Chapter Two: Fireburst
Kion sat up lethargically, for the blast of light had knocked him onto his back. In the moment that he had been blinded, he could not see what happened to the beast. Looking at the giant, he saw the shovel buried deep in its neck; most of the wooden handle had splintered off and landed a couple yards away in the follow-through. The shovel had nearly cleaved through the giant's neck, and the blacksmith shuddered as he watched the life ooze thickly out of the monster. His legs were numb, and he stumbled a little as he retreated from the corpse. A spasm ran through one of its legs, and Kion jumped. He blinked hard, took one large breath, and, placing a hand across his forehead and rubbing his temples with his thumb and index finger, wandered over to the grave. His first coherent thought was to fix it up.
As he raised the marker back to a standing position and re-patted the sand around it, he frequently stole glances at the slaughtered giant. It twitched a couple of times, but never moved otherwise. There was no way to explain how he had killed it. Unbelieving, he walked back to the corpse to examine it again.
There was not much more to tell. He had clearly struck it in the neck, although in his panic he could never have planned an attack that accurate. Furthermore, he knew that he was not strong enough to drive any weapon, let alone a shovel, that deeply into anything. He had barely scratched its hide when he sliced at it before. It made no sense--
A spark leapt from the shovel's head. Small but unmistakable, or rather, as unmistakable as anything he had seen in the last hour. He frowned, then glued his eyes to the head. Looking more deeply at the metal, it almost seemed to glow faintly purple. Not long after, another spark jumped from it. Kion recoiled, and something came into his peripheral view.
"That was closer than I would have wished," the floating round creature declared.
Kion jumped back again, then clutched his chest. His heart punched at his hand as he jabbed a finger at it and yelled: "Stop that!"
The thing frowned, either indignantly or apologetically; it was hard to tell, as its face bore little more character to it than an artificial pearl. "Excuse me," it replied, sounding more sorry than sarcastic.
The blacksmith shielded himself with his hands. "Alright, you stay right there," he ordered sharply as he backed away a couple more steps. Taking in a few deep breaths, he bent down and clutched his knees for a moment, keeping his eyes on the thing, then slowly stood and approached the creature. Kion looked it over for a moment, narrowing his eyes, cocking his head back and forth a little, and examining the way the slowly falling sun reflected off of it. Taking a deep breath, he adjusted his glove a little and cautiously stuck an unsteady palm forward. "I'm... Kion," he said.
Blinking, the creature regarded him for a moment, then calmly proffered its own hand. "I am Sylphid," it said.
Kion took its hand, as his was much larger, and hesitantly shook it. Registering that it was indeed a material thing, he forced an uneasy smile.
The creature smiled back warmly. "You have no idea what I am, do you?"
Still smiling, Kion shook his head. "Not at all."
"You are satisfied that I do exist," the thing confirmed.
"It's all I'm left with," the blacksmith shrugged, releasing the creature's hand with an awkward jolt of realization. "Sylphid?"
"Correct," it replied, floating a couple inches backwards. "We should go back to your village; you must pack."
Kion tightened his mouth, took one last look at the giant's corpse, glanced over to the grave, then stated: "You have a lot to explain."
"Indeed," Sylphid agreed. "I will tell you everything you need to know. For now, we must head back to your home and prepare to leave."
The creature began floating back towards Kakkara, but Kion stood his ground. After a few feet, Sylphid stopped and turned around. "No," the blacksmith said, "We're staying right here until I learn what I want." Shrugging a little after a brief pause, the creature floated back to him. Narrowing his eyes in thought, Kion spoke it before it could say anything, querying: "Didn't Sumi call you--?"
"I am Sylphid," it interrupted.
Frowning suspiciously, the blacksmith pondered for a moment. "Alright, you're Sylphid, but what exactly are you?"
"I am the Eyes of Truth," Sylphid answered, "And the Wind Elemental of Mana."
"Elemental," Kion tossed the word around in his head. "So... you're a part of Mana?"
"To put it one way, yes," the creature shrugged.
