Secret of Mana
by Uftaki


Janz awoke to someone standing over him, gently shaking his shoulder.

"Come on! Breakfast is on the table. Don't you want it?"

Janz stirred and sat up. It took him a while to realize that he wasn't in his bed in Potos. Slowly, all the events of the past day returned to him. He was an outcast, without a home.

Neko was still standing over him. "Um," started Janz. "Thanks," he finished lamely. He was still half asleep.

"You'd better hurry, otherwise breakfast will get cold," said Neko. Then he returned to work in a small room behind the counter.

Janz got up, washed and changed, and sat down at a table in front of the beds to eat. Breakfast was a warm soup, fruits and apple juice. As he ate, Janz looked around the establishment. There were three beds set up along the northern wall of the longer section of the building, and in front of them was the table where Janz was sitting. The room was bright and cheery with colorful carpets and plants and flowers. Beside the beds were small drawers, and on top of one was a small clock that tick-tocked away cheerfully. At the front desk where Neko greeted him last night, Janz could make out all sorts of objects on the walls, and he guessed there were more in the shelves under the counter. This wasn't just an inn, this was a store too.

Janz finished up eating and brought the plates to the desk. Neko came out of the back room carrying Janz's scabbard. He exchanged it for the dirty dishes. When Neko came back out of the back room after depositing the plates, he asked Janz if he wanted anything.

"Purrrfectly priceless items available," he said. Janz thought for a minute.

"I'll probably need some things. What have you got?"

"Take a look at some of these things!" Neko pulled out a couple objects: chocolate, containers filled with a yellow-coloured substance, and some capped flasks. "This stuff will help you get back your strength," said Neko. "The chocolate will bring back more of your strength than candy and this Royal Jam," he continued, pointing to the containers, "will return all of your strength." Here Neko paused as he picked up a flask. "This here has odd magical properties. I'm not one good with how magic works, so don't ask me, but this here Cup of Wishes, if put to a person's lips after they have died, will bring that person back to life with full strength!"

Janz let out a low whistle. "That's incredible! How come not everyone uses it though, and why so many people do die, if this is available?"

Neko shook his head. "I guess it only works in certain circumstances. It think it only works on those who have been killed in battle, and I don't know but there might even be a time limit on this."

Janz was amazed. "I might be able to use it later on, but right now I'm alone, so it wouldn't work on me anyway."

Neko nodded. "True. Besides, there is another option, however it is a bit riskier. I've heard somewhere that if a person dies in battle while they're with a group, the ghost of the person who deceased will follow them for a while. When that group sleeps for the night, the person who died will come back to life with their full physical and magical strength returned. Now that'll only happen in special circumstances, judging on the purpose of the group's mission. Like, saving the world for example, which is what you're trying to do, isn't it?" Neko didn't wait for a response. Obviously, that wasn't a question. Neko looked up and continued his narrative. "That's what sleeping does, you know. It'll return your physical and magical strength. However, concerning the "sleeping rebirth" or whatever the heck it's called, I don't know if it's true. It's only a rumor I heard somewhere."

"Still," said Janz, "that's great to know. Unfortunately, the same problem remains. I'm alone."

Neko shrugged. "I've got other things you might be interested in. Take this, for example," he said, lifting out some objects that looked like clothing. He held up a greenish-blue coloured ribbon. "Now this here..." Neko trailed off, then threw the ribbon back under the countertop. "Forget it. That's not for you anyway." Janz wondered what he meant, as he noticed Neko had a sheepish look on his face. "No offense," Neko muttered. He then pulled out two metallic bands, about four to five inches long each, and less than a centimeter thick. "These here are wrist guards," explained Neko. "They will help protect your wrists in combat. Later on, I might have ones that will protect you more, or you might find them in armor shops in towns."

Janz reached over and took them from Neko. He slipped one over his left hand and admired it. It was a orange-red colour, trimmed around the openings with a strip of yellow-coloured metal, but it wasn't gold, Janz was sure. He put the other one on. "I'll take them, Neko," he said.

"Great! That'll be thirty gold pieces, please."

Janz frowned as he rummaged around for the money. Luckily, he had enough, but it brought him down a lot of g.p. He thanked Neko for breakfast, then picked up his spear and slipped his sword into his mended scabbard and exited the building.

Outside the rising sun cast a friendly light over the land. The inn was painted the common white colour, with a rusty-red trim that matched the roof. The inn was situated in a large circular clearing with the forest bordering the entire enclosure. There was a small lake just a few feet south of the door, and close by were some fruit trees.

Janz walked up to the pathway in the northeastern section of the clearing and returned to the main road. Everything was easier to see now that it was daytime, and Janz started walking down the path heading south.

He had only gotten a little way before he heard a noise in the bushes. The next thing he knew, goblins were jumping out of the bushes swinging axes.

"Heeeeelp!" shouted Janz, startled. One goblin hit him clear across the back of his head with the blunt side of his axe, to which he immediately blacked out.

When Janz came to, he was in a clearing deep in the forest, away from the main road. There were little huts grouped around a circular clearing. There were totem poles set around the center, and Janz found himself on a raised section of earth at one end of the circle. Worse, he was in a pot of water with all sorts of vegetables and seasonings in it, and two goblins were getting a fire going underneath the pot. They were going to boil him alive! Janz tried to stand but slipped down further into the cauldron. He was still pretty groggy.

