Chapter 20: Matango
The group of three gradually developed a rhythm to their movement. They moved from sun-up to sun-down, using the sun to maintain a general direction in their travels. During the night, since both Randi and Purim had no need for sleep and Keith only needed sleep occasionally, the three would practice. Although it was slow, Randi could tell that both Purim and Keith were making a lot of progress. For his part, Keith learned to accomplish a great deal with his magic, despite his continual complaints that he could do a lot more if he only had more power to work with. On the other hand, Purim seemed to be a natural with her magic, needing only practice with the weapon aspect of combat, which she pursued with a surprising amount of enthusiasm, despite the fact that no matter how good she got, Keith somehow stayed ahead of her. But he was no longer able to eat and fight at the same time.
"You're getting better," Keith encouraged, spinning the wooden staff around causally.
Purim extracted herself from the river Keith had thrown her in. "I'll make you eat those words someday, just you wait! You supposed to be fighting with the staff!"
"Hmph. How many monsters you see with staffs so far? And you'll never win against me," Keith suggested to her in a bored tone. "You need to give up on beating me, and just worry about getting better. They aren't always the same thing, you know."
"Eventually, I'll get good enough to beat you," she declared. "It's inevitable."
"You won't live that long," Keith informed her. "Take my word for it."
"Randi beat you," she pointed out.
Keith raised an eyebrow. "That's a good point, you know. We've only fought once, and I was so ticked off that I couldn't tell left from right. Wonder how well he'd do now that I'm calm?"
"Is that some kind of challenge?" Randi inquired.
"You bet!" Keith agreed, a smile coming onto his face. "Princess, give him your staff. I'm going to prove that this stupid magical learning ability is no match for real experience."
"Go right ahead," Purim agreed, tossing her staff to Randi. "I want to see you get pummeled for once."
"One condition!" Keith warned. "If I get the crap beaten out of me, she's got to heal me!"
Purim laughed. "Why, Keith. You're actually nervous, aren't you?"
"You know how strong he is!" Keith retorted. "If he hits me, I'm going to be in a world of pain!"
"Don't worry," Randi soothed. "If you get hurt, I'll make sure she heals you."
"Just covering my back," Keith informed smugly, taking on a much different stance than he'd been using with Purim. With a slightly nervous feeling, Randi realized that, although he doubted Keith was deadly serious, the sprite had been itching for a rematch for awhile now. He doubted Keith had any intention of holding back against him. Taking a step forwards, he readied himself to defend against whatever the sprite was planning to throw at him.
An hour later, Purim was watching spell-bound as the two were still fighting intensely. Over the past hour, she had witnessed an incredible array of moves from Randi that she knew she didn't have a prayer of duplicating in this life or the afterlife. But the most incredible thing about the fight was that Keith was actually holding his own. He was unable to hurt Randi, but Randi had yet to touch him.
Keith skipped backwards out of Randi's swing, then lunged forwards again, hammering Randi across the face twice. Randi was already attacking again, passing the staff between his hands in order to swing twice as fast as normal. Keith ducked, flashing his staff out and knocking Randi off his feet and trying to bring his staff down on him before he could recover. But Randi was suddenly moving faster again, jumping backwards out of reach.
"Still not fast enough," Randi muttered.
"Are we beginning to appreciate the last fight a little?" Keith inquired snidely. "I'm much better when I'm calm."
"This is ridiculous," Purim protested. "I mean, I've seen Randi moving so fast that he's a blur, but he still can't touch you!"
Keith shrugged. "That's because I've got eight years of experience against Dwarf Village's best. Technically, he's getting fantastic, but he hasn't used a move yet that I don't know how to avoid easily. It's going to be a blue moon before he can make up for his lack of experience. Sure, he's good, but he doesn't even know what to do with his skill. I can tell what he's going to do before he knows himself."
"But you can't hurt him," Purim pointed out.
"He's just too tough to hurt," Keith informed her. "I'd need something a lot stronger than this staff to hurt him."
"A couple of your first hits hurt a little," Randi confessed. "But I guess I got tougher after those."
"Right. So even if I was strong enough to hurt you, you'd just adapt again in no time."
"Try one more time," Purim suggested with a smile. "Do your best to hurt him, Keith. I want to know if you even can."
Keith shrugged. "I doubt it, but at least we know he can't hit me."
The two fighters squared off again. Randi lunged first, wondering if initiative would get him anywhere. Faster than he would've believed possible, Keith had moved sideways and attacked. With an audible impact, he slammed his staff into Randi's side, just under the arm, actually snapping the staff in two.
Randi's eyes opened wide as pain shot through his entire body. A chorus of audible cracks was heard by all three of them as Randi's knees began to buckle. Keith sucked in a breath as he realized what had happened. He had somehow broken several of Randi's ribs. In disbelief, he looked down at what was left of his staff.
