A coughing fit brought me back to consciousness. My throat was hoarse. And even though, I was aware of my breathing and coughing again, the light that I had seen was gone. I was surrounded by darkness. Maybe I am dead, I thought.
I blinked my eyes and looked around. The sound of shifting stone startled me, sending me into another coughing fit. But as I looked around, I realized I was in a room, roughly the same size as the hallway where I shared my dying breaths with Lolan, Tigala, and Talia, but there was no fire. There were solid sheets of rock that formed a box around me. I put my hand down on the surface where I laid and felt flat cold stone. I heard a hushed conversation going on around me, but it was hard to see anything other than shadows. Then a dim purple light appeared beside an old Gnome's wrinkled face.
"You're awake," said Zef with a concerned smile on his face. "How do you feel?"
"What happened?" I asked, trying my best to suppress more coughs.
"You almost died," he said. "I went with Marv and some other Dwarves to find you. Looks like we got to you just in time."
"The others, are they okay?" I asked. I tried to look for them in the darkness but I couldn't see much past the purple glow of Zef's staff.
I heard a shuffling on the side opposite of Zef and looked over. "We made it," said Tigala. "The only one who hasn't woken up yet is Talia. She passed out before you did."
"Is she okay?" I said. I tried to push myself up on my arms, but the pain in my side reminded me of the wound I took from Havik. Dried blood stuck to fabric and threatened to tear from the wound.
"I don't know," said Tigala in a solemn voice.
Lolan crawled into the light next to me and said, "Hey, glad to have you back."
"Thanks," I said. "I'm glad we all made it. I thought we were dead." I tried to look around the room again without much luck."Where are we?"
"It's a cave," said Lolan. "The Dwarves made it last night to keep us contained for the evening. It was pretty late when Zef found us."
"Where are they?" I asked, seeing how small the room was.
"They're in a separate cave," said Zef.
"After all of that, they want to go back underground?" I asked.
"They're Dwarves," said Zef, shrugging.
"So we're trapped in here?" I said.
"Yup," said Zef. "They aren't sure if they trust us yet, even with Marv backing us up."
"They thought about killing us," said Tigala.
"What?" I said. "After we just saved them?"
"Hey, you were the one who set that Treek into motion," said Tigala.
"I didn't know he was going to try and kill everyone," I said. Tigala just gave me a look, like she was waiting for me to process. "I guess that makes sense though. I am a Treek after all." I thought of the first time Tigala and I met and smirked at her. I still had a scab on my arm from that fight. It amazed me that she was on my side now.
"You believe what you want to believe until you can't anymore," said Zef. "They'll come around."
"Did you see what happened to him—the other Treek?" I asked Tigala.
She shook her head. "I lost track of him with everything going on. Last I saw, he was headed for the exit tunnel. I don't know how he would have gotten out without a Dwarf though."
It was hard to hear that he was gone. I could have learned so much from him. But instead, I chose to get stabbed, to almost suffocate, and to save people that would entomb me in stone. I didn't even get to ask him about the others. He might have known my parents. Maybe they were in the Treek colony. And now he was probably dead in the rubble. It hurt to think about, in a different way than the throbbing pain in my side.
I looked at the rest of the group. I was lost in my thoughts and the others seemed to be aware of it. They still sat close enough for the purple glow to light their faces, but they waited for me to process. I looked at them. It was a weird group, but they were good people as far as I could tell. For some reason, they wanted to help, where no one else would. We were a team—a unit. And regardless of what we were up against, I think I trusted them to have my back.
"Thanks, guys, for getting me out of there," I said. I meant it in more ways than I voiced, but I wasn't sure how to say it. I think they got the point.
Tigala nodded. Lolan squeezed my arm and smiled.
"We couldn't just leave you down there," said Zef with a clever smile. "Who else would make sure we got plenty of veggies to eat?"
I began to laugh but it turned into a cough and reminded me of the pain in my side. I reached over to grab it again. It didn't help.
When the pain calmed enough for me to speak again, I said, "So where do we go from here? I'm kind of lost now that I threw away my chance at being a normal Treek again. My parents might still be out there, but I don't know where I'd look for them."
