Chapter 13: Underground Palace
They reached the front entrance to Dwarf village two days later. Purim had decided not to stay a night in Kippo village, saying that time was of the essence right now. There was no telling what Thanatos might have planned for Dyluck. Randi wondered if she simply didn't want to deal with Dyluck's parents right now.
Two heavily armed dwarves greeted them as they entered, with big smiles for Keith.
"Good to see you alive, Red! How'd things go with the witch?"
Keith grinned. ‘Red' was obviously a nickname he had picked up on account of his long hair. "We put her in her place and got what we needed! You expect anything else?"
"Of course not. Just expected it to take a few more days. Especially what with that brat who stole the sword..."
"We dealt with the problem," Randi said forcefully, before Keith could make any comments on the subject. "Been many monsters around lately?"
"Just a couple," the guards replied, shrugging the matter off. Evidently nothing that a couple of well-armed guards couldn't handle.
"Any Dwarf over one year old knows how to use a weapon," Keith pointed out smugly to Randi and Purim.
"How many can you use?" Randi asked curiously.
One of the guards elbowed Keith with a laugh. "Anything the weakling can lift, eh?"
Keith managed a weak smile. "Yeah, right."
Randi refrained from laughing. Unlike the others there, he had seen a rather bitter look cross Keith's face. It wasn't hard to see that the average dwarf in this village was probably any number of times as strong as the average human. In which case, a sprite like Keith would be seriously out of place. Keith might not appreciate having anyone else laugh at him too.
"I'll talk with you guys later on," Keith said, giving a toothy grin. "I just picked up a new weapon. But first, I've got an Underground Palace to trash. Let's go, guys." Without another word, Keith started off into the village.
Randi and Purim were forced to wait at the seal for a few minutes while Keith went to make a few ‘essential preparations'. Having never seen the lake of lava before, Purim was completely awed by the sight before her. As for Randi, he had already seen the lake that prevented access to the Underground Palace. Nevertheless, he allowed himself to be impressed by the sheer magnitude of what was in front of him, as he slowly advanced towards the edge.
He tried to imagine the amount of energy that must be present to create such a thing. How much ‘Fire Mana' must be present there? And to think that he had a sword that could actually take a portion of that and use it for his own reasons. It was enough to make him feel somewhat small in comparison. He understood the barest fraction of what was happening throughout the world, but it was this... power... that was at the heart of the issue. How could he be so concerned about anything else, even his own life when something of such... power... was concerned?
For what seemed like the briefest instant in time, Randi allowed himself to simply stare at the lava before him. It was as though he was no longer seeing the physical lava, but through it. He could see vivid swirls of vibrant energy, forming the very essence of the lava that was normally seen. Much of the energy could be seen to be the raw heat that made the lava flow. But much of it was something different. Try as he might, he couldn't seem to figure out what it might be... he stared at it some more. There had to be some logical explanation for what was in front of him. Then again, what he was seeing wasn't logical in the first place...
Understanding began to crystalize in his mind as he continued to ponder. This wasn't illogical... simply outside his traditional understanding. He wasn't seeing energy... he was seeing Mana. What he had supposed was heat energy was Fire Mana. And the rest... Earth Mana, of course. Lava was made up of more than just heat; it was made of rock. The combination of Earth and Fire had created the lava... A small smile of satisfaction crept over his face as he felt the vision fading away and the normal world coming back into focus.
"-What are you gonna do, sister?"
"I'm going to hang you by those furry little ears and skin you alive!"
"I'd like to see you try!" Keith threatened, pointing a hand at her. Small blue sparks were gathered around the tip of his finger.
"If you insist," Purim growled, pointed a hand at him at him. "This is what I do to freaks who talk that way about Dyluck!"
Suddenly a sword had been imposed between them, coming within inches of slicing off either hand. They stopped short, coming face to face with Randi.
"Do you two have nothing better to do with your lives than fight?" he demanded disgustedly.
"Hmph!" Purim snorted. "You didn't hear what that thing said about Dyluck-"
"None so blind as those who will not see..." Keith commented in a martyr's tone of voice.
"You two are both pathetic," Randi growled. "I leave you alone for ten seconds and already you're fighting!"
At that, they both lost their hostile looks and gave each other uneasy glances.
"What's wrong?" he demanded.
"Uh... you were sitting there at the edge of the lava for half an hour," Keith offered. "Maybe longer."
"You didn't even hear us yelling at you," Purim added. "We couldn't even stand the heat at that distance."
Randi wondered what exactly had just happened to him. Had half an hour really passed while he was staring at the lava? He shook off his stupor. "Well, most people are able to go that long without threatening each other with magic!"
Both opened their mouths to protest his accusation, but he cut them off with a wave of his sword. He pointed at Keith first. "If you wanted your memory back, you'd be putting a little more effort into getting into this palace and less into pointless arguing with a crazed, love-sick girl!"
He turned to Purim, who was started to protest indignantly. He cut her off with a glance. "The same goes for you! If Dyluck's half the man you'd like us to believe, you shouldn't have any trouble ignoring anything you hear about him. I'd also think you'd be a little more concerned about saving him then listening to an immature, undisciplined brat!"
"Who are you to talk?" Keith growled.
"Who made you boss?" Purim demanded.
Randi slammed the Mana Sword back into its sheath. "No one, least of all me! You're the ones who insist on following me everywhere! You're the ones who are piggy-backing on my hard-work. Keith, you never would have had a prayer of getting into this Palace without me. Purim, you'd be long dead from Elinee without me around!"
Neither one was impressed. "You need one of us to get into this palace," Purim pointed out smugly.
