Chapter 16: The Journey Continues
The three of them left the village in silence. After making her declaration, Purim had simply stomped out of the village, the villagers wasting no time in giving her room. Although she hadn't looked back once, Randi had stolen a few glances backwards to see the various reactions. Most looked rather dumbfounded by what they had seen, and he didn't blame them - he felt much the same way. What had just happened was the kind of incident that supposedly only happened in stories or behind closed doors. Purim's father had gathered what dignity he had and already begun to head back into the castle. And the King had simply looked sad. Randi had a hunch that he felt completely at a loss. Laws had little place where a father and daughter's relationship were concerned.
"Purim, are you... okay?" Randi asked hesitantly.
"I'm fine," she snapped, but her voice was losing its edge. She was beginning to sound more calm by the moment. "We need to get to the Upper Lands, right? What's the best way to get there?"
"I know a way," Randi replied, "But it's not a very good one. I think we'll just stop off at the Water Palace and see if Luka can suggest anything. Besides, I think you two owe her some thanks for the magic."
"Yeah!" Keith agreed enthusiastically. "This magic stuff is great! Let's go, fearless leader!"
"I'm not the leader," he objected.
Purim nudged him. "Would you prefer ‘Mana Knight'?"
"Forget it! I'm neither. If you want a leader, go talk to Jema or someone else."
Keith shrugged. "D'you think we shoulda talked with Jema before taking off?"
Randi coughed. "I think we'll do fine without him. Jema is a little out of touch with reality."
Purim raised an eyebrow. "Did something happen between you two?"
"Just a difference of opinion," was all Randi said.
"It must have been pretty major," Keith observed. "I thought you looked up to Jema."
"I got smarter."
It was halfway through the next day that the Water Palace came into view, as brilliant as always in the overhead sunlight. To himself, Randi was pleased to note that they had made good time. He had been prepared to accept Purim as a source of delay when she needed to sleep each night, but she still seemed as alert as he was. Perhaps she was beginning to toughen up?
"This is a beautiful place," Purim observed. "It's difficult to believe that anything bad would ever come here."
"Last time we found Geshtar," Keith reminded her. "I think he qualifies as ‘bad', huh?"
"I don't think anything's wrong this time," Randi informed them. "Things feel alright this time around. Last time I had a bad feeling about the place."
"I don't smell anything," Keith seconded. "I guess things are okay."
True to expectations, they met with no resistance as they entered the giant palace. As always, the giant torches threw up blue flame, bathing everything in their light. Randi closed his eyes, concentrating intently. He could feel the power from the Water Seed at the heart of the palace. He could even see the intense amounts of Water Mana that saturated the palace.
"You'd better open your eyes," Purim whispered.
Even as she spoke, Randi stepped around one of the giant torches without slowing his pace. "Don't be silly," he answered. "I can see just fine."
She shook her doubtfully, deciding that it was beyond her. Looking ahead, she saw the Water Seed, perched atop the pyramid as always. At its base, the slight figure of Luka was visible. She really did look like a child...
Randi continued to lead them until he was a few feet in front of Luka. "Hi Luka," he greeted.
She gave a small giggle. "You can open your eyes, Randi."
His eyes popped open. "Oh. Sorry."
"There is nothing to apologize for. A Mana Knight must be in touch with Mana to the point where he can see it for what it is. But you should try to learn to do that with your eyes open."
"Uh, right. I'll work on it."
Luka laughed again. "Why so solemn, Randi? You should be proud of yourself! Look at what you've done so far."
"Well, I had some help, you know."
"Of course. I've been watching you three as best I can. It seems fate is keeping you three together a little longer. Even if your reasons are entirely different."
"What do you know of it?" Keith demanded.
"I know of anything that happens near running water. There was a pitcher of water in Purim's room when Randi agreed to have her come along. A servant spilled the water into the moat a few hours ago."
"So you see just about everything, huh?" Keith guessed. "Cool. You know a good way to get to the Upper Lands?"
Luka shook her head. "Your options are limited, I'm afraid to say. The best I can say is that you should travel north from here, through Potos village. Or perhaps around it, because of Randi."
"I know the way there," Randi agreed. "What about after the village?"
"There is a large chain of waterfalls North-West of the village. Surely you remember them, Randi?"