"I think the colony needs to know about this," said Lolan. "...about the Dwarves—the colonists. We need to tell them."
"Rodrigo said he'd kill me," I said. "Even with news like this, I'm not sure I want to see how willing he is to follow through."
"I don't know," said Zef. "He seemed different. I still don't know why but he let us free before the Beastfolk got their hands on us. He's always been one to play by the rules, so it would have been a lot easier for him to just let the Beastfolk have us."
"He hates me pretty bad," I said.
Tigala nodded. "Yeah, he does."
"But about your family," said Zef. "We're all looking for people. Marv found his loved ones, which means there's hope for us too. We're in this together now. We'll help each other."
"Yeah," I said. "I'd like that."
The familiar sound of stone scraping on stone erupted into the room. A blinding light broke the darkness and someone stepped. "Come on," said Abigail. I recognized her silhouette once my eyes adjusted enough to look her way. "We talked them into letting you out, now that it's daytime."
I tried to sit up again but the pain in my side was too much. "I'll get you," said Tigala begrudgingly as she lifted me from the ground. That made my side hurt too, possibly more than walking would have, but I let her do her thing.
The four of us stepped into the light of day squinting covering our eyes with arms. Once my eyes had partially adjusted, I looked around in all of the trees for Chipry, but I didn't see him. I hoped he made it out alright in all of the chaos.
Abigail led us over to where Marv laid against a rock. Next to him was Talia, laying down and still. She was either sleeping or unconscious from the smoke inhalation. I didn't ask. Marv sat with his arms and legs sprawled like he planned to stay in that spot for a while. The exposed parts of his skin revealed purple bruises—the stone that was Crag lay next to him, still.
Marv gave me a smile when he saw me. It was more than I expected from him. It was a sad smile, but still a smile. "Thank you," he said. "I'm...I...I don't know how to say this, but thank you. I lost hope." He looked over at Talia with his lips in a thin line. "I wouldn't have either of them without you."
I didn't know what to say, so I gave a slow nod instead. "Is she okay?" I asked. For a guy who had lost hope, I wasn't sure how his wife nearly suffocating helped.
"I hope so," he said. "Cavel took a look at her and said she's stable at least. We just need to wait for her to pull through."
"I'm sorry I couldn't get to her in time," I said.
"No, I saw what you did. None of us knew that Treek was going to bring the cavern down. You bought us all time."
I didn't feel like I had helped. It felt like I provoked that situation into happening. I was glad it at least got Marv on my side though.
I looked around, with my eyes better adjusted to the light of day, we were standing at the foot of the mountain. Boulders littered the landscape and several other Dwarves were standing about them. Then I heard a chirp in the trees. A colorful bird flew down and landed on my lap, hopping from one leg to the other and tweeting incessantly.
"Chipry!" I said. "I was starting to get afraid to ask if anyone had seen you."
Chipry just kept dancing on my legs. It was a good thing I had told him to get out of there when I had. That cave was no place for a bird like him.
"He's been around camp all morning, looking for you," said Marv.
"Aww, you're the best, Chipry," I said.
I watched him dance. It brought a smile to my face, even though I was dreading what I had to do. He'd be much happier in the forests, on his own. I had gotten him in danger too many times, and I couldn't bear to have him taken away from me like that. I picked him up in my hands and put my face against him, his soft feathers were so smooth against my cheek. I held him back in front of me and said, "You should stay out here, Chipry. You're only going to get hurt hanging around me."
Chipry didn't seem to understand. He cocked his head to the side, and then kept jumping around on my lap.
Then I heard another tweet from a nearby tree branch. I looked up and saw a similar bird with less pronounced colors. I looked from Chipry to the bird in the tree over and over. "Did you find a girlfriend, Chip?"
Chipry just fluttered up the tree branch next to what I had to assume was a female of his species. "Haha, way to go, Chip!"
Chipry flew back down to my lap and tweeted at me, less excited than before, and I realized, he was saying goodbye too. I choked up a little bit and let him hop onto my finger. I lifted him up again and said, "But you better come visit, okay?"