Kion stole a glance at the grave, then quietly turned and strode to the edge of the valley, finding a large boulder on which to sit. He turned the conversation to Sylphid with a wave of his palms, saying: "Alright, so what is this Mana?"
Sylphid cocked its head in disbelief and floated after him. "You really do not know?"
Throwing a nonchalant shrug at it, the blacksmith mocked a dumb smile and answered, "You sound very insightful; why don't you pretend I don't and save me the trouble of convincing you?"
The creature paused for a moment, and might have sighed as it thought, then finally declared: "While it would be far better for you to experience this on your own, I shall do my best to explain." It floated back and forth, as if pacing, while it continued. "Mana is a unique field of energy that permeates all living things. It exists as an accessory to creation, but is far more vital than such a description implies.
"Mana is very much an active field, but waves of passive energy provide support to the whole. It is possible for living creatures to tap into the Mana field, and use it to their advantage. Such use by humankind has been strictly limited since the... well, I can tell you about the Disaster at a later time. Understanding all that I have said thus far should be enough for now."
Kion stared at the creature, squinting under both the low-lying sun and the information he had been given. His arms had gone limp as he listened, but he brought his left up and rested the elbow on his knee before he spoke. "So, what makes Mana so important?"
"Although existence can persist without it, the Mana Field has become so ingrained into the character of nature that the loss of it will irrevocably alter the balance of life. The adjustment time alone can be staggering if the whole of the Mana Field is drained, and this is ignoring the impact on the quality of life."
The blacksmith pondered this a little. "So, nature will fall out of balance if Mana is drained," he slowly concluded. Sylphid nodded, and Kion sighed loudly. "So, what are you here for, then?"
"I have been appointed to guard the Mana Field," the creature replied, "As have my seven compatriots."
"Eight... Elementals," Kion thought aloud, and registered another nod from the thing. He frowned in consideration, nodding his own head calmly. His brow knotted as he asked, "Will I be in any immediate, life-threatening danger if I don't understand this right away?"
"No," Sylphid answered.
"Good, because you should realize I don't believe any of it."
The creature sighed calmly. "And I suppose rightly so, but do you have another explanation to offer?"
Kion stood and pointed at it. "Now wait a second. Just because I can't explain you doesn't mean you're right. I just wanted to make sure my disbelief won't make something like that happen again," he declared sharply, gesturing at the dead giant.
Sylphid regarded the corpse, tightening its mouth. "I cannot promise you that that will never happen again, but it is quite rare for a Gigas to be able to escape to this realm. It is a sign of the urgency of your task."
"My task," Kion repeated, and stepped forward in between the grave and the giant's body. He glared back at the Elemental a second, then said, "It was Sumi's task at first, wasn't it?"
"She left to gather the eight of us, yes," Sylphid answered, leaking a twinge of regret from an otherwise unflappable tone of voice. "We are to meet with the elders of the Mana Tribe in Wendel."
The young man stared at the creature for another moment, then looked back to the grave and its crude wooden marker. "And that thing came after her," he said, still fixing his eyes on the monument. Finally, he turned to Sylphid, pointed again, and said, in a grim voice: "Okay, I'll do this, but don't think I'm putting a lot of faith in you. I don't have much evidence that you're a dependable... Elemental... whatever you are." He stalked off towards his home, but halted and spun around, once again nearly running into the creature. "One more thing bothers me. How did that thing die, anyway?"
Sylphid glanced over its shoulder at the giant. "The Diamond Gigas subsists on stolen Earth energy; Wind energy can therefore counteract its powers. I simply--" It looked back, took note of Kion's wrenched, bewildered face, and rearranged its words. "I simply used my powers to stop its attack and charge your... weapon."
Kion bit his lip, sneaking a glance around the creature to see the shovel head, buried in the giant's neck, toss another spark into the air. He cocked an eyebrow. "Oh. Your powers."
"The rest," Sylphid admitted, "Was dumb luck." The glare it received in response would have chilled a human being to the bone.
