Chapter 21: Personality Conflicts
Both of them stared incredulously at him. "You can't be serious!" Purim protested. "I mean, this is..." she couldn't find any words to add at the end.
"This is Matango?!" Keith asked disgustedly. "Geez, and I thought humans looked queer!"
"Some people think sprites look even queerer," Purim informed him.
"Bullshit. You're all mutants or something. Yours Truly is perfection itself! Now as for this overgrown weed..." Keith darted forwards, but Randi blocked his lunge for King Truffle.
"Back off now, Keith!" Randi ordered sharply. "In case you'd forgotten, we were hoping to get some help from these people."
"We'll get help," Keith reassured him grimly. "Just letting this stir-fry ingredient know that yes, I am a sprite, so WHAT'S IT TO YOU!"
King Truffle muttered something in what was probably his native tongue.
"Deal with it, shithead!" Keith shot back. "I don't give a rat's ass about what you think Sprites are supposed to be like! This one's having a bad day and is gonna cook you alive if you don't spit out some information!"
King Truffle muttered some more words.
Keith rolled his eyes. "I don't care if you don't have any seeds here. You got plenty in your brains, if you think..."
"Wait a minute, Keith!" Randi interrupted.
"I'll plant you if you don't-"
"Shut up, Keith!!" Randi ordered sharply.
Keith obeyed sullenly.
"Now what the heck are you doing?" Randi demanded. "Are you talking with him?"
"What the hell does it look like?"
"I can't understand a single word he's saying. Purim?"
Purim shook her head. "Not a thing."
Keith raised an eyebrow. "This guy is talking clear as a cut diamond, guys. Sure, he's stammering like an idiot, but he's talking plain words and all."
"It's all gibberish to us," Purim informed him matter-of-factly.
Keith took a moment to digest it all. "Well, why the hell is that?"
King Truffle said a few more words that made Keith spin around to glare at him. "Speak up!" he ordered, making the mushroom back off a little more.
"Let him talk without threatening him," Randi ordered.
King Truffle repeated what he had said. Keith glanced at them. "He says that it's because I'm a sprite. Something to do with my magical nature or something. I dunno. What the heck. So I can understand him and you suckers can't. At least I can tell him off-"
"No problem at all," Randi interrupted cheerfully. "We've been having some problems here with translation. So Keith, you get to be the translator."
"Why do I have to?"
"You see any other sprites around?" Purim demanded. "Start translating!"
Randi shushed her with a glance, then turned back to Keith. "Let's get started. Keith, this is King Truffle. He speaks a little of our language, but it's not very good. He says that this is Matango Palace, but he doesn't seem to know anything about seeds. So you translate what I say and we'll see if this doesn't get us anywhere."
"You want to know where the next Mana Palace is?" Keith confirmed. He glanced at King Truffle. "You get that?"
King Truffle was looking at them strangely now. He muttered some strange words.
Keith translated. "He says ‘Why didn't you mention that it was a Mana Palace?'. He musta thought you were talking about his own palace."
Randi turned a little red. "Well..."
"Idiot," Keith muttered. "Anyway, Truffle, old boy, let's get it right this time. We're looking for a Mana Palace. Know where any are?"
This time he got an affirmative answer. Keith didn't seem to be happy. "Screw you! We've already been to the Wind Palace! Another one! Before I rip your miserable head-or-whatever-that-is off!"
A short time later, they had finally been able to get their facts straight. It hadn't been easy, since Keith seemed to be in an absolutely foul mood, and King Truffle seemed genuinely scared of Keith, which was to be expected. It was all Randi could to do to keep Keith at bay and translating. Purim did nothing to interfere, simply waiting patiently off to the side, watching the proceedings with a detached interest.
Privately, Randi was beginning to wonder if there was something seriously wrong with Keith. Even the sprite had previously admitted to his bad temper, but this went beyond even that. He needed to talk with Keith soon, he decided.
"So this is just some back-woods palace?" Keith demanded.
"It doesn't matter," Randi interrupted firmly. "So the nearest palace is supposed to be somewhere in the Kakkara desert?"
"Just wonderful," Purim muttered. "We've got some serious traveling to do, guys. Never mind actually finding the palace once we get there."
"Does he know anything about where the palace is in the desert?" Randi asked hopefully. "Any villages nearby?"
After some talking, Keith managed to ascertain that King Truffle knew nothing more about the location.
"He wants to know why we want to go there," Keith informed Randi sullenly. Randi had already had a strong talk about making sure that anything King Truffle said was immediately interpreted.
"No he doesn't," Purim muttered, making herself heard again. "Tell him that he's looking at some very complex group dynamics right now."
"What's that supposed to mean?" Keith demanded.
She shot him a look. "Fine. Tell him that you're in this for revenge, that I'm in this to try and save a fiancee and that Randi's been stuck with the Mana Sword and is just trying to stay alive."
King Truffle gave what could be considered a shout.
"He says," Keith translated, "‘Did you say, Mana Sword'?"
"I'm not the Mana Knight," Randi hastily added. "But this is the Mana Sword. I need to seal the eight Mana Seeds. Does this ring a bell with him?"
