Chapter One: The Sickness of Joy
The snow of the Mana Beast had ceased to fall. Massive celebrations held place in the Kingdom of Pandora as well as in its multiple factions and allies. Joy swept the countries across the continents, countries populated with people who had feared the destruction of the world. Tension, that sickening captor that had gripped the minds of the people during those last few hours of doom, now burst open as a bloom of elated relief and mirth and thanks. Dark skies became bright once again.
This multitude of gratification was, of course, aimed at the two surviving Mana warriors. Accompanying every step they took, citizens of the Kingdom of Pandora, the Republic of Tasnica, and others who were simply happy to be alive, showered Randi and Purim with gifts and cries of praise. Many lauded them to be the greatest heroes of all time, and set out to interview them. Others performed ballads and wrote poetry concerning their beloved little Sprite warrior, Popoie, the brave soul who had gladly given up his young life in order that peace might be restored. Still others tagged along with the parades and festivals for a chance to lay their eyes upon the feathered White Dragon who had played a crucial role in the survival of civilization.
Randi looked out the window of the carriage, chuckling. "Would you look at that. Flammie's enjoying every bit of the attention." He turned to Purim, sitting opposite him. "Showing his plumage and crooning at the affection. That big baby has an ego as inflated as any human's."
Purim gazed out the window, her chin resting on her hand. She remained silent. Yes, she saw Flammie. She saw everything taking place around her, from the acrobats in the square to the gnomes guarding the carriage to the crowd waving as the entourage passed. All of this her eyes observed, but her mind did not fully register. Why were they celebrating? What good news solicited such cheer? People had died amidst the war! Good people! Popoie was gone. Didn't they realize that? That sprite had been like an innocent child, one thrust into a conflict where fighting was required. And through it all Popoie had kept that endearing demeanor of unquestionable naïveté. "For the world!" The sprite's last words, before giving up his Mana to the sword, echoed through Purim's mind. There were other memories, too -just as heart wrenching- that plagued her as would a chronic illness. It hurt the most to know that her love was gone, having died while in her arms. She had cursed herself a million times over for his death. He had been right there in her arms! In her very own arms! Be that as it may, her skill with Undine's magic hadn't been enough to repair the damage that Thanatos had done to his body. Her power with Dryad had not been strong enough to bring him back. This memory, in particular, knifed through her soul each time she forced herself to relive it.
"Dyluck, you'll be alright, you'll be alright. I'm here. You're safe. I won't let anything happen to you." She cradled him against her body, smoothing the blond strands off of his forehead, kissing him there. " I won't let you die. You won't die."
"Purim...." He held her hand gently, as firmly as he could with his diminishing strength. "Purim... it's not for you to let happen. I'm dying. My life...it's been drained. I'm taking Thanatos with me, though. He'll never have my body." He smiled weakly at his poor attempt at humor.
"Fight him, Dyluck. Please." Her whisper was audible only to his ears.
"I've tried, love. But I can't. He won't let go. The demon will die with me, and he still wants to take over. He believes he can possess my body and revive it. I can't let that happen. Please Purim, don't sadden yourself over me. I must die. I must kill Thanatos."
"No! I've finally found you! You can't leave me! Not now!"
"Randi, take care of Purim, will you?"
Randi nodded. "You have my word."
"Dyluck, don't. I love you. Fight Thanatos. Drain my life energy. Do whatever it takes. But don't die!"
Dyluck gripped her hand a bit more firmly and then let his fall to the cold floor. It was the last time Purim was gifted with the eternal sea-blue of his eyes. "Purim...listen to me. I want you to live on. I know you can save this world. Live happily." He gasped at the pain of his deteriorating body. "Purim, I love you." His eyes drifted shut.
Purim bolted into an upright position on the cushioned seat, jolted out of her nightmare. She felt surprised when she looked down to find Randi's hand upon her own. His comforting gesture chased away a bit of the chill that had settled on her soul. Glancing up at his face, she could see the blatant worry etched upon his features.
"You're as cold as ice." Randi frowned. "And it's not exactly that chilly in Kakkara." He took both of her hands within his own and rapidly rubbed his palms over them.
