Chapter Ten: Maelstrom
The sun had yet to reveal itself from behind the horizon; they were walking through the barest extent of light they wanted to tolerate. Yesterday's walk seemed to get them nowhere, although progress was most likely better than they thought; without any conversation between them, time slowed and the distance they had to travel stretched. Renewed by sleep, Kion marched briskly along the gravel road, with Sayoe nearly at his side. She insisted on keeping pace with him, yet neither of them registered the presence of the other. The Elementals had been absent since nightfall, and Sayoe checked around herself every so often to see if they might appear.
Kion rammed a toe into a firmly situated rock, nearly losing his balance. When the young lady dodged out of the way of his flailing arms, he reflexively dodged the other way. Composing himself quickly, he cleared his throat and cast a relaxed gaze to the west, where the last vestiges of a great mountain range sunk into the earth. Aside from that, and some hills farther along their path, there was little to see; they had passed the border of the forest at the edge of Mandala long before they stopped for the night.
"So," Kion finally said, "How many more days will this take?"
"Reaching Pihyara?" Sayoe asked. He nodded, and she thought for a second. "We should be there sometime today. I don't know much about this place other than what I've been told." He had not been looking at her while they talked, and she waited a moment, then stopped walking completely. "Wait a minute," she said tentatively. Kion halted and looked back at her; she sighed. "The villagers... aren't human." The blacksmith cocked an eyebrow, and Sayoe continued: "I don't know exactly what they are, but they're called Shell Hunters."
Kion slowly relaxed his brow, but still looked at her for a moment. First darting his eyes to the ground in thought, he slowly nodded and started walking again. She promptly caught up with him.
"What I do know," she explained, "Is that they build their homes out of dirt mounds; we won't see the village until we're pretty close. They'll also be near the shore."
"I figured that," Kion replied, almost flatly enough to sound sarcastic. "We're crossing the ocean, so we're stopping there to buy a boat, right?"
Sayoe hesitated. "Well, not really; we're going to see if they can help us find the Sea Dweller."
"To be honest, I'm not sure. I've never heard anybody say that before yesterday."
"So that mayor told you about this?" Kion inquired.
"Elder," she corrected, "And yes, he did."
Kion snuck a glance back at her. "Well, so long as it wasn't that Rook guy. I wouldn't put it past him to try and play a trick on you."
"Rook? No, he wouldn't do that; he's a knight... sort of. In spirit, at least." She paused, and smiled a little even though he was not looking. "You can't judge him by the first impression; he just has a little more energy than he needs."
"You'd think losing a hand would calm him down," Kion observed.
"Actually, the last time I saw him, he still had that hand. I don't know what happened." She thought aloud: "Now that might be something you wouldn't get the whole story on; he's always been afraid to look foolish, at least in front of his friends."
"Is that so?" the young man mused. They walked a little farther without speaking, until Kion piped up: "Is this road going to take us to the shore?"
"What? I think so," she replied, sounding distracted. Kion tossed a glance at her, and she cleared her throat. "It's still going east," she added a little sheepishly.
"Uh-huh," he said, tightening his brow slightly.
By the time Kion turned his eyes back to the road, Sylphid had appeared, closely enough to startle him. Giving him no time to react, the Elemental leaned towards the young lady and spoke:
"Mistress Sayoe, do you ignore the urgency at hand?"
"What? No!" she blurted, stepping back.
"What are you talking about?" Kion demanded.
"Further down this path," Sylphid explained, "Something is happening."
"Well, how was she supposed to--" Kion stopped himself, and glared at Sayoe through the corners of narrowed eyes. "Oh, I get it. The Mana Tribe." He cocked his head in the direction of the Wind Elemental. "You're just like him. You can feel this stuff, can't you?"
"Sort of," she replied. "Not as well, but sort of."
The blacksmith nodded slowly in comprehension; his eyebrows jumped as a thought occurred to him. "That's how you knew to trust that Lester in the city." She confirmed it, and he turned his shoulders back to the road, casually pointing ahead of them. "So, what is it?"
