Chapter 2 - Friends
Mikaen stood in the clearing for a few moments, part of him thinking that perhaps if he waited the strange guy would return. After a few minutes passed without incident, he rolled his eyes and tossed the paper the strange man had given him aside.
Rubbing his eyes, he muttered, "Great. Maybe I'm finally going crazy."
A rustling on the ground caught his ear. Glancing down, Mikaen noticed that the piece of paper was spinning about an inch above the grass. It eventually stopped with the arrow now pointing to one of the trails that led from the clearing.
"That'd be west, if this place is like Earth." Mikaen squinted at the canopy of leaves; he couldn't see much of the sky, but it looked as though there where two suns. "Pretty big if, though."
Mikaen knelt down and picked up the paper. He didn't feel any kind of spell or enchantment emanating from it, and he was normally very perceptive about that kind of thing. He let the paper fall back to the ground. Almost instantly, the paper started spinning again, eventually pointing at the same path as before.
It seemed to Mikaen that he had two choices: follow the path laid out for him by the mysterious stranger, or head off on his own. Glancing up at the treetops so distant that they seemed to brush the clouds, Mikaen knew that if nothing else, the stranger had at least been telling the truth about one thing; the planet he was on was definitely not Earth.
With a sigh, Mikaen started down the trail his 'compass' indicated. There might be trouble if he followed the strange fellow's directions, but there was no telling what he might run into if he headed off on his own on an alien world. It may sound strange, but he'd take certain trouble over uncertain trouble any day.
A rustle caught Mikaen's ears. He glanced back at where he landed, half expecting to see the stranger asleep beneath the tree again. His eyes widened; the oak tree had completely vanished, and the last of the massive chronoan trees was settling itself back in its proper place. He watched as the last few roots slid back into the dirt.
He had seen his share of strange beings back on Earth, usually as a result of the Devastation: the master of light and shadow known as Schrade, the mysterious gunman known only as 'The Stranger', and the explosive but well-intentioned Bombshell were the strangest, if Mikaen had to name names … among the humanoids, anyway. His mysterious benefactor was different, though; He didn't display extraordinary strength or agility, and just as with the 'compass', Mikaen didn't sense any magic from the fellow. Still, there was something about him that seemed off somehow, not in a bad way but still very different. Shaking his head, he glanced back at the paper to get his bearings and started walking.
The forest was pleasant, even if Mikaen wasn't in the mood to enjoy it. These trees were whole and undamaged, much different from the scorched forests and overgrown cities he was accustomed to traversing. Not all the trees were massive; some were even familiar: the white bark of birch trees stood out among the undergrowth.
Mikaen stopped to check his compass every time he came to a crossroad. As he watched the paper spinning for the third time, he thumbed the flash drive around his neck. Did Syrin know he was gone? Would she somehow be able to bring him back if the stranger's lead didn't pan out? What of his best friends, Jyle Crestorm and Jade Siercka? At what point would they give up if they couldn't find him?
It was the gentle calm of the forest that bothered him the most. He was used to patrolling around Misakren, where Revs made frequent patrols in a vain attempt to find the stronghold of the Knights of the Star. If it wasn't the Revs, it was some magical beast such as a chimera or a behemoth roaming around for food. There were plenty of dangers left in what was left of the old United States to keep a knight on his or her toes.
After half an hour of nerve-wrackingly pleasant hiking through the Prylliat Woods, Mikaen broke from the rough trail indicated by the compass into a clearing with three distinct paths leading from it. The paths were made from crushed stone and looked to be at least moderately well maintained. Civilization obviously wasn't too far away, much to Mikaen's relief. He tossed the paper on the ground for guidance. This time, however, the paper spun about three times before abruptly stopping, the arrow stretching and twisting until it formed a question mark.
"Great." He said, picking up the compass. "Now what?"
Before he had time to try to figure out what it meant, a green-robed boy with blonde hair, long pointed fuzzy brown ears and a long furry tail rushed through the clearing, looking more than a little panicked.
