Chapter Ten: Free of Illusions
The crescent moon still hung in the sky when Randi arrived at the grove surrounding the lake. Its light shimmered off of the liquid mirror, causing the moon's iridescent glow to ripple over his face as he looked across the waters at the Sword.
He remembered when he had been a boy -was it only a year ago?- when he had slipped off of the log that rested at a dizzying height over the lake. He probably should have known better, but his "friends," namely Elliot and Timothy, had goaded him to cross the wet bark. One slip of his foot and down he had crashed. He vaguely recalled Timothy and Elliot running away from the scene, revealing the true nature of their friendship. It had been a miracle that he had survived the fall, seeing as the pressure of the impact should have killed him, but, he guessed, the luck of a Mana Knight must have been with him at the time. After all, shortly following his minute recovery, the spirit of his father had been there to deliver information and tell him to pull out the Sword. Maybe he had watched out for Randi's health. Twisted fate, so to speak. It wouldn't be proper for a Mana Knight to die before his quest was fulfilled, now would it? So, he wondered... was he even supposed to be alive now? He didn't feel like it should be so.....
Randi waded into the lake, his skin feeling the cool lapping of water against his thighs but his brain neglecting to register it. With his fingertips trailing in the water, he treaded silently out to the gleaming blade. After pausing a moment to gaze at the Holy Sword's hidden beauty and solitude, he rested both of his hands over the hilt, one atop the other, and hung his head. Yes... he could feel the aloof stream of power humming through the Sword that lay buried deep in the stone. It accepted him. Of that, Randi was glad, and he knew that he was the only one who could pull out the sacred weapon of Mana. Somehow he had always known this, though, but had sworn never to release the Sword again, not with his job finished. No, he had laid it to rest the day he had returned. By doing so, he had signaled the end to his fighting, questing ways.
So, what was he to do with his life now? Become King of the former Empire as the council wished of him? How in the hell would he lead an Empire if he couldn't even straighten out his own life? He felt helpless and desolate, alone and deadened. Those were certainly not the traits a recuperating nation needed in a guide.
He had come to the Sword for guidance himself, for this weapon forged from Mana had been one of the truest companions he had ever known, ranking second only to Popoie and...Purim. He wasn't hoping for much...perhaps just a few wise, telepathic words. Oh, yes -but those had come from his deceased father, and Randi couldn't sense his father's presence enveloping the sword anymore. Everyone had gone to a better place.
Randi pulled back his hands and wrapped his arms around his midriff. He tried to conjure up some sort of rage, or even disgust, for the Sword that could no longer help him, but only a painful chill thudded away at his mind as sadness weaved a tight knot about the fragments of his heart. What the hell is wrong with me? Damn! Damn her! And damn him! But though he continued his mental tirade for a few more moments, the curses fell flat like so many heavy stones. There existed no anger inside of him, only sorrow. Even if he did see Purim ever again in his entire life, she would forever be with Dyluck. Damn! He was so damn hollow that he couldn't even feel bitterness towards the couple! The emptiness just swallowed everything....
Again on instinct, Randi trod up through the brush to finally perch near the log from where he had first fallen. Then he dangled his feet over the edge, leaned against a small boulder, focused his gaze on the waterfall glistening in the moonlight, and reminisced. Purim in the desert. Purim in the Gold City. Purim in Gaia's Navel. Purim...everywhere. Purim with Flammie and Popoie. Purim the fighter. Purim the friend. Purim amid the fireflies. Memories and dreams were all that he would ever have.
A strange sensation ran up Purim's body. An ethereal spirit was there. "P-Popoie?"
The sprite child shimmered into visibility, suavely leaning on his ever-present staff. He grinned. "Did'ja miss me?"
"Oh Mana! Popoie! Is it truly you?" She had to be sure that this wasn't just another cruel trick that life was playing on her.
"Well, d'uh, it's me!" He tossed his long red hair haughtily. "You're in the presence of the Mana Tree, remember? I mean, it's actually in a real fixer-upper, you know, what with Thanatos blowing it to bits and all-."