"That," Randi said with a glare, "is where you're wrong." He lightly fingered the Mana sword's hilt. "I only need water magic. As you've both seen, this sword can absorb magic. This village has a big river going right through it. I can drain the Water Mana right out of the water. I might add that the river isn't more trouble than it's worth."
They looked skeptical, but he could see hints of alarm in their faces. Randi knew that he wasn't bluffing. He was fairly certain, anyway. In all honesty, it was beginning to look like an attractive option. Certainly preferable to having these two fighting idiots along. He was getting impatient with the constant delays associated with these two.
"What's it going to be?" he demanded. "I'm happy to have you along if you feel like being helpful. But you're only going to get in the way if you don't feel like being a team player."
"What's it to you, anyway?" Keith growled.
"Because unless you two are willing to put aside your disagreements, you're going to get killed. What's more, I might get killed because of it. You two might not care about each other's problems in the least. To be honest, I don't really care much about either one of your problems. In case you've forgotten, neither of you did much to get on my good side when me first met. Do you see me holding a grudge? If our interests overlap, we'd all be smart to take advantage of it."
After what seemed like an eternity, they both nodded resolutely.
"You're not worth the trouble," Keith muttered. "I've got more important things to worry about."
"I'll do anything to save Dyluck," Purim agreed.
Randi smiled, mostly in relief. "I'm glad to hear you both agree. Now, why don't we deal with the palace?"
"Could you really have broken the seal?" Keith demanded.
"As easily as one of you could," he confirmed, not quite willing to voice his doubts. If it was that easy, why had Luka agreed to give Purim and Keith magic? "One of you care to try first?"
Keith let off a shower of water into the lava. A cloud of steam came up from the point of impact, but the lava was unaffected. "Hey!"
"That won't work," Randi informed him. "See that crystal out there in the lava? Remember what Elinee told us about it?"
"We have to hit that with magic," Purim recalled, aiming an arrow at it.
"Take a shot," Randi invited.
Purim loosed an arrow across the field of lava, striking the crystal squarely, sending a shower of ice crystals up in the air. Still nothing happened.
"But... I hit it!" she protested.
Randi looked at the crystal curiously. "Try it without the arrow. Maybe that messed it up."
She glared. "What difference does it make? Besides, I haven't learned how to do anything like that."
"Then get outta the way and let me do it," Keith muttered, his hand already glowing blue with magic. Randi was certain he had choked off a comment, probably relating to Purim's current usefulness and felt a twinge of pride. He had gotten them focused again.
The sprite sent a blast of magic across the lava, spraying the crystal with ice-cold water. Still, nothing seemed to happen.
"What the hell is going on?" Keith demanded. "Elinee lied to us!"
Randi wasn't listened. "Something's happening, guys..."
"What?" they both demanded, seeing nothing.
Randi was beginning to see what he had seen before. It was Mana. It was yet another type of Mana, though... it was coming from the crystal. It was like... the same energy that he had felt around the Water Palace. It was Water Mana. And it was mixing with the Fire Mana.
He could see the Earth Mana beginning to get turbulent. The sudden mixing of energy was trying to push it to either side...
Without thinking, he grabbed both Purim and Keith, literally picking them up and tossing them to the side. Then he dove to the side himself, rolling to get out of the way.
There was no warning. Suddenly the entire ground in front of them was ripped apart like a giant wedge had been forced into it. Literally tons of rock were pushed into mountains to either side of the crack, looking as fluid as waves on water. The crack in the ground continued to widen until the tremors gradually faded away into nothing.
Deathly silence rang throughout the room for what seemed like forever. Then Purim coughed, staggering to her feet. "Oooh... my head."
"Geez, what was that for?" Keith complained.
"Oh my..." Purim was struck speechless as she took in the scene.
"Hooooly sheeeeyit!" Keith swore in disbelief as he looked too.
There was a twenty-foot wide chasm where they had all been standing a moment ago. The ground looked as though it had torn apart and pushed aside into hills on either side. If Randi hadn't gotten them out of the way, they would have all fallen in. This made them look at Randi, who was only a few feet from the edge of the gap. They were ten feet from where he was getting to his feet.
"Eh, nice throw, buddy," Keith offered lamely.
Purim could remember him grabbing her bodily by the arm and hurling her away. "Hey... how did you do that? You lifted me right off my feet!"
"You complaining?" Randi asked quietly.
"Well, no, but..." she trailed off, not sure how to phrase the question.
"Hey," Keith insisted, not put off so easily. "She's got a point. You might be able to throw me, but her? I don't think we touched the ground the whole time! Where'd you get that kind of strength? I don't think even a dwarf could manage something like that, let alone a human!"
"Just be glad you're alive," Randi replied. "And next time consider getting out of the way when you see that about to happen!"
"See what happen?" Purim protested. "There was nothing! Right, Keith?"
"Zip, zero, zilch! Believe me, if this cave so much as squeaked, I would have heard it! I saw, heard, smelled, and felt nothing!"
Randi looked a little surprised. "But... how could you not have seen it?"
"The Fire and Water Mana coming together. It was pushing the Earth Mana out of the way..." He trailed off as he saw the blank looks on both their faces. "You... saw nothing?"
They both shook their heads.
Randi glanced at the Mana Sword accusingly. "You're still doing things to me," he whispered, "aren't you?"
Keith overheard the comment, as far away as he was. "Throws us both like rag dolls and sees Mana power. Like hell you're no Mana Knight."
"It's the sword," he insisted. "Nothing more. I'm still losing this thing as soon as possible!"
"Yeah, whatever," the sprite agreed, looking at where the lava used to be. "Whatever happened there, it got rid of the lava, I'd say."
"It's gone," Randi agreed. It all looked normal now. The Water Mana must have canceled out the Fire Mana. The rock was now no different than the rest of the ground. He didn't bother mentioned that to the others. They wouldn't understand. He wasn't entirely sure that he did. "Let's go. And be careful. Something doesn't seem right about this palace."