"He.... help!" he shouted. One of the goblins looked up at him.

"You! Do not move! Just stay still!"

The other goblin sneered up at him. "You are very lucky," he said. "You're going to be our main dish."

"You look delicious!"

Janz felt helpless. And truly he was. Janz found it slightly ironic that he would end up being cooked in a stew pot by a bunch of goblins, after finding the Mana Sword and defeating a monster. Janz's attention turned to the center of the clearing when he heard a whooping shout. Goblins had brought out drums and woodwinds, and some were playing while others were dancing. The two goblins who were attempting to start the fire also looked up.

"Hey! The dancing has already begun!" said one.

"Let's join in!" said the other, and the two of them left the raised area and headed down to join the others.

Janz let out a brief sigh. He was safe, for the moment. But he still had to get out of the pot, and the sides were too smooth and big for him to get out of there himself. He was still trapped. Janz looked sadly at the goblins, and knew that it was only a matter of time before they came back up to finish him off.

Suddenly, Janz heard a sound, but since the goblins were making so much noise, he couldn't tell where it came from. He looked around by the cauldron, but couldn't see anything. He thought it was just a figment of his imagination.

Janz sighed and sank lower into the thick liquid. Then he heard the noise again, clearer this time.

"Hey, you!" whispered a voice.

Janz realized the voice came from behind him. He turned around, and nearly shouted out in surprise.

Behind the cauldron at the edge of the forest was a young girl about Janz's age. She had on a one piece, strapless outfit. The top was heart shaped and a bright pink colour. Her pants had a slightly darker pink and dark red vertical stripes and billowed out then came together again at her ankles. She had on bluish green coloured shoes, with a triangular headband to match that kept her long, blonde hair in a ponytail. She wore medium sized, golden coloured hoop earrings and she had bright, blue eyes and right now those eyes were looking very amused.

"What on earth are you doing, you idiot?"

Janz let the insult go. "Please help me," he asked nervously, hoping the goblins hadn't seen the girl. Luckily, they were so caught up in their dance that they never heard a thing.

"Shhh. Quiet," she warned him.

The girl climbed up to the cauldron and extended a hand out towards Janz. Janz took it, then moved to grab hold of the edge of the cauldron with his other hand. He never got there.

The girl braced herself by getting into a wide stance, then with one move she yanked hard on Janz's arm and flipped him over her shoulder and out onto the turf below. Janz lay stunned for a second but the girl wasn't wasting any time. She rushed up to Janz. "Come on, let's get out of here." Janz couldn't agree more, and lifted himself up off the ground and followed the girl into the woods.

After what seemed like a long time in one gigantic maze of green and black, Janz found himself back on the main path, exactly where the goblins had caught him. He turned to thank the girl.

"I owe you my life," Janz said. "But what are you doing here?"

The girl shrugged. "I've been searching for someone. For a second I thought you were him. A case of mistaken identity, huh? I guess I lose..."

Janz felt a little hurt to be thought of as just an obstacle, and the girl had helped him just because she thought he was somebody else.

"Now wait a minute," started Janz.

"I'm only joking," said the girl. She turned and looked towards the south. "Look, I'm in a hurry. You'd better get back to your home. Later!" She turned and ran off towards the south. Janz yelled after her.

"Hey, wait!" But the girl was gone. "Left without even telling me her name," mumbled Janz. Sighing, he started off in the same direction as the girl had gone.

Janz had to cross a small bridge that was spanning a small stream that started from the lake at the Water Palace. Janz had seen it before he had been captured, but now he noticed a sign set up on the opposite bank. Crossing, he bent down to read the sign. The print was very clear: "BEWARE OF GOBLINS".

"A little late," muttered Janz. He continued east along the path. In a small clearing close by there was a large fruit tree, and an odd, large mushroom next to it. Curious, Janz walked over and looked at it. Then, to his surprise, it turned around. Its front had a pair of eyes and a small slit of a mouth, and what Janz had thought were two growths on the side of the mushroom were actually its arms. This was some kind of creature. Janz drew his spear in defense. Then the mushroom cocked back its head and opened its mouth incredibly wide, until it was like a knife had almost cut the thing in half. At the same time there was a booming noise and a cloud of dust and pollen was blown in Janz's direction. This all happened very fast, so Janz had no time to avoid the cloud. He sneezed hard on the stuff, and fell over. Janz sniffled a couple of times to clear his nasal passages of the foul dust.

Mushroom, nothing! he thought. Mushboom, more likely. Janz picked himself back up and grasped his spear tightly. He never really liked mushrooms, but this one he hated. With one, large swing, he connected solidly with the mushboom. It was only knocked away a bit. That thing was tough. It jumped onto its head and began to spin like a top. Janz jumped away to avoid being run over by this crazy thing. With one more blow from his spear, the mushboom vanished, leaving the small coins that the creatures carried.

A little past the clearing, Janz came to a fork in the road. One path started out eastwards, then swung up and headed north. The other path headed straight south. There was a sign on the corner and Janz read the directions carved onto it.