"Popoie! It is you!" No one could babble like Popoie could.
"Stop!" Popoie exclaimed and held up his staff, just before Purim rushed to hug him. She halted. "I wouldn't hug me if I were you," Popoie explained. "You'll fall right through me and fall flat on your face. I'm just made of Mana now, remember? Which means we can't actually touch. It's kinda a cool thing, though, me being transparent, I mean. Look. You know how I always used to accidentally hit my head and lose my memory and then regain it and then lose it all over again? Well, now..." he demonstrated by running through a tree, "that can't happen anymore!" He sobered up a bit when he saw Purim's wistful expression, then walked over to her. "Um...you okay?"
"I'm...fine," Purim said while sniffling once. She didn't want to dampen the sprite's exuberance and swiftly stifled her weepy emotions. When she had control of herself, she knelt down on one knee so she could talk to Popoie face to face. "It's just that I thought that I'd never see you again."
"Huh? Why the heck not? Well, I do live in another world type-thing, but at least I can talk to you by the Mana Tree. There's enough Mana here for you to see me. It took you long enough to get here, though." He grumbled the last words.
"Well, I didn't actually know that you'd be here!" Purim defended herself. Bemused that Popoie could still manage to irritate her, though, even in his after-life, mellowed her temper. "I really would have come sooner if I knew I could find you here," she said in a more level tone.
"Well," he scratched his head in consideration, "I guess you couldn't have known that I've now become the official spokesperson messenger sprite of the Mana Tree. She doesn't really have much for me to do, though...so... I spy on you guys!"
Purim blinked. "What?"
"Yah, yah, yah," he gabbed as he stretched out leisurely onto the golden-hued grass. He folded his hands behind his head. "You guys are always at it. It's driving me nuts."
"Popoie..." Purim warned.
"I mean, uh...." The sprite sat up and searched for the appropriate phrase. "I just occasionally... check up on you two." His expression lost any hint that he was still being cautious with his words. "And," he added as an afterthought, "I think I liked both of you better before we went to the Mana Fortress. You and Randi were both nice and fairly cheerful. Well, not cheerful, but, at least, okay with life. Now you're both so frikin' depressing it's driving me insane. So insane that I'd be dead if I wasn't already. You don't have any idea how frustrating it is not being able to communicate with both of you outside of the Pure Lands."
The little sprite was doing it again. Getting on her nerves. "Popoie," she steamed, "maybe if you had lost one of your best friends and your true love all in one day, you would understand why I'm ' so frikin' ' depressing'!"
"What do you think dying was like for me?" he retorted. Popoie got to his feet and glared up at Purim. "Sure, it's not too bad where I go and what I'm allowed to do with my spirit, but I basically lost both of you. You guys are my bestest friends, and I can't even really be with you!" Seeing as Popoie's temper usually exploded and then settled down, he quickly fell back into a semi-solemn mood. "I can't be there to banter with you guys, or impress my crowds of people who write poems about me, or tease both you when you flirt, or-."
"We do not flirt, and we never have," Purim interjected.
Popoie paused and squinted up at her funnily. "Uh-huh.... Yeah, riiiiight. I remember tons of times when he would tease you and you would blush. Or when he would buy your equipment first, and he would buy you the newest armor, even if it wasn't planned in our budget." He scrunched up his face. "Then you'd be thanking him prettily and all that junk. Ugh. Only way I stayed sane was by bugging you two about all the stuff."
"But you do make a cute couple...."
"Randi and I are not a couple. We were good friends. That was it. Popoie, if you weren't a friend I would attempt to hit you. Are you so dense that you haven't realized that I will always love Dyluck? In fact," she spouted with raging contempt, "Randi isn't even my friend anymore. He killed Dyluck and sent him back into hell!"
"Purim!" He clenched his teeth. "Shut up!"
