The tall, lean boy halted and looked around sharply, attempting to procure a better view of his surroundings. The steep, narrow road he traversed cut through the height of the mountains. It was a dangerous trail, shadowed by the sparse foliage of twisted-rooted trees, tenaciously clinging to the walls of the mountain that rose on the right. On the left side of the path the cliffs plunged sharply down for some twenty feet, to the narrow bent of the trail below. One false step and a traveler could be plunged down with unpleasant results. But the boy was not worried. He was, after all, a native of the mountains, and knew the area better than most travelers. Still, at this height, he felt a little puzzled. Just a little.
He had a companion, a boy of about his own age-- sixteen or so-- who trailed after him rather reluctantly. This boy was burly, with closely-cropped hair and thick features, and his expression was normally sullen and obtuse. Now, however, he appeared ill-at-ease, in marked contrast to the sordid countenance and languid air of his friend. Noticing the momentary indecision, he halted and whispered nervously:
"Timothy! Do we go farther from here-- to the waterfalls?"
Timothy did not reply for a moment. His tone was dry and slightly acrid when he finally spoke:
"I believe that was the original purpose of our expedition."
The burly boy swallowed his reply, then ventured, hesitantly:
"I didn't know it would have been so very--"
"Dangerous," the other boy completed his sentence, unemotionally. Then he continued:
"Yes, we are in the right direction. I can tell, by the increasing coolness of the air, that we are closer to the waterfall. Let's go."
Without looking back at his companion, he proceeded along the steeply inclined path with cool-headed ease. The second boy hesitated, then followed him with his sluggish and reluctant pace. He was obviously dragged on this journey much against his inclination, and was now propelled forward by the other boy's will, that was obviously much stronger than his own.
The distant rumbles of the waterfalls soon turned to a deafening roar. Much too soon, to the taste of the burly boy. The breeze that blew in their faces was fresh and moist, intensifying the chill in the atmosphere. They were very close to their destination: the waterfall near the top of the mountain.
Timothy turned around the corner of the road, then paused suddenly. They had reached the waterfall's side.
He was now afforded a full view of the gaping crevice through which the waterfall plunged, surging for several miles below. The crevice was spanned by an unsteady-looking wooden bridge that swayed in the wind erratically. The sight of the rushing waters was a magnificent, unnerving sight, and Timothy stood quite still for several minutes, simply staring. As for the second boy, his face instantly turned a peculiarly livid shade. It was some minutes before he could brave himself to look at the falls without an overwhelming desire to throw up.
Timothy's thin countenance soon assumed its usual nonchalance. "Well, then," he said with his customary curtness, "we're here. Let's cross this bridge."
His friend seemed overwhelmed by the idea. "No-- way!" he managed to utter, after a rather prolonged pause.
Timothy glanced at him disdainfully. "You're afraid of breaking your neck up here, Elliot?"
"I'll go where you go!" Elliot instantly replied, turning red with shame and anger.
"Good," said Timothy shortly. He made a motion as to start walking, when he was cut short by the sound of someone hailing him from behind.
At the sound of the new voice Elliot jumped nervously and Timothy turned round, his sharp features assuming an unpleasant expression. This expression intensified when he perceived the figure of the person who had hailed them. It was a slim, brown-haired boy of about fifteen or sixteen, clutching a crude wooden staff in one hand. The presence of the two others evidently surprised him more than his own greeting startled them.
"Timothy! Elliot! What are you doing here?" he cried, coming up at them. In his face was surprise, and a little curiosity. His look was friendly, but his eyes stared inquisitively at the two boys.
"Damn, what's HE doing here?" whispered Elliot. "That weirdo. On his usual excursions, probably."
"Apparently," said Timothy, his tone sharp.
"What a leech," said Elliot, glad at the opportunity of venting his former ire with Timothy on someone else, more susceptible. "Want me to get rid of him?" He waved his hefty fist, grinning in anticipation.
"Nah," replied Timothy, his countenance relapsing into inscrutable indifference. "He might blab. Let him stay."
Elliot shrugged at the reply and lowered his hand, disappointed. The boy had meanwhile caught up with them. "I saw you from afar," he said. "And I was wondering what you are you doing here."
"A funny question, coming from YOU," said Timothy sneeringly. The boy understood his meaning, but he did not appear disconcerted.
"Yes, I sometimes venture into the mountains, you know," he said.