The sign read:

Janz stopped and looked long at the second direction. Home, he thought morosely. He moved to see the path leading to his old home, but one of those flowers and a rabite were blocking his path. Janz took a minute to dispatch them, then looked up the path to his home, then turned and headed down the southward path.

The path was long. Janz had his hands full using his new spear to get rid of the creatures that blocked his way. It would have been a pleasant walk, full of beautiful scenery, had Janz not been preoccupied with fighting. There were forests of large pine and fruit trees, bushes of infinite variety, and small pools of water, a gurgling brook and large outcroppings of light coloured rock.

Then, when Janz rounded a corner, a wall made of logs lashed together came into view.

This must be the boundary of the Kingdom of Pandora, thought Janz. He jogged up to the gates.

An armed guard stood at the entrance. Before Janz could say anything, the guard stepped back and waved him through the entrance.

"I was told to let you through if you arrived," he explained. "Sir Jema of Tasnica is in the castle with our king."

Janz smiled to himself. So Jema's from Tasnica. Wherever that is. Janz started to head out across the bridge that spanned a river and into the town that surrounded the castle when the guard called out to him.

"Oh, and I wouldn't talk to the townspeople if I were you."

Janz was confused. Why shouldn't he talk to the villagers? Janz stopped and looked around the town.

Where he was standing at that moment was a large piece of land with many houses on it. A river from the lake up by the Water Palace flowed here, and most parts of the town were divided by branches of this river. The town itself was bordered by water on all sides. It was kind of like a lake, the way the river branched out and surrounded the town, with the parts of land seeming like small islands. It made a natural moat, which is why Pandora had become a kingdom. The river actually flowed down the western side of the town, running straight to the south. Then it turned towards the east. It headed in two directions only after a very short time, one branch heading north, the other continuing east. A parallel series of rivers were created by this split, and the bridges that Janz saw crossing them were in the center of the peninsula of land that was formed.

The northern section of the river bent from its northern route and headed east. This was the river that Janz had crossed when he entered the town. In the southern section, the river continued for a while longer, then split again in two directions. The same directions as before, but the eastern branch turned quickly north and the northern branch turned east after a short while and met again, creating a small "island". The river then branched out, again in the northern and eastern directions. The northern split flowed straight up to meet the top river creating an L-shaped piece of land which was the largest section of land too, and the eastern river flowed along for a while before it turned up to meet the top river too. At this point it widened, then met at a small point at the northeastern corner of Pandora, forming a small pool, and this closed the waterways of Pandora. The castle was situated off the northern banks of the top river, and on a slightly higher elevation. Janz could just faintly make out a moat around the castle walls.

The buildings were painted with the regular whitewash with blue trim and blue shingled roofs. Many of the buildings had bushes and flower boxes set up alongside them. By their signs, Janz could identify an inn on the southern side of the large section of land he was on, and directly north of the inn was a shop. The rest of the buildings, two east of the inn and opposite each other, and one to the southwest of the inn, had to be houses. On the one house southwest of the inn was a large waterwheel turning slowly around with the flow of the river.

Janz walked to the house on the southeast portion of the land. He passed by a bridge that crossed over the river and led to the south of the Pandoran area. There was a small wooden fence that outlined the path a bit, and then the bushes and trees of the area took over. There was a woman walking back and forth aimlessly on Janz's side of the river. Janz approached her to ask her if that was the path that led to Gaia's Navel. As he neared her, he noticed that she wore a strange expression, as if she really didn't know where she was. When Janz called out to her, she just stared blankly at him. Or rather, past him. It was like she didn't even see him at all. Nervously, Janz continued on to the house.

People are sure moody, here, thought Janz.

He knocked on the wooden door of the first house. After a while, a middle aged woman opened the door.

"Hello," she greeted him warmly. Janz smiled.

"At least some people here are friendly," he thought.

"I'm just the maid. If you're looking for the man of the house, the master and his daughter are at the castle arranging her marriage."

Janz shook his head. "No. I'm not looking for anyone. I'm just interested in what lies to the south, and if that's the path to Gaia's Navel."

The maid smiled. "New around here, huh? Well, you can go into any house in any town in this world, and the people will more often than not talk to you and help you. Unfortunately I can't help you, but there might be someone here who can."

"Thank you," said Janz. The lady smiled.

"You're welcome. Come back here anytime."

Janz left and headed for the house directly north of the one he was just in. Knocking, he opened the door and looked in. An elderly woman was seated in a chair close by. "Hello," called out Janz.

The lady didn't say a thing, she simply stared out the window blankly. An elderly man, obviously her husband, came over to them. "Grandma has grown senile in her age and won't say a thing," he explained.

Janz nodded.

"Feel free to look around, stranger," said the man. "My granddaughter is upstairs if you wish to speak with her."

"Thanks," said Janz, and headed up the steps that were opposite the door.

They led to a small, box-like hallway, with three doors, one on each side. One of these doors were open. Janz peered in. It was a small bedroom with one bed, a couple sets of bureaus, a large, curtained window and many stuffed toys. The room was decorated in shades of light green and sky blue. On the bed sat a young girl, close to Janz's age, staring out the window. She was fair skinned, with the same blue coloured hair as Luka's, more of a light blue than green, though. It hung in soft, fluffy curls down to her shoulders. She was dressed in a deep green shoulderless jumper with a light green top. She wore a pink coloured belt around her waist and a flat pink headband in her hair.