"Not until you stop uselessly chattering and tell me how I can free Dyluck!"
"Dyluck is not in hell!"
Popoie's loudly exclaimed words echoed under and about the Mana Tree, disturbing thousands of the little red butterflies. In the ensuing silence, one of the transparent creatures fluttered onto Purim's shoulder, but she paid it no heed. She was in a slight state of shock at Popoie's outburst.
Purim stared at him with utter confusion. "What are you talking about! I saw him! He told me!"
Popoie shook his head. Sure, he acted rash and maybe just a little annoying and harsh at times, but now he spoke uncharacteristically gently. "Purim, I'm not good at breaking things to people, so...you were tricked."
"You weren't even there," Purim pointed out while crossing her arms. She wasn't actually doubting Popoie, but she didn't want to think that all of heartache she had gone through in the recent past had all come about because of a lie.
Popoie nodded sagely. "Yes, I was. I float around and watch over you guys, like I just told you. I saw the whole entire thing. I mean, I sensed the evil before you, but I could never have had a chance against the Devil! I thought you would be smart, like you always usually are, and run, but nooooooo. The Devil asked you to make a deal and what do you do? You ask, 'Would you like me to sign in blood?' Come on! What were you thinking? We're talking about the guy that gave Thanatos just a teensy weensy bit of his evil power!" He raised and pounded his staff on the ground for emphasis.
No, it hadn't been a lie! Not when Dyluck had been so very real.... "But...I felt Dyluck, Popoie, and smelled him and touched him. It was him."
"No, that was the Devil. The Mana Tree explained it all to me when I called her for help. She was, and still is, too weak to do anything about it, but she did tell me that the person you saw wasn't Dyluck. It was the Devil, and that if you kissed him, your soul would be his, even if your soul is a good soul. The Devil only looked and acted like Dyluck...because...because...." The red-headed sprite furrowed his brow, trying to remember how the Tree had said it. "Because the Devil was using the figments of the Dyluck in your memories to...uh...imitate Dyluck and lure you into kissing him. Yeah, that's what she said." Pleased that he had fully covered the whole situation, he, too, folded his arms over his chest.
Oh, Mana! What have I done? Truths made themselves known to Purim as Popoie's words sank in. If she and the Devil had been walking through her mind, then the only thing that had separated them had been the wall, representative of a feeling and a person she had tried so hard to ignore. When her soul was about to be taken away, Randi saved her with his kiss....
"I can tell by your face that you think it sucks, too. Now Randi thinks you hate him because you thought that he sent your dead boyfriend into hell. And at the same time, Dyluck has been up in heaven trying to tell you to hook up with Randi. Oi! See what I mean when I say I'm going insane!"
Purim, who had unconsciously sank down onto the grass, looked at Popoie in disbelief. "How...how do you know, Popoie? I swear, if you're lying...."
Popoie held his hands up in a gesture of innocence. "Me? I've never lied in my life! Well...except when I ripped you guys off... but that's not the same thing!"
"Then what are you talking about?" she said, exasperated. Now Purim was beginning to sound more desperate than before.
"Er...um...well," the sprite was running a hand through his mass of rumpled hair. " You see, the weird thing about the reality I live in is that I can communicate really freely with the dead, not just the other dead sprites, I mean everyone who's dead. Not that I would ever talk to Thanatos, though. Ugh. I tried to throw a rock at him through the portal to hell, but-."
"Oh, right. As I was saying, I can talk with dead people in heaven or hell -not that ever plan on going to hell- and I've talked to Dyluck a few times...."
"You what?" Her eyes widened considerably.
"Hehe, yep. You were right; he is a nice guy when he's not under an evil sorcerer's spell."
"Popoie...what did he say about me?" She donned her most serious expression, which caused Popoie to become a bit nervous under her gaze.
