
"Use it," I said. "Use the anger."
He sheathed his sword and drew in a deep breath as he stared at the floor. His breathing grew heavier as he focused. Then he threw his hands forward and fire shot out at the wooden pillars.
I saw Talia's face turn to terror as she saw our faces lit by fire. But she didn't move. She just watched us as the flames started to light the wooden room on fire.
"Can you walk, Talia?" I asked.
She was cautious and slow, but she did manage to stand up. But we were too slow. A purple flash of energy showed again, but this time it was in her cell. Havik stood between us and her with his blade drawn.
"I had been meaning to kill you anyway," he said.
"Lolan!" I said. He moved his hands and the flame shot across Talia's cell. Havik jumped to the side to avoid the flame and the fire caught on floor and wall. Then Havik walked back toward Talia at an angle that would force Lolan to hit both of them if he took another shot.
This stupid war! I screamed the words in head. I ran at the biggest hole in the mess of flame and wood. It hurt as I squeezed my body between burning logs, but I couldn't let it all come down to this. Talia couldn't die when we were so close to saving her. I pushed through and my body screamed at the heat. My wounds from previous days were magnified with the intense heat. I screamed, out loud this time, without meaning to.
I stabbed my dagger at Havik, but he was ready for me. He spun around, but despite being warned by my scream, he looked surprised. He tried to move out of the way, but my dagger still pierced his shoulder. It felt weird—not how I expected. I thought it would have hit bone, but it felt like gooey flesh.
Havik screamed in pain and then disappeared through another portal. I looked around and didn't see him anywhere so I kneeled to help Talia up. She still wore a look of fear on her face and was hesitant to take my help.
"We're friends of Marv and Abigail. They helped us find you and the others," I said. There was a loud crash that echoed down the stairs and into our chamber—the cave crumbling above us. "Come on, we need to get you out of here."
I reached down to pick her up. She was dense like Marv, heavier than she looked due to her dense build. It seemed even the female Dwarves were inherently muscular.
Then Tigala yelled. "Kaia!"