"The last time you said that, we ran into Geshtar at the Water Palace," Purim pointed out.
"Great," Keith said enthusiastically. "Maybe he's here and we'll get to trash him for good!"
"What did you have to pick up, anyway?" Randi asked curiously.
"Just a few more toys," he answered. "In case you missed what that guard said before, I know how to use a lot of weapons. Most dwarves are too clumsy to use most of them, but they're a snap for me. Boomerangs, throwing knives, razor wire, whips, poison darts, you name it."
Randi surveyed the variety of weapons Keith had on his belt. They were all lightly-made, no doubt custom-made for the sprite, but Randi had picked up already that Dwarves didn't make inferior weapons.
"I'd settle for an easy walk through," Randi decided. He didn't think they'd be that lucky, so it was nice to know that at least Keith was ready for a fight. More accurately, it was possible that Keith was actually hoping for a fight.
The three of them crossed the area of ground that had once been a bubbling pit of lava until they reached the far side where an entrance awaited them. The doorway was cut in a white marble that gleamed brightly, despite the years of neglect. It wasn't nearly as brilliant as what the Water Palace had been, but there was still an air of reverence about it that made them hold their breaths as they passed through the doorway.
The doorway was shown to be an entrance to a staircase that led in darkness. Randi went first, sword held at the ready. Something didn't seem right here, and he was beginning to think that it wasn't his imagination. Whatever else his sword was doing to him, it was making him able to tell when things were about to get dangerous. He wondered how long this palace had been sealed off from the rest of the world. What might exist down here after so many years? Could anything exist down here for so long?
"You can walk a little faster, you know," Keith suggested.
"I'm in no hurry," he replied. "I thought I told you before; something doesn't seem right about this palace. And it's dark down here."
"Then I'll go first," Keith decided, edging past Randi and skipping down the steps, three at a time. "I can see just fine."
"Be careful," Randi warned.
"If he gets himself killed, it's his own fault," Purim said disgustedly.
"My business, not yours," Keith retorted, already out of sight.
Exactly one second later, a long stream of high-pitched cursing and swearing was heard, followed by several bright flashes of blue. "Take that, you piece of-"
"Something's down there!" Randi realized, running down the rest of the way. Purim was right behind him.
As they stepped out of the staircase, a horrific scene met their eyes. Strange creatures were milling about the room, all wielding axes, swords, spears and other implements with sharp edges. They looked like dwarves, except that they were red and blue-skinned with small horns on their heads and fangs in their mouths. Most wore only breechcloths and helmets.
"What are they?" Purim asked in revulsion.
"Dead!" Keith yelled, tossing a sharp-edged weapon at one, cutting its head off cleanly. Without even waiting to survey the result, he was facing another direction and letting off a shower of ice-needles that skewered another one of the creatures. In the brief gap created, he skipped across to join with the other two.
"They're slow, but don't let ‘em catch you!" he warned.
"Stay close!" Randi ordered, slicing the nearest weapon in half with his sword. A follow-up jab put the attacker out of action.
Randi could already hear Purim's bow twanging as an arrow dropped another attacker. "What are these?"
"We call ‘em goblins," Keith informed her, deftly throwing a small dart at one of them. It struck the goblin in the chest. Seconds later, it toppled over, dead. Poison, Randi realized. Keith wasn't kidding when he claimed to be able to use a lot of weapons. "Nasty things!"
"Oh really!?" she snapped, firing off another arrow. It struck the goblin in the shoulder, making it stumble, but it rushed her, swinging awkwardly with its good arm. She scrambled aside. Seconds later, Randi cleaved the entire monster in half.
"Stay between me and Keith!" he ordered, whirling around sharply to face the main group of goblins again.
"You guys should've given me a knife!" she decided, obeying without hesitation. A bow had plenty of range, but it lacked speed.
"Randi!" Keith yelled. "I'm going to blind them! Get ready to rush them!"
Randi nodded, not sure what Keith had planned, but willing to try anything right now. They were in danger of being forced back up the staircase they had descended.
Keith extended both hands, glowing with blue energy. Suddenly tiny sparkles began to fill the air before their eyes, blowing towards the goblins. They roared, covered their eyes in pain.
"GO!!!" Keith yelled frantically.
Randi didn't hesitate, lunging forwards with all his strength. The Mana Sword had long proven able to cut through weapons and armor alike, and he had no fear of being attacked while the goblins were blinded. They fell like deadweight as his sword whipped around in sweeping circles, their blood quickly soaking the floor. Within moments, they were no longer a threat.
"Sweet!" Keith cheered, stepping around the blood on the floor. "We gotta try that trick again!"
"You're going to get a chance," Purim informed them, pointing. "Here come more!"
"Do it again," Randi suggested.
"No problem," the sprite agreed, arms extended once again. More of the blue sparkles flew towards the goblins, with Randi right behind, slashing quickly with his sword, allowing himself to marvel at what a perfect weapon it was. It felt like nothing more than an extension of his hand, completely weightless, yet infinitely sharp as it cleaved the blinded goblins into ribbons.
Within seconds, they had been neutralized like the first group. Randi wondered if sword fighting was as easy as it felt to him. Was that another thing this sword was doing to him? Was it somehow teaching him to fight? If so, how good could he get?
"Keith!" Purim exclaimed in horror. "You're beginning to disappear!"
Randi snapped himself out of his thoughts and turned. It was true, Keith's shape was beginning to look slightly transparent. "That trick drains you too much, Keith!"
"Hey! You think it's easy doing that?"
"Whatever. You can't afford to waste your energy like that. There's no telling how many of these goblins there are down here!"