"I'm not sure," she recited. "But there's a lot of panic up there. It's actually a little more that way," she added, directing him more to their right.
He smirked. "Further east."
"And not very far."
Kion looked over his shoulder at Sylphid, floating calmly despite the tight-lipped severity of his visage. "Well," he pronounced, "At least I've been busy this whole time." With a beckoning gesture, he left the road and started jogging in the direction Sayoe had pointed. She and Sylphid followed.
"Look out for Rabites," the young lady warned. Kion offered no response. Gaining speed the farther we ran, he brushed past a large bush and roused a swarm of large, flat-headed insects. He was already too far for them to retaliate, and Sayoe ducked through the cloud before any of the creatures could register her presence.
As they ran, it became apparent that they were nearing a cliff; the ground sloped upward gradually, and the horizon eventually became sharper. The salty, musty odor of the sea became more pronounced as they approached the edge. Kion slowed down near the crest, and Sayoe, having caught up to him, quickly assessed their position.
"Down there," she pointed. "See the mounds of dirt that way?"
The blacksmith peered in the direction she indicated and saw a flurry of activity near the edge of the ocean. Scores of grayish, round creatures darted around piles of soil, chirping and squealing in fear. Though it was difficult to discern, they seemed to be chased by blackish, slightly amorphous creatures, stretching and bouncing among the chaotic herd. Kion squinted his eyes, trying to figure out what was happening below him.
"What are those things?" he asked.
"Shell Hunters, I think," Sayoe answered.
"No, the other things," he corrected.
She peered closer. "I don't know," she finally said, quickly looking over the cliff. "Let's go."
Before he could speak, she jumped off the edge, skidding down the side of the cliff feet-first. After a few feet, the slope of the cliff relaxed such that she could control her descent well enough not to fall over. With a shrug, the young man slid after her. Sliding on his rear for a few feet, he was able to push himself up and trip the rest of the way down; it was about a dozen feet to the bottom of the slope. At the instant he reached the bottom, Kion nearly ran into Sylphid. Floating stiffly between him and Sayoe, the Elemental looked ready to speak.
"No," Kion said with a jab of his finger, "Don't even try. I'm not going to."
Casually glancing over his shoulder at the young lady, Sylphid quietly said: "So be it."
She had already started running to the calamity near the shore; Kion hastily brushed the back of his pants off and joined her. The small, gray creatures were easily identified as clams, albeit upright clams with large feet that propelled them about like frogs. A few of them held sticks and tiny clubs in arms raised above their shells, but for the most part they were being run down by the amorphous black things. The blacksmith watched the mob of knee-high monsters; he could swear that he had seen them before.
Sayoe looked about the commotion; most of the Shell Hunter managed not to be caught by the black creatures, but the black things appeared to be toying with the hunters to an extent. Leaping over and around the small dome-like huts of the village, the black things stalked their quarry before attempting to wrestle them to the ground, usually being fiercely beaten off if they ever caught a Hunter. None of them registered the presence of the two humans. Sayoe held a hand out to the young man: "Kion, I need to borrow a weapon."
With only a moment's hesitation, the blacksmith drew his sword and, taking it by the blade, handed it to her. Wasting no time, Sayoe charged the village, dodging between the huts as she tried to slice the black creatures. Sylphid gradually began floating away from Kion, and Gnome appeared on the other side of the young man.
"Are you just going to stand there?" the Earth Elemental queried.
"No," Kion roughly answered.
"Without your sword or your powers, you're out of weapons," Gnome observed.
"No," Kion said, reaching behind him and retrieving the chain sickle from under his half-coat. Gripping the handle in his left hand and the chain in his right, he looked at the weapon, then at the pandemonium in the village, and hesitantly entered the brouhaha.
Quickly finding a nearby target, he swung the blade of the sickle around at his side and pitched it down at a creature that had two Shell Hunters cornered against the side of a hut. The dancing thing barely dodged his wild attack, and the sickle blade dug into the sand. Kion quickly ripped the weapon out of the ground and swung it again; the creature was facing him. Although its body seemed to pulsate and even fade a little as it moved, its spherical head remained firm, looking for all the world like a shiny black marble. Evading his next attack, the thing quickly stretched its limbs out so that it more closely matched the blacksmith's height.
Kion feinted back, almost falling over a hut behind him. The thing quickly took a fighting stance, pacing back and forth as it waited for him to regain his balance. Kion seized the chain and twirled it at his side; the creature shot an arm out and grabbed the chain, pulling the young man closer. In a panic, Kion drew his left hand back and threw the end of the handle at the thing's head. The black sphere shattered, and the creature's body dissolved with it. Almost falling forward, Kion's eye caught Sayoe, grappling with a couple of the monsters.
She had one clinging to her sword arm, and another dodging back and forth as if to antagonize her. First flattening its body, the thing leaped at her, grasping her by the other arm. Almost falling back under the force of the jump, Sayoe drew both of her arms back. With an awkward step, she threw her arms forward and clapped them together. A burst of fire exploded from between them with a hiss, and the bodies of the creatures dripped from her arms to the ground. Kion's head snapped back in surprise, and he caught sight of Salamando behind the young lady.
He thought to say something, but an eerie calm suddenly fell over the miniature village. All of the black creatures stopped moving, and, as if by unheard signal, mechanically turned and faced the two humans. The Shell hunters quickly scattered towards the other end of the village, and Kion stepped back a little. Sneaking a look at Sayoe, he considered saying what he wanted to say, but the odd convergence of the black things around him demanded his attention.
Sayoe took the sword in both of her hands, closed her eyes, and tightened her mouth. Suddenly, an ethereal flame erupted around the blade of the sword, and just as she opened her eyes the mob of creatures charged the pair in retaliation.
Kion seized the chain sickle in his hands. A half dozen black things leaped at him, tackling him to the ground. The exposed parts of his arms singed under the grip of the creatures, and the blacksmith flailed his limbs in an attempt to shake the things off of himself. Looking at their spherical heads, he felt the strange sensation of being stared at by giant pupils. Compelling him all the further to shake them loose, he gritted his teeth and pushed the memory of the Sahagin mob out of his mind. Suddenly, an all too vivid thought entered his head, and he remembered why the black creatures seemed familiar.
With a vicious lurch upward, he threw two of the things off of his right side, and swatted at a pair clinging to his legs. Jumping to his feet, he shook off the last few and gripped the chain sickle tightly in his hands. A wild, sideways swing tripped two of them, and Kion desperately took the chance to step on their heads. Crushing them both, he promptly dodged backwards, expecting the other four to attack again. They hesitated, and soon stretched their limbs out as one had done before to mirror Kion's height. The blacksmith hopped backwards, falling over a shell Hunter hut. The four creatures surrounded him, and Gnome appeared beside his head.
"Stop being such a wimp!" the Earth Elemental chided.
"Shut up!" Kion choked as he somersaulted backwards and sprung to his feet. He snuck a glance to Sayoe, who was fending off a handful of creatures using the sword, still enchanted with Salamando's fire. Slicing the things in half seemed to be enough to kill them, and as more of them stretched themselves out to match her height she met them with nearly the same technique. The blacksmith eyed the four things approaching him; each had assumed the same stance. He took the sickle at one side and dashed towards them, hooking one of them across the middle and spinning out of the grasp of the next closest. Withering silently, the injured creature melted under the force of the attack, and the remaining three closed around the young man, readjusting the space among themselves. Kion smirked to himself, and registered another dozen or so creatures stalking towards him from the center of the village. Aiming a glare at Gnome, sitting where he had before and watching him with casual interest, Kion tightened his mouth and widened his stance.
He took a few steps to the left, and the three black things turned towards him as they approached. Just as they broke into a run, he dodged back to the right, quickly drawing his right hand across his body and slashing at the closest monster. He only hooked its arm, and the thing spun around under the momentum of the attack, still standing but disoriented by its injury. The other two turned around, and Kion circled them until he was between Sayoe and the approaching mob. Tossing his weapon to the side, he aimed his palms at the crowd of monsters, and shot an angry look at Gnome before closing his eyes.
With clenched teeth, he fell back into his mind. Only the smell of the saline air and the quiet shuffling of the black things registered in his brain. Tensing up his arms, he found the memory he wanted and pushed it into his arms. With a twist of his neck, he shot a stream of electricity between his hands and out in front of himself. Wildly arcing through the air, the branch of lightning found five of the creatures and seized them, quickly detonating their marble heads and splattering their bodies with a sickening pop onto the huts around them.
Opening his eyes, Kion saw the wide, burnt area before him. A few huts had also been hit, and the remaining creatures stopped their approach. His arms shook a little, and all sensation had been drained from them. Behind him, he heard nothing, and surmised that Sayoe had also stopped fighting. There were still a handful of creatures in front of him; they seemed to hesitate. Eyes widening, Kion hastily fought to reach the same point of his memory. Forcing his eyes shut, he channeled the same energy into his arms, but could barely tell if they were receiving the command. Still holding his eyes shut, he turned his head towards Sayoe and yelled: "Go!"
In the same moment, another burst of electricity flew from his hands, and Kion pulled his arms up, trying to adjust his aim to where he thought the creatures were standing. Pushing the energy as much as he could, he urged it to span the area where the things might run, and tried to open eyes that had clenched shut under the force of the attack. Through the electrical hiss, he could barely hear the same pops that had heralded the deaths of the other creatures, and poured more of his will onto the source of the sound. Finally buckling under the strain of the spell, he collapsed to his knees. Propping himself up by his hands, he could hear Sayoe behind him dispatching a few more of the things; he looked ahead.
Although most of the huts in view had been burned or otherwise damaged, he paid it little mind. They were only made of mud. He heaved a sigh at the notice that all of the monsters aiming themselves at him had been destroyed. Just as he let his head drop in exhaustion, the blade of his own sword buried itself not one foot away from him.
Rolling away in panic, he caught sight of the burning weapon in the sand, and saw the last of the black things dissipate right in front of himself. Sayoe, having cleaved the monster's head, sighed in relief. She smiled apologetically at the young man.
"After you did that the first time, they all started going after you," she explained.
Kion slowly nodded and stood; his head spun a little, and his arms were still numb. He blinked hard a couple times, having noticed that his vision was blurred slightly. Sayoe let go of the weapon and cocked her head a little.
"I didn't think you'd ever--"
"Yeah, you didn't," he interrupted. He aimed a glare at Gnome, still sitting where he had been before. Narrowing his eyes, he frowned bitterly at the Elemental. Gnome gave an innocent shrug, then seemed to smile widely under his beard as he vanished into the ground. Gradually, the Shell Hunters began wandering back into the village, quietly hopping and inspecting their huts for intruders. Sayoe looked at them for a moment, then caught sight of Kion's chain sickle and picked it up. Salamando appeared between the two of them.
"Your technique could stand improvement," he told the blacksmith while staring longingly at the sickle. Kion rolled his eyes.
"Well," Sayoe began, "I think you'd do better with this if you thought of it differently." She bounced the chain in her hand a little, then choked up on it and took the blade. "All weapons use the same basic principle behind them. The person who wins a fight is the one with better control of his weapon, not the one who swings it the hardest or the fastest." She let some slack on the chain and began twirling it at her side, at about the height of her elbow. "It only looks like this is more dangerous because it's more flexible; if you keep control of it, you can do more thing with it than you could with your sword."
Kion wandered over to the spot where his sword was embedded in the sand, plucked it from the ground, and inspected the blade for the odd fire that had engulfed it only moments ago. "Thanks," he said absently, holding the sword out in front of himself. Squinting his eyes suspiciously, he asked: "How did you do the... the thing with the... the fire..."
"That," Salamando pronounced, "Was a Saber spell." Puffing his chest a little, the Fire Elemental continued: "The Mana Army used to cast spell onto their weapons, infusing them with Elemental powers and giving them the same attributes as the energies they commanded. They nicknamed the techniques ‘Sabers.' It's not hard to do; you simply have to channel your focus onto a weapon, or any object really, instead of onto the air." He cleared his throat. "There's a way to charge your body with energy, too, but it's a little more dangerous."
"Isn't my body already charged with that stuff?" Kion asked.
"No, not really; your spirit is, but channeling the energy directly into your physical self runs a certain risk of injury."
"Ah-ha," Kion replied, "Well, we don't need to try that one for a while." He looked at the sword for a second, then at Sayoe. His brow fell a little. "How long have you been able to do that?" he asked in a dull voice.
She narrowed her eyes slightly. "Since we left the village."
His lips tightened a little. Breathing deeply though his nose, he pondered whether to speak, but stopped himself and raised a silencing finger as he darted his eyes around suspiciously.
"What is it?" Sayoe whispered.
Kion shushed her and glared over his shoulder. Behind him, the rocky outcropping of the cliff at the edge of the mainland seemed eerily calm. The Shell Hunters had also stopped, cautiously peering around their huts and inspecting their surroundings. Slowly turning his body to the mainland, the blacksmith muttered, "I knew it; we're being watched." He scanned the face of the cliff, and suddenly jabbed a finger at a large dead tree leaning up against the dirt wall. "There," he hissed.
Sayoe narrowed her eyes; the gnarled tree bent over to one side, with grasping branches hanging around its trunk. The shadow behind it rippled a little, and a shape moved from behind it. A man in a cloak stalked confidently out a few paces, stopping about three feet from the edge of Pihyara.
"Not bad, Karakor," he said. "I didn't realize you were following me. I think I'll have to keep up my lead for now; see you later." With a casual salute, the figure rippled again and disappeared.
"Who was that?" Sayoe asked.
"I met him before you came along," Kion said with an angry smirk. "That was Sheex."
"All I know about him is that he's after the Elementals, too," Kion explained, "But I guess he's connected to those little black things, because I saw one the last time I ran into him." Noticing the she was still holding his chain sickle, the young man tentatively held out his hand. Sayoe gingerly returned the weapon to him.
"Why did he call you 'Karakor?'" she inquired.
"That's what you call someone from the desert," he said, "When you don't like him."
"I see," she replied quietly. Then, after a second, she added: "But you weren't born in the desert, so it wouldn't really bother you."
"That would be right," Kion agreed, sounding as if he was trying to contain his boredom.
Sayoe almost forced a smile, but a thought stopped her. "That reminds me; if we're going to the Ice Country, you'll need this." She opened her satchel and produced a tightly rolled up cloth object. Kion took it and unrolled the long, heavy cloak.
Looking at it, he said: "Oh, right. How much do I owe you?"
"Consider it payment for taking me home," she said, "And because I didn't tell you enough about me before we got into town."
The young man raise his eyebrows and nodded. "I see." Draping the cloak over his arm, he looked around. "So how is it again that we're going to get there?"
"Well," Sayoe mused as she retrieved a second cloak from her pack, "These folks are going to help us, I hope."
Kion looked about; a crowd of the tiny Shell Hunters had begun gathering around the pair. They were chirping at the humans, and a few of them seemed rather excited. Sylphid appeared next to Kion and floated own closer to the height of the clam-like Hunters. The Elemental began mumbling something, and one of the creatures hopped forward and engaged him in conversation. They exchanged a few odd chirps, and Sylphid floated back up to eye-level with Kion.
"They are indebted to the both of you," he explained. "Perhaps you may now ask them about the Sea Dweller."
The blacksmith pursed his lips. "Go ahead," he offered.