"He's not a real Mana Knight," Keith repeated, "but he's been shafted with that Mana Sword. He needs to seal the eight Mana Seeds. Is this makin' any sense?"
Truffle nodded enthusiastically, looking at them entirely differently now. Evidently, he did know something.
"Yeah, I think this registers," Purim confirmed. "Given the circumstances, I don't suppose he'd be able to offer any other help?"
"Like what? We know where we're headed," Randi pointed out.
"Like information," she replied with a smile. "Any mushrooms here know about magic? I'd be happy to be a short-term student and pick up a few tips. I'll bet Freak would too. Maybe they even know a few things about what a real Mana Knight can do."
"We're in a hurry," Keith decided. "Screw it. Let's go. Before I decide to stir-fry one of these mushrooms."
"Hold on a minute, Keith," Randi said. "We shouldn't pass up a chance like this. Assuming that it even exists," he added, nodding briefly.
Keith scowled, glaring at Truffle. "Anybody here know anything about magic or the Mana Knight?" He received a cautious nod, saying a few words. "Yeah, but he doesn't know what they could possibly hope to teach a Mana Knight or a sprite about magic..."
"Lots," Randi sighed. "Tell him that any help would be greatly appreciated. We've been traveling for who knows how long. Another day or two won't hurt us much. It would probably help us a lot."
Keith threw his hands up in disgust. "Geez! Why don't we just take vacation here while we're at it! Are we looking to kill the Empire or to have fun? You guys are both pathetic!"
"Think what you like," Purim snapped, "and say what you like, but you can't deny that we're already up over our heads. Even you already admitted that! We'd probably be mincemeat for the Empire right now. We need to get stronger, and right now, information is going to do that better than anything else!"
"You're just looking for an excuse to take a break! What the heck! Why don't we just wait here until the Empire actually manages to get their hands on that Mana Fortress! I'm sure they'll save us the trouble of finding them then! They'll come find us! Then we can see how a fake Mana Knight does against that! Maybe we'll even get to see that Mana Beast or whatever it is! Sure, take all the frickin' time you guys want!"
Randi took a deep breath. "Keith, why don't you just go outside and go find some monsters to kill? You can come back when you've cooled off, okay?"
Keith suddenly slammed his fist down on the table, cracking it cleanly down the middle. He glared at them both, perhaps unaware that his eyes were beginning to pulse a faint white. "To hell with you both!! I shoulda known better then to get involved with the likes of you!" Without another word, Keith stormed out of the palace, muttering unintelligible words and phrases, no doubt directed at them.
No one said anything for what seemed like an eternity. Finally Randi spoke. "Well, that's just wonderful."
"Little freak," Purim muttered. "He'll be back. Just let him take out a little energy on some monsters. We've bigger problems. Like how to talk with anybody around here."
"We're going to try and solve that," Randi decided. "Keith obviously has some magic about him that lets him talk with these mushroom people and us at the same time. Since he's not doing it intentionally, it must be something natural about him."
"So, we're going to see if we can't do the same thing. If we fail enough, we might just be able to learn."
Purim's eyebrows went up. "You mean, just let them keep talking at us in their native language? You think we'll actually be able to learn to speak their language that way?"
"Maybe," Randi agreed. "Maybe not. But we might as well try. King Truffle understands some of our language. We'll explain it to him. We'll worry about Keith later on."
Ten minutes later, after a long series of patient explaining, Randi's plan was finally put into motion. Under King Truffle's instruction, several mushroom people were ordered to simply talk non-stop at Randi and Purim until further ordered. It was rather strange, having a crowd of strange mushroom people standing in front of them, mouthing off in a completely alien language.
"It's a good thing that I don't have to sleep anymore," Purim whispered to Randi. "I'd be having some very disturbing dreams with five-foot high mushrooms talking gibberish to me."
"You said it," Randi agreed. "Anything yet?"
"Nothing. I wish I knew how long it takes for this learning business to kick in. I can't feel anything at all. Maybe it's a mental thing. Try to feel frustrated at how you can't seem to understand the language."
Purim needn't have suggested it. Randi was already feeling like yelling a few choice words towards the group of mushroom people. As ordered, they were simply talking non-stop towards him. With their voices overlapping, the sound was positively maddening. If he didn't hurry up and learn this language, he'd have to follow Keith outside and find a few monsters. Purim seemed to be holding up much better than he was, but even she had be getting a little irked by all this. Maybe this wasn't such a good idea after all...
The entire room was suddenly rattled as Randi slammed his fist into the ground with as his strength. Several of the mushroom people were knocked off their feet, providing him with the first break in their conversation since they had started. A large indentation in the floor gave indication as to why.
"Forget this!" Randi growled. "I'm going outside for awhile! These idiots are driving me insane!"
"Shut up!" Randi yelled at the mushroom people. Then he stopped himself. "What did you say?"
"King T-truffle said we were helping you..."
Randi let out a cry of happiness, clapping his fists together.
Purim winced as a blast of air rushed past her head. She wondered if Randi realized exactly how strong he had become. "You understand them?"