Cautiously, Janz called out to her. The girl gave a little start, and turned around to look at him. Then she smiled. She had dusty blue eyes.

"You scared me. Hello."

"Hello," responded Janz. "I was wondering, do you know the way to Gaia's Navel? Is it on the path to the south, or west?"

The girl's head dropped. "No. No Gaia's Navel to the south, only ruins of some old temple. People have been gathering in the ruins to the south. People have been acting strangely ever since. Grandma goes there..."

Her voice trailed off, and she turned back to the window again. Janz backed out of the room and headed out of the house. Obviously there was more to the Pandoran's odd behavior than just their attitudes. Janz shook his head. At the moment, this was none of his concern. He crossed over the southern bridge and headed eastwards, still in the town of Pandora. There was one house on the far southeastern side of the town that wasn't inside the river borders.

It was on a slightly higher land elevation than the path that led up to it, and Janz had to go up a small series of steps carved into the ground until he got to the house. Just like the Elder's house back in Potos, thought Janz, then he was saddened again.

He knocked on the door and entered. There were two young children sitting on the floor and their parents were seated at a nearby table. Their expressions were as blank as the lady Janz had seen at the southern bridge.

"They're out of it too," mumbled Janz. The children heard him and looked up.

"Wahhh! What's wrong with Mama and Papa?" wailed the little boy.

Janz frowned. The poor kids, he thought. They must be scared to death. The children returned to quiet sobs, staring at the floor and Janz quietly backed out of the house. There was a path to the north that led to another section of land surrounded by the river. Janz crossed over the bridge that led to it and entered the solitary building that was on it. When he entered, Janz could tell that it was another shop. However, when Janz tried to talk to the vendor, he just stared back at Janz.

Janz was really getting nervous now by the people's odd actions. There was an elderly lady outside the shop. He wasn't sure about approaching her, fearing she was as spaced out as most of the town. The lady wasn't, though. She commented to Janz as she passed him. "It's terrible! It's as though they've lost their will to live!" Janz nodded and looked around. There was another bridge on this section of Pandora that led to the west, but it only connected up with the main part of the town. There was also another bridge to the north that connected to a small "island", and from that another bridge heading north that led to the palace. Janz decided to head up there in hopes that people there were more sane (and just out of pure interest).

There was an outer wall on the east, west and northern sides of the castle. The northern wall connected to the inner wall about midway down the lot's width. A moat flowed around the inside of the outer walls, and where the northern wall turned to connect with the inner wall, a tunnel had been built so the water would flow underneath it, then back underneath the stretch of wall where the end of the eastern outer wall connected with the inner eastern wall. At each of the corners there was a raised, squarish lookout section. The inner wall formed a complete rectangle around the area of the castle, with towers in each of the four corners, and at the front gates and where the northern outer wall connected with the inner wall there were the raised square platforms again. Janz crossed the bridge spanning the moat that led to the courtyard.

There was a guard at the gates. He smiled as Janz walked past. After crossing a small moat, Janz found himself in the grassy courtyard of the castle. Directly in front of him was a large double door that led to the inside of the palace. A bit to the left Janz saw a small door. To either side of the central part of the castle were staircases leading to the upper level walkway that ran around the front of the castle. Janz entered the small door. He found himself in a small room filled with beds and cupboards. There were a couple soldiers standing around or lying on the beds, and one average guy as well. Janz guessed that this place was some kind of medical room for the soldiers when they were ill.

The doctor, the regular man, mentioned that he was about to leave Pandora because of the odd occurrences in the town. The soldiers mentioned the troop led by Major Dyluck, the group Janz had seen before he entered the Water Palace. It seemed they went into the forest to fight the witch and hadn't returned yet. One of the soldiers didn't want to go with the troop and pretended to be sick, and was feeling shameful that he did. He asked Janz not to tell anyone, and Janz nodded, then he left and entered through the double doors of the castle.

The hallway he entered was lined with hanging tapestries, and alcoves decorated with small statues and potted plants. The hall ended at another hallway that stretched perpendicular to the first. This was much like the first except it also had torches set up on the walls to shed light in the passages. It stretched a bit to the right, then more to the left. The ends of these hallways were wider at the ends and this created a T-shaped pattern. At the end of the left part of the hall, it turned down towards the south. There were all sorts of people in the hallway, and Janz talked to all of them.

One woman was muttering to herself as he walked past. "Why are the people in the southern ruins wearing strange masks?" Janz didn't say anything, but thought of the unnatural behavior of the Pandoran's. A man was discussing some of the kingdom's history to a small boy.

"The Empire attacked us fifteen years ago," he was saying.

The boy wore a bored look. He whispered to Janz as he headed past. "I wonder if Dyluck is going to be back soon? He promised he'd play with me then!"

The man snapped at the boy to pay attention and the history lesson continued. A lady sitting in a chair looking out a window asked Janz if he had ever seen an enormous tree called the Mana Tree, saying that she hasn't, and from the way she said it Janz got the feeling that she didn't believe in it either. The southern hallway ended in an open room with a staircase leading upstairs. Janz climbed up it. It led to a narrow hallway that stretched some distance along. There was a guard and an older man there, talking to each other. Janz picked up their dialogue as he walked past.

