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New Testaments DX: Secret of Mana
Years ago, Niko, OnslaughtRM, Dalamar and I decided to write a collaborative story as a sequel to Secret of Mana, one of my favorite games of all time. New Testaments was one of my first attempts at writing prose fiction. Time marched on and we steadily kept the story going, but we've grown as people and writers over the years in ways that weren't reflected in the original chapters. We went back and revamped and revised pieces here and there, but you don't mess with the foundation after you've already built the house. Last year I had the idea that instead of touching up certain aspects, we do a full remake. The first third or so of the chapters already presented have been completely rewritten, and everything following will be heavily revised accordingly. The overall storyline is still here, but everything's been upgraded - more characterization, more detail, altered pacing, less awkwardness in places, etc. But that's enough talk.

For anyone that read NTSoM in its original incarnation, welcome back! For those of you that are completely new to the story, welcome aboard! You're seeing NTSoM in its best form yet!


New Testaments DX: Secret of Mana

Ten years past
The legendary warrior and his companions
Routed evil threats in many forms
With the legendary Holy Sword
Evil and Mana faded
And the world sang peacefully again...

Well, they say that time flows like a river
And history often repeats itself
But today...history will not be repeated
It will be created!


Bade London

“The village won’t survive,” his raspy voice coughed through the dry air. The voice belonged to Sarak, a weary man, aged tremendously by our recent burdens. He looked directly at me standing by his side, and then quickly looked away in shame. He carried a heaviness I didn’t fully understand. “We have failed you. Failed you all.” As he tapped the stone circle with his toe, he shook his head. “What are we to do?  What… can we do?”
Mayor Sarak was the closest thing to a father I had left. I stared down into the arid watering hole, clutching a flute that dwarfed my tiny hands. A series of images flashed in my mind, memories a seven-year-old child should never dwell on.  
My father’s hunting party returning from the hunt with less and less. My mother, looking thin and tired, teaching me to play my favorite songs. The drought’s first victim, my father. I could never forget the last time I saw his face. The dry lips, the cracked skin.  He had been the strongest, our greatest hunter, and he went without water so his family could live. And so many followed him, until mother was gone as well. I remembered her words as she lay in her bed, the last time she would ever speak.  “Bade… my son. My flute… was a gift from your father. It was the moment… the first moment I knew real love… Please Bade, treasure it. Keep it close. Let it be a reminder of our love for you.  Be strong.  You will survive this accursed drought. You were meant for… so much more... “  She passed into darkness then and never returned to the light.  I remember little else, save for the rare drips of water the mayor had been able to procure for me and the other orphans of Kakkara.  
“Perhaps…” Sarak stared at the sky. “Perhaps there is hope.”  Maybe he was trying to instill that belief in me, even if he didn’t completely believe it himself. He turned to me and, amazingly, a smile crawled across his lips. “Our most recent visitor said he would bring back the tail.  The fabled item, the legend.  He may be capable of it.”  Then he peered back into the sky. “We will simply have to wait, lad.  Wait and hope.”
I nodded and joined the mayor in looking up at the sky. I spotted it first, a winged figure in the distance.  I pointed, but there was almost no need. The figure soon grew into a beautiful white dragon, and before anything could be done or any words could be said, it was directly overhead. It touched the ground, with a lightness that seemed impossible for its size, and an unusual trio jumped off and approached Sarak. Though the man, the woman, and the boy (perhaps it was a girl, or perhaps neither) quickly approached the mayor, I couldn’t take my eyes off of the majestic beast. It was only with the triumphant shout of the mayor that I turned my gaze from the dragon and toward its passengers.  
Sarak was holding something high above his head, though I could barely see what it was. The crowd around him was smiling, laughing, dancing… things long lost to Kakkara. The mayor threw his hands toward the empty hole, spoke words that nobody understood, and leaped back! The rest of the crowd followed his lead and a massive roar broke out as water suddenly erupted and flowed across the town. I joined the town in celebrating, and drank and drank until that damned thirst that had taken nearly everything from me was quenched.  
It was only later that I learned the man’s name and who he was: Randi, the legendary hero of prophecy, and the bearer of the Sword of Mana.
Years passed, as they often do, and I grew from the quiet child I had been into my father’s son. It was unusual for one so young to be invited to join the hunt, but the sudden loss of so many men lead to me and the other orphans joining well before the traditional age. I was quickly becoming known for my skills, and was always prepared to go on the hunt. It hadn’t gone unnoticed that I always brought my flute with me on all of his expeditions. I saw the well-being of the village as my duty, and never wished my parents’ fate on anyone. Though it was a vow made only in private, I swore that I would die before I would allow my village to suffer again.
I soon mastered navigating the harsh desert, and eventually discovered a mysterious, hidden place. It seemed where the world ended and a vast emptiness full of stars would begin. I often felt called to the place, and often gazed into the abyss, but I never lingered and always returned home with my hunt.  
Unfortunately, the day came when my worst fears came to light: Again, the water was drying. The magic of Sea Hare’s Tail that Randi had brought to the village so many years ago was fading.
“Sir?”  I approached the mayor. “May we speak?”
“Mmm…?” Sarak was certainly healthier than he had been at the worst of the drought, but he did not look very much different.  He was currently bent over his desk, scanning plans and forms lost to me, but knew must be certainly very important.  His eyes glanced up once, and a grin broke across his face, “Ah, Bade, of course, come in my boy.  Please, go on.  Do excuse me while I try to catch up on some work.”  
“Sir… it’s about the… tail.”
“Tail?  What tail?”  He continued to look at his papers, but his focus was now clearly attuned to me.
I stood up straight, either to show respect or authority, I wasn’t sure.  “Mayor.”  
“So… you’ve noticed,” Sarak quietly grumbled.
“I doubt anyone could have missed that…"
"True, you are not the first to bring it to my attention.”  He put down his papers.  “I suppose if I told you that is the normal process of the tail’s magic and fluctuation is to be expected…”
“With all due respect, I would call you a liar… sir.”  I showed no emotion as I said this, but felt a deep sense of pain.
“Mmm… and right you would be to do so.  It has satisfied the others, but you have always been a clear headed boy.”  With a sigh, he stood, and circled his office.  “The Sea Hare’s Tail’s magic is indeed fading.  It has been for some time.  The speed of its decline is growing faster than expected I fear.”
“Sir, I request permission to find a new Sea Hare's Tail.  Please.”  The “please” was a last minute addition.  I hadn’t intended it when I practiced this speech, but it seemed appropriate.
“Absolutely not!  Bade, you are needed for the hunt.  It is my understanding that you will be made chief hunter in the near future.  The youngest ever.  Ah… don’t let the others find out who told you.”
I could feel my face begin to turn slightly red.  My father’s position.  Still…
“Sir, I respectfully must insist.  There are many capable men that could fill my role.  I know the desert, I can survive there.  Of all of the men in the village, I am the best suited for the task.”
Sarak moved to his window and looked out over the village.  “I am no fool Bade.  I know that you are the most capable, and yes, even the most likely to succeed.  But that does not mean that the chances are in your favor lad.  Not at all.  Many men, veterans of battles and wars, have tried to get a Sea Hare’s Tail and died in the attempt.  I cannot risk the life of another child of Kakkara.  No.  I have made other arrangements.”
“When the tail started to falter, I sent word across the world.  Massive reward for the first man to bring a Sea Hare’s Tail to Kakkara.  Many will likely die in the attempt, but not our own.  And eventually, one of them will succeed.”
“What of the reward?  Unless we have become wealthy in the past several minutes, I do not believe we can provide such a prize.”
“We will find a way lad.  For now, go home.  Rest.  You never know when you will be called upon for a hunt.”
“Sir.  No.”  The mayor eyed him, puzzled.  “I cannot do that.  Even if… even if someone finds the tail and brings it here, there’s no guarantee they would give it to us without a reward.  And what if nobody succeeds?  What is nobody tries?  I simply will not, can not allow this village to die.  Sir.”
The mayor, fell onto his chair, sighing heavily as he did so.  “It… is your choice lad.”
Bade felt a surge of relief.  He would have gone without consent, but he would not left happy.  Now… “Thank you mayor.  Thank you.”
“Before you go, take supplies.  Rest.  You will be given everything this village has to offer.  Be safe and be careful.  We have suffered too much already, and I do not want one of our strongest to sacrifice himself for nothing.  Know that when you return, you will be welcomed, and your place with us is assured.”
“I readily accept this task sir.  I will not let you or the village down.  Thank you again... sir.”  If there were more words to say, Bade didn’t know how to express them.  He exited the room brisky.
“I know lad.  I know.  Goddess knows we need this.  Protect him.  Protect our home.”
After a day of preparing for my journey, and a farewell party with my fellow hunters, I set off across the desert.  In my hands, I carried a flute.  

Niko Brandfaust
I think they're trying to talk forever, so I can never leave. Or maybe they think I'll forget. Maybe if I keep saying yes, they'll let me go.
"Why don't you stay one more week Niko, just until you are sure this is what you want?"
"Y-" That was close, "Mooom, I've stayed here forever! I'm positive by now!"
These are all the same things I've heard before. More than a few months ago already, my dad told me over and over; "I know you want to leave. Don't worry, you'll be ready soon."
Well now I'm ready. I can't really blame them, I guess. It did get kinda crazy when I was little, but the times of mana and danger and adventure are over. Well, I hope it's not ALL over; every place can't be as boring as the middle of Kakkara desert.
I get why it's so hard to convince my mom, she's lived here her whole life. My dad came all the way over here from the Upper Lands though, and he saw so much of the world before settling here. I can't understand why he doesn't want me to go. They're always telling me how there used to be lots of beast races like us. How it was just as normal in any village to see one of us as it was to see a human, but... I know they're not worried about the humans. I never met any who were surprised to see a vulpine. I haven't met many humans though... but then again I also haven't met many other vulpine!
"We're just worried; this is a big step and you are still young."
Uh oh, was mom talking this whole time? I dunno if she meant that as warning against leaving or as parting advice. Best to just say something responsible sounding.
"Mom, the world is different now; not dangerous like it was when I was a kid. Dad was okay through all that... the monsters and the empire... and he was younger than me, too!"
"I know Niko, I know." I can tell by that sigh, I think my dad is finally ready to crack! Okay, deep breath; don't want to get all excited and blow it now. They need to know I'm taking this seriously!
"It's just..."
Oh no, dad, come on! I'm so close!
"You'll understand why we're worried when you get older. You're our only son."
But... I understand now, dad. How much longer-
"That's why your mother and I want you to promise you'll visit every now and then."
I couldn't believe what I was hearing. There was no more hiding my excitement now, no matter how hard I tried. I couldn't stop my own tail wagging if I sat on it. By the look on my parents faces, they were playing the whole time. They knew they were going to let me leave today!
I couldn't control my own body; I leapt forward into their arms. I don't remember the last time I hugged my parents so hard. I actually had to loosen up so my dad could speak.
"I don't suppose you'd also promise to stay safe, to not go running off on any silly 'quests'?"
I couldn't try to be clever about that. We all knew that's exactly what I was looking for. Even if there was no more adventure to be had, I could never promise that. But I don't have to say no.
"I promise I'll never forget about you guys."
            I've never been more ready for this; I was so excited, I almost ran out with nothing but my pants and my favorite shirt. Of course they made sure I had plenty of my favorite meals; some hard-boiled Mad Mallard eggs, Pebbler jerky, and even a wrapped slice of my mom's delicious Pumpkin Bomb pie. They gave me a big satchel of water too but they know that I know how to find water. You don't grow up in the middle of the desert without knowing that!
I'll save the water for later, I think. I hope to be out of the desert soon anyway. It will be the first time in my life. I want to see every place I heard stories about, I don't care what order. I think I'll just start walking east until I hit the coast and follow that down. After that, I'll just play it by ear... or nose... whichever tells me the most. Finally, my real adventure begins!

Claude Augario
I was so young when we moved to this accursed island of gold that I barely remember life before it. What I can tell you is that I’m not very fond of what life has been like since then.
I’m Claude Augario. I live in the world of privilege and the most valuable place in the world, Gold City. I never adopted the elitist views of this place like my parents did. The mainland is considered a hellish, barbaric world. I couldn’t disagree more, and that’s just one of many reasons I don’t fit in here. Only a handful of people here understand how I feel.
Maybe one day I’ll actually get off of this island, and see the world...just like the legendary warrior, the Mana Knight! Nah, it doesn’t have to be some grand quest; just exploring on my whims would be good enough.
But enough about the future! What I should be talking about is the present. You see, when I woke up today, it was just like any other day. But before I could even leave my room, I heard a commotion. In fact, I can still hear it now.
Walking towards the open window of my bedroom, I squint and use my hand to shield my eyes from the morning sun to peer out. I’m greeted with gold, pure gold. The houses, the trees, the grass, even the dirt are all solid, enchanted gold! Believe it or not, you get tired of that color when you’re surrounded by it every single day.
From my window over Rodeigo Street, I can see the people of the city bustling about their busy lives along the twisting, weaving roads, but even further beyond that, at the edge of the city, was a large gathering of people.
What could they all be looking at?
I jumped into my favorite pair of boots and headed out to see for myself what all the fuss was about.
[Image: fvT7lv1.gif]
[font=&]There's no better time than the 25th Anniversary of Seiken Densetsu to go strolling down memory line, right? This chapter was rewritten from scratch!