"Where I found the Mana Sword?"
"That's right. Take the same pathway, this time without falling off the bridge. After that, simply head north. You will find the river that feeds those waterfalls. If you get across that, you will have reached the edge of the Upper Lands. Beyond that... I don't know. There is a great deal of water running through the forests of the Upper Lands, but I have never seen any signs of a village. I believe it is purposely hidden somehow..."
"How could we find it, then?" Purim asked. "There must be something that would give it away. Maybe some development?"
"I have never seen anything of the sort. I believe your best hope is for Randi to try and find the Wind Palace that resides in Sprite village. The Wind Seed located in the palace should give off a great deal of Mana energy. If you can manage to see it, you could find it that way."
"I'll do my best," Randi agreed. "Thanks for the help."
"We all must help the Mana Knight how we can. Let me tell you something else that I have seen up there. There have been many groups of soldiers wandering around in the area. Monsters have been appearing there too... I suggest you hurry, but be on your guard. The Empire is no doubt trying to find the palace too. And they have many strong people on their side."
"We've got some power too," Keith interjected. "Bring ‘em on!"
Luka shook her head. "You don't begin to appreciate what you're up against. The Emperor has some powerful bodyguards who will die to defend him and what he offers. They are all practiced in some form of magic. And they are experienced. As powerful as you think your magic to be, you would quickly find out otherwise."
"It doesn't matter," Randi interjected. "I've got to go there, so I might as well get going. This isn't going to be finished until the Empire is beaten down. I might as well get started on my part."
Luka sighed. "Keep that attitude about you, Randi. You'll need it before long. I think this may be the last time we will talk for a long time. I will be watching you whenever possible, but I can be of no further help, I fear."
"You've a great help so far," Randi replied honestly. "I can't think of anything I've needed more these past days than information. I don't think that's going to change in the future."
"Then let me give you one last piece of advice," Luka replied, glancing at both Purim and Keith. "These two are going to be useful to you as you permit."
The three continued northwards after saying goodbye to Luka. Before they had parted, Luka repeated her hunch that they would not see each other for a long time. In a way, Randi felt sad. Luka was one person who he had no complaints about. She had given him information when he was in need. She had given him directions when he was lost. And she had arranged for help in the form of Purim and Keith when he was in need of it. She insisted on considering him the Mana Knight, but she didn't expect anything super-human of him. She only expected him to drive forwards at all times, which was logical.
Now, he decided, he would have to figure out things on his own. All he had to rely on were two individuals who seemed to hate each other and had their own agendas. Privately, he decided that he couldn't afford to count on either one.
"Hey, are you even awake?"
"Huh?" Randi blinked and shifted his thoughts towards Purim. "Did you say something?"
"I asked what you thought about what Luka said."
"Luka said a lot of things."
She nodded impatiently. "She said that we'd be as useful to you as you permitted?"
"Oh. That. What about it?"
"I want to know what you think about that."
"I dunno. She's got a different perspective on everything, I think. If you consider that she doesn't have much reason to care about Dyluck or Sprite village, you can appreciate that she's more concerned about the Mana Sword and the guy who's stuck with it."
"So," Purim interpreted, "in your opinion, she considers us nothing more than playing pieces to help advance you forward? A pair of proverbial pawns?"
"I didn't say that."
"But you meant that." It was not a question.
"Hey, are you going to take this personally?" Randi demanded. "Maybe I did, maybe I didn't. But don't go putting words in my mouth."
"I'm not taking it personally," she replied evenly. "I was just curious, that's all."
Randi didn't even begin to believe it. "Right," was all he said.
"Does it even matter?" Keith blurted out. "So what if she thinks that way? She's back in the Water Palace. We're here. Maybe Randi and I don't care much about each other's reasons, huh? Maybe Luka thinks I'm just a sap who useful to Randi. But then again, maybe I think Randi's a sap who's useful to me?"
"If that's the case, Randi's getting the bad end of the deal," Purim decided.
"Speak for yourself. Let me know if you begin to offer anything, Princess."
Purim only laughed at that. "In case you hadn't noticed, that name doesn't mean anything anymore. I'm no more royal than you are."
"Just in name," Keith shot back. "In case you ain't noticed, your personality ain't changed one bit. I still can't picture Dyluck doing the same thing if your positions were switched. I think he'd just stay in Pandora and get hitched with another blond, y'know?"