"Yeah, yeah. Well, maybe Princess should make herself useful, then!"
"With you two rushing in like that, I don't have a chance!" she retorted. "You want me to hit you?!"
"Well, you're too slow," Keith informed her. "In the time it takes you to shot an arrow, me or Randi have killed ten goblins each!"
"And wasted all your magic power in the process!"
"Shut up, both of you," Randi ordered. "I thought we were all trying to work together! Keith, why don't you practice a little restraint with your magic before you completely disappear? Purim, you've got magic too, so start using it."
"I'll use it as soon as you give me a clear shot."
"Here's your chance," Keith invited, gesturing to where six more goblins were approaching.
"You don't need to tell me twice," she agreed. "Freeze, you little freaks of nature..." she pointed her hands towards the group, even as they charged. Nothing happened.
"I'm waaaaaiting," Keith sang out impatiently.
"What's wrong?" Randi asked, noticing the surprised look on her face.
"First thing's first," Keith interrupted, tossing several of his poisoned darts towards the attackers. The surviving ones attacked too quickly to taken down easily. Keith and Randi both attacked simultaneously, approaching from different sides. As always, Keith moved like greased lightning, his knives flashing out viciously. Had Randi the time, he would have allowed himself to be impressed with how the sprite flipped, spun and wove his way through his slower opponents, even climbing up their heavy axe handles to attack their necks.
As for himself, he simply slashed at anything that came close enough. He idly wished that he had some of Keith's graceful skill to call his own. With that kind of skill, and his sword, he'd be a real swordsman!
He smashed his sword through a weapon, then reversed the swing and decapitated the goblin, still holding the axe handle. The next goblin attacked too quickly for Randi to use his usual tactics of destroying the weapon, then attacking the monster. Randi lunged sideways to avoid the axe blow, repeating his wish to be faster than he was. It was going to cost him his life one of these times, he was sure...
The goblin swung again, with a better-aimed swing. Randi dodged again, this time getting to his feet much faster than before. Fast enough that the goblin wasn't even able to attack a third time. With his left hand, Randi smashed the goblin in the face, intending to follow up with his sword. To his surprise, he heard a loud cracking sound and the goblin flew six feet back, causing his sword strike to fall short of its mark. The goblin didn't stir as it landed on the ground, its face looking like it had been crushed in a rockslide.
"Whoa," Keith breathed. "That guy's gonna feel that in the morning..."
The rest of the creatures were dispatched, Randi noted, either knifed by Keith, or shot down by Purim. He looked at the last one he had dealt with. Its face was completely smashed inwards where it had been hit. He looked at his fist. He didn't think he'd hit the monster that hard...
"How did you do that?" Purim asked. "I'd swear you somehow speed yourself up..."
"What do you mean?"
"You dodged that thing the first time and barely got away. The second time, it never had a chance. I swear you moved so fast... and look what you did to that thing. I've seen people get hit hard in the face before, and all they got was a broken nose. You crushed that thing's skull!"
"And they've got hard skulls," Keith agreed.
Randi threw his hands up. "Don't ask me, guys. I just punched him. Maybe he was a defect, okay? Let's get going."
The answer didn't satisfy either of them any more than it did himself. The sword was beginning to make its presence known more and more. He was willing to bet that it was responsible for his sudden burst of speed and strength now. He wished he knew what triggered it. Maybe emergencies made the sword turn him into a super-human. Maybe not. Lately, he couldn't even begin to guess at the logic behind the Mana Sword.
Purim stabbed her knife into the goblin's chest, the blue energy surrounding the knife instantly freezing the goblin solid. It froze and fell backward, shattering as it hit the floor. It was actually one of Keith's knives. The sprite had lent it to her after she had continually demanded something to supplement her bow. It had quieted her for a bit, but she was getting testy again.
"How long does this palace go for?" she demanded. "We've hit nothing but dead ends so far, and correct me if I'm wrong, but I don't think we have any more passages to check!"
Randi ignored her outburst. She was partly right about them running out of places to go. He was certain there was somewhere he hadn't found, because they hadn't found the Earth Seed yet. Her impatience was no doubt connected to the fact that she wanted to rescue Dyluck.
"Well..." Keith began slowly. "We haven't found the Earth Seed yet, so we must have missed a passageway or something..."
"Even you can't think of anything!" she snapped disgustedly. "How do we even know your stupid Earth Seed is down here? In case it hasn't occurred to you, we're the first people down here in who knows how long! For all we know, the Earth Seed was just a stupid story to begin with!"
That fear was in the back of Randi's mind to begin with, but he refused to give it root. How did he know that he was heading in the right direction? An idea began to spring in his mind as he began to calm himself down and concentrate. It had worked before...
"Hey!" Purim demanded. "Are you even listening to me? How long are you going to wander around pointlessly, while Dyluck is-"
"Shut up, Princess," Keith blurted out. Unlike Purim, he was beginning to clue in that Randi wasn't simply in a trance. "The last time he spaced out like this, he started seeing Mana power... hey, why didn't we think of that before?"
"You mean, he might be able to find the seed like that?" Purim wondered, somewhat placated.
Randi didn't even hear them, more intent on trying to decipher what he was able to see. He was pleased to note that seeing the Mana energy was almost effortless now. But he was seeing a lot of different types. The most common was Earth Mana, but that was because the entire palace was shrouded in it. No one point seemed to stand out. But there was something else that did...
"This way," he replied, started forwards.
"Um, Randi..." Purim began.
Randi's senses were jolted back to reality as he walked into a wall. "Ow!"
"Oh well," Keith decided. "Worth a shot, anyway. Hey, what are you doing, Randi?"
