Chapter 17: The Upper Lands
By noon, the group had sorted out their differences and arrived at the huge river that Luka had told them about. The issue of food had been settled with many harsh words between Purim and Keith and some even harsher words from Randi. In the end, he had decreed that since only Purim actually needed food, arrangements would be made for her. Since very little of the plant growth was fit to eat, Keith would deal with her meals. He would both find the food and cook it completely for Purim to eat. This arrangement had the benefit of satisfying both Purim and Keith, Purim happy to see Keith forced into the labor and Keith happy that ‘Princess' was being forced to eat humbly. Randi was simply relieved to have averted another fight.
He wondered if the Mana Sword was making him better at conflict resolution.
The traveling itself was actually rather easily, with all three well accustomed by this time. Occasionally, Randi would stray from the pathway, not looking where he was going. When questioned about it, he explained that he was trying to learn how to see Mana and keep his eyes opened. Unfortunately, he inevitably ended up closing his eyes and wandering off the pathway in the process. He wished that the Mana Sword would hurry up and help him out, but as far as he knew, failure was the only way to invoke the sword's power.
By the time they had reached the river, Randi was still unsuccessful, having given up on the issue in favor of the one in front of them. The river was at least fifty feet across, and swift flowing. With the exception of possibly Randi, none of them had a prayer of mustering enough strength to make it across.
"Crap," Keith muttered. "I couldn't even hope to jump across it."
"How deep does it look?" Purim wondered. "Maybe we could wade through it. We'd end up a good distance downstream, but that would probably work."
"We'd be swept away," Keith voted. "I can hear a waterfall downstream. Of course, if you want to try it first..."
"I'd be happy to throw you in as a test subject," she replied stonily. "Randi. What about that trick you did back at the Water Palace? Where you froze the water solid with your sword? Maybe we could walk across."
Randi shrugged. It sounded feasible enough. "Let me try." He drew his sword and stabbed it into the water. Concentrating intently, he felt a faint surge of energy as he willed all possible Fire Mana to exit the water and enter the Mana Sword. With luck, the water would freeze like before, providing a platform for them to cross on.
Almost instantly, all the water in a thirty foot radius was turned to ice. All three of them smiled, Keith already beginning to walk across the ice. Purim was not far behind, walking carefully to avoid slipping. For his part, Randi dragged his sword through the ground, briefly causing some of the rock to glow red hot as the absorbed Fire Mana was put to use. Now the sword was normal again, ready to freeze the other half of the river so that they could finish crossing. He stepped out on the ice, realizing that it was very slippery. The ice was beginning to dam up the river behind it, causing the excess water to spill over and make the ice slick. Using the sword as a brace, he started out after Purim and Keith.
Then they all heard a loud cracking noise behind them. Even as they felt the ice beneath their feet begin to shift, they turned to see the source of the noise. What they saw made their hearts sink. The pressure of the water behind the ice had been too much, and the ice had broken away from the bank. They were now floating downstream on an ice floe, with absolutely no control at all.
"There's a waterfall up ahead!" Keith yelled frantically.
Purim fell to the ice, unable to keep her balance. Only the use of her spear kept her from slipping off the edge. "Should we jump?" she yelled.
"We might never make it!" Randi replied, trying to make his way over towards them. Unfortunately, he was as helpless as Purim.
"Get over here!" Keith yelled. "If you freeze another section, maybe we can still cross!" He was the only one who was able to retain his footing, on account of his clawed feet. But he was able to recognize that his companions were helpless. Taking out two of his knives, he scampered over to Purim and gave them to her. "Use these as ice picks!" he ordered.
She nodded, digging the blades into the ice and crawling along as best she could. Looking back for an instant, she saw Randi using his sword for the same purpose.
"Keith!" Randi yelled. "Get over here!"
Keith obeyed quickly, not sure what Randi wanted at a time like this. The waterfall was dangerously close now...
"Remember those boulders you were firing at me before?" Randi said, still crawling towards the far side of the ice floe. "Try making the biggest boulders you can and using them to stop this thing!"
Keith nodded. "Gotcha!" Pointing his fingers forwards, he concentrated intently. Brown light flared along his hand, causing a gigantic boulder to materialize in mid air.
