Chapter Four: Oceanid
"You can have some more to eat."
She offered him another piece of the fruit she had stored in a thick suede bag. It was nearly too sweet to take in normal amounts, so Kion refused and maintained his watch of their path. If he let his eyes wander for too long, the tossing motion of the waves aggravated his already dubious equilibrium. It was enough that his wounds-- particularly the spear wound he incurred from the Sahagin-- gave him pain with each swell; he had no intention of losing what little food he had eaten since he left home. With one knee resting on the middle bench, Sayoe kept her attention mostly on the sail of the boat, and handled the craft with skill ordinarily reserved for those with years more experience. They had reached a point where land could not be seen anywhere on the horizon; clouds quietly gathered above them, not necessarily bearing any omen but not looking very friendly either. The young lady stole a glance towards the blacksmith, then to the two creatures floating calmly after the boat. Finally she spoke again:
"So, Kion," she said, testing his name.
He waited a second before answering. "Yeah?"
"Where are you from?"
"Kakkara," the young man replied after a swallow, not pretending for a second that he enjoyed the word, or the memories it conjured. He stretched his jaw out a little; it had become numb from the salve that the young lady gave him earlier.
"And you found... those two... nearby?" she asked, nodding her head at Sylphid and Salamando.
A bitter frown ran across his face, and Kion shot a quick sideways glance at the young lady. "You could say that," he muttered. She nodded blankly, then resumed her study of the boat's mast. Kion cringed a little and looked at her, then at his feet, then at the Elementals behind him. Turning towards them, he straddled his bench and beckoned to them. "Over here." They exchanged a look, then complied with him. When they reached the boat's edge, he sat up even more and cleared his throat, checking to see that he had Sayoe's attention.
"These are Elementals," he pronounced, trying to sound as authoritarian as possible. "They're... well, they make up... they're..."
"Guardians of the Mana Field, and protectors of the eight Mana Seeds."
Kion cocked an eyebrow. "So you know what they are?"
With a nervous laugh, she replied, "I thought everybody knew."
With a shrug, he responded, "I didn't know anybody knew." An awkward moment passed, as Kion waited for her to say something else. He then continued: "Well, whatever they are, I'm supposed to find all eight of them and take them to Wendel. Sylphid over there can control wind, and can see things farther than people can, I guess. Salamando can make fire and..." he thought aloud: "What else do you do?"
Salamando grunted indignantly. "Isn't that enough?" Kion tossed an apologetic frown, and the Fire Elemental waited a moment. Puffing his chest out a little, Salamando declared: "I'm the Hand of Justice. I was the patron spirit of the Mana Army back when the Tribe was a major world power. That was before either of you were born, and before the Disaster."
"What's this Disaster?" Kion inquired with mild irritation. "One of you mentioned it before."
"I did," Sylphid replied. Folding his arms, he seemed to be reciting a memorized speech as he said: "Twenty-two years ago, the power of Mana fell into greedy hands, and was almost completely drained. An individual appeared and, using the Mana Sword, eliminated the threat. As a safeguard, we Elementals were appointed as guardians of the Mana Field, which was sealed off from humanity using the eight Mana Seeds. The Seeds have been buried underground, and each of us holds a powerful but intangible bond to our respective Seed. Since that time, only limited use of Mana has been sponsored, and most of that only by the Mana Tribe."
The blacksmith furrowed his brow. "So this Mana stuff is contained in the eight Seeds?"
"Think of the Seeds as locks to a safe," the Wind Elemental explained. "And the Mana Sword and Tree are the most vital pieces of that lock."
The young man's shoulders dropped. "There's a sword and a tree now?" He snuck a glance back to Sayoe, who had been watching him with an interested and slightly confused expression.
Another indignant, and more surprised, grunt escaped from Salamando's throat. "You're kidding me." He faced Sylphid. "I know this guy doesn't know anything, but you didn't even tell him about the Sword yet?"
Sylphid calmly cleared his throat. "I thought it best not to inundate him when he has so little basis for understanding."
The Fire Elemental narrowed his eyes, and glanced over to Kion, who had folded his arms with his own indignant stare aimed at the two creatures. An eyebrow arched on Salamando's face, and he addressed the Wind Elemental: "Come to think of it, you haven't even told me what this is all about."
"Indeed, and I shall presently," Sylphid responded with a slow nod. He floated over to the middle of the boat, and Salamando sidled up to Kion, as if the wind Elemental was presiding over a classroom and the boat's occupants were about to be lectured.
"Figured he would have told you something by now," the fire remarked under his breath to Kion, "It always has something to do with the Sword."
