Chapter 7: With Friends Like These...
When he came to, he had no idea how much time had passed. He felt sick to his stomach and the sensation refused to go away.
"Easy now, Mana Knight. Don't stand up too quickly."
It sounded like Watts. "What happened?"
"Someone just knocked you on the head. You'll have a nasty bruise there for a while."
Randi's vision came into focus again. "How long was I out?"
"Just a minute or so. I heard a scuffle outside and took a peek. All I saw was you on the ground, knocked out."
"I'll be okay," he assured the blacksmith. He still felt sick to his stomach. He had a feeling that the creature was to blame for this. It had lost before, but it had refused to give up the grudge. Well, this time Randi would make it sorry... he grabbed for his sword.
He grabbed air. Panicking, he looked down at his new sheath. There was no sword to be seen. "My sword!" he cried in alarm.
Watts' eyes opened wide. "Whoever knocked you out... musta taken your sword! How'd they do that? I couldn't even lift it!"
Randi looked around wildly, trying to see his sword. He saw nothing. "Who could've taken it?!" he demanded.
"Mana Knight," a third voice called.
Randi turned to face the Elder. "What?"
"I've got some leads on the seal around the Underground Palace."
"Forget it. My sword is missing!"
The Elder actually gasped. "But how?"
"Someone knocked him out and stole it," Watts supplied.
The Elder sighed. "This complicates matters. Whoever did it must have run fast. They could be anywhere."
Inspiration flashed through Randi's mind, telling him exactly who had taken the sword. All he needed was a little proof. That individual would have left through the front gate.
A minute later, the guards at the front entrance were being questioned.
"Has anyone left the village?"
"Yeah, just a few minutes ago."
"Who was it?"
"Don't know her name..."
"Lady Purim..." growled Randi.
Watts snorted with the realization. "Of course. The little girl wouldn't give up, would she? I couldn't suggest anything to cut through that magic stone, so she figures that your sword will do the trick. She's determined, I'll give her that much."
"How am I supposed to find her?" Randi mused, quickly remembering where she was heading. He decided that since he knew where she was headed, he'd simply go that way. "Which way to the Haunted Forest?"
The Elder shook his head. "You'll never find her this way. Not until it's too late. This had occurred to me before, but I didn't think the circumstances were ideal..."
"They're not ideal right now!" Randi retorted.
"No, so let's invoke some desperate measures. Let me explain a few things. I got some information on the seal around the Underground Palace."
"Make it quick," Randi growled.
"Of course. It was originally meant to protect the Palace from enemies, and worked quite well, I understand. It's only now that it has become a problem. The individual who created the seal was none other than Elinee the witch."
Randi had a nasty feeling that he knew where this was headed.
"To get rid of the seal, you'll have to go talk with her. Unfortunately, Elinee's not a good witch anymore..."
"Don't I know it," he muttered, thinking of Pandora. "So I'm probably looking at fighting her to get her to remove the seal?"
"I would not be surprised if that were the case."
"Great. Now I really need to get my sword back from Lady Purim."
"Correct. Now about the desperate measures? You need to find Lady Purim. You need to find her quickly too, I might add. I don't think she knows much about your sword. I doubt she realizes that enemies follow the sword like a moth to a flame. She didn't look like much of warrior to me before, even if she was talented with a bow..."
"So how do I find her quickly?"
"We'll give you a little assistance. Watts, go find the little scamp and tell him that he'd be smart to get over here right away."
Watts chuckled. "Desperate measures? You're not joking. But he'd find her in a snap, I suppose." He trudged off quickly.
"What is this all about?" Randi demanded. "Who is this person? A tracker?"
"Among many others things, yes. For your sake, I hope you're not one to harbor grudges..."
Randi thought about that for a moment. Then it hit him. "You don't mean..."
A blur of red and aquamarine dropped down out of nowhere, landing lightly. "Hey Elder! What the heck is going on here?"
Randi groaned. Sure enough, it was the creature. Things had obviously taken a turn for the worse. Did the Elder honestly think the creature was going to help him? More than likely, it would try to kill him again, seeing that Randi was weaponless.