"Your expedition had become quite infamous," Timothy said derisively. "Didn't they, adventurer-boy?"
"Well, then, what are you doing here?" the boy questioned quietly, ignoring Timothy's remark.
"Guess what?" said Timothy. "We're on a voyage of exploration. Off to find a treasure and all that."
"Treasure?" the boy appeared surprised.
"Don't pretend you don't know about the treasure," Elliot struck in.
"And the ghost."
"I've heard about it," the boy replied; but his eyes became thoughtful, and he was apparently displeased at this discovery.
A short pause ensued, but Timothy was obviously becoming impatient. "Well, we're off," he said abruptly at last. "Come on, Elliot."
Without another word he started towards the bridge. Elliot followed, swallowing hard and trying not to look into the gaping crevice. The boy stayed put, looking after them.
"This bridge is dangerous, you know," he said. "I've never dared to cross it myself."
"And I suppose you never will," said Timothy, with a disparaging sneer.
"Think he's too scared," said Elliot scornfully, trying to hide his own obvious fear.
The boy hesitated. Something wavered across his face: something like fear mingled with strong fascination. He seemed to know something the other boys didn't, that he was reluctant to disclose. He paused for a brief moment, then seemed to make his decision.
Walking slowly, he followed the two boys.
Elliot, who happened to look back the next moment, tugged at his friend's sleeve and whispered. Timothy turned his head.
"So what?" he said impatiently. "So he's coming with us. Should I care?"
Elliot eyed the boy with dislike, but the boy ignored his look and joined them at the bridge.
"Where then are you planning on finding this treasure?" he asked, as soon as he was close enough for the other two to hear him above the roar of the Falls.
To his slight surprise, Timothy answered his question. "It's not far from here. There's something near the Falls; of that, I'm absolutely certain. Why else are we forbidden from approaching this place?"
The boy appeared to ponder this for a moment. He walked slowly after Elliot, who was trying not to look anywhere beyond Timothy's back, least of all down. The rising winds swayed the little bridge in quite an alarming manner, a fact that seemed to bother Timothy very little, and the boy not at all.
"If there's anything," the boy said at last, his voice very quiet, "it must be in the lake below. I was often here, and I observed a glimmer coming from the waters, a bright glimmer, when the sun shines."
"We're in luck, then," said Timothy, apparently unmoved by this revelation. "We'll find the treasure, make our fortune, and get out of that stinkhole village of ours. What do you say, Elliot?"
"Sounds capital," Elliot growled. "If you can believe HIM."
"Besides, if it's true, then we are going in the wrong direction," Timothy continued. "We should have been going DOWN."
"He's first!" said Elliot with a sudden, malicious grin. He turned around and gave the boy a rough shove. His sudden action had the effect of swaying the little bridge dangerously, and the boards creaked and sighed in the winds.
"Stop it!" cried the boy, his face paling. "It's dangerous!" Elliot was strong enough to make him unsteady on his feet, and he fell back, landing on his knees on the boards, one hand clutching at the rail. For a few moments, the three boys were strangely still. Elliot, realizing the effect of his action, likewise paled, and even Timothy looked discomposed. He turned to Elliot with a dark look on his face.
"Right," he said curtly, his voice breaking the stillness. "Elliot, if you do that again, I'm throwing you down myself."
"Shuddup, Tim!" said Elliot, though a little unsteadily. "I ain't scared of you!"
"Of course not!" said Timothy sarcastically. "However, I had an earlier impression that you're scared of breaking your neck, which is exactly what will happen if we fall off here because of your idiocy."
"Damn--" began Elliot, but he was silenced by the sudden gust of winds that flooded at them all. The floorboards creaked in an ominous manner. The boy, who had half-risen, and was still clutching at the rail, fell to his knees again. His alarm, though considerable, suddenly turned panicked when he realized what was happening. The floor boards were giving way under the weight of his body. The other two could only clutch at the ropes as the winds shrieked again, watching with horror as the boy slid through the rapidly widening opening and fell through, hurled helplessly to the frothing void below. His last cry for help was choked through the noise of the water.
There was silence for some time. The winds, as if their rage had been spent, quieted a little. Elliot looked at Timothy, and gasped:
"Damn, NOW we're in trouble."
"We've seen nothing, hear?" said Timothy, through clenched teeth. "Let's go back."