He nodded. "Clear as a bell. You guys! Keep talking. Try to drive Purim nuts! Where's your King? I want to talk about a few things! Alright!"
"So you can understand me now?"
Randi nodded in reply to King Truffle's question. Without the language barrier, it seemed almost normal to be conversing with a five foot tall mushroom. Almost. King Truffle sounded a little on the whimsical side, which seemed unusual for a king, but perhaps Randi was mistaken. It might just be a cultural thing. "Perfectly. So maybe we should just go over everything again?"
"Let's see if I understand the problem first," King Truffle suggested. "You seem to be the most important person out of you three."
"I wouldn't say that-"
"But you're the one with the Mana Sword, right? So that makes you the most important. Now if I heard it right from that sprite, you're not of the Mana Tribe?"
"That's right. The Keeper of the Water Palace, Luka, figures that there's no one of the Mana Tribe around anymore, so this sword probably attached itself to the first person who found it. That would be me."
"It's not impossible," Truffle agreed slowly. "A talisman like the Mana Sword would almost certainly be ingrained with a function for just such an emergency. You might be all we have for a Mana Knight now..."
"Don't remind me of that," Randi groaned. "At any rate, are you beginning to see the problem? I got this sword less than two months ago, and the Empire's already out to kill me. Keith and Purim are with me for their own reasons, but they both involve dealing with the Empire at some time."
"I see. So you have no way of knowing how loyal they are to you?"
"It isn't that," Randi insisted. "We all have an understanding. We're together as long as we want. Any of us are free to go at any time, but since our interests overlap, we're together. We've gone to the Water Palace, the Underground Palace, and the Wind Palace. The Elementals at each place gave their magic to Purim and Keith, because they're helping me out, but we really don't know much about magic at all."
"So you want to know if we'd be able to help fix that a little?"
"Well, if you're able, I'd say you'd be helping yourself too."
Truffle gave a laugh. "You don't need to tell me that! I know what's at stake. But if you want to know about magic, you should go back to Sprite Village."
"Well, it's not that simple. You see, the Empire beat us to Sprite Village..."
Truffle's eyes opened wide. "They broke the wind seal?"
"And all the sprites simply disappeared?"
"That's right. How'd you know that would happen?"
"As I was going say, Sprite Village would have been a good place to learn about magic. The reason is that Sprites have such a close affinity with Mana. All living things have some, but some have an extremely close affinity. The Mushroom people are one of those people, but Sprites are even more extreme in that respect. Something like the wind seal breaking could easily kill them all... why your friend is still here, I don't know."
"He's lived the past eight years in Dwarf Village, near the Underground Palace. Purim thinks that the shock probably wasn't as great for him, because he's got more Earth Mana in him."
"That makes sense. Your friend, Purim? Does she know anything about magic?"
"Well, not really, but she's the best so far. She's been doing her own bits of research, but even she's kind of limited."
"Well, as I said, the Mushroom people have a very close affinity with Mana, so naturally we try to know as much about it as possible. We'll certainly teach you what you can. But I must warn you. Where the Ancient Weapons are concerned, our knowledge is severely limited. The Mana Sword is one of those weapons, and we know the least about it. I believe that may well be intentional."
"Well, anything you can tell us will probably be of help," Randi insisted.
"Of course. I'll have our best mushrooms work on it."
"Before they do that?"
"Do you know anything about Sprites? Keith's the only Sprite I've ever seen-"
"Us too," Truffle agreed. "Their village is sealed against any intruders. But we have kept as much information on them as possible."
"That's good to hear. Well, I'm a little concerned about him. I don't know what normal sprites are like, but I don't think Keith is quite right these days. Ever since Sprite village was attacked, he's been acting differently."
"That would explain his outbursts today?"
"Yeah. I mean, he's not exactly a model of politeness on his good days. I mean, you'd be like that too if you were raised in Dwarf Village. But this is bad even for him! Did you see his eyes lighting up before he left? That's not normal."
Truffle thought for a moment. "The eyes lighting up isn't strange on its own. Owing to their affinity with Mana, I believe Sprites tend to have greater influence over it. Emotional outbursts could no doubt result in little displays like that. Have you ever seen him lose his temper while using magic?"
Randi nodded, remembering the incident back in Sprite village against Fanha. "He still can't repeat some of the things he did then. You think that thing with his eyes was just because he was angry?"
"I'm sure of it. It's possible, of course, that his outbursts are what pose the problem. Is he given to outbursts?"
"Well, yes," Randi admitted. "But never that bad! It's just his entire disposition. I still think that something's wrong with him. He isn't even sleeping well at night. He's having all sorts of dreams and nightmares, as if he's scared. But he won't admit anything to either of us."
"Hmm... how long has this been happening?"
"I dunno. I guess since the incident at Sprite village."
"Perhaps he's still on shock from the incident. Seeing one's village destroyed might do that."
"Maybe. But I think there's something more to it."
"Any other unusual circumstances?"
"Not that I can think of," Randi replied after a moment's thought.
"Well, I'll have someone look into that too. It would not do for one of the Mana Knight's helpers to fall ill."
"I'm not the Mana Knight," Randi reminded him.