"Thank-you for coming," the Elder said calmly. "Mana Knight, I'd like you to meet Keith. Keith, meet the Mana Knight."
The creature let off a stream of swear words in Randi's direction.
"Can't say I feel much differently right now," Randi agreed. "Are you saying this... thing is going to help me out?"
"Like heck I'm gonna!"
"Just wait one minute, child." The Elder's eyes narrowed. "Unless, of course, your memory has returned recently?"
That got the creature's attention, although Randi couldn't imagine why. "What are you talking about?" the creature demanded.
"I've been doing some research over the years, and I have a hunch that your memory might be restorable. Because of the nature of your species, close exposure to a Mana Seed might just bring back a portion of your memory."
"I don't joke, child."
"Can't argue with that."
"So what do you think? Would you like to give it a try? We have a palace nearby. The Earth Seed is at the heart of the Underground Palace."
"How come you didn't tell me this sooner?"
"Because you could never get across that seal. But the Mana Knight needs that seal down, and he's working on it right now. Unfortunately, someone's been foolish enough to jump him and steal his sword."
The creature glanced at Randi, transmitting a silent ‘Are you even stupider than you look, idiot?' message to him. "Let me guess. You want me to track down the person who's got the sword?"
"She's currently escaping into the Haunted Forest. I'm sure you'd be able to find her. But there's more. The Mana Knight needs to deal with Elinee, because she's the only one who can lower the seal. She might not be very willing..."
The creature wasn't stupid. "So you want me to help out with ‘convincing' her to get rid of the seal?"
"Exactly. Between you and the Mana Knight with his sword, you'd have a good chance of doing that, wouldn't you? What do you say?"
The creature thought hard for a few moments. Finally... "I'm going for a few weapons. Back in a minute. Idiot." With an effortless spring, the creature was scaling the nearby walls, headed for a higher level.
"That went well," the Elder observed. "Don't worry about him. He talks rough, but you did defeat him before. I think he respects you more than he'll admit. Not that he didn't have that beating coming for awhile now. Just be friendly with him, and he'll be a big help. I'll let you two get introduced on your own."
Randi nodded. "Thanks... I think."
"You can decide another time," the Elder chuckled.
"Actually, if I could ask a favor?"
"For you, almost anything."
"Would you lend me a bow and a big quiver of arrows?"
"To use until you get your sword back?"
Among other reasons, but Randi didn't want to explain right now. "I've been told that the monsters are attracted to both me and my sword. I'm still stuck with half the problem."
"I see. I will go fetch a good set for you."
Randi waited at the entrance impatiently. After several minutes, the Elder returned with a bow and a large number of arrows. He nodded silently to the Elder's wishes for good luck. After a few more minutes, he felt a quiet rush of wind behind him. It took all his willpower to resist showing his surprise. "About time you got here," he said without turning.
"So what are you waiting for, idiot? Let's get moving."
The two left Dwarf Village together, both doing their utmost to maintain a barrier between themselves. It was obvious that neither had entirely forgiven the other for their previous fight. Randi wondered exactly what he was getting into with this creature. He certainly wasn't a human. He wasn't a dwarf either. So what else could he be?
"Let's just get one thing straight right now, idiot," the creature was saying. "I couldn't give a rat's ass about you or that sword. I've got my own reasons for working with you. The minute I've got what I want, you and I are through."
Randi scowled. He was dealing with a hard case here. Back home, he either got along with someone, or didn't. If he didn't, things almost always came down to blows, and Randi would invariably be the victor. The fact that Randi never chose to rub his victory in their faces was often what made things friendlier between them. This creature seemed to just hate him more. Maybe he should try to talk with it.
"Fine. But why do you hate me so much, anyway? I've never done anything to you except take back what you stole from me and defend myself when you pushed for a fight. Are you sour at the whole world, or just at me?"
"Don't worry. Just you."
"Because I don't like your attitude." The creature made it sound as though its opinion was the only thing in the world that mattered.
"I don't like yours either right now, but I'm not letting it sour me, am I?"
"You know what the difference is, buddy? You care. I don't. That's another thing I don't like about you. Why should you care what anybody thinks about you? Isn't being the Mana Knight enough?"