"No!" Purim screamed in horror, realizing that Keith had miscalculated in his placement of the boulder. The sprite had put all his energy into making the rock, but not enough into positioning it. The huge boulder would have certainly served to stop the floe. But the floe was moving with the speed of the river, while the boulder was stationary. By the time the boulder hit the water... the ice floe would be underneath it.
"Uh oh," Keith muttered as it began to dawn on him where the boulder was going to land. "Randi! Watch out!"
Randi was too busy scrambling along the ice to see the missile aimed straight for him. As it was, the monolith completely flattened him, cracking apart the ice underneath him for good measure. The entire floe of ice began to tip forwards due to the weight of the rock, even as the initial crack spread throughout the ice floe. With a lurch, Purim felt herself sliding forwards, the knives merely sending up chips of ice as she tried to slow herself. Keith dropped to all fours, desperately trying to hang on with his claws.
Seconds later, the entire ice floe came apart. Randi and Purim were dumped in the water, while Keith, with a final burst of strength, sprang off the ice floe, trying to get close to shore. Purim gasped from the shock of hitting the cold water. Randi felt his senses return from the same shock, having been knocked senseless from the boulder before. He thrashed, trying to keep his head above water and find the others. Purim, he spotted immediately, and swam quickly, trying to reach her. Near the edge of the water, he spotted Keith, scrambling ashore, but frantically gesturing to him. He paid no mind, trying to grab Purim, who was obviously not an accomplished swimmer, twenty feet short of going over a waterfall.
Several powerful strokes brought him close enough to grab her flailing arm. Her eyes opened even wider as she fought his grip. Fortunately, he was strong enough to keep her under control as he tried to swim them both to shore. Keith was still yelling and gesturing, but Randi couldn't understand anything. There was a loud roar all around him...
With a sudden start, he realized that he was no longer floating. Gravity had suddenly been given free reign over him and Purim. They were going over the falls.
Keith scrambled to shore as fast as he could, quickly reaching the safety of a high rock. Quickly locating Randi and Purim, he tried to warn them, even as he knew it was hopeless. They were in the middle of the torrent of water, with the entire remains of the ice floe following after them. He gulping, looking at the bottom of the waterfall below. It had to be well over fifty feet down... he would have stood a decent chance of surviving a jump like that, but when the bottom was a churning whirlpool... perhaps Randi would survive...
For the second time, Randi found himself going down a waterfall. The difference between this time and the last time was that he felt absolutely no sense of fear this time. He had taken some serious abuse recently and come out alive. Perhaps he would survive this too. Perhaps not.
Regardless, he wasn't going to accept his fate. This time, someone was with him, and she definitely wasn't going to survive unless he did something to prevent it. So he did the only thing that he could think to do. With his free hand, he pulled Purim close to him and swivelled himself around so that she was away from the waterfall. She was still fully aware of what was happening, but was completely stiff with fright. His other hand was still locked around the Mana Sword, refusing to let go for anything. Randi breathed a silent prayer of thanks for the nuance, which had once been so annoying. Now because of it, he still had a prayer.
Calmly, he waited until they were over halfway to the bottom before making his move. Then he stabbed his sword into the waterfall, silently willing it to drain the entire falls of Fire Mana if possible. He didn't know if he was even capable of doing it to such a degree, but now was the time to find out...
With a jarring halt, the two of them came to an abrupt halt. In the sudden silence, Randi and Purim heard a cheer of victory overhead as Keith took in the sight. The entire waterfall had been frozen solid, with the Mana Sword imbedded in it, suspending them about fifteen feet off the ground.
"Don't panic," Randi said to Purim, twisting his sword sideways. With a start, gravity pulled them downwards again, the Mana Sword's blade now effortlessly cutting through the ice. Seconds later, they hit the ground solidly, Randi taking most of the impact. Even the water at the base of the had been frozen solid.
Purim shook her head as she glanced up at the top of the falls, only now realizing how far they had fallen. "Randi... I owe you for that one!"
He shook his head and gingerly touched his back. "Don't worry about it. At least we can cross on this ice here."