Chapter 1: The Start of an Adventure
Arc I: Fall Unto Destiny
The World of Mana...or rather, a world formerly filled with Mana. This world that has stood the test of time for millennia had no agreeable name, though there were always whispers and rumors that the land where all life and Mana was birthed, and once the resting place of the Tree of Mana, had been called “Illusia.”
The numerous lands of this world had been liberated from the death grip of the Empire and its leader Vandole, who sought unlimited power at the cost of all living things. A prophesied knight burdened with the last blood of his privileged tribe had averted this cataclysm. In his battle, he was aided by a white dragon and two comrades who had also felt the sorrow of loss. And as predicted, he held the holy blade, a sword of legends, and a mighty weapon whose creation is so ancient that only the elemental spirits of the world could recite its origin...the Sword of Mana.
With the celebration of life came the healing of the scars left by the ultimate battle. The Tree of Mana had been destroyed by malevolence, and with it followed the eventual fading of Mana. Though the world would move on without it, there was no doubt that all would be affected by the turn of events. And one of the lands feeling the loss of Mana most, even after a decade, was a small island off the east coast of the Kakkara Desert.
Gold City was called many things: the richest place in the world, an abomination, Vandole's Trophy...
Created to fulfill an insatiable greed, the island's greatest treasure was also its greatest curse. The artificial island's riches were enabling it to slowly sink into the ocean, where it would fully succumb to the waves without the help of Mana.
Even so, the inhabitants had still managed to live their lives knowing this. In particular was Claude Augario, a teenage boy sixteen years of age, who scurried along one of the gleaming roads to investigate a sudden commotion at the edge of the city.
Claude had lived in the city for most of his life, and yet he always felt like an outsider. There was a mutual rejection between himself and the life and culture of Gold City. One was considered not only privileged but elite with a citizenship, birthing the belief that the Gold City way was the only way, and that nothing outside of the island truly mattered. That wasn’t a notion Claude could ever find himself agreeing with.
The commotion at the edge of the city had sprouted so abruptly, and Claude found himself trotting down one of the many luminous roads to investigate. Beyond the crowd was the ocean, its surface glistening with the rays of the high noon sun. The multitude swelled with more people at every passing moment; Claude increased his pace and began to weave his way through the crowd until he spotted the seer, Zachariah, with his wooden cane steeped into the cold waters of the ocean.
In Claude’s childhood, Zachariah was a legend for his unique ability to ‘see’ the flow of Mana, and predicted future events using this skill. He truly rose in fame when the Mana Knight’s journey began, and he foretold the legendary warrior’s adventures to those that would listen. He was Gold City’s connection to the outside world when they needed it most...when they decided it was worth caring about. For once, people had forgotten that Gold City was a product of the Vandole Empire and were attracted by the many tales of the city’s seer...and maybe just a few here and there came to see (and snatch) the casual riches for themselves.
But Zachariah’s fame vanished once Mana did, for one cannot see what is no longer there.
The old man’s aged knees wobbled as he stood up as straight as he could, his dark robes putting him at stark contrast with his surroundings. The crowd hushed at just the silent parting of his lips.
“Our fair city continues its battle against the great ocean’s claims to seize it,” his aged voice cracked high and enveloped the crowd. “When the world was still adorned with Mana...Lumina, the Elemental of Light, had blessed the gold with his powers, greatly slowing the sinking process."
Murmurs hit the crowd like a wave as many faces flashed with fear and concern upon remembering the island’s inevitable fate: within fifty years, the island would be completely submerged.
“With my staff, I measure the sinking daily in hopes of avoiding fate. Today, my prayers have been answered,” a smile broadened along his wrinkled face. “Mana is returning!”
The murmuring ceased in an instant and a thick silence blanketed the community for what felt like an eternity. That silence was shattered by a sudden eruption as the people cursed Zachariah and dispersed as quickly as they had formed.
“It’s pathetic the stunts you need to pull to stay relevant,” one of the last stragglers hissed.
Claude, the last remainder, spoke quietly, "I believe you."
"May the Goddess bless you, Augario,” Zachariah said, resting a withered hand on Claude’s shoulder. “The people here may not want to believe it, but they will in due time. The consequences will be unavoidable...the world is in for a treat..."
Claude raised a brow, but it was not unlike Zachariah to get cryptic. With the anticlimactic conclusion of that exciting moment, Claude’s mind wandered back to the tasks he had planned earlier, which mainly revolved around practicing his newfound swordsmanship.
“I’ve got some things to do, see ya later!” Claude called out to Zachariah as he broke into a dash back from whence he came. He tempered his speed once he returned to Rodeigo Street. The houses on this street looked identical, so it was up to occupants to differentiate through the power of decoration. The house with the turquoise awning marked residence 1993, the Augario residence, and a smattering of lavender and cerulean flowers bloomed along the flower bed, untouched by the gold enchantment. Claude never knew why his mother went with flowers from the mainland, but he appreciated it in his own little way.
Claude burst into his home with little regard and slid to a halt, taking the carpet with him. Blocking the staircase to the second floor were his parents. He knew he was in trouble – the standing side-by-side ambush tactic had been employed many times in the Augario household.
“He’s wearing that again,” Serena Augario murmured. Her face contorted with the appearance of choking back bile.
Claude looked down at the clothing that had caused his mother’s face to wrench in disgust. A blue vest hugged his torso and roomy red pants covered his legs down to the blue boots on his feet. Blue wristsbands and a headband capped off what he considered his own personal style.
“I’m comfortable in this,” he responded simply. “It feels good. You guys are’s flashy and inconvenient.”
Serena was adorned in a lime green dress that brushed the floor as she walked. Charles Augario wore a black suit with a dash of gold here and there – a gold tie, cufflinks, and pocket square. They looked ready for a ball that was never to come.
Serena opened her mouth to protest but was cut off by Charles, “Claude, we found this in your room today...” From behind his back, he revealed a sword sheathed in a midnight blue scabbard attached to a brown leather belt.  Claude sighed.
“Son, what have we told you about weapons...or what to do if you encounter hostile enemies?”
“’Mock them and laugh, don't chop them in half’,” Claude recited in complete disinterested monotony.
Charles nodded and beamed proudly. "It’s our way of proving that we are above the barbaric ways of the mainlanders-”
All people outside of Gold City are not barbaric!” Claude protested, standing rigid and scowling deeply.
Serena stepped forward, “How can you say that with certainty? You haven’t stepped foot on the mainland in over a decade."
“How can you agree with certainty?” Claude shot back. “We live on an island made of gold! It attracts the worst kinds of people. That you can’t see that is...ludicrous!” He threw his arms up in frustration. “Anywhere else has got to be better than here!”
Charles chuckled, “It's not like you'll ever find out.”
“Or maybe I will! I'll travel the world one day! Maybe I'll go to the Lower Lands and visit places like Gaia's Navel and Pandora,” Charles and Serena cringed involuntarily at the mention of each place of the outside world, “...Kakkara Desert, maybe even the Ice Country! The world is huge, I can go to any of those places, or maybe I’ll go to all of them!”
Charles chuckled again, “Now you're the one being ludicrous!”
Claude snatched the belt and sword from his father’s grip stormed his way out of the house before turning back, “The both of you are hopeless. I will get off this island. That’s a promise.”
He slammed the door with enough force to break the ribs of a rabite.
Serena slid into the nearest chair, spirits dejected. “I hope he doesn’t do anything stupid,” she murmured.
Charles massaged the back of her hand and stated matter-of-factly, “He’ll come around...they’re always rebellious at that age.”
Claude slapped the belt around his waist as he started a defiant march down Rodeigo Street. “Where’s the parade?” he heard a young female voice call out, stopping him in his tracks. He turned to find the source, his neighbor Treece Norelle, an olive-skinned girl standing on her porch in a red top and blue shorts. Two long braids of her dark brown her ran down the side of her face, while the rest of her hair was allowed to blow freely in the occasional breeze.
Treece was about his age and one of his best friends. They had grown up together, and there was no one he trusted more on the island. They shared sentiments on the island and its inhabitants, and he felt she was one of the few he could count on one hand that saw Gold City for what it really was.
“I heard yelling and slamming...what happened this time?” she asked innocently, batting her eyelashes in the process.
“The usual, but...” Claude gestured to the sword at his side, “They found out.”
“ what are they going to do about the sword?”
Claude snorted. “Absolutely nothing, so I’m going to go practice right now. The day when I get off of this island couldn’t come soon enough...”
A spark of enthusiasm jolted through Treece, propelling her off of the porch. “Believe me!” she started excitedly, “I’d jump at the opportunity to leave this place too! We talked about it all the time, remember?”
“How could I forget?” A distant, nostalgic grin briefly found its way to Claude’s lips. “Those were what-if scenarios. I’m really serious this time. I’m leaving sooner or later.”
Treece looked into Claude’s mahogany eyes and read the seriousness reflected in their dark pools. “You know, I was serious too.”
“Is it getting that bad here for you too?” he wondered.
“It’s not about how bad it’s getting, it’s about not letting it get worse. So I’ve got a proposal.”
Claude sat down on the glistening stoop and gripped the stairs like a life raft amidst a violent storm.
Treece furrowed her brows in response. “What’s with you?”
“I didn’t say anything.”
“That look says it all!” Treece gave a dismissive grunt before she continued, “When you want to accomplish something important, you’ve gotta set goals, right? So let’s make a realistic goal, like, year from now, we’ll leave Gold City together.”
“Just like that?” Claude asked, barely choking back the skepticism.
“We’ve got a whole year to plan it!” Treece started to count off with the fingers on her right hand. “We get our affairs in order, we plan where we’re going, we plan how we’re leaving...”
“I don’t think I need a whole year for that.”
Treece sat down next to Claude and glided her hand onto his knee. “Let’s be honest, we need to prepare emotionally too. We grew up here. Everyone we know and care about lives here. Leaving is...scary and exciting at the same time.”
“No one ever said we couldn’t come back. But you’ve been right about everything so far. Just saying that we’re getting off the island over and over again won’t make anything happen.”
Treece stood up and stretched. “I love it when you tell me that I’m right,” she said with a giggle.
Claude rolled his eyes. “Okay then, one year from now – or sooner – you and me, we’re getting out of here together and going wherever we want. All right?”
“Is that a promise?”
“It’s a promise.”
Claude had finally managed to escape Treece and talks of their eventual journey beyond Gold Island.
Journey. That sounded like a real adventure.
The furthest point north of the city was capped by Gold Tower, a looming structure that once served as the prison of Lumina, the elemental spirit of light. Before the long path leading to its doors was a three-story inn, its name irrelevant and forgotten.
Manmon had been appointed king of Gold City by Emperor Vandole himself. Though Manmon was never given a castle, he did claim the entire second and third floors of the inn as his own. When the Vandole Empire collapsed, Manmon took his family and fled in the night. The inn had remained mostly vacant from that point on. There were other inns scattered throughout the city, and none of them carried the stink of the greedy former king.
Claude enjoyed the peace and quiet of the gated property, using it to hide his newest hobby from disapproving eyes. It didn’t really matter anymore now that his parents knew, but it was still a great place to train and a quiet area to hear your own thoughts away from the hustle and bustle of the city life.
A majestic tree flaunted its healthy roots and branches in the front court, despite its golden trappings. Claude had used it to string up a training dummy. He released the broad sword from its scabbard and couldn’t help but admire the old thing. A layer of rust ran along the blade, and the tiniest hint of a fracture was apparent near its base.
He couldn’t complain; he had gotten it practically for free. Weapons commerce was near non-existent in the city, and the shop owner well-nigh dumped the rusty thing into Claude’s lap before closing shop permanently and setting sail for a community much less tight with its abundant gold. The daily, longing glances at the shop’s inventory must have given him away.
Another day of practice once again consisted of Claude trying out techniques he had read about and creating new ones along the way. When heat and exhaustion caught up with him, he sat back against the tree, watching the dummy sway in the wind. A cool breeze kissed his skin with a pleasant chill.
This isn’t good enough, he thought. You could never lose to an inanimate opponent, and yet he knew there wasn’t much to be done about that here. Treece’s Escape Plan, as he had suddenly dubbed it, couldn’t have come at a greater time.
His eyes grew heavy. It would be okay to nap here, wouldn’t it? His sword and consciousness escaped his grip as an answer.
Darkness cradled Claude. He was mildly aware of a presence.
“My awakening...”
The voice was calm but somber.
“...Isn’t much time...”
He began to stir.
Claude awoke with an abrupt start. The sound of his name echoed; his groggy eyes found their way to Gold Tower. “Yeah, right,” he mumbled, shaking the thought. He guided his sword back to its scabbard. The inn sat on high ground and gave a good view of the city below. Gold City transformed into a luminescent portrait, a glimmering wonderland under the light of the setting sun. All that gold is good for something after all, Claude thought.
He stretched and started the trek back home. “How did it get this late already?”
The sun had already disappeared from the horizon once Claude returned to Rodeigo Street. He quietly ducked under the turquoise awning and entered his home to an unusual stillness. Either his parents were out or they were planning another ambush. He couldn’t imagine what he had done this time, but he’d probably find out soon enough.
A short but uneventful trip up the staircase led him to his room. He shut the door and yawned; his bed was practically calling his name. He thought he would have shaken off the weariness by now...but he had been awakened suddenly, after all. It wouldn’t hurt to finish what he had started.
Claude started his bedtime routine by carefully laying his sword upon his dresser for all to see before undressing and slipping under the golden linens on his bed, well on his way to returning to the land of slumber.
A peaceful, familiar darkness shrouded the world; at its center was a pristine silver lamp post.
Silver? This definitely wasn’t Gold City...
Claude found himself compelled toward the soft light at the top of the lamp. There was something odd, something unique about that light. He squinted to see it better, but all attempts to focus on it only revealed how far away it actually was.
That was odd. The lamp post was right before him, and yet the light felt worlds away. As he crept closer, the light dove from its resting place and hovered right before him.
“Who are you...?” Claude whispered.
“There isn’t much time...” a muffled voice echoed from the light.
“Time until what?”
“My awakening is the beginning...”
“Beginning of what?” Claude knew he should have been frustrated with the light’s ambiguity, but some combination of the darkness and the light was placating him. As he focused on the light once again, he thought he saw two eyes blinking back; the ball of light itself was starting to flicker and dance like flames.
He recognized that image.
Could it be?
“I’ve been watching you, Claude Augario,” the voice was sharper and more immediate than ever. Claude’s gasp was dry and quiet. “You have the potential to become the one that I choose.”
“Choose me for what, exactly?”
“You could be the one to represent my power. Mana has slowly been returning to this world, and we spirits are no longer dormant. Unfortunately, that applies to dark forces as well. I can feel...the foul presence of a particularly nasty spirit that has somehow managed to slither its way out of the depths of the ocean.”
Claude was at a loss for words. There was a possibility that this was an elaborate dream, but he decided to go along with it anyway.
“So you want to choose me to do something about this spirit?”
Lumina bobbed in the air for a moment. “It would be a high honor to be my Chosen One, Augario. You may enjoy the perks. I want you to see Sage Luka at the Water Palace as soon as possible. If you are worthy of my power, there is much to do to prepare you, before Galbalan begins to...”
With a shudder, Claude cast a glance over his shoulder. A silly gesture, nothing was there but darkness! And yet, the spirit of light had fallen silent.
“His influence grows,” Lumina murmured. What was once the cradling darkness of slumber twisted into an oppressive, lethal blackness. The malevolence washed over Claude and the silver lamp post vanished. He had never felt such a force and yet he was fully aware that the beast staring back at him was a quantity of pure evil.
Lumina suddenly erupted in a burst of light against the darkness.
Once more, Claude had been violently awakened. He breathed a sigh of relief when he recognized his cozy room, free from the eyes of the beast that haunted him so briefly. He barely noticed he was drenched in sweat.
 “I’ve given you a little help...”
His eyes darted about the room. The voice was familiar, even calming. A small light from the scabbard of his sword caught his eye. He unsheathed the sword to witness the fading gleam of light enveloping the blade. Even in the darkness, he could see the lack of rust, and a quick run along the blade failed to find the crack at its base. The mounting evidence could only lead to one conclusion.
“There’s no way it was just a dream...”
[Image: fvT7lv1.gif]
While in the process of rewriting this chapter, I'd decided to split it - which is why this half has a new name.