Randi made four long slashes in the wall that had blocked him. Then he kicked the square as hard as he could. The portion of the wall fell through backwards, revealing another passageway. "Think again, guys. This isn't over yet."
"Is the seed this way?" Purim asked, unable to keep from shaking her head at how easily the stone had been cut.
"I don't know. This entire palace is covered in Earth Mana. But there's something this way that looks like Fire Mana. Maybe I'm just confusing them. I'm new at this, alright?"
Looking at the sides of the cut-out opening, Keith could see what looked numerous bars placed through the stone. "I think this panel was supposed to be opened with machinery."
"Whatever," Purim muttered disgustedly, returning to Randi's admission. "Maybe they accidently put the wrong seed in this palace and we've just found a Fire Seed. This doesn't make any sense."
"None of this does," Randi agreed. "Turn back if you want. I'm going to get to the end of this, and I think Keith is with me on this one."
"I'm not letting you out my sight," she retorted, following them down the new passageway.
After several sharp turns, the pathway opened up into a large room. Randi wondered how such a room could have been constructed underground. The ceiling was at least fifty feet high, with pillars running from top to bottom. Everything was lined with gold or bronze, giving it an... earthy look. The appropriateness of the colors were not lost on Randi. After all, they were in the Underground Palace. At the back, a pyramid-like platform was present, with a glowing object atop it. It looked like a reproduction of the Water Palace, with an earth-type of coloring scheme instead of the water-type color.
But something else drew their attention away from the splendor around them. Randi looked straight ahead and realized that they'd also found the source of the Fire Mana.
With a growl, the creature charged them. It looked like an oversized dwarf complete with oversized muscles. What made it different was that it was covered in fire. It made a throwing motion with its arm, causing a ball of fire to hurtle towards them.
The three of them scattered, the ball of fire exploding against the back wall, knocking several bricks out of their mortar. Keith was already tossing a handful of poisoned darts towards the monster, but they were burned to ashes when they touched the creature's body. Keith leapt upwards, clinging to the wall ten feet up to avoid the blasts of flame the creature hurled at him.
Purim fired several arrows at the monster, but they were burned up instantly upon touching the creature. "Attack it, Randi!" she yelled. "We can't even touch it!"
"Easy for you to say!" he snapped, advancing anyway. It was his fight, wasn't it? He had the Mana Sword, so it was up to him to deal with this threat. The monster didn't even flinch as Randi slashed his sword through its mid-section. To his shock, the sword didn't even make contact. It was like swinging a stick through flames. The monster wasn't even there...
Then the monster hit him. Randi's entire vision went red as the monster's fist smashed into his chest, knocking him over ten feet back, only stopping because of an opportune wall. He groaned, knowing that at one time, he'd have been killed from the impact. His clothing was on fire, simply from touching the creature. He hastily ripped his cloak off, letting it burn on the floor while he tried to decide how to deal with the threat. It was nothing but fire...
He suddenly laughed while backing away. "You idiots! It's nothing but fire! Use your magic on it!"
Keith caught on first, sending a stream of water into the monster. The water impacted the monster with pinpoint accuracy, sending up a cloud of steam as the fire instantly boiled it. Purim was quick to follow up, firing ice-charged arrows at the monster. They too, were quickly boiled away into nothing.
"Keep it up!" Randi yelled, seeing what the others couldn't. The Fire Mana that made up the creature was beginning to weaken in lieu of the water and ice assault.
Keith redoubled his efforts, created one of the rain clouds that he been so proud of before. The monster roared as sheets of water were dumped on it, even as Randi saw Keith beginning to fade away. He was using too much magic...
Finally, the flames surrounding the monster disappeared, leaving behind what seemed to be nothing more than a normal oversized dwarf. It still looked angry, and the water and ice weren't hurting it anymore.
"Back off!" Randi yelled. Purim obeyed, seeing that her magic wasn't having any effect. The monster's skin was so thick that her arrows couldn't even penetrate it. Besides, she was getting tired... too much magic use. Keith took longer, but when he finally desisted, he looked to be almost invisible...
Randi charged, knowing that it was up to him to finish this now. The monster might be vulnerable to his sword now. The monster met him squarely, clearly enraged by what had been done to him. Randi slashed downwards, but the monster was able to dodge aside and clout him across the face with a hammer-like fist. Randi was sent spinning away, but it didn't hurt as much as it should have...
The second time, he let the monster attack first, dodging the assault, then swinging. To his shock, the monster was as fast as it was big. It moved aside again, and hit his arm so hard that the Mana Sword was knocked from his grasp. He swallowed, realizing that he was defenseless now...
"Randi!" Purim cried out in horror, aiming an arrow at the monster.
"You'll hit him!" Keith protested.
Purim released the arrow. Fortunately, her aim was good. The arrow sped straight for the monster's head, the entire length glowing blue with all the ice energy she was able to summon. As soon as the arrow was released, she collapsed to the ground, unable to even stand up anymore.
The monster saw it coming, and snatched it out of the air, tossing it aside in contempt. Randi saw his life flashing before his eyes, but shook himself mentally. He'd sworn he would survive, and he would... somehow. Gathering all his strength, he smashed the monster in the face. With a grunt of surprise, the monster was knocked several feet backwards, blood streaming from its face. It obviously hadn't expected Randi to possess that kind of strength.
Randi smiled in spite of himself. The Mana Sword wasn't leaving him defenseless. This monster might rip him apart, but it was going to suffer in the process. Randi had nothing to lose by fighting. And he'd been fighting without a sword for a long time. He entered a bare-handed fighting stance, waiting for the monster come at him again.
It did. Randi felt his entire body rattled as it pounded him with a double-fisted uppercut. Once again, he was knocked from his feet, but this time, he was unharmed. The monster must be getting weaker, he realized with a grim smile. The next time, he would hit it with everything he had...