The two struggled off the bridge, back towards the mountain trail.
The Valley of Shadows and Light
Sunlight dazzled him, penetrating through his eyelids in fantastic bursts of pink, swiftly turned red. Its heat beat on his cheek in a comforting manner. But the next moment he felt the chill through his cloths, enveloping his body, the unmistakable, invigorating chill of cold mountain waters.
Renn opened his eyes.
He was lying in a pool of water, shaking in the severe chill. The first sensation was an unspeakable relief, that baffled him. He thought it over quickly, then realized that his last waking consciousness was the sensation of falling towards what he thought was certain death.
Yet he was alive.
Renn sat up slowly, groaning at his cramped and aching limbs. A quick look around confirmed his suspicion. He was lying in the shallows of a large lake that collected the mountain waters. The waterfall roared in the background, and the sun made the waters sparkle, despite the shadows. The surrounding meadows were green and misty and quiet.
The boy shook his head. Something baffled him, then he realized what it was. He looked down at the lake's water again, his brow creased in thought.
"How did I SURVIVE it?..." he whispered.
Breathing deeply, he rose to his feet. Perhaps, he reflected, this was the valley of shadows that welcomed the dead. If it wasn't for the waterfall, he could almost have believed it.
There was only one direction to go, one dismaying in its implication: back.
The hazy valley opened before his eyes as he walked out of the lake's shallows, appearing serene under the warm sun. Renn trudged across the shallow waters, formed of hundreds of tiny channels breaking from the lake and flooding the deep grassy meadows. The ground was moist no matter where he walked, and so was the air. An unnatural silence hung about the atmosphere. Nothing seemed to stir in the mist and there was no sound, not even of birds.
The silence of death, he thought, and found himself shuddering unpleasantly. He wished all at once to emerge from the shadows into something new, and raised his eyes to the towering forms of the mountains that presided majestically over the scene. He had always longed to scale their heights. Adventurer-boy, they called him, because he dared the places they did not. All his life he was like this, and he was made to feel the consequences of being different, of having a quicker, warmer blood flow in his veins. The blood of an adventurer, an offspring of outsiders.
He paused suddenly, his face paling, and listened intently. "Oh!" he whispered. "I heard something!"
The atmosphere remained as quiet as before, but Renn's senses sharpened to the danger he knew was ahead. Then, turning his eyes, he was nearly blinded by a bright glimmer of the sun, reflecting off an object.
Renn retraced his steps towards the glimmer, crossing a narrow brook. After some minutes, his eyes met the form of a large, narrow object, protruding vertically from the deepening waters. After a wondering stare, the boy waded in and approached it, and the object's form became clearer. It was a large sword.
Renn knelt to examine the sword. He could see it was thoroughly rusted by time, and there was no sign of a silvery glimmer through the brown coast of rust on the blade. Old, he thought. Very old.
The strange wind whispered again, and Renn raised his eyes. A change came over the lake, as mist parted before the sudden blaze of the sun, and the water turned a surprisingly blue color. Renn gaped and stared around him, awestruck.
A sunbathed white apparition of a man clad in heavy armor, his thick hair bound up, appeared before his eyes. The sad, noble face turned towards him. The mouth opened and a voice, sad and hollow, spoke to him.
"Renn.. the sword..."
"What-- Who-- are YOU?" gulped the boy, staring at it. Among the fear and confusion in his mind there was a sudden, overwhelming wish to be answered, to know who this was. But he was not answered. The apparition faded after an instant, that seemed endless to him. A ghostly voice fluted once again:
"Remove the sword..."
Mechanically obeying the voice, Renn clutches the sword's hilt between his hands and wrenched it free. At once, the vicinity filled with bright light.
"Oh!" Renn gasped.
The brilliant light was gone in an instant.
As one waking from a dream, Renn trudges back to the shore and continued in his search for the mountain trail through the thick, misty woods. He could have believed it to be a dream, if it was not for the rusty sword that he clutched in his hand. He let his feet do the walking of themselves, for his mind is in a very different realm.
Having no knowledge of the area, he proceeded in a very general direction at which the trail might begin. Somehow, however, when he raises his eyes he found himself in a more familiar territory.
"I have INCREDIBLE luck today," he whispered. "I wonder..."