"It very much has something to do with the Sword," Sylphid declared, covertly reminding the Fire Elementals that he could hear him. The blacksmith smirked a little at the exchange, and a casual look in Sayoe's direction revealed that she was set to listen to the explanation as well. She sat down on her bench with one hand absently holding onto one of the sail's ropes. The boat lurched slightly to one side, and she nonchalantly turned the sail in response, keeping her eyes on the Wind Elemental. Kion nearly said something to her, but was cut off as Sylphid commenced his explanation:
"A man who professes to be the Mana Wizard has stolen the Sword. We do not know where he has taken it, but we do know that he has not yet used it. The only force capable of matching the Sword's power is the combined strength of all eight Elementals. Kion has been chosen to unite all of us and find this so-called Mana Wizard before he can harm the Mana Field."
Kion squinted his eyes in thought. "But this wizard already has part of the lock, right?"
"True, but the Mana Tree is by far the most integral component of the seal, as long as the Wizard does not channel the Sword's power."
Tossing the information around, the blacksmith thought aloud: "So this guy has the Sword, but if he doesn't use it, everything is okay?"
"Not entirely," Sylphid countered, "It is not clear when, if ever, he will channel the Sword's energy. That could happen at any time."
"I got that much," Kion replied, slightly annoyed.
"At the same time, however, something else is draining Mana," Sylphid continued with a tone indicating that he was not finished talking.
Kion maintained his annoyed glare, but kept pondering what had been said. "How do you know that this drain isn't caused by this Wizard?"
"Presently the drain is not severe enough to suggest that the Mana Sword has spawned it. It may be the work of this Wizard, but not by his use of the Sword. We have yet to locate the source of this drain; it may be spawning from several places at once."
Sighing in partial desperation and partial amusement at his situation, the young man shook his head and turned to Sayoe. Whatever he might have said was silenced by the grave expression on her face. She was staring at the Wind Elemental, and when she noticed that Kion was watching her she blinked and hastily resumed her maintenance of the boat. After a second, Kion looked back at the pair of creatures and, with a slightly knotted brow, said: "You keep mentioning a Tribe of something."
"The Mana Tribe," Sylphid quickly responded. "They have traditionally held the closest bond with the Mana Field. Before the Disaster, they freely used Mana for the betterment of their society, and stood as one of the world's most influential nations."
"So they caused this Disaster?" the blacksmith concluded.
"No," Sylphid corrected, "The Disaster was caused by someone else. Ultimately, the Mana Tribe paid the greatest price, in that Mana was even sealed off from them. They had to impose a barrier around the Mana Tree in order to protect it."
The young man nodded slowly. "So, this Mana Tree is in their country. Is it Wendel?"
Kion bit his lip in thought, looked past Sylphid to the horizon, then spoke. "How much of this is necessary to remember at this point?"
"All of it!" Salamando piped up, floating right up to the young man's face. "He didn't tell you anything you shouldn't already have known by now."
Glaring at the fire, the blacksmith growled, "You'll excuse me if I haven't grown up on all of this." Turning away, he added sourly, "I told you that having me do this wasn't my idea."
Salamando studied the young man incredulously, then shot a glance to Sylphid, who once again had fallen silent. Composing himself, the Fire Elemental replied: "And I told you that it could mean your life if you don't understand your situation entirely."
Bowing his head and staring at the floor of the boat, Sylphid pronounced, "It will be all the clearer to you after we reach the shore to the north. Something of dire consequence is happening there."
Kion blinked and slouched a little in his seat. "So this might be where that drain is coming from. How much longer until we get there?"
"About two hours, maybe a little more," Sayoe said suddenly, still looking forward. She had remained silent while he argued with the Elementals, and was clearly focused on the path of the boat. Kion rested his elbows on the side of the boat and watched the ocean. After a minute of silence it occurred to him that he had not felt any more seasickness since he had finished eating. In fact, that was the same time he stopped thinking about it. He had had motion sickness before, but for some reason it no longer bothered him.
Perhaps he had conquered his ailment without even realizing it. Perhaps the whole thing had been in his head his whole life. Perhaps it was never an issue outside of his own thoughts.
Or perhaps the young lady at the sail was commanding the boat such that the waves were not a problem.
Kion rested himself against the rim of the boat, stretched his legs along the bench, shifted himself so as not to let the sickle on the back of his belt poke him, stole another glance at Sayoe, and turned his attention to the growing cloud cover overhead. He had a premonition that Sylphid and Salamando were still hovering somewhere nearby, but he was not bothered by it. Oddly enough, he actually felt comfortable in the boat.