As they reached solid ground, Purim noticed Randi walking with a noticeable jar to his step. "Are you okay?" she asked in worry.
"Fine. Something hit my back before we went over the falls. I think I might have a bruise there..."
She had to laugh in spite of herself. "That was the boulder you told Keith to make."
Randi shook his head. "What's so funny?"
"I swear that boulder was huge! And you're complaining about a bruise!"
He had to laugh a little too. "I think I'm going to have a talk with Keith about that."
"It was all an accident!" Keith protested, having skipped down the edge of the waterfall to meet them at the bottom. "I don't understand how it happened!" he exclaimed in disbelief.
"You made a big boulder and it fell on me!" Randi explained patiently.
Keith looked genuinely horrified by the incident. "B-but... I know that! But I made the boulder appear in front of the ice floe... somehow it got over you and... it doesn't make any sense!"
"I don't know," Randi decided. "Probably just a fluke or something."
"The boulder you created had zero inertia to begin with," Purim added. "You were probably assuming that it would start out at the same velocity that you had, traveling down the river..." She trailed off as she realized that Randi now looked as blank as Keith. "Nevermind."
"Just be more careful with your magic," Randi replied, dismissing the matter, particularly Purim's ‘explanation'. "Now that we're across, let's start worrying about finding Sprite village."
"That's your department," Purim reminded him. "We need to find the Wind Palace, Luka said."
Randi shook his head. "That's not how we're doing things. I'll do my best to try and catch a trace of Wind Mana. But I'll remind you that I'm still an amateur at all this. Not to mention that I don't even know what it looks like. You guys obviously can't demonstrate it, either. So while I'm trying that, Keith is going to put his eyes, ears and nose to use. And Purim, you're at least going to keep an eye out for anything visible. If there's Sprites around the area, they have to at least leave some sort of mark behind."
"Luka couldn't see anything," Keith objected.
"I'm sure that her powers have their limits," Randi replied, although privately, he knew he was only guessing. But there were several factors at the top of his list right now. He didn't mind the other two being with him, but he didn't want them fighting. If he kept them both busy, there was less chance of that happening. Besides that, he had his own doubts about his own ability to find it.
"Maybe the Sprites have a hidden village away from any water. Luka wouldn't see anything then." he reminded Keith. "Maybe they have ways of becoming invisible."
The sprite acknowledged the point. "So maybe they can't do anything about their scent?"
"Maybe. But they must do something with their time. Even if it's only walk around like dummies. There should be worn trails or something. Maybe some cut trees? They have to build houses out of something."
"We get the idea," Purim agreed, privately happy that she had something to do. The fear had entered her mind that she might become a luggage holder, but that was fading. "Maybe we should mark our trail," she reasoned.
"Why?" Randi and Keith chorused.
She shrugged. "Well, we are in the Upper Lands, right?"
"You do realize how much area we're trying to search right now, don't you?" she replied slowly, beginning to fear the answer.
"Tell us," Keith invited.
She gulped. "I knew you guys sounded too confident. Let me give you a mental illustration Take all the land south of us. From Potos village to Pandora to Dwarf village to the Haunted Woods. How much area do you have?"
"You've got about one tenth of the Upper Lands area."
Keith swallowed. "You're joking, right? You must be. You've spent your whole life as a noble-brat. How would you know anything?"
She scowled. "Don't underestimate me, freak! I may have spent my twenty years in Pandora, but I've been schooled! Darn well, I might add. I was head of all my classes by a landslide! What's more, I took a lot of geography!"
"Liar," Keith croaked, sounding a little depressed. "What would you care about stuff like that?"
She shrugged. "Actually, I was always curious to know where Dyluck would be when he was off on missions. But I know what I'm talking about, okay? We've got a lot of land in front of us! Understand?" She was getting a little angry. How could they have been so ignorant?
"Lay off," Randi said quietly. "Maybe Keith didn't know that, but I did."
She threw her hands up. "So what makes you think you can find a hidden village in all this?"
"Does it really matter?" Randi replied. "The Upper Lands. The world. Either way, we've still got to find the same thing. I figure we might as well get started."
She shrugged. She knew she was right, but so was Randi. "I guess so. But I still think we should mark our trail. That way we won't go in circles."