Chapter 2: Where the Cannon Leads

By ClaudeLv250
Claude sat a brown pouch on the desk near his window and began to gather items for his journey: gold, small rations like bread and cheese, and a small flask of water. Keeping in mind his slumbering parents, he scurried with the finesse of a mouse, using the nascent light of the early morning to guide him. Once the pouch was filled to capacity, he tied it to his belt opposite of his spiritually refurbished sword.
 He took one more satisfied glance around his room before saying, “I guess I’m ready.” His next task was figuring out how to get off the island and to the Water Palace as soon as possible.
 The bed shifted as Claude sat down to ponder his options. No ships were leaving port this early, and even if they were, the nearest land was the Kakkara desert. Traveling across the desert, through the Upper Lands, and somewhere into the midpoint of the Lower Lands could potentially take weeks. Small dragons native to the Upper Lands were sometimes tamed and used for flight, but his never actually having seen one was enough to establish the probability of that happening.
 Whisked into sudden being, a sparkle of light appeared above Claude’s head before starting a whimsical flight about his room. He felt oddly compelled to accommodate it, holding out his hand. Warmth filled his palm when the sparkle landed softly within his grip.
 “Lumina, you’re manifesting already...? Zachariah wasn’t kidding about Mana returning.”
 “Hello Claude,” the light murmured its greeting. “I chose an appropriate form considering the current levels of Mana.”
 Claude found himself entranced by Lumina’s light. There was a power tucked deep in that brilliant core, and it almost caused him to lose his train of thought. “I want to get to the Water Palace; I just don’t know how soon that’s going to happen.”
 The light took off into the air. “You have the knowledge. You must be willing to go through with it.”
 “...Cannon travel!” Claude blurted out before clamping his mouth shut. He sat still and monitored the silence; even Lumina froze in place.
 There was no stirring from his parent’s bedroom. That was good.
 “Of all the ways to get off the island...” he ranted quietly.
 “It’s a legitimate form of transportation,” Lumina replied.
 Claude suspected that Lumina’s sudden erratic movement was to avoid the glare he was now throwing in his direction. “That’s easy for you to say. No one’s stuffing you in a cannon and launching you over the ocean.”
 “You will face things far worse than cannon travel if you are to be my Chosen One.”
 “Like Galbalan...?” Claude sighed. For a moment, he forgot who – and what – he was speaking to. If this was part of Lumina’s test, he was failing miserably. and he had no intention of ending it that way.
 “Alright,” he jumped up from his bed, “I can deal with cannon travel.” I’ll just consider it a necessary evil to get off the island, he thought to himself.
 The sparkle let off a soft pulse. Was Lumina...happy? “There is a reason I came to you yesterday, Augario. Remember that.” The voice echoed as the light faded. Claude was on his own once more.
 There was one more glance around the room, this time filled with nostalgia and a hint of sadness, before Claude stepped out, leaving the door ajar.
 At the end of the hallway was the master bedroom. Claude carefully opened the door just enough to peek in, watching his parents’ peaceful slumber under the golden linens.
 Should he tell them? No, he told them countless times that he was leaving. He knew how that confrontation would anyway. Plenty of yelling; emotional wounds, raw and festering in the open from the battle of the Augarios would haunt him. His parents would try to stop him, not that they could. At least this way, they would figure it out.
 A funny thought occurred to him. He was departing in his favorite outfit; at least they wouldn’t have to complain about seeing him in it anymore.
 Before long, Claude was departing under the turquoise awning at 1993 Rodeigo Street. The neighborhood carried a crisp morning chill and deathly silence; Claude was rarely up this early, and this glimpse at an alternate Gold City only helped solidify the feeling of imminent departure.
 His gaze fell upon the neighboring residence of the Norelles with the burgundy bouquet on its door. A knot gripped his gut; Treece made him promise that they would leave together. There was even a fleeting thought of taking her along for the ride.
 We never said neither of us couldn’t leave and come back before that year was up, Claude thought. It was a necessary contortion of the truth. It was a mission from Lumina! You can’t turn down an elemental spirit. Treece would understand one day. She had to.
 “I’ll be back one day and I’ll explain everything to everybody...” Claude murmured as he took the first steps towards his departure.
 To the east of the city wall was a forested trail leading to a cliffed coast occasionally called the Glittering Bluffs. Claude followed the lonely trail to the bluffs, where he found a gated clearing built around a massive cannon. At the base of the cannon was a short man using a scattering of papers as a makeshift bed. Turbulent snoring confirmed all Claude needed to know.
 “Hello?” he murmured. There was nothing worse than a rude awakening, but it was beginning to seem necessary. “Hellooooooo.”
 Abruptly, the snoring ceased. The man turned over and cast an indifferent glance at Claude before nestling within the papers again. After a brief moment, he did a panicked double-take and scrambled to his feet.
 “A c-c-customer!?” he sputtered as he slid on the papers beneath his feet. “Welcome to the Cannon Brothers’ cannon travel service! I’m Steyr; who are you and where’re ya headin’?”
 Steyr Cannon was a short, round man in a green jumpsuit. Thick goggles adorned his face and his hair sprung about in wild strands, its only consistency being its inconsistency. His stubby arms and legs never moved too far from his body. Steyr’s center of gravity was a constant state of compression.
 “I’m Claude, and I need to get to the Water Palace as soon as possible.”
 “Wow!” Steyr exclaimed after a moment. He began to scoop up the papers at his feet; Claude spotted various notes and trajectories scribbled along them. “That’s actually pretty far, but I can manage it!”
 “How much is the trip?” Claude asked, reaching into the pouch at his side.
 “Oh, no no no! I’m sure you have good money, but it’s Cannon Brothers’ tradition that the first customer is free!”
 Claude froze. “I’m the first customer?” he repeated. “You’ve been here this long, and I’m the first customer?”
 Steyr combed over the papers and tried to organize them. “You shouldn’t be so surprised. You live here, right? I’m sure you understand.”
 “It’s...undignified,” Claude admitted. There was nothing glamorous about being shot out of a cannon.
 “I told my brothers a cannon wouldn’t get much use in Gold City, but noooo...I got outvoted!” As Steyr continued to rant, Claude approached the cannon and ran his hand along the black surface. He ignored the apprehension fluttering in his gut.
 “They wouldn’t send Mort out here! This is what happens when you’re the youngest brother!”
 “I wouldn’t know,” Claude said, snapping Steyr out of his rant.
 “Oh, sorry. Water Palace it is!” Steyr tucked the papers under his arm and waddled over to the back of the cannon. He adjusted its position, lowering the barrel towards the ground.
 Claude inched his way to the mouth of the cannon and peered into the darkness.
 A wide, toothy smile found its way to Steyr’s lips and he bounced enthusiastically in place. “There’s nothing to be afraid of!” he declared. “Jump in!”
 Claude waited a moment before asking, “Steyr, have you ever heard the name Galbalan?”
 “Doesn’t ring a bell. Should I have?”
 “Nah, don’t worry about it.” Claude held his breath and leapt into the cannon. Gears creaked as the cannon turned and pointed toward the dawn sky. Curling into a ball, Claude closed his eyes and let images of his mission distract him: Lumina’s lamp post, an old sage in a temple surrounded by water, the suffocating darkness of Galbalan, and Treece’s disappointed face...
 “First, rules for safety!” Steyr called out. “Stay in ball form during the flight. You may be stricken with the urge to flail about in a panic. Please don’t.”
 “Is that it?”
 “Yep. Happy landings, and don’t forget to visit my brothers whenever you need Cannon Travel service!”
 The next few moments of nothingness were excruciating, but they were dwarfed and shattered by a deafening boom. Claude felt his body lurch into the skies with the force of a pissed off gigas. His gold universe shrank into an expanse of blue as sea and sky merged in a dizzying flight. The panic Steyr warned him about gripped his chest as he realized he had no idea where or how to make a ‘happy landing’...
 A lemon-furred mammal’s limbless body leapt through the bushes towards the river’s bank. The water’s calm surface was illuminated by the tranquil morning sky. The feral rabite’s ears and nose twitched as it approached the water. Keen senses kept the creature on alert, but it couldn’t quite comprehend the danger assaulting its instincts. With no better options, the thirsty critter took a chance and drank from the river.
 Sudden and violently, Water erupted as Claude ended his flight; the blast sent the rabite reeling through the air and back from whence it came. Pulling himself onto the bank, Claude rolled onto his back, oblivious to the creature that had been displaced.
 “What was I even thinking?” he asked himself after several minutes, breathing heavily. The twin moons were still barely visible in the sky. The shifting leaves of the tree shading him caught his curiosity and he sat up suddenly, realizing that his sight had been flooded with the greens of the earth. Trees, grass, and even the Typha reeds bouncing by water’s edge carried the earthy colors of natural life.
 Claude let out an ironic laugh. “Put my life on the line in that cannon and this isn’t even the Water Palace.” Even so, this wasn’t a bad place to end up.
 He stood up and found the annoyance of his wet clothes was far outweighed by the relief of surviving. Ducking under the trees and shifting through the bushes behind him, he found a lone dirt road. To the south was a bridge leading over an offshoot of the river. A withered wooden sign pointing northeast read “Cannon Travel Center!”
 “Out of the question!” he reacted instinctively.
 Further north, over the treetops, Claude could see dark plumes of smoke billowing into the sky. If that belonged to a chimney, there had to be people nearby. Perhaps one of them could point him in the right direction.
 The dirt trail eventually turned into one laden with white cobblestones. It wasn’t quite a road made of gold, but that made it all the more welcoming. The occasional branch brushed against him as the path narrowed and ended at a gate composed of worn logs, arranged vertically as a tight wall. At the mouth of the gate’s entrance laid a fallen plaque of wood.
 “Potos...” Claude read aloud.  Embedded across the palisade was a deep, bestial gash. He ran a finger along the raw damage with his left hand, his right having crossed to the grip of the sword by his side.
 His nose reacted first, immediately flushed with the smell of flames as he stepped through the gate before witnessing the horror with his own eyes: Potos village boasted a set of fresh ruins. He was standing in the aftermath of a warzone.
 “What the hell happened here!”
[Image: fvT7lv1.gif]
The second half of this chapter saw quite a bit of change in events, including the addition of an entirely new scene. I think staying for the night makes a lot more sense for Claude than pushing on like in the original version.

