Chapter One: Wanderer
The sun beat down through the empty sky like a physical force on his brow; its unfiltered light made it impossible for him to open his eyes completely. It had risen enough that the valley wall no longer shielded the town from it. He looked about himself, scanning the bland, sparse village for nothing in particular, and receded to the shaded porch of his workshop. Few people were outside in weather like this, and the town's old wood and stone buildings appeared all the more tired and decrepit when nobody was moving around them. The most prominent sound was the ever-present waterfall on the edge of town that filled the modest river running past the odd-looking temple, and its lonely, muddled drone did little to help his mood. Even if he had felt like conversing, he would not have wanted to do so with any of the people wandering around at the moment. Leaning on the front doorway, he sighed and stretched his arms first to his sides, then above his head, and finally folded them with a dejected yawn. Sweat had collected on his forehead, seeping out from between the roots of his tousled hair, and he chose not to wipe it off, for it would only be a matter of minutes before it would be replaced. It was too hot to work anyway, and since nobody in particular was interested in his products, there was little motivation to finish any of his projects. He turned back in towards the doorway, ready to cross to his living quarters, but just as he did so, something caught his eye.
Several yards away, a figure stumbled down the graveled road, trying to maintain balance. He spun back around to get a look at who it might be. Whoever she was, she was not dressed like anybody in the town; loose, ragged clothing formerly bearing bright colors hung from her bent, weak frame. It looked like there was a large bandage wrapped around her head. One of the townspeople crossed her path a couple feet ahead, but did not acknowledge her even after she called out with a tired, raspy voice.
Seeing this, he ran to her; his goggles bounced clumsily around his neck, striking his chin several times. Just as he got to her side, she dropped to one knee, catching herself with outstretched arms. He walked around behind her, and took a quick stock of all of the other wounds he had not initially noticed. She was cut in several places, often in curious rows of three or four. A host of wrappings peered out from underneath tears in her baggy clothing; one particularly large wound on her left side stained its bandage a deep red. A small, blue charm-- sporting a fish tail-like decoration on the bottom and three tines poking from the top-- hung from a string around her neck, and her hands sported a pair of tattered gloves. He could tell by the wear on her boots that she had been traveling for some time, and her sandy hair was unkempt; this had to be the first town she came across since her injury. She slowly looked up at him from the corners of beleaguered eyes, and, after an awkward pause, he spoke:
"Let me help you."
His hands hovered over her for a moment, and he adjusted his gloves while waiting for a response. It was not clear if she was gathering the strength to speak or was simply not going to say anything. His brow wrenched into a slant.
"You speak my language, right?" he could have sworn that the words she said before sounded familiar, even if he heard them from a distance.
"Yes," she said, and her visage tightened apologetically. "Thank you."
He swallowed hard and took a deep breath, then gingerly took her right arm and slung it across his shoulders. She stood laboriously, coughing hoarsely as she did so; her right ankle appeared to be broken, judging by the way she carried it. The two cautiously stalked over to his workshop, and he led her inside. Her limbs were weak, and she hobbled like a person thrice her age, never looking at him as he ushered her through the building. As they stepped towards the back of the place, she saw various implements littering the large front room. Anvils, buckets, pliers, and hammers of a variety of sizes lay across benches, against the walls, and around the floor; the pair had to take a rather crooked path to the back so as not to trip over any of the tools. Weapons hung from racks along the eastern wall of the room; swords, axes, and various cutting tools on chains hovered over a small collection of farming tools in a pile on the floor below. A large, open furnace stood gaping at the back of the room, and augmented the heat already plaguing the town. She took a long, ragged breath, nearly choking on the thick air, and the young man gritted his teeth at the sound of it.
"I'll turn that off," he promised.