Keith nodded. "I guess we oughta. Now how could we mark our trail? I never do that, usually. I just follow my own scent back."
"We're due for some heavy rain," Randi objected, pointing to the sky. "That will wash the scent away in no time. Even sticks can get washed away in heavy rain."
"Use big sticks," Purim suggested.
"Very funny," Randi replied. "Would I be correct if I thought you've never seen a flash flood before? On ground like this, I'll bet some brush gets washed away."
"Heck, that's how I got washed into Dwarf Village," Keith added.
"That bad?" Purim inferred. "Well, what if you use a really big stick?"
"I am serious. Chop down trees."
Randi stared at her incredulously. Then he shrugged. "Well, I guess that's not going to get washed away. We'll leave a big mess, though."
"Not many people live up here," Keith reminded him with a smirk. "Start chopping, buddy. We got a lot of ground to cover."
Randi nodded, pulling out his sword. Inwardly, he hoped the Mana Sword didn't mind being reduced to the duty of an axe. When he leveled his sword, the flash of the sun caught his eye sharply. He looked the sword over. "Hey! It changed again!" he exclaimed happily, admiring the sword.
"Looks like you gave it some polish," was Keith's opinion.
"Nothing I did," Randi replied, once again remembering Luka's words. The appearance and the Mana Sword reflects the user. "This thing... seems to have a mind of its own."
Shrugging off the issue, he slashed his sword across the base of a tall tree at a diagonal angle, causing it to fall down, pointing into the forest. "Let's go."
Three Days Later...
"What is this filth?"
"Food! Eat it!"
"I'll bet you poisoned it, freak!" Purim muttered.
"That's your problem!" Keith growled. "Rabbits aren't supposed to be cooked!"
"Cooking kills all the taste!" the sprite argued. To prove his point, he grabbed one of the uncooked rabbits and chopped off a hind leg and proceeded to bite off a bloody piece.
Purim gagged on her bite of food and looked away, to Keith's immense satisfaction.
Randi watched all this with half-interest. Privately, he was beginning to wonder if he should have suggested they split up at the start. Then he would have some peace and quiet. He breathed a silent prayer of thanks that Keith was actually doing his penance for eating all the food before. Actually, he had been extremely enthusiastic about doing the job. Perhaps he simply looked at it as a way to alleviate boredom. Or perhaps he enjoyed grossing out Purim on occasion.
"I can see why Randi didn't find you in a kitchen," Purim decided as she ate her meal.
"Well, excuuuuse me! I forgot to bring along some spices! You think I carry marinade around everywhere I go?"
Three More Days Later...
"There's some animals around here," Keith informed the group. "They don't smell like anything I've ever met. They smell funny."
"Looks like we've found the sprites," Purim muttered.
"Go to hell," Keith retorted. "Maybe we found Dyluck's remains!"
"Shut up, you two," Randi growled. "Which direction are they, Keith?"
"Upwind, more or less. I can't see anything up that way. It might be some sort of plant-"
Before Keith had even finished his analysis, a chorus of growls sounded around them as creatures began to emerge from the bushes around them.
"Party's here," Keith decided. "Let's see who the guests are!"
The first creature that lunged towards them was sliced in half by one of Keith's throwing rings. The rest came too quickly to be identified. Within seconds, the entire group was fighting for their lives as a flurry of strange monsters attacked them.
Randi slashed as fast as he could. It was fortunate that these new monsters were slow...
Purim shot one with an arrow, but the rest got too close to be shot.. Throwing down the weapon, she hoisted the spear she had brought along. The pointed head flared brightly with blue energy. A mere touch would turn any creature into solid ice...
Knives, poison darts and magic were all things to be used as far as Keith was concerned. As for the creatures, they never had a prayer of hitting his fleeting form. The only time they came close was when a huge shower of long needles was tossed in his direction. A ten foot jump cleared the projectiles, followed by a blast of ice on the offending monster.
Within moments the creatures had all been dispatched through one means or another. Randi surveyed the other two, making sure that they were safe. Keith was untouched, as expected. But Purim was sitting on the ground, gritting her teeth as though in pain.