"What do you know?" she growled. "I figure on Sprite village shipping you right back to Dwarf village after being around you for a few days!"
"I'll be a celebrity," Keith replied airily. "First Sprite-Human-Dwarf contact in hundreds of years! My name'll be in all the history books! I'll be up to my neck in gold and gorgeous Sprite girls! Man, the world is going to be mine!"
Near the evening, Randi informed the other two that they were on the outskirts of Potos village. He also informed them that they were going to cut around the village, to avoid disturbing the inhabitants.
"What's the big deal?" Keith wanted to know. "So what if you're outcast? You're only passing through. We're not any threat to ‘em, right?"
"Let's not get into details, okay?" Randi requested. "Besides, we'll cut a little distance off if we head through the bush. Unless you're not up for it?"
"I'm fine!" Keith snapped defensively. "I mean, a little sleep would do me some good, seeing as I haven't slept for almost a week now. But I'll thank you to remember that I can go anywhere you guys can!"
"Then don't worry about how we get there," Randi suggested. "I used to live here, remember. I know all the shortcuts around here. And there's a good spot just a little ways out that we can spend a night. We'd be smart to be rested up before hitting the Upper Lands."
They reached the promised site just as the sun dipped below the horizon. For them, it made no difference, since the thick forests barely let any light down to begin with. Randi considered himself fortunate that he knew the pathways so well. Not to mention having Keith along, who was generally alert to the presence of anything long before the opposite was true. Randi was beginning to notice that monsters were becoming less and less frequent. After voicing his observation, Purim reminded him that all the monsters seemed to be mutations of existing creatures. Since they were attracted to Randi, it was quite possible that Randi had simply killed most of them off by this point. Perhaps there would be more monsters once they crossed the river into the Upper Lands. On that comforting note, they settled down to sleep, with Randi keeping watch as usual.
But he had changed since then, in more ways than one. He felt no impatience with time anymore. Every day was another day that he had survived, as he had promised himself he would do. He had no idea what his next challenge would be, so why should he be impatient for it to arrive? It would come all too soon.
He got to his feet and slowly walked around the site, watching the stars overhead as they peeked through the wispy clouds. Rain would come within a day or two, he knew. A bad storm, he guessed. Perhaps that would be another challenge for him.
Randi forced himself to smile. Did it matter? Either he would lose or the he would survive, the Mana Sword having made him still stronger in the heat of the crisis. He wondered how he'd been so stubborn to accept that fact. Keith and Purim had seen it right away, even if they hadn't been able to explain it. Yet he had tried to grasp on silly excuses and explanations to prevent them from being right. Even now, he didn't like how it worked. The strange sense of calm and focus that always seemed to come over him in a fight...
...It didn't seem natural. He had never been one to lose his hand in a fight, but now he never even felt his heart beat faster. As though the fight wasn't really requiring any effort. He couldn't even be sure if he was himself anymore, could he?
Stooping, he picked up broken branch off the ground. It was as thick as his arm. Grasping it in both hands, he snapped it in half and tossed the halves aside. He sighed. A month ago, he might have been struggling to lift that branch off the ground. Now he could destroy it. He grabbed the hilt of his sword in frustration. What was he going to be like by the end of this business?
"What are you thinking?"
Randi turned to face Purim. Feeling a little awkward, he released his grip on the Mana Sword and sat back down on the stump. "Oh... nothing really. Why aren't you sleeping?"
She shrugged. "I'm not tired. I'm not sure why. I should be... We've been walking all day... maybe I've been hanging around you too long. Maybe I need less sleep now too."
"Maybe you have," Randi agreed sympathetically. He wouldn't wish his fate on anyone, even her.
"You truly hate this business, don't you?" Purim asked quietly. "I saw you break that branch a moment ago."
Randi sighed and turned away. "If it means anything to you, by the time we run into Thanatos, I'll be able to just strangle him. Geez, maybe I'll just punch him out or something." "Randi?"
He turned. "Yeah?"
"I..." Purim seemed short on words. "Well... I didn't want to bother you... because you have a lot of other things to worry about these days."
"I'm not doing anything tonight," he replied quietly. "Just keeping an eye on the group, while they sleep, right?"
