Part Four: Edgar
The two stood outside the entrance to the caves of Gaia's Navel. "Can you see what's in there?" Lucius asked her. "There aren't any torches."
"A lot of blats and some slimy things," Rosary replied and offered a bandaged hand to Lucius. "Take my hand."
"Huh?" Lucius looked quizzically at her.
"I don't want to lose you too," Rosary said softly. "Please. . .for me."
Lucius gently closed his hand around hers, not wanting to injure her further. "C'mon, let's go," he said and stepped into the darkness of the cave.
No sooner had they entered the cave, a blat screeched and dove at them. Lucius lashed out automatically with his sword, killing it. "Look!" Rosary pointing to a pulsing, gelatinous pile of goo. The slime squirmed over to them, its beady eyes shining in the dark. Rosary kicked it, and the goo leaped back and split in half; each half oozing in opposite directions, ready to attack. "Oops," she squeaked. "I guess I shouldn't have done that."
"You never know until you try," Lucius said and smacked one of the creatures with the flat of his blade, injuring it. The other slime promptly split in half, then healed its fellow slime. "On the count of three: run," the young Mana Knight hissed in Rosary's ear. "One. . .two. . ."
"Three!" they said together and took off through the first section of the cave.
"It's getting lighter," Lucius observed. "Maybe we're nearing the exit."
"No," Rosary laughed. "Look: mushrooms!"
Lucius looked up to see that the ceiling of the cave was covered with luminescent fungi. The glow reminded him of the fireflies he had caught in a jar when he was younger. "I didn't know they could glow like that."
"Aren't they beautiful?" Rosary clapped her hands in excitement, then winced. "They look like little stars."
"Maybe the dwarves built their own sky," Lucius said as he continued down the underground trail.
"Maybe it's magic," Rosary said and ran after him, not noticing the thorny root that curled down from the ceiling and burrowed into the ground where she had just been standing.
"I feel like a giant," Rosary giggled as the dwarves bustled around them, the tallest only coming up to their waist.
"Excuse me," Lucius asked a passing dwarf. "Where can I get this sword forged?"
"Up there," the dwarf pointed to a cave at the top of a flight of stairs. "That's where our blacksmith Watts lives."
"Thank you," the young Mana Knight said and bounded up the stairs, Rosary following close behind.
The inside of the forge was hot and smelled of smoke, iron, and sweat. The two could hear the clanging of a hammer and a low gravelly song that the blacksmith was grumbling to himself in time to the blows. Rosary clenched her teeth, the sounds making her sensitive ears ring. Lucius stepped forward.
"Hello?" he called out. "Watts?"
"I'm in the back!" the blacksmith's bass voice called out to them. The two entered the forge room and Rosary squeaked in surprise and Lucius squeezed her hand reassuringly. The dwarf turned to them, his face shielded from the sparks by a hollowed-out cow skull. For a moment, he reminded them of the tales of Thanatos, an ancient sorcerer and one of the Emperor's most trusted lieutenants. Watts boomed with laughter and pushed the skull back, revealing a ruddy, friendly face. "Calm down, you both look like a pair of scared rabites!" he clapped them on the backs. "You two have nothing to fear from old Watts! So, what have you come here to forge?"
"This sword," Lucius sand and unsheathed the sword at his hip and handed it to Watts.
"I can see why," he turned it around in his hands. "It's so rusty I'm surprised it hasn't broken already!" With those words, Watts dipped the sword in a pool of magma behind the anvil, making it white-hot. "This won't take long," he said and began reforging the sword.
A strange glow emanated from the sword on the anvil, a pale green fire that seemed to dance along the hammer and lick around Watts' hand. The dwarf tensed, but didn't stop, knowing that the sword would be ruined if he did so. The light was almost blinding, yet Lucius and Rosary couldn't look away. It had an eerie, holy beauty to it -- like light from the stained glass windows of a Mana Palace. They could hear Watts whisper a prayer and continue, until the sword lay finished and gleaming on the anvil.
"It's a marvelous weapon," Watts said as he wiped sweat from his brow. "I hope that someday I can make a sword as superb as this one." Carefully, he handed the sword back to Lucius, who tucked it back in his belt. "You should be proud," he said and picked up his hammer again. The hammer began to glow like the sword had, but only for a moment. "Sweet Mana," Watts breathed. "That must have been the Mana Sword! Maybe my hammer picked up some of its magic. Tell ya what, you two come in later and I'll have a brand new axe ready for you."
"Thanks!" Lucius said as he and Rosary exited the forge, their clothing clinging to them from the steam and the heat.
"Step right up and feast your eyes on the mar-vel-ous attractions we've got for you today!" the dwarf showmen yelled. "Step right in! The show is about to begin!" He herded Lucius and Rosary inside one of the caves, deftly picking a few stray coins from their pockets as he did so. "First," he pointed to the stage as he pocketed the change. "Cast your eyes on this Rabiteman! The only one in the world!" A dwarf carrying a rabite walked onto the stage. "Take one rabite. . .and one man. . .And it's. . .Rabiteman!" the showmen brayed.
Rosary shot the swindler a look that could have peeled paint and Lucius shook his fist in anger. The showmen noticed the sword and stepped back. "Hey you! Pipe down!" he snapped once he felt he was out of striking distance. "And now, presenting an actual and very rare Sprite Child!"
A small boy with long fire-red hair walked onto the stage. He looked at them through a pair of large, tear-filled violet eyes. "Won't you please help me?" he asked, whimpering.
"Yes folks, it's a pure tragedy. Weep as you hear his story," the showman climbed onto the stage and patted the child on the head. "This poor child has a 50,000 coins of gold -- not silver, not copper, but gold -- debt to pay off! He's here, working off the debt bit by bit. Oh please gentle people! Please help him! Even 100 coins will help!"
