Chapter Three: Dark Force
Springing to his feet, the blacksmith vainly searched for the source of the laughter. He picked his weapon up and pointed it outward in front of his face as he twisted his eyes around himself. Whoever was laughing sounded all the more amused at this display. Kion glared at the rock wall a few yards away; he detected movement in one of the lower recesses between the craggy spires. A shape leapt out and landed not far from him. The young man jumped back, darting his eyes to the side and catching sight of the fire creature and Sylphid approaching him.
"Who's there?" he called to the shape in front of him. In his panic and exhaustion, he had still not adjusted to the darkness well enough to discern much more beyond the fact that it was a person approaching.
"A messenger," the stranger said with malicious confidence. It was a man, and Kion could tell, mostly by the sound it made as he walked, that he was clad in armor, with a short cape extending from his left shoulder.
"What do you want?" Kion inquired, betraying his tension.
"I came to meet the Fire Spirit, but I guess you beat me to him," the man answered. "Luckily I found two instead of just the one. I don't suppose you'll give them both to me willingly."
"Not if you won't tell me who you are," the blacksmith replied.
The stranger charged forward, slapping the weapon out of Kion's hand. Wasting no time, he seized the young man by the neck, lifting him up above his own head. Kion could see little more than an angular jaw and dark, slicked-back hair, although the man's eyes nearly glowed with a crazed ferocity unknown to human beings. The blacksmith tried in vain to pry himself from the stranger's grip; breathing was becoming an ordeal.
"The problem is that I'll need you to sever your ties with them before I can properly do my job," the man explained. "I don't feel like arguing about this all night with a kid, so you can see the predicament I'm in. If you wouldn't mind helping me..."
As the man's grip tightened, Kion clenched his eyes. Gripping with his right hand all the harder, he pointed his left at the stranger, wheezing: "Sylphid, do something!"
The Wind Elemental sped to Kion's side, hesitated, and threw its palms into the armored man's face. A burst of white smoke blinded both humans, and the stranger dropped Kion as he collapsed to his back. Flailing his arms as soon as he landed, the blacksmith tried to force his stinging eyes open to spot his adversary, but could not stand the pain of opening them. He heard the stranger grunt in pain, too, but it sounded like the man stood up quickly after falling. Kion scrambled backwards as the stranger began walking again.
"Wind Spirit," the man addressed. "I think you'll do well to let me do my job. This will all be easier if you don't resist."
"Not this day," Sylphid replied. "Yours is not my side with which to ally."
Kion was still blinded, and could not witness any of the exchange with his eyes. A waft in the air suggested that the fire creature floated up next to Sylphid. The stranger spoke again:
"You join him, Fire Spirit?"
"Looks like it," the fire said in a tone normally reserved for children.
An awkward pause put Kion on edge; he still could not see what was happening very well, and painfully forced his eyes open. "You're lucky, kid," the man called, arching his eyebrows. "Few people survive a meeting with Sheex." Dusting himself off, the man stalked past where Sylphid and the fire were floating and up to Kion, nonchalantly said, "It's no fun killing an enemy this weak; I'll find you when you get a spine," and kicked the blacksmith in the face.
The first thing Kion saw was the sun, and he recoiled from its brilliance. Rolling to his side, he shut his eyes tightly and drew his knees up. Slowly, he propped himself up with his hands and pulled his feet under him. He was dizzy, and felt no better than he had before he blacked out. The left side of his face ached, and his jaw would not move without hurting. As he tried to stand and fell backwards, he caught sight of Sylphid and the other creature, who had been examining one of the fish-like corpses scattered around the site of the battle. They rushed up to him as he landed on his seat.
"Be careful," Sylphid warned. "You are injured and dehydrated." It waved Kion in the direction of the stream, and the blacksmith crawled over and took a drink. He felt sick to his stomach, and purposely did not drink his fill. Sitting back, he held his spinning head, and, looking at the fire, asked Sylphid:
"Now what's this thing, again?"
The eyebrows on the fire creature's face arched indignantly as the Wind Elemental spoke. "This is Salamando, the Elemental of Fire."
Kion peered at the thing as it floated in the air, burning perpetually. "And you're supposed to be doing that?" he observed, waving his hand at it.
"Listen to how he talks to us!" the fire remarked.
Sylphid tossed a knowing frown to the creature, then regarded Kion. "True, we do command more respect than you grant us."
"Sorry," Kion said absently as he continued to study the Fire Elemental. "It's just that I would have figured all of you things looked alike, if you're all part of the same stuff."
Salamando released its staff with one hand and seemed to be putting its hands on its hips, if it had hips. "Of course not; we're all different: male, female, young, old..."
"Male and female?" Kion repeated. He glanced between the two creatures. "So, are you two... male?"
"Yes," Sylphid answered, "But half of the Elementals are female."