Chapter 3: Potos Under Fire

By ClaudeLv250
 Potos’ ruins were locked into an unsettling existence, otherworldly in stillness, occasionally broken by the creak of a door swinging off its hinges. Surreal was the sight to Claude; the village was on its way to becoming nothing but shambles. The sky darkened from the plumes of smoke rising from the forest beyond. Claude tightened the grip on his sword as he stepped cautiously into the village. There was no denying that this destruction was recent.
 Scattered about Potos were villagers tending to each other’s wounds. A small group of people gathered at the least damaged home in the northeast corner. An elderly man weaved in and out of the home, delivering bandages and medical supplies to those in need. He stopped firmly in his tracks upon seeing Claude and lifted a withered finger in his direction.
 “You! Warrior!” he cried out in a raspy voice.
 Claude froze in place when a wave of anxiety washed over him. “But I’m not...” A warrior – was that what he was now? He had never fought a real battle, and yet Lumina chose him out of all the souls in Gold City. If a warrior was what he was destined to become, then so be it. Whatever had happened to Potos was unacceptable.
 He continued to the house to meet the old man. From what he could see, no one had died in the attack. Wanting to be a warrior was one thing, but he knew he wasn’t quite ready to bury the innocent.
 “Please,” the old man suddenly pleaded, grabbing Claude by the arms. “You must help him!”
 The old man sported a full white mane. A red cap of rabillion fur sat upon his head. A white robe with red sleeves draped his aged body, with golden linings that enshrouded his collar and ran down the center of the robe, giving him the slight appearance of regality. He must have been the elder.
 “Help who?” Claude asked, looking into his pained cyan eyes.
 “My son! He went into the forest and...”
 “The forest?” Claude repeated aloud, casting a wary glance to the western gate. The spooky forest with the smoke billowing out of it? he thought. “Tell me, what exactly happened here?”
 The old man finally released Claude, only to hold himself as he began recounting, shielding his body from an unseen menace. “A man in dark armor arrived with a monstrous horde. They ransacked the village in search of my son. He ran into the forest to lure them away.”
 Claude shifted his weight as he thought about it. “Are you sure I can’t be of help here?”
 “We are recovering. My son needs your help more than we do.”
 Claude nodded and took a deep breath before starting the trek to the western gate. From what he could see, the old man was right. The people of Potos were picking themselves up; as long as the monsters didn’t return, they were through the worst of it. Claude even spotted a mother feeding a piece of candy to her wounded child.
 As he reached the gate to the forest, the ground trembled and quaked. Loose pieces of damaged homes collapsed; a door fell off of its last hinge, its plummet into the grass drowned out by the shrieks of panicked villagers. Claude latched onto one of the wooden posts for support until the quake ended as quickly as it came. Another black plume of smoke rose from the forest, devouring the previous clouds.
 Whatever caused the fire had just made things a lot worse.
 The forest was darker than it had any right to be. Trudging down the path laid before him, Claude found himself on high alert, never letting his hand leave the broad sword for too long. He could see the haze from the flames in the distance and hoped that the elder’s son wasn’t anywhere near it.
 He crossed a wooden bridge over a small river and unsheathed his sword to hack away at the thorny foliage growing onto the trail. The forest looked dark back in the village, but this didn’t make any sense. This darkness carried an unnatural weight to it; he knew it just from the tingling nagging at the back of his mind. Mana perception was not a skill Claude had ever developed thanks to the complete depletion of Mana over the past decade, but he wouldn’t bet against the thought that dark energy was at play here.
 Claude nearly tripped when his foot collided with a large, fleshy mass that stopped him in his tracks. He jumped back and took in what he could see: an enormous body sprawled across the path, no less than ten feet in length. Judging from the size, he guessed it to be a gigas, and for just a moment, he was glad that the darkness spared his eyes the details of the slain giant.
 Bushes shuffled nearby and Claude angled the sword between himself and the unseen threat. A rabite wriggled out from under the shrubbery to reveal itself as the culprit. The creature looked to Claude with a curious glint in its beady eyes.
 Claude relaxed a bit before wondering aloud, “What’s a rabite doing in a place like this?”
 He didn’t let his guard down completely. Despite the innocent appearance of the rabite, Claude was well aware of how dangerous it could be. He was contemplating how to dispatch it when the creature opened its maw to the size of its own body and lunged. The rabite got a blue boot instead, squeaking as Claude punted it deeper into the woods. He would have felt sorry for the critter had it not been trying to maim him.
 Claude drew closer to the flames and stopped once again when that tingling returned with a vengeance. There was an audible shlink not unlike when he unsheathed his own blade, a sound that carried throughout every inch of the forest. Blinding light flooded through the trees for just a moment. The oppressive air of the darkness lightened with an undoubtable shift in Mana. Though he could not explain the urge to seek the origin of this power, he fully indulged in his curiosity and broke into a dash toward the fire.
 He arrived at the center of the commotion, where raging flames of mystical origin surrounded a small pool of water at the end of a river. Atop a rock at the pool’s center was a man with a full head of hair. Unlike the Cannon Brother’s unruly hair, the man’s thick strands of hair curved toward the right side of his head, tamed by a headband. He brandished a sword that generated a holy gleam. The sword’s light fluctuated, ranging from a soft glow to a radiant light.
 The man was in a standoff with another figure, what Claude assumed to be a man in a set of bulky armor with a cape. Light from the dancing flames dimmed around the armor, devoured and lost in the oblivion of its dark aura. He did not doubt that man’s ability to bring the ruin he witnessed upon Potos.
 “I don’t know how you survived, but it wasn’t a great idea to come find me,” the man on the rock said.
 “What you did to me, what you did to ruined everything,” the armored one hissed in reply, his voice piercing through the crackle of flames. “Revenge is a remarkable thing. I survived on it alone!”
 “You had a second chance to start with a clean slate, but you chose this instead.” There was disappointment and weariness in his words.
 “Things will be different this time. I’m different this time.”
 The man on the rock raised his sword as he leapt into the air and dove at his charging, armored foe. A crash of thunder sounded from the collision of their blades. Their powers erupted as a shockwave, fanning out from the point of impact and barreling through the forest. Trees were toppled and flames extinguished in its wake.
 Claude knew he couldn’t outrun the wall of energy. He sheathed his sword and crossed his arms in a defensive stance. The wave slammed against his body and lifted him into the air with little effort, smashing him against a tree. He tumbled into the grass with a cry. Somewhere in the distance, a screaming rabite was tossed into the sky.
 The two adversaries had returned to their positions when their gaze turned into the forest to find the source of the cry. The wielder of the holy sword spotted Claude’s form against a tree. His armored foe took advantage of his distraction and lunged, only to be repelled when the gleaming blade touched ground and whipped up a direct, crackling shockwave that almost overcame him. With his opponent caught off his guard, the man with the holy sword made an impressive leap from the rock and across the water, sliding next to Claude. He scooped the boy’s body onto his shoulder and hurtled into the depths of the forest without more than a passing glance behind him.
 Potos’s single inn served as a makeshift home and hospice for all the villagers displaced from their homes or in need of medical attention. With the very real possibility of overflow, the Elder began clearing space in his own home and put together bedding across his floor. A blond, lanky man with a juvenile, pointy red cap atop his head moved the dining table into a corner as the Elder carefully placed down folded sheets in a row and topped each bed with spare pillows he could scrounge up. He paced over to a window and pushed the curtains apart; the dull light filtering through the panes did little to lighten his mood.
 Floorboards creaked near the entrance of the home as someone entered with a boy on his shoulder, causing the blond man to exclaim, “Randi!”
 Randi made a beeline for the bedding next to the Elder and lowered Claude onto it.
 The elder’s eyes fluttered across Claude’s form. “What happened to the boy?” he asked. He hadn’t realized how young he appeared during the initial chaos – hardly a warrior at all.
 “It’s nothing; he was caught in the crossfire and knocked unconscious,” Randi murmured.
 The Elder took in a sharp inhale when he recognized the blade at Randi’s side. “You had to retrieve the sword...?”
 A war of internal conflict raged within Randi. Like a clock, the time in his life to take up arms came around a second time. In the intervening years, he was older and more experienced. There would be no wandering and waiting for allies to reveal the path he needed to take.
 His solemn gaze slowly moved from Claude to the Elder. “I can’t stay here. I was the target. I’m the reason the village was attacked! Innocents are getting dragged into my mess.”
 “Where will you go?” the Elder asked, his voice dry and quiet.
 “I don’t know, but I’ve got to go alone. I can’t risk anyone else getting hurt.”
 Randi headed towards the basement to grab supplies for his journey. The Elder reached a hand out instinctively and stopped himself in his tracks as his adopted son disappeared down the staircase. Once again he found himself powerless to protect Randi from his fate as the Mana Knight, prophesized to defend the innocent from unimaginable threats. In his despair, he turned to the one source to bring him solace.
 “May the Goddess guide you and us through this troubled time.”
 Consciousness came with a sluggish start for Claude. For the second time in one day, his vision had been flooded with colors other than gold. Grimy light wavered through the window onto the dark green plants nestled on the sill. The fireplace crackled softly with the orange flicker of firewood and jumpstarted Claude’s memories of the encounter in the forest. He sat up and tensed his muscles as pain rattled his back.
 “Elder, he is awake!”
 A gentle but firm hand gripped his shoulder and he looked up to see the Elder. The panicked mania suppressed behind his bright eyes had faded since their first meeting.
 “Steady, young one,” he said in a quiet, soothing voice, “This will heal your pain.”
 He placed a sole piece of candy in the boy’s palm. Claude unfurled the pink-and-white striped wrapping and eyed it skeptically.
 “Go on. It was blessed by Undine herself.”
 Claude indulged in the sweets and felt his back pain dull and vanish as a cool sensation not unlike a cold shower washed over his body.
 “That really worked,” he thought aloud, unable to mask his surprised grin. He rose to his feet and checked his sword and supplies – everything was intact. Claude turned to the Elder with a forlorn expression. “I went looking for your son in the forest but came across a battle. I’ve never seen power like that!” A glance around the room and at the resting bodies on several makeshift beds confirmed his suspicions that he was in the Elder’s home. “By the did I get here?”
 The Elder ushered Claude to the dining table in the corner of the room. “Sit. We have much to discuss.” The wooden chair creaked as Claude took a seat across the table from him. “You were caught in the crossfire of that battle. My son brought you here.” New pain shook the Elder’s glossy eyes as he said, “I must apologize. I was so concerned for his safety that I sent you right into the heart of danger. I did not realize how young you were...”
 Claude found it hard to keep eye contact; he was starting to feel bad for the old man. “Now, wait a minute. I’m not an expert but I’m not helpless either.”
 “Then what exactly are you?” came another voice in an accusatory tone. Claude had recognized that voice as the young man that called for the Elder when he had awoken. The blond man pulled up a third chair to the table and sat between them. “Who are you? Where did you come from? It’s awfully convenient that you showed up when you did.”
 “Timothy!” the Elder scolded in a low growl.
 “You’re too trusting, Elder.  Things haven’t been quite right, even before the attack.”
 Claude fought a scowl at the thought of the incoming interrogation. He tried to see it their way; after what they had been through, he could understand their suspicion. He took a deep breath and focused on Timothy’s hat instead. Getting grilled by someone in a doofy hat like that had to be counterproductive.
 “My name is Claude Augario and I’m from Gold City. I don’t normally start my day by getting blown out of a cannon but I guess today is an exception.”
 The Elder nodded along. “Ah, you were just passing through, I see.”
 “I was supposed to land at the Water Palace, but I guess Steyr screwed up a bit,” Claude said, remembering that weightless feeling at the height of his flight. “I saw the smoke and came here looking for directions.”
 Timothy loosened up and leaned back into his chair. It seemed that he was satisfied with Claude’s story, for now. “So it was just a stroke of bad luck, huh?”
 “Allow me to apologize again,” the Elder said. “You were dragged into our affairs.”
 Claude sighed. “Stop apologizing. I helped because I wanted to. I was sent on a mission by Lumina to see Sage Luka. If he can believe in me, I can believe in me.”
 Timothy snorted. “Lumina? You spoke to the spirit?”
 Claude was struck with a twinge of annoyance. “He spoke to me in my dreams,” he explained slowly.
 Timothy responded with a dismissive chuckle. “You know it being a dream means it probably wasn’t real? I thought there was chance that you were up to no good, but you’re just delusional.”
 “No wonder you wear that dunce cap,” Claude remarked, brows furrowed. “I saw him after the dream, too! He even repaired my sword!” He reached for his scabbard and placed it on the table.
 Timothy looked down at the weapon with disinterest. “How are we-”
 “Timothy, be silent!” the Elder suddenly hissed with authority. Timothy shrank into his seat and the Elder gently pushed the sword back towards Claude before he could unsheathe it. “The spirits visiting one in their dreams is not unprecedented, and I believe there is enough Mana in the world for them to come out of their dormancy.”
 “Old Man Zachariah said something like that about Mana too,” Claude recalled. “It’s strange. Where is it all coming from?”
 The Elder shook his head slowly. “I fear the answer escapes us as well.” His gaze trailed over to the window and the shifting light of afternoon. “Young Claude, I would be pleased to give you directions to the Water Palace, but may I suggest that you stay your journey until the morrow?”
 Claude perked up. “Really? Why?”
 “Night will be upon us in a few hours, and with recent troubling events, the path may not be as safe as it once was.”
 Claude mulled it over. He didn’t want to disappoint Lumina, but stumbling through the Lower Lands in the thick of night didn’t seem very conducive in finding his way.
 “You make a good point,” he replied with a nod. “I’ll stay here for the night.” He thought he saw a flash of dismay on Timothy’s face, though the young man thankfully kept it to himself. “But...are you sure everyone is safe here? I saw the dark armored man in the forest and his power was ridiculous.”
 The Elder gave him a small, sad smile. “Randi felt that Potos was collateral damage in that man’s rampage and departed before you woke. He hasn’t been sighted since.”
 Claude wore a blank expression. “Randi?”
 The Elder nodded. “My son; he brought you back to us.”
 “Randi...?” Claude repeated, dumbfounded. He jolted up out of his seat as his mind went wild putting the connections together; Timothy had almost fallen out of his own seat from the shock. “Randi, the Mana Knight!? This town...that sword...that hair...I knew it!”
 His exhilaration deflated when he realized he had actually missed the chance to meet the legendary hero. He fell back into the chair like a defeated ragdoll.
 “I meet a hero so legendary prophecies were written of his coming ages before he was born, and I was unconscious for it,” Claude murmured, resting his chin on the table. “Of course that would happen.”