"Oh, yeah! That's the important part. He's been trying to tell you through some kind of stupid dream that mixed what he's been trying to tell you with what you've been feeling. I told him it wasn't going to work. But, I guess you only have so much to work with when you're dead. Stupid dream ambiguity factor...." He began to grumble under his breath, but stopped when he saw Purim's still deadly solemn visage. "Sorry, um.... Oh, he said he's happy. He said that...that... love abounds where he is now...but on earth it does not, and that when you find it, you should... treasure it and don't deny it. Then he said... what was it? Oh, yeah! He said not to worry about him." Popoie pinched his lips together thoughtfully. "Heh, I guess he really did mean it when he said 'live happily'."
Tears shimmered in Purim's eyes at the message from Dyluck. There was no one there to argue with her, but she had been fighting the battle of broken-hearted love for so long that giving it up seemed strange, and she wasn't quite sure that she could do it. "But," she hesitated, "I'll always love Dyluck...."
Popoie placed one of his small hands on her slumped shoulder in understanding. "Look, Purim, I usually don't spout such sentimental mushiness like this, but... it's okay to keep loving those who have died. It's just important to know that there's someone who still lives and loves you just as much and in the same way."
Her eyes flicked up to Popoie, who quirked a childish smile. The sprite's words triggered a dreamy memory, one that she had disregarded because it had been so fuzzy. Now, however, a single phrase stood out from the rest of her experience in Pandora's Temple with blatant prominence. It was a bold whisper that, during all the turmoil, had somehow been heard, but not listened to. She listened now, and heard Randi's tremulous I love you.
"Ya, you're thinking about Randi now, I can tell. You should probably go to him." He suddenly sucked in a sharp breath. "Yes, go to him now!"
"I'm not sure-."
"Pfht. Yes, you are. You've known for the longest time that you love him!"
Something.... Some... strange, lonely sound jerked Randi from his mind's meanderings. The low melody of the crickets stopped, all for that one call in the twilight. The wolf's howl settled an eerie blanket over the land, drawing out its solitary voice, then never ceasing as it sent its cries to travel the night winds one after the other. Randi listened, not disturbed by the sound, but rather...intrigued by it. The voice seemed familiar, as if it expressed what he felt inside. Most likely the lone wolf howled out of loneliness and, Randi thought, the utter sadness that accompanied the knowledge that people despised the wolf, hated it, even, for what it did and could not help but continue to do. Like him....
Except Randi was hated by the one person by whom he most wanted to be loved.
He couldn't help but love her. He couldn't help but keep her from her Dyluck. He would only cause her more pain each time she ever saw him, and her pain would be reflected onto him tenfold. He would never be able to compete with Dyluck, either. A dead man was more powerful in that way, Randi knew, for an honest person who died would always live on in the cherished memories of the people. That person's faults would be forgotten and they would forever be the Peerless One who was lost to Death. Randi didn't stand a chance against the memories in Purim's heart that portrayed Dyluck as the perfect being.
It seemed that he would never be able to tell himself enough just how foolish he had been to humor his silly notions of spending his life with Purim, and suddenly the pain of the doomed welled up inside of him and he released it in a screeching wail, calling out Purim's name. The yearning emptiness ran limitless, though, and he was forced to scream endlessly, over and over again, his voice joining the wolf's. Only his own choppy sobs interspersed the flow of expressed agony. His cries faded out merely because his throat became parched and yelling was no longer physically possible.
Stumbling to his feet, Randi stepped out slowly onto the log. He halted midway. This is where it all began. He turned on the slippery log so that his back was towards the waterfall. This is where it ends. Then he spread out his arms, the palms of his hands facing the heavens. I love you, Purim, fool that I am. I will never hurt you again.
Closing his eyes, he said his final goodbye by welcoming the eternal sleep, and as in a dream, he leaned back...and let himself fall. The tremendous drop allowed him the time for his last, satisfied thought: At least this time I'm right.
His body cracked against the surface of the water. He felt rent in a million places. The overwhelming pain alerted him to senses that he had believed to be long dead, and that he hoped would soon die. So he breathed in the cool water, knowing that it could end his pain.