"The poor child," Rosary whispered.
"I guess we can spare 100 coins for him," Lucius handed the coins to the showmen, who then handed them to the child.
"Oh joy! Thank you!" the little sprite squealed. "I'll take that, thank you so much!"
Smiling, the two exited the showman's cave.
"I can't believe how gullible they were!" the sprite squealed, hopping from one foot to the other in excitement. "They were actually crying!"
"And I wasn't so bad myself," the showman crowed. "Dame Fortune sure was smiling on us when you washed up on that beach."
"Sure was!" the sprite agreed, slapping the showman on the back.
"Sure wasn't," Lucius growled.
"You didn't just happen to hear our whole conversation did you?" the sprite swallowed nervously.
"P- p -please forgive us!" the showman backed away. "This child really is a sprite child! Everything else in the show may have been false, but he isn't! He used to live in the Sprite Forest, but a flood brought him here. I thought I'd help him to earn the money to get back there. I'm sorry for tricking you two."
"Cool idea, huh?" the sprite grinned.
The showman turned to the sprite. "Hey! You have to apologize too!"
"Hmph!" the sprite pouted. "Okay, I was wrong."
"I'm so ashamed of myself," the showman shook his head sadly. "Here. ." he handed Lucius all of the money he had stolen and swindled from him. "I'll return your money. Sorry. . ."
"We didn't mean any harm, honest," the sprite added.
Lucius nodded. "That's alright," he said as he walked out.
"Just don't do it again," Rosary added.
Just moments after stepping out of the showman's cave, the ground began to shake violently. Dwarves ran back to their homes, not wanting to be in the main cave if any of the stalactites were knocked loose from the ceiling. Lucius backed up against the wall, pulling Rosary close. "What is it?" he asked her. "An earthquake?"
"No. . ." he could see her strangely pointed ears twitch slightly. "Something's coming!"
An even bigger tremor rocked the cave as a mass of viney tentacles surged up from a fissure. A man-sized spiny pod stood at the center of the writhing mass, which looked to be both animal and plant.
Unsheathing his sword, Lucius ran at it, his heart pounding in his chest. Rosary tightened her grip on her spear and ran after him. A memory nagged at her, the remains of a nightmare of some huge beast that smelt like lions and witchcraft. "But this isn't the time for that," she scolded herself.
The center pod opened up, and a vaguely serpentine head and neck emerged. The vines snaked out through the cave, their blooms quickly turning into fat gourds. Leaping up, Lucius managed to slash the creature's vulnerable neck before being gripped by the tentacles and thrown to the ground. The creature howled and snapped down at him, its mad eyes glittering. Rosary gritted her teeth and stabbed at it, drawing its attention away from Lucius until he could get back on his feet. The beast drew its head back into its body and dove back into the ground, the gourds dislodging from the vines and exploding around them.
While the explosions were taking place, the creature sprouted a few yards away. Uncurling its head and neck, it screeched at them, the sound piercing enough to make some of the stalactites on the ceiling shake lose. Dodging the exploding gourds and the falling stalactites, Lucius leapt at the creature and cut through one of the flailing, budding vines. The Mana Knight screamed as it fastened its jaws around his sword arm, its thorny teeth cutting neatly into his skin. Rifling desperately through their pack, Rosary took out one of her spike knuckles and tossed it to Lucius, who caught it with his free hand. Gasping with pain, Lucius pulled it onto his left hand. The creature began to chew on his arm, its spittle stinging. Recalling stories of plants that could eat insects, Lucius gritted his teeth against the pain and rammed his fist into its neck. The jaws clamped down tighter and he punched the spiked knuckles into its neck again. The process continued, neither wanting to let go or give up. Rosary felt sick as she heard the snap of bone just as the beast's head came loose from its neck.
"Sweet mana. . .oh sweet mana," Rosary breathed as she removed the scarf from her hair and tore it into two long strips, using one to bind the wound and the other to keep Lucius's broken arm close to his body. The creature lay dead about a yard away from them, oozing thick green sap from its severed neck. The young noblewoman regarded it warily, fearing that it may still be able to harm them.
The showman and the sprite child approached cautiously, climbing over the fallen stalactites. "Thank you," the showman said solemnly.
"I didn't need your help," the sprite muttered moodily before being cuffed in the head by the dwarf. "Hey!"
"Sorry about that," the showman sighed. "This child was in horrible shock after drifting here; he lost all of his memories. He really is a nice child. . .although he does tend to play tricks on people sometime."
"And I'm sure you had a spotless childhood," the sprite said under his breath.
The showman glared at the sprite, before turning back to Rosary and Lucius. "That beast you fought, Tropicallo, broke out of a sealed palace: there must be a way into it," he turned back to the sprite. "In fact, some of your memory may return if you receive power from the Mana Seed."
"Well, let's get a move on then!" the sprite laughed. "I'll meet you there!"
"Not alone, you dingbat!" the showman sighed long sufferingly. "Would you be so kind as to accompany this sprite to the palace?"
"Yes," Lucius managed through clenched teeth. His arm hurt horribly, the numbing effects of shock having worn off.
"What luck! Did you hear that, little one?" the showman asked the sprite.
"Yes indeedy!" the sprite answered. "Let's get going, brother!"
"'Brother?!'" Rosary sputtered. "He's not your brother! He's Lucius!"
"And I'm Edgar, what's your point?" the sprite, Edgar, grinned, ducking away as Rosary moved to swat him. "What are we wasting time for? The Underground Palace has to be somewhere near here!"
"First, we have to go to the Water Palace to see Luka, Lucius needs healing," Rosary pointed to Lucius's bound up arm. "And then to the Haunted Forest to save Dyluck."
"Rosary's right," Lucius nodded. "First things first."