Then a hand clamped around his entire body and lifted him right off the ground. The sprite didn't have time to collect his thoughts before he found himself be hurled through the air faster and higher than he'd ever gone in his life.
Randi collapsed to his knees even as Purim came running up to him. "Wow," was all she could bring herself to say for a moment. "I guess my magic worked on him."
He glared up at her. "You mean I just finished throwing him when you're the reason he was able to hurt me?"
She backed up a step. "Well... I guess it looks that way. I just thought that I'd see if my magic worked on him... um... maybe we should see how Keith is doing?"
"How he's doing?" Randi asked in disbelief. "What about me?"
"Well... you too," she agreed cautiously.
Randi saw the nervous look on her face. "Aw, come on, Purim. I'm not going to do anything to you. But if you want to make yourself useful..."
"Right," she agreed, relieved to see that Randi wasn't going to throw her too. "I thought I heard something crack."
"My ribs," he agreed.
"Let me see," she ordered. "I've never tried to heal broken bones before. I hope it's possible with my magic. But honestly, I was studying the Mana energy around you while you were fighting. After Keith broke your ribs, I swear your body just lit up white with Mana! Not any particular type. Just a massive surge of raw energy-"
Purim's rambling was abruptly cut off as she got a look at Randi's injury. Keith had done a lot more than simply break Randi's ribs. Several pointed fragments were actually sticking out of Randi's side, slowly dripping blood. Purim stared at it in shock for a moment before anything happened. Then...
"Hey!" Randi protested in horror, trying to stop Purim.
Too late, Purim suddenly went limp and keeled over backwards, dead to the world.
Randi groaned in disgust, wincing even as his relaxing caused him pain. The team's healer obviously didn't have a strong enough stomach for the job. It looked like he was going to have to endure some pain until she came to again.
It was almost another hour later that Randi finally heard something. Quickly looking down at Purim, his heart sank when he realized that she was still out cold. Looking around, he quickly caught sight of a short figure staggering towards them.
"Keith," he called out, a little relieved. He had begun to worry after not seeing the sprite return. How far had he thrown Keith?
The sprite coughed, obviously favoring one of his legs. "Ugh. Where is Princess? I don't know what's wrong with me, but I ain't working right! Lucky for me, the ground broke my fall."
"Sorry," Randi apologized after Keith had staggered over beside him. "Purim decided to give you a little boost with her magic. That's how you were able to hurt me. And when that happened... I guess I just reacted by instinct."
"Oh well," Keith muttered, dismissing the issue. "I guess I'm lucky you didn't just grab me by the neck. How many ribs broke? I heard a few go."
Randi showed him the injury. "Definitely a few. Purim passed out when she saw the injury, which is why I'm still hurt. I have a nasty feeling that she's been using a little too much magic lately. It could be awhile before she wakes up."
"Just great. We're going to have a few words with her when she comes to. On second thought, why don't I just give her a few bruises and wake her up right now?"
Randi shook his head. "Don't bother. I think she's learned already."
"Well, maybe we should at least set the bones right," Keith suggested. "If you think you can take the pain, I'll do it right now..."
Randi shrugged. "Go right ahead. I think the Mana Sword decided that I wasn't able to take pain as well as I should be. I'd have set the bones myself, but I wouldn't know when they were set right."
"Don't worry. I've done this stuff before. Heck, I had to do it to myself once after getting caught in a cave-in." Keith put some pressure on one of the bones jutting out. "You don't feel a thing, eh?"
Randi shrugged. "Like I just said, my pain tolerance must have gone up a lot. I feel it, but it doesn't feel painful. If you know what you're doing, go ahead. Purim can try to heal it properly when she wakes up."
It was several hours later that Purim finally awoke. By that time, Keith had done what Randi guessed was a good job of setting his broken ribs bones. After that, Keith had simply sat down to give his own leg a break. It wasn't broken, but Keith figured that it had been fractured a little from the fall. Randi had strongly dissuaded him from returning the favor to Purim.
Purim shook her head and looked a little sheepish. "Uh... yeah, I guess so. Um... sorry about that... how long was I out?"
"A few fricken' hours!" Keith snapped irritably.
Her eyes opened wide. "Oh my goodness... I'm so sorry. I've taken a lot of biology and medicine, but I've never seen..." She trailed off, then changed the topic. "Here, let me see that injury. I don't know what came over me before."
"Weak stomach," was Keith's opinion. "Better fix it. Soon."
Purim looked at Randi's wound. "Did you try to set the bones yourself?"