Chipry tweeted at me and then jumped up onto my head. He nuzzled into my hair and flew back to the tree branch above with the other bird. He chirped again as if saying goodbye, and the two birds flew off into the forest.
I took a deep breath, which hurt. I was happy for him but sad at the same time. Chipry and I had each other's backs from the moment we met, but now he had found a family. I looked around at the group around me with watering eyes; I guess I had found family too.
The others had watched as I said my goodbye. Tigala was either unaware of the impact that had on me, or she was trying to change the subject as she started up the conversation. "What are they going to do?" she asked, indicating the other Dwarves. "They know about the colony?"
"Yes," said Marv. "It sounds like most of them want to go. The rest aren't willing to split up, so they're planning to find their loved ones and leave."
"I don't blame them," said Tigala.
"And go where?" asked Lolan.
"I don't know if they've decided yet," said Marv. "Many of us don't have a place to return to. Some people want to build a new home on Daegal."
"Hmm," said Zef. "That might be bad for the colony."
What the Dwarves wanted to do made sense, but Zef was right. What did that mean for the colony? If the Dwarves were all found, that meant they no longer needed the peace treaty. It meant that they could leave and commit acts of war without consequences. They could colonize Daegal, on their own. They could turn this place, this new land, into a warzone, like everywhere else. It couldn't come to that. Not before we found the rest.
Whatever was happening on Daegal needed to be stopped. There were more people out there, probably enslaved by Havik or his allies. My people might be among them. My parents. And Tigala's pack too. We couldn't let them be doomed. We couldn't let the centuries of built-up racial hatred settle their fates.
Tigala sat me down to lean against a rock. And I watched the other Dwarves. They had built a fire for people to gather around but they had no food to cook over it. Many of them stared at the flames, looking worse for wear. Their bodies were thinner than any of the Dwarves back in the colony and their faces wore a look of weariness and exhaustion. Some of them looked my way with nervous eyes, but most talked to the other Dwarves, ignoring us.
I looked up at Tigala and said, "Help me up?" She wrapped a paw under my upper arm and pulled me to my feet. It killed to stand, and even more to walk, but we needed to work together. We needed to help each other out of this mess.
I walked with short soft steps over toward the campfire. A couple of the Dwarves saw me coming and backed up. One man stepped in front of the woman next to him, ready to defend. I raised my hands slowly.
We needed them, and they needed us. Who cares what the Dwarves did to my people. Who cares what anyone did. This mindset of fear and hoarding. It wasn't sustainable. It wasn't healthy. If things kept up the way they had been, the world would end up like Daegal—a relic of some forgotten past.
I took another step forward and my foot landed wrong. A sharp pain shot through my side, flaring at the knife wound. I fell to my knees.
I heard footsteps behind me, Tigala or Lolan coming to help me up. I shooed them away. I was close enough. I got their attention. I stayed there, kneeling in front of the Dwarves and put my hands to the dark forest soil. I picked up a clump of it and sifted it with my fingers.
Then, I put my hands to the ground and pushed my magic into it. The energy flowed out, and for the first time in a long time, it drained me. I felt myself weakening as I shaped it, forming roots and stems and leaves. I pushed harder and my body strained to control the energy. I was so tired already, so weak. I shouldn't be using my magic at all, but I had to. We needed each other. We needed to stop fighting. I pushed harder still following the memorized paths to form various plant stems, leaves, and flowers. When I thought I couldn't hold out any longer, I gave one last push—the finishing touch.
I collapsed to the ground, coughing once again. My vision blurred and my stomach churned. Energy that should have been reserved for healing was gone...used...spent. I didn't bother looking at my plants. I knew they were done. I laid there catching my breath.
I heard footsteps from the direction of the fire. "Are they safe?" asked a Dwarf.
"They're safe," said Marv from his spot among the rocks. "They're delicious too."
"Why?" asked the Dwarf that left the campfire. "Why would she..."
I was too busy catching my breath to explain, but Zef knew. "A peace offering," he said. "We're not your enemies."