Chapter Five: Nighteye
Sooner than he wanted, the city of Forcena became a looming presence. He knew he had to enter, but the urge to do so had long gone by the time they actually reached the border of the city. It was clear by then that Kion was actually holding their pace back. Sayoe stole a few glances his way before speaking:
"Are you okay?"
"Sure," he replied, faking confidence. His pace picked up a little, and he urged Sayoe ahead as they crossed the threshold into Forcena.
Her brow knotted a little. "You've never been in a big city, have you?"
Kion feigned an expression of disbelief for a second. "I've never been in a city this big." He cleared his throat.
Sayoe smiled warmly. They were surrounded by older buildings, not as impressive as the tallest that could be seen from Yusog Field. Dirty brick walls crowded them, often bearing names and obscene words in paint. Glass windows, some held together with thick tape or wooden slats, systematically peppered the stone prisms, and stone walkways bordered the paved roads that crisscrossed through the neighborhood. Kion watched the unimpressed faces that wandered about, dressed in old clothing, as Sayoe explained:
"'Big city' is a common term for an industrial center like Forcena. After the Disaster, industry and technology became the primary means of support for larger countries. Money was diverted to them rather than to Mana Sanctuaries, and places like Forcena, Mintos, and Byzel grew dramatically in a matter of years. Advances in technology have been introduced almost faster than they can be marketed."
Kion looked at her for a moment; his mouth tightened a little. "It sounds like you were taught to say that."
The young lady shrugged. "Maybe." They came to a street crossing, and Kion was about to walk into the paved road when a large metal object raced past him. The wheeled vehicle nearly ran over his leg, and blared at him with a whining horn. The blacksmith jumped back; he barely caught sight of a person inside the thing, waving a gesture at him. Sayoe clasped her hands nonchalantly behind her back and watched it pass by.
"It's as if most of this stuff was invented long ago, but never made public."
Kion glared at her. "Alright, so I've never been in a 'big city' before."
She beckoned him as she crossed the street. "Seriously, though, it seems like a lot of these machines were around, but everybody ignored them when Mana was strong and available to people. Automobiles have been around for a while now, but not nearly at that level of sophistication until about twenty years ago. Jet aircraft have only been around for eighteen years. All of this came pretty quickly."
They strolled along the sidewalk, and the young man took in the scenery. If nothing else, the sheer volume of the metropolis amazed him. Urban sprawl of such magnitude was foreign to him. An open garbage can filled the air with a stench that pressed them on further. Nobody seemed bothered by any of the unkempt environs, or the smells, and none of them took notice of the pair. Even though they were dressed fairly casually, Kion and Sayoe were still clothed better than any of the people they saw.
A man sitting down against a wall ahead of them strummed a guitar leisurely. Although the instrument was old and not tuned entirely well, the song that came out was oddly catchy; it lilted out of the man's fingertips and wafted quietly around him, demanding the attention of everybody around. Even the poorest-looking passersby dropped coins into the waiting case next to the lanky guitar player. As they neared the man, Kion found himself compelled by the strains of the weathered guitar. Spirited and sad at the same time, its melody danced about like nothing he had heard before, and did not fit the scenery at all. It was simultaneously a celebration and a requiem. The blacksmith could not ignore the tune, or the hauntingly serene expression of the musician. As he and Sayoe walked past, she pulled a change purse form under her sarong and retrieved a few coins; the man gave no indication that he saw them. Kion barely avoided tripping on the guitar's case as Sayoe dropped her money into it. The man spoke suddenly:
The pair stopped, startled by the man. Kion spun around faster, but Sayoe spoke sooner.
"Yes we are."
The musician calmly finished the phrase he was playing, slowed the tune down, and put it to rest. He stood up. Gangly and tall, he draped himself in a dirty, pale trench coat that wafted around his patched denim pants and yellowed shirt. The cloth headband around his forehead barely kept his long hair out of his face. Easily a decade or so older than the pair, the best indication of his age was the look in his eyes, almost as weathered as his guitar. He smiled congenially: the most friendly look either of them had seen since they entered the city.
"Could tell you puppies aren't local; your decks are too far-off for this place," he said with an easygoing air.
Kion wrenched his brow, trying to decode the man's colloquialisms. Sayoe nodded patiently.
"Right," she said. "That's a nice tune you played."
He lowered his head a little. "Wrote it for my sister; she's twenty-two years gone this season."
