I looked in the direction Raffa was staring and the forest was alive with creatures. An army of woodland and jungle animals charged through trees and underbrush. Among them were a rhinoceros, an elephant, a giant eagle, a gorilla, a towering warthog Beastfolk, and a dire wolf.
They ran through the dense forest like I would walk through the packed earth paths at the colony—unhindered by the brush and uneven terrain. And the collection of them was more terrifying than if they were all the same type of animal. The Beastfolk had so much versatility to their magic.
"Circle up! Put the weak in the middle! Magic users up front!" Dunnel shouted orders, showing his military training. I hadn't pegged him for military, but then again, it would explain why he was so adamant about not working with other races.
Yells and screams of panic rang out among the Dwarves as they circled up. Marv set down Talia at the center of the Dwarves and then ran over to me. "Come on. Get in!" he said motioning at the circle of Dwarves. That wasn't going to make some of them happy and I didn't want to put them through that, but the only other option was handing myself over to the Beastfolk, and that was suicide.
Marv didn't wait for an answer anyway. He started pushing Lolan and me past the circle's perimeter. The Dwarves at the edge seemed hesitant to let us in, but Cavel stepped through, making an opening. Lolan stayed with me in the center, even though he could have helped fight. I was glad he was there. If this was going to be the end of it all, at least it was with the people I had grown to trust out here.
At the front of the group, Tigala, Zef, Raffa, and Marv had joined Dunnel and the other Dwarven fighters. Crag hadn't encapsulated Marv in stone yet, but Marv stood among them nonetheless.
The animal army tore through the forest. I saw Sungura in the lead, still in rabbit-Beastfolk form. The dire wolf and enlarged Torm were close behind. As they reached us, Sungura put out a hand. The group of animals stopped right in front of our huddle of Dwarves and other races. Their expressions were hard and hostile.
The two groups stared each other down for a moment. With the Dwarves being as short as they were, Lolan and I stuck out well above the people surrounding us. Tigala and Raffa were the only ones to truly create a barrier for us.
The Beastfolk breathed heavy as they caught their breath. The Dwarves and the rest our group breathed heavy too—adrenaline probably. The smell of sweaty fur wafted through the forest, and then Sungura spoke.
"Where did you come from?" She was angry, looking at the Dwarves for a second before returning her gaze to me.
"They're the Dwarven colonists," said Marv. "They were enslaved, but we helped break them out."
The gorilla snorted at that and furrowed his brows as if checking to see if we were telling the truth. A hyena looked at the other Beastfolk, searching for reactions. Sungura paused, deciding on what to say to that.
"You have something of ours. Hand them over," snarled Lobo, baring his teeth every chance he got.
"It's not happening," said Tigala. "Walk away."
"If you think we'd just walk away, you're dumber than I thought," said Lobo.
"They didn't do it," said Raffa. "You know that just as well as I do."
"And you," said Lobo. "You're just as bad. Now you're going to defend them? She killed Mila. You can't deny that."
"Because you pushed her there. She did what she had to to survive. It may have been her magic, but you killed Mila."
Lobo jumped at Raffa, snapping his teeth.
"Lobo!" Sungura shouted.
Lobo growled with his eyes locked on Raffa. "If they're going to stand in our way, we should kill them all. She probably has them in her thrall somehow."
"We can't," said the rhinoceros. "They're colonists. They might be able to help us find the others."
Raffa was looking to Sungura now. He gulped and then said, "They didn't do it. They saved my life, and Lob—"
"Shut your mouth!" Lobo snarled as he jumped forward and swiped at Raffa. He dove onto the bear.
"Lobo!" yelled Sungura. The gorilla dove into the mess, catching Lobo from the side and slamming him to the ground. Torm took a step forward.
"Don't," said Sungura, and Torm stayed put.
Cavel, of all people, stepped forward. He was small for a Dwarf, with brown hair and a neatly trimmed beard. "I don't know what happened in the past, but Kaia and the rest of their group freed us from that mountain."
"We're here because of them," said Cairn stepping next to Cavel.
Dunnel looked around at the other Dwarves and then grunted. He stepped forward too glared back at Sungura. "You can't have them. Not without a fight."
"A fight you'd lose," said Sungura.
"Probably. But is it worth losing more of your own for revenge?" said Dunnel.
Sungura studied us. She looked across all of our faces, one by one—the army of animals ready to pounce with a word. And if it did come to it, I'd be no help. I was still struggling to stand upright.
Sungura drew a deep breath and then let it out. "Very well," she said. She turned her eyes to me. "I guess you get to live another day."
"Are you serious?" shouted Lobo from beneath the hold of the gorilla. "They're murderers!"
Sungura ignored Lobo. "Do you need help transporting your wounded?"
Dunnel pulled his head back in surprise. "Uh, um. No. We'll manage."
"Then we'll clear the way for your arrival and let the colony know you are coming," said Sungura.
Sungura motioned and the group turned to leave. Some seemed happy about it, amazed even that they were looking at original Daegal colonists. Others seemed angry, glaring at me before they turned to follow.
The gorilla let Lobo up and Lobo snarled. He looked at me and said, "This isn't over." The gorilla shoved him forward.