Randi scowled again. "You know what your problem is? You're just misinformed. Do you think I like being a Mana Knight? Do you think I liked being kicked out of my village because everyone was scared of me? Do you think I like being a magnet for every single stupid monster in the area? Do you think I like the idea of having to travel around the world with some huge Empire wanting to kill me? Do you think I like having to go three or four days at a time without sleeping because I'm as good as dead if I fall asleep?"
"Sounds a little rough," the creature admitted.
"Damn straight it does!" He lowered his voice. "If I thought it was that easy, I'd be throwing that sword in the closest swamp I could find! So do you understand why I get a little steamed when someone picks me for an easy mark and steals my money?"
The creature seemed to mull over that for a few moments. Finally it smiled a rather childish smile. "Okay. We'll start again. You're not the high-and-mighty noble person I thought you were. Actually, I'd say you're up to your knees in shit."
Randi nodded wearily. "You understand."
"So what do you say? Forgive and forget? I'll be the first person to admit that I've got the hottest temper around, but I honestly never meant any harm. Uh, at first, anyway."
"Fine, we're even. Is your side okay?"
"It's nothing. I heal fast. Really fast."
Randi decided to take the creature's word for it. "So what about our target? Can you really find her?"
"No problem, Mana Knight. I was close to her during that fight with the monster. I know what she smells like. In this fresh air, she'll be easy to find. But I have an even better idea. The Elder don't know it, but I've done some exploring out here. If you're certain she's going to the Haunted Forest..."
"I'm sure of it."
"Then I know a faster way to get there. She's taking the direct route, but she'll have some swamp to go through."
Randi thought for a minute. "No, we'd better follow her. If some monsters find her before we do, we might never find her. How fast can you travel?"
"There's trees around. I can outpace you ten to one."
"Let's go then. She's just a noblewoman. There's no way she can outdistance us."
"You sure know a lot about her."
"Not by choice. And when we find her? Don't hurt her. If she'll give back the sword willingly, so much the better. We're not using force until we have to."
The creature looked at him curiously. "How come? What's there between you two?"
"As little as possible. I'll fill you in on the whole story later on."
As the day wore on, Randi soon realized that his traveling companion hadn't been bluffing. The creature traveled by treetop, agilely flitting from one branch to another with a grace that would put a squirrel to shame. He decided that purely for curiosity's sake, he would suggest they slow down to talk a little. He still didn't know exactly what he was traveling with.
For his part, he trudged along at a fast pace, smashing through the overgrown bushes and wading through the thick swamp water when it was unavoidable. His stomach felt queasy, but not from hunger. He had a feeling that it was the loss of his sword that was causing it. He still had the sheath, but it was the sword that he really missed. When he caught up with Lady Purim...
"What do you say we take five, Mana Knight?" the creature suggested, effortlessly bouncing fifteen feet across and landing perfectly upon a small tree stump. It balanced on its left foot with deceiving ease.
"Fine by me. Any idea if we're getting closer to her?"
It gave him a mischievous grin and beckoned him closer before speaking. "We passed her twenty minutes ago..."
Randi's eyes shot open. "But..."
"She heard us coming. You're noisy. So she thought she'd trick you and hide until you'd gone by, then follow you until you gave up. She didn't know I was with you, and I doubt she realizes how pathetic her idea is with me around. She doesn't have a prayer of sneaking past us."
"So why didn't you say something?"
"Because she would have run. Now we're between her and the Haunted Forest, right? She has to get past us."
Randi smiled. His new companion was smarter than he'd thought. "So we just wait here until she shows up?"
"I'll hear her long before she can hear us. And we'll keep our voices down. For now, we just relax for the coming fight."
"Sounds good to me. Besides, I think we have some explaining to do."
"Oh really?" The creature's expression indicated it felt the same way. "You can ask first."
"I've been wondering this for awhile. What exactly are you?"
"I'm a Sprite. At least I think I am."