She offered a lopsided smile. "I guess that's true. Well, I... I wanted to apologize for everything. Just... well, I've been thinking too. It feels strange, to no longer be who I am. I'm just a commoner now... uh, no offense, I mean, there's nothing wrong with commoners... I just meant..." she trailed off, face flushing red.
"I know what you mean," Randi agreed soothingly.
"Thanks. Well, at any rate, I got to thinking about how I've been treating you so far and well... I'm sorry."
"You don't have to apologize," Randi replied, avoiding her eyes.
She shifted around so that he was still facing her. "Yes, I think I do. I'm not quite sure how to explain it. Around the castle, it's just so... everyone's so... cutthroat. I don't know what you think of what you saw."
Randi didn't know what to say in reply. He was beginning to realize that perhaps, he wasn't talking to the same Purim he'd been used to until now. No longer Lady Purim, but simply Purim...
"Even my own father didn't really care much about me, except how I could get him more prestige by marrying the King's son. If I'm honest, I think I might even have done the same thing in his place. It's such a mean place, the royal house. I don't think that the commoners realize what it's really like. Sometimes when I was trying to get to sleep, I would think about the whole business and promise myself that I would try to be a better person the next day. But the next day... same story. You've been through the castle a few times. You must realize what everyone thinks of me."
Randi slowly nodded. Seeing soldiers jump out of her way had been clue enough.
"I know it too," she continued. "For some reason, I just can't seem to be nice to anybody." She sighed. "Remember Phanna? The girl who got taken away with Dyluck?"
"Your servant?" Randi asked, nodding.
She turned red again. "Well... not really. Actually, she's got some noble blood in her too. We're kind of... well, best friends."
Randi was unable to keep an incredulous look from his face, recalling how badly Purim had treated Phanna the last time.
Purim saw his reaction. "Yes, that's right. Best friends. You understand now? I can't be nice to anyone. It's just that something always comes over me."
Once again, Randi was mute, still unsure what to say.
"I don't mean to throw this on your back or anything," she apologized. "It's just something I needed to get off my mind." She gave him a weak smile. "I think you're the first person I've ever apologized to."
Randi smiled in return. "Don't worry about it. I don't think I've been the nicest person to you either so far."
"No," she objected, "you've been perfect so far. I've treated you like dirt from day one and you've been nice to me in return. You've even let me tag along with you. The only other person who's ever been like that to me was... Dyluck."
"Dyluck's pretty special to you, isn't he?" Randi whispered.
She nodded. "I suppose it must be hard, imagining someone like me actually able to fall in love... but I love him more than my own life. I swear I'd die if that's what it took to save him..."
"Don't talk that way," Randi reprimanded her sternly. "You're going to save him and live in the process. After all, you two have a lot of years ahead of you, right?"
She smiled briefly, but her smile soon faded. "Randi? How do I look?"
He hadn't been a expecting a question like that. "What do you mean by that?"
She stood up and stepped back. She smoothed her clothing and twisted back and forth. "When you look at me. What do you see? Am I good-looking? Ugly? Or just middle of the line?"
Randi swallowed as he looked her up and down. Even though she was only wearing a simple traveler's outfit, it was only half able to disguise curves that left little imagination. From her hair, eyes and arms, right down to her waist, hips and legs, even Lisa fell somewhat short. "If you want me to be honest..."
"You're one of the best looking girls I've ever seen in my life. Uhh... even in hiker's clothing."
She smiled joylessly and sat down beside him again. "Sorry to put you on the spot like that. I think I expected your answer. It's just that... well, I can't think of any other reason for Dyluck to like me..."
Randi's eyes opened wide. "Now look here..."
"Tell me what else there is to like about me," she insisted sadly. "I insult everyone I come across, I'm disobedient, I'm stubborn, I'm temperamental and everyone either hates me or fears me. Or both." She held her head in her hands as a tear trickled down her cheek. "There's nothing else for him to like!"
"Do you love him?" he asked quietly.
She sniffled, wiping away another tear. Randi suspected she cried very rarely. "Yes. I swear I do. With all my heart and soul."
"That's something for him to value," he suggested. "It's not every guy who has a girl who's willing to put everything on the line for his sake." Heck, hadn't Lisa been happy to throw him out of the village before?
