Chapter 19: Onwards
After leaving Sprite Village behind them, the group traveled West, basing their path on the assumption that the sun was setting in the west. In truth, it wasn't very accurate, but they had no better way to judge their course.
"I thought you were an experienced traveler," Purim muttered. "Didn't you ever think to bring a compass?"
"How was I supposed to know that I'd be wandering around in the Upper Lands a month and a half later?" Randi retorted, a little defensively. "At least you knew what you were getting into when you left your village."
"I knew we were going to the Upper Lands. I didn't know that the people I was traveling with had no clue where they were going."
"We know where we're going!" Keith informed her. "We're going West. And does it really matter much? We're looking for a village named Matango. Unlike Sprite Village, it ain't hidden, and it's against mountains or something. So it shouldn't be that hard to find it. It won't be long before I get a scent of people or something."
"The Upper Lands are bordered on the West by the Lofty Mountains," Purim informed them. "If worst comes to worst, we can always climb a mountain for a better view."
"How far away do you think it might be?" Randi asked. "Before, you sounded like you knew we had a lot of walking to do."
"I'm not a very good judge, but we could be walking for a week at least. That's just to hit the edge of the mountains. Then we have to figure out where Matango is from there. I wish Dyluck were here. He'd be able to lead us straight to the village. He knew all kinds of stuff, like how to navigate with the sun and stars. He never got lost in the wilderness, even though I was always worried sick whenever I found out he was stranded away from town. I'll bet-"
"If this loser is so tough," Keith muttered, "how come he needs to be rescued?"
"Because he got unlucky," Purim maintained, obviously not about to yield an inch.
"Maybe his luck finally ran out. As far as I'm concerned, you should never let luck help you out."
"You're one to talk. You've been riding on luck this whole trip. If it wasn't for running into Randi, you'd still be back at Dwarf Village."
"Life threw me some curve balls. I caught ‘em."
"Whatever. You ever consider how unlikely it was for you to run into Randi? For starters, you barely avoided being killed by him when you first met."
"That wasn't luck. That happened because he doesn't have the guts to kill another person."
"You complaining?" Randi asked pointedly.
"Not. But you gotta admit," Keith maintained, "if I'd been fighting a real soldier instead of you... maybe someone like Jema, I'd have been dead the first chance he got. Of course... I'd have kicked anyone else's butt in the first place, because they wouldn't have the Mana Sword to save them."
"What's wrong with not wanting to kill?" Purim demanded.
"Would you kill to save Dyluck? Would you kill another person? Maybe even a friend? Uh, assuming you even have one, of course."
Purim shrugged, ignoring the jibe. "If it came down to it, I'm not sure. I'd do anything to save Dyluck, but he wouldn't want me to do that. What do you care, anyway?"
"Just pointing out that you two wimps might not have what it takes to live through this all. All I can say is that if I have to kill some Imperial soldier to stay alive and make the Empire pay, don't expect me to think twice."
"I think you've already partially demonstrated that," Purim pointed out, remembering the soldier that Keith had ‘interrogated'.
"So?" Keith knew what she was referring to. "You ever find yourself put in my position, expect me to remember this. Don't worry if you don't have the guts. I really won't care either way."
"That's cold," Randi replied quietly. "After all, Keith, Purim's the one who drove Fanha off at the end of your little fight. You'd be dead otherwise."
"Whatever," Keith replied easily, "I couldn't even pick up my own weapons, so her knife probably would have gone right through me."
"There was magic in her knife," Randi informed him. "I could see it. You would've been dead."
"Well, she didn't kill Fanha. Everyone knows that you don't shoot someone in the leg when you're trying to kill them."
"I didn't have time to aim well enough, thank-you very much," Purim snapped. "Forget it. Even if you do manage to get your village back, they'll figure out soon enough what a cold-blooded freak you really are."
"I got my own reasons," Keith replied, unperturbed. "What do I care about what you think?"
That night, Randi insisted that they stop to let Keith rest properly. They were no longer in a race against Fanha, so Keith had no reason to wake up early. Purim was also told not to worry about trying to make Keith remember more in his sleep.
"He's slowing you down, you know," Purim informed Randi as they settled down to wait for the night. "He's the only one who needs to sleep."
"You're the only one who needs to eat," Randi reminded her. "And he hasn't slept for almost two weeks, you know. And after the fight he had today? Can you blame him for being a little tired?"
"Well, maybe not. But if he wasn't so temperamental, things might get done a lot faster."
"Don't take this the wrong way, but you're not exactly a model of peace yourself. It takes two to argue."
"He starts them all."
Randi bit his tongue, knowing that it was hopeless. As far as he was concerned, she was just as much the cause as he was. "Why do you two hate each other?" he asked quietly.
"We don't hate each other. We just have different viewpoints."
"That's an understatement."
"Think what you like, but you can't deny that he's nothing but a cold-blooded killer."
"Maybe," Randi granted. "Although, when you think about it, you two are pretty much alike."
"How can you say that?" she demanded. "I'm doing this for entirely different reasons!"
"We're going to find Thanatos and Dyluck sooner or later," he reminded her. "What are you going to do if you find out that Thanatos killed Dyluck?"
Anger flashed in her eyes. "I'll kill him for it..." She trailed off as she caught Randi's pointed glance. "So you honestly think that before this happened, he was concerned for his village? I don't quite buy that. Before the issue of his village came up, he was just in it for a good time. In case you hadn't noticed, he likes fighting too much for his own good."