Sylphid descended to the ground and grunted a question to the Shell Hunter, who, after a pause, turned to another of the villagers and barked a command. The second Hunter promptly trotted toward the shore. Returning to the air, the Wind Elemental gestured in the same direction and said: "That lad will help you; follow him."
Sneaking a glance at the diminutive Hunter to whom Sylphid had been speaking, Kion slowly started after the second creature. With no distinguishing facial features, it was difficult to tell if the clam-beings were even looking at him. Sayoe followed, and the village immediately erupted in a chorus of chirping, almost in unison.
"They are thanking you," Sylphid added.
"You speak their language," Kion deduced.
"I am the Eyes of Truth," Sylphid said, "I see the truth in every communication." A short pause. "I can also tell when somebody is lying."
"Figures," the blacksmith muttered. He caught up with the Shell Hunter as the little creature hopped onto a jagged rock at the edge of the beach. Its foot stretched out a little, then settled down as the creature braced itself. The two halves of the shell parted a little, and a shrill whistling sound spewed out. The half-melody bounced through the air, and Kion could swear that some of the other Hunters in the village echoed the call. Sayoe wrapped herself in her cloak, fastening the clasp around her neck and adjusting the hood in case she needed to wear it. A mass of bubbles gurgled out of the water about twenty feet from the shore, alerting the pair. With a noisy lurch, something rose from the ocean; a wide, round figure lumbered obediently up to the rock on which the Shell Hunter stood. The little creature stood tall as the huge shape approached.
Sayoe gasped in amazement. "Booskaboo," she whispered.
"What?" Kion asked.
"The Sea Dweller," she replied. "It's Booskaboo. We always called him the Master of the Seas." She beamed as the beast came closer. "I didn't think he was still alive; he must be centuries old."
Kion peered at the giant, and although the sun was at its back, he could discern that it resembled a ten-foot tall turtle, with a sharp beak and large, sad eyes. Its shell curved across its back in a majestic dome, looking for all the world like a worn boulder. The Shell Hunter chirped something, and Booskaboo slowly nodded with a grunt. It then stooped down, resting its flippers on the shore, and bowed its head. The three Elementals gathered around its head, and Booskaboo bowed even lower. Each mumbled an unintelligible grunt to the beast, and the turtle nodded in response to them. Sylphid waved to the Shell Hunter, which extended an arm and waved back as it hopped in the direction of the village of Pihyara. The Wind Elemental then beckoned for Kion and Sayoe to climb onto Booskaboo's back.
The young lady readily obliged, followed tentatively by the blacksmith. The various creases and chips in the beast's shell offered enough foot and handholds for the pair to pull themselves to the top, but the seawater made the shell slippery enough to undermine Kion's faith in the creature.
"We're going to ride this thing all the way there?" he asked.
"We'll be fine," Sayoe argued. "Booskaboo helped the Mana Army in the past. They say he's the fastest thing in the ocean."
"That doesn't help," the young man retorted.
Sayoe bit her lip. "Just hold on," she finally said, not at all amused.
Kion leaned forward, hooking his fingers into the deepest cracks he could find in Booskaboo's shell. The giant turtle slowly waddled away from the shore, and floated for a few seconds before starting off. It quickly turned to the northeast and pushed away from the beach with a dizzying burst of speed. The blacksmith clenched his teeth and tensed his leg muscles, too startled to check that his leather pack was secure across his shoulder, although the though entered his mind. In moments the beast had accelerated to an inhuman speed, and Kion found himself pulled nearly flat against the creature's shell. Sayoe leaned back, looked at him, and reached for his arm. Plucking the cloak that was still draped over it, she said something that was probably "Don't lose this," then tucked it under her arm and turned back to watch their ride.
Booskaboo gently rocked back and forth as he carried the pair across the ocean, and before they knew how long they had been riding they could see a landform in the distance, pointing mountains at the sky as if to guide them forward. The sun was well on its way through the sky, and raced upwards as if to dodge their approach.