"Perhaps, but you do have the Mana Sword, which makes you the closest candidate for the job. You can't be all that helpless if you've reached three palaces so far. We Mushroom people get very few visitors, so we never get much news from the outside world, but I'm sure that things are less than ideal in the world right now."
"You could say that," Randi agreed.
"So the least we can do is help you out with some information. I'll have someone look into sprites too. Perhaps something will come up about your friend."
"Where is he, anyway?" Randi wondered out loud. "Even he should have been back by now. Maybe I'll go take a look for him."
"Go ahead," Truffle agreed. "I'll have my people looking for information immediately."
Randi nodded, heading out towards the exit. In the next room, he could still here the chorus of voices. Evidently, Purim wasn't learning as fast as he had. He smiled. Purim must be going insane by now...
"Uh, Purim?" he called.
Randi jumped by reflex. "Is it getting that bad?" he inquired, unable to keep laughter from his voice.
"You're going to eat those words soon," she vowed vehemently.
"Sure, sure. I just wanted to tell you that I'm going to go look for Keith. He still isn't back yet and I'm beginning to get a little worried."
"Go ahead, but don't expect to find that freak unless he wants you to. You know how sneaky he is."
"Do I ever. I have to try, anyway." With a sigh, Randi checked his sword, then headed for the exit.
"Leaving already?" the mushroom guard asked cheerfully.
"Just for a little while," he agreed. Everybody was cheerful around here, obviously. "Did you see that sprite go this way?"
The mushroom looked worried. "He looked angry, so I stayed away from him. He looked lost, but he didn't ask for any directions, so I didn't bother him..."
"Which way did he go?"
"He looked lost," the mushroom repeated, "but after looking around, he headed into the mountain."
The guard pointed in a direction. "There are many caves around here that lead into the mountain. Mushroom people never go there, because of the monsters."
"Huge dragons and snakes live there! The dragons used to eat the snakes, but the snakes have been getting bigger and some even eat the dragons now!"
Randi gritted his teeth. Of course, Keith would choose to go to a place like that. "Are there many dragons or snakes?"
The mushroom shook its head. "I don't know. The dragons always fly away when we come near, and the snakes always try to eat us when we come near, so we don't count..."
"Of course not," Randi agreed with a thin smile. "Thanks."
Starting off at a crisp pace, Randi headed towards the caves, hand clenched around his sword. Giant snakes and dragons. It looked like things were getting serious here... he hoped Keith was able to take care of himself.
An hour later, Randi was deep in the caves, hoping that he hadn't gotten himself completely lost. He'd occasionally seen vague glimpses of creatures in the shadows, but he hadn't been able to get a clear picture of them. As soon as he got near, they vanished into thin air. Sometimes yellow eyes could been seen to peer at him from the darkness. But they vanished as soon as he tried to get a fix on them. He wondered how anything could live in this darkness. A regular person would be hopelessly lost by this time.
Fortunately, almost two months of traveling, much of it on night-duty, had begun to pay off. His lack of night-vision was beginning to be remedied by the Mana Sword. Although it was far from perfect, and probably nowhere as good as Keith's, he could make out a surprising amount in the darkness. Yet he had an even better way to find things. He could see the Mana that made them up. Anything living would easily stand out from the surroundings, even if it thought it would hide from him. Even now, he could make out the long, thin shapes of small snakes as they wiggled away. It was rather awkward, but after an hour, he had begun to get used to the new way of seeing. Purim had been much more eager to learn how, and he was beginning to see why. Once he got used to seeing everything by its composition of Mana, he could easily see everything that he could normally see, except without the hindrance of darkness. Not only that, but with effort, he could see through walls, and see what caverns lay beyond the stone.
And if he looked very closely, he could sometimes pick up stray traces of Mana floating around. It was different than everything else. It seemed to hint of an intruder that had come through. It was located in thick patches, as though a large amount of magic had been used all at once. When Randi found the bloody remains of a twenty foot long snake, he knew that he was on the right track.
"So we have to cross the Lofty mountains... then we've got the Kakkara desert to cross, hmm? Not a cheerful prospect."
Five assorted mushrooms were nodding in agreement, still looking a little nervous. Although she hadn't shaken up the entire castle, it had taken her almost five minutes to calm down after finally losing her temper over being forced to listen to non-stop babbling in the mushroom people's language, during which she had almost attacked several would-be comforters. But by the time she had cooled down, it had been ascertained that she too had learned to speak with mushroom people. Upon realizing that, she had immediately reverted to being cheerful again, deciding that she might as well start learning.
"Come on, guys," she implored in a tired tone of voice. "I told you I was sorry, okay? This is going to go much faster with you guys helping me. I need to learn a few things about magic, the Mana Knight, and if there's time, Sprites."
One of the mushrooms spoke up. "The Mana Knight said that we should try to learn about sprites first."
Purim rolled her eyes. "Um... right. So let's work on sprites then." She flexed her fingers. "We might as well see if we can figure out what's wrong with Keith. At least, we can get started on the list."
