Chapter Eight: Pressure Point
By the time the tremors became powerful enough to put a man off balance, the group had exited the house, followed by the serving staff. Kion was the first out; Sayoe had to lend a hand to Higashigawa to keep him from tripping down the porch stairs. It took them no stretch of time to deduce that the epicenter of the quake was frighteningly close. The fork in the road right in front of the hut started to belch dirt upward. Waving for the rest of the crowd to stay behind him, Kion hesitated and slowly approached the growing mound of soil.
With a sickening lurch, two large metal screws erupted from the pile of dirt. An immense, silver creature followed noisily. The screws were mounted on fat arms held closely to a stumpy head with luminescent eyes, topped by a glass dome. Large caterpillar treads behind the arms pushed the thing up to the surface, and a thick metal tail wrapped up and around the back of the glass dome. Kion stepped back as the creature stopped, abating the twisting of its screw-tipped arms with a mechanical choke. A pause ensued, but before anybody could speak the monster's tail lifted the glass dome up and four figures quickly popped their heads out from under it.
One of them, a blonde-haired woman in a black leather jacket and goggles, stepped up a little higher and looked around. Turning to the other three, a group of similarly-dressed, stooping men, she slapped the closest one up the back of his head and spoke:
"You idiot, Sven! I told you we were too close to the surface!" Noticing the staring crowd, she addressed them in a falsely diplomatic tone. "Excuse me, is this Mandala?"
"Yes," Higashigawa called back, stepping towards the metal creature. "What business do you have?"
"None here," the woman replied, "We just came for your Mana Seed. We'll be on our way."
"Wait!" the village elder ordered before the stranger could close the glass dome. "We have no Mana Seed."
"Of course not," the woman said, "They're all kept underground."
"But not under our cities," Higashigawa corrected, a little desperate.
"Right," she responded, "Like you'd tell me the truth about that."
"Stop!" the elder demanded again. "You can't go tearing around underground like that!"
"Why not?" the woman retorted.
"We won't let you," Sayoe announced, stepping around the elder. Kion folded his arms, and when she gave him a look, he knotted his brow.
"Wait... 'we?'" he said, pointing to himself.
By then, all four of the monster's occupants had dismounted and were approaching. The lumbering, ape-like gait of the men was less intimidating than the woman's cocky swagger, even though she was notably shorter than all three. With her hands on her hips and an arch in her eyebrows, she seemed to enjoy making her trip to the porch of the elder's hut look as sultry as possible. Easily a head taller than Sayoe, she stalked right up to the young lady and stared her down.
"So, kid, you think you can take the Scorpion Gang?" she queried with a smirk. Not waiting long for an answer, she raised a finger above her head. "Boys," she addressed the men, pointing right to Sayoe, "Take 'em out."
The three men leapt to the side, scattering as the woman turned and strolled back to the metal creature; one of them muttered: "Solid." They assumed threatening postures as Sayoe took a ready stance. Higashigawa motioned for the serving staff to back up, and flashed Kion a look of concern. The blacksmith noticed a couple of the men drawing knives, and placed his hand on the handle of his sword just as Sylphid appeared next to him.
"This would be an ideal time to test your Elemental powers," he suggested.
Kion, startled a little, said: "Are you kidding?"
"Your abilities are not potent enough to be lethal," Sylphid reasoned, "You should be able to immobilize these men with a slight effort."
"I don't think so," Kion replied, bracing himself as the Scorpion gangsters began hulking back and forth around the yard.
"It will minimize the danger to you and the villagers if you end this fight as quickly as possible."
Salamando appeared, and addressed the Wind Elemental. "Better not push him of he's not ready; I don't think--"
"Will you stop it?" Kion ordered the two, angrily drawing his sword. The closest thug reacted by charging him, brandishing his knife and thrusting it forward. Kion sidled out of the way, turning enough to miss seeing a second man throw his shoulder into him. The blacksmith dropped his weapon as he bounced into the short fence surrounding the yard. Winded, he tried to stand as quickly as possible, and caught a glimpse of Sayoe grappling with the third man on the other side of the property. She had just flipped the thug over her shoulder by the time Kion saw the other two closing around him slowly. Behind them, Sylphid gave an insistent wave of his hands; Salamando was there, but pretended not to be watching. The young man glared at the Elemental, instead trying to find his sword while still watching his attackers. The man with the knife ran at him again, and Kion dodged again, this time doubling back and ramming his own shoulder into the thug's side, sending him toppling over the fence.