"Maybe. Maybe I can rescue him. After that, what good is that? Even couples who hate each other stay together!" She looked to be on the verge of breaking out in tears. "Maybe..."
"Hey," Randi interrupted, raising a hand. "Maybe you're just letting Keith get to you. Ignore him. Maybe you're getting paranoid, you know? Besides, I ran into Dyluck's family in Kippo village a week or two ago. Just a day after you passed through. What this about someone trying to learn cooking and sewing?"
In spite of her distraught state, she managed a weak laugh. "I-if you mention that to anybody, I'll..."
"Your secret is safe with me," he promised. "But you know what? I don't think you're the cold-blooded person a lot of people think you are. Otherwise, how do you explain you trying to learn things like that? How do you explain what you're doing now?"
"I could be wrong," he spoke quietly, "but I have a feeling that Dyluck sees a few other special things in you. Cheer up, okay? Someday you'll going to be face to face with him again, and you'll be able to say that even when everyone else gave up on him, you never did."
She smiled at him. "Thanks, Randi. That means a lot to me."
"Don't mention it. What are friends for?"
"Someone like me forgets easily." For an answer, she hugged him tightly. "Thanks for reminding me. And you're right. I'll get him back. And my friend Phanna. And I'll get a chance to apologize for what I said to her before. It'll work out in the end."
Randi nodded quietly. For some reason, Purim no longer seemed like the stone-hearted girl he had first met. Still Purim, but perhaps not quite Lady Purim. She seemed softer around the edges. More human. And why shouldn't she? Before, it had been easy to dismiss her as a crazy, love-sick girl. But that was before she'd put her life on the line several times and been forced to choose between her fiancee and her own father and royal title. Hadn't she sacrificed as much as he had to get this far? She deserved as much respect as he was willing to give himself, he supposed.
After several moments of silence, Purim finally spoke again. "So what about you? I saw you looking over towards Potos village a few times when we passed it. And you seemed rather vehement about not passing through it."
"It's part of the past," Randi replied stonily. "They wouldn't have helped anyway. Just a village of cowards."
"You sound a little bitter," she observed, keeping her tone of voice neutral.
"I grew up there," he replied. "Fifteen years, I lived there. If anyone had a problem with me, they never mentioned it. I tried to be as helpful and nice as I could. How many of those people owed me? How about the Darken family? I saved their two kids from drowning in the lake several years ago. What about old man Critton? How about his niece who wandered into the forest after blueberries and got completely lost. Even her uncle was prepared to give her up for dead. Except that I tracked her for two days straight and found her half-starving, freezing to death after falling in a stream. It was late-fall then, and it was my winter jacket that kept her from freezing to death. I had to fight a wolf with my bare hands to protect her! Between the bites it gave me and having to carry her home without even a shirt to keep me warm..."
Purim shuddered, trying to not to pay attention to how Randi's fists were grinding together in frustration. Maybe it was merely cold out, but even the hairs on her head were beginning to stand on end...
"I never asked for anything in return," Randi muttered. "Of course it was all new to those cowards. They kept thinking that I was some kind of hero. Wouldn't admit that they simply gave up too easily. I never asked for anything in return except a little medical treatment afterwards. Then one day I arrive back home with this cursed sword..."
"And they threw you out?" Purim guessed.
"If the Elder hadn't talked for me, I wouldn't even have been given a chance to pack some food! I looked into every person's eyes when I left! I couldn't believe I was looking at the same people who I'd grown up with! They all looked at me like I was a complete stranger! All my friends! Even my girlfriend! The minute I became a problem to them, they threw me out!"
"I guess... I'd be a little bitter too," she agreed.
"It wasn't so bad at first," Randi continued slowly. "After all, I figured that they were only doing the normal thing. Then I started traveling a little. Pandora was happy enough to let me stay the night. Kippo village let me sleep two nights, even though they knew that the monsters were attracted to me! Dwarf village gave me a free sheath for my sword, did their best to find information for me, and the Elder even arranged for Keith to help me out!"
"Everyone but your own village helped you out."
Randi sighed. "I don't know. Maybe I'm just expecting too much."