As soon as he reached his workshop, Kion receded to the quarters in the back and pulled the cabinet open. Wasting no time, he retrieved a leather bag and stuffed a change of clothing and large sheet into it, adding another pair of gloves. He pulled the goggles over his head and studied them, finally dropping them on the bed. Rifling through the lowest drawer for a second, he stopped himself, glanced over at the goggles on the bed, then stalked over and threw them to the floor. He stared at the empty mattress for a while, twisting his eyebrows with mixed emotion, and caught sight of Sylphid in the corner of the room, watching him. Kion narrowed his eyes and went back to the cabinet. He found a pack of thin rectangular cloths he saved for dressing wounds, and slipped it among the items already in his bag. A small jar of ointment used to treat burns went in next, followed by a suede pouch filled with coins, and the blacksmith marched back to his workshop in the front.
He spent a minute studying the weapon rack on the eastern wall of the chamber, then picked out a wide sickle blade attached to a long chain ending in a crude handle, clipping it to the back of his belt. The next item to be retrieved was a sword, light enough to swing with one arm, and polished enough to indicate that it had never been used. Kion fetched a sheath from the nearest corner of the workshop and slipped the weapon into it, then tied it to the right side of his belt. A pouch of dirty cloths used to polish his work went into the leather sac, and the blacksmith slung the bag over his right shoulder and across his chest, resting it against his left hip. He wandered to the back wall and scanned his collection of tools. Gritting his teeth, he picked out one of the smaller, more lightweight hammers and fixed it to the harness he wore around his chest. A matching pair of pliers followed, and he then proceeded to search for a pair of metal gauntlets he had fashioned some years before; they were intended to guard his arms from flying embers, but he rarely used them. Still, they might work as a sort of light armor, if he ran into another giant.
Lastly, Kion returned to the back room and seized the jar of dried meat that sit on the center of the table, dropping it into his bag. He paused for a moment, evaluating his supplies, then dropped his bag onto the floor and went back to the cabinet. The back recesses of the top drawer yielded an article he had never worn before. Given as payment for a weapon he made, the client said she thought he would look good in it. It was a swordsman's half-coat, meant to cover only the arm used in battle. He figured it had only been given to him because the client did not have any money and wanted to get rid of it, since he was left-handed and she was not. Pulling his arm through the only sleeve, clipping the collar around his neck, and picking up his bag, the young man turned back to Sylphid, who was still floating lazily in the corner. Kion nodded his head towards the front door and let the creature follow him outside.
The sun was almost completely out of view, and as it ducked under the horizon Kion took one last look around the village. Sylphid quietly floated to his side and spoke:
"Are you ready to leave?"
"I never liked this town," Kion admitted frankly, almost as if he did not hear, "Bad place for my business. I don't think these people liked me much, either." He remained quiet for a while longer, then muttered: "Let's go."
"Northward," Sylphid pointed, and the pair headed off. Kakkara's valley stretched in that direction; the river extending from the waterfall ran to the nearest shore, tracing the path of the valley. As one left the village, he eventually saw that the eastern side of the valley dropped such that only a rocky wall to the west provided a reference point for travelers that followed the river. The plain bore few traces of life aside from a modest scattering of cactuses-- mostly near the river-- and the occasional scorpion. Once the sun was out of sight, temperatures quickly began dropping in the arid habitat; if there were any other organisms around, they had probably already sought shelter from the growing cold. The pair walked for at least an hour in silence, Kion trudging over the loose sand while the Elemental floated effortlessly beside him. A few times, the blacksmith pitched a sideways glare at the creature, usually when it came too close to his head. Finally, Kion shrugged and said:
"So, you charge things with electricity, then? That's your power?"
"I command the element of Wind," Sylphid answered, "And that allows me to control related disturbances like electricity."
A small trail of air wafted past him through the jagged wall of rock to his left, and the young man frowned and clutched his coat. "I don't suppose you could make some sort of light, could you?"
"Nothing safe enough for you to be near," the creature apologized. "But the next Elemental will be able to--"
Kion froze in his tracks, drooping his shoulders and nearly dropping his leather pack. "Dammit, I forgot about that! Sumi told me to go to that temple in town... Sala-somebody..."
"Do not worry," Sylphid replied, "Salamando is not there."