The second thug was quickly upon Kion, grasping him by the neck from behind. Kion tried to pry himself from the gangster's massive hands, but found his efforts useless as the man lifted him off the ground. Then, abruptly, the man threw Kion forward, and the blacksmith fell over the fence, landing face-first on the dirt road next to the first gangster. Quickly rolling over, he saw that Sayoe had attacked the thug from behind, knocking him to the ground as well. She gave an almost apologetic smile before turning back to the third gangster, who had since pulled himself back to his feet and was charging her again. Sitting on the metal creature in the road, the jacketed woman shouted commands at her thugs.
"Krikor, get up! Fight, you morons! You're Scorpions, for crying out loud!"
The blacksmith stood slowly, catching his breath and registering the gash in the second man's forehead, acquired when his face slammed into one of the fence posts. He seemed to be unconscious, but the man who had the knife was already standing and looking for his weapon. Kion backed away, waving his hand irritably around his head upon sensing that one of the Elementals was close. He looked and saw Sylphid, again with an insistent look and a nod towards the gangster.
"Go away," the young man hissed, circling the Elemental and heading back into the yard to retrieve his sword. He found it just as the gangster found his own weapon, and the two of them sized each other up for a moment before the thug vaulted the fence and attacked again.
Tensely focusing on his opponent's weapon arm, Kion braced his grip with his right hand as he deflected the man's knife. Each swipe was telegraphed quite clearly, but the blacksmith still found himself backing up each time the man tried to cut him. Their awkward dance continued until the man threw a wide, diagonal slash at the blacksmith. As Kion trailed it with his blade, the gangster lurched forward and threw a punch across the young man's jaw.
Kion barely kept his balance, staggering backwards and dropping his weapon again. The gangster feinted back, tossing his knife back and forth between his hands and grinning with contempt at the blacksmith. Kion shook off the blow, readying himself to duck and seize his weapon. Noticing this, the gangster jumped forward and stepped on the young man's sword, grunting a satisfied chuckle.
Glaring, the young man snuck a look around the thug. Sylphid was watching him intently; Salamando watched Sayoe trip the third man with a sweeping kick. The gangster faked a couple attacks, trying to throw Kion's concentration. With an angry sigh, the blacksmith drew his hand back and squinted his eyes, closing them as much as he could without losing track of his opponent. He searched quickly for the block of his subconscious he had found before. Something popped into his head, but as it moved into his arm he knew it felt wrong, and he shook a small flame off of his hand.
The gangster saw this, and hesitated. He started to shift his weight back as Kion glared right at him and searched again. This time, the right feeling came, and the blacksmith threw his palm at the man, spewing a column of wind into the man's torso. The gangster stumbled backwards, and Kion quickly followed through by tackling the thug. Once on the ground, the young man wound back and threw the back of his hand across the gangster's face. A cough escaped the thug's mouth, and Kion delivered three more punches before deciding that the man had been knocked out. Exhausted, he stood up just in time to catch a blow to the stomach; the second thug had apparently not been rendered unconscious, and was preparing to attack again.
Kion dropped to the ground and rolled away, trying to find his sword as he caught his breath. It was too far away to reach by the time he saw it, and he desperately scrambled to his feet while the second thug stalked after him, pushing him towards the other side of the yard. They passed the front porch of the house as the man threw a few wild punches that Kion barely dodged; he soon heard the sound of a body hitting the ground not far from him. Sayoe had again felled the third man, and Kion tripped back over his head as the second kept lumbering towards him. Sayoe dodged backwards, and Kion rolled to the side and jumped to his feet. In the corner of his eye, he saw something moving at the other end of the yard. The first man was sitting up. Kion frantically searched around himself; there was nothing he could use as a weapon, and nothing seemed to stop these men.
He gritted his teeth, and fell back into his mind again. In his desperation to find the point of focus again, he gave no heed to what the sensation felt like. He hastily pushed the feeling into his hand, and felt something materialize. Just as the thug reared back for an assault, Kion closed his eyes and threw his hand forward, pitching the thing at him.
A dull thud hit his ears, and the blacksmith opened his eyes. Right in front of him, protruding from the thug's chest, was a large crystal. Perfectly cut, sharpened enough to drive halfway into the man's torso, it looked all too familiar. Kion's mouth became dry as the gangster staggered backwards, hovering his hands over the wound and gasping for air. The next closest thug, just standing up, recoiled at the sight, and the first man ran up to him.