Geez, that guy was scary. As if I didn't have enough problems waiting for me at the colony. Rodrigo wanted me dead, the stab wound in my side was only getting worse, and now there was an army of wild animals with questionable motives.
The Dwarves breathed a sigh of relief as they watched the horde of animals disappear back into the jungle, and so did I. I reached down to touch the wound again and it was gooey still. I craned my neck to look at it and saw the pink forming around it was getting worse. The infection was spreading and even further from the wound was starting to get tender to the touch. That couldn’t be good.
I also wasn't feeling good in general. I was sweating. While it was a hot day out, I was sweating much more than I should be and starting to feel a bit nautious. We needed to do something quick.
“What was all of that about,” asked Dunnel.
I saw him staring at me, though he looked more curious than angry.
Lolan had my back. “We ran into them in the woods before—outside of the colony. They weren’t happy with us, tied us up, and ultimately tried to kill us.”
Zef butted in. “We were in a dangerous location, so when we defended ourselves, one of theirs died.” It was a hard thing to convey without us sounding like murderers. I did kill her. Maybe that’s who I was now.
“They did what they had to to survive,” said Raffa. “Lobo is the one that pushed everything that far.”
Dunnel nodded. No words, just a nod.
“Thank you,” I said. “You didn’t have to do that.”
Dunnel didn’t respond. He looked at me with his mouth a thin line, nodded again, and then turned around.
“You didn’t have to help us either,” said Cavel. “I realize there was more going on there than just saving us but you didn’t have to fight for us. You could have walked away when the other Treek tried to kill us, but you fought for us… I, at least, will do the same for you.”
I wasn’t sure I deserved it. I was also the one to set that whole situation into motion. “Thanks,” I said.
“Keep your eyes open,” said Dunnel, addressing the whole group. “We don’t know if these Beastfolk mean what they said or if they’re planning some sort of surprise attack.”
Some of the other Dwarves mumbled to one another as they picked up their burdens and kept walking. We continued in that general formation, though a little more spread out. Raffa walked ahead of us, separate. He didn’t even try to talk to Tigala, the only other Beastfolk among us. I looked at Lolan and motioned at Raffa with my head. We broke out of the Dwarven formation and joined the bear Beastfolk.
“So, what changed your mind?” I asked, looking up at him.
“I’m sorry,” he said. “You helped us, even after we tried to kill you, and I betrayed you.”
“You’re a Beastfolk. It’s the way things work.” I said.
“You’re right,” he said as if still wrestling with the choice he had just made. “Lobo lied to me. He didn’t tell me they might kill you, and at the time, I was still upset enough to believe him. Mila had been with us for a long time.”
“I’m sorry,” I said. I looked at the ground as we walked. “It wasn’t on purpose.”
“I know that now, but I wouldn’t let myself believe it then,” said Raffa. “We put you in a situation to lose. But I think we all might have died if you hadn’t done that. Lobo doesn’t know how to give up, or even just wait.”
“Yeah, so I’ve noticed,” I said.
“We were just following orders. I think Mila may have eventually come around too if she…” said Raffa. He didn’t finish his statement. “She was a good soldier and a friend.”
I hated myself for killing her. I didn’t want to. I just wanted it to stop. There’s so much hatred, especially around me. All I have to do is show someone my face and the anger boils up inside like an erupting volcano.
Raffa must have noticed me thinking to myself. “You did what you had to,” he said. “It’s not your fault.”
I nodded. “Thanks.”
Lolan and I walked close to him for a bit as we continued through the forest. We didn’t talk.
After a few hours, we finally broke out of the forest and found the colony, framed by the shore beyond. So many emotions spilled out upon seeing it. I was nervous about what was to come. I was relieved thinking of the relative comfort it offered. I was worried about the races and how they had mingled, and I was curious to see the damage caused by that mind-controlled hydra that attacked.
We walked out of the forest and into the open field in front of the colony. The sun was low in the sky casting shades of red, orange, and purple across the sky. Other search parties were returning for the day too. Most of them stopped upon seeing us and stared. One that I hadn't noticed before was a group of three Humans. They were dressed in gold armor and held their heads high. They looked funny—more like kids playing dress-up than an actual band of warriors.
And at the gate was Beastfolk horde. Glaring at us as we approached. They were intimidating, to say the least. Who knew if they just wanted us contained somewhere so that they could catch us off guard, or if they were waiting for the Dwarves to leave so that I would be easier to kill. It was a scary thought.
The representatives were there as well. At the gate stood Tallesia, the white Avian, the bald Dwarf, the Gnome with the mustache, Srak, and Sungura stayed with the other Beastfolk. I didn't see Rodrigo anywhere though. I wondered if that was a good sign or not. He was yet another person who might want my head when given the right opportunity, and I could barely stand up straight at the moment. I couldn't imagine it being hard for him to find the right opportunity now.
Zef and Tigala stayed close to me and Lolan as we hobbled to the gates. Dwarves were making their way to the town square beyond, and some of our protective formations had already broken off to run to their loved ones. It was an emotional moment, but I was too nervous to think about it.
I looked at my friends around me as we crossed through the gate. Zef looked up at me and said, "Don't worry, we'll get you taken care of."