"I don't think so," Purim replied. "In the end, it's your fight to fight. But people must realize that they're only hurting themselves when they don't help you out. I've heard some stories about the Mana Knights of the past and I've heard all the talk these days. Things are looking bad for everyone. I think a lot of people are counting on you more than you realize."
"Well, they should go do something themselves," Randi retorted. "Look at you. Why didn't you just wait at home in the first place? Wait for the army to save the city?"
Purim shrugged. "I was love-crazy at first. Maybe I still am. I would've been dead if I hadn't been so lucky. I'm smarter now."
"If you were smarter, you'd be staying home, wouldn't you?"
"No. You have to keep things in perspective, Randi. I have magic now. I have power that ordinary people couldn't dream of having. Did you see all those people back in Pandora? They were celebrating. A few days ago, I was angry at them for celebrating when so many things were still wrong. But now I think about it and I realize that they're simply ignorant. They don't appreciate or understand what's at stake the way we do. If they did, what good would it do? What can they do? They had a taste of the war that's happening, but they survived. They'll be quicker to defend the city now, but beyond that... they couldn't honestly hope to do much. Certainly not the way we can."
Randi sighed, feeling some of his anger drain away. Purim was an eloquent speaker, but underneath, what she said was true. He was hoping for the world from people who knew little beyond their village. His own home, Potos village, so isolated from the rest of the world... He had seen a sword, but they had seen something completely alien and bigger than their village and had reacted predictably. Their problem wasn't cowardice. It was simply ignorance, something which he was guilty of, even with all that he had learned so far.
"You're feeling better now," Purim observed quietly.
"How can you tell?"
"Because the air temperature just dropped," she replied with a smile. "I never realized this, but this is the first time I've seen you really angry."
He thought over her comments, but couldn't make any sense out of what she was saying. "I... guess I feel fine now. Remind me to tell Dyluck that he's getting a good therapist out of the bargain."
She nodded. "Sure... you can tell him that someday."
Keith awoke early the next morning, yawning widely as he dropped twenty feet down to the ground, landing soundlessly as usual. Randi found himself wondering what real Sprites were like. How much of Keith's behavior and talent was learned and how much was really natural?
"Where to now, fearless leader?" Keith asked, smoothing out his long hair and checking his weapons.
"I'm not the leader," Randi replied absent-mindedly. "Just someone who knows this part of the world. We'll keep going this way. In a few hours, we'll reach a huge waterfall. Beyond that, I'm not entirely sure, but we need to go north somehow. We might have to simply cut through the bushes."
"No problem," Keith replied airily. "Nothing we can't handle, eh?"
"Of course not," Randi agreed. "Everybody ready? Today we hit the Upper Lands and start searching. And we'll probably find a whole new crop of monsters who want to kill us."
"Good. The eatings down here are getting a little poor," Keith commented. "I wonder what's to eat up there?"
"You're disgusting," Purim decided. She felt her stomach growl. "Randi, how much food do you still have, anyway?"
Randi scouted through his pack. "Um... hey! I could've sworn..."
Purim looked alarmed. "How much?" she repeated worriedly.
"It's all gone!" he said in horror.
"So?" Keith replied idly. "What's the problem? I don't really need food. And you've only eaten one meal in the past week, Randi. I'll bet you don't need food anymore either."
"Purim does!" Randi replied, now emptying his pack in hopes that he had missed something. It didn't take long to realize that the food was completely gone. "Where'd it all go?" he demanded, glancing at the two of them. His gaze quickly fell upon Keith, who was already beginning to look a little guilty. "I'd like an explanation," he invited accusingly.
"Well..." Keith began, doing an admirable act of innocence. "I thought we might as well travel light, and there just isn't much to eat anymore, what with you killing all the monsters and wasting them..."
"What kind of explanation is that?" Purim demanded furiously. "What did you expect me to eat?"
"Well, I hear the rabbits are pretty good around here..."
"Forget it, you swine..." Purim lunged towards Keith, obviously intent on wringing his neck.
Keith simply sprang upwards to an overhead tree branch, making various obscene gestures in her direction.
"You guys coming?" Randi demanded disgustedly. "The day's not getting any younger. Keith, you just got promoted to the position of cook and waiter, whether you like it or not. Pull a stunt like that again, I swear I'll demote you to cement shoes or something! Purim, don't encourage him. Now let's get going, both of you."