 “You’re lucky to still be alive!” Timothy said. The Elder threw him a dirty look.
 Claude ignored Timothy’s acidic tone. “That’s true, not just anybody can say they were rescued by the Mana Knight.”
 The chair creaked as the Elder’s aged legs lifted him up. He shuffled over and placed an assuring hand on Claude’s shoulder. “Perhaps your paths will cross in the future. But until then, you can stay here for the night.”
 Claude used his able body to assist in the recovery effort, delivering supplies to wounded villagers and running miscellaneous errands for the Elder. Word of the incident in Potos had traveled to the Kingdom of Pandora and a band of soldiers had arrived by sunset with the promise that a full relief team would follow the next day. With more feet on the ground, Claude felt his presence becoming more redundant and used it as an opportunity to retire for the night and get much needed rest from a long, eventful day.
 The Elder offered him the bottom floor, but warned that he would be sharing it if there was any refugee overflow. Claude found the “basement” to be a bit cozier than he expected. There were storage boxes lining one of the walls. Two antique swords hung from the wall near the staircase. There was a monochrome portrait of a woman in an oval picture frame. Claude didn’t recognize her and didn’t bother to speculate.
 In the corner were two armor racks. A worn helmet and breastplate sat on the first rack, which Claude did speculate to being older than him. The second rack stood empty and lonely.
 A glint from his lantern’s light caught his eye and he stepped over to an open storage crate. He cast a wary glance to the staircase before exploring the contents: kids’ drawings, old clothes, a plush rabite and a crude wooden sword. Claude lifted the sword and tested it with a few swings.
 “Ha. This looks like something I would’ve made,” he thought aloud.
 He heard light footsteps descending the staircase and quickly tossed the sword back into the crate. A girl a couple of years younger than him bounced off the bottom step in a green skirt and white button-up shirt. Her curly brown hair bobbed with every step. Tucked under her arms were blankets and a pillow. In his short time in Potos, he came to know the girl as Lydia.
 “Here you go!” she said cheerily. Her spirits were undeterred despite the day’s events.
 “Thanks,” Claude responded. The one set of sheets was all the confirmation he needed that he had the basement all to himself for the night. “Wait,” he called out as he noticed Lydia turn on her heel back to the staircase. His curiosity had crept up on him.
 “Hm?” Lydia hummed.
 “You’ve lived in Potos all your life?” Claude asked.
 “Yep, why?”
 Claude thought for moment but found no better way to phrase what he wanted to ask. “What’s Randi like?”
 “Uhh...he’s like himself, I guess,” Lydia said with a shrug.
 Claude wanted to roll his eyes but scratched the back of his neck instead. “I mean, is he heroic, is he generous, is he wise beyond his years?”
 A broad grin whipped across Lydia’s face and she stifled a laugh. “Randi? Wise? Boy, are you looking for the wrong guy!”
 Claude watched in bewildered silence as the girl skipped back to the staircase and returned from whence she came.
 Once he prepared his bedding, Claude yawned and collapsed onto the sheets, splayed out awkwardly. The dancing flame, obscured by the dingy glass of the lantern, reminded him of Lumina. He hoped the spirit would understand the delay and wouldn’t chastise him in his sleep.
 His mind dwelled back further to Gold City, and the memories brought a pang of guilt with them. Would Treece ever forgive him for leaving without her? If it was okay to bring her, Lumina would have said so...right? And would his parents be livid? He had told them more times than he could remember that he would leave the island one day. He slipped out without even leaving a note – hopefully they would understand that he could not ignore the call.
 Putting the light out, Claude embraced the land of slumber. There were no spirits, no malevolent entities, and no guilt trips to wrestle him awake this time.
 “These herbs will cleanse your body of poisons and Mana-induced sicknesses,” the Elder said, handing a few beet-like medical herbs over to Claude. They stood in the Elder’s kitchen, away from most of the hustle and bustle of the morning. There was electricity in the air that had jolted away the previous day’s somber atmosphere, filling the villagers with hopefulness. Getting Potos back to what it used to be had become a priority.
 Claude thanked him, setting his pouch of supplies on the table and rummaging through the contents to make room for the herbs and the handful of candy given to him earlier. He appreciated the help, but the Elder had taken to fussing over him like a parent. With Randi gone, Claude understood that parental instinct, especially with some of his childhood memories from Rodeigo Street.
 Once he finished stashing everything away, he clamped the pouch shut and reattached it to his belt. He made his way outside with the Elder close on his heels.
 “Now remember, it’s a straight path from here,” the older man explained. “You’ll be coming from the east, so when you reach the fork in the road, you’ll want to head west. As long as you stay on that road, you’ll reach the Water Palace.”
 “Sounds simple enough,” Claude said.  He stopped in his tracks and turned around with a nervous smile, “Thanks for everything. I was just some foreign kid that showed up at the wrong time and you took me in like it was nothing.”
 The Elder patted his shoulders and Claude could see the weariness in his eyes and his scruffy hair; poor guy, must not have gotten enough sleep.
 “The last time this happened, it was a blessing from the Goddess herself,” the Elder murmured. “Perhaps you can repay this old soul by returning one day and telling me the tales of your exploits. Lumina doesn’t just call on anyone!”
 “Okay, maybe I will. I can see Potos the way it was meant to be seen.” And maybe come across Randi too, he thought to himself.
 Claude left Potos with a stride of renewed confidence. Leaving Gold City was for the best, and Lumina may not have known it, but his request lit the spark of what Claude Augario would become. The attack on Potos, and Claude’s journey to the Water Palace, were just the first of many waves of a tidal shift in Illusia’s future.
 Timothy walked over to the Elder; the agitation from the day before had nearly evaporated. “You really believe him?”
 “The details are unimportant,” the Elder responded, folding his hands together. “I believe that he’s on a good path and needs guidance, and he should find that with Sage Luka.”
 “I hope you’re right,” the young man said, not looking wholly convinced.
[Image: fvT7lv1.gif]
Chapter 4: A Ripple in the System
By ClaudeLv250
The teenage girl bowed, a tangle of cerulean hair swallowing her head. “Welcome to the Water Palace,” she greeted, standing with a warm smile. Her hair was tied into a ponytail that split into three separate locks behind her. Green apprentice robes draped her body.
“Well, uh, hi Dae,” Randi said while glancing nervously over his shoulder. “It’s good to see you.” Randi had taken to some light armor, equipping leggings and a chest plate. The Sword of Mana was strapped to his back.
Dae could feel the anxiety radiating from the hero.  “I’ll take you to see Sage Luka immediately.” She turned around, tightened her robes, and led Randi along the hallway illuminated by the green flames arranged into two lines of elegant cauldrons.
The interior of the Water Palace was an impressive work of flowing fresh water. Miniature falls lined the walls and most of the platforms were submerged in shallow waters. Light filtered in through the stained glass windows.
Pressure plates in the floor summoned small bridges that closed the gaps between platforms, allowing the duo to cross. A shallow pool of water filling the next platform parted as they descended the short staircase.
Randi stopped in his tracks, raising a brow. “That’s new.”
Dae smiled. “Sage Luka wanted to address frequent complaints,” she said, motioning for him to follow her.
The water returned to its natural form when they left, reaching another staircase that led to the palace’s main chamber. Stained glass windows, cast in turquoise, rose from floor to the ceiling, bathing the center pedestal in light. Sage Luka stood with her back turned to them, staring at the glowing and resonating Water Seed atop the pedestal. Her sea green hair fell down to the small of her back.
Dae bowed again, “Sage Luka...Randi is here to see you.”
“Thank you, Dae,” Luka said softly, turning to smile at her visitor. The sage wore a white dress that draped over her legs under a sleeveless, dark blue top. Similar colored ribbons loosely hugged her arms before flowing freely, trailing her every move. A golden tiara of coral sat snugly atop her head.
“Luka,” Randi began, taking in the sight. “You don’t look a day over two hundred.”
Luka nodded. “It’s good to see that you’re all right.”
Randi’s grin faltered. “Potos was attacked...”
“I know,” Luka murmured with a sad smile. “The ebb and flow of the waters spoke to me. Mana’s resurgence was bound to bring some turmoil with it.”
Luka and Randi continued to discuss the situation while young Dae stepped over to the Water Seed’s pedestal. She picked up a brown backpack and sat on the stairs leading up the pedestal. Holding a simple wooden bow, she began to string it up, half listening to the conversation and the other half wandering the far corners of her mind.
“He came after me screaming about revenge, but I know there’s more to it than that.” Randi scratched his chin and looked up absently, then asked, “What do you think, Luka?”
The sage cast a worried glance towards one of the mini-falls running down the walls. “I’m not too sure myself, but ten years is a long time to plan an attack that was executed so haphazardly...”
Dae gathered a few supplies out of the backpack and began to organize them. She occasionally stopped to glance at Randi. She didn’t like to eavesdrop on Luka’s discussions, even though the design of the room gave her no choice. She also felt a deep shyness welling up inside of her around the one known as the Mana Knight. In truth, Dae had met Randi before from his annual visits, but she always found herself at a loss for words in his presence.
Randi shifted his weight; he looked like he wanted to bolt out of the palace at that moment. “I shouldn’t stick around much longer. Everyone around me is in danger.”
Luka slowly closed her eyes and released a deep sighed. “Where are you going to go? You should not have to keep running...”
Randi shook his head and shrugged. “I don’t plan to keep running. But right now I need to figure out what I’m up against. I’ll have to do some tracking and figure out what he’s been up to and where he got this power...he caught me off guard earlier, but I'll be ready next time.” Randi started to walk away, but then looked back just in time for Luka to grab him and pull him into an embrace.
“I am so sorry that the peaceful life you carved out for yourself didn’t last,” she murmured, her piercing red eyes carrying hurt and sorrow.
“I-I...I guess it comes with the job?” Randi’s cheeks flushed red and he laughed nervously.
“Are you going to see Primm?”
“I was actually in Pandora last night but I don’t want to drag her into this. His grudge is with me.” Randi could tell from the taut expression that Luka wasn’t fully convinced. “Look...I’ll leave through some inconspicuous path off the main road. He’ll come looking for me, or at least his goons will. I’ll...I’ll see you later, okay?”  
Dae jumped up and shouted “GOODBYE!” She covered her mouth in surprise after the awkward stares she received from both Randi and Luka. She didn’t mean to let it slip out that loudly. Collapsing back on the stairs, the sage’s apprentice wished she could shrink out of sight.
The leaves of the lullabud’s stem had wrapped around the blade of the sword. Claude was now in a tug-a-war competition with the monster.
The carnivorous plant was every traveler’s nightmare. Lullabuds gained their reputation by camouflaging themselves in a bed of flowers, lunging at any prey in range. Its lush pink petals would give way to a large mouth capable of swallowing small animals whole. Adding to its threat level was its horrifying ability to uproot itself from the ground to give chase on a mass of tiny roots doubling as an army of swift legs.
“This is ridiculous!” Claude growled through gritted teeth. The lullabud’s long, thin leaves had a powerful grip on the blade despite their appearance.
Claude twisted the sword before pulling back and kicking the lullabud, shredding the leaves. The flower slid back and chomped madly at him. He followed up with a clean swipe with his sword and grunted with frustration when only a few petals and leaves fell to the ground. Claude was now learning of another one of the lullabud’s dangerous qualities – its incredible resilience in comparison to other flora.
Perched atop a large rock, a rabite watched the battle with great curiosity. It leapt off of the rock and hopped over towards the fight.
Claude spotted the approaching rabite from his peripheral vision. “I guess you want a piece of me too, huh?” The rabite and lullabud snapped at the air in tandem.
Holding his sword high, Claude brought it down onto the carnivorous plant in an overhead slash. The lullabud burst into a cloud of petals upon expiration, showering him in floral remains. The rabite lunged at Claude, spiraling like a projectile and right into a powerful back slash. It hit the ground with a squeal near the river. The wounded creature turned tail – literally – and fled.
Claude sheathed his sword and watched the rabite disappear into the shrubbery before looking up to the clear blue morning sky, brushing rogue petals off of his shoulders. His first real battle, and he was grateful that he didn’t have to experience it under the blanket of night. Continuing onward, he came across a sign pointing to a western path. “Welcome to Neko’s!” was crudely scrawled across the wooden face.
“The Elder said stay on the path, and that’s what I’m gonna do...”
He stuck to the main road and kept towards the Water Palace.
“You’ve been unusually quiet since Randi left,” Luka said to the girl sitting on the steps of the Water Seed’s pedestal.
“I’m anxious about his arrival but I’m a little excited too...” Dae fiddled with the string of her bow once again. “He’s coming soon, isn’t he?”
“Ah, Lumina’s Chosen One...” Luka said with a smile. “Claude – he should be here soon. You should be there to greet him when he arrives.”
“But...what if he doesn’t like me? What should I even say to him?” Dae gasped and started to fret about, patting her hair and readjusting her robe. “Do I look okay?!”
Luka raised a hand to her mouth and laughed softly. “He is not here to ask your hand in marriage.”
Dae stopped and laughed too. “You’re right. There really isn’t much to be worried about. This is about the mission.”
“’Tis strange, Randi didn’t quite elicit this reaction from you...”
“His appearance was a surprise. Believe me, had I known he was coming, I would have already been through this.” Dae laughed at herself again.
Luka’s attention had turned to one of the many waterfalls in the Water Palace. In its surface was the shimmering image of a young boy opening the doors to the palace. The blue vest, boots and headband, spiked hair, the brown skin and mahogany eyes, roomy red pants and even the sword swaying at his side emblazoned his identity in her mind. He began to call out in the image.
The Sage clasped her hands together. “It looks like our guest has arrived,” she announced with a soft tone of relief.
“HEY! Anybody here?” Claude shouted into the empty hallway. Crackles of green flames and the distant sound of running water answered him. The scent of fresh water wafted through his nose. The torchlights and sunlight mixed and reflected off the surface of the water surrounding the hall, shimmering and dancing along the walls and ceiling.
“Guess it wouldn’t be a Water Palace without the water,” Claude kicked his damped leggings before crossing the hall to the opposite stairway. When he reached the top, his mouth fell open in surprise and his pace lulled to a stop.
 “I’ve NEVER seen anything like it!” he thought aloud, turning to take in the full sight of the main hall. Platforms ran the length to the chamber holding the Mana Seed. He inched towards the edge of the platform he was standing on and peered into the dark abyss.
“It’s not bottomless, but you wouldn’t want to fall.”
Claude jumped back from the edge and saw a teenage girl giving him an apologetic smile. Her arms were behind her back and she swayed a bit.
Crystal blue eyes blinked under her cerulean hair and she was wrapped in green robes; patterns evocative of spouts and droplets were stitched along her belt. A humble and studious aura surrounded her. There was no way – was this Sage Luka?
“Hello, I’m Dae Ripple,” she introduced herself with a bow. “I am Sage Luka’s apprentice.”
