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7.1 Interlude: Zef

# 2726 14 - 18 mins. 10

"She's perfect, Fenna," Zef said, staring at the sleeping baby in his arms. "She'll never do anything wrong."

"Hah, I think you're in for a surprise then," said Fenna, laying in bed. She was probably tired, but Zef couldn't tell. She looked more beautiful than ever right now, and so did their daughter. She was so perfect and innocent. He would do anything for that girl.

"No. You're wrong. Just look at her. Even the way she snores is perfect!" Zef held the baby girl close to Fenna's head so she could hear her sleeping.

Fenna chuckled and then groaned with a hand on her stomach. "That is pretty cute."

"What do you think she'll do with her life? She's bound to do great things! Maybe she'll write stories, or become a leader of our people, or discover new ways to use magic," Zef said.

"Maybe she'll make her dad less cheesy," said Fenna.

"I don't know if she'll do things that great," said Zef smiling at Fenna. "Just kidding. If anyone can do it, she can."

"Okay, bring her here. I want to see her too," said Fenna. Zef carried the sleeping baby over and did his best to lay down on the bed with Fenna without waking the baby. They both stared at the small Gnome wrapped in cloth and Fenna said, "Our little Amara."

"It won't hold!" shouted a Dwarf. "Everyone out!"

Dwarves start scrambling up the large staircase into the entrance tunnel. Some were still locked in combat with the guards, but the other Gnomes seemed to have disappeared. Zef looked around the room for Kaia, Lolan, and Tigala and they were nowhere to be seen. He began to run away from the staircase, his eyes frantically darting around the room. None of them were there. He couldn't lose them too.

"Kaia!" he yelled. "Tigala! Lolan!" His voice was barely audible over all of the commotion, even in his own ears.

He continued to run a circle around the crumbling column. Debris fell around him and the cave filled with a haze of rock dust. "Kaia!" he yelled. Still nothing. Then he saw the hallway—the place that the Gnomes had gone before they found Zef's group. It was where Talia must be. They'd never make it out in time.

Zef sprinted toward the hallway. A large rock fell from the ceiling, so close that ground shook. Zef only dodged it by a hair. Rocks were falling all around him and he feared he wouldn't make it.

"We need to go!" yelled Marv from his rock golem suit. Zef looked and saw the monster barreling toward him with Abigail clinging to one hand.

"No," said Zef. "They're down there!" He kept running for the hallway.

Marv either didn't hear him or didn't care. He grabbed Zef with a giant stone hand and ran for the nearest wall. It was the crevice that Kaia and Tigala had hidden in while they were sneaking into the cave earlier. Marv tore at the opening, creating a shallow cave and throwing the loose rock into the room behind him. Two more Dwarves, straggling behind the rest, saw Marv's cave and ran to join them. Then, the ceiling fell behind them, trapping them in the dark.

"Now you try," said Zef walking with a stick in his hand. He stopped and pivoted to smirk at the little girl who also held a stick. Zef flicked his hands in a beckoning motion.

The girl narrowed her eyes and ran. She ran to Zef's left maintaining the distance between herself and Zef. As she ran, something looked wrong. She disappeared for a split second and then reappeared a step ahead. There was a patter of small footsteps on the opposite side of Zef. He swung his stick low to his left and the illusionary image of the running girl dissipated. Then Amara appeared to his right. He was ready to intercept.

"Very good, Amara," said Zef, smiling down at the girl. "But your faint had a hiccup in it and—"

A sharp pain hit him in the back of his left leg, and he turned to find Amara behind him, smiling back at him with her stick extended.

"Well, nicely done," he said. "Good for you, taking advantage of the fact that I thought I had won." Zef bent down and squeezed the girl in his arms.

"Can we do it again?" said Amara. "I want to be a great warrior like you."

"Heh heh. And you will be. But I think that's enough for today."

"Please!" Amara begged. "Just one more time. Pretty please!"

Zef's smile grew wider as he admired his daughter. "Okay, one more time."

Zef paced back and forth with the dim purple glow on his staff bobbing along next to him.

"Can you keep that still? This ain't as easy as it looks," said a Dwarf who was tearing stone from the wall.

"Oh, yes," said Zef. He raised the light so that it would help everyone with him.