It gave him a grin that displayed a mouth with several pairs of razor sharp canine teeth. Its deep-green eyes were slightly large compared to the other features on its face, giving it a slightly puppy-faced appearance that didn't even begin to fool Randi in light of recent events. It sat down against a stump and stretched its hands and feet. Its hands looked like Randi's own, except they were short one finger and covered with a short, soft-looking fur. The fingers themselves were long and narrow, with no nails. The feet looked rather strange, also being covered with more of the same fur, also devoid of nails. The toes were almost as long as its fingers, and the biggest on each foot seemed able to flip around and double as a thumb in a pinch.
"A Sprite," Randi repeated, forcing himself to stop studying the figure across from him. He'd never heard of such a race before in his life. "Um... what exactly is that?"
"Everything you see here. Us at Dwarf Village aren't exactly positive, but all the history records we could dig up seemed to say that's what I was. They're supposed to be extinct, but I guess I screwed that theory."
"Yeah, I guess so. So why are you at Dwarf Village?"
"I somehow got caught in one of the spring floods that happen around here every year and got washed down into the village. I must've hit my head or something, because I can't remember anything before that."
"So that's what the Elder meant by getting your memory back?"
"Yep. I wouldn't mind getting my memory back. Maybe even remember where I used to live, y'know? All I remember right now is the eight years I've spent at Dwarf Village."
"That's worth going for. So what exactly is it like being a Sprite?"
"Well, you said you could smell Lady Purim? And you can hear her now? Are you some kind of half-cat?"
It scowled and spread the fingers of its left hand. The slightest twitch made four one-inch-long claws spring upwards. Randi could still feel the vicious scratches he had received during their fight. Obviously it had nails after all. "I'm to a cat what you are to a monkey," it retorted.
"I didn't mean it that way. But I wouldn't have taken you for much of a fighter."
"I learned to fight like that. But you don't look like much of a fighter."
"I'm not. I've had the Mana Sword for less than two weeks. Before that, I'd never touched a sword in my life."
It gaped at him incredulously. "Are you serious? But... there's no frickin' way you coulda beat me then!"
"Don't ask me. I think that sword is doing something to me when I fight. Somehow... teaching... me to fight. Don't even ask me how I caught the second ring you threw at me. I couldn't have done that when we started to fight."
The explanation seemed to sit alright with Keith. "That would explain your fighting style. You fight like a fist fighter, not a sword-fighter. What else is that sword doing to you?"
Randi sighed. "I don't even know. Like I said, I'd give good money to be rid of that sword. It's nothing but trouble."
"So what about you, Mana Knight? What's your story?"
"Keith, isn't it?"
"Keith, call me Randi. I don't really want to be called a Mana Knight. A real Mana Knight would want to get his Mana Sword back."
Keith snickered. One of his big ears twitched. "She's still a mile or two away."
Randi repressed a smile. It wouldn't do to mention how much like a cat's those huge ears atop the sprite's head resembled. They were furry and white, and tipped with tinges of pink hair. If he ever decided to hide his weapons, his fangs and his claws, Keith might just be able to pass for a big stuffed doll.
"So that's the story," Randi finished.
Keith whistled in admiration. "That's cool, man! You might be outta some backwoods town, but at least you got some guts! But you didn't say what's between you and that Lady Purim chick. You seem to know a few things about her."
"Not really," Randi sighed. "She's just mixed up in this a little. She's from Pandora, right? Well, as I know it, her boyfriend was a soldier. A pretty good one too, apparently. He led a witch-hunt into the Haunted Forest recently and hasn't come back. Lady Purim is convinced that Elinee the witch is holding him captive and seems to think she can rescue him."
The sprite's eyes shot open. "She's insane!"
"No kidding. But she's persistent too. She's already gone into the Haunted Forest once, but had to turn back because there something in her way. She came to Dwarf Village because she wanted something to cut through it. Watts, your blacksmith, couldn't find anything that would work. Some kind of magic protects it."
"Let me guess... she's decided that your Mana Sword will do the trick?"
"That's right. I can't believe she's come as far as she has, much less survived, but she's serious about all this. I'm afraid we might just have to hurt her to get the sword back."
Keith scowled. "What an idiot. At least we shouldn't have much trouble getting it back from her. She can't get past us." He held one of his knives and spun it like a baton.
"Just let her try."