Randi shook his head. "In case you hadn't noticed, he was crying when he realized that his village had been destroyed! You didn't know that he'd been jogging his memory since he left Dwarf Village, did you? What makes you think you know everything else about him? If you ask me, he's just trained himself to keep it shut down. Living for eight years in Dwarf Village would do that to anybody."
"Maybe, but he still enjoys fighting too much for my comfort."
"You should be glad he's on our side."
"Small comfort. I still don't trust him. I don't think Dyluck would either."
"Do you trust me at all?"
"Well, I guess so."
"You shouldn't," Randi informed her. "In case you've forgotten, I'm in this only to survive. At least Keith is in this to fight the Empire."
"You're more predictable than he is."
Randi shrugged. "Sooner or later, you're going to have to decide how badly you want Dyluck back."
"How can you-"
Randi held up a hand to stop her protest. "Don't get me wrong. Don't think I don't know how much you've given up already. But is it such a small thing to try and get along with one other person?"
"If I thought that I had to do that to save Dyluck, I'd do it in an instant. But I'm not really convinced that it's necessary, alright? That freak is a lot more trouble than he's worth right now."
To that, Randi could only shrug. He could only hope that the future would show some change in her attitude. Until then, he was probably stuck with them arguing constantly, because he knew that Keith's opinion towards her was much the same.
Purim abruptly stood up. "Hey, Randi, you mind keeping watch for awhile?"
"I was planning on doing that all night," he replied with a smile. "Think you want to sleep a little after all?"
"No, but we passed a lake a few hundred yards back there. I also might add that we're approaching a village."
"Maybe you're just getting used to it, but in case you haven't noticed, we're all covered head to foot in dirt, sweat and blood. I just thought I'd take the chance to get a little washed up so I don't look like a complete freak when we find the village."
Randi looked himself over. Now that she mentioned it... "Well, maybe you're right. Just make sure you keep your weapons close by, okay? And yell if anything approaches, okay?"
"And what? Give you an excuse to come over and gawk at me swimming? I have my pride!"
"Give me a break, okay?" Randi growled disgustedly. " I just don't want anybody killed if I can help it. I'm not some kind of pervert!"
She gave him a teasing smile. "Just kidding. You don't have to snap. I know that you're not. You needn't worry that I won't yell. I can't save Dyluck if I'm dead."
Randi watched her disappear into the bushes, idly reflecting that maybe he had been a little snappish with her. Maybe he should try to lighten up a little when their lives weren't in danger. True, all three of them had to treat their reasons for being together with a grim face, but that didn't mean they had to treat each other the same way. He mentally shrugged. If someone like Purim - who had been such a miserable person that most of Pandora had feared or hated her - could make a joke now and then...
Then someone like him - who had lived a happy life, with everything going his way - should have no trouble at all. He promised himself that he would make a point of trying to be cheerful from here on. He had an enemy in the Empire, an enemy that was growing bigger with every step of their travels. That was simply his own problem, which he planned to solve in due time. He would show no kindness to the Empire and as much as possible to everyone else.
A stirring to his right snapped him out of his plans for improvement and back into those for survival. His sword was already leveled towards the source when his eyes caught up to the rest of his body and he saw who it was.
"You're supposed to be sleeping," he informed Keith, his heart rate slowly returning to normal. The sprite's way of moving gave new standards for quietness.
"Somebody was crashing through the bushes and woke me up. I guess it was Princess. She moves around like a dog with lead shoes over a bed of dried twigs. What's she think she's doing, walking off alone?"
"Just washing up a little," Randi replied. "You know, I was thinking. She's not much of a fighter, is she?"
"You finally noticed that?" Keith replied sourly. "I'm telling you, get rid of her-"
"That never crossed my mind for a moment," Randi interrupted firmly. "But you know, she seems to have picked up a little side-effect from stealing my sword before. She doesn't need sleep, and she's been getting good with her bow. Very good with it. But it's not a very fast weapon. She was smart enough to notice this and brought along a spear that you say she doesn't know how to use properly. Why don't you teach her a few things about how to use it? You might be surprised how fast she picks things up."
"If you think for a frickin' moment that I'm going to teach that-"
Randi tried to look regretful. "It would really work to your advantage, Keith. Anything you teach her is something that she'll be able to use to help us. She's got magic of her own. You've seen what she can do with her arrows. One shot, and she can turn something to ice or stone. What if you could do that with your weapons?"
"I can't," Keith informed him. "I've already tried. For some reason, it doesn't work for me."
"So settle for the next best thing. Someone on your side who can do that. You'd hate to leave anything to chance, right?"
Keith thought about it. "She's not going to let anybody teach her anything."
"She'll do it where Dyluck is concerned."
"Well, you might have somethin' there. Lovesick little queer. Dunno why the heck she's even here..."
"Give her some credit," Randi suggested. "She has her problems, but in case you're forgetting, she was the one who thought about listening to you talk in your sleep. She was also the one who figured out how to get into Sprite Village."
"And who blabbed the whole thing out for Fanha to hear."
"That was my fault," Randi insisted. "I should have realized that Fanha was making herself appear far away."
"That's not fair!" Keith protested. "I mean, that's like blaming us for not knowing much about this magic we got."
"And you honesty expected Purim to know Fanha was anywhere around? You know the answer as well as I do. Besides, if you really blamed her, I know that you'd be trying to kill her now."