The pair slipped around a barrel filled with horseshoes and found a door in the back corner of the room. He kicked it open and took her through a cramped hallway, passing a large storage room to a smaller chamber than the one in front. Boasting nothing more than a one-man bed, full-sized cabinet, a table with one set of dishes, a jar, and a large bowl sitting in the middle of it, and two undersized chairs, the room was nearly as Spartan as any permanent living quarters could be. He noticed that her steps were becoming weaker, and almost lost his hold as he half-carried her to the bed. Lying her down, he carefully took her feet and swung her legs onto the mattress. She sighed, sounding as comfortable as he figured somebody in her condition possibly could, and forced a smile. He ran back to the front room and extinguished the fire in the furnace.
"So... you're a blacksmith?" she asked as he returned.
"Pretty much," he stammered, fetching a bowl of water from the table. "Tools, weapons, some coopering, a little cobbling, too, actually." He took a cloth that would have been used to wash his hands and dipped it into the bowl, then wrung it and began dabbing at a trickle of blood that had escaped from underneath her head bandage and wandered into her eye.
"Not bad," she mused about his profession, blinking as the cloth washed away the crimson stain from her face. She watched him, and although he kept his thick gloves on, she noticed that he was careful to keep enough folds of cloth between them and her skin that none of the dirt from them seeped onto her.
"It would be nice if any of these people needed tools, barrels, or shoes," he said nervously, trying in vain to keep his mind on something other than her wounds. She chuckled weakly, and it set off another fit of coughing. He winced, then asked: "What happened to you?"
"So, you're not a native here, are you?" she replied, giving no indication that she heard his question. Looking at her, even through the bruises on her face, he could tell that she was likely a few years older than he. Her face was drawn, but that had to have been from the obvious blood loss.
"No," he said hesitantly. "How did you know that?"
"Just a hunch," she confessed, picking her head up a little. "The people in this town don't seem all that eager to help outsiders."
He snorted derisively. "Them. It's not because you're foreign. These people follow some weird religion that makes them act like jerks."
She chuckled again, this time through her nose. "That's an interesting way to sum up an established culture."
"It's true," he declared as he returned the bowl of water to the table. "They have this idea about being chosen by some sort of fire god."
"Fire spirit," she corrected.
"Never mind," she dismissed, attempting to prop herself up by her elbows. "This is Kakkara, then?"
"Yes," he confirmed absently, rushing back to her side and hovering his hands behind her back. "I don't think you should be doing that; lay back down."
"It doesn't matter," she said painfully. "What is your name?"
He blinked and frowned, realizing that they had not exchanged any kind of greeting. "Kion. Kion Cahir."
She cringed in pain as she tried to sit up. "I'm Sumi..." She sounded as if she wanted to say more, but gritted her teeth in agony and fell back into his hands. He settled her to the mattress.
"Sumi," he repeated, half in question. She nodded. "Shouldn't we replace these bandages?"
She shook her head in frustration. "No... it's too late for that. You have to listen to me... Kion..." She stopped to catch her breath, and he quickly pulled one of the small chairs from the table to the side of the bed. Propping herself up by the elbows again, she called out: "Jinn!"
Kion stood quickly. "I don't think I have--" A small crackle in the air just behind his head made him jump, and he spun around to see what had caused the disturbance. He recoiled further at the sight of the creature that suddenly floated in the air barely a foot from his face. Its round, periwinkle-colored body bobbed up and down leisurely, and a pair of feet sporting pointed shoes dangled below puffy yellow pants. Pudgy arms folded in front of its balloon-like torso, and the thing's oval-like head poked sharp ears into the air on the sides of a small yellow fez. Two beady eyes focused on Sumi, and the creature's tiny mouth wrenched sadly as it dropped its arms and spoke in a rich bass:
"Mistress Sumi, would that I could help you..."
"Don't worry about me anymore," Sumi ordered, suddenly gaining a stern composure. "You have to help Kion now." She nodded towards the young man.
The creature twisted around and looked into Kion's face. A chill ran down the young man's spine.
"It is so," the thing said.
"Kion," Sumi coughed. "You have to help us. The Mana Field is being compromised; you need to tell the Tribe that I can't finish my job. We need to find a new Mana Hero soon; you have to take the Elementals back to Wendel and tell them. Start at the Temple to Salamando... in this town."