"The witch up north must be up to no good. People are acting strangely, recently."

"This land has had it. It's been cursed by a witch."

There was a staircase heading down at the end of the hallway. It led back down to the first floor, and Janz guessed the narrow room was situated right beside the entrance hallway. There were two young ladies there. The smaller one commented about sensing something evil in the ruins to the south. Janz decided that he would stay away from those ruins unless absolutely necessary. The other lady repeated what one of the ladies in the town said.

"Sir Elman arranged his daughter's marriage. I feel sorry for her. They should be upstairs now!"

Janz looked back at the staircase he came down. Beside it was another staircase heading up as well. Janz started up them. This was longer than the other one, and it led to the third floor. When Janz came out into the hall, there were some bright red banners beside a set of double doors. He guessed that those led to the throne room.

There was a door on the wall opposite the entrance to the stairway. Janz could hear shouting coming from behind it.

"Dad! You're impossible!"

Must be that girl that's having her marriage arranged, thought Janz. He was just about to head down the hall when the door opened. The girl came out, yelling angrily.

"I'll make my own decisions about my life!" With that, she slammed the door and turned sharply on her heel, nearly running into Janz.

It was the same girl that had helped him escape from the goblins.

The girl smiled. "Hey! It's the guy I saved! Say what? You're a swordsman?" she asked.

Janz looked down towards his sword. "Huh... oh, you mean this..," he mumbled, pointing to the sword. The girl seemed very excited.

"This is great! I need your help! I helped you, didn't I?"

Janz had to agree, and nodded his head. The girl continued on.

"It's your turn," she stated. "We're going to teach that witch a lesson! We're going to save Dyluck!"

Janz frowned. This was getting a bit too much! Sure, he owed the girl for saving him, but this would mean going way out of his mission. Besides, he told himself, this really doesn't have anything to do with me. This is her concern. I have a duty to do. But I do owe her... Maybe she won't mind going out of her way a bit.

"But... I've got to go to the Underground Palace," stammered Janz. The girl wouldn't be swayed.

"Later... LATER!"

She was a strong, determined girl. Janz had to give her that in her favor.

"Right!" she said, starting to head off down the steps. "Let's go, uh..."

She trailed off. It was then that Janz realized that they had not been formally introduced.

"I'm Janz."

"Oh. Call me Lia."

Janz followed his new companion's lead back down through the palace. One thing that amused him was the little boy he had seen on his way up. He looked even more bored that when he first came past.

Lia's step was quick and determined. She was not some average, gentle girl. Janz thought about what just happened as he followed her.

She is quite a girl. Different that all others I've seen. Though I haven't really met many, but I can tell she's different. More determined, forceful, direct. If I was a little kid, I might even be afraid of her! But this little "mission" will take me far off from my mission. Why can't she wait until I go to the Underground Palace? If it's anything like the Water Palace, it won't take long. Trouble is, I don't know where it is, and I don't think this girl... Lia, would wait around. Then again, maybe she will. I guess I should cross that bridge when I get to it. I wonder. This gi.. Lia seems able enough to travel on her own. Why would she need me? Is there going to be trouble? Oh, I hope not! Things are difficult enough now as it is, I don't need more problems. It's that....

Janz's thoughts were abruptly interrupted as he crashed into Lia. He had been so absorbed in his own thoughts that he didn't realize that Lia had stopped.

"Hey, watch where you're going! If you're such a clutz, I'll find myself another guide!"

Janz wouldn't mind her getting someone else to help her, for that meant that he could go to the Underground Palace without any interruptions. But then a bit of his youthful pride invaded into his head. Janz didn't like being referred to as a clutz. And the notion that the girl entertained that he was simply some "guide" that she had picked up and could just as easily dispose of upset him even more. He turned, about ready to retort back to her. Then he noticed she was smiling. She had just been joking with him.

"I just want to go in here for a minute. I won't be long. You can tag along if you want."

Janz grumbled at being called a tagalong. He looked up at the house where they had stopped. It was where he had met the young girl with the light blue hair.

Lia opened the door and jogged up the stairs. She knocked on the girl's open door then leaned in.

"Hi, Phanna!" she called out.

The girl came out of the closet. She obviously had been looking for something fruitlessly, because the contents of the closet were strewn about all over the place. Phanna smiled as Lia entered. Janz came to the doorway and leaned against it, crossing his arms across his chest and looking at the messy floor. He wore a vague expression as he waited for Lia and observed the mess. Phanna's expression grew cloudy as she saw him, then turned to Lia.

Before she could ask Lia about the boy, Lia spoke up. "Tornado blow through here?" she asked. That lightened her friend's spirits.

"No. Just lookin' for something. Is Dyluck back yet?" When Lia didn't answer, her friend got the hint. "Oh, I'm sure he's fine."

"Yes, I hope so," said Lia. "But just in case, I'm going after him!" Phanna looked shocked. "I managed to rustle up this guy to help me," Lia said, pointing at Janz. Janz looked up as soon as his name was mentioned. "This is..." Lia started.