Some stretch of time passed, and Kion was not sure if he had fallen asleep for a while. Something had refreshed him a little; it could have merely been the act of lying down. He sat up and looked around; the shoreline to the north was visible. He looked at Sayoe, still sitting where she had when he last looked. Again, the compulsion to speak to her sprung up, but he had no idea what to say. The Elementals had disappeared, and the blacksmith fidgeted a little in his seat. Above, the clouds had completely covered the sky, thin but gray enough to cast a dismal tang to the air. Turning forward in his seat, the young man stretched his legs and arms out and yawned. He cautiously leaned towards the young lady.
"Is there something I can do to help?"
Her attention snapped her up, and she shot a quick glance back at him. "No... I'm fine."
Kion sat back, frowning suspiciously. The shore was approaching quickly; the tide must have been coming in. Sayoe retracted the sail on the boat and took up the oars, guiding the craft to the best spot for a landing. The blacksmith braced himself as he watched the boat approach the shore. Ahead, the land looked much greener than what he had left; a vast plain stretched out across the horizon, presenting little more aside from a massive expanse of grass and some mountains a few miles off to the northwest. A few large bushes dotted the field, and the air felt much crisper than over the Kakkaran desert. It looked strangely inviting even in the foreboding cloudy weather.
The boat drove itself into the thin strip of sand lining the shore. Kion nearly fell forward, but caught himself quickly enough that Sayoe never noticed. As soon as the craft came to a halt, she began picking through her supplies, exchanging a few items so that everything she wanted was in a single, fairly small bag, then tossed it over the side of the boat and followed. Kion picked up his pack, checked to see that his weapons were still attached to his belt, and fell out of the boat.
Landing right at the edge of the water, he quickly picked himself up and brushed off the wet sand from his pants and boots. Sayoe had already slung her pack over her shoulder and was waiting for him. She seemed a little amused by his display; he frowned. With a chuckle, she beckoned him towards the field.
The blacksmith quickly passed her and began to lead, glancing over his shoulder to ask: "Where are we?"
"This is Yusog Field," she said.
Sylphid appeared and added, "We are heading towards the city of Forcena. We should reach it by the end of the day."
"Great," Kion replied flatly. As they entered the field, he noticed more of the large bushes scattered about the area. Each one bore dozens of large, purple berries that looked inviting enough to suggest that they were toxic. The ankle-high grass wafted quietly in the breeze, and very little could be heard. They headed straight through the middle of the area; there was no beaten path to lead them. Kion's puncture wound bothered his leg a little bit, but not necessarily through pain. It did not hurt as much as it made itself known as a presence; it itched more than anything else. After they walked for a while, Salamando appeared and observed:
"I see you have a chain sickle, Kion."
"I made it," the young man answered without taking his eyes off his path.
"You're a smith," Sayoe deduced.
"Yeah," he said, not betraying any pride in the fact.
"Any experience with it?" Salamando continued, referring to the sickle.
"Not really," Kion admitted with a twinge of annoyance. "I made one for somebody else once and then decided to make one for myself."
"I can teach you," the Fire Elemental suggested. "We had a whole platoon of chain sickle fighters in the old Army. Some of my favorite combat."
The blacksmith gave an uneasy smile. "Maybe another time. We'd better get into this town before it starts raining or something." With a beckoning gesture, he led the group on.
They walked for a good hour in silence, Kion maintaining a healthy pace, apparently renewed by the boat trip. The breeze sweeping across the field would have been calming had it not been for the dull overcast sky filling the atmosphere with a strange awkwardness. Somewhere along their travel, the Elementals disappeared again. Sayoe noticed this and cleared her throat a couple of times, but never got a response. If Kion heard her, he chose not to acknowledge.
After the third time, she spoke. "So, would you like to talk about anything?"
Not stopping, he looked back at her, then forward again. "Not really."
"Well, it's so quiet out here, I thought you might be getting bored."
Frustrated, she huffed out a sigh. Kion glanced back at her as plainly as he could. Facing forward, he said: "Alright, let's talk." She smiled. "Where are you going?"
She frowned. "I'm headed north with you," she answered simply.
"I know that, but where are you going after we get there?"
Sayoe knotted her brow, partially glad that he was not looking. "I'm going home, actually. Your stop is along the way."
"Why are you going home?"
A pause. "I need to head back; I was on a trip, but I forgot something."
Kion allowed another pause. "That's it?"
"I thought you wanted to talk," he added.
"Let's not talk about me, then," she shot back.
"Well, we already know what I'm doing..." he began.