Slowly, but resolutely, Randi continued to move deeper into the caves. He had his doubts as to whether he would even be able to find his way out, but ignored that possibility. If worst came to worse, he would simply smash his way to sunlight. He had little doubt that he was capable of doing just that if necessary.
A faint movement to his left caught his attention. From the makeup of the Earth Mana around him, he could see that there was a medium sized tunnel leading to another cavern. But coming through the tunnel was something long and slender... and at least thirty feet long.
The Mana Sword left its sheath in a ring of steel. Now he would see how dangerous these snakes really were. The instant the sword left its sheath, Randi could see the snake suddenly accelerate towards him. It knew he was here too...
Despite the complete darkness, Randi could see it easily. It was lunging towards him with a speed that was frightening. He skipped aside, disdaining to strike until he better knew what the snake was capable of. It was fast, but he was certain that he was far from helpless.
The snake attacked again, this time coming faster. It had either decided that Randi would make a good meal or else it was simply attacking because of the Mana Sword. It didn't matter. With one clean sweep, Randi cleaved the overgrown snake's head off. These snakes would give him no trouble in the future.
In the distance, he could hear something that sounded like a giant explosion. No snake would make a noise like that, he was sure. Keith must be nearby.
"Are you guys sure this stuff is right?" Purim wanted to know. "This doesn't sound like anything I've ever read about before."
"Sprites are a strange type of people," one of the mushroom scientists agreed. "But as near as we know, that information is correct. Have you heard something to suggest otherwise?"
Purim thought for a moment. "This bit about a sprites emotions being cumulative. If I was dealing with a person who was angry, I might give them some ground to let them calm down a little. But according to this theory, if I did that with a sprite, by the time I got back, they'd be aiming to kill me over the slightest reason. If that's true, how come they haven't killed each other off yet? You'd end up with bloodbaths over the slightest accident before long."
"That is an interesting suggestion. Perhaps that book mentions something about it. But I would not be surprised if that were true. Your friend seems... excitable enough..."
"Keith? Yeah, I guess he's a bit of a fireball himself. But eight years at Dwarf village and he never slaughtered the village... there must a counter to that happening."
"Perhaps something else will come up."
"I hope so," Purim mused. "I wonder what's really going on with him?"
The snake's tail twitched briefly, then went still. Fifty feet away, the open jaws finally went limp. Dwarfed by the massive jaws and their huge fangs, a slight figure stood motionless, one hand casually outstretched in the path of the snake. A faint glow of blue was still encircling the open hand, but soon faded. Without a word, the figure stepped around the dead reptile and continued deeper into the cave.
Randi peered around the huge cavern cautiously. He would never have believed such a huge cave could exist so far below the surface, but he was seeing it with his own eyes. An hour ago, he had seen a massive flare of magic from this location, and had little doubt that Keith was responsible for it.
As he took in the sight, it took only a moment to decide what the reason had been. A huge snake was draped along the ground. Randi gasped at the sight of it. It had to be at least forty feet long, maybe fifty. It was obviously dead, although the reason wasn't immediately obvious. Then he saw that a giant icicle had been driven down its throat. Twenty feet down the length of the snake, a razor sharp point extruded from the side of the snake. Randi whistled to himself. Although it was good to know that the sprite was alive, Keith was dangerous right now. He was certain that the sprite would never have been able to create an icicle that big under normal circumstances. He had best be careful when he found Keith.
"I think I have something here."
Purim glanced over hopefully. "Really? About what?"
"About the cumulative emotion process in sprites?"
"What does it say?"
"A great deal, actually. A schooled individual like yourself may with to read it over too, but I believe it explains a number of issues surrounding that."
"Let me see," she demanded. "There must be a way to counteract that process."
She read over the passages intently for several moments, then looked up, face growing ashen. "This is bad. This is really bad, everybody. I think Keith is going insane. It seems that hundreds of years ago, Sprites were outlawed from practicing magic. Very soon, I think we're going to find out why."
Abruptly she stood and grabbed her bow. "I think Randi is in serious danger right now. You guys keep reading and try to find some more information. Find everything you can about sprites! I've got to find those guys right away!"
Another monster was up ahead. Its scent, its sound and its visage were undisguised by the damp air or the complete darkness. It was aware too, already creeping along the ground in anticipation of a meal. It was about to regret it. It was nothing. Just another predator. Without knowing it, it had become prey for a far superior predator. What's more, this new predator had no real need to kill. It simply got real kick out of it.
With a hiss, the snake lunged forwards, its body becoming a mere blur, its mouth opening to twice the height of its target. Abruptly the air was alive with whistling edges, random shards of metal blistering through the air and the snake, reducing it to ribbons before it even hit the ground. Without even a backwards glance, the predator moved onwards. There were other things nearby, it could tell. One was following it, the others up ahead were oblivious to its approaching presence.
Purim ran through the tunnels as fast as she could. Occasionally, she would trip on rocks, but she scrambled to her feet and kept going. What she could see of the Earth Mana making up the cavern walls let her move in the darkness, but it was far from perfect. Occasionally, she would find a dead snake that let her know she was headed in the right direction. When a fork appeared, she would study the ground, searching for Randi's heavy boot-prints to learn which way he had taken.
