20.1 Ash
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What do we do now? It was the question all of us had been thinking. It had only been two days since Briqor was destroyed, and five more towns and cities had been leveled since then. What were we supposed to do? We only had small armies in comparison to an unstoppable world-ending beast. And people weren't willing to trust the other races enough to band together. Even with more ambassadors reaching out each day, it wasn't enough. There was too much hatred. Too much pain and hurt. There were too many things that they were unwilling to overlook, even if it meant that we were all going to go down together.

It was frustrating. I looked out over the rooftops of Birdsbane in the direction of the cavern that the monster had crawled out of. "I'm sorry, Zef," I said under my breath.

It was hard to imagine what he would have done in this situation. Was he wrong? More importantly, was Malcolm right? Were we destined to fail from the start? I shook my head.

Tigala sat on the edge of the rooftop in front of me, staring out at the city pretending she didn't hear me climb up.

"Hey," I said. "Can we talk?"

"Go ahead," she said.

"I'm sorry," I said. "I wasn't trying to hurt you."

She didn't say anything and just continued staring with her back to me.

"I needed to answer something for myself," I said.

"Did you?"

"Yeah," I said, lowering my eyes. "He killed my parents. He took my people away. I had to decide what I wanted to do about it. And I didn't know if I could be honest with myself otherwise."

"And what did you choose?"

"I chose to spare him. As easy as it would have been to kill him then and there, it's not what we're fighting for. I would be just as bad as him if I did it."

Tigala nodded. "Do you know why that hurt so much?" There was emotion in her voice.

"Because you've lost a lot of people?" I guessed.

"Because my sister did the exact same thing to me, and she didn't come back." Tigala looked down over the ledge. "I've spent years thinking about what I would say to her if she did survive. I wanted to scream at her. I wanted to hug her. I wanted to punch and shake her."

She took a deep breath. I wasn't about to interrupt her.

"She sacrificed herself for a greater cause. And now that I'm here, I've realized that her cause was flawed. She died to kill hundreds of Gnomes and win a battle in a war that was never going to be won." Tigala turned, not facing me, but enough for me to see the anger in her face. "And what does she have to show for it now? What do I have to show for it?" She held up her stump of an arm and stared at it.

"You didn't know any better," I said quietly. "It's how we were raised."

"It doesn't change the fact that my sister is gone because she believed in something too strongly."

I swallowed. "Are you saying you don't want to do this anymore? You don't want to fight for this cause?"

"I'm saying it was stupid. It was reckless like all of the previous times you dove head-first into something you didn't understand. I think this is the right thing to do. Maybe I'm wrong, maybe I'm right. But the next time you throw yourself into danger, think about the people who care about you." She twisted around to look at me. "It's great to fight for a cause, but don't let that cause consume you. You won't always be so lucky, and when you aren't, you're going to leave people behind that have already lost a lot."

"I'm sorry," I said. "I didn't know."

"Say it," she said. "Say you'll think of me before you attempt something like that again."

I nodded. "I'll think about you next time."

"Good," she said. "I don't expect you to lose against this monster just because I'd be hurt. I just need to know you're thinking about the consequences." She pushed herself to her feet.

"I will," I said.

Tigala stepped off of the ledge and walked toward the ruined section that provided a path back to the street. "We should go to that meeting in the town square."

"Yeah," I said, and I followed her down the rubble. I stayed silent, unsure of whether or not she'd still needed to cool down a bit.

We still hadn't debriefed from the battle at Briqor. There were no teleportation gates near the battlefield since it wasn't a region with many Gnomes. Without gates, teleportation took a lot more time, especially with so many people. So we were brought back to Birdsbane in groups. I stayed to help feed the remaining soldiers that were waiting to be teleported out, while Tigala returned in an earlier group to help with sharing information.

"You okay?" Tigala asked.

"I don't know," I said. "Is anyone while that thing keeps rampaging around?"

She shook her head.

"Do you have any ideas?" I asked.

"No. I know we can convince some people to help, but to convince enough to stop the monster? It doesn't sound possible at this point."

"Maybe we can do it another way? What about the veins? If Klaus was right, those would have been the remnants of the people who trapped the monster on Daegal in the first place. Maybe there are clues there. Maybe we can use the veins to stop it."