"Perhaps it would be better for neither of you to speak," Sylphid said, popping up in front of Kion's face.
The blacksmith jumped back, nearly tripping over his own feet. "What did I tell you about--"
"You are raising the ire of the local fauna," the Wind Elemental declared, nearly in a low hiss.
The pair stopped and looked about. Nothing aside from the bushes could be seen. The young man was about to speak when one of the plants rustled violently. Startled, Sayoe assumed a fighting posture. Kion stepped back and readied himself to draw his sword. Another bush rattled behind them; the blacksmith spun around and faced it. A few more bushes followed in kind.
"What are they?" Kion whispered loudly. Sayoe shushed him and stooped a little to peer underneath the nearest bush. She was about to step closer when something jumped out.
It did not jump far from the bush, but moved quickly enough to startle them both. It was small-- about five pounds-- and covered in thick fur. A pair of long ears waved about on the top of its head, and wide eyes stared back at the two travelers. Its heavy fur and squat posture made it difficult to discern where the animal's head ended and its body began. Moreover, its tiny feet were barely visible under folds of baggy skin.
Kion relaxed and tossed a look to Sylphid. "What's so scary about that--"
"It's a Rabite," Sayoe whispered harshly.
"It doesn't look dangerous," the young man countered.
Sayoe glared at him in disbelief. "You've never heard of these?" Kion shook his head. "They defend their territory fiercely. We're already surrounded."
The blacksmith looked about them. Each bush presented one of the creatures; they sat firmly where they were, eyes fixed on the group. Their small muzzles seemed to be smiling at the humans, but at the same time the looked poised to attack at any instant.
"What do we do?" Kion asked.
"Move slowly," the young lady answered. "If you startle one of them, they'll all attack." She quietly ushered him along, and the two shuffled through the field. A few of the creatures stirred a little as they moved past, but none of them made a sound. Kion kept his hand on his weapon handle, and swallowed hard to try to quiet the buzzing in his head. The grapple with the mob of Sahagin the previous night was still fresh in his head. Sayoe whispered: "Something is definitely wrong with the Mana Field. These animals usually stay in their underground warrens, but an imbalance in the Field must be bothering them somehow."
Sylphid stayed close to Kion, and before long Salamando appeared. As the air flared up from his presence, a couple of Rabites jerked to attention. In response, Kion and Sayoe stopped where they were . Kion shot a stare at the Fire Elemental; Salamando appeared to shrug. The stir among the Rabites quieted down, and the group continued on its way, more slowly than before.
Sayoe pointed to the north, saying: "There's Forcena. We're getting close."
Kion looked ahead and realized that part of what he had assumed was a mountain range was actually the skyline of a huge city. Buildings stretched towards the clouds, pointing out to space in a fantastic display of engineering bravado. The blacksmith had never seen structures as tall as those. The city still had to be a dozen or so miles ahead of them, but he could see more and more of it spreading across the horizon the closer they got. He nearly forgot about the pack of Rabites staring him down as he crept towards the inviting metropolis. When he looked back at where he was walking, he saw that the young lady had began watching something right behind them. A Rabite had taken to following the group. It hopped along in their wake, watching them with interest.
Twisting back to speak to her, the blacksmith asked: "What's it doing?"
"Just go," she replied, and pushed on his back. Kion reflexively stumbled ahead and out of her reach, spinning around to face her and nearly tripping again.
The creature following them uttered a mild squeak and halted, crouching in place; its eyes grew wider. Sayoe back away to Kion's side, flashing him a questioning glance. He ignored it and drew his sword. The Rabite tensed up, twitching its mouth with an odd air of menace. It sounded like it was hissing, or gurgling, or making some sort of noise. Kion slowly raised his weapon. Sayoe worriedly eyed him. Sylphid sidled up to the blacksmith.
"Patience," he said.
The noise startled Kion, who in turn swung his weapon at the creature. As quickly as he attacked, the Rabite leapt at him, opening a gaping mouth and aiming for his arm. The young man fell back, barely dodging the attack, and scrambled to his feet as Sayoe yelled: "Run!"
The two humans bolted towards Forcena, with the Elementals closely behind. Deftly, with a precision not thought to exist in such mild-looking creatures, the Rabites swarmed out from under their bushes. Kion and Sayoe pushed themselves, the blacksmith forcing the pain in his punctured limb out of his conscious as he pumped his legs as hard as he could. Dozens, possibly scores of Rabites began converging around the travelers. Sylphid once again approached Kion as he ran and called:
"You must try to summon my powers!"
"I don't know how!" the young man shot back.