"I set it," Keith informed her. "The Mana Sword decided that Randi needed to be able to take more pain. He didn't even flinch. So get healing, Princess."
"Quit calling me that," Purim growled. "I'm no more royal than you are, you know."
Keith raised an eyebrow. "But you'll be royal again soon enough, right? Just as soon as you get your boy-toy back?"
"That's what you think," she informed Keith. "I don't know how you were raised, but where I come from, disowning your family is something taken literally and permanently. I may live in Pandora again someday, but I've kissed my rights as a noble-lady goodbye forever."
Keith said nothing, but Randi was able to recognize his narrowing eyebrows as a sign that the sprite was thinking. After a moment, he fixed his gaze back on Purim. "I guess that means you can kiss Dyluck goodbye too, eh? Why would he want to marry common trash like you anymore?"
Randi's eyes darted towards Purim. Whether Keith knew it or not, Randi knew that it was sensitive point with Purim. For the briefest instant, he caught a flicker of worry in her eyes. He hesitated, not quite certain whether he wanted to interfere or not.
The look in her eyes soon passed. "You don't know anything about what you're talking about, Keith. Love has nothing to do with social status or rank. It's unconditional. It's okay if that's a foreign concept to you."
Keith snorted his disgust. "It's okay if you wanna believe that. I ignored the possibility of having a home village for eight years because it was less painful. I guess I'd be a bloody hypocrite if I didn't let ya do the same."
"It's not the same at all," Purim retorted. "You were just too heartless to care until your village was actually in danger. Dyluck and I go back before this whole business with Thanatos ever started, and we'll keep going long after it's done."
"That's what you think-"
"Look here, guys," Randi interrupted, deciding that his patience was at an end. "We're going to have plenty of time to argue this stuff later on. But right now, I care a little more about my injury, okay?"
"We should at least begin to see signs of people," Purim informed them. "Any village that lives this far away from civilization has to be making a few landmarks. They'd have to grow their own food, build houses and shelters. Probably cut a few trees down for wood. That's what explorers and archaeologists look for when they do this type of searching."
"Well, I don't smell nothing," Keith informed her. "It hasn't rained for a few days, so you'd think at least somebody would have passed by here. All I smell is a few of those giant hedgehogs coming this way. They're in front of us."
Purim nocked an arrow and took aim. After a moment, she released the arrow, letting it speed off into the bushes. A flash of light in the distance informed her that it had hit something.
"One down," she commented in a bored tone.
Randi raised an eyebrow. "How do you know you hit it, when you can't even see it?"
"Look for yourself," she replied. "I can't see the monster, but I can see the Mana that makes it up. The creature just got turned to stone."
"Well, good for you," Keith replied, obviously unimpressed. "How nice to see you putting everythin' I taught you to good use."
"That's only for backup," she informed him. "I was always good with a bow, but I've never before come close to shooting this well. I don't think I could miss if I wanted to."
"That bow is useless once you run out of arrows. And you've broken a few already."
"I'm sure I can pick up some more in Matango."
"Yeah right. Assuming they even want to help us. They might have had problems with the Empire too. Maybe they're already controlled by the Empire. Maybe they won't want anything to do with us. I wouldn't."
"Think happy thoughts, Keith," Randi suggested, not even wanting to imagine that scenario. "And worry more about the rest of the monsters coming."
"I think I smell something new," Keith informed them.
"What's it smell like?" Randi asked hopefully.
"Um... not like humans. Must be some new monster around this area. It smells almost like some sorta fungus or plant. But it's a really strong smell."
"Killer fungus?" Purim almost laughed. "I'd almost welcome seeing that once. Seeing as we're getting good at killing regular monsters around this area."
"This is boring," Keith complained. "I mean, Princess shoots half the monsters before I can even see them!"
"Deal with it," she replied smugly. "Maybe you should learn to see Mana too?"
"I don't have Randi's sword to help me out!"
"You've got lots of time to practice," she pointed out. "We should all be practicing something."
"I've been practicing for eight years," Keith objected. "You and Randi should be practicing, not me."
"Well, you've never had magic before. Learn something new about it. You barely survived against Fanha, and she's just one person from the Empire. We need to get stronger somehow."
"How am I supposed to practice?" Randi asked. "Neither of you guys really stands a chance against me. Besides, I don't want to accidently kill one of you."
"I'll teach you how to practice," Keith agreed. "I sure as heck don't want to fight you with a staff again!"
"Why not?" Purim asked. "I mean, Randi never did hit you, did he?"
"That's because he's too chicken to attack for real," Keith informed them both. "Trust me. There's a big difference between someone who's sparring with you and someone's who trying to kill you. But I bet Randi could get a lot better on his own if he practices the right way."
"You can show me tonight," Randi invited. "What about what you're smelling? Which way is it?"