"We've already met," said Janz, cutting Lia off. But our names haven't been exchanged. I've heard your name, and my name is Janz."

"Hello, Janz," said Phanna quietly. Lia turned around sharply.

"Well, we're not helping Dyluck here! Come on! Let's go!" she said quickly, and left the room, yanking on Janz's arm as she passed.

"Is she always like this?" asked Janz as he stumbled out of the room. Phanna smiled and nodded as Janz wore a pained look.

The two passed the small store Janz had seen on his way in. "Shouldn't we stop in here? I mean, you might need some protection."

"I guess so," said Lia, then they opened the door and went in. The armor the shop sold was the same as what Neko had sold Janz, except a little cheaper. The green band that Neko had pulled out was being sold here as well, and Janz found out then that it was for girls, which was why Neko's face had turned red when he had accidentally pulled it out. Janz bought the hairband for Lia, but that put his cash position seriously low. As much as he hated to say it, they had to stop there and go out until they could get more g.p. Lia was all for heading out, and they left Pandora through the western exit.

They ran into trouble almost immediately. A mushboom and one of the ferocious flowers blocked their path. Janz drew out his spear to work up its power to level one. Then he thought of Lia and turned to her. "Lia? Here, you can use the sword. You should be able to work it up to a power level of one, but I'm not sure."

Lia put up her hand, but waved the sword away. "Not necessary," she said. Janz was confused.

Is she going to rely on me to do all of the fighting? Well, she is a girl. Maybe my handing her the sword was too much for her. I wonder what made me think of that in the first place? he thought. He saw the mushboom heading in Lia's direction. "Lia," he called out, "look out!"

He moved to block the creature's advance, but much to his, and the mushboom's, surprise, Lia beat him to it.

Lia crouched down and took a couple slow steps forwards, then she jumped up and drove her right fist into the mushboom's face area. Janz stood up, confused. He was even more bewildered as she lifted the thing up then flung it down onto the ground, hard. The mushboom could hardly stand up, and a flying kick from Lia finished it off. Janz was still standing in awe after Lia had stooped down to collect the g.p. the creature had dropped.

"How..." he started. Lia came up close to him.

"One thing, Janz. Don't get any sexist ideas about me. The only reason why I want you along on this is because I might need your help with that witch," she said calmly, tapping him just under his chin with her right hand. Janz nodded and looked down at her hand and realized how she was able to fight that mushboom. She was wearing a Spike Knuckle; a metal gauntlet.

Janz smiled, then. So my offer of her using my sword wasn't as offbeat as I thought it was. Inside, I guess I knew she wasn't helpless. She has a weapon of her own to use. Maybe she can work with the spear and the sword later, and I can work with that glove. I think I'm going to enjoy her company.

Lia took care of the flower too. "It's called a Lullabud," she explained as she went around a bend in the path.

"That so," said Janz. Then Lia came barreling back around the corner.

"And that's a Buzz Bee!" she shouted. "It's out of my range!"

Janz wondered what she meant, then he saw for himself. A huge, bee-like creature came chasing after Lia, throwing its stingers at her. It flew a couple feet off the ground, making it extremely hard for her to fight it. Janz readied his spear, then threw himself at the bee. It dodged, but Janz was able to get in a lucky strike and knocked it to the ground. Janz turned and lunged towards it.

So did Lia.

The two of them connected and went crashing down onto the grass. The bee steadied itself, then took off. Janz and Lia both sat up and rubbed their heads.

"If we're going to be a team," muttered Lia, "we'd better learn how to fight together. We can practice up to Kippo Village."

"Kippo Village?" asked Janz.

"We won't be able to reach the haunted forest before nightfall, and we can sleep there. Besides, Dyluck's parents live there. Maybe he's returned but just not sent any word to Pandora."

"It's a possibility," agreed Janz.

"So how old are you?" asked Lia. The question caught Janz completely off guard.

"I... I'm sixteen," he stammered. Lia laughed.

"Come on! I'm fifteen, but will turn sixteen this summer and you look a lot younger than I do! How old are you, really?"

"I really am sixteen! So my growth spurt is a little late! I can't help it!"

Lia shook her head. "Incredible," she murmured. "Ah, well. You're right, you can't speed up growth. Heaven knows I've wanted to."

Janz wanted to ask what she meant by that, but decided against it. It seemed like a personal matter. Grumbling, he stood up. "Well, come on. If we're going to reach Kippo by night, we might as well get going. Who knows what we'll be up against."

Lia laughed. "This is a switch. Now you're telling me to get moving." Janz offered his hand to help Lia up, and for a while, it looked as if she was about to decline, then she grasped it tightly and Janz hauled her up to her feet.

"You're quite strong," he said.

"I've always been like that. My dad doesn't understand why, but maybe it's because it's only my dad who's raised me. And if you were about to say for a girl..." Lia's voice trailed off menacingly.

"No," said Janz hastily. "I know some boys who aren't as strong as you. I'm just surprised, that's all."

Lia frowned. "Well, you're the second guy to be so accepting of this. The only other guy who has is Dyluck. I guess that's why I love him."