The blacksmith knotted his brow. "How do you know that?"
"I am the Eyes of Truth," the Elemental reminded. "I can see beyond human ability. Salamando is in this direction, and we should hurry, for there is a disturbance of some sort in that direction as well."
"Salamando is in trouble, then," Kion concluded, waiting for confirmation from Sylphid.
"As near as I can tell."
"Great," the blacksmith remarked, resuming his march northward. "If it's another giant, I'll let you take care of it."
"Actually," Sylphid explained, "It would be more effective for you to tackle it. My abilities are more potent when channeled by a human being."
Kion sighed and dropped his head, but kept walking. "Why is that?" he inquired, betraying his annoyance. "Let me guess: Mana likes humans."
Sylphid made a noise that sounded like it was clearing its throat, then spoke. "As guardians of the Mana Field, we Elementals expend a fair portion of our life force towards maintaining its integrity. A human being who can tap into our powers can bypass that expenditure and use our abilities to their fullest extent."
The young man cocked an eyebrow at the creature, letting a good portion of what it said slip out of his mind, then asked, "How do I do that, then?"
"We must first forge a bond," the Elemental answered. "Fortunately, I have already done that."
"When Mistress Sumi asked me to," Sylphid replied. "That is how your weapon was able to fell the Gigas."
Almost letting his pace slack, Kion eyed the creature sharply and ordered: "If you want to pull any more tricks like that, tell me first."
"Very well," the creature agreed.
The young man was about to ask how far they were from Salamando when a point of light appeared ahead of him. He narrowed his eyes, then asked, "Is that the ‘disturbance?'"
"It is Salamando," the Elemental said.
"Looks like somebody set a fire."
"That fire is Salamando."
"Salamando is on fire?" Kion broke into a run.
Mirroring the young man's earlier annoyance with a sigh, Sylphid started after him, knowing he was running too fast to hear any further explanation. The blacksmith sped up upon realizing just how far he still was from the fire; he made himself ignore his sore legs and exhaustion as he galloped over the sand to a spot between the rock wall and the river, which had grown quite shallow so far from the waterfall in Kakkara. By the time the pair neared the afore-mentioned disturbance, Kion was winded, and tripped as he caught sight of what the fire was exactly. Scrambling to his feet, he dropped his leather pack and evaluated the situation as best as he could.
A dozen or so small creatures had formed a ring around the fire. As best as he could tell, they carried short three-headed spears, and wagged fish-like tails behind themselves. Bulbous eyes peered at him as he drew nearer, wheezing and trying to keep an eye on as many of them as he could. What garnered his attention the most was the fire itself. It did not emanate from any material thing, but suspended by itself in mid-air. Squinting at it, Kion discerned a hint of a body and head, mimicking some sort of stout lizard, although the back and top of the head tossed wild branches of fire skyward. A pair of disembodied hands floated about the torso, wielding a staff with its own flame at the end. Thick eyebrows arched over beady eyes, and the thing regarded the young man with genuine curiosity.
"What's this?" it asked in a sharp tenor.
Sylphid quickly caught up to the blacksmith, and hesitated over his depleted stance before turning to the fire. "Salamando, this man will help you."
"Good," the fire answered, and Kion looked at its face, feeling a chill down his spine as he gazed at the creature.
"Quickly, Kion, draw your sword," Sylphid commanded.
The young man lethargically pulled his weapon from its sheath, squinting again at the small creatures as they began to methodically surround him. He was still trying to catch his breath, and backed up as they came closer. One of them gurgled words he could not understand, and a handful responded in near unison, brandishing their tridents at Kion. Sylphid floated up beside the blacksmith's head.
"Remember my powers," it said.
Kion glared at it and wheezed: "But you didn't tell me how to--"
One of the monsters leapt at him, and he sliced at it clumsily as he dodged backwards. Both combatants missed each other, but the creature kept pressing forward. Kion swung his weapon at it, awkwardly trying to aim his attack low enough to hit it. Its rounded body puffed up a little as it hopped backwards and charged him. Spinning wildly, the monster extended its fork-like spear outward and caught Kion's leg as he jumped back away from it. The young man tripped and fell to the ground, barely taking time to assess the damage to his leg as he rolled out of the monster's path.