"Is that supposed to be some kind of dare?" Keith asked sourly.
"You're a fighter, Keith, not a murderer. And you know as well as I do that it's not her fault for what happened." "Maybe. Maybe not. But don't think I ain't gonna kill anybody who gets in my way!"
Randi shrugged. "We're all doing what we think we have to do, aren't we?"
"She's just looking for trouble."
"Why do you hate her so much?"
"No reason in particular. She's just easy to hate, that's all. I mean, look how well she did in Pandora. I almost pity that Dyluck."
"There must be some reason you hate her."
"I told you. She's easy to hate. She practically begs you to hate her."
"Why do you hate her?" Randi persisted.
Keith threw his hands up in disgust. "Fine. You want to know why I hate her? Because she doesn't have a clue what this whole frickin' mess is all about!"
Randi said nothing, having gathered that he'd pushed Keith far enough.
"All she can think about is her stupid boyfriend! Isn't it obvious? She doesn't care about anything else! She doesn't care about her life. That's okay. No one else does either. But she doesn't even appreciate that more than her stupid boyfriend is at stake here!"
Keith gave him a sharp look. "You don't either, you know. But at least you're just trying to save your own skin! There's nothing unnatural about that. That's called 'self-preservation'. I can relate to that. It's her mindless devotion to that loser Dyluck that makes me sick. I can't believe a supposedly great guy like Dyluck would ever see anything in her. But none of you guys realize what's really going on."
"Who are you to talk?" Randi asked. "All you can think about is killing Fanha and the Empire."
"That's where you're wrong." Keith informed him grimly. "That's just what I care about. I know what I said back in Sprite Village, and I ain't taking any of it back. But there's more than just my village involved! You know what the Empire did to my village. You know what they almost did to Pandora. Do you think those were just exceptions? Back in Dwarf Village, I remember seeing orders for weapons coming from all sorts of places. Tasnica, Kakkara, Gold Isle... you name it. I didn't think anything of it, because heck, Dwarf Village makes the best weapons around. But the demands for weapons began to get cut off again. I wouldn't be surprised if The Empire is setting its sights on other places too. I wouldn't be surprised if some of those places that stopped sending orders were taken over or destroyed."
"You think the Empire wants to take over the world?" Randi asked incredulously.
"Think I'm nuts?" Keith demanded. "Aren't they after the Mana Fortress? Do you think they're doing it just for fun? No one knows much about this Mana Fortress, but you remember that verse we read back in Pandora?"
"‘The first weapon must pose as a keeper of peace, that those with selfish dreams may justify its use.'" Randi quoted, still remembering every word.
"Yeah, that's right," Keith agreed. "Anything sound friendly there? This frickin' Mana Fortress is just a great big weapon! You think what you like, but the Empire means to rule this world one way or another. If the Mana Fortress comes into play, I guess they'll do it easy. But I don't think they're placing all their bets on that one card. I sure wouldn't. If soldiers get the job done, so much the better. If they had so many soldiers to send up in this forest area, they must have a kick-ass army to throw around."
Randi shrugged. "Maybe you're right. So you think you can do anything about it?"
Keith mimicked Randi's shrug. "Maybe. Maybe not. I know how to use more weapons than almost anyone else in Dwarf Village. I'm at least as good with them as anybody else in Dwarf Village. Now I've got some kick-ass magic to use. As far as I'm concerned, if I can't make a difference, than maybe we never had a chance to begin with. But I mean to try anyway. I don't actually give a crap about any of those other places the Empire's after. But that doesn't mean the Empire's not after ‘em. What they did to my village is a good enough excuse to kill ‘em all."
"In other words, as far as you're concerned, Purim and I are just a couple of people who happen to be useful to you right now."
"Take it or leave it, buddy. You treat this business however you like, but I'm treating it like war from here on."
"I understand," Randi agreed. "In war there's only the people who help you and those who hurt you, right?"
"Don't forget it," Keith suggested crisply.
Randi wasn't sure what to say to that, although he doubted Keith really meant anything mean from it. He had come to recognize it as Keith's way of explaining things.
"Hey, Randi?" Keith asked after what seemed like an eternity. "I... don't really mean to sound heartless or nothin'. It's just..."
"We all got our own viewpoints, don't we?"
"Yeah, but... well, I really wasn't sleeping before," Keith confessed, idly twisting his knife around between his fingers. "I overheard you and Princess talking ‘bout me. Um..."
"Listen," Randi said quickly. "Don't mind what Purim says-"
"I don't give a crap what she says ‘bout anything," Keith informed him matter-of-factly."She don't know much about being royalty, and even less about everything else. But that wasn't what I meant. I didn't really expect you to defend me like that."
So that was what had Keith looking a little surprised, Randi realized. "I meant what I said, Keith, even if I am dead wrong."
"I dunno. Maybe you are wrong, but I don't think so. It's hard to explain what it's been like growing up in Dwarf Village for eight years. Let me put it this way, you stick up for yourself, because no one else is really gonna. Sure, they were nice when I got washed up there with no memory, but once I was able to live on my own, that was it. We're all great buddies, we all have lots of fun, but it ain't a free trip."
Randi nodded, not sure what to say to that. He had seen evidence enough of that during his brief stay in Dwarf Village. It would take a tough individual to stay upright after eight years.