The monster attacked again, its right fist whistling through the air with all the monster's weight behind it. Randi sidestepped the punch as it dislodged a shower of bricks from the wall behind him and pounded it three times in the stomach, actually making it cough up blood. He skipped backwards, somehow feeling even more refreshed than he had before being hit by the monster. It was just like back home in Potos. He was in a fight with the schoolyard bully. And it had just picked a fight with the wrong guy. The monster advanced once again, more warily. It was finding that Randi was more dangerous than he looked.
This time, Randi attacked, trying to catch it off balance. He failed. The monster knocked away his punches, and before Randi could react or back off, he grabbed him in a crushing bear hug. Randi's eyes opened wide as he felt his breath being squeezed right out of him. His ribs felt like they were going to snap at any moment. If the monster was weakening, it wasn't showing it right now, Randi decided, trying to break free. Whatever strength the sword had given him, it wasn't enough to match this monster's strength...
Then the monster began to weaken. Randi gritted his teeth and forced the creature's arms to come apart, freeing him from the deadly bear-hug. Without wasting a thought, he brought his knee up into the monster's stomach, making it stagger forwards into Randi's fist. This time, the monster was knocked off its feet, landing in a heap on the floor. By the time it had come to its senses, Randi had leapt on it, pinning it to the ground. With all his strength, he smashed his fist into the monster's face.
His fist punched clean through the monster's skull. Randi felt himself hitting the stone floor underneath. The monster twitched and went still underneath Randi. Randi got to his feet and shook his head to clear his senses. He had survived again...
"Hoooooooly sheeeeyit!" Keith squeaked in disbelief, approaching. He was barely visible after using so much magic. "What is that bloody sword doing to you?"
"The sword!" Randi cried out, searching around for it anxiously. He spotted it a few feet away, and pounced on it like a cat on a mouse. It looked to be okay. He sheathed it in relief. "Well, looks like that's over with."
Purim staggered over, looking rather weak. "How did you do that, Randi?" She sounded nervous.
"Out-muscle that thing!" Keith snapped disgustedly. "That thing musta had ten times the strength you did!"
"It started getting weaker once you guys put out the fire," Randi explained. "It was only a matter of time. It was weaker than me when it tried to crush me." Why did they have to look so shocked?
"Weak? Look what it did to the wall!" Keith pointed to a huge hole formed when the monster had missed Randi. "You call that weak?"
"That... was earlier on," Randi decided. "Don't go getting any strange ideas."
"Then why don't you explain this?" Purim demanded, shifting the corpse of the monster. The monster's skull had a clean hole through it. Underneath... the stone floor had been completely destroyed and pressed down half a foot. "You did that!"
Randi was at a loss for words. "Well... Maybe it was a weak spot in the floor..."
They both gave him a disgusted look. "I don't think that monster ever got weaker," Keith decided. "You just got stronger!"
Randi held out an arm and flexed. "You decide for yourself? Do I look as strong as that thing there?"
"Doesn't matter what you look like," Keith replied. "You out-muscled that thing. You just wait until we get back to Dwarf Village. We'll settle this once and for all!"
"Fine. So forget about it for now, okay?" Randi suggested. "Let's deal with the Earth Seed."
"Yeah!" Keith agreed enthusiastically. He was still eager to get his memory back.
"You know, your elder wasn't positive that this would work for you," Randi pointed out.
Keith shrugged. "You take your chances, eh? But that's okay, because how many dwarves get to beat up a witch and use magic?"
The three of them approached the glowing object atop the platform. None of them doubted that they were looking at Earth Seed. It was glowing a bright brown color as it rested there peacefully. Randi stepped up the platform steps and lightly touched his sword to the seed.
All three felt their hair begin to stand on end as power began to surge through the room. Even the air briefly began to glow white. After several moments, the feeling and brightness went away, leaving them feeling oddly refreshed. Randi sighed as descended the steps and looked his sword over. "Two palace down. Six to go..."
"What about me?" Keith demanded impatiently. "This thing is supposed to give me my memory back!" He skipped up the steps and glared at the seed accusingly.
"I thought you didn't care either way," Purim reminded him, but Randi shushed her.
"You stupid piece of junk!" Keith muttered, drawing back a fist.
"You idiot!" Randi shouted. "Don't do that!"
Too late, Keith hit the seed with all his strength. The seed remained unchanged. But something else happened.
"What is your business here?"
Upon hearing the voice behind him, Keith sprang away, landing on the ground a good ten feet, already prepared to fight.
The others weren't nearly so hostile, but they were surprised too. A short dwarf was standing halfway up the steps, looking at them with a neutral expression.
"Who the devil are you?" Keith demanded, a little peeved.
"Answer the question. What is your business here?" the figure asked again, sounding rather detached.
Keith spat on the ground. "I'm here to get my memory back and take down anything that gets in my way..."
"You would seek combat with an elemental? Even a sprite like yourself could never hope to emerge victorious."
"Oh, we'll see about that..." Keith began.
Randi cut in. "Hey, wait a minute here. You're an elemental? Like Undine?"
"Undine is the water elemental of Mana. Being the earth elemental, you may call me Gnome."
"Look," Randi said, hoping that damage control was still possible. "Keith didn't mean anything. He was just hoping that this Earth Seed would help restore his memory..."
"A sprite trying to use the Earth Seed to heal itself? It has obviously been away from home too long."
"No crap," Keith agreed sarcastically. "How about ‘eight years' away from home? What's that supposed to mean?"
"Sprites are primarily of the element of Wind. The Earth elemental could only serve to destroy their balance of being."
"You mean, he needs to find the Wind Seed?" Randi guessed.
"Correct. Why are you asking me? Surely you know such things already, being the Mana Knight."