"Sven, what happened?" he said, halting at the sight of the ethereal crystal. To the third man, he ordered: "Let's get out of here! They've got magicians!"
The wounded man fell to his knees, and the other two seized him by the arms, keeping horrified eyes on the blacksmith as they drug their comrade back to the road. Leaping out of the cockpit of the metal creature, the jacketed woman ran to the thugs. One of them yelled: "We've got to get out of here!"
"What the hell--" she started, faltering at the sight of the injured man. "Sven! What did you do to him?!" she choked. "Go! Go!" Ushering the other two into the monster, she waved a fist at Kion. "You'll pay for this; nobody crosses the Scorpions!" Quickly pushing the rest into the creature, she hopped into its cockpit and shut the dome. The thing roared to life, and spun clockwise before turning back the other way and heading along the road out of town, barreling past the villagers who had started to gather around the house..
Pale and short of breath, Kion looked at Sayoe, who was also frozen in place. She turned her head to the road, watching the metal monster retreat. Rook, who had been running to the scene of the attack, was walking backwards, staring at the thing as it clamored away. He quickly trotted through the scattering crowd and up to the yard. "What happened here?"
Sayoe looked at Kion, who searched for something to say. All that came from his throat was a faint stuttering; he looked around a little. Sitting on the fence of the yard, behind Sayoe but in front of the approaching Rook, was Gnome. Arms folded, the Elemental stared at the blacksmith with a look borne of sad disappointment. Kion swallowed what little moisture was in his throat and turned away, clumsily scaling the fence and stalking away from the house. Sayoe started after him, but stopped herself.
He walked briskly along the road, not sure where it would take him but certain that it had to leave the city at some point. His eyes stayed fixed to the ground, and anybody he may have passed received no recognition. All the way out of the village, he fought images of the Diamond Gigas out of his head. It only occurred to him for a second that he had left his supplies and weapon back at the elder's hut; he paid that fact little mind. Getting out of the village was more important. Running a hand through his hair, he picked up his pace.
A few sideways glances told him when he had left the town, and his gait faltered a little. Knees growing weak, the young man found a tree on the side of the road and collapsed next to it. With a sigh of exhaustion meant to calm his frantic breathing, he rolled to his back and sat up, propping himself against the trunk. Drawing his knees up and folding his arms across them, he glowered at the apparition of Gnome across the road. The Elemental looked at him for a while, then spoke calmly:
"Look... Kion... I'm not going to say anything that isn't already obvious to you at this point. Just that from now on, all of your inexperience is going to do stuff like that, and if you can't live with it, you're going to have some serious problems." Fading slowly into the ground, the elf creature said: "Respect, kid; it's all about respect for Mana..."
The blacksmith rested his head on his arms, still glaring for a while. Diverting his gaze, he found Sylphid and Salamando not far, floating above the road with quizzical eyes.
"Got any more advice for me?" he inquired bitterly.
Sayoe picked up the sword, dangling it from the same arm that hefted both packs of luggage. Higashigawa and Rook stood in front of the porch of the house.
"What was his problem?" Rook asked.
"I don't know," Sayoe replied, somewhat absently, "I'm going to find out."
"Doesn't seem to have the stomach for this kind of thing," the armored lad observed.
"Quiet," Sayoe reprimanded. "He's not doing this by choice. Give him a break."
Rook apologized under his breath and stepped to the side a little, as if suddenly preoccupied with the weather. Higashigawa cleared his throat and scratched his moustache: "Uh, when you head on your way, you might want to look for the town of Pihyara. I think they can help you cross the sea to the Ice Country; it's said that they can communicate with the Sea Dweller." The elder paused. "Are you leaving now?"
"May as well," she replied. "Something tells me he won't want to come back here. I do have to but some supplies first."
"Well, if you go, be careful. A strange man came through town yesterday, heading in the same direction as you; he never stopped, never talked to anybody. Just left a strange aura. It was odd; not the kind of man you'd want to run into out there." He coughed nervously. "Well, you probably won't want to wait too long to catch up with young Kion."
"I don't think he'll go far without his things." She started for the gate, and Rook stopped her.
"Hey, Sa," he said, a little uncertainly. "See you around, okay?"
She looked at him, then smiled and nodded. "Yeah."