Keith gestured ahead and to the right. "Somewhere in that direction. But I can't hear anything. Just let ‘em come to us."
"I can't see anything," Purim ventured cautiously. "Maybe they were here awhile ago, but they left. I should be able to at least see the Mana that makes them up."
"I can see something," Randi informed them. "Whatever they are, they're faint, but there's a lot of them. They don't seem to be headed any direction at all."
"We should take a look," Purim suggested. "Better that we go find them than they come and find us. And whatever they are, they're right up against the base of the mountain, I would guess. We might as well hit the mountain before we start looking for Matango."
"Let's sleep first," Keith suggested. "Or at least let me sleep a night. This is as safe a place as any."
"Are you tired already?" Purim demanded. "You just slept a week ago!"
"Well, excuse me!" Keith snapped. "In case you've forgotten, I'm willing to bet you used to do that every night! Pardon me if I start feeling a little tired after a frickin' week!"
"That's not a problem," Randi agreed, giving a pointed glance towards Purim that indicated the matter was settled. "We'll keep an eye on whatever those things are while you sleep."
It was several hours later that Randi found himself sitting on a tree stump, keeping an eye on Keith while he slept. Purim was a short distance off, practicing with her magic as usual. Randi had to admire the determination that she practiced with, but wondered how much good it would ultimately do. She was getting quite good at fighting against Keith, but from Randi's viewpoint, she was reaching a standstill. Like himself, her failure to beat Keith, along with the sprite's teaching, only resulted in her getting more skilled. But unlike himself, every time Keith hurt her, it didn't result in her getting stronger or tougher. Although far from seriously injured, she was always forced to use her magic to heal herself. She had tried abstaining from using magic, but it hadn't done anything. Even now, Keith was still far stronger and faster than her. He wondered what the reason for it was.
Possibly, it was simply because she had only had the sword for a short time. Randi couldn't imagine any other reason. Possibly, her learning ability was fading, even as they traveled. It was for her own good, he knew. He himself would dearly love to be rid of everything the sword represented and did to him. All that stopped him was the knowledge that he was as good as dead unless he was strong enough to deal with his enemy...
A stirring from Keith's direction made him turn. But it was only Keith, shivering slightly atop the branch he was sleeping on, muttering vague words that Randi couldn't make out. He went still after a few moments, then one of his hands grabbed the trunk he was sleeping on tightly, as if he was about to fall out.
"No... help..." Keith suddenly thrashed about, rolling right off the branch towards the ground. "Ahh!!!"
Randi winced as he hit the ground, coming over to see if Keith was hurt. "Keith?"
The sprite shook his head groggily, blinking several times. "Wha' the heck goin' on..."
"You were dreaming," Randi offered. "You okay?"
"Uh... yeah. Just fine." With less than his usual grace, he scrambled up the tree trunk and lay back against the trunk and closed his eyes. "I goin' back to bed..."
Randi shrugged and returned to sitting down, turning to meet Purim who was returning.
"I heard someone yell," she said, looking around expectantly. "What happened?"
"Keith had a dream and rolled off his branch," Randi offered. "He's sleeping again."
She rolled her eyes. "For someone who claims to never have talked in his sleep, he hasn't slept very soundly with us!"
"He's got a lot on his mind these days. Maybe that's what does it."
"Whatever. Any movement from our monster plants or whatever they are?"
"Nothing. They're moving, but just in circles."
"Maybe they live in a hive or nest," Purim mused. "They could be dangerous if they attacked all at once."
"Keith can scout them out in advance," Randi suggested. "There's nothing but trees around them, and he's good enough not to be seen himself. If they're dangerous, we can just stay clear of them."
"Sounds good," she agreed. "So what about you? Shouldn't you be practicing a little too?"
"Someone has to keep an eye on things around here, and since you can't see those plant-monsters, it might as well be me."
"Here we are, assuming that they're plant monsters, already," she laughed. "For all we know, what Keith smells and what you see might be entirely different things."
"Maybe. But I've seen enough strange things so far to believe in plant-monsters."
"I'll second that. But I'm sure that if those things came any closer, I'd see them too. You can go ahead and practice if you want. I'll just sit here and practice seeing them."
Randi shrugged. "How would I practice? I don't have any magic and just about anything I hit, I'd destroy. I'm not sure what Keith has in mind for me practicing."
"If you're lucky, it won't be as rough as what he had in mind for me..."
"I was thinking about that too. You should work more on your magic. Fighting with Keith isn't helping you much anymore. By now, you should have gotten stronger and faster, but I don't think you have."
She nodded. "I know. And it's not as though I'm going to try and hurt Thanatos with a wooden staff. I should be practicing with that spear."