Quickly folding the paper and slipping it into his pocket, Mikaen called out, "Hey there! You all right?"
The lad skidded to a halt. His blue eyes widened at the sight of the knight.
"Oh, thank the Creator! Mister, you've got to help me!"
Mikaen blinked. The boy's lips hadn't moved at all, yet he was sure he heard the boy's voice. He didn't get to consider it for long. A spine-rattling roar erupted through the clearing as what was chasing the boy tore through the brush and landed only three meters from Mikaen. The monstrous reptile's reddish scales, eight legs, and wicked-looking fangs made it look like something that clawed its way out of hell.
The creature was a durien, one of the few unfriendly creatures that lived in the forests of Ircandesta. Fortunately for both Mikaen and the boy, duriens are easily distracted. Confronted with not one but two potential meals, the durien looked from Mikaen to the boy indecisively.
All thoughts of being lost on an alien world vanished as Mikaen's fighting instincts quickly took over. In a way it was a relief; this was the sort of thing Mikaen was accustomed to; this he could deal with.
He didn't bother with his sword; Justice was a good blade, but Mikaen knew from experience he'd need a weapon with a bit more reach. No, this was a job for Truth; he pulled the short hiltless blade from the scabbard on his belt. With a surge of magic, a four-foot long pole shot from the base of the blade. Mikaen quickly spun the pole-arm around and snapped a short cylinder on the butt end. The cylinder quickly reconfigured itself, the blue-green swirl of magic already gathering around the three prongs in response to Mikaen's magical talent.
Mikaen moved with practiced speed, the entire process taking less than three seconds. It was a good thing too; apparently deciding that Mikaen would make a bigger meal, the durien snarled and leapt toward him. The boy scurried away almost instantly, leaping up into the trees and disappearing from sight like a scared monkey.
Moving aside with practiced grace, Mikaen swung his weapon at one of the creature's legs as the creature trampled past him. The beast roared as the blade tore a gash through scale and muscle, leaving a trail of oozing black blood across one of its trunk-like legs. A flash of something metallic caught Mikaen's eye. He leapt aside as the barbed tail flashed toward him, barely missing being skewered. As the creature's tail swung near again, he deftly sidestepped out of its path. With a flick of his blade, he sheared the barbed tail from the creature.
The creature let out screech of pain as black blood rained from the stump of its tail, filling the air with an acrid stench. Some of the blood splattered across Mikaen's selanium mail, giving him a full blast of the foul odor. As Mikaen reeled back from the smell, one of the durien's flailing talons caught him full in the chest. The sharp claws didn't pierce his shirt (selanium cloth was renowned for being extremely strong, if a bit hard to clean), but the force of the blow sent him flying across the clearing. He tumbled roughly across the ground, barely able to maintain his grip on Truth as he skidded to a halt.
As Mikaen struggled to get to his feet, the creature crouched down on all eight legs like a cat about to pounce. He managed to get the amplifier end of his weapon up just as the creature leapt toward him.
Magic came to him easily, far more easily that it should have according to Syrin. There were no wands, no incantations, just his mind bending the raw aether to his will. A gasp left his lips as a surge of energy shot from his hands down the length of Truth, encircling the amplifier for a moment before rocketing toward the durien as a bolt of lightning. The electrical blast hit the durien in midair, knocking it against a tree clear across the clearing with enough force to make the bark crack.
The creature gurgled as it rose to its feet, foul blood spewing from its mouth. With a final cry, it collapsed to the ground and was still. Slightly out of breath, Mikaen quickly rose and approached the creature. With a swift stroke of his weapon, he severed the creature's head.
"Better safe than sorry." He said, sending the ghastly head flying beyond the edges of the clearing with a well-placed kick augmented by his tek-boots. It made a very satisfying thud somewhere in the undergrowth.
Mikaen started to wipe the creature's blood off his weapon when he heard something rustle in the bush behind him. He spun about, the still-bloody blade of Truth at the ready.
Seeing only the eyes of the boy staring back at him in fear, Mikaen let out a sigh of relief and lowered his weapon. "It's okay, kid. Nothing me and Truth couldn't handle."