"That's a lot of maybes," she said. "Besides, you almost killed all of us the last time you used those veins."

"Not entirely true. When I grew the treeling for Grollok, I used the vein that was now at the center of his chest. That's kind of the same thing. And he's on our side now. We have a walking bank of nature magic with us."

"Again, it's a lot of maybes. We don't know enough to keep coming out on top when we're in over our heads." She looked in the same direction that I had been looking. "Zef died because of our lack of knowledge."

"He—" I stopped. Had he? He was helping me escape. If we had known what Malcolm was planning, then yeah, we would have been better prepared. But how were we supposed to know that beforehand?

"Yeah, I guess you're right," I said. "But we can't just wait for the world to end. We can't wait for the doom drake to come for us. There has to be something we can do."

"Maybe there is, but I don't know what it is," said Tigala.

I sighed. It hurt to know what I knew and not be able to do anything about it.

We arrived at the town square of Birdsbane. The city laid in ruins around us. The group of people spread across it finding makeshift seats and platforms to get a better view. The armies that joined in the attack against the titan were represented in a smaller number, but it still made for a larger showing of people in this courtyard than our previous gatherings.

"Thank you all for coming," said Klaus. He stood on the steps in front of a church addressing the crowd. Others stood with him, Rodrigo, Tallesia, Sparr, and Sillius among them. They were people I knew to be in the core group that was looking for a solution to the doom drake problem. I was part of the group as well, but aside from providing information, I opted to skip the presentation this time.

A woman I didn't recognize stood close to Rodrigo. Is that who Rodrigo was looking for on Daegal? I thought.

"As many of you know, we have mounted an attack on the doom drake and it did not go as we had hoped it would. The monster has proved more powerful than we had expected. We have seen it use fire, earth, storm, water, nature, and teleportation magic, but we should assume that it can use any known form of magic."

People exchanged glances. Some whispered to each other.

"Our magic has proven ineffective against the giant, but that does not mean hope is lost. This creature was beaten before, and we can do it again."

I wasn't sure I would have used the word 'beaten' to describe what happened before. It was delayed before. That was the best they were able to do.

"One weakness that has been reported is that it seems unable to use two types of magic at the same time. Even when it used storm magic, and a thunderstorm remained through the battle, the Elves reported that the storm slowed each time the monster focused on a different type of magic. We have reason to believe that this may be something we can exploit in future battles."

I hadn't noticed the storm getting weaker when the doom drake used different attacks. Then again, it was hard to keep track of much in the thick of it. It was pure chaos at the feet of that monster.

"Also of note: the doom drake only seems to be attacking at full strength when destroying towns and cities. The army that confronted it reported that the monster failed to land any devastating attacks on our people. It also played along, exchanging blows long enough for our soldiers to knock it down. Then, once it had fallen and we may have been able to attack its vital areas, it teleported to Briqor instead. But we are unsure why it didn't teleport there in the first place and avoid the fight entirely. Maybe it was curious, or maybe it has to wait between teleports.

"Either way, we plan to make another attack on the creature, but before we do, we need to have as many people as possible. The monster is on a rampage. It will destroy us all as long as we don't oppose it. Please, I urge you all to convince as many people as possible to help us stop this threat to the world."

"What's the point?" said someone. "If that thing didn't hold back, none of us would be here. I'm going home to be with my family in the time I have left."

There was a sound of agreement throughout the crowd as others considered the option. They were scared, and they should be. I was scared too.

"Yes, that is an option too," said Klaus. "While fighting together is our only chance, it is still a very slim chance. We may lose even if we had everyone working together. So if you believe that spending the time you have left with loved ones is the best choice for you, we won't hold it against you. You may use the teleporter to return home when you are ready."

I looked at Tigala who returned a worried glance. There were more murmurs in the crowd, and then one person pushed through toward the edge of the courtyard. Others followed, shuffling out of the crowd and presumably returning to prepare for their departure. When the crowd had settled, we were left with about two-thirds of the army we had before.

"For those of you who do plan to stay, thank you. Please, convince as many as you can to join the fight. Our next planned attack is in three days."

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