“Oh...I’m Claude Augario,” he said, performing a quick, awkward move that was supposed to be a bow but looked more like retching.
The girl was unfazed. “I’ll take you to see Sage Luka. Follow me, please.”
Dae lead Claude across a bridge to a platform submerged in water, which parted as they stepped into the pool. That would be a neat trick if it worked outside too, Claude thought to himself. They climbed the staircase to the seed chamber. Luka was waiting for them at the grand pedestal; Dae went to Luka’s side and turned to face Claude, casting her eyes down at the floor. It was pretty clear who was in charge here.
“Welcome to the Water Palace, Claude Augario,” the sage greeted, her voice smooth and mature. Her crimson eyes contrasted her appearance, but reflected the warm invite.
Claude raised an eyebrow, “You’re Sage Luka? No offense but I thought you’d to be a little older, for a sage and all.”
Luka grinned. “I’m a little over two hundred.”
Luka laughed and Dae tried and failed to keep her amusement to herself. “I’m sorry. I know it’s a shock but I love getting that response from visitors.”
“A sage with a sense of humor...I like that,” Claude replied with a chuckle of his own. “I needed that. These last two days have been surreal.”
“I understand you’ve had to travel quite the distance,” Luka said. “We should take advantage of the time we have now. There’s much to tell and I’ll need my chalice.” Luka made a quick motion with her hand.
“Yes Ma’am.” Dae responded, already descending a staircase to the left of the Water Seed’s pedestal and disappearing into the lower chambers of the palace. She returned with a small podium in one arm and an elaborate blue chalice in the other hand. She carefully placed the chalice atop the podium and stepped back as Luka approached it.
Luka held a firm grasp on the neck of the chalice and pressed two fingers against the mouth. What began as droplets appearing at the bottom of the receptacle grew as the chalice magically filled with pure water. She removed her hand from the neck and began to swirl the water delicately with her fingers.
“Gather around please,” she spoke softly. “There’s something I want to show the both of you.”
Claude and Dae approached the chalice and watched as a rainbow of colors began to emerge in the swirling water and formed an image.
“Look at that!” Claude exclaimed. He was witnessing magic right before his eyes.
The colors settled on the image of a teenage boy, girl, and a young sprite child. Their sight was fixated on the late, majestic Tree of Mana. The gargantuan tree was the highlight of the Pure Land, a sentinel standing watch over the world.
As Luka began to speak, the image in the water began to shift to different images of the trio’s adventure. “It was barely a decade ago when a young and confused Randi stumbled into the palace with the rusty Sword of Mana, lead here by Jema of Tasnica.”
There was a still image of Randi pushing open the doors of the Water Palace.
“He went on a journey to save the world with his newfound but trusted friends, Primm and Popoie. As the prophecy foretold, a great evil threatened the world and the Mana Knight would wield that Holy Sword and slay it while riding a white dragon.”
Now the chalice filled with the image of Primm, Popoie, and Randi holding the Sword of Mana high above his head, riding the white dragon Flammie towards the Mana Fortress.
“With the destruction of the Tree and the abuse from the Fortress and the Mana Beast, Mana was depleted. These events are collectively known as the Desecration of Mana.”
“Luka, I know the story...but how do I fit into this?” Claude asked, his eyes glued to the chalice.
Luka paused, folding her hands together over her dress. “Well, Claude...Mana is returning. We’re not sure why, but it’s undeniable at this point. The problem is that a great evil has also resurfaced. While the prophecy foretold a time when the Mana Knight would rise, this is an entirely different case.”
“What’s so different about this?” Claude inquired, finally looking up from the chalice.
Dae spoke up, “There’s no prophecy about this. We’re in the dark.”
Luke nodded. “Dae’s right about the prophecy, Claude, because the events from ten years ago are part of the river that is history, flowing and repeating onto itself. It made the prophecy of the Mana Knight possible.”
“There are no warnings for this, no instructions. Technically speaking, it’s not supposed to be happening,” Dae said with finality in her voice. Her blue eyes, however, showed concern. “This should be a time of peace. The Mana Knight earned that.”
“Okay, I get it. You helped Randi fulfill his destiny, but you’re at a loss with this. The problem I have now is that I still don’t know what ‘this’ is!” Claude exclaimed, throwing his arms out to encompass the Water Palace.  Who or what is Galbalan? Is this what Lumina is choosing me for?”
Luka stepped around the chalice with a slow, deliberate stride as she spoke in a hushed, solemn tone, “Galbalan is an ancient, manipulative spirit. He predates me by several millennia. You must understand, he is a raw entity of malevolence. He is not a twisted soul like Thanatos or Emperor Vandole, who sold their souls to the underworld for inhuman power and influence. Galbalan is a true Mavole; he was born evil, and is nourished by malignance.”
“ in Mavolia? He’s from the underworld!?” Claude felt numb and hadn’t even noticed that Luka had closed the distance between them. A fear crept along his being and shook him with familiarity. For just a moment, he had a flash back to the dream with Lumina and the silver lamp post, and he knew even then just how dangerous Galbalan was. He would be just a morsel in that monster’s conquest of hunger.
“You should have summoned the Mana Knight front and center when you sensed Galbalan’s first evil giggle! You can sense that, right? Do spirits giggle?”
“The reality is that Galbalan would be a challenge even for Randi,” Luka murmured. “We want to increase the odds on our side and not just rely on the Mana Knight.” Claude could tell that the lack of a prophecy declaring Randi’s victory over Galbalan was scaring the sage more than she would admit. “The elementals and I...we’ve come to a decision about how to deal with this situation. For the first time since countless generations, the spirits have agreed to choose mortal avatars to receive their power.”
Luka touched the water and scenes of the past faded out in a ripple, only to be replaced with images of the present. Claude appeared in the water, and above him was Lumina.
“Claude, you are the Chosen One of Lumina, the elemental spirit of light who currently resides on the golden isle. Dae is the Chosen One of Undine, the element spirit of water that occupies the lake surrounding this palace.” Dae appeared next to Claude and Lumina in the water. Above her was Undine, the mermaid-like spirit with a human torso that erupted into scales and a fishtail. “The other elementals are still enacting their own selection process and will inform me when they have made a choice.”
“Luka...” A mysterious voice echoed through the chamber and stirred memories within Claude.
White flames burned into existence next to Luka, with two golden orbs swirling around it. Inside of the passive flames was the spherical body of Lumina.
“Lumina? What’s wrong? Why are you here?” Luka questioned the spirit, concern flashing across her eyes.
“So that’s Lumina’s true form,” Claude thought aloud with both eyebrows arched. “You’re kinda weird lookin’...”
“Haha...well it’s good to see that you finally got here, Augario,” the spirit chided.
Claude winced. “You were the one that told me to take cannon travel! If Steyr got his coordinates right I would have been here yesterday.” Dae watched the exchange with wide eyes; she had never witnessed such rapport between a human and an elemental.
“You should be thanking me,” Lumina said, hovering over to Claude’s face; his flames burned brighter than ever. “I gave you the push you needed to finally leave that island.”
Claude shoved his hands into the pockets of his pants and looked away. “That’s true...but being here is surreal. Sometimes it feels like I’m not actually here.”
“So I trust all is fine, then?” Luka asked.
The spirit bobbed in the air, which Claude took as a sign of affirmation. “I just wanted to check up on you all. I’m projecting myself from Gold Tower.”
Luka lightly touched Claude’s shoulder. “I’ve told Claude as much as there is to tell. Now he must know of his choice...”
“Ah, yes!” Lumina exclaimed as if recalling a long lost memory. “Randi fell into his destiny as the Mana Knight upon birth. You could say that his fate had been determined since the dawn of time. There was no one else that could pull the Sword of Mana out of that stone during the Desecration – that is what the mortals are calling it, isn’t it? You do not have this ‘problem,’ Augario. I will not force you to be my Chosen One.”
Claude looked between Luka, Lumina and Dae in confusion. “I didn’t fail the test, did I?”
“You have a choice to accept this mission. You can take the steps to become my Chosen One or you can walk out of here and go home, or travel the continent and live your life as you please. I can choose another in your stead.”
Ever since encountering Lumina, Claude felt an obligation to see things through. Yet, here was a quick and convenient exit offered to him, where he could slip away from the hasty plans, ancient rituals, and the hateful, prying eyes of Galbalan.
But he had been chosen by Lumina himself.
Claude grinned, “Are you kidding? Of course I’ll do this! This is the kind of stuff that people dream about! If Galbalan is as bad as you say, and if you really think I can help you stop him, how can I say no?”
Dae beamed and waved to Claude, “Welcome aboard, we’re officially a team! It looks like we’ll be traveling together after all.”
“...Where’re we going?”
Luka pulled Claude and Dae close to her. “We’re approaching this realistically. We want to give you every chance to succeed against Galbalan; that not only includes power from the spirits but select tools as well. We don’t have to wait for the other Chosen to emerge before starting preparations.”
“I think you’re already one step towards that goal,” Lumina said, circling the trio. Claude shared a glance with Dae but she seemed to be just as clueless.
“Elinee the reformed witch lives in a castle in the Haunted Forest. There’s nothing to be worried about, I assure you,” Luka added upon seeing the shift on Claude’s face. “She is an ally and in possession of a weapon infused with Mana. This errand should take no more than a day for the two of you. We can start the Chosen process when you return.”
“Wait, wait,” Claude broke away. “I’m trying to take this all in as best as I can but...I thought we were already Chosen?”
“It’s a three step process,” Lumina began, moving uncomfortably close. Claude braced himself from the heat of the spirit’s blazing radiance, but it never came. “First we choose a mortal. If we feel we have chosen correctly, we will instill you with our blessing. All that remains is to touch the Mana seed of the corresponding element and the transformation process will be complete.”
“Transformation? I’m not going to turn into something, right?”
“Your physical appearance will remain intact,” Lumina replied with a slight edge to his voice. “But you will be infused with an innate power that will grant you some domain over an element. There are mages that train all their lives to even achieve a sliver of that kind of prowess and – Ugh!
Luka gasped as Lumina’s form became translucent and began to fade in and out of existence. “Lumina, what’s happening?”
“Creatures have manifested inside of the tower,” Lumina responded in an annoyed voice. “I will have to focus my energy to keep them out of the seed’s chamber.” He disappeared with a puff and the trailing of his voice, “Good luck!”
A thick silence blanketed the palace, disrupted only by the flow of water. Claude found his sight resting on the sage’s apprentice once again. Dae had called them a team. That would take some getting used to, but he was looking forward to it. “I guess we should get going?”
Dae nodded, “I’m ready.” The casual tone of her voice made Claude wonder if she was a seasoned adventurer. There was no telling what exactly the apprentice to Sage Luka could get up to.
“Dae, before you should stay the night with your family in Pandora,” Luka said, her words slow and growing heavier by the syllable. “This journey is going to be rigorous and demanding. This...may be the last you’ll see of them in a long time.”
“I’ll do that, Sage Luka,” Dae affirmed as she retrieved her backpack near the seed’s pedestal. “We have to go through Pandora to get to the forest anyway.”
Dae stuck both of her arms through the two straps, with the backpack now resting on her back. She stood next to Claude, “I’m ready now.” The duo said their goodbyes to the sage and began to leave.
Luka called out to them, “The two of you, please be careful!”
“We’ll try!” they replied in unison.
As the youths left the chamber and disappeared from her sight, Luka was awash with a wave of anxiety. “Are we doing the right thing? Do I even have the right to feel this way?” Her knees buckled in response and she just barely reached the seed’s pedestal before she teetered and collapsed upon its staircase. She blankly stared at the seed above with its unearthly aura, reliving one of the hardest decisions of her life.
For years she had raised Dae like a daughter, and within days she had to prepare her apprentice to face the heart of darkness and win. “This was maddening even with Randi, but now with Dae...” she whispered painfully.
“You should trust your faith in her,” a soothing, feminine voice responded. “You should trust our judgment.”
Luka looked up to find the water spirit Undine swimming through the air above, her scales glittering under the light of the stained glass windows.
“I wish faith was enough right now,” Luka said with glossy red eyes. “The Gemma Knights were legendary in their time when they sealed Galbalan. We are assembling children to do what they could not. A part of me wanted Claude to deny our request. That same part wishes to switch places with Dae...”
The spirit silently descended to Luka’s level, planting her obsidian staff on the floor and reaching hand out to the sage. Luka took her hand, feeling the coral texture of her skin as she rose to her feet.
“Faith is not just for us. It is to empower those that must carry the weight of the world.”
“I understand. Dae will be much better off with a sage that doesn’t collapse in a heap.” Luka wiped away a fresh tear, with an ironic smile. “I understand why you chose her. I understood that there was something about her when I chose her myself as my successor. Galbalan’s presence is bubbling at the surface, festering and corrupting the earth around him. But we still have time before his influence erupts onto Illusia, and I will do everything I can to build Dae and her allies into a force that the rest of the world can have faith in as well.”
[Image: fvT7lv1.gif]
Chapter 5: Ties that Unbind
By ClaudeLv250
The doors of the palace opened as the newfound duo stepped into daylight. Claude shielded his eyes from the sunlight with faint reminders of the day before. Descending the stairs, he hesitated at the lake water lapping his boots. He turned around when he heard Dae’s backpack hit the ground; her robe was draped over her shoulder, revealing the green shorts and top she wore underneath.
“What?” Dae asked as Claude gaped. “It’s my athletic wear. A wet robe is uncomfortable, you know?”
Claude cleared his throat. “Right. You definitely don’t look like the sage’s apprentice right now.” Dae led the way, wading across the water to dry land. Claude rolled up his pants and carried his boots as he followed her.
“If we follow the main path to Pandora we should arrive with little incident,” Dae explained as they recomposed themselves. “Randi took an inconspicuous path so hostile parties should not be lingering around here. There’s another way to the Haunted Forest nearby but there’s a dangerous cliffside. We would need a rope or whip to cross safely.”
One word bothered Claude like an itch he couldn’t scratch as he tied his boots up. “You said Randi? He was here?”
“He arrived about an hour before you did and told Sage Luka about the incident in Potos.”
Claude ran his hands through his hair in frustration. “This has to be some kind of divine prank. I’ve never been so close and so far from the Mana Knight. At this point I’d need the moons to align before I meet him.”
“Have you been chasing after him?” Dae asked, adjusting her robe. They followed the main path as they continued the conversation, and Claude realized that the river he had been following originated at the palace.
“No, I came across Potos after the attack by chance,” he replied. “I saw Randi in the forest when he grabbed the sword...the man he fought was insanely powerful...” If Galbalan is even stronger than that, we’re going to need a miracle, Claude thought, choosing not to share such discouraging thoughts with his new partner.
“You didn’t meet him then?”
“Oh, I was...unconscious...heh.”