"Look," Keith said, apparently a little frustrated with himself. "All I'm saying is... it's kind of nice to have someone take my side for once, okay?"
"We're all coming from completely different lives," Randi said wearily. "You're coming from Dwarf Village. Purim's coming from Pandora's royalty. Me, I guess I'm coming from a backwoods town called Potos Village."
"I guess so. Maybe that just means some of us shouldn't be here. Like Princess. Anybody who cares about washing up out here..."
"I just thought I'd try to make a decent impression when we arrive in Matango," Purim informed him, appearing from the bushes. Her clothes were still filthy, and her hair was dripping wet, but she herself looked somewhat cleaner.
"Well now, that's completely different," Keith decided sarcastically. "You look simply lovely now! I mean, the mud on your clothes goes perfectly with your hair and all that crap. You just wasted ten minutes, your highness, because you still look as bad as us two. If you're afraid of getting a little dirty..."
"That has nothing to do with it!" she snapped, coming closer. "In case you're getting soft on us, let me remind you that we have no idea what we're going to be in for in the future. In which case, we'd be smart to be ready for anything. You might think this is just a matter of fighting anything that comes our way. Suit yourself, but I'm not here to kill everything. I'm here to get something. If I have to fight to get it, fine. But sometimes there are other ways of getting what you want. Sometimes, better ways. Are you here to fight or stop the Empire?"
Keith's eyes narrowed. "I ain't gonna argue with that, sister. But just the same..." With lightning speed, he flicked his dagger towards her, impacting a tree about a foot from her head. A muffled squeak was heard from where the knife had landed.
To her credit, Purim didn't even budge as she glanced at where the knife had hit. A strange rodent was pinned to the tree trunk. It looked to have once been a squirrel, but the teeth and the scuffed fur said otherwise.
"Nothing wrong with using other tricks to get the job done," Keith agreed. "Just don't think you can forget about the old tricks."
After the minor show-down between Purim and Keith, Randi had once again intervened before anything rash was done by either of them. Telling Keith to get some sleep and telling Purim to go practice magic or something productive had separated them for the time being. He wished that he could somehow figure out a way to get them to work with each other, but they seemed intent on disagreeing with each other's ideas. He wished they would devote that energy towards the real reasons they were on the journey with him.
"Come and get it, Princess!" Keith invited.
"What is that?" Purim demanded.
"Wouldn't you like to know?" he asked mockingly. "All I'll say is that half an hour ago, it was alive and now it's been flame-broiled for your eating."
"That looks a burnt tree root."
"Are you going to eat half of it, or do I get the whole thing?"
Off to the side, Randi could hear Purim mutter a few unladylike phrases that he was certain she'd picked up from Keith.
"Hey, I've got the raw end of this deal!" Keith retorted. "If you don't like it..."
"It's wonderful," Purim interrupted. "I don't think I've ever seen garbage so well prepared! And for your information, this is a red-chested pigeon. I didn't think they were native around here."
"Beats me," Keith mused. "But it sure was fast. I had to throw my knife for this one. How do you know what it is?"
"Biology," she replied between mouthfuls. "If you look at the bone structure, you can see that the rib bones are ridged. Only two birds are known to have that. The other one is even smaller than your brain, so this has to be a red-chested pigeon."
"Oh?" Keith inquired. "First you're an expert on geography, and now you're an expert on birds? And what else is Princess an expert on?"
"You want me to write you down a list?" she asked. "Don't even get me started on that subject."
"No really," Keith insisted challengingly. "You some sorta bookworm?"
"No. Just bored. When you're royalty, you don't have to work, so you have a lot of free time on your hands."
"That explains how you found the time to make everyone hate you."
"Say what you like, but I finished school when I was only fifteen years old. And I passed with marks so high that they still think I pulled rank on the teachers."
"I did nothing of the sort! I just paid attention to what the teachers told me, and didn't waste my time with flirting and pranks like most of the class."
"Not really. Any girl who did that would normally be laughed out of the class and any guy would've risked being beaten up. So I had my rank to protect me."
Randi whistled. "That's pretty good. But they never even began to teach stuff like biology in my class, and I'm almost done school."
Keith's eyes opened wide. "You mean she finished early? How old are you, Randi?"
"Fifteen," he replied. He raised an eyebrow towards Purim. "You finished all your schooling by the time you were fifteen?"
She nodded. "Like I said, everybody figured that I'd pulled rank and threatened the teacher into passing me so quickly. As for sciences, the king has a number of advisors who know about science and such. I forced them to take me as a student and learned a lot from them too."
"Who woulda thought," Keith mused. "They wasted brains on the likes of her."
"Thank-you very much," she said with a smirk. "It's okay for you to be jealous."
"Ask yourself if it's worth it, because you don't seem to have much else to show for your life."
"And what do you have?" she demanded. "All you know how to do is fight!"
"Fight? How little you know, Princess. Dwarves are the weapons experts of the world, and they know how to use them all too. I was taught by the best in the village. A couple dozen teachers. They didn't stop teaching me until they figured out that I wasn't beating them by chance! Some of them taught me stuff that they couldn't even master!"
"Think what you like, but it got me something you've none of. It's called respect."
"Think what you like, but respect for a person because they can beat you up isn't respect. It's just called fear."
"My, my," Randi interrupted. "Seems you two have a lot in common, huh?"
They both stopped short as what he was saying hit home.