She didn't know how he had decided which way, but that wasn't the issue. If Randi found Keith before she found him, he might be in serious danger. For the first time in her life, she found herself feeling afraid. Up until now, nothing had done that. Make her concerned for her continued survival, perhaps. But this was perhaps her first taste of real fear. Yet being in these caves alone, without a fake Mana Knight or a semi-loyal sprite to back her up was something she was forced to admit she missed. Simply looking at the dead snakes and how they had been killed was enough to make her appreciate how outclassed she probably was. All she had was her bow and limited magic. Being able to heal herself would be small use if she was bitten in half or swallowed whole. Even together, how would she fare against creatures of this size?
Then she heard it. An explosion.
Randi emerged into another cave, this one the biggest he had found yet. One hundred feet away, was another figure, walking out an exit in the other end.
"Keith?" he yelled.
The figure stopped its walking and turned to face him. Glowing white eyes met his anxious gaze.
"Keith?" Randi asked worriedly.
"You scared?" Keith asked in a mocking tone of voice. "You should be."
"Now look here," Randi began. "This is getting ridiculous! Stop this right now!"
"You can't boss me around!" Keith spat angrily, the glow in his eyes intensifying more. "You're not the with the power anymore! All you have is a cheap sword! I have power, I have skill and now I have knowledge! You're nothing but a fricken' pathetic bug to me!"
"What are you talking about?" Randi demanded, beginning to feel uneasy.
"Ever since this mess started, everybody's been trying to prove they're stronger than me... this crap ends now. You thought you were so damn superior... you're just as weak as anyone else against me. No more orderin' me around like a slave!"
"What are you talking about? I never-"
"Shut up!" Keith yelled, his eyes beginning to glow even brighter. "Right now, you're gonna get a taste of the real power of a sprite! Then Princess is gonna get the same treatment. After her, the Empire will be next! You're all nothing but weaklings compared to me!"
"What are you talking about?" Randi demanded, beginning to approach. "Keith, what that heck's wrong with you?"
"You oughta be more worried about yourself, you Mana Knight impersonator... prepare to DIE!"
Randi opened his mouth to protest, but Keith flung a hand forwards abruptly.
Randi was already moving to the side, the Mana Sword in his hand. Shards of metal wedged into the rock behind him. "Cut this out now, Keith!" he ordered sharply.
"Scared? This place is gonna be your grave!"
Randi didn't even have time to react as the ground underneath him was ripped apart. At the same time, shards of ice descended on him. Randi dove to the side, moving faster than he ever had in his life. He didn't understand what was happening. He'd never seen Keith do magic like this, certainly not directed at him.
"What's wrong with you?" Randi demanded, lunging towards the sprite, hoping to pin him down. Long thin swords materialized in each of Keith's hands, lashing out like whips at him. Randi skipped back least he be overwhelmed. Even as he drew back, he could feel blood beginning to run down his left arm. Keith was fighting in earnest, which was bad.
Randi gritted his teeth as he debated whether to try to hurt Keith. The sprite was easily his match in terms of skill, and now had a great of magic under his control. If this kept up, he could easily be killed...
"Die!" Keith yelled, the sword in his left hand having disappeared. Now his free hand was glowing yellow, with strange tendrils of energy coming from them.
Randi couldn't avoid them fast enough. Somehow they grabbed him and held him in place. Then a massive blast of wind picked him up a drove him in the far wall. Red clouded his vision as he tried to catch his bearings. His vision returned to normal just in time to see a huge boulder hurling across the cave towards him. He tried to avoid it, but it proved futile. Keith had smashed him into the wall so hard that he had literally been imbedded into it. Desperately he strained his sword arm, cracking the rock that held it there and bringing the Mana Sword up in front of him, blade held sideways. If he was going to survive this, this sword needed to block this rock...
The rock smashed into him like a cyclone of earth, actually pushing him another foot into the solid rock, but Randi held his sword steady, the boulder finally shattering apart on the blade. He exhaled in disbelief, trying to free himself from his predicament before Keith realized that he had survived the attack.
Grunting with all his strength, he gradually felt the rock around him begin to crumble and give way. He chuckled in spite of himself. The Mana Sword was working again, making him stronger. His entire body was screaming in pain, but he knew that he was stronger now. Unless Keith was capable of something even more powerful, he had a chance.
"Still alive?" Keith laughed mockingly. "If you were smart, you would've played dead!"
"This ends now," Randi growled. "Back off or I'm going to fight you for real!"
"That always was your problem," Keith sneered. "Too nice to realize when you were really in a fight. It's the first rule of life, Mana Knight. Kill or be killed. You weren't smart enough to figure it out, so guess which is going to happen to you?"
"Think again!" Randi yelled, lunging towards Keith at top speed.
"Now have a taste of real power!" Keith shouted, his entire form suddenly pulsing with energy. Waves of electrical energy began to encircle him.
Randi stopped short, bracing himself as the entire cave was lit up to a brilliant hue of white. His hair stood on end as bolts of lightning, some thicker than he was tall, surged towards him. His grip on the Mana Sword whitened. How was Keith doing this? Could the Mana Sword absorb that much magic all at once?