Silence ensued, broken by the occasional breeze. Dae kept her eyes to the ground, lost in thought. Claude drew random shapes in the grass with his scabbard.
When the path opened up a bit, Claude stopped in his tracks. “Dae...” he whispered. She looked back to see him several feet behind her, staring at something ahead of them.
There, in the grassland near the river, gathered two pairs of rabites and lullabuds. One rabite bore a familiar wound, its golden fur stained with dried blood. An act of mercy had allowed it to escape and now it had returned with friends for revenge.
“I’ve fought this rabite before,” Claude’s voice was low and his eyes narrowed. “I let it get away.”
“And it decided to get reinforcements for when you returned. These creatures are more vindictive than I imagined,” Dae admitted with fascination. “Do you think they know that we’re here?”
The floppy ears of the rabites shot directly into the sky. All four creatures turned their attention to the path leading along the rocky wall.
“You had to ask that, didn’t you?” Claude murmured while unsheathing his sword. “Well, they’re blocking our way. I’m not going to make the same mistake twice.”
Dae grabbed her bow and an arrow from the quiver on the side of her backpack in one fluid motion. Claude glanced back to ask Dae if she was ready for battle but the arrow that whizzed past his face and embedded itself into a lullabud had answered that question.
Livid by the sight of their injured companion, the monsters charged into battle. Dae nocked another arrow as Claude approached and met the monsters with a wide horizontal slash; the creatures jumped away in surprise. The impaled lullabud soon found its movement severely restricted when another arrow invited itself into its stem, catching both leaves and tightly holding them in place. Claude took the opportunity to attack and cut down the lullabud by making a clean swipe through the stem. It exploded into a flurry of pink pedals.
Claude’s celebration was cut short as a rabite and another lullabud began to attack him. Kept on his toes, he sidestepped the lunging rabite and the snapping lullabud. Claude jabbed his sword into the rabite, back slashed the approaching lullabud, and then stabbed the rabite again for good measure. No one would be spared this time, and he made sure of it as he finished the lullabud off with an overhead slash. He whirled around and surveyed the battlefield littered with pedals and a rabite’s corpse. Something was wrong.
Someone was missing.
Claude spun around to witness the rabite, the ringleader, charging towards Dae. He was going to call out to her, but the look in her eyes and the motion of nocking an arrow showed that she was clearly in control. The rabite lunged with its jaws opened wide. She aimed and waited for the perfect moment. The creature was making this too easy.
Her hand flicked back and the arrow flew down the rabite’s throat. The force of the attack sent the rabite flying backwards a few feet through the air. Its limp body bounced off the ground and into the river with the arrowhead protruding from it. Claude was impressed. It never occurred to him how good she might be with a weapon of her own. His knowledge of archery was miniscule at best.
“You’re good,” he praised Dae, washing his sword in the river. “I think we’ll make a great team.” Dae blushed lightly and tried to hide her smile. Her shyness was returning now that the adrenaline was gone. The guy she was afraid wouldn’t like her was giving her compliments.
“You really think so? This was my first experience of actual comba- WATCH OUT!”
What appeared to be an ordinary flower near the river had sprung to live and sank its teeth into Claude’s left leg. Claude fell onto his backside, mostly from shock. Arrows rained down and pinned the lullabud to the ground. Claude finished it off by promptly jabbing his sword through its body and into the ground. He was rewarded with a flurry of pedals as Dae ran and kneeled down next to him.
“It’s not that deep...all this fabric from these baggy pants does come in handy,” he joked with a wince.
“You feel okay? Nothing is out of the ordinary?”
“No, everything!” The pain in Claude’s leg suddenly spread like liquid fire through his body.
“You’ve been poisoned, haven’t you?” Dae asked worriedly. She gasped as Claude’s skin started to gain a blue hue. It was a common poison amongst lullabuds and several other monsters, and it wasn’t fatal, but it was known to be painful for the recipient, wracking their bodies for hours until flushed from their system.
In one swift motion, Dae slammed her bag onto the ground and began a maddening search through its contents. Items began to spill out from her ferocity. Claude started to reach for the pouch on his waistband but Dae grabbed his arm to stop him.
“Don’t move. It’ll only make it hurt more.” Realizing her mistake, she quickly retracted her hand. Just touching him could have sent a wave of pain through his entire body. She noticed that he didn’t react to her touch, so she assumed that the poison hadn’t taken full effect just yet.
Claude had to admit that the pain was annoying but it wasn’t unbearable. A smile flashed on Dae’s face as she ripped a red herb from the bag and held it in the air triumphantly.
“Eat it!” she demanded, shoving the medical herb towards his face. Claude grabbed it and took a bite before wincing again.
“This tastes worse than how I feel right now,” he complained with the spicy aftertaste left in his mouth. The fire in his veins dulled and Claude’s skin returned to its natural brown color. He looked at the half-eaten herb in his hand with awe, “This thing is powerful! Never had to use one before.”
Dae scooped the contents that had been removed in her frenzy back into her bag while Claude found and sheathed his sword.
“Thanks,” he said. Dae tried not to blush again as she strapped her pack onto her back. Taking deep breath, she attempted to initiate a conversation as they continued down the path towards Pandora.
“You’ll want to be careful. That ‘flower’ was a lullabud, and it’s dangerous because-”
“It’s poisonous and can camouflage itself with other plants,” Claude finished her sentence. “I know, I read Dan Shiner’s Bestiary.”
“Oh...” Dae murmured and looked to the ground, sliding her vision to the river they were walking next to. “That’s good. I learn most of my information from Luka. A two hundred year old sage is pretty much a living library.”
“Gold City has a nice library, I’d go there when I wanted to be alone. It was my only real connection to the outside world. Dan Shiner did an observation and study on the many creatures that manifested during the Desecration. I don’t know how true it is but he says he even interviewed Primm for information on the more obscure monsters.”
“Coincidentally, Primm still lives in Pandora,” Dae said. Claude’s eyes lit up.
“Oh, I completely forgot!” Claude smiled. “We should drop by her place while we’re there. I HAVE to meet her, and she should probably know about this Galbalan business. We’ll definitely need her help.” He let out a small chuckle as he thought: the world is on the verge of a crisis...and I’m still trying to meet heroes.
“That’s fine by me, although I’ve never met her personally myself,” Dae told him. “I’ve been in that palace for so long...”
They started to cross over the river on a small bridge. Claude released a sad sigh in the ensuing silence.
“What’s wrong?” Dae asked.
“I knew everything there was to know about that lullabud, but it still got me. I let my guard down.” Claude sighed again, “I know I agreed to help protect the world from Galbalan but I’m really just an amateur. Sometimes I wonder what Lumina sees that I don’t.”
Before Dae could reply, a rustling from the adjacent bushes cut her off. Just as they stepped off of the bridge, a man burst from the darkness of the shrubbery in a run; he pivoted just in time to avoid crashing into them. The man craned his neck as if to say something to them but tripped over his own feet and slammed his back against a large tree. An apple was loosened from the collision and comically fell onto his head.
Dae giggled but Claude folded his arms in suspicion. She may have been amused by this man’s antics but he hadn’t forgotten that the man had almost knocked them into the river.
“Sorry, sorry...” the stranger muttered as he picked himself up off of the ground.
“Are you okay?” Dae asked.
“Yeah, I’m fine,” said the man, dusting himself off. He stood tall in a sleeveless brown vest with fur around the collar, over a white shirt and blue pants and brown shoes. Black gloves that revealed his fingers ruffled his hair and felt the lump left by the apple. This man was well built and quite capable, yet he had an air of peace about him.
“What were you running from that almost caused you to knock us down?” Claude asked, slightly annoyed.
“Well...there used to be a village back there but it was overrun by Kid Goblins years ago.”
“Oh no...” Dae whispered. “Why would you even risk being there?”
“That happened around ten years ago. Now they’re back, and there’s something...very valuable to me there that I need to get. There are more of them than I thought so I might have to get some help and come back later...”
The man’s eyes trailed to the bow tied to Dae’s backpack and eventually to the scabbard by Claude’s side.
“...You’re warriors?”
“Something like that,” Claude replied flatly.
The man leaned forward with a mix of hope and anxiety on his face. “You can help me!”
Claude wasn’t exactly thrilled by the idea. “Whoa, wait a minute...”
“What’s wrong?” The stranger asked innocently, standing upright.
Dae spoke weakly, “Well...there’s...something important we already have to do...and...”
“We’re not looking for treasure,” Claude cut in. “We’re already in the middle of something important ourselves.”
“I...see...” the man replied, dejected. “It was rude of me to pull you into my problem. I guess I’ll...go home then...” he said as he started to walk down the path leading to Pandora and Potos.
“We’re sorry...” Dae apologized, though she was sure he didn’t hear her.
“We don’t need to apologize,” Claude told her. “Luka and Lumina made our mission pretty clear, and he was pretty vague about that treasure. We have no idea what he was looking for.”
“I’s just that he looked like he could really use our help. And we never even got his name...”