"Then someone might get hurt."
"You mean, Keith might hurt?" she asked disgustedly. "I've already gotten hurt enough, I think."
"Getting hit by a staff and a spear are two different things."
"I know, I know. But for all the use I've gotten, I might as well sell it in Matango. It's just extra luggage so far."
"You might want it later on."
"Probably. There's no telling what else we'll run into before this is over."
Randi was silent for several moments. Finally... "Purim?"
"Are you sure you're okay about all this?"
"What do you mean?"
"About how we're going about this. I understand that you're in this to rescue Dyluck somehow, but aren't you getting impatient?"
She gave him a smile. "You have a lot of guts, reminding me of something like that. What if I suddenly decided to take off?"
Randi shrugged. "Well?"
"I am impatient, but I've been that way long before I even met Dyluck. I knew that it could be a long time before I got results doing things this way, but even if I did strike out on my own, how well would I do against Thanatos on my own? Pandora was a close call for the three of us together. I'd never stand a chance by myself. I never really did have many options to choose from, but this was the best one that I could see."
"So how long before you give up and try something different?"
"I don't know. I haven't really looked at this situation that way yet. But I do know one thing: Dyluck should have been dead a long time ago. But for some reason, he's being kept alive. I don't know why, but it's reason enough for me to keep hoping."
A muffled thump made both of them turn to see Keith sprawled on the ground, face-first.
"Was he dreaming again?" Purim muttered disgustedly. "Maybe if I hit him in the head and knock him out, he'll stay asleep..."
Keith was staggered to his feet. "Vadda heck goin' on, man..."
"Maybe you should sleep on the ground?" Purim suggested.
Keith regained some of his attention and focused it on her. "I sleep better off the ground."
"If you ask me, it doesn't look like you could do much worse than you have so far. I thought you never dreamed?"
"Shut up and let me go back to sleep. I'm tired."
It was several hours later that Randi found himself several hundred yards away, near a fast flowing river. Purim was now keeping an eye on Keith, having used more magic than she felt comfortable using. She didn't want to have to sleep a whole day to recover from an overdose. So she suggested that Randi try practicing a little. All he had to do was find something that he couldn't do, after all. Eventually, the Mana Sword would make up for his inabilities. Surely that couldn't be too hard for him to do for awhile.
Easy for Purim to say, Randi reflected with a sigh. He had already tried doing a few things that would have seemed insane a few months ago. Privately, he thought that he was strong enough already. He needed something entirely different. He needed information. More than ever, he was becoming convinced that Keith had been right: the Mana Knight must be capable of doing more than simply get stronger through failure. Impressive as it was, it was too narrow of a strength. It must have something to do with magic.
So it was that Randi began to ‘study' magic. He already knew that his sword was able to absorb Mana energy. Stabbing his blade into water let him absorb Water Mana. When the blade, charged with the energy, was used as a weapon, it could transfer the energy into the target, instantly turning it to ice. The same could be done by absorbing Fire Mana, with the target receiving the full brunt of the siphoned Fire Mana. He could absorb Earth Mana, then turn his target to stone.
He went through these motions several times, reducing several bushes to stone, ice or flames. Each time, he watched the process. Whatever type of Mana he wanted was first sucked into the Sword, where it was stored. When he attacked, the energy was released. But it wasn't an automatic thing, he learned after several tries. With a small amount of effort, he could force the energy to stay in the sword, letting the Mana Sword simply cleave the target in two. That in itself was worth noting. He still controlled the power that he absorbed with the Sword. He wondered to what extent he controlled it.
Perhaps once he had the power, he could do things like Keith or Purim could. After all, wasn't Purim able to use arrows to carry magic to the enemy? What else could she do with her magic? She could heal injuries. Randi had plenty of injuries. Purim had healed the occasional major one, but he hadn't mentioned anything about more minor ones to her. For instance, the number of harsh scratches along his arm that he had picked up several days ago from a monster. That would make a good test subject.
Stabbing his sword into the water, he drew in a stream of Water Mana. It was almost so easy, it was scary. He was getting good at this. All he needed to do now was learn to use the power. Now that he had the proper energy, he would try to heal himself with it.
Concentrating intently, he willed the Water Mana to heal his injury. It was possible, he was certain. Purim could do it, so surely he could do it too. Surely a Mana Knight would be able to heal himself?
Some time later, he returned to where Purim was keeping watch. She gave him a glance. "You were quiet. Anything interesting?"
He shook his head in discouragement. "How do you use your magic?"
She shrugged. "I'm not really sure. I just will it to happen and it does. It seems natural to me. Don't ask me to scientifically explain it, though. Why?"
"Because I can't seem to do that. I can absorb Mana with this sword, but I can't seem to do anything with it. It just refuses to do what I want it to."