The energy hit him like a sledgehammer, driving him back several feet before he was able to brace himself enough to hold his ground. Still the energy continued to pound him. Through the cloud of energy, he could see Keith standing there, both arms pointed towards him, with massive bolts of power flowing out of his hands continuously. Somehow, this effort wasn't even fazing the sprite. Randi had to do something or he was going to be overwhelmed. Already, the Mana Sword was beginning to grow hot in his hands. Randi knew that there were limits to what he could absorb with the sword. He needed to release this energy somehow.
And he knew how to do it. He couldn't use the energy in his sword, but hadn't his practice shown him before that he could force the energy to leave the sword? That was what he would do. He didn't know if he was strong enough, but it had to work. Gritting his teeth he forced his way towards Keith, step by step, already feeling himself growing stronger still. Keith saw this too, abruptly stepping up his assault, again pushing Randi back several steps. It was now or never, he realized, feeling the Mana Sword begin to burn his hands painfully. Forcing himself to concentrate, he willed the energy in his sword to leave, to exit the sword and... go back to where it came from. Nothing happened for a fraction of an instant.
"You idiot!" Keith shouted in horror. "You're going to kill us both!"
"Scared?" Randi hissed, forcing his way towards Keith. "I'm not!"
"You can't do that with magic!" Keith protested, trying to back away. All at once, he bolted for the cave exit, apparently having lost his nerve. Randi allowed himself to smile. Then his smile faded. Something was wrong. All the energy had to nowhere to go...
Frantically, he tried to re-absorb the energy, but it wasn't working.
Then his entire world went white.
When he awoke, he found himself staring at sunlight. His entire body ached all over, but he knew he was alive, somehow. His mind wandered over what had happened. Keith had tried to escape, then everything had simply exploded. He didn't know why, but guessed that he had been responsible, trying to force all the magic back to its source. Perhaps Keith had run away for a good reason. He shook his head and managed to sit up and look around. A eerie sight greeted his eyes.
He was no longer in a cave. The entire roof and walls of the cave he had been fighting had been completely shattered by the explosion. The shape of a mountain peak towered up behind him, but the side of the mountain had been completely destroyed. Boulders and chunks of rock were scattered around the area. There was no sign of Keith anywhere.
He turned to face the sound of approaching footsteps. "Purim?"
"What happened?" she demanded in disbelief. "Judging by what I could make out, there was some sort of fight in this area!"
"Yeah, I guess you could say that," he agreed.
"You found Keith, didn't you?"
"Yeah, I guess you could say that too."
"Geez, you're lucky to be alive, Randi!"
"Don't I know it. Beats me how I survived this explosion."
"From what I could make out, it looked like the energy in the center of the explosion was absorbed by your sword. That's why you're alive. Everything else caused all this..."
"Where's Keith?" Randi wanted to know, staggering to his feet. He immediately collapsed in a heap, barely able to keep from blacking out.
"Don't move," Purim ordered. "Honestly, just because you've got that Mana Sword doesn't make you invincible, you know!"
He winced at her sharp tone. "Yeah, yeah, I know. I've learned my lesson, okay?"
She smiled thinly. "Just be careful, okay? Do think Keith is still alive?"
"I don't know," he admitted. "He tried to escape at the end. He might have gotten far enough away from everything blew up. But I can't see him anywhere. I should at least be able to see the Mana he's made of."
"He might have faded away too much," Purim suggested. "Especially after using that much magic."
"He didn't seem to be running out before," Randi muttered, trying to get to his feet again.
"Hold still," Purim ordered, placing her left hand on him and concentrating. Several moments passed, then Randi felt a somewhat familiar feeling pass over him, concentrating in the places where he was most hurt. An instant later, most of the pain was gone.
"Are you okay?" she asked. "I don't want to use too much magic. Besides, if we're going to help Keith, fighting isn't the way."
"What are you talking about? I mean, I don't want to hurt him either, but you didn't see him before!"
"No, but I can imagine what it was like," she replied, looking around carefully. "He sounded like he had completely snapped, didn't he? Bitter? Downright angry? Overconfident?"
"Maybe with some reason," Randi agreed. "Believe me when I tell you that you wouldn't have lasted long against him. You want to imagine what it took to injure me like that?"
"I can believe that too," she agreed. "Come on. I'll try to explain as we go, but whatever happens, you stay back the next time we deal with Keith. Let me deal with him."
Keith slowly trudged along the blackened rock. Several stray animals gave him no notice as he walked by, nearly stepping on one by accident. It was as if he wasn't even there. That was almost true. Behind him, several weapons lay discarded on the ground at random points. The sprite was almost completely invisible, too unsubstantial to even support the metal implements. He didn't even notice them as they clattered to the ground.
The animals were but dim images in the background. Everything was a gentle blur of information, reduced to irrelevancy by his condition. He could feel himself slowly slipping away, but that too, was irrelevant. The feeling in his body was slowly dissolving away, like he was slipping into a glorious hot spring after a hard day's work...