He approached her. "What's wrong?"
She waved him aside. "Nothing permanent." She pulled something out of her side and tossed it to the ground. It was a long needle.
Randi recalled having had a few go over his head. He shifted around so that he could see the wound. He blanched. "Are you sure you're okay?"
"I will be in a moment." She pulled out the needle and discarded it. Without further hesitation, she placed her hand on the wounds and concentrated. A blue glow washed over the area, soon fading, leaving the area looking completely untouched.
"Neat trick," Randi agreed. "But you can't do that if you're dead."
"You're lucky they weren't barbed," was Keith's opinion.
"I got careless," she replied, dismissing the issue. "And we've never seen these kinds of monster before."
Randi had to grant her point. The three of them looked over the various monsters that littered the ground now. There were several different types. It was easy to determine the ones that had thrown needles at them.
"These look like they used to be porcupines," Randi informed them. "Expect that these are twice as big and if I didn't know better, I'd say they were aiming their needles."
"I'll second that," Purim agreed, a small hole in the side of her shirt the only remaining evidence that she had ever been injured in the first place. "What about these things? They look like some sort of caterpillar species..."
"‘Cept a hundred times bigger," Keith agreed. "I dunno how they get this way, but I'll bet we're going to be getting more of them. Whoever's doing this must have some serious magic on their side."
Ten Days Later...
"Someone's coming," Keith informed the other two.
"What's it smell like this time?"
"Someone." Keith glanced at them meaningfully.
"Luka did say that she'd seen soldiers up here," Purim voiced for all of them. "The Empire must be looking for Sprite village too."
"They'll know we're out here," Keith added. "The way we mark our trail..."
"Maybe we should veer off?" Purim suggested. "We don't want to try and fight a whole troop of soldiers."
Keith shook his head. "They're gonna be hard to avoid. If they're tryin' to find something, they could be all over the place. If we kill a few, they'll either find the dead bodies or else notice their soldiers are missing."
"What kind of magic would they have?" Purim worried. "Randi?"
Randi was thinking. "They must know that Sprite village is hidden. I guess they'd have at least one person who knows how to use magic. Maybe someone who knows how to find Sprite village..."
"Yeah, that makes sense," Keith agreed. "Maybe we should follow them?"
"What good will that do?" Purim demanded. "What happens if they see us? They'll slaughter us!"
"That depends on how many magic users they've got," Keith objected. "If there's only a few, and we kill those, the regular soldiers won't stand a chance against us! Just let them try deal with our magic! Not to mention Randi and his sword. They'll get scared off quick enough!"
"No, we won't do that," Randi decided. "We'll stop marking our trail and try to sneak up on them. As soon as we find one alone, we'll take him down and get him to provide some answers for us."
"Sounds great," Keith agreed.
"What if he doesn't talk?" Purim wanted to know.
It was several hours later, that they finally spotted a lone soldier. According to Keith, there were no other soldiers to be smelt or heard for a good distance. He seemed to be looking half-heartedly for something, perhaps Sprite village. Randi gestured for them to stay quiet as the soldier approached and nodded to Keith. An instant later, the sprite flitted across the pathway, so fast he seemed to be nothing but a blur.
The soldier's eyes opened wide as he sprinted forwards to investigate, spear held at the ready. Then a hand yanked the spear from his hand, another hand clamping around his throat and throwing him to the ground. He gasped in surprise as the tip of Randi's sword gave a convincing reason for him to stay quiet.
"We don't have much time," Randi hissed in what he hoped was a menacing tone of voice, "so you'd better not waste any. We have some questions for you. Answer, you get to live, got it?"
"How many others are up here?" Purim asked.
"About... one hundred or so."
"How many can use magic?" Randi wanted to know.
"Only one," the soldier replied. "The sorceress Fanha."
Randi remembered the name from the document back in Pandora. One of the Emperor's bodyguards. "What is she looking for?"
"There's supposed to be... sprites up here. We're looking for their village."
"How are you supposed to find it?"
"I dunno. We're just supposed to keep looking. That was all Fanha said."
"Where is she?" Keith demanded, having returned after distracting the soldier.
Upon seeing Keith, the soldier's eyes grew wide. "Y-you're a sprite or something!"