"Maybe that's just because you weren't actually given magic."
"Maybe. But it's not as though I can't control it. I just can't seem to make it do things. And the Mana Sword doesn't seem to help me any. It might be because I'm not a real Mana Knight. That's all I can think of right now."
"Don't fret over it. Maybe a little more practice is all that's needed."
"Maybe that's it," Randi agreed. He changed the subject. "What about Keith?"
She shrugged. "Still talking in his sleep, but at least he hasn't fallen out of his tree again. If he wasn't one himself, I'd swear he was having nightmares."
Randi shook his head. Just another odd side of his two companions. He would tolerate it, perhaps deal with it. In all honesty, Keith had one of the most inflated egos he'd ever seen, but he had a feeling that the Sprite's claim of never talking in his sleep or dreaming was more than simply machismo. Maybe something was wrong with the sprite. He would try to talk with Keith about it when Purim wasn't around to make fun of the sprite.
When Keith finally awoke in the morning, both Randi and Purim were getting frustrated. Although Keith hadn't rolled off the tree branch again, he had been constantly muttering and shifting positions all night. His words were indecipherable for the most part, but for the most part, it sounded as though Keith was either afraid or in danger from something.
They glanced at each other as Keith skipped down from the tree, not nearly as gracefully as usual. "Shards, I want somethin' to eat," he growled, looking up at the surroundings and fingering his knife lightly.
A quiet chirping sounded the death knell for a pair of overhead sparrows. Almost before the two birds had finished singing their note, Keith's knife flashed through one of them, narrowly missing the other.
"We're in a good mood today," Purim observed snidely.
"Shut up, bitch."
"Are you okay, Keith?" Randi asked quietly.
The look Keith gave him would have melted lead. "I'm fine. Let's go. We're not getting any younger. What about those weird things yesterday? I can still smell them. Are they still there?"
"They haven't moved," Randi replied, accepting the change in subject. Keith was obviously intending to be tight-lipped about it. "They keep moving around in circles."
"Maybe they're waiting for us," Purim mused.
"Only one way to find out," Keith decided, starting forwards.
"Shouldn't we be more discreet about this?" Purim suggested.
"To hell with stealth. Let them try something!"
"We're not rushing in," Randi insisted. "There's no telling what they might be capable of."
"Only one way to find out," Keith retorted, starting forwards again.
Randi grabbed the sprite by the shoulder, halting his progress. "I said," he repeated, "that we're not rushing in. Don't make me tie you up."
Keith gave him a steady look. "Then why don't you go first and let us know when they attack you?"
"I was planning on that anyway, since I'm a lot harder to kill than you two. But something's wrong with all this..."
"Then get going and find out!" Keith suggested sourly, obviously not happy about Randi's plan. "Princess and I will give what's left of you a good burial if you don't make it back."
"Just wait here," Randi ordered, ignoring Keith's comments.
Starting forwards quickly, Randi left the other two behind, resolved to figure out what was happening with the strange things he was able to see. If they were monsters, shouldn't they have attacked by now? Something was wrong and he intended to find out. Without Keith's hair-trigger instincts to interfere this particular time.
"You're scared of him."
"What did you say?" Keith demanded.
"I said, you're scared of Randi. That's the only reason you don't argue with him."
"That's absolutely ridiculous. If you want to know why I let him go ahead on his own, I'll set you straight. Basically, I gave the matter up to fate. If he's doing the right thing, we can assume that he'll come back alive. If he's doing the wrong thing, he'll probably get himself killed, and then I can go ahead and do what I originally planned anyway. Simpler for me, see?"
"You don't even believe that."
"Think what you like. When it comes down it, all I really care about is getting a crack at the big-shots from the Empire. If Randi's with me at the time, so much the better. But I don't really care either way. But I think you oughta care. I mean, you're next to helpless without him. Maybe you should go help him out?"
"I'm far from helpless. In case you haven't noticed, I'm better with magic then you could ever dream of being."
"You couldn't even touch me, even after everything I've taught you," Keith replied, looking unconcerned. "You don't even begin to appreciate what you're going up against. If you just stopped and thought everything over, you'd realize that we don't even have much of a chance working together at this."
"I'm realistic. Back in your hometown, Randi and I got a chance to look at a few old stories. Like an old note that the Emperor put out fifteen years ago. Seems the old Mana Knight tried to take him down. Trashed three bodyguards named Geshtar, Sheex and Fanha, then went up against the Emperor himself. The Emperor managed to win the fight. You realize everything this means, don't you?"
"It means that a real Mana Knight wasn't able to do the job."