Picking his head up, the man smiled widely. "No situation; I'm glad she went the way she wanted. I just play it every once in a deal to remember."
Sayoe nodded; Kion found himself watching the sidewalk, thinking about the last thing the man said, about remembering. His face soured. Seeing this, the musician slapped him on the shoulder.
"No face, man; pick it up. I'm fine."
Having pulled his shoulder back, the blacksmith glared at the man for a second. "No... I was actually thinking of someone else."
"Well, don't think of people that way," the musician replied.
"People aren't happy unless you're thinking of them happy," the man said. "If you keep their thoughts sad, you make them sad."
Kion narrowed his eyes, and was about to speak when the man continued.
"Hey, you two passers should stick around; my palace isn't far from here. I was on my path there anyway."
Sayoe put her hands up. "Thank you, but we really need to get going."
The man stepped a little closer to her and lowered his voice slightly. "I think you might want to take me up on this," he said with a subdued grin. "I can tell you're looking for something. I know someone else from out of town who might be able to help you."
He put his guitar in its case, hefted the thing, and started walking away with a beckoning gesture. The pair exchanged a glance as he said:
"There's something I like about you two sprouts, but I can't put my brain on it."
After a hesitation, Kion started after him. Sayoe quickly caught up, and whispered, "We should get going; I don't think we can afford to stick around for very long."
"I don't think we'll get much done tonight," Kion replied, "It's getting dark, and we don't even know where to start looking." He noticed that the musician had stopped walking, and turned back to them.
"By the way," the guitar player said simply, "The name's Lester."
The musician's so-called "palace" was a crude shack, missing one wall, sitting not far from an abandoned warehouse by the side of an old metal railway track. It was moderately clean, considering the surroundings, and contained little more than a crooked metal cot on the far wall, a warped table, and a quartet of mismatched chairs. A broken mirror leaned in one corner, and various sheets of paper with crude musical notation littered the floor. The southern wall was decorated with a morgue of various exotic flowers, stuck with nails; most of them were dead or dying. Lester waved the pair in, placed his guitar to the side of the cot, and told them to make themselves comfortable. Sayoe took a chair first, and motioned for a suddenly reluctant Kion to follow suit. Lester slumped onto the cot and flashed a warm grin to the other two.
"Not the shiniest digs in town, but it does for me. So what's the jazz? What brings you two through our little burg?"
Kion cleared his throat and pulled his leather pack up onto his lap. "Well, it's not really something we want... or should... well, I guess it would take a while to explain everything."
Lester gave a nonchalant frown and waved for Kion to continue. The young man furrowed his brow, hesitating, and glanced over to Sayoe. She looked at him with mild confusion, then turned to Lester.
"We've been sent here by the Elementals; we think someone might be trying to unlock the Mana Field from here."
Sitting up, the musician nodded thoughtfully and mulled the information for a minute. "Elementals, huh?" He bit his lip as if he was holding back a secret, then said: "That makes it. I'm definitely going to show you off to my lady friend."
Kion arched an eyebrow; the man seemed to take the news quite well. He almost spoke, but Lester cut him off, in anticipation of his question.
"I told you I know someone from out of town," he explained, leaning in a little. "Well, load on this. She visits every once in a deal, tells me stuff about what going on in the rest of the world. It's crazy; we'll talk all night most of the time." He sat up, almost triumphantly. "Sometimes I can get her to stop by if I play my sister's song." Standing up, he added, a little more seriously: "I had a feeling tonight was a ripe night to do it." It was clear that he was standing to greet somebody, as a voice erupted from behind the pair.
"Are you still feeding people that load of crap about the angel?" a man rasped. Whirling around, Kion nearly fell back at the sight of the large, disheveled man standing in the space of the shack's lost wall. A few layers of moth-eaten rags made the man look all the larger.
"Don't mind this thing," Lester declared in a tone that was both mocking and salutatory, "If I had a lucre for every bum that walked through my palace, we'd all be poor except me. This is Manny. Manny, these two are Kion and Sayoe; I brought them home from school."
"I only rag on this guy when other people are around," Manny said with a bow to the two. With a smile, he added, "Just kidding. I rag on him all the time."
"The gang's on its way back," the musician said, "I got a choice feeling about today's pickings."
"Well, you got a better feeling than I got results," Manny argued. "Nobody's out in weather like this, and they're giving even less. Why bother stopping in this cold wind to give a little to a guy who's been standing out in the cold wind all day?"
"Step it down," Lester said with a halting gesture, "These two don't need to soak in your attitude. We want them to like this place."