Mechanically, he began to ascend the path. As he was rounding a corner some time later, a movement in the green thicket arrested his eye. A moment later, a little yellow creature hopped out of the thick bushes, a creature that looks very much like a rabbit. It hopped at the boy clumsily, trying to bite him with its sharp teeth. Renn startles, falling back with a horrified expression.
"What...?" he said, his voice rising in amazement. "It couldn't be! What's a RABBITE doing here?!!!"
Swaying the sword in a clumsy though powerful arc, he disposed of the little monster quite easily, and it fell dead at his feet. Renn looks at it, slightly dazed. The presence of the rabbite filled him with dreadful apprehension, for it was a monster that is supposed to be barred from the vicinity of these woods. His alarm grew as he walked on and discovered that the terrain had been filled with these monsters.
"All this can't be happening...." he whispered to himself, "it's too ghastly." Almost, he began to believe he had been trapped in some bad dream, but then he shook off the thought with a rueful laugh.
"I wish I was back at the village already," he said, his voice low. That the village's people might be in danger... if monsters such as this one began to fill the woods, it was all too possible.
It was past noon when he finally reached the village gates. The sight of the sunfilled, peaceful place reassured him somewhat. But his spirits fell again when he discerned the stern, alarmed expression of the man who stood guard at the gate.
"Good thing you're finally here, boy," he said curtly. "Come in, and make sure you won't wander out again. You are extremely lucky, aren't you, to have escaped the monsters! Or did you not encounter any of them?"
"I was lucky," Renn replied curtly, trudging past him. His face was grim with concern, and he found his heart pounding fast. Something had happened, something terribly wrong; and he could not shake off the feeling it had to do with... what had happened to him.
As he passed the village tavern, a sudden urge for some hot cider rose in Renn. He longed to clutch on to something homely and familiar. He turned and entered. The usual smells and noises at the tavern relaxed him a little, and he found himself able to greet the approaching barmaid with smiling composure. The barmaid, daughter of the tavern owner, was a slight, blond girl of about his own age, named Nianna. She took his order, whispering eagerly, "Oh, Renn! Have I got something to tell you!"
She flew away, then came back with his cider. Bending towards him, she nodded in the direction the counter.
"Look at this strange man!" she said breathlessly. "He had just arrived here lately, and he won't talk to anyone. What a weird character! My father had the mind to throw him out, but this man seems so FIERCE, he daren't! Isn't he handsome?"
Renn only now noticed the man, who was standing at a shadowy corner by the counter. He peered in his direction, then startled, a nervous verve running through his spine. The man had a long purple cloak over a warrior's garb, and his hair was bound into a long ponytail. The profile he glimpsed was hard and serious.
"Renn, darling, are you feeling all right?" giggled Nianna. "You've gone quite pale!"
But Renn made no answer. He set down the cider mug and almost escapes from the tavern. The warrior resembled the ghost at the waterfall lagoon.
Nianna looked after him in wonder, then shrugged, grinning.
"Cute, but SUCH a weirdo!" she said.
Renn rushed home. At the entrance to the house he found himself greeted by the his adoptive father, the Village Elder, who was standing by Timothy and Elliot. His conscience smote him when he discerned the Elder's worried countenance, and his greeting smile of weary relief. The two boys startled as they perceived Renn, and exchanged looks.
"Oh, MAN!" said Elliot, in an undervoice.
"SHUT UP!" hissed Timothy.
The Elder greeted Renn with a weary, serious countenance. "Where have you been, Renn?" he demanded. "These two just told me they saw you at the mountain path."
"Really?" said Renn, sarcastically. "What else did they tell you?" His tone earned him a venomous look from both.
"This is no joking matter, Renn," said the Elder sternly. "You had me worried." His gaze lingered on the boy's face, then relaxed. Whatever trouble Renn gave him, he still loved his adopted son, and, being a kind man, could not stay angry with him for long.
His gaze dropped to the sword clutched in Renn's hand, and his expression suddenly changed. Horror and surprise flitted across it, and he said, with a voice not quite steady:
"Renn! What's that you have...? Show it to me!"
"Oh, man!" cried Elliot suddenly, noticing the sword likewise. "Look at that sword!"
Timothy's gaze followed his friend's finger, and he made an audible snort. "All I see is a rusty stick of metal," he said derisively.
Renn's baffled gaze greeted the Elder's awed and angry countenance.
"No!" said the old man, his voice almost inaudible. "It couldn't be! How could HE have pulled out the Mana Sword? It's... impossible!"