The young man cocked an eyebrow, shaking his head in partial disbelief. "Right. So who was that guy that attacked me?"
"I couldn't tell you," Salamando admitted, "But I imagine he was the one who possessed all of those Sahagin and made them go after me. Like I said, they'd never stray this far from the shore; they were almost all dried out by the time they found me."
The blacksmith lethargically brought himself to his feet and scanned the bodies in the area. Spherical bodies sagging like deflating balloons, the Sahagin were beginning to decay as the sun rose over the environs. Their stench quietly wafted around the blacksmith, and he gagged a little. Kion began stumbling towards his leather bag, trying to ignore the pain in his left leg, and the Elementals followed. "Well, what does he want with you?"
"I gather he wants all of us on his side, but I don't know why," the Fire Elemental replied.
"Fortunately," Sylphid piped up, "The only thing that can break the bond forged between an Elemental and a human is death. It would seem that that man is not willing to allow for outside bonds to persist towards ends other than his own."
The young man stooped to pick up his pack, nearly falling over as he did so. "Good thing he's such a sportsman about it," he remarked sardonically. Kion tripped his way around the Sahagin corpses and up to where he had left his sword. Picking the weapon up, he looked at its stained blade, and, with a mild grumble, sheathed it. Still lightheaded, he wandered back to the stream and began following it. He glanced over his shoulder, where the creatures still followed.
"Are we still supposed to go north?" he asked lazily. "I don't know if you two can smell, but it's starting to get pretty bad around here."
"We can," Sylphid replied, "And, yes, we should still travel northward."
"Good," the young man muttered with a painfully large yawn. Rubbing his injured jaw, the blacksmith remembered that his pained leg had been stabbed the previous night. He stopped and awkwardly sat himself down, pulling the leg of his pants up until he found the puncture wound. Only the middle tine of the fork-like trident had dug in very deeply; the wound was clotting a little. Kion drew the pouch of dressing cloths from his pack and produced a large one. Wrapping it around his leg, he quietly complained to himself about not having better supplies. The two Elementals waited patiently as he treated his wound.
Before he stood, Kion examined the rest of his body; the only other major wound was a shallow gash across his shin, but it had sealed itself up to his satisfaction, so he let it go. The young man stood up, shaking off the last of his vertigo, and continued along the stream.
After a while, he tossed a look over his shoulder, and, finding Salamando, asked: "So, what is your power?"
"I can summon fires from the essence of the atmosphere and command them with my will," he answered. "Of course, now you can, too."
"What are you talking about?"
"I've granted you my powers, remember?" The Fire Elemental sounded surprised.
"It was necessary to prevent those creatures from seizing him," Sylphid declared, "And, as we already said, was crucial in keeping that man from kidnapping the both of us."
Kion narrowed his eyes at Sylphid. "I told you specifically not to do that!"
"Dire straits, kid," Salamando shrugged. "It had to be done."
The blacksmith frowned at the fire. "Don't call me 'kid,'" he ordered.
Salamando arched an eyebrow back at him, and the two stared each other down for a moment before Kion turned back to his path. The silence among the three seemed to press as much as the growing heat. The blacksmith tried as best as he could to occupy himself by admiring the surrounding vegetation, but the cactuses were far too ordinary to impress him for very long. He kept a fairly brisk, if not a little ungainly pace, ignoring the creatures following closely behind him. After a while, he spotted the northern shore, and picked up his pace a little, as there was a host of more varied plant life sprouting at the mouth of the stream, and he was starting to acknowledge his hunger. He trotted alongside the river for a while, but slowed down as he neared the shore, sweeping his eyes across the scattered plants lounging in the fertile sand around the miniscule delta. Running a hand through his tousled hair, the blacksmith confessed aloud:
"I don't know if any of these is edible."
He turned a questioning stare to the Elementals behind him for an uncomfortable second. Squinting a glance to the side, Kion cleared his throat and asked in a low voice: "I don't suppose either of you could create something for me to eat."
Salamando grunted in surprise, sending his eyebrows up. "Create?" Exchanging a glance with a tight-lipped Sylphid, he narrowed his eyes at the young man. Dangling his staff by one hand, the Fire Elemental tossed a glare between the two others and, seeing no reaction, spoke again: "Wait a minute. He really thinks we can-- he really doesn't know-- what's this guy doing looking for us when he has no idea what we are?"
Kion's face lit up in a mix of anger and shock. His mouth seized up in a restrained gash and he turned back around, facing the shore. Forcing a quick sigh through his nose, he tossed a glare back over his shoulder and told Salamando:
"I didn't want to do this. I'm... I'm doing this as a favor."