The tunnel they stood in was small. Only a little taller than the height of the Dwarves to accommodate Marv in his rock suit. Marv and another Dwarf ripped chunks from the wall in front of them, while Abigail and a fourth Dwarf worked on compressing the stone and pushing it into the walls. It made for a narrow walking path, as stone doesn't compress quickly, but at least it was forward progress.

Zef began to pace again as his thoughts returned to the rest of his group. Then he stopped himself. Calm down, he thought. They're going to be okay. It wasn't enough to soothe his fears, but at least he stopped himself from pacing again. The Dwarves needed a steady light to find the others quickly—to find Kaia.

"It should be just a bit further," said the Dwarf up front with Marv. They tore another large chunk of stone from the wall. Marv held it with is rock fists and the other Dwarf held his end with a bronze glow. They both pulled back and the stone tore in half so that Abigail and the other rear Dwarf could compress it into the wall.

Zef tried to keep his focus. He tried to believe that they were all okay. But there was doubt, as black as the tunnel behind them, creeping into his thoughts. This was right. It had to be, but it had only ever brought him pain and loss. He wasn't sure he'd be able to handle any more of it. But there was nothing he could do, except light the tunnel. His foot stepped down and then his other and then he stopped himself again. They're probably fine, he thought. We've gotten out of a lot of tough spots. They'll get out of this one too.

The Dwarves ripped another chunk from the wall, then another. Then, with a final pull, the cracking stone echoed into an opening beyond. Smoke began to pour into the tunnel and Zef had to duck down to stay under it. The Dwarves rushed through the hole and began coughing on the thick black haze. Zef was the last in. He spotted Kaia and a sense of relief rolled over him. But she moved sluggishly, her head rolled forward and she didn't raise it again.

As soon as they pulled everyone into their makeshift tunnel, Zef said: "Quick! Seal the door. Let's get them out of here!"

"Amara, we have to stop this!" said Zef, staring up at his daughter. He still admired her. She was so strong, and brave. She was an amazing leader and cunning warrior, just like she had always wanted to be. He had trained her well. Too well maybe.

"That's exactly what I'm trying to do," said Amara. "Now get out of my way!" She sat in Gnome machination, twice his height. She stared down at him, an old Gnome, blocking her path.

"This isn't the right way," pleaded Zef. His eyes began to water. She was no longer his little girl. She was an adult, thinking for herself, but still working from some of the lessons he had taught her. It crushed him.

"This is the only way," said Amara. "These vultures killed her, Dad. They killed Mom! They need to pay. They need to feel what it's like to lose someone they love. Maybe then this war will end. That's how the world works. Now get out of my way before I move you myself."

"Please," said Zef. It was all he could muster as tears started streaming down his face.

A mechanical hand wrapped around him and lifted him off the ground. He was raised to eye level with Amara. She stared him down in disgust. Her eyebrows quivered, and Zef feared she would snap him in half with the strength of her machine. If that would make her see the truth, he was content with it. Their eyes met for a moment, and then she threw him to the side. He tumbled in the dirt.

"Stay out of my way," she said. "You're a traitor."

"Why are we saving Gnomes and Treeks?" asked a nameless Dwarf. "Didn't they make all of this happen?"

"I saw the Treeks bring down the cavern," said another. "Brumble was still in there."

Zef wasn't paying much attention. He was making sure that his group was okay. He checked Kaia first. She was breathing where she laid on the edge of the mountain. The Dwarves surrounded them, looking worse for wear. There were less of them than they saw in the cave, but not by much.

Kaia seemed to be breathing fine, despite a rasp to her inhales, so Zef moved on to Lolan. He seemed to be doing better than Kaia. He had passed out and needed to be dragged up to the surface, but he was already starting to rouse. The crisp night air must have helped.

Zef looked over to Tigala next while the angered Dwarven voices melded together behind him. Tigala was sitting with her back to a wall. She hadn't lost consciousness and was able to walk herself up the tunnel and help drag some of the others. She had matted fur smoke-stained fur and several cuts along her arms, but she'd be alright.

Lolan opened his eyes and said, "What happened?"

"You ran out of air," said Zef, trying to maintain his cheery composure. Worrying them would only make matters worse. "Or, you almost ran out. We found you just in time."

"How many times," said Tigala, breaking to cough. "...do I have to drag you and Kaia's limp bodies out of a bad situation?"