He saw her walking up to him, and turned his head away from the city, where the Elementals were previously floating. She approached slowly, and waited a little before placing the two packs and the sword on the ground near him. She cautiously sat next to him, and, after a pause, reached for his shoulder. He quickly pulled back and stood up, walking away.
"Wait," she pleaded. "Tell me what's wrong."
"You're kidding," he hissed. "Is it normal for your people to kill each other? Am I missing something about your culture?"
"Not that," she replied, standing as well. "There's something else. You don't talk to people; you don't let them touch you. I want to know why."
He flashed her a sour glare. "Sure," he remarked, "You've been pretty forthcoming about yourself, why not me?"
"Look, I'm sorry about that--"
"Sorry about making me look like an idiot in front of your friend, or making me look like an idiot in front of the mayor?"
"Well, both, but--" she stammered, "Look, I thought you already knew that..."
"Right; after I introduced you to the Elements it must have been clear that I was an expert on all of this. Why couldn't I spot you a mile away?" He waved his hand derisively at her, turning away. Turning quickly back to her, he nearly yelled: "Didn't you hear them tell me about this Tribe and all of that? Didn't you hear me ask? What made you thi--"
He stopped, looking at her. It was not the expression in her face, or the way she had her hands folded in front of her mouth that halted him. He suddenly realized what was happening, with the tone of his voice and the words he was saying. He recognized what he was doing, and what she was not. Clenching his teeth for a moment, he turned away. Balling his hands first for a moment, he sighed and started over:
"I'm not originally from Kakkara; I was born in Ish. When I was a kid, I ran away from home, and lived in the mountains for a few years. By the time I was a teenager, I found my way to Kakkara. The local blacksmith gave me a job, and I rented a place in town." He glanced over his shoulder to check that she was listening. His voice dropped a little: "I met a girl; her father was a merchant, and her mom was home with some... condition... that kept her in bed. Anyway, this girl and I spent a lot of time together; she didn't like being at home very much, and I didn't know a whole lot of people in town." He took a deep breath. "Well, one year I got sick... and she got it, too. I got over it pretty quickly... but she didn't.
"Her dad was out of town at the time, so I took care of her. But she never got better." His right ear started to itch, and he irritably tended to it. "Look, I know it wasn't my fault, I do, but... it's just that... you can't know what it was like... to see her lying... you know, some people try to kill other people, but I wasn't even... look, even when I'm wearing gloves, I can't... if other people get too close..." He stopped again; she was looking at him, and her focus threw him. "I know they didn't blame me, either, but the other people in town always seemed like they were thinking about it whenever I was around..." He stopped, realizing that she was paying more attention to his words than he himself was. Kion turned away:
"You look kind of like her."
"I do?" Sayoe asked.
"Yeah," he said quietly, looking at her again, "Your hair..." He stopped, twisting his face in disbelief; he started walking away. "Just forget it; it's my problem--"
"Wait," she called, picking up the things she had left by the tree. Kion stopped, clamping his mouth tightly and not looking at her. She walked up to his side, handing him the sword and leather pack. "I bought some food; we can eat..." she looked back at the village, still very much in view, "After we get a little farther from town."
The blacksmith seized his belongings, aiming a sideways glance at her for a moment. He tried to force a smile, but all he could manage was a pained, apologetic visage which did not last very long. She looked up at him, keeping her face as blank as she could. It was then that he saw it: a scar, running from underneath her left ear and crossing almost to the front of her neck. It was not very pronounced, merely a thin pink line sitting quietly on the surface of her skin, but as she had tanned a little more since they met it was slightly more visible. He looked at the ground, and continued along the dirt road, lazily sheathing his weapon and slinging his pack over his shoulder.
She stood in place, watching him. Slowly, she drew her pack over her head and across her shoulder. A strange sensation ran up her spine as she finally decided to follow. Just as she took her first step, she noticed that the three Elementals had gathered right beside her. Gnome was looking at her for a second, but the other two were watching Kion. She had no idea how long they had been there; none of them said anything. For a while she stood in mid-step, not sure if she should even move. Eventually, Sylphid looked at her, with a face hinting of concern, and started floating after the young man. Salamando followed, and Gnome cleared his throat, looking up at Sayoe again and arching an eyebrow in Kion's direction. The young lady blinked and started after the hopping elf as he and the other two traced Kion's path away from Mandala. It was noon, and the sun had nothing behind which to hide.