At the Elder's words, Timothy and Elliot both startled and looked at each other, then at Renn. Renn returned their look agitatedly, cold fear clutching at his stomach. Yes, there was something wrong... and he was about to find out what it is. Elliot's voice cut the silence.
"THE MANA SWORD!" he cried with a rather nervous laugh.
Timothy's voice was heard next. He was slowly reciting from a childhood memory. "Legend has it that our village is finished if the Mana Sword is removed. It is said that this Sword has been protecting our village from disaster." Raising his eyes, he looked at Renn with narrowed eyes, as if trying to decide what to make of him. But Renn's gaze was arrested upon the sword in his hand. He had heard of the Mana Sword. It had belonged to a hero of times past. That rusty sword in the lake... how could it have been the real Mana Sword? But, remembering the ghost, he suddenly knew that it was true.
Elliot's slow brain was suddenly alight with a revelation.
"So that's it!" he cried. "That's why all the monsters are attacking us now!" He addressed Renn with an ugly expression in his eyes. "You! You brought doom to us all!"
The burly boy advanced upon the slighter boy, and delivered him a painful blow in the stomach. Renn, whose mind had been elsewhere, recoiled in the shock of the sudden attack and tried to shield himself in his confusion. "No, I didn't mean...." he stammered.
"YOU did it!" Elliot shouted. "It's your fault! YOU!"
"Please, stop!" cried Renn in desperation. Timothy watched the two with a dour smile, but the Elder's voice rose angrily: "Leave him alone, Elliot!"
A deep, sudden rumble beneath their feet silenced them all, and they looked around in confusion, Timothy and the Elder retreating unconsciously from the source of the noise. Renn suddenly felt the ground slide from beneath his feet, and saw Elliot's face contorting in the horror of a similar realization.
Their fall stopped short as they landed in an underground cavern. Renn, usually quick on his feet, was the first to rise. "You all right, Elliot?" he said, straining his eyes in the darkness. A groan answered him, followed by the voice of Elliot. "Where are we?" he asked.
"Some kind of a cave, I think," Renn said quietly. He was immediately startled by Elliot's shriek.
Renn swerved around quickly. He now discerned the huge form advancing towards them with outstretched, menacing pincers. Elliot's piercing voice rose again. "It's a Mantis Ant!" he cried.
The monster glared balefully at the two humans. Elliot rushed to the other side of the cavern. Perceiving no way out, he turned in panic to Renn. "You've got a sword!" he stammered. "Save us! Please!"
He slumped in a corner, trembling, inert with fear. Renn stared at the huge, snapping talons of the monster. He knew he is no expert swordsman, and felt himself filling with similar fear; and yet, knowing panicking would not do at this moment, he remained likewise strangely calm.
Just then, a voice addressed him from above. It was a man's voice, stern and strangely reassuring in its calmness. "Watch its movements, boy, then strike," he said. "You can defeat it, if you are wise, quick and efficient."
All at once, Renn felt encouraged. Clutching the sword in his hands he straightened and advanced upon the monster, trying to heed the stranger's advice. The monster sprang in the air and landed, its pincers slashing at the boy. Though strong, Renn's body was slim enough to be agile, and he succeeded in dodging the attack. The Ant sprang into the air again, and presently Renn began to understand what the man meant by watching the monster's movement. As the Ant came down, he thrusted the sword upwards and ran below. The monster, coming down in a shrieking pace, landed on the sharp point, that lodged between the crevices of the hard scales. It screeched in pain, and blood came out between the cracks.
Renn sprang back, energetic and alert. The battle wore on, and he found in himself strength he never dreamed existed. The sword yielded to his movements as if it always had belonged to him. Finally, he dealt the ant a death-blow, and stared at the immobile body, panting. The battle was over.
A strange glimmer in the darkness caught his eye presently, and Renn bent and picked up the object that rolled to the floor, examining it. It was a spherical crystal, that glowed and sparkled with odd energy, as if it was composed of pure light. Turning it in his hand thoughtfully, he was startled by the light that broke from above. The form of a long rope dangled down at him. Renn, turning, perceived Elliot rising to his feet with a pallid countenance.
"Get up," he said, quietly. "They are helping us out."
Elliot nodded dumbly, looking at Renn with an almost humble countenance.
Clutching the rope, Renn ascended.