Zef only smiled. He caught Lolan doing the same. "Thanks, Tigala," said Lolan. "Hopefully that's the last one."

"You should rest too," said Zef. "I'm not sure what that smoke might have done to your breathing. Don't try anything too crazy."

"Is Kaia okay?" asked Lolan, looking over at her.

"I hope so," said Zef. "She's breathing, so that's a good sign."

"Havik stabbed her," said Lolan. "—in her lower back."

"I know," said Zef. He had a harder time keeping his composure this time. The worry showed on his face.

Zef walked back over to Kaia and the chorus of angry Dwarves behind him made it hard to keep his thoughts straight. Zef ripped a purple strip of cloth from his waistcoat. It was made of a hodgepodge of colorful cloth sewn together. Zef looked down at the torn purple strip with threads still hanging from it.

He thought of when they made the coat. Amara had picked out the purple cloth. It was her favorite color. Zef supplied most of the cloth from old ripped clothing he had gathered from recent military excursions. No one else wanted non-Gnomish clothes, but fabric was fabric, and Amara wanted to learn to sew. Amara insisted on buying some new purple fabric to make it fun, and Fenna—so distant now—helped her sew it all together.

He smiled at the strip of cloth with moisture in his eyes. He got the fabric wet and wiped down the wound in Kaia's lower back, removing crusted blood and allowing more to ooze out. He wrapped another torn strip around her waist, covering the wound.

He hadn't even noticed the crowd behind him. As he rose from Kaia's side he found himself surrounded by angry Dwarves. He looked past them and saw Tigala pinned against the mountainside with several stone columns.

"I say we kill 'em now. Letting them live would be dangerous." said a male Dwarf with short brown hair and a chin covered in stubble. He opened his palms toward the ground as if they were already resting on stone columns and a bronze glow grew on the ground beneath him.

The tears were now running down Zef's face, but not from fear. Then, the crowd parted and a head-sized rock rolled through, in front of the Dwarf. It sat there for a second with everyone staring at it, and then stone arms and legs sprung off of it. Crag stood before the Dwarf with one hand waggling in the air, and an angry look on his face. Then Marv hobbled in behind them.

"Don't do this!" he said. "That Gnome and Treek got me here. Without them, you would still be in there. You would still be slaves."

"Why should we trust you?" said another Dwarf that Zef couldn't place in the crowd. "The Gnome is probably forcing you to say that."

"I don't have pink marks. I just helped you all escape," said Marv. The look of confusion on his face showed through exhaustion.

"Maybe he's using an illusion to cover up the marks," said another Dwarf.

"We are helping you," said Marv. "My wife was with you...and my daughter."

"Even if you're telling the truth," said the short-haired Dwarf in front of Zef. "We can't trust these people around us." He looked back at Zef with a menacing look. "What do you have to say for yourself, Gnome?"

Zef looked down at the ground. He spotted Crag still waggling a stone arm and couldn't help but smirk. He saw the jacket he wore and thought of Amara once again. Then he looked the Dwarf in the eyes.

"I've been down this road before," said Zef. "You've all been through terrible things. You just got out of one. And you're angry. I get that. You want someone to blame...I did too.

"And I've done terrible things—things that I will never stop regretting. Things that will haunt me for the rest of my life. And I do not doubt that many of you have as well. It's the world we live in. But it doesn't have to be. Not anymore."

Zef began looking around the crowd, trying to make eye contact with any Dwarf that would look back. "I care about this Treek, and whether you want to believe it or not, she's the one who found you." Zef began pointed at Kaia, and then the others in his group. "She's the one who brought me, the Elf, the Beastfolk, and even some of your fellow Dwarves together. And when the other Treek tried to bring down the cavern, she tried to stop him.

"Whether you want to believe it or not, we are here to help. Each of us is an outcast in some form or another, and we helped not because we wanted anything from all of you. We helped because you were in trouble. We helped because maybe, in some version of this world, we thought helping might let you see that there is more than just war and revenge."

Zef kneeled and locked eyes with the Dwarf directly in front of him once more. "So if you want to kill me, then kill me. If that's what makes you feel better, then do it. But there is a better way." Zef looked down at his jacket one last time. He thought of Amara. He had failed her, but maybe his death could help these people. Tears ran down his face as he spoke through trembling lips. "Together, we can be so much greater."

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