"That's just half of it. It means that fifteen years ago, The Emperor and his three bodyguards were strong enough to take out a real Mana Knight. Since then, they've had fifteen years of experience and they've gotten someone named Thanatos on their side. That's what we're going up against. Are you beginning to see how hopeless this really is?"
"Yes, but like you, I don't care either way. When you consider it, do I really have much else to lose?"
"Your life," Keith agreed, "which nobody really cares about anyway. But what happens when you find out that Dyluck is dead too? Do you have anything to gain, then?"
"What about you?" she challenged. "You've lost your village. You were doing fine back in Dwarf Village weren't you?"
"The Empire destroyed my village. So I'll return the favor. In spades."
"That's what I plan to do if Dyluck is dead. Not really much different than what you're doing, is it?"
"Shut up, Princess."
Randi advanced slowly, sword out in front of him. Whatever the creatures were, they were almost in visual range, and even he was beginning to smell them. Keith hadn't been mistaken about the smell. It smelled like plants...
How dangerous could plants be? He could still remember the monster rose bushes back home, but they were harmless to someone with his speed and strength now. But the monsters were worse around here, so there was no telling what these new plants might be capable of.
The closest one was coming into sight now, but the rest were all close by. Better to meet them head on and hope that some speed would catch the off guard. Randi eased behind a tree, then abruptly charged into the open, sword leveled in front of him.
A chorus of squeaks and shouts were heard, even as his regular vision began to fill in the colors and lines of what had only been objects before. Before his eyes, literally hundreds of white objects were rushing away from him, disappearing in moments. These were enemies?
"What the heck is going on here?" he whispered.
Some of the white objects turned towards him, letting him see exactly what they were. Randi's jaw almost hit the ground. They were five-foot tall mushrooms... with hands, feet, eyes and mouths on the stalk parts of them. The hundreds of eyes were all fixed on him, looking more than a little nervous.
"What the heck is this?" Randi asked, mostly to himself. He was becoming certain that they were not enemies. Enemies didn't run away from you when you arrived.
"Uh, what?" Randi asked. It had been spoken by one of the closest mushrooms...
"I'm looking for... Matango," Randi agreed hesitantly.
The effect was almost immediate. Almost every single mushroom suddenly came out of hiding and came towards him. In the outpouring of words, all Randi could make out was the word ‘Matango' coming from all the mouths, like a high-spirited chant.
One of the mushrooms seemed a little bolder than the rest, actually coming right up to Randi, all the while talking. Unfortunately, Randi couldn't make out any of the words.
"I... don't understand," was all he could bring himself to say.
The front-most mushroom tried talking again, but seemed to stop himself. Turning back to the other mushroom, he ‘shouted' some orders. In reality, the loud talking was barely up to conversation level, but it did get results. Several other mushrooms immediately set off towards what looked like a large cave.
Randi shrugged and sheathed his sword. Perhaps these mushroom people had also realized the lack of communication and were going to find someone who could talk with him. But he was beginning to have a nasty suspicion about something. Actually, he was almost positive.
He had found Matango.
"What's taking him so long?" Keith growled.
"What's wrong?" Purim asked. "It thought he was supposed to be dead by now?"
"Hmph. You know as well as I do that he doesn't kill easily. Even those hedgehogs around here can't touch him with those needles when he's ready for ‘em. You're sure you can't see those things the way he does?"
"I'm not as good at it as he is."
"You should keep trying. Maybe if you try long enough, you'll get good enough to see him."
"I can see him," she replied. "Geez, you should be able to see him. He's got more Mana in him than his entire surroundings put together. It's those plant-monsters that I can't see and I don't like that."
After what seemed like an eternity, the crowd of strange mushroom-beings began to part, allowing a lone individual to come though. Randi's attention was instantly affixed to ‘him', although privately, he had no idea is he was looking at a male or female. But there were several rings of gold draped atop his ‘head', which seemed to be the most appropriate word for the tops of them that looked like umbrellas over their heads. Perhaps this mushroom was some sort of leader?
"Matango!" the adorned mushroom said, in what sounded like a cheerful tone of voice.
"Uh... hi," Randi offered, raising his hand in deferred greeting
The mushroom thought for a moment. "Matango... is hello."
Randi's eyes shot open. "You know how to speak my language!"
The mushroom smiled. "You say hello. We say Matango."
Randi had recovered from his initial shock. "So... if this place is called Matango, I guess you guys are friendly."
He received another smile. "We friendly."
"That's nice to know. I was expecting humans, but that's okay, I guess. I'm Randi."
"You Randi. What you do here?"
"Well, looking for directions, I guess."
The mushroom made a noise that was probably laughing. "You need directions long time ago if you out here!"
"No, I'm headed this way," Randi assured him, realizing that under normal circumstances, anyone who was out here was probably beyond lost. "I'm looking for a palace."