"Deal with it, swine," Keith growled. "Where's the bitch?"
But the soldier seemed to have gotten some nerve back. "I'll say nothing more, devil!"
Randi sighed. He wouldn't have been surprised if the soldier had been told that Sprites were the enemy and who knew what else. "Spit it out," he ordered, sharply. "Or I make you wish you had."
The soldier promptly spat at the sprite.
Keith briefly glanced at the small pool of spit that had landed on his sleeve. "So that's the way it is, eh?"
Without warning, the heel of the sprite's palm smashed into the soldier's forehead. Randi involuntarily winced. He'd felt that hit, and he was only holding the man. The soldier's eyes almost rolled up, but he managed to maintain consciousness.
"Maybe you want to think things over again," Keith suggested, his voice almost sounding cheerful. "Anybody ever tell you what Sprites eat?"
Keith ignored the insult, the smile on his face abruptly growing colder. "Nah. We eat meat. Lots of meat. Raw. Cooked. Animals. Fish. Birds. Even humans."
The soldier swallowed, but held his psychological ground to the sprite.
"‘Course, humans are really hard to find around here. I betcha the other sprites already got a bunch of your buddies cookin' over a fire. Humans make good eating, y'know. Lots of dark meat. We're gonna be having a feast tonight. But as for you..."
"You're full of it," the soldier replied, only sounding half-convinced.
"See what you think after I have a few of your fingers," Keith chuckled, producing one of his knives. "Randi, cover his mouth. I betcha he's gonna scream loud. Real loud. They always do on the first finger."
Purim stopped breathing. "Keith..."
"The fingers are real gourmet stuff, y'know," Keith went on, his voice getting colder still. "Only ten of ‘em on each human. And you can chop ‘em off without actually killin' the person. If you do it right, the human doesn't die till you cut his head off. Keeps it all fresh, y'know?"
The soldier wasn't replying anymore, his eyes now transfixed on the knife Keith was casually spinning between his fingertips.
With a twist of his wrist, Keith grabbed the man's left hand and held it up to his knife. "Dinner's ready, everybody. Come and get it!"
That did it. The soldier started talking so fast that he could barely be understood. "Fanha's up north looking for Sprite village told us to look for stray sprites and people and I don't know anything else I swear it!"
"I'm not convinced you're telling us everything," Keith informed him coldly. "How is Fanha finding Sprite village?"
"She's got magic or something. She didn't tell us!"
"How far north?"
"I don't know. I headed south from our starting point and the last I saw, she headed north! I've only been traveling for a day and a half now!"
"Anything else you care to add that might make me take you off the menu?" Keith growled.
"I-I don't know anything else, I swear!"
In less than a second, Keith's knife disappeared from view. Before the same second was up, the same hand had cuffed the soldier's head so hard that Randi lost his grip on the man. The soldier's eyes rolled up as he slumped forwards, lifeless.
Randi swallowed as he let the man fall to the ground. "Keith..."
Purim finally let the air out of her lungs. "Keith... you k-killed..."
Keith spat on the ground. "He's knocked out. He'll wake up in a few hours. Shut up and let's go."
"We'd better get going," Purim whispered. "I don't like the look of him right now."
"Can you blame him?" Randi replied, just as quietly. "How would you feel if Fanha was trying to find Dyluck? Right now, she's trying to find Sprite village."
"I wouldn't be threatening to eat body parts off people!" she hissed back. "He's a cold-blooded killer!"
Keith looked back at her. "I'll eat a lot of things, Princess. People ain't one of ‘em. Maybe you don't like Dyluck as much as you say if you think there's something wrong with what I just did."
"Can't you see anything, Randi?" Purim asked, changing the subject.
Keith smirked, continuing to walk.
"Nothing," Randi admitted. I can see a lot of stuff, but Wind Mana isn't one of them. Somehow, even the Wind Palace must be hidden. We could be still too far away, or we could be walking right by it. I really don't know. Right now, our best bet might be to follow Fanha. She might know how to find it. Maybe we can take her out as soon as we know what we need to know."
"I hope so," Purim agreed. Under her breath, "He's beginning to scare me a little."