The kid cautiously approached the dead body of the durien. After a few moments of prodding the creature with the tip of his sandal, he gave it a hard kick.
"Yeah! Serves you right!"
Just as before, the boy's lips didn't move. Mikaen wondered if the boy's entire race had a natural empathic ability. Psionic talents were fairly uncommon on Earth, but Mikaen reminded himself that he wasn't on Earth anymore.
Finished with his assault on the durien's headless body, the boy's eyes fell on the dismembered tail. He glanced up at Mikaen with bright blue eyes. "You mind if I have that?"
Glancing distastefully at the severed tail, Mikaen said, "Help yourself."
With squeal of glee, the boy scampered out over to the tail, his own fuzzy tail wagging behind him. Mikaen continued to stare as the boy rolled the tail up in a large coil.
The boy glanced back at Mikaen as he stuck the coiled tail in one of his side pouches, careful not to touch the barbs. "You've never seen a vuestan before?"
Mikaen shook his head.
The boy grinned at him. "My people don't have tra- … trach- … ugh, we don't have vocal cords. Our … what was it you were thinking … psionic abilities? They're supposed to be some kind of evolutionary trait."
"A race of mind-readers." Mikaen snorted at the thought. "I don't suppose you know someone named Syrin."
The boy glanced around excitedly. "Nope. Is she your friend? Is she here too?"
"No, but I wouldn't put it past her to find a way to send me across the galaxy just to get me to talk to a shrink."
"Galaxy? What do you mean by …" the boy's blue eyes grew even wider. "Whoa! You're from another planet? Cool!"
Mikaen scowl went unnoticed as the boy circled around him, staring as though Mikaen were some bizarre animal.
Feeling a bit uncomfortable under the scrutiny, Mikaen said, "Look, I don't have time to explain this, um …"
"Jeronem." The boy's long furry ears waggled a little, making him look particularly impish.
"Right. Well, I'd like to stay and chat, but I'm looking for a village called Homestead."
Jeronem beamed at him. "Really? I was just headed home myself! Follow me!"
As his new friend headed down the path on his right, Mikaen pulled the paper with the arrow out of his pocket and set it down on the ground. When the paper spun and pointed to the trail Jeronem took, he couldn't help but let out a groan.
"Great." He muttered stuffing the paper in his pocket. "Just great."
As he stood up, Mikaen found himself staring into the upside-down face of Jeronem.
"Aah!" Mikaen stepped back, his reflexively going to the hilt of his sword before he stopped himself. When he realized it was just his new friend he scowled and said, "Don't do that!"
Jeronem swung back and forth, the end of his tail wrapped around a low-hanging branch. "Come on, come on! Let's go!"
Landing deftly on his hands and feet, Jeronem headed toward the path he took a moment before, Mikaen following reluctantly behind.
Teleportation is a tricky thing for a Dreamer. It's a tricky thing for everyone really, but unlike mages who have years and years of research on the various forms of teleportation, Dreamers pretty much have to learn as they go, either from another Dreamer or direct experience. As such, actual skill varies depending on the Dreamer. One was not on the skilled end of the spectrum.
When the world stopped spinning, One found himself in a tree near the shore near a small waterfall that flowed smoothly into the base of a nearby stream. He was also hanging upside down.
"Gah!" With some difficulty, he managed to untangle himself from the branches of the tree and land on the ground with minimal difficulty. Brushing himself off, he took a quick glance around his glanced around. There was no sign of Elduran … or anyone else, for that matter.
"That's strange." He muttered, scratching his head, "I should be in Homestead."
Years of being a Dreamer made his body instinctively throw itself to the ground independent of his somewhat lagging mind. This was a good thing, seeing as a red-hot torrent shot through the air he had previously been occupying, missing his descending ponytail by mere inches.
Clutching his head, One shouted, "Fire bad, FIRE BAD!"
The inferno died instantly. One glanced up, one eye peeking through his fingers. Through the haze, he saw a figure cautiously approaching through the underbrush, a glowing staff in his hands.