He received a confused look, but it soon passed. "Big building?"
"Probably, yes," Randi agreed.
"Palace... here!" The mushroom, pointed back in the cave.
Randi smiled. Without even intending to, they had found another palace! "Which palace is this?"
"This is palace," the mushroom agreed. He pointed to himself. "I live in!"
"You're the keeper of this palace," Randi agreed. "So which palace is it?"
That got him a confused stare. "This is Matango Palace. What else?"
"Oh, I see," Randi agreed. "Well, I've been to the Water, Underground and Wind Palace, so I guess I was expecting another name like that. But that's okay," he hastened to add. "Matango palace sounds fine too. Am I allowed inside?"
The mushroom smiled hugely, but possibly hadn't really understand anything except the last statement. "This Matango! Visitors always welcome! You come inside."
"Thanks," Randi agreed, following the mushroom towards the cave. Something seemed wrong, but he couldn't put his finger on it. It wasn't danger, but it didn't feel quite right. "Uh... what's your name?"
The mushroom appeared to think for a moment. "I what you call... king. That why I know how you talk. You call me King Truffle. Almost food time, so you can be special visitor!"
Randi didn't actually need food, he knew, but just the same, politeness couldn't hurt. He gave his friendliest smile and followed King Truffle into the palace.
"He's moving again!" Purim informed Keith.
"About time! Is he moving fast?"
"It doesn't look like it. Just a slow walk. He's not fighting. Heck, he hasn't even moved fast yet. Whatever's there isn't dangerous."
"Forget this crap!" Keith decided, starting forwards. "I want to see this for myself!"
"I'm coming too, then," Purim agreed. "This makes no sense at all."
"Then keep quiet!" Keith ordered. "You and Randi are both noisy ‘nough for the entire Upper Lands to hear! Especially you!"
"You'd be just as noisy if you didn't happen to be a Sprite," she muttered.
"I couldn't be as noisy as you if I was walking on a drum," he growled in reply. "Now get down and get quiet! Whatever's here, I want to see them before they see us."
"You don't have to tell me twice."
Within five minutes, Randi found himself seated on a somewhat short stool, with a somewhat edible meal in front of him. He had decided not to point out the irony of mushroom people eating plants, but it didn't keep him from feeling like a cannibal. For their part, King Truffle and the other mushroom people ate their vegetable plates heartily. In the end, it seemed that even the plates themselves were edible. Randi hurried and finished his, so as to appear to enjoy the somewhat tasteless meal. He breathed a silent prayer of thanks that Keith wasn't here. The sprite would have done who-knew-what in regards to the lack of meat, he was sure.
He stopped himself. Keith and Purim were still waiting for him. By now, they might be tearing each other from limb to limb! He got up quickly, trying to decide how to explain his sudden departure.
King Truffle looked at him. "Food not good?"
"It's very good," Randi assured him. "But you see, I really don't have much time to stay and chat..."
"But you looking for palace?"
Randi thought quickly. The other two could wait a few moments. "That's right. Could you show me the Seed in this palace?"
King Truffle gave him a mystified look. "There no seed here. I not understand."
Randi thought. King Truffle's speech lessons were far from perfect. It wasn't surprising that he'd missed out on learning a few words. "Big round thing," he explained, gesturing with his hands. "Glowing very brightly. On top of a pyramid... I don't know how to describe it."
"Not see anything glowing here," King Truffle offered.
Randi clenched his hands in frustration. Something was wrong here. He was looking at the person in charge here and he didn't know anything a seed...
"WHAT THE BLOODY FRICKING HELL IS GOING ON HERE?!"
Even Randi started at the sound of Keith yelling, but every single mushroom figure immediately bolted for the door, with the exception of King Truffle, who simply cowered behind Randi.
"Keith, what are you doing?" Randi demanded, recovering quickly.
"I am sitting on my ass for I don't know how long, wondering how long it's going to take for you to get rid of the enemies, and putting up with Princess' stupid drivel, and you're sitting here talking over tea! You got a lot of nerve you little-"
King Truffle cowered down even lower as Keith proceeded rattle off the most impressive list of swear words and profanities Randi had ever heard in his life, some of it directed towards the ‘mushroom freaks', some directed at ‘Princess', but most directed at Randi.
"Are you finished?" Purim asked, standing in the doorway impatiently. "Hi Randi. You could've invited us for dinner too, you know."
"Right," Randi agreed. "I had considered it, but then I decided that certain members of the team weren't very strong on diplomacy."
"They can deal with it!" Keith retorted. "I say whatever the hell I feel like! What's the hell's going on?"
Randi smirked. "Keith, Purim, welcome to Matango."