"Maybe you should quit trying to add each other to the list of who's afraid of you."
"Absurd!" was Purim's vehement opinion.
"If you think I give a crap either way about her-"
"Just a suggestion," Randi replied. "Why are you guys taking it so personally?"
Neither had a reply for Randi's statement. After a moment Randi continued. "You know, I got into fights in my village, you know. I won them all too. But after I'd won, I never rubbed it in their face. I just fought them to get their minds off fighting me. As soon as they weren't thinking about fighting me, I was generally able to make friends with them. You two might want to consider trying the last part yourselves."
He waited expectantly for a reply from either of them. When he go none, he continued. "Why don't you two compromise and just try to work with each other? It's not as hard as it looks, you know."
By the next day, Randi knew his suggestion had at least broken through a little. Perhaps the Mana Sword had realized that his conflict resolution needed work, and had finally lent a hand. At any rate, improvements were immediately noticeable.
"Take it or leave it, freak."
"I don't recall needing any help, your highness."
Purim gave him a glare. "Listen here, you piece of refuse, I'm not exactly begging for help either. But I'm smart enough to take advantage of circumstance, see? Since Randi's Mana Sword seems to have given me the ability to learn things quickly..."
"I got better things to do than play teacher," Keith informed her.
"Like what? Trying to practice your own magic? I've learned more in one night than you could hope to learn in a week."
"You think so?" Purim laughed. "Try to hurt me. I dare you."
Randi moved to intercept the sprite's lunge, but was far too late. Keith had made good on Purim's offer so fast it was scary. Purim didn't even flinch as Keith's open palm impacted right on the middle of her collarbone. Randi knew that Purim was going to regret the invitation she had just given...
With a yell of pain, Keith skipped back, gingerly rubbing his hand and looking at Purim in disbelief. Randi was mirroring the same look. "What the..."
She laughed. "Did you think I was bluffing? I learned that trick last night. I'd be willing to bet that nothing short of Randi's sword could get through that barrier."
Randi looked carefully at Purim. She was somehow using her magic to protect herself, he realized. Looking her over carefully, he could see a large concentration of Earth Mana around her.
She noticed his scrutiny. "Earth Mana, right?"
He nodded. "What made you think to do that?"
"A little thinking and a little observation. We're treating this magic like it's a complete unknown. But actually, a lot of it is just common sense."
"You think so?" Keith asked skeptically, but he was unable to hide his interest.
"I do," she confirmed with a smirk. "Don't worry. Keep working on it. You get this far eventually."
Randi cut in before the arguing got off-topic again. "While you keep working on your fighting, Purim?"
She shrugged. "I guess so. Although, when you think about it..." She glanced meaningfully at Keith.
He scowled. "Yeah, yeah. I teach you some stuff, you teach me some stuff, is that it?"
Purim gave him a playful smile. "Why, that sounds like a wonderful idea. How did you come up with such a novel idea?"
"Shut up, or I might change my mind, Princess."
An hour later found Purim frantically trying to fend off Keith's attacks. Randi had cut them each a staff from some strong wood to use in their practice. According to Keith, it was all that was required. Besides, Purim had no business holding a real weapon until she could use a practice version of it, the sprite maintained.
It looked rather pathetic, actually. Keith was making a point of eating with one hand while attacking Purim with the other. For her part, it was all Purim could do to block half of Keith's attacks. The other half hit with full force, either knocking the breath from her or tripping her up.
"You're too tall," Keith idly informed her. "Either chop your feet off or crouch a little more. That lowers your center of gravity and makes it harder for someone to..." Keith's staff flashed out, smacking her across her ankles and making her fall. "...knock you off your feet."
Purim brushed the dirt off herself and got up again. "You're just too short."
"Deal with it. That excuse isn't going to be much good if a real enemy is shorter than you, is it?"
"Deal with this!" she muttered, savagely attacking Keith.
Keith skipped aside, not even bothering to block the swings. "You're losing your temper, idiot. Didn't you just say you were the smart one here? You lose your temper, you don't think very well. That's common sense. Think about it."
"Think about this!"
This time, her attacks were better aimed, although no more successful. Randi began to wonder how much Keith was really holding back in this fight.
"Fighting is a thinking sport!" Keith scolded. "You're too predictable. And slow. And stupid."
Randi saw Purim's body begin to flicker with Wind Mana. This might be interesting...
Purim's next attack was almost a complete blur. Keith didn't seem to mind much, except that he was forced to block a few of her attacks with his staff.
"Faster," he acknowledged, "but still predictable."
Purim abruptly reversed her hold of the staff and stabbed the other end towards him. Keith simply caught it with the same hand that he was eating from.
"Better," he agreed, transferring the food to his other hand so he could finish eating it. "But now is the time for another lesson. Do you know why that staff is your weapon?"
"Because you won't teach me how to use a spear," she replied cautiously.
"Wrong. It's your weapon, because you're holding it. Now that I'm holding one end of it, it's also my weapon. Never do that again."
"Or what?" she challenged, her grip tightening on the staff.
Keith put the last bit of food in his mouth. "Or I might use it myself."
"Just try it!" Randi saw Earth Mana begin to flicker around her hands. Purim was going to make sure Keith couldn't take the staff from her, he guessed.
Without another word, Keith grabbed the staff with both hands and with a grunt, lifted.