“I know what you mean but that’s all the more reason why he shouldn’t be anywhere near goblin territory.”
The duo continued on their way until they stopped at a fork in the road. “Pandora shouldn’t be too far away now,” Dae mentioned, leading Claude down the southern path.
The guard followed his routine pace along the wooden gate that marked the northern entrance to Pandora. He bore the standard guard uniform: a plain grey helmet, blue pants, and thin upper armor. Even the extra monster activity couldn’t make guard duty any less boring. He stretched and spotted two approaching figures in the distance mid-yawn. Clenching his spear, he readied himself for the potential danger...then dropped it as he ran into an embrace.
Claude blinked when Dae left him in her dust. From the moment they spotted the gate together to Dae ripping down the road towards the guard had been a blur. She practically leapt into the guard’s arms.
Dae and the man finally pulled themselves apart. “Dae!” he cried. “What are you doing here three days early?”
“There’s important news I have to tell the family!” She said excitedly. The man looked over her shoulder. “Oh...Ren, this is my traveling companion, Claude. Claude, this is my older brother Renaldo.”
Renaldo rolled his eyes at the mention of his name. “Hello Claude,” he said as they shook hands. “Just call me Ren.” He turned back to Dae and with a sly grin, said, “So...why’d you pick a guy to be your traveling companion, hm?”
Dae scowled. “I know what you’re doing,” she warned him. “Don’t.”
Ren let out a hearty laugh. “Haha...well, if it’s that important, you should get home right away. Don’t worry about me; my shift is will be over soon so I’ll see you guys there in a bit.”
The hill on the northern gate gave the ideal view of the town, populated with medium sized homes for similarly sized families. Houses were placed in a grid-like fashion, giving the town a neat and compartmentalized atmosphere. Several small rivers twisted and turned with the calculated accuracy of man, dividing the town into subsections. Rising in the distance were the pearly white walls of Pandora Castle, brilliantly bathed in the light of the sun.
Dae navigated the grid of homes with ease, leading Claude to a house with an olive awning and bundles of chartreuse roses lining the windows and walkway. “This is my home,” she announced, grabbing the doorknob and pushing it open with care. They were met with the aroma of cooking meat.
“Mom? Dad? I’m back!” She called out as Claude closed the door behind them.
Rapid footsteps crossed the ceiling and a small blur zipped down the staircase, tackling Dae to the floor with a hug.
“Noa!” Dae cried.
It wasn’t until Dae got back on her feet that the young boy noticed, with wide eyes, that they had company.
“Who’s that?” he asked inquisitively.
“This is my traveling companion Claude. Claude, this is my younger brother Noa...and those are my parents, Nathan and Florice Ripple,” she gestured to the entrance of the kitchen where her parents now stood. Nathan had short brown hair, much like the oldest son, and Florice had long cerulean hair, which she passed down to the two youngest children.
“Dae, you aren’t supposed to be here for another three days.’ve brought a guest!” Florice grabbed her daughter for a hug.
Dae closed her eyes and enjoyed the moment. “There’s important news I have to tell everyone, but I want to wait until Ren gets back.”
“So what’s with this three days stuff?” Claude asked once mother and daughter had broken apart.
“I get to visit my family once a week. I usually pick the last day of the week to do it.”
“Claude, was it?” Nathan said while shaking the young man’s hand. “Thank you for escorting our daughter home. I feel uneasy about the roads these days with the increased hostility from the wildlife. And then there was the Potos incident. Please, sit down and relax.”
The family gathered around the table and spent the time talking, mostly about Claude. He tried his best to convince Noa that he wasn’t cool because of his sword.
“Do you use it a lot? I bet you use it a lot!” Noa squeaked, bouncing in his seat.
“I’ve been in a couple of battles,” Claude replied, taking a sip of water. It was technically true.
“You fight any dragons!?”
Claude nearly choked while Dae shot the child a big-sis-is-not-amused glare. “Noa, no one is fighting any dragons!”
“But how else is he going to tame his own dragon like the Mana Knight?” the boy whined, receding into his chair with exaggerated, glossy eyes.
“I don’t think the Mana Knight fought his dragon...” Claude managed once his airways were clear.
The rest of the conversation was about Gold City as Claude described the golden roads, buildings, trees, and grass to his captivated audience. Seeing how entranced they were with his home, he warned them of the unfriendly and unwelcoming attitudes of citizens. He didn’t really expect the Ripple family to ever make their way to Gold City, but he still felt it was his duty to warn them of what they might be getting themselves into if they ever took an extended vacation.
Ren returned home as the sun began to set. Shortly afterwards, dinner was served: it was a bird native to the Upper Lands whose name escaped Claude, and a few vegetables Dae had brought that grew best near the shallow waters of the Water Palace. Once the bird was thoroughly devoured, Dae decided the time was right to tell the family.
“I’m ready to make my announcement...” she said quietly, standing from her seat. All eyes turned to her as Ren tapped his glass with a fork for added effect.
“The reason I am here early and traveling with Claude is because we are preparing for a great journey...”
“Really? Cool!” Noa exclaimed, teetering on the edge of his seat.
“What kind of journey?” Ren asked, propping up his chin with the back of his right hand.
A nervous chuckle ran through Dae. “This is going to sound greatly exaggerated but I assure you, it’s true. We have been chosen by the spirits to go on a great protect our world. It’s going to be long and dangerous so I wanted you all to know that-”
The Ripple household erupted all at once with excited questions.
“The spirits? The elemental spirits really spoke to you?”
“Can I go too?”
“What does Luka think about this?”
They continued to bombard Dae, all except for Florice. In the fervor, her seething went unnoticed. She vibrated with an intense, explosive mixture of raw emotion until her poor body could take it no longer and she screamed.
“NO!” She jumped up from her seat and slammed her palms onto the wooden table. “I won’t allow this, I won’t! My only daughter, taken from me to live in the Water Palace on the whims of the Sage, and now you’re being sent on a suicidal journey!” The ensuing silence was suffocating until Florice choked on a sob and continued her emotional rant, “Before you were born, before Ren was born...your father and I decided...we came to Pandora...we would be b-born and” Florice collapsed in her chair and wept.
Dae froze where she stood. She knew there was resentment behind her apprenticeship but Florice had never reacted with this much volatility.
“Oh mother...this is different. I was not forced into this.”
Florice slumped, too broken to reply. Nathan held his wife and began to guide her towards the staircase but stopped and said, “I think you two better rest for tonight. We’ll have to discuss this tomorrow.” They both disappeared to the upper floor.
Dae sighed, “I didn’t expect that reaction at all.”
“It’s pretty shocking news, really,” Claude murmured. He wasn’t sure what to say, as he had found himself similarly opposing his parents on certain matters and never really finding a solution.
Ren rose from his seat, “Dae, if it makes you feel any better, I support your journey.” He pushed Noa towards the stairs; such an outburst was foreign to the youngest of the children and he was left shaken by the event, but only for a moment. He regained his composure and began to protest until Ren pushed him again and he bolted up to their room.
“It does make me feel better, Ren...thanks.”
Claude got up and went over to the daybed under the window, peering into the night sky. Hints of the twin moons peaked through the thin cloud cover. Dae busied herself, cleaning the table and finding sheets for Claude.
“So what’s the plan now?” he asked when she came over with a bundle under her arm.
Dae looked on, her face unchanging. Her stony expression was the only thing keeping the tears at bay. “Th-this changes nothing. We accepted a mission from the Sage Luka and the spirits. We will see it through.”
“All right then. Tomorrow we get that Mana weapon.”
“Yes. We should do that as soon as possible.”
As the activity in the house settled down, its occupants turned in for the night. Two of them however, lay awake, as both pondered what tomorrow would bring, and if they were truly walking the right path.
[Image: fvT7lv1.gif]

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