"What's to like?" the large man replied. With that, he trudged away.
Lester sat back down. "There's about a dozen guys coming and going in this neighborhood. They scatter and come back when the day's gone. Most of them stay in the warehouse; it's an apartment without the rent."
Sayoe lowered her head a little, then asked: "How long have you lived here?"
"Not long after Amanda left," the musician responded.
"Amanda was your sister?"
"Yeah," Lester said absently, standing up quickly. "Come on; it's about time to get on our way."
Sayoe stood up, and Kion followed in response. Lester started out the shack, and before Sayoe could head after him Kion stopped her.
"Wait a second," he said. Lester looked at the two innocently; Kion addressed him, somewhat impatiently. "Could you give us a minute?" Lester nodded and wandered towards the warehouse, where a handful of people started to converge. Kion watched him leave for a second, then looked back to Sayoe. "We can't trust this guy," he said in a low voice.
"We followed him this far," she replied. "He sounds like he knows what he's doing. He knew even before we told him that we were involved with the Spirits; that's why he wanted us to come back with him."
"That doesn't mean much to me. He sounds like he might be a little unbalanced."
"That's just the local slang," she protested. "He's not dangerous or anything."
"That we know," Kion added. "I'm not so sure about him anymore. Unless Sylphid says something, I don't think this guy has anything to do with my job."
"Maybe Sylphid wants us to do this on our own."
The blacksmith cocked an eyebrow. "Wait a second; what do you mean by 'us?' I thought you were just following me on your way home."
Sayoe looked a little hurt. "Well, as long as I'm here, why shouldn't I help you?" Kion frowned in suspicious thought. Sayoe looked in the direction of the warehouse, then said, "You can stay here; I'm going to take the chance that he's sincere about this, and that his friend can help us."
Kion stepped back. Pointing a finger upwards in front of his face, he pronounced: "I'm under no obligation--"
"I can take care of myself," she interrupted.
"Fine," he said, barely acknowledging the odd dropping feeling in his gut. Letting his eyes wander to the shack for a second, he frowned and suddenly added: "But if you're not back by morning I'm going to hunt that guy down."
"If something happens to me, it might not be his fault," she answered as she walked off towards the warehouse.
Kion watched her go, and balled his hands into fists. With a frown, he slowly narrowed his eyes. An impulse ran through his mind, and he quickly looked around himself; he could swear that he felt Sylphid nearby.
Taking a couple of steps towards the old shack, he watched as Sayoe and Lester met, talked a while, then headed off to the east, following the railway tracks. The sky was bruised with red as the sun snuck behind the buildings towards the horizon. He watched them for a while, then looked back at the warehouse. The crowd had gathered around the loading bay of the building, sitting leisurely and probably talking. Glowering at the pair walking the rails, he slowly started towards the crowd. Drawing nearer, he could discern eleven people, most of them men. Unshaven, unkempt, and malnourished, they managed to bypass their misfortune with hearty conversation. The entire group seemed to be enjoying their fellowship, and as the blacksmith approached Manny waved him closer.
"Everybody, this is... what was your name again?"
"Kion," the young man answered, nervously grasping the shoulder strap of his leather pack.
"Sit down, Kion," another man offered.
"I'm fine," the blacksmith said, shifting the weight on his feet a little bit away from the group.
"Suit yourself," he replied, "We're talking about the news."
"Yeah," Manny added, "Grapevine says there's a guy out there who's some sort of Mana Wizard."
"Word says he's sending monsters all over the world," the second man said.
"Monsters?" Kion repeated.
"Yeah, he's gonna make 'em find the Sword for him."
Looking about the crowd, the young man said: "That's not what I heard."
"What did you hear?" a third man asked.
"... Never mind. What else do you know?"
"Well," the second man continued, "They say he's going to unlock the Mana Field for everyone."
"Good," Manny declared. "It's about time." A few of the others voiced their agreement.
Kion tensed up a little. "Why is it good?"
"Are you kidding?" Manny replied. "We lost our jobs when Mana was locked away. Most of us were miners, but now they have machines that do out jobs; we were fired when the industry went mechanical seventeen years ago."
The blacksmith paused a second. "But if Mana is unlocked, won't the machines still be there?"
"Well, yeah, but they won't want to use them anymore," Manny retorted. "Everything will go back to the old ways; it was all easier when we could use Mana. They'll all forget their fancy gadgets in no time."