The fire regarded the young blacksmith for a moment, noticing the icy stare that Kion forced at him. Salamando calmly took his staff in both hands and, with a motion that mimicked someone stretching a crimp out of his neck, pronounced, "Well, alright. We can't create physical objects out of thin air. Mana can only change things that already exist-- and, no, we can't change any of this stuff into food. That's not the way our specific powers work."
The blacksmith ceased his frozen stare and looked back to the sea, then aimed his eyes to the ground. Salamando floated up beside him and cleared his throat. Kion was aiming a listless stare at the ground and acknowledged nothing. The Fire Elemental looked at him, and tossed a glance behind him to Sylphid, who also seemed to be studying the ground. Ignoring the odd similarity in their restrained expressions, Salamando addressed the young man.
"Listen... Kion, is it?... the problem is that your being affiliated with us but not knowing much about us can be dangerous. That Sheex guy only spared your life on a whim. You're going to have to learn a lot and learn it quickly. It could mean your life if you don't."
Kion raised his head, gazing over the sea in front of him, and simply said, "Let's get going." As he walked on, Salamando sent an appeal to Sylphid, but the Wind Elemental was still watching the sand below him, keeping his mouth tightly clamped.
The young man continued on, eyeing the plants at his feet and wondering if the thick-leaved ones were supposed to be poisonous or not. All he had in his pack was a jar of salt-dried meat, which was the last thing he felt like eating. In his haste to get out of town, he had forgotten to plan for a trip across the desert. The lightheadedness was returning, and he felt his path slowly veering to the left as he stumbled to the edge of the ocean. Blinking hard, he tried to level his head, but overcorrected and staggered to the right too far to hold his balance. With a mumbled curse, he fell to the sand, rolling over his leather pack and kicking up a small chunk of sand.
Irritated, the blacksmith closed his eyes and gritted his teeth, which only served to aggravate the pain in his jaw. He had no idea how long he had been laying before he decided to pull himself back up. Propped up by his arms, Kion squinted tired eyes forward and spied a shape not too many yards down the coast. It bobbed leisurely in the water, and could only have been a boat. As he tried to focus on it, he realized that something else was moving towards him. Fearing the return of the armored stranger he ran into the previous night, Kion scrambled to get himself to his feet. Still too dizzy to support himself, he pitched sickeningly to the ground again. His panic did nothing to help him, for the shape started running and reached him before he could pull his face out of the sand again.
"Wait a minute; don't move," a voice said. It was a young woman, and Kion found himself stunned by her instantly soothing tone. He rolled to his side and looked up. Her visage was blurry, but he could see vibrant blonde hair trailing behind her in a ponytail, and a pair of greenish-blue eyes studying him with concern. Her hand hovered over him for a moment, and she asked, "Are you injured?"
A quick tally of his wounds ran though the young man's head, and he replied: "No."
"Let me help you up," she offered, reaching for his shoulders. His brain punched his conscious at the prospect, and he recoiled spastically, drawing an arm back as if he was going to strike her.
She jumped back, startled by the outburst. A few seconds passed with the both of them staring at each other in surprise. Kion's jaw shuddered as he fought for something to say.
"I... just don't... you... let me..."
He stammered, and she cocked a worried eyebrow, unsure of what he was doing or trying to say. Finally, his face melted into a sour grimace, and he muttered:
Lethargically drawing his feet under himself, the blacksmith stood slowly, keeping his posture stooped in case he lost his balance again. He sauntered over to the mouth of the river, keeping an eye on the young lady. She was not much younger than he, if she was at all. Her kind eyes and delicate chin seemed to clash with the odd style of clothing she wore, but at the same time seemed to fit perfectly. Her short-sleeved shirt was wrapped in a loose sort of tunic tied up just below her ribcage; a sarong made out of heavy fabric held pouches of different sizes around the skirt at her waist; her shoes were heavy and ideal for traveling. A small black charm with odd bat-like wings sat in the middle of a metal band around her forehead; not exactly a crown, but just barely enough ornamentation to draw attention. Her stance exuded confidence even though she still gazed at him with befuddlement. Kion motioned for her to stay where she was as he reached the delta and knelt down.
"Look, I... the thing is... " He searched for something to say, then clamped his mouth and narrowed his eyes in thought. Looking around, he noticed that Sylphid and Salamando were not within sight. Nobody was around. He darted his eyes around, then finally said: "I was attacked last night. I'm... a little jumpy about it."
She walked towards him, stopping at the point where he seemed to tense up. "You look sick," she observed. "What happened?"
"I haven't had much to eat or drink for a while," he confessed, bending down to take a sip of water from the river.
She quickly dropped to her knees and plucked one of the thick-leaved plants out of the ground. "Here, then," she said, "Eat this one. It will help you keep the water down."