Purim let out a squeak as she was lifted right off the ground, unable to release her grip on the staff fast enough. With a twist, Keith hurled her and the staff through the air and into a tree trunk where she collapsed to the ground in a heap, not moving for a moment.
"You okay, Purim?" Randi asked cautiously.
"She'll be fine. I'll throw her in a thorn bush, next time."
"Just try it!" she growled, staggering to her feet. She stopped only to use some healing magic on herself.
"Hmm... at least you're getting good at that healing magic," Keith observed.
"Maybe you guys should take a break for a while," Randi suggested. Over the past half hour he had seen Purim take an incredible amount of punishment.
"She wants to learn how to fight," Keith maintained. "And she thinks that she's picked up your ability to learn stuff. Well, in case she hasn't noticed, the only way Randi's gotten better is when he wasn't good enough. That means you might as well stop using your magic, girl. I betcha it's only slowing everything down. You haven't forgotten what Randi's gone through, have you?"
"You're supposed to teach me how to fight, not how to get hurt!"
"You're supposed to be picking up some of this," Keith replied. "You think this is rough? Maybe I should send you down to some of my trainers! You want to guess the kind of punishment I took when I was learning to fight? Dwarf weapon masters don't care if you're a sprite or a girl. I spent a few days recovering from practice sessions, sometimes."
"My heart bleeds," she replied dryly.
"You want to learn to fight, you're gonna bleed, Princess! Get out now if you think this is too much! You want some free power, go practice with your magic. You want my kind of skill, it ain't gonna come cheap! So what's it gonna be? We can stop right now if you want."
For an answer, Purim leveled the staff in front of her. "I plan to do both. I'll work on one of them right now."
Keith shrugged "Then try again, and this time remember a few things I taught you. You gotta be fast and for pity's sake, never let me grab your staff again. And don't use magic. Might slow things down even more."
Purim lunged for him, stopping just short of hitting him so that she could try to strike him from the side. Keith ducked and poked her in the stomach before skipping back out of reach.
"That was better," he confirmed. "Still predictable, but heck, I've seen all the moves already. You're definitely faster. Try again..."
An hour later, the roles had switched. After deciding that Purim had improved enough for one day, Keith had insisted that she teach him a few things about magic. Randi had been happy to sit in, wondering if he might not learn a few things himself.
"Okay, some of this is just me hypothesizing," Purim was saying, "but I've already gotten pretty far based on the extrapolations."
"You mean, you could be completely wrong, but it works so far," Keith interpreted.
"Right. Anyway, Keith, you and I both have magic. We've got Water, Earth and Wind magic, right?"
"When you think about it, everything we've done has been related to those elementals. When you shoot icicles, you're using water magic. When I use an arrow to turn a monster to stone, I'm using Earth magic."
"We know all this," Keith agreed impatiently.
"What I'm saying is that there's a lot of stuff we can do with what we have, that isn't so obvious. Remember when you were fighting Fanha, Keith? You got her at the end with those spikes. I saw them myself. Those were pure diamond."
"They came from the ground," Keith agreed. "I just wanted to something that Fanha wouldn't be able to melt or burn away with her fire. It sure worked. You can burn diamond, but it takes awhile."
"They come from the earth, but they're not actually earth, right? They're just related to the earth. Now take this a step further. I've been wondering about this for awhile, but I haven't been able to figure it out until now. Keith, you're a lot stronger than you have any right to be."
"When they found me eight years ago, I was weak as a puppy. You grow up in Dwarf Village, you'll get some muscles too."
"That's what you think," she replied. She grabbed one of his arms between her index finger and thumb. "Nobody with an arm that slender is strong enough to lift me off the ground and throw me! But you are."
"What about Randi?" Keith demanded. "He can smash rocks with his bare fists! He doesn't look that strong to me. We've seen him do it, though."
"I know. Randi might be an exception. But you're not. I recently learned to do that trick that Randi does. Seeing Mana."
Keith's eyes opened wide. "You can do that too?"
She nodded. "Like I've been telling you, I seem to be able to learn things quickly. Maybe not as good as he does, but I can see Mana now too. I've been watching you while you fight, Keith. You've got an unreal amount of Earth Mana in you. And Randi, you seem to have a lot of every type of Mana in you."
Keith thought about it for a moment. "But if you only learned to see Mana recently, then you've got nothing else to compare it to."
"Yes, I do. If you'll recall, a village of sprites seems to have disappeared recently. When we talked with Sylphid, the Wind elemental, he said that they had disappeared because of an imbalance of Wind Mana. That might suggest that Sprites are supposed to have a lot of Wind Mana in them. Ruin that part of them, and look what happens. You were spared because you've got a lot of something else in you."
Keith shrugged. "Maybe, but you're still guessing a lot."
"I know that. But it does rather make sense. After all, you've lived for eight years near the Earth Seed, haven't you? Dwarves spend their whole lives near the seed. And most of Randi's strength seemed to come during our trip through the Underground Palace, I recall."
"Maybe," Randi agreed. "Let's assume it's true."
"No, let's assume it's false," she corrected. "And then try to explain things like this..."
Purim stood up and advanced to a big tree. It was big enough that she might have had trouble her arms around trunk. After appearing to concentrate intently for a moment, she drew back and hit the tree as hard as she could. A shudder went through the entire tree as a massive crack was inflicted on the trunk where she had hit it.