"Uh... well, that's not quite true," Randi reluctantly explaining. "This sword is a little messed up. It's the Mana Sword, but I'm not a Mana Knight. I've only had this sword for a couple weeks."
"I see. A new Mana Knight has emerged. Your ignorance is understandable. Time will surely cure the problem."
"So where is the Wind Seed?" Keith interrupted.
"At your home of course."
"Well, where's my home? I got no memory, buster, understand? Otherwise I'd be home already!"
"Being away from the Wind Seed has obviously affected your memory. For your information, the Wind Seed is located in Sprite village, which is in what the Dwarves refer to as the ‘Upper Lands'."
"I know where that is," Keith agreed, suddenly much more polite. "That's a long way, but I'll find it sooner or later."
"One of your kind could never make the journey."
"What's that supposed to mean! I can walk any dwarf into the ground! I'll kill anything that tries to stop me!"
Gnome eyed him for a moment before replied. "Perhaps you have aversely affected by being so close to the Earth Seed."
"What's that supposed to mean?" Keith demanded.
"You will understand in due time. Mana Knight, you have done well to seal the Earth Seed. If you were able to accomplish this, you are obviously not as inexperienced as you think."
"Well, these two helped out a lot," he explained modestly.
"Oh? Of what significance are these two?"
"I'm Lady Purim of Pandora."
"I'm Mister Keith of Dwarf Village," Keith mimicked sarcastically.
"I see. Neither of you is of any significance," Gnome agreed, prompting Keith to snicker at the wide-eyed expression on Purim's face. "So why have you both been given Undine's powers?"
"You mean... water magic?" Randi ventured. "They were given that at the Water Palace by Undine." He couldn't resist adding one last comment. "She figured that the consequences of doing that couldn't possibly outweigh the consequences of failure."
"Well, thanks for the frickin' vote of confidence!" Keith muttered.
"So they have used this power to assist you?"
"Well, yeah, I guess they have been."
"Perhaps Undine is right. The Mana Knight must be assisted in any way possible..."
Simultaneous gasps from both Keith and Purim made Randi look at each of them in turn. Their forms were losing color, taking on a glittering brown color, devoid of any features. After several moments, they returned to normal, both exhaling in surprise.
"What... did you do?" Purim asked cautiously.
"I have given you the magic of Earth. Use it with discretion and for the right purposes."
With that, the figure disappeared, leaving all three dumbfounded.
"You lost out on magic again!" Keith observed of Randi.
"Fine with me," Randi replied. "This sword is more than enough magic for me. What about you two? You feel okay?" He received two nods.
"Let's go, Randi," Purim replied. "You sealed your seed, right? Time to take down Thanatos and rescue Dyluck!"
Randi nodded. "Right. It looks like it was smart to come here first. Not only did I power up my sword, but you have earth magic to use, right?"
"I'll tear him apart with my bare hands if I have to, but yes, this might come in handy too. Now let's go!"
Purim wanted to head out for Pandora immediately, saying that they'd wasted enough time as it was. But Keith insisted that they stay for a good meal. Naturally Purim was suspicious about such a friendly attitude, refusing to believe that Keith was capable of being nice. Randi, on the other hand, had a hunch the Keith was simply overjoyed over finally getting a lead on his home.
"Just a fast meal," Keith pleaded, his big green eyes putting any puppy's to shame. "On me! All you want! Please?"
"We don't have time," Purim insisted.
Randi sighed. In all honesty, he felt like a little something to eat, even though he had begun to notice a lack of appetite since first getting the Mana Sword. "You need to eat something, Purim. How are you going to save Dyluck with a sore back?"
She blinked. "Huh?"
"Because after you collapse halfway to Pandora, I'm going to have to carry you in again. And since we're in a hurry, I'm not going to be as gentle about it all."
She glared at him. "That little freak is just trying to get me to run up a big tab, then refuse to pay!"
"Okay then," Randi agreed. "Why don't you let me treat you to a meal then? In appreciation of what you've done to help me? I won't back out."
She glared at him, but couldn't think of another excuse. Randi's threat of carrying her into Pandora a second time was no doubt weighing heavily in her mind. "Fine. But we're not wasting any time, got it?"
Keith let out a whoop of joy. "Top level guys! The place where you and I first met each other, eh, Randi? Meet ya there!"
Without another word, Keith was shooting straight up the side of the wall, scaling the sheer cliff with next to no effort.
"I guess we're taking the long way up," Purim muttered disgustedly.
"Don't hold a grudge. He feels the same way you would if you rescued Dyluck. This has probably been a thorn in his side for eight years now."
By the time they had reached the upper level of Dwarf village, Randi could almost taste whatever food was being prepared. Purim looked a little winded from the long climb. If he thought he'd succeed, he would have tried to convince Purim to spend the night here, because she was clearly beginning to get worn down, despite her best efforts to hide it.
"What do they eat in Dwarf Village?" she wondered.
"Meat," Randi replied. "I paid for my stay at the inn with some dried fruit. That kind of stuff is priceless here. I guess they can't grow it, and with all the monsters around, no one wants to transport it all the way out here."
"That's fine with me. I'm sick of fruit and vegetables. That's all we get to eat back in Pandora. All the eating animals are dead from neglect or the monsters." She laughed mirthlessly. "I guess we're lucky that there aren't many people around who need food."
"Not for long," Randi reminded her.
"Not if I have anything to say about it," she agreed, ducking slightly as she entered the café where Keith was supposed to be waiting. Randi followed behind her.
"Hey! Here they are!" Keith observed, casually balanced on the back of a low-chair. He was holding a bottle of wine in each hand. "Serve up Today's Special on the double, Mino! They're in a hurry!"