A shiver passed through his body as he happened to notice how transparent his hand had become. He'd never seen himself so invisible before... perhaps he was dying... that wasn't right. Alarm was slowly gathering in his mind, clearing away the fuzz, replacing it with panic. How did he make it stop? Wasn't he supposed to regenerate naturally? How did he get this way without realizing it? Had he used magic recently?
He thought hard for a moment, trying to think. Had fighting become such a second nature that he didn't even realize he was doing it? Surely he would at least remember a fight! Why couldn't he remember it? Perhaps his memory loss was getting worse? Perhaps he had hit his head during the fight?
He shivered again. That couldn't be right. It had simply slipped his mind. He would simply use a few memory exercises to remember the incident...
"I can't see him anywhere," Randi informed Purim.
"Keep looking," she insisted. "He won't stay invisible forever, we know. He'll regenerate eventually, and then you'll be able to see him. And I'm sure he'll find us soon enough too."
"Over there!" Randi shouted, pointing east.
Purim turned to look. "I can see it too! Somebody's using magic over there!"
They glanced at each, both thinking the same thing. Without a word they started towards the source, cautiously, but resolutely.
Keith was on his knees, clenching the sides of his head in agony. Only years of training prevented the pain in his head from rendering him unconscious. But nothing could prevent it from continuing on, coupled with mixed up images of things he'd never seen before. He couldn't concentrate on anything, yet couldn't block them out. Once they started, they kept coming, like a dam of water that had been broken. He didn't understand what was happening, but he could feel himself slowly losing control. He tried again to block out the images in his mind, but was only rewarded with more pain.
"Get... out... of... my.... HEAD!" He yelled, smashing his fists into the ground in rage.
"Look out!" Randi shouted, seeing the massive wave of energy come towards them.
Purim was already crouching low to the ground herself, covering her head.
No sooner had they both gotten down then the earth beneath them heaved up, tossing them aside like rag dolls. They both scrambled to their feet, unhurt, but shaken, amidst falling pieces of the ceiling.
"That book wasn't kidding!" Purim whispered in disbelief. "He really is losing it! Go slowly. We don't want him to mistake us for an enemy."
"Isn't that the truth!" Randi agreed. "Do you really think you can do something for him?"
"I think so. Unless that book forgot to mention something important. I'll have to wing anything new that comes up, but I think I have a chance."
"How good of a chance?" Randi demanded.
"Well..." Purim hesitated briefly.
"Not very good, huh? Maybe you should just wait here while I try to talk some sense into him."
"You don't have a prayer of doing that," she informed him matter-of-factly.
"And you do?" he demanded. "You'll get yourself killed!"
"I have a chance!" she insisted.
"This is the same person who most of Pandora is afraid of?"
"That was a cheap shot!" she snapped. "If you want to do it that way, why don't we figure which one of us has ten times more schooling than the other? Why don't we discuss who might possibly understand what's going on?"
"So you think any of that is going to matter when you're dealing with him? You didn't see him before! You might as well try to talk to a volcano!"
"We'll see. I've got an idea that just might work."
Keith aimlessly trudged through cave after cave, not even pausing at forks. Did it even matter which way he went? He could always find his way home eventually. Dwarf Village was easy to find when you knew the territory. He wearily corrected himself. He was somewhere in the Lofty Mountains, not back home. It was a long walk home, although he knew he was able to do it. At least under normal circumstances. He didn't know what was wrong with him. Maybe he needed more sleep. He hadn't been sleeping well these past weeks. Maybe even he had his limits to how much traveling he could stand. Maybe the last fall had done something bad to him.
After punching the ground and accidently ripping a huge chasm in the ground, he had fallen down into yet another series of caves. Mildly surprised at what he had done, his surprise had soon faded, being replaced with immense relief that the images in his head were gone. Maybe he had simply needed to let off a little steam at the time. Although that had been a lot of steam...
His thoughts soon drifted away to other things. Such as trying to figure out where he was headed. There was no sunlight or stars, and he didn't even know if there was an end to the tunnels he was taking. The scent of reptiles was heavy in the air, and he vaguely remembered something about snakes being around here. He had fought a few, he was sure. He didn't remember why or when, but he was sure he had dealt with them already. He could also smell something else in the cave air, but had never smelt anything like it before.
A quiet hiss made him spring upwards instinctively, grabbing onto a stalactite jutting from the roof of the cave. Before him, a loud snap echoed through the cave. The huge snake looked around curiously, its narrow eyes soon focusing upwards on the hanging sprite.
"Bastard!" Keith spat, eyes beginning to glow bright white.
The snake abruptly began to back away, as though sensing something wrong with the match-up.
"You just try to run!"
The walls of the cave began to shake violently as cracks began to appear around a large chunk on each side of the snake. Keith's eyes flashed brilliantly for an instant. A breath later, there was a huge crash as two chunks of the walls were ripped out and brought together like cymbals, completely crushing the snake. The monster's tail twitched once, then went still.
Keith smiled grimly. A pathetic excuse for a monster. He could literally feel the power at his fingertips. Even Fanha would have been helpless, he was certain. He would be practically invincible with this type of power! He didn't understand what was happening to him, but he would much prefer that it keep on this way awhile longer...