Janz realized now why Lia was so determined to find Dyluck. He was the only guy she knew that had accepted her for who she was; a strong-willed individual. Her conversation also brought up something else.

"You only live with your dad? Not your mother?" he asked tentatively.

Lia's expression grew sad, then she regained her composure. "Yeah. Mom died when I was just a baby. It's been tough, with just my father to look after me. I guess you wouldn't understand," she mumbled morosely. Janz looked at her, and Lia could see the understanding in his eyes.

"Oh yes I could. I've never known my mother or my father. I think you're lucky to live with one."

Lia looked at him. "You don't have a mother or a father? Geez, I feel sorry for you." Then oddly enough, Lia smiled. "This is a change. Usually it's everyone who feels sorry for me. Now I feel sorry for someone else!"

Janz smiled, and the two headed off down the path.

The rest of the day was spent fighting creatures on their way to Kippo Village. Janz quickly got his spear up to power level one, and Lia got her glove up to power level one as well. When that happened, Lia was confused as to why her glove changed in power, and Janz realized that it was a Mana Weapon, and told Lia that. She asked him how he knew that, and he told her of his mission to seal the other Mana Seeds in the palaces with the Mana Sword. Lia was shocked when she heard this, as well as she might be. The Mana Sword was no toy, and this was no simple job. She made a joke of "knowing how to pick them", and they switched weapons, Lia trying out the sword and Janz trying out the glove. They backtracked a couple of times to practice fighting, and Janz hung back a bit to give Lia a good chance to build up her strength and ability, since she wasn't as strong as Janz. Oddly enough, as they noted, as although building up their weapon levels was entirely dependent on themselves, their battle experience and strength increased as one, meaning they both got stronger, even if one of them held back fighting for a while. It confused them, but they didn't let it worry them.

When they finally reached Kippo Village, it was suppertime. There was a signpost set up at the entrance to the village, and the path headed to the north. Lia didn't let Janz stop to read the sign, and dragged him along into the village.

"Are you this determined to find Dyluck?" he asked wearily.

"No," said Lia. "I'm hungry." Janz laughed and agreed that he was hungry as well.

A river ran perpendicular to the path that led into the village. The village was on one side of this river. The inn was the first building they came to, but Lia headed up past it and to the back of the village. She entered a small, two-story house. A lady and a man were at the table in the house. Janz waited at the door. He knew the reason why Lia had come here, and didn't want to get involved in her personal matters. After a brief talk, Lia came back to the door, a downcast look on her face.

"Not here, huh?" said Janz, more as a statement rather than a question. Lia nodded.

"They don't even know he's gone," she said. "I didn't want to upset them." Then she straightened up. "Well, what are we doing standing around here? Let's go get something to eat!"

Lia then headed down to the inn. Janz watched her go. Whatta different girl, he thought.

"You coming?" shouted Lia. "Or are you going to starve?"

"I'm coming!" Janz called back.

The inn was quite nice. It was similar to Neko's, except the shop was across from it. Janz and Lia paid for a supper of steamed vegetables, then left to go to the shop. They had collected enough money to buy some more protective outfits, and could afford the wristbands for Lia as well. Both Lia and Janz slipped their new protective clothes overtop the ones they were already wearing. Both confessed to liking their outfits, and they didn't want to part with them. After they had the outfits fitted to their bodies, they returned to the inn to sleep.

Janz took the bed closest to the door, and Lia took the far bed. Getting ready for the night posed a bit of a problem. Not only were the two not used to being together and sharing a room, but preparing for bed presented some difficulties. Janz came up with a solution to the problem.

"I'll lie under the covers, and turn away from you. I swear that I will not come out until you shake the bed to tell me that you're finished. Then you will do the same while I change."

"Sounds fair," agreed Lia. "And you'd better not peek!"

"I won't," promised Janz, then proceeded to climb under the covers of his bed. Shortly, they were both lying in bed. But neither could sleep for a while. Both lay awake thinking of the day they just had.

Janz lay on his back looking at the shadowed ceiling above him. Whatta couple of days I've been having. Lia sure is something special. I think I'm going to like being with her. I'm glad I've got company. But as soon as she finds Dyluck, she'll be gone. Oh well. One thing that sours this little trip is that it will take me way off course in finding and sealing the Mana Seeds. I just hope Lia will understand when I say that I'm going to the Underground Palace first. A man I talked to here said that Gaia's Navel lay to the north. Jema said the dwarves that live there could tell me about my weapons. The Underground Palace is around there somewhere. It shouldn't take long." Janz yawned. "Hm. I've never been this... busy before in my life. Ah, well. Get some sleep. Worry about the seeds... 'yawn'... in the... morning... His thoughts became blurred as he drifted off into sleep.

In the far bed, Lia too was awake and thinking. Don't worry Dyluck, I'm coming for you. If that witch has done anything to you, she'll pay. She sighed quietly. I'm just glad I found some help. Hate to admit it, but I was scared about going into the forest alone. I wonder if this boy can help though. After all, I had to rescue him from the goblins. Yet he has the fabled Mana Sword. That just doesn't come out of nowhere for no reason and to just anyone. He must be someone special. He's like you, Dyluck, y'know. He doesn't care about my mannerisms, just like you. You both like me for who I am. I wonder what this "quest" he's on is. He wouldn't tell me much. Just that he had to get to this "Underground Palace". I bet it's not very important. Might as well get some sleep. You're going to need all your strength if you're going to find out where the Haunted Forest is.

The morning dawned bright and early. Too early for Janz. He was still fast asleep after Lia had gotten up, washed, changed, and when breakfast was ready. Lia shook his bed roughly, and opened the blinds, but that didn't work.

Well I never... thought Lia. Then, her patience having worn thin, she grasped Janz's shoulders, and hauled his front out of bed. He hit the floor with a thud. That woke him up. He was quite surprised to find half of him on the floor and half of him in the bed. He twisted around to try and get a look at his surroundings, since he had practically fallen flat on his face. He looked up to see Lia staring down at him.

"Breakfast is getting cold," she said simply. Then she returned to her seat at the table and proceeded to finish off her breakfast of eggs and orange juice. Janz tumbled out of bed and grabbed his clothes. He stuffed his old clothes that he liked so much into the bottom of his backpack. Lia had done the same. However, Janz kept his headband on. When he returned to the breakfast table, Lia was gone. Janz hurriedly ate, packed up his things and left the inn. As he was packing, he noticed that Lia's things were gone.

Outside, he looked around for Lia. There was no sign of her. Then he got a notion. He headed up to the house that Lia had entered the day before. There he found her just coming out.

"Not there," she said as if nothing was wrong. "Was your breakfast okay?"

Janz didn't know how to answer. He didn't know why, but her disappearance had scared him. He finally found his words. "Okay?" he spluttered. "Lia, you scared me, disappearing like that!"

"Oh calm down Janz," chided Lia. "You sound like my father. I can take care of myself. I'm not going to leave. Now let's head out and find the Haunted Forest."

"Now wait," started Janz, but Lia was already on her way. Crazy! thought Janz. Is she ever determined! He then ran after her.

When Janz got his first look at Gaia's Navel, he was quite impressed. It was a roughly circular valley. A river had carved terraces into the land. From what Janz could tell, there were about three levels to the valley, which were decending, concentric circles. He and Lia were on the highest section of land. The river and the pools it created lay to the north. The river had carved away a roughly circular section of land, which resulted in a small pool of water on the high level, with a couple waterfalls flowing down to the second. The process had repeated again, and created a third level, with waterfalls emptying into the pool below. The waters had then receded leaving a dry path along the southern part of the circular valley. Janz could tell that beings live around here, because clean staircases led from one level of the valley to another, with no signs of overgrowth on them.

They were faced with a decision on which way to go. There was a path to the left and right. The right hand path looked like it was the shorter route to the opposite side, but Janz suggested going the other way so they could practice. Lia agreed. While they were walking along, Janz went over to the side of the path where the land dropped down to the next level of the valley. It was quite a drop. It was about seven feet down. Maybe more. The cliff side was all exposed rock. The water had not been able to cut through this layer, and therefore the river had cut down. A shout from Lia called Janz back to the path. She was using the spear, and while lunging at a Buzz Bee, had gotten the spear caught in the ground. Janz ran at the bee and jumped at it. He was using the Spike Knuckle, and was unsure on how to use it. He managed to defeat the bee though, and helped a seriously embarrassed Lia pull out the spear. Janz told her not to worry. No one but he saw, and told her the same thing had happened to him when he first tried out the spear.

At the other side of the top level of the valley, they saw a man walking around. They went up to him. Janz asked about Gaia's Navel.

"There are many monsters in Gaia's Navel," explained the man. "I just saw the floodwaters sweep some poor kid into it!"

Janz and Lia left, walking down the steps to the lower level.

"The poor kid," murmured Lia.

After a while, they had reached the base of Gaia's Navel. Janz stood knee deep in the shallow water looking for the entrance to the dwarf village, while Lia stayed on dry ground. It really made no difference to her, for her feet were already wet, since they had to wade through the pools of water to reach the other side of the path. Janz found the cave entrance under the left hand waterfall of the two waterfalls that emptied into the bottom lake, and waved Lia over. Ducking, he splashed his way under, and Lia followed. Just past the entrance though, she stopped.

"Where are we?" she asked, and Janz could hear hesitation and fear in her voice, which soon turned to annoyance. "This place has nothing to do with Dyluck, does it?"

Janz took that as a rhetorical question, and continued on into the cave. He only took two steps though before Lia called out to him. She hadn't moved an inch. "I want to go to Elinee's Castle in the Haunted Forest, okay? Hey! This isn't the way to the witch's castle! Where are you going?"

Janz turned back to Lia. "The Underground Palace," he said frankly.

"I'm not going in!" snapped Lia. "Are you going in by yourself?"

"Yes," said Janz, nodding. Lia let out an exasperated sigh.

"Geez are you stubborn!" Janz started to explain that it was important that he did, but Lia didn't give him time. "Fine! I'm on my own! Here's your spear, and you give me back my Spike Knuckle!" she ordered, handing over the spear. Janz took it and passed her her glove. Lia snatched it. See you!" she shouted, then left. Janz stood in the murky water in the cave.

Me? Stubborn? Who's the stubborn one? he thought. Then he turned around and headed deeper into the cave.

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