Kion knotted his brow and stole a glance around the group; a few of them were nodding in agreement with Manny. The crowd was quiet until a younger fellow piped up:
"Lester wouldn't agree with you, though."
"Why is that?" Kion asked quickly.
"He's got some funny ideas about Mana," a woman replied.
Kion hesitated. "Is it because--"
"Who knows why Lester's like that?" Manny interrupted, slightly annoyed. "He's a weirdo."
The second man saw the blacksmith's worried expression and leaned towards him a little. "What he means is that Lester's been a little off since his sister died."
Kion turned to the second man. "What happened to her?" he asked with genuine interest.
Sitting back, the man explained: "Amanda was a part of this mercenary group that planned to attack the Davias building in this town. Only one person made it back that night."
A pause. "Not her, then," Kion deduced.
"No, not her," the second man answered. "That was about a year before the Mana Disaster."
"No, it was more like a few months," Manny argued.
"Well, whichever it was," the second man continued, "Lester was only a kid at the time: ten, eleven years old. Ever since then he's been a little protective of her memory, since they didn't have any parents. She was the only family he had, and he had to grow up on his own after she died."
Kion nodded slowly, and his eyes wandered to the ground near his feet. A couple of people in the crowd let out sighs of empathy, and, after a bit of silence, Manny spoke.
"He's got it in his head that the KAI Institute is some sort of evil corporation like the Davias people. Don't ever ask him about it or you'll get an earful of conspiracy theories."
"KAI Institute?" the blacksmith repeated.
"Yeah," Manny said with a relaxed air of authority, "They're some sort of research company that thinks they've found a new energy source or something. Say it's better than Mana somehow. Who knows?" he shrugged.
"And Lester thinks they're evil?" Kion confirmed.
"Something like that," Manny replied. The young blacksmith stared over his shoulder towards the railway, clamping his mouth enough for Manny to notice. "Look, Kion," he said finally, "You don't have to worry about the girl. Lester wouldn't hurt anything, even if you forced him. He's just going to disappoint her with this angel business. There's no 'magic lady' visiting him; it's made up."
The blacksmith glanced at Manny through the corner of his eye, then looked back at the rails, pursing his lips a little. "Right," he said suspiciously. An awkward silence congealed through the group, causing some of them to look in the same direction as Kion, and was punctured when the young man whirled on his feet and headed off to the east. Manny almost spoke, but the second man stopped him.
"Let him go," he ordered calmly. "It's not your business."
Manny frowned, and was the last of the crowd to stop watching the young man briskly meet up with the railway tracks and march out of view. With a dismissive wave of his hand, he joined the rest of the crowd in conversation.
Kion maintained a healthy pace, determined to catch up with Lester and Sayoe even though he was not sure that they were still following the tracks. The rusted metal rails threatened to fall over, weakened by the rotting wood that barely held them up. Gently curving to the left, the path sported piles of dirt, trash, and coal on the right side, and dank abandoned buildings on the other. Visibility was limited as the sun crept further behind the skyline, and Kion had to be careful not to trip on the wooden slats between the rails. In a few minutes, he heard voices not far ahead of him, and after a while confirmed that one of them was Sayoe and the other had to be Lester. He slackened his pace a little, trying his best to judge how far ahead they were. Before long, they stopped and veered off the railway. As he pinpointed the spot where they stood, he realized that another path had almost sidled up to the one he was on, although this new one was in mid-air. Held up by scores of concrete posts, the elevated road curved just past the right side of the railway, and the point of its closest proximity was the spot where Lester and Sayoe had stopped.
They were still talking, and Kion was not yet close enough to discern their conversation. He tucked his leather pack under his armpit and skulked up to a mound of coal, peering at the two of them. Lester motioned up towards the elevated path, and Sayoe was also looking at it. As the blacksmith drew closer, they stopped talking, as if they were waiting for something. He stopped moving, careful not to crunch his feet on the carbonaceous soil. The two of them seemed to wait rather patiently; Kion lost track of time before anything happened.
First, Lester said something, in a hushed tone that made him unintelligible to the blacksmith. The two of them stirred, and something landed on the elevated road. In his surprise, Kion leaned forward and nearly fell over as he strained to see what-- or who-- it was. The best he could determine, as the shape stood up, was that it was about the size of a person. Lester continued to look up at the shape, awed, but Sayoe heard the young man rustling around the coal pile and glanced back. Kion froze, and nearly lost his breath as the shape above them pointed at him and said: