Chapter 2: Initiation
Randi slowly walked down the pathway that led away from Potos, his home village. Once his home village, he corrected. Not anymore. He had been banished from the village for finding a treasure. He had been banished without a chance to explain himself. He had been banished because the people he had grown up with had believed the words of a stranger they had never met before.
He gritted his teeth as the picture of the stranger came to mind. When he found the stranger... he'd get his revenge for certain!
"Going my way?"
Randi spun on his heels to face the voice. It was the stranger, leaning comfortably against an oak tree. He had a solemn look on his face.
"It didn't take them long to get rid of you, did it?" he observed.
"No thanks to you!" Randi growled, muscles tensing.
"I did nothing but give them and you the truth. If you had an ounce of decency in you, you'd have left the village anyway. Monsters will be coming after you. It doesn't matter where you go."
"Thanks for more good news."
The stranger straightened to his full height, somehow looking even more menacing. "If you want to blame me, go ahead. But maybe you'd better start considering who your friends are. I'm honestly sorry about what just happened back there. But I knew it would happen. I saw the look in those villager's eyes. Fear. They wanted nothing to do with what they didn't understand."
"I'd be happy to join them."
The man shrugged. "It's up to you. You can be killed by what you don't understand, or you can have a fighting chance against what you do understand."
"Get to the point."
"Care to come with me? I'm headed towards the Water Palace. I'm sure the keeper of the grounds there will be happy to answer your questions and give you some good advice. She'll know what's just happened to you."
Randi looked suspicious. "Do I even have a choice?"
"You do. You can strike out on your own. See how far you get before the enemy finds and kills you. You're not much of a threat to them right now, but they won't care. All they see is the threat you could be."
"Threat?" Randi laughed at the absurdity of the idea. "I'm not a threat to anybody. I don't even know who the enemy is."
"I'm sure they'll introduce themselves to you before finishing you off."
Randi took in the gaze staring him down right now. "I'll go with you. But this doesn't mean I'm committing to anything else!"
The stranger nodded. "I understand perfectly and I'm grateful. My name is Jema."
Randi nodded, beginning to feel somewhat at ease. Somewhat. "Where are you from, anyway?" he asked, taking the edge off his voice.
"From Tasnica. You know where that is?"
"That's on the other side of the world, isn't it?!"
"These are bad times, Randi. I get around a lot. I've been working with Pandora's army lately. I don't think your village quite appreciates how bad things are these days."
"Well, how bad are they?"
"Those monsters. What did you think of them? The thorn bushes? The giant insect?"
Randi shuddered. "More of them?"
Jema nodded. "Everywhere. In Tasnica, they're worse. The ones around here are relatively harmless if you know how to get rid of them. Over there, they're bigger and smarter. They know how to hide, to ambush people. And there's much more to be found. Not many people travel these days. And things are steadily getting worse."
Randi realizes that his knuckles were white around the handle of his sword. "Worse?"
Jema laughed loudly. "Unless something's done, this world will be begging for the monsters you've faced to come back! Assuming anyone is alive to beg, of course."
"This all has something to do with this sword, doesn't it?"
"Indeed. Indeed it does. That's why we're going to the Water Palace. I'm a soldier. I can only explain so much. Luka will able to explain much more to you."
"She's the keeper of the Water Palace. Shall we be going?"
Randi nodded curtly. "Fine. Let's go."
The next day, the two of them set out early. Randi felt a little tired, but what pride he'd retained after the past few days kept him from complaining around Jema. His mind had been too full to sleep properly, torn between trying to understand what had already happened to him, and the prospect of the danger continuing. Jema had kept watch the whole night, saying that one couldn't afford to let one's guard down at any time while outside a village. Even minor monsters could be dangerous if they caught you unawares. Jema himself was capable of going several days without rest, which was usually enough to get him from one village to another without having to sleep. Randi was beginning to envy the casualness with which Jema spoke of danger. It clearly wasn't an act. Jema was beyond an ordinary soldier. He was like an iron wall to anything dangerous. Randi wondered what it took to get like that. He had always considered himself a fearless person, but he had to admit that recent events had shown otherwise. Perhaps he had better learn to fix that.
"It's important to know what to look for when you're traveling these days," Jema was explaining calmly, pointing up ahead.
Randi spotted what he was pointing at. Had he not encountered one previously, he might not have noticed the thorn bush attached to a stump. He took a deep breath to calm himself. Jema obviously wasn't afraid of it. Randi took heart from that.
"These can be dangerous if they catch you off guard. But they're not dangerous if you take them by surprise. Watch and learn."
Jema bent down and picked up a large stick. He advanced towards the plant until the thorns started to twitch. It knew he was there. Jema chuckled quietly, then tossed the stick to the right side of the plant. The thorny branches snatched it out of mid-air almost immediately. Jema lunged to the left, his big sword slashing out with lightning speed.
With a audible swish, every single branch of the thorn bush had been cut off. Jema contemptuously kicked the stump over on its side, rendering it helpless. He glanced back at Randi. "You'll find that most monsters aren't very smart. They act only on their instincts, which are to fight and kill. Make sure you don't make the same mistake and act on your own instincts. Stay calm and whether you decide to run or fight, make sure you fully commit yourself."
Randi nodded dumbly. He mentally admitted that he'd be much rather fully commit himself to running.
"Now you try it," Jema suggested, pointing up ahead at a second bush. His daring glance was unmistakable. Jema didn't think he had the courage to do it...
Randi tensed up. He was no coward. His village was full of cowards. He'd never let himself be ranked among them! He gripped his sword tightly, trying to calm himself as he approached the plant. It didn't seem to know he was there. He would just sneak up on it and...
The bush suddenly lunged for him. Randi yelled in surprise. Had he gotten too close? He didn't think so, but he couldn't chance it. Dodging to the side, he drove towards the plant and attacked. Two branches were severed off by the tip of his sword. The other branches lunged toward him quickly, intent on wrapping him up tightly.
What Randi did next was beyond explanation. He dropped his sword on the ground, and with both hands, grabbed the plant around its base. Buckling his knees, he lunged upwards with all his strength, tossing the plant straight up in the air. The plant writhed, trying to get a bearing on him. Before that could happen, it began to fall again.
Randi was waiting. Throwing all his strength behind his fist, he cut loose with an open palmed uppercut that smashed into the base of the center stem of the plant. It was a blow that had knocked a few bullies back home senseless. His fist passed through the plant like it was nothing. The entire plant split apart, spraying a thick liquid everywhere. Randi tossed the now dead-plant to the side and stared at it savagely. Kill him, would it? Did it think he was going to run from it like all those miserable cowards at his village? His eyes narrowed. He was through with running. Anything that wanted to tangle with him-
"Randi!" Jema voice yelled out. "Defend yourself!"
Randi looked up, still looking angry. He saw two animals running towards him, making snarling sounds. They were about as big as a large cat, and had grey fur. They sounded like a rabid cat he'd once run into. And they were aiming straight for him. Once again, he could feel anger surfacing. Fight him, would they?
Growling, they jumped towards him, both aiming for his neck. He swung twice. His first blow sent the first animal hurtling away from him, knocked senseless. His other hand clamped around the neck of the second animal. He squeezed tightly, holding it away from his face as it struggled fiercely.
He looked it over. Its eyes looked red and its claws wickedly sharp. Its fur was covered in blood - something else's blood, and so were the edges of its mouth. It had the strength of something twice its size, and even now, helpless as it was, it refused to stop lunging for him.
Randi looked at it again in disbelief, the rage slowly fading away. "This is a... RABBIT!!!"
Jema approached him. "Things are not what they used to be, Randi."
Randi squeezed his fist. A crack was heard and the animal stopped struggling. Randi let it drop to the ground. "What's happening, Jema? Those things are rabbits. That was a rose bush. Now they're all monsters!"
"It's going to keep getting worse," Jema said with a sigh. "Unless something is done about it."
"And that's why you want me to come to the Water Palace with you?"
Jema nodded. "You may not believe it now, but you could be a big help in this whole fight."
"You mean, this sword can be a big help."
"You saw that man try to pick it up before in your village. You're the only one who can use it," Jema said sadly. He looked sternly at Randi and glanced at the sword lying on the ground. "You might want to consider using it yourself."
Randi picked up the sword and held it disdainfully. "I don't know how to use this kind of weapon." He made a fist. "I do know how to use this kind of weapon."
For the first time since Randi had seen him, Jema smiled. "Perhaps I was wrong. You have a lot to learn, but you're not the weakling I first took you for. Come. We only have a few hours more traveling before we reach the Palace."
"Is that it?"
Jema nodded, gazing at it respectfully. "The Water Palace. One of the most accessible of the eight palaces."
"Eight palaces? Accessible?" Randi added the second question on as an afterthought. It had been a rough, off-road trek to reach this location. He would remember it after this, but would never have found it without Jema to lead him here.
"The others are better hidden. And yes, there are eight palaces in total scattered around the world. I've seen a few of them with my own eyes, but most don't even know they exist. This is one of the more beautiful ones on the outside, I've heard."
Randi looked the palace over, shielding his eyes as the morning sun glared in his eyes. After a moment, he realized that it was being reflected from the palace itself. As they approached, the angle changed enough that the sun was no longer in his face, and he was able to see the building clearly.
It was big.
Including the knee-deep pool of water that surrounded it, it had to cover as much area as the whole of Potos village. The water sparkled with a brilliance that made it seem like liquid silver. The palace had its back right up against the edge of a huge mountain range. Near the edge of the cliff overtop, water poured over, cascading down onto the palace, where it ran down the sloped roofs and wove its way down towards the ground in erratic paths.
Randi eyes danced down the engraved gold patterns around the massive supporting pillars to the solid marble steps leading up to the entrance doors. It was a vision of loveliness unlike anything he'd ever seen before.
"The Water Palace," Jema said, the now familiar gruffness gone from his voice, a hint of awe coming into his voice. "One of the few places still untouched by the evil around us. This palace has a seal around it keeping anything with dangerous intentions away. But it's harmless to people like us."
"Who built this?"
"The Ancients," Jema replied, as if that should be answer enough.
It wasn't enough for Randi. "Who were they?"
"No one really knows. You can add that to your list of questions to ask Luka. She's been helping protect these lands for over 200 years."
"That old, huh?" Randi asked rhetorically, trying to make a mental image of someone that old. At that, he failed, being unable to picture anybody past eighty years old.
"Let's go," was Jema's only reply, trudging through the pool of water. Randi followed closely after.
Walking up the polished white steps was like ascending a stairway to heaven. The doors were wide open, as though they had been expected long ago. Randi almost swore he could feel power emanating from the palace, drawing him towards its source...
Inside the palace was more of the same splendor. The central walkway became a bridge over a pool of water. Emerging from the pool of water on either side of the bridge were huge basins of water. From the water inside, bright blue flames flared forth, reaching in vain for the high ceiling. Subconsciously, Randi could feel the strange power drawing him inwards, growing stronger. It was as though he didn't even need his eyes to see where he was going.
Jema stopped briefly, and watched Randi walk on blindly onwards, eyes shut. "Randi..."
Randi didn't reply. All he could feel was the power pulling him inward. For a brief instant, the power seemed to pull him sideways, but then it continued to lead him straight ahead.
Jema watched Randi sidestep the final water basin that had been placed in the middle of the pathway and shook his head.
Randi stopped when he realized that an obstacle was in front of him. He opened his eyes, wondering how he'd gotten where he was. He looked around quickly, searching for the obstacle.
His eyes quickly fell on a young girl standing in front of him, not even up to his chest. She had long, silver hair that cascaded down loosely, not stopping until it was below her waist. Her face was smooth and flawless, and had a softness to it. She wore a sparkling white robe with a bright blue ribbon that loosely tied back her hair, let drape over her right shoulder. Her sparkling blue eyes were looking up at him intently. She looked to be veritable angel incarnate.
Yet for the strangest reason, Randi felt irritated towards her. She was in the way of his getting closer to the power's source. "Hey you, where's Luka?"
Jema gasped as he came up alongside Randi. "Randi! How rude!" He stopped when he was alongside Randi, then bowed, one knee touching the ground. "Luka, it's good to see you again."
Randi's eyes shot open. "This girl is over 200 years old!?" he stammered in surprise.
The girl giggled and kissed Jema lightly on the cheek. "You silly! You know you don't have to bow to me! It's been so long since you last came!"
Jema nodded. "Fifteen years... at least, Luka."
"You're Luka?" Randi stammered, not sure if he should bow or not.
She eyed him up and down with remarkable scrutiny for someone who looked like a mere child. "Well, well, it looks like someone pulled out the Mana Sword. How interesting..." Her face had a playful smirk on it.
Jema didn't bother replying to Randi's question. "Luka, things are getting bad. Monsters are everywhere. He just fought a big one!"
Luka sobered up. "I know. The ebb and the flow of the tides bring me news from around the world. You know that, don't you Jema?"
He nodded silently. "Then I suppose I don't need to tell you how bad things are getting."
She nodded. "Mana is growing more and more out of balance. That must be why this boy was able to pull the sword out. For better or for worse, this sword has chosen him and it's up to him to help right things."
"Just a minute here!" Randi protested. "I haven't committed to anything!"
"If you fall into a pool of water, you've committed yourself to getting wet," Luka replied. "Does it matter whether you fell in by accident or not?"
"I'm... getting wet whether I like or not?" he guessed, not liking the implications of that.
She bowed her head. "It's up to you. Sink to the bottom, or swim for shore?"
Randi took a deep breath. He had already gotten more than he'd bargained for from this sword. And it sounded like the sword hadn't finished twisting his life around yet. Better the enemy you knew than the enemy you didn't, right? "How... do I swim?"
Luka rewarded him with a smile. "That's why Jema brought you here. But Jema, you've got other things to worry about. Let me teach him what I can. Go to Pandora and tell the king to be careful. Things are not what they were around there. The river that flows through the village has been dammed up, and I can no longer see there."
"I'm on my way. Randi, pay attention to what Luka has to say. No matter what you decide to do, it would be foolish to underestimate the seriousness of these times." With that, Jema turned and strode away.
"Be careful, Jema," Luka admonished. "There is much magic at work everywhere. Much of it is evil. Steel only works against some of it."
She refocused her gaze on Randi. "How much has Jema told you?"
"Not much. The monsters are attracted to me and this sword?"
Luka nodded. "Those that are evil seek out what could destroy them."
"So what's this sword to them?"
"That is the Mana Sword. Possibly the most powerful weapon ever made."
"Not the best looking."
"The appearance of the Mana Sword reflects the user."
Randi bristled slightly. "Are you saying..."
"I'm not saying anything, Randi. It's the sword talking right now. You're not a fit person to be using the Mana Sword. Historically, the sword has only been useable by people descended from the Tribe of Mana. But they have not been heard of for quite some time now. It's my guess that in their absence, the offset balance of Mana made the sword take the first person who happened to stumble upon it. But we must make the best of it anyway."
"That doesn't sound like much of a compliment."
"It's not. But I said nothing about the future. You may be worthy of the sword someday. If you live that long."
"I was hoping for some ideas on that," Randi pointed out sourly.
"Before I explain everything that's happening, listen to a story. Years ago, many years ago, long before even I was alive, our ancestors lived. We call them the Ancients these days. They used the power of Mana to build a great civilization beyond anything we can imagine. Eventually that power was used to create a great weapon. These days, we remember it as the Mana Fortress."
"I've read stories about that. But they were just..."
"It happened," Luka informed him. "But when people tried to use it, it used up so much of the world's Mana, that the land began to sicken and corrupt. Monsters began to appear. Sickness spread throughout the land. But people refused to head the warning signs and tried to dominate the world with the Fortress. Then one day, all the monsters and sickness disappeared. In their place, a huge monster appeared, greater than anything people had ever imagined possible. To this day, it bears the name of the Mana Beast."
"I've heard stories about that too," Randi cut in. "Didn't it almost destroy our world?"
Luka nodded. "The Mana Beast was the nightmare of nightmares. It knew nothing but endless anger and a blind desire to destroy life. Its very footsteps created earthquakes. Its claws tore out canyons and separated mountain ranges. Its breath was like the greatest volcano imaginable. Nothing else even came close to matching its awesome power. It raged across the world, and through the skies, purifying the surface of life wherever it went. When the Mana Fortress attacked it, the Mana Beast simply became angrier and continued its destruction. The people realized that Mana had been thrown out of balance and that the destruction would continue until Mana was back in balance again. The Mana Beast was a means to return to that balance. But it seemed too late to do anything about it. Balance would return when humanity and the Mana Fortress had been destroyed for good.
"In the end, a lone warrior saved everyone. He smashed the Mana Fortress and put the Mana Beast to rest."
"One person did that?"
She eyed him steadily. "One person, a brave knight from what we now know as the Tribe of Mana. He used the Mana Sword to do it, which is why to this day forth, the wielder of the Mana Sword is known as the Mana Knight. That sword saved the world. And people learned from their near-fatal mistake. The Mana Beast had disappeared, and health had returned to the land. The nearly destroyed Mana Fortress was put to rest under the ocean. It has been that way ever since."
"What's happening now?"
"There are those who wish to revive the Mana Fortress."
"But, if the Fortress comes back, won't the Mana Beast come too..." Randi trailed off as he read the look on Luka's face. "But don't they know that?"
"I don't know. Perhaps they only believe what they wish to believe. But I suspect they have help from... others. Perhaps they think they will be safe from the Mana Beast. But we cannot let that happen."
"So what does this have to do with me?" Randi asked. "Are you saying that I have to fight whoever wants to do that?"
"The important part is to understand how things stand right now. Throughout this world, there are eight Mana seeds, taken from the great Mana Tree. These seeds-"
"Mana Seeds. Mana Tree? What are those?"
The minute he said that, Randi could see Luka wince. She had obviously expected him to know that. He suddenly felt very foolish, but what could do about that? He needed to know everything he could learn from her.
Luka hesitated, but recovered quickly. "Describing the Mana Tree is not something that can be easily done. Even I can only begin to grasp all that it is. But you can think of it as the source of the world's Mana. It harnesses the Mana of this world and changes into useful energy. It does not actually create Mana, but focuses it into an energy that sustains this world."
"What about the Mana Seeds?"
"You recall the Mana Fortress? How it was put under the ocean to rest? When this happened, people were worried that someone would try to revive the Fortress. To prevent this from happening, eight seeds were taken from the Mana Tree, each one having a small, yet still immensely powerful ability to harness the Mana of the world, each specializing in one elemental. Water, Earth, Wind, Fire, and so forth. This ability was used to create eight seals around the Mana Fortress that would lock it away for all time. Only by removing every single one of those seals could the Mana Fortress ever be accessed. It has remained this way ever since."
"So what's the problem now?"
"People are weakening those seals and using the excess energy for their own purposes. Such as creating monsters. These monsters consume Mana for themselves, which further lessens the amount of energy the Seeds have to harness. Eventually, the seals will disappear altogether."
"Where do I come in?"
"These seeds, and their seals, are all that stand in the way of the Mana Fortress being revived. They are each in a palace of their own. You must go to each palace and seal the seed there."
"Seal the seed? What does that do?"
"No one is entirely certain what that does, but I believe it diverts some energy from the seed into your sword, making it stronger. It also restores the seal around the Mana Fortress."
Randi nodded. "So how do I seal a seed?"
She shifted to the side and pointed to something behind her. "This is the Water Palace. At its heart, the Water seed. One of the eight Mana seeds from the Mana Tree. To seal it, merely touch your sword to it."
Randi looked at the seed. It was atop a glowing blue pyramid, on a cradle of some sort. The seed itself looked like a blue gem, only it was bigger than any gem had any right to be. It pulsed with a blue glow that illuminated the whole room. Randi could feel the power drawing him closer.
But this time he resisted it. This was the beginning of what he was supposed to do with this sword. Did he want this? He had no idea what he was getting into. He wasn't a warrior. He was just trying to survive the twist that life had thrown him. He wasn't looking for any more problems. And yet...
...Luka had told him what was going to happen. Was it really all up to him? If he refused, was the world doomed to be destroyed? And more importantly, what of himself? Did he want to sink or swim...
He took a deep breath. No running, he swore. If he was going to go down, he was going to go down fighting. If he had to trek across the world for reasons he only half understood, then he would do that. But one way or another, he would survive this! He would learn to fight with a sword if he had to. He would face any monster necessary if it gave him a chance at surviving. And at some point, Randi would face down whoever had begun this mess and make them pay for messing up his life!
Randi stepped resolutely up the stairs leading to the seed. For better or worse, he was committed. He held out the rusty sword in front of him and carefully set it down on the seed. Almost at once, the seed began to begin to glow brighter. Randi could see the seed begin to elevate in front of him, the glow beginning to encompass the sword until it looked like nothing but a glowing rod of light. He could feel the power flowing through his body, like a dip in a hot spring. He felt like he was going to explode at any minute, yet at the same time, he wished it would continue forever. It was unlike anything he'd ever felt before. After what could have been an eternity, the feeling faded away.
Randi opened his eyes. In front of him, lay the seed, now pulsing a brighter blue. He looked at his sword. He couldn't be sure, but it didn't look quite so rusty... "My sword's getting better! The seed helped fix my sword!"
Luka spoke from behind him. "The seed didn't do that. Appearance and power are entirely different things. Your sword is stronger now. Sealing the seed caused it to send power to your sword. Do you understand now what you are being asked to do?"
"To go to the other seven palaces and seal those seeds too, I guess."
Luka nodded. "If the Mana Fortress and Mana Beast come, a fully powered sword is all that can hope to save this world from the destruction."
"Wouldn't it be better to stop the ones who want to do that?"
She gave him a sad smile. "It would. Rest assured, if you decide to take up this task, you'll be confronting them too. It's not an easy thing you're being asked to do, Mana Knight."
Randi scoffed. "Do you think I would have bothered with the first seed if I hadn't known what it meant? Don't get me wrong. I'm only doing this because I want to stay alive and find whoever started this whole mess. But I'll do whatever it takes to do that."
Luka nodded slowly. "Then you now know why the sword has improved somewhat. You have come a step closer to accepting your responsibility as the Mana Knight. You may one day find yourself doing this for more honorable reasons, but then again, some of the most dangerous people are those with little to lose."
A good description of himself these days, Randi decided silently. "I have seven more palaces to go to? Where's the next palace?"
"The closest palace to here is the Underground Palace. It's located in Gaia's Navel. To get these, travel South to Pandora, then head West and look for where the water drains into the earth. There are many caves around there. In there lies the Village of the Dwarves. They'll be able to direct you to where the Underground Palace is located."
Randi nodded slowly as he descended the staircase leading up to the Mana seed. "South to Pandora, then go West."
Luka nodded. "Before you go..." She reached up and touched a finger to his chest. Randi felt a tingling glow pass through his body. It faded after a few seconds, leaving Randi feeling strangely refreshed.
She smiled at his reaction. "The power of Mana can manifest itself in water through healing. I cannot leave this palace to help you in your fighting, but I can ensure you fight at full strength. Good luck to you."
He nodded wearily. "I think I'll need all the help I can get. Thanks." He looked at his sword one last time before leaving the palace. For better or worse, he was in for an adventure. How it would all end, he couldn't even begin to guess.