Leaning towards him, she offered a leaf from the plant. Kion hesitantly leaned and took the leaf and, after looking it over and stealing another glance at her, took a bite. The young lady leaned back, almost looking amused at his display of suspicion. Ripping another leaf from the same plant, she tore a hearty bite out of it and nodded approvingly, beaming at him.
Kion half-smiled at her attempt to relax him. It hurt to chew the plant, and hurt even more to force a smile. He paused to try to stave off the pain in his jaw, and it was clear that he was not going to finish eating without difficulty. She frowned, then stood and began searching around the other plants in the area. He kept eating, slowly making his jaw work despite the possible fracture from being kicked by a metal boot. Kion let his eyes wander around him, watching the thin clouds gather above him and wondering what happened to the two Elementals.
The young lady came back, brandishing three long, almost tubular leaves. She knelt beside him, closer than she had before. He had eaten the leaf to the point where his glove touched, and dropped the rest on the ground, swallowing hard and eyeing the plants she carried. With a congenial smile, she broke open one of the leaves and squeezed out the viscous liquid inside.
"This works like an ointment," she explained, "It should reduce the swelling in your jaw. She moved forward to apply the leaf to his face, but he drew back again quickly.
"Wait," he barked, then slowly reached his hand out. "I'm... just..."
Gazing at him with a mix of wonder and confusion, she cocked her head a little and dropped the plant into his glove. He took the leaf, hesitated, then smeared the makeshift ointment on the most painful spot on his jaw. Then, after suspiciously turning away from her a little, he removed a glove and massaged the substance into his skin. She sat down and watched him, growing somewhat interested in his behavior. Noticing this, he cleared his throat and furrowed his brow as if to gain her attention.
She blinked and sat up, and he frowned and donned his glove as he started to stand up. Standing before he did, she approached and offered to help. Anticipating this, he stuck his hand out to halt her, again iterating: "I'm fine." The look on her face made it clear that she did not believe him. He sighed and said, "Look, this is really... the worst time you could pick to meet me. What I mean is... I'm sorry-- well, no, but--" he brought a hand up to rub his temples, then simply said: "I'm Kion Cahir."
She smiled in bemusement again and replied: "I'm Sayoe Ishiba," then waited a little bit for a handshake that did not come. Suddenly squinting her eye, she tightened her mouth and asked, "Why were you attacked?"
He sighed and said, "It's a long story, and you probably wouldn't believe it anyway."
Pointing cautiously behind him, she replied, "Does it have to do with them?"
Kion glanced over his shoulder and, seeing the Wind and Fire Elementals suddenly floating not far from him, admitted, "Yeah." He would have said more, but the unannounced appearance of the two creatures puzzled him a bit. He glanced at them again, silently hovering and staying relatively motionless. They were both looking at the young lady, who in turn was staring back at them. For a moment, Kion watched the two sides examine each other without moving, then finally spoke.
"Sylphid and Salamando," he said to her, gesturing to each one as he introduced them. Motioning to the young lady, he addressed the Elementals. "Sayo."
"Sayoe," she corrected, stepping back. She pursed her lips in thought, seemed to glare at Kion, and queried: "Where are you going?"
Thinking for a second, he replied, "Some place called Wendel. Is that right?"
"Not yet," Sylphid answered, keeping an eye on Sayoe. "We are traveling north for now."
The blacksmith shrugged. "Okay; I thought that's where that place was. Do we need a boat or--"
"I'll take you," Sayoe interrupted. She paused as Kion looked at her questioningly, then awkwardly turned and gestured to the shape he had seen earlier. "I have a boat."
"Oh," the young man replied. "Well, I can't--"
"I was headed that way anyway," she declared absently. "Let's go. We can go now." She seemed to force a smile as she motioned for Kion and the two creatures towards the craft. Still weak from exhaustion, the blacksmith wandered over to his leather pack, hiked it over his shoulder, and lumbered towards the boat. Large enough for three or four people, the craft was sturdily built and held nearly a half dozen packs of supplies of some sort. A modest mast pointed to the sky, not yet clothed by its sail. Sayoe jumped into the boat and offered him her hand. Drawing back with an annoyed frown, he grunted a little and said:
She sat back and began preparing the sail as he clumsily pulled himself into the boat. It garnered no reaction when he fell into the hull; she let him crawl into the middle bench out of three, flanked by a pair of oars. Once the sail was raised sufficiently, Sayoe hopped out of the craft and pushed it further into the sea, jumping in just as the current took hold of it and pulled it away.
Kion tentatively picked up one of the oars dangling over the side, but Sayoe stopped him and said: "Don't worry about it." With an embarrassed frown, he slumped into the bench closest to the back of the boat, and she took the middle bench and rowed the boat until the wind picked up enough to begin carrying them away.
Sylphid and Salamando watched the pair leave, not moving until the boat started receding out towards the ocean. Salamando was the first to head after them, pausing only to motion for Sylphid to follow.