Salamando rushed up in front of the group, halting all of them. "It works like this," he grunted. Raising his staff above his head, he spun around to face the group's path and pointed it forward. The small flame on the end grew into a wide column of fire that shot outward, just over the heads of the swarming Rabites. A few of them were singed, and squeals of fear ran through the collection in the way of the attack. Keeping low to the ground, they darted back to the burrows underneath the bushes. Several more on all sides of the group followed suit, and the field was overtaken with a panic. Running into and over each other, the creatures scrambled for the safety of their tunnels. Disorder ran through the previously organized mob.
"Duck!" Salamando ordered, and as soon as the humans complied he swept his burning staff around himself in a circle, catching the Rabites that had not yet realized what was happening. When the pack had sufficiently scattered, he turned back to Kion and said: "Go quickly, but don't run. You'll start all of this over again."
The young man readily obeyed, absently beckoning for Sayoe to follow. With an awkwardly straight posture, he briskly headed for the city. After a few minutes, he said to the Fire Elemental, "How do you expect me to be able to do that?"
"Well, you can't do that just yet; it'll take a lot of practice before you're that good at it."
"Okay, but how am I supposed to do anything like that?"
Salamando knotted his brow and looked at Sylphid, then back to Kion. Looking back to Sylphid, he inquired, "Didn't you teach him this yet?"
"I figured it was best to allow him to learn on his own," the Wind Elemental answered.
Sighing in amusement, the fire replied, "But you said it yourself; he has no basis for understanding." Sylphid only shrugged. Salamando shook his head and turned back to the blacksmith. "Alright, forget him. I'll explain it to you.
"Active Mana energy runs in eight different wavelengths. When you make a bond with an Elemental, all that happens is his or her specific energy wavelength is imprinted in your mind. Casting a spell is simply a matter of finding that wavelength and channeling it through your body."
"Finding the wavelength?" Kion repeated, not paying full attention as he kept scanning the freshly emptied field.
"We'll work on it later," the Fire Elemental responded. "Right now, let's get out of this field and into the city up there. Even if he's not a good teacher, Sylphid knows what he's talking about. If something is wrong up there, we'd better not waste any time."
"Fine with me," the young man declared, taking another look around the eerily deserted field. He could swear he felt the presence of all of those creatures, waiting under the earth for him to make another mistake. He picked up his pace a little.
Sneaking a glance to Sayoe, he could see that she was watching him, and possibly had been while he was talking with Salamando. There was a hint of genuine interest in her eyes, as if she enjoyed watching him discuss things with the Elementals. Since she clearly saw him look at her, he managed a small grin, as friendly as he could make it. She returned a more sincere smile, and Kion uncomfortably returned to watching where he was headed. The sky was getting darker, either because night was falling or because the clouds were growing thicker. Kion sped up a little more, keeping his eyes to the ground as he did; he was suddenly aware of how many times he had tripped on things since he met Sayoe.
Before too long, the group passed through the heart of the Rabite warren; the large bushes became more scattered, and the city was close enough to make the remaining distance to it irritating. The blacksmith kept his pace, glancing over his shoulder to make sure Sayoe was still following even though he was well aware of it. The Elementals had vanished again, but he was growing accustomed to their erratic appearances and paid it no mind. He looked over to the young lady one more time, forced a smile, and said:
She smiled back reassuringly, as if she knew he was grasping for something to say. He cleared his throat and kept going. After a while, she approached him from the side, walking evenly with him. Although she never looked at him, he could see a sort of contentedness in her eyes. Forcena was beginning to grow and take up all of the horizon; Kion found himself staring at the metal and glass buildings that filled the city. A paved street presented itself, having curved around from west to north, and the pair took it, Sayoe instructing them to stay to the left. Kion could see that the road pushed right through the metropolis. Lights blinked on and off all around the area he could see, some chasing each other around buildings and windows. The closer they got to the conurbation, the more in awe Kion found himself.
"So... this is Forcena?" he confirmed.
"Yeah," she said, not sounding as impressed as he.
He studied the skyline again. "Big."
"Not the biggest," she replied calmly.
Kion said nothing more. Raising his eyes a little, he registered just how dark the sky had become in the last couple of hours. He could no longer tell just how much of the darkness was due to the weather. An ill feeling started to grow in his gut, manifesting itself first as an odd numbness and then as a queasy tension. He kept walking, but found himself acknowledging the mild nausea out of instinct.
It may just have been due to the pace at which he had been moving, or a side effect of that salve he put on his face earlier that day. Still, it became more difficult for Kion to dismiss the twinge of uneasiness that enveloped him as the pair entered the city limits.