Kion stepped back, trying to arrange all that she had said to him. His face paled. "Me? I don't know what you're talking about. Mana? Sala-what?" He wrapped a hand across his stomach as if to cover the horrified pit that sunk through it, then flashed a look to the strange floating creature before regarding Sumi again. Her face bent in thought as she listened to him. "But... why don't you ask someone else? The people here must know more about this than I do, if it's their temple."
Sumi shook her head. The effort of saying so much had taken a lot out of her, and she had to catch her breath again. "No; they wouldn't help me. They're not right... for this. You're... the only one here... who is."
He grimaced and presented his palms in a begging gesture. "But you don't even know me; I... I..."
She smiled and nodded at him. "You can... do it. I know..." Kion froze, as if her look had him hypnotized. She gazed at him, his well-tanned face, tousled hair, and roughly worn clothing, and almost seemed to exude pride in him. Her eyes held the kindest look he had ever seen, and for a brief moment he felt strangely reassured. A seizure of pain ran through her body, and she fell back again with a groan. Shutting her eyes tightly, she held her breath as she gritted the pain away. He kicked the chair away from himself as he knelt by the side of the bed. Gripping the edge of the mattress anxiously, he called her name a couple of times, first as calmly as he could manage, then desperately. Slowly her head drifted over to face him, and she opened her eyes just enough so that he could notice it. She difficultly forced her mouth into a trusting smile, blinked once, then let her entire face relax. Her body followed suit, and she exhaled one last time, finally sounding comfortable.
Kion knelt beside her for a while, struggling with the mixture of sadness and bewilderment that had infected him. He stood up as calmly as he could, and, looking around, realized that he was completely alone.
The closest place outside of town that had fit enough soil to make a grave was a solid five minutes' walk from the edge of Kakkara. Kion patted the sand around the edges of the crude wooden monument he had placed and stepped off of the grave, dropping his shovel to the ground while he dusted off his gloves. He spent an undetermined amount of time watching the grave, and could only tell that the sun had move just noticeably farther down its path while he did so. Looking at the environs, he reminded himself that the cramped valley around him, with pale orange spires of rock jutting up at the sky and even paler, gritty sand, was probably the last place he would want to be buried, and that the old blanket he had wrapped her in was the poorest excuse for a casket he could find. Something had compelled him to commit her as soon as possible, but his final evaluation of his work left him wondering what that compulsion was in the first place. Frowning, he tried to think of something to say in memorial, but came up with nothing. How does one mourn a person he met less than an hour previously?
He dropped to one knee; that felt like the best thing he could think to do. As he genuflected, he thought of what she had said to him and what she had asked him to do. Mana; Elements; Wendel; none of it made sense. That creature; it might have all been a hallucination. Maybe the heat and stress had affected him. Such would have made her last moments all the worse; a delirious man is the worst kind of comfort.
Kion stood, bitterly realizing that he had done nothing to help ease her last hour. Stooping to pick up his shovel, he felt a mild rumbling in the ground. As he rose, his head nearly struck something floating in the air in front of him. Recoiling, he saw the same pudgy creature as he had before; it bobbed in the air as it studied him. The two looked each other over for a tense moment.
"You... are Kion, correct?" it said.
The blacksmith jumped again. His brow clenched; he did not know whether to respond. He gripped the shovel in his hands, ready to swing it if the thing turned out to be material and not an illusion.
The creature folded its arms matter-of-factly. "You must run; it is on its way. The beast that felled Mistress is after you now."
Kion tightened his mouth and stepped back. He stared at the thing for a while, then opened his mouth to speak, but changed his mind. The creature's shoulders dropped in disappointed frustration. Noticing that the rumbling in the ground was growing stronger, the blacksmith looked past the creature at the source of the disturbance. His face blanched as he saw an unmistakably large human-like figure charging at him.
The creature spoke again, with more urgency. "It is the Diamond Gigas. You must fight it now; it is too late to run. Be careful; I will help you."