She gave a satisfied smile to the others, sucking in a deep breath. "Pretty neat, huh? I thought of that after remembering the vampire that Thanatos sent at us. It sucked Earth Mana out of my arrow and made itself stronger. It's hard to do, but I've been practicing."
They both nodded dumbly. If nothing else, the demonstration had convinced them that she might know what she was talking about. "Not bad," Keith agreed.
"So why don't we think this over? I used Earth magic to make myself stronger. Doesn't that sort of make sense? Wouldn't you associate the earth with strength?"
"I guess so."
"Right. Wouldn't you associate the wind with movement? And what about my healing magic? I was able to do that from the time I was given Water magic. Hasn't water always been associated with life and healing and such?"
"I guess so," Keith repeated.
"So consider the possibilities! What would you associate with the wind? With air?"
"Speed," Randi replied. "I saw you do that before when you were fighting with Keith."
"Right. And when you think about it, that might be why your village never had a chance against Fanha. They were all Wind Mana with no Earth Mana in them. No muscle. They were probably too weak to stop her in the first place."
"But Keith's still a sprite," Randi mused, "so he's still got a lot of Wind Mana in him, which is why he's still so fast." He looked at Purim for confirmation.
"I'd say so," she agreed.
"I guess that would make sense," Keith admitted. "Any other brainstorms about this?"
"Nothing solid yet. But I'll bet we could think a few up. I remember reading about the elemental theory of nature. You've probably heard of it or something like it. Long ago, people thought everything was made of fire, water, earth and air. Everything. Fire and water. Earth and air. Plants were supposed to be a mix of water and fire, with earth to hold them together. That's why they could grow, but could also burn, and needed soil to grow in. People were supposed to be a mix of air and earth, with water to hold them together. That's why they needed water to drink, air to breath, but eventually rotted to dust in the end."
"That's just folklore," Randi objected. "You're not trying to suggest that they were right all along, are you?"
"No... but there's always the chance that there's something to it. But if we look at things from a viewpoint like that, we should be able to think of some other things to do. Like metals. From the old viewpoint, metals were all part of the earth. Keith, you must know a few things that can be done with metal, having lived in Dwarf Village. I'll bet that with your Earth magic, you could make some metal appear, just you did those diamond spikes when you were fighting Fanha!"
Keith shrugged. "Maybe. I'll work on it."
Purim shook her head. "I might be wrong, but it doesn't just happen like it does for normal magic. When I use magic to make myself stronger, it doesn't just happen. I have to conscientiously will it to happen. I have to deliberately call forth Earth Mana to make myself have more ‘Earth' in myself, making me stronger. I don't think you'll get results accidently."
Keith shrugged. "I'm gonna go practice until I begin to fade away, then. Better stay away so we don't have any accidents."
Randi watched Keith go, then turned to Purim, who was already busying herself with healing several bruises that Keith had inflicted on her during their training. Keith hadn't gone back on his word. Although Randi could tell Keith was holding back in terms of skill, he probably hadn't been shy about hitting Purim with all his strength on occasion.
"You know something?" he began.
She glanced at him. "What?"
"You're an absolute genius."
Her face reddened. "I don't think I'd say that."
"I'm dead serious. Maybe you don't think it's anything, but I'm impressed. I don't consider myself an idiot, but I never could have worked things out that way."
"I was taught to think things through that way. I was taught by a few scientists back home, remember."
"Maybe, but I think a lot of that might just be you. I think even Keith was impressed."
She reddened further. "Right. It doesn't take much to impress him, then. And seriously, I don't know what to make of him. I'll admit that he's no idiot on some things and I'm glad he's on our side. But he's seems completely ignorant on some things. I mean, he didn't even have a clue about how big the Upper Lands were! You knew, right?"
"Maybe he just never took geography."
"Maybe, but I want to know what he learned, then. He had a job, I imagine. He's taken a lot of fighting lessons. But the only dwarves I saw him with were older, and to be honest, he seems a lot more grown-up then he would if he normally socialized with other, younger dwarves."
"Maybe dwarves aren't much for school."
"That elder you talked with knew a decent amount, I'd say. And did you see the architecture of that whole village? It would take some genius in the village to design and keep that place upright."
"I don't know," Randi offered. "It's a completely different world. You have to realize that a place like Dwarf Village would have entirely different priorities than a village like Pandora. Or a village like Potos. Different people."
She slumped back against a tree. "Yeah, you might be right. Actually, you probably are. What can I say? I've learned lots in school. I've learned nothing about people, except how to use them."
"Don't say that."
"It's true," she insisted wearily. "Think back to the first time you and I met. All I cared about was whether you knew something that I wanted to know. You don't want to know the kind of goodbye I would have given you if you hadn't known something. All I know about is how to use people. Even now, I'm using Keith to learn how to fight."
"He wouldn't look at it that way."
"Whatever. He probably thinks he's using me to learn about magic."
"So? You're both getting a good deal out of it."
"It's the principle of the matter. I'm using someone again. For all I know, I'm using you too, as bait to find Thanatos."
Randi shrugged. "I wouldn't say so. Are you doing me any harm? Am I in any more danger than I would be without you? Are you slowing me down? You're actually helping me out too, right?"
"That's outside of the main issue," she protested. "I'm still using you for my own reasons."
"Maybe that's true. But seriously, does it even matter?"
"Yes, it does," she insisted. "Maybe it doesn't change much, but it's the principle of the issue."
"When it boils down to the ‘principle of the issue', there usually isn't any other reason."