With moments, a platter of food had been set in front of both of them. ‘Today's Special' seemed to be a meat dish meant to feed an army of dwarves. Neither could recognize the meat, but it certainly tasted good, so they ate until they were satisfied.
"All done?" Keith inquired eagerly. "Good. Now get over here, Randi. We're going to settle something once and for all! Hey, Brand! Get your scaly hide over here!"
A big dwarf glared at Keith. "What's your problem, Red?"
"Feel like some arm-wrestling?" Keith invited.
"With you? My baby finger has better things to do."
"Not me. Him." Keith pointed at Randi.
"Give me a break. No offense or nothing, but he's only a human. I'd break his wrist!"
"You think so?"
"Just wait a minute here," Randi protested, noting that Brand looked to have more muscle in his hands than Randi had in his entire body. Sure, he had somehow out-muscled that monster in the Underground Palace... but there was no proof that it was Randi's doing.
Purim elbowed him in the ribs, clearly enjoying this. "You scared?"
"Heck, yes!" Randi hissed back. "Why don't you arm wrestle him?"
"I didn't punch a hole in the ground with my fist, Mana Knight," she retorted, pushing him forwards to meet the approaching dwarf.
"What's in it for me?" Brand demanded.
"Um..." Keith thought hard, then deftly filched something from Randi's pack. "Some fruit."
"Let's wrestle." He planted his elbow/battering-ram down on the table between them.
"Fine," Randi agreed disgustedly. "Hey, Brand? Just for the record, it's him who thinks I'm going to win or something, not me!"
The dwarf gave him a grin. "I believe you. So enjoy it. You're new here, but we're used to things like this. Somehow, Red is going to profit from this! Just you watch!"
Keith put their hands together, then gave the countdown. "Okay... three, two, one... GO!"
Fifteen minutes later, the three left the café, all somehow awed by what had taken place. Keith seemed to have a comfortable hold on his awe however, his hand having an equally comfortable grip on a large handful of money. Purim was just shaking her head in disbelief. Randi was simply dumbfounded as he looked at his arm.
"Hah! Some dwarves are too stupid to know when to quit!" Keith crowed.
"You still think you're haven't got stronger?" Purim challenged.
Randi shrugged. "Maybe they were all faking it?"
"I suppose the table was faking it too!" she snapped.
Keith nodded in agreement. "I've seen dwarves like Brand jump on those tables without them breaking. Those things are solid oak."
"Yes, and you drove that dwarf's hand right through the whole thing!"
"You may not look it, Randi," Keith chuckled, "but you're a heck of a lot stronger than you look! Look at all the money I made off the bets!"
Randi just sighed. After beating Brand three times straight with only the slightest bit of effort, every single other dwarf in the room had immediately vowed to be the one to take him down, all perfectly willing to gamble a little money in the process. The line had disappeared only after Randi had arm-wrestled a dwarf's arm right through the table and into the floor. It was obvious that Brand had been right - Keith had managed to make a profit from it all.
"Now," Purim began, "no more delays!"
"No more delays," Randi agreed.
"I wonder if we could make better time by going through the Haunted Forest?" Keith mused. "If we could go through there to the secret exit, come out by the Water Palace, then it’s just a quick walk to Pandora..."
"What do you mean ‘we'?" Purim demanded. "You got your lead. Now make yourself scarce."
"I thought you wanted to get Dyluck back," Keith reminded her.
"What are you saying?" Randi asked.
"Well, think about it, Randi. You're traveling to all the palaces in the world right? You'll be looking for another palace as soon as you're finished helping Purim?"
"Well, I'm headed to Sprite Village now. And that's supposed to be where the Wind Palace is, right? But this is the Upper Lands we're talking about. That's probably a lot of land to search. I figure my odds of finding Sprite Village go up a lot if I'm working with the Mana Knight. You should be smart enough to figure out that your search might go quicker if you were with me, eh?"
Randi thought it over for a fraction of a second. Keith was right. Keith had natural senses that were far beyond those of a normal human's, and was an excellent tracker. And when it came down it, Randi was beginning to display a variety of new talents that could be attributed to the Mana Sword. Keith might well have an easier time finding his village. Their interests were overlapping again...
"I'm all for that," he agreed.
"I'll even tag along to make sure you don't get yourself killed by Thanatos, okay?"
"Why not wait here while we deal with Thanatos?" Purim snapped.
"How stupid are you?" Randi asked incredulously. "I'll do whatever I can to help you out, Purim. But you'd have to be downright pig-headed to pass up on Keith coming along!"
"Damn straight, you would," Keith replied smugly. "I might not be a Mana Knight, but I'm a better fighter than most dwarves around here, never mind any human. And that was before I got my hands on some magic. How badly do you really want lover-boy back?"
Purim gritted her teeth as she glared down at the short figure who was smirking up at her. "Fine, you little creep. If you want to tag along, go right ahead. But you'd better not slow us down!"
"If you're too proud to accept a little help," Keith taunted, "maybe I'll just wait in Pandora. There's a few people left. We can organize a party to celebrate you not coming out of those ruins alive..."
"Go to hell, freak," she growled.
"Been there ever since you came along."
"No more fighting," Randi ordered. "Purim, let's get moving. Keith, glad to have you along, too. Anything you want to bring with you?"
"Nah. Soon's I figure out where my village is, I'll come back to pick up my stuff and say goodbye. Until then, I'm just on a little vacation."
"You think this is all a joke," Purim accused, obviously disgusted.
"It's an adventure, sister. If you can't appreciate that, then I almost feel sorry for you."
"If can't take something like this seriously, then I almost feel sorry for you."
"If you two aren't capable of being within ten feet of each other without arguing, I feel sorry for you both!" Randi snapped, starting out towards the exit. They followed quickly.