"No! Get away!" Kion yelled, swinging his shovel at the thing. Panicking, he spun around, looking for a place to hide. The giant was still rushing for him, and he froze in place. As it drew nearer, he hastily toyed with the idea that this was also a hallucination. Trying to hold his ground, he looked at his feet. He was still standing on her grave. His last thought as the giant closed the distance between them was that, hallucination or not, he was not going to disgrace her any more.
He dove to the side, and the giant missed crushing him with a massive fist. Rolling back and turning to face it, he saw the damage it had done to the grave. The marker had been knocked down, and a large crater punctured the mound of dirt. He gritted his teeth; no illusion could have done that. Glowering at the bloated, pale beast, he brandished his shovel.
"Get away from there!" he ordered.
The bearded giant quickly aimed itself at him and charged again. He barely sidled a wide punch; the pungent stench of the monster's filthy, tanned leather outfit and body odor choked him as he scrambled away from it. He swung the shovel crazily in front of himself a few times, and the giant paused to watch. Kion drew back one more time and lunged at the creature, throwing a glancing blow across its arm before dodging back away from it. It flinched, grasping the wound, then bellowed something in a language he could not understand and charged him again. Balling a hand, it swung at his head, and he ducked. Reacting quickly, the giant seized him by the neck with its other hand and lifted him off of the ground. Kion flailed his arms and kicked at the thing, but its arm was too long for him to make contact. The giant bellowed a low guffaw and muttered something else that he could not understand. Then it threw him to its side.
Kion skidded across the ground limply, failing to roll with the impact, and let go of his shovel; his goggles clattered around his neck, striking him in the face along the way. Spitting the grit out of his mouth, he wildly brushed the sand out of his face as he scrambled to his feet. Tremors under his feet told him that the giant was charging again, and he stumbled out of what he hoped was its path. Suddenly, the stomping abated, and Kion barely cleaned his eyes off in time to see the beast's strange, hulking posture.
With a malicious grin, the giant waved its massive arms at its side and then directed them at the blacksmith; its hands seemed to be glowing. In response, the ground beneath Kion's feet trembled and lurched to the side. As he fell, Kion watched a chunk of soil burst through the ground's top layer of sand. He tried to stand and retreat, but the freshly upset sand underneath him buckled under his frantic kicking. Spinning onto his stomach, he grasped at the border of the growing pit beneath him just in time to see the giant waft both of its arms in his direction. Almost as instantly, the chunk of earth slammed into his legs, pinning him to the ground.
Kion's breath escaped under the impact, and he fought to regain control of his lungs. The beast started to lumber casually up to him. He spotted his shovel, too far away to reach, and began grasping desperately for it anyway, wrenching his feet out from underneath the prison of dirt at the same time. Before he could make enough headway, the giant reached him.
Beaming a satisfied grin, the beast raised both of its arms and began mumbling under its breath. As its gnarled claws danced about, the blacksmith could swear that he saw a dozen or so crystals appear in the air about the giant's head. Spinning leisurely, they seemed to fade into view and assume tangible form. The monster's scraggly beard wafted under an eerie wind. Kion was paralyzed.
Suddenly, a brilliant puff of white smoke burst in the giant's face. Staggering backwards, the giant pawed at its eyes and tried to speak, but only managed to wheeze a few times. Kion took advantage of the opportunity to finish squeezing out from under the chunk of soil. He flew onto his feet and pounced on the shovel, nearly hitting but ignoring something floating just behind his head. Adrenaline seized his body as he gripped the tool and regarded the beast.
It waved it hands above its head again, straining to talk as it did so, but growled in frustration at the fruitlessness of its attempts. The blacksmith hesitated, unsure of what to do. Before he could decide, the giant ran at him again, brandishing thick claws. Frightened as he was determined, Kion drew the shovel back, waiting until the beast came closer. In a panicked burst of energy, he swung hard at its head, and as he did so, a crackle of light seared through the air, meeting the shovel in mid-swing and throwing it into the giant.