Purim knew what he was saying. Unfortunately, he had become such a good friend over the course of their travels together that he probably knew what she had just been thinking about. His comment obviously came as a warning, albeit a sarcastic one. Kakkara was the hottest city in the world. It had been a damn hot desert when the three Mana warriors had come to find the Fire Seed, and it was a damn hot desert now.
"Hey," he cajoled, still warming her hands, "come on. Enjoy the festival. They're cheering for you."
"They shouldn't be cheering at all," she stated flatly. Her heart was still in mourning. Why wasn't everyone else's? Were they really that shallow? Or perhaps...or perhaps they were so shaken and so tentative over their hold on security that they had to laugh at their fears with overly enthusiastic celebrations.... She didn't know, but this city was saturated with happiness that she couldn't stand. "I need to get away from here."
Randi paused his ministrations. "What?"
"I need to get away from here. This place is making me sick." She pulled her hands away from his, reaching inside her pocket to find the item she sought. When she did reveal what she was planning to use, Randi became incredulous.
"Wait. Now? You want to go now? In the middle of a parade? A parade in which, if I may remind you, both of us are currently participating?"
"You don't have to come," she said, focusing on escaping the carriage. She swung open the door of the moving vehicle and prepared to jump.
"No, wait!" He attempted to grab her around the waist but instead ended up lurching out the door and onto the road. After shaking his head to recover his senses, he got to his feet to see that Purim was already twirling the Flammie Drum. Only seconds elapsed before, in front of astonished onlookers, the feathered dragon landed gracefully in front of Purim. "Uh...she's sick," Randi mumbled by way of an explanation, and hurriedly chased after her. "Purim! Hold on! I'm coming!"
Purim sighed impatiently as he clambered onto Flammie to finally seat himself behind her. She pat Flammie to signal ascent. The dragon chirped once and unfolded its wings, swooping them in several beats until they were among the clouds, away from any other human eyes.
For moments they seemed to fly around aimlessly, what with Flammie smoothly diving and twisting while playing with the white puffs. There was a time, not so long ago, when Randi would have reined in the frisky beast to concentrate on their destination, but now he couldn't help but savor the close contact with his best friend, Purim. Out of habit, he placed his arms securely around her waist. The action had been established during the first few flights on Flammie, when the three Mana warriors discovered that only the person at the front could grasp at Flammie's mop of a mane for security; anyone who sat behind the first person was well-advised to cling to the one sitting in front of him or her. Simply a safety precaution. "Yeah, right," Randi's conscience butted in. Try as he might to squelch the thought, Randi knew he would be lying to himself if he denied having more than a strong, friendly relationship with Purim. He had been aware of his attraction to her the day he met her. Sure, it had been one of the most embarrassing moments in his life –having to be rescued from turning into Goblin dinner-, but he wouldn't be a man if he had not been beguiled by her physical beauty. However, as they had fought together, talked together, and faced great sadness together, he had found that her beauty was so much more than skin-deep. Especially when it came to love. He didn't know when it had happened, whether it was during their travels in general or when he had watched her hold Dyluck, but somewhere along the way he had developed emotions towards her that surpassed anything he had ever felt. That was why the promise he had made to Dyluck had slipped from his mouth as if he had sworn it a million times before. On numerous occasions he had contemplated the reasons for why his heart sang and simultaneously ached in Purim's presence, and more than once the concept of "love" came up as the answer. But to love someone who could never reciprocate? That would be pure foolishness, and Randi just couldn't picture himself playing the fool. No, a good friend he was, and a good friend he would remain.
He rested his chin on her shoulder, holding her more closely for the sake of dispelling the damnable chill that always settled on her nowadays. "So..." he queried tentatively, "where are we going?"
Purim glanced at him sideways, a little smile whisking across her face at his teasing behavior. Then she faced forward again, a glazed expression alighting itself on her features. "To Mandala."
Randi didn't ask why she wanted to go to the tiny mountain village. If Mandala was where Purim needed to go to heal herself, then he would gladly follow. "To Mandala, then." He felt Flammie respond to the light touch of Purim's heels guiding the dragon.