"Maybe." Her gaze softened a little. "It's just that... this whole business with Dyluck and you two has forced me to seriously think my life over. Someday this is going to be over. If I'm still alive then, my life is going to go on. I don't want to spend the rest of my life the way I am now. I don't think I could ever bring myself to just go back to my old life."
"I know what you mean," Randi agreed. "I think I can relate."
Purim looked a little surprised. "You? You look like someone who was decent enough before getting sucked into this. What was your life like back at your village?"
"Well... it was pretty good," Randi admitted. "I was friends with pretty much everyone in the village, I did okay in school. Heck, I even had the best-looking girl in the village for a date to the spring dance. Well... I would have anyway. Needless to say, nobody wanted much to do with me once I found this sword."
She whistled in surprise. "I guess you had things pretty good. Maybe not as good as someone in my position, but I still envy you a lot."
He nodded. "I didn't have many problems. But I still have regrets. I wish I'd taken life a little more seriously sometimes. It's hard to take things seriously when everything is working out. But I really don't feel like I have much to show for my life right now."
"Don't say that. You'll be going home someday, after you survive all this."
He shook his head. "That's just it. I don't think I will. Go home, I mean. I'm learning to forgive them for how they turned me out. But I don't think I could forgive myself for trying to fit in again. I'm just not like that. Maybe I'll keep traveling and see some more places for myself."
"If we don't see them all before that."
They both turned to face Keith, who was almost completely invisible. "Used up all your magic already," Randi observed. "Any luck?"
Keith nodded. "A little. I can't seem to do that strength and speed stuff that Purim did before. And I can't seem to do anything with metal. I can't even do that trick with the diamonds like I did before. I dunno why, but I just don't seem to be strong enough."
"You were angry before," Purim reminded him. "That was probably what let you do it before."
"Yeah, maybe. But I'm getting somewhere with one little trick. Ever heard of drilling acid?"
Purim nodded. "I've read about it. They use it dissolve certain kinds of rock that are almost impossible to remove with normal tools."
"We use it all the time in Dwarf Village, and I'm one of the people who actually know how it's made."
Purim nodded again. "It's made entirely of different metals and gases, dissolved in water."
"I have earth magic, I have air magic and I have water magic," Keith confirmed proudly. "I can make the stuff! A little practice and I'll be able to spray anything that moves with it! The stuff eats rock like you wouldn't believe! Guess how long a monster'll last!"
"That's good," Randi agreed. "I'm willing to bet you guys could do a lot with your magic with a little practice."
"What about you?" Keith demanded. "If you're not a real Mana Knight, I'd hate to even see a real one. What else makes a Mana Knight so strong?"
"That's obvious," Randi replied. "This sword. Any time the Mana Knight isn't good enough, this sword makes him better. If he survives long enough, I guess he'd become almost invincible."
"That can't be right," Keith insisted. "I mean, that's all fine when you're in a hand-to-hand fight. But what happens when you're up against someone like Fanha? I wouldn't have had a chance without the magic I had! And what about that poem we read before? There's supposed to be a Mana Fortress that it calls a ‘City in the Sky' that can rule the world. Then there's a Mana Beast which is able to destroy this Fortress. Then the Mana Knight is supposed to destroy this Mana Beast. The Mana Knight must be able to do more than just fight with a sword!"
"You do have a point, I guess," Purim mused. "Maybe it takes a real Mana Knight to do other stuff."
"That must be it," Randi agreed wearily. "If we're going to deal with the Empire, we'd better do it before they get their hands on the Mana Fortress. Otherwise this world is going be in for a shock when they find out what they have for a Mana Knight."
"You worry too much," Keith opinioned. "Pretty soon, we'll be strong enough to kick the crap out anything the Empire sends our way!"
"He's probably right," Purim agreed. "Keith knows all about fighting, you know all about people, and me, well, you just let me know if you need a few big-wigs to do something, because that's my specialty. And of course, all three of us have magic of some sort. Only one of us needs food, and I haven't really been eating much anyway. Only one of us needs sleep, and he only sleeps once every week or so. And of course, both you and Keith are way stronger than any normal person. And Keith's got senses better than even the monsters we're up against. And of course I've got more schooling than most people ever get in their entire life-"
"Um, we get the idea, Princess," Keith agreed, looking a little bored. "If you're not careful, we might get a little cocky, huh?"
"All I'm saying," Purim insisted, "is that even if we don't look very professional, we're not exactly helpless, are we?"
"No, I don't think we are," Randi agreed. "But we're all a little short on information. If we have to learn everything on our own, we could find ourselves in trouble eventually. No offense, but I don't want to rely only on you to learn more about this magic we've got. And I'd like to know what we're doing more than a village in advance. I don't even want to imagine how I would have done if it weren't for people like Luka who was able to explain some things to me. Now she's back where we started, and we're out here."
"Maybe somebody at Matango will know something."
"We better hope so," Keith muttered. "Because otherwise, we're looking at some serious traveling to find another place. Heck, we might be best off trying to go back to one of our villages to get some locations."
Purim nodded. "The next closest places that I can think of are Kakkara and the Ice Country. Both of them will take us at least a month to reach, assuming we don't have any delays. This doesn't include the fact that we've got to cross a desert to get to Kakkara and an ocean to reach Ice Country. Back home is closer."
"Let's hope it doesn't come to that," Randi agreed wearily.