Several more ran at him, pinning him to the ground. Kion struggled to break their hold, but there were too many and he was too weak in his exhaustion to fight them. He balled his free hand and tried to punch at a couple of them. Sylphid again neared his head, yelling at him:
"Cast a spell, now!"
In his panic, the young man could barely reply. He kept twisting in the grip of the beasts, blindly hoping that his adrenaline could override his current frailty. It was only a matter of time before one of them would stab him with its weapon; they appeared organized enough to be able to figure something like that.
The fire creature neared the scuffle, telling Sylphid: "We have to do this ourselves." Drawing its staff back like a pitchfork, it dug into one of the monsters, prying it off of Kion. The thing squealed in pain as it rolled away, piercing the attention of the other beasts. A burst of panicked energy, prompted by the swipe of that flaming staff, helped the young man toss most of the creatures off, and he was able to shake the last few off and retrieve his sword before they attacked again.
Sylphid pleaded again. "You must invoke a spell or--"
Kion sprung forward and raised his sword, glowering as he brought it down onto the nearest monster. The sword struck it right between its eyes, and although it did not cut very deeply, the beast's skull was broken enough to kill it; it jerked back with a violent spasm and fell onto its side. A pair had already neared him by then, and began jabbing their tridents at his legs. Kion feinted to the side, striking the closer one in the same manner as he had felled the first. He did not make contact in the same spot, but the monster still buckled under the blow, crying out while its partner hesitated in shock.
Taking advantage of the pause, the young man rushed at it, drawing his weapon low to the ground and catching the monster on the upswing. The blade was not aimed correctly, and the beast was thrown rather than cut, rolling away with a muffled gurgle of pain.
Kion lowered his sword, vainly fighting the growing fatigue wrapping around his muscles. He glanced at the rest of the mob, eerily circling him again. He gripped the handle with both hands, breathing hard, darting his eyes back and forth, and straining to focus through the darkness around him. The only thing he could see clearly was the fire, and it seemed to be scanning the mob before hovering over to one of the creatures, pointing and calling: "This one!"
Thinking with his gut, the blacksmith launched at the designated creature, desperately aiming another overhead chop at it. The monster dodged to the left, and Kion blindly sliced at the direction to which it had jumped. He must have hit it, for he heard a squeal of pain. He stumbled to that side, tripping over the monster. As he rolled away, it waddled after him, stabbing its weapon into his leg. Kion recoiled, yanking the creature off balance as it tried to pull its weapon back, and grunted the pain away as he awkwardly aiming his sword at it. He tried to stab it, but could not focus well enough through the nighttime and his own frantic movement. The blade dug into the sand, and he could hear something mumbling nonsense not far from his head. He punched his free hand at it, and clumsily struck the monster in the face. With a better bead on it, he drew his sword back again and stabbed it. It looked as though he hit it in the eye, but whatever he had done cause the monster to seize up completely.
The frozen beast dropped its trident and made a choking sound, and the rest of the mob stopped and watched in some sort of amazement. Kion narrowed his eyes to get a look at what the creature was doing, but all he could tell was that it was regurgitating something. A black shape slipped out of its mouth, oozing onto the ground, then lifted up and warped into a humanoid form. The little shape seemed to be looking around in a panic before it sped away. The monster's body went limp, and the rest of the mob followed suit.
Kion sighed in relief, pulling his sword out of the corpse, and sat back in the sand. Sylphid and the fire creature floated up to him, staring at him for a second.
"You're not a very good swordsman," the fire observed.
The young man glared at the creature, and put his weapon on the ground next to himself. He paused to regain his breath, then looked at Sylphid. "Okay, what was that all about?" he inquired.
"Sahagin," the fire piped up. "I knew they were under somebody else's control; there's no way they'd come this far inland by themselves."
Kion lied back, pondering the word. He had heard it before, but was not sure where. It was familiar somehow. Any further thought would have to wait, as the sound of laughter built up in the air around him, echoing through his frame and begging him to take notice.