The figure lowered his staff and peered at One through a small set of spectacles. "One? Narrator Number One? By the Creator, it is you!"
The smoke cleared in a matter of moments, revealing a middle-aged vuestan man with blonde hair and blue eyes. The tips of his ears were just beginning to turn white, a sign that he was about fifty years old, middle-aged as far as the vuestan were concerned. Still, there was something in the face that One recognized immediately.
"Elduran?" One let out a laugh when his old friend nodded. "Dude! When did you get so wise and venerable-looking?"
Elduran held out his hand, smiling. "It took years to get it right. Long time no see, old friend. Sorry about the fire, but I thought you were a durien."
"No, still just a Dreamer."
"Just a Dreamer." Elduran shook his head. "You haven't changed at all. I suppose you hear that all the time, though. Here, let me get that for you."
Elduran waved his staff over One. Instantly, all the dirt and leaves vanished from One's clothes. One was impressed; some might scoff at using magic for laundry purposes, but One had long ago learned that practicality was more important than showmanship.
"Hey, thanks!" One sniffed at his shirt, asking, "Is that peppermint?"
"Huh?" Elduran sniffed at One before frowning. "I thought I fixed that. It was supposed to be 'After the Rain' scent."
"Hey, clean is clean, as far as I'm concerned." One raised an eyebrow at his friend's staff. It seemed to be made of blue crystal, but the spikes near the top looked quite familiar. "Say, Elduran," he began, "Your staff … isn't that-"
"Durien's tail, yup." He gazed fondly at his arcane tool. "The cells crystallize over time, which is perfect for storing spells for later use. I can squeeze in hundred of enchantments into this staff; way more than that old chronoan staff I used to have."
One grinned, remembering when a much younger Elduran extolled the superiority of a chronoan staff. Something about the living wood empowering the spells stored within, though One never paid much attention to magical theory; he may have been a Dreamer, but he was no magi.
Elduran gave him a warning glance, obviously picking up One's thoughts. "Don't say it."
"I said nothing. Why would I say something if I said nothing?" One said innocently, holding up his hands.
Shaking his head, Elduran let out a sigh. "I'd love to chat, but I'm afraid my son might be in trouble."
"Your son?" One asked, thinking of Jeronem. "Wait, you're married?"
Elduran nodded. To One's surprise, the vuestan was starting to blush. "Do you remember Kathryn?"
One's jaw dropped in disbelief. "Wait … you married Killer Katy?"
"She's even more beautiful now than she was back then, though I'd suggest not calling her that if you see her."
One remembered the fiery-haired young vuestan woman who nearly fried him on several occasions. As a Dreamer, he couldn't die of course, but being set aflame or blasted by a bolt of lightning wasn't a pleasant experience.
"Jeronem's our boy. He'll be thirteen years old next week." Elduran glanced in the direction of the cave. "I ran into several of his friends about an hour ago. They told me he was poking around here."
"Wait," One interrupted, "Your son … little dude with yellow hair?"
Elduran looked sharply at One. "You've seen him? Is he okay?"
One smiled reassuringly at his old friend. "Yeah, just a few minutes ago, and he had a pissed-off durien close behind. Don't worry though; the durien is gone, and your son will be along soon enough without a scratch on him."
Elduran bowed his head in gratitude, relief visible on his face. "I owe you my thanks."
One shook his head. "Not me, actually. An off-worlder named Mikaen took out the durien, pretty quick too."
"Yup. Actually, that's why I was looking for you; he wants to go back to his planet. Between you and me, I think he needs a bit of shrink work. I gotta warn you, though; he'll be a tough nut to crack. You know those brooding hero types."
"I've run into my fair share. Well, don't you worry; I'm sure I can help him out. A spell for all occasions, remember?"
One rubbed the right side of his head and said, "I'm trying not to. In any case, I figure you're the best chance the guy has of getting home."
Elduran chuckled. "I'll see what I can do. Is this off-worlder part of an assignment by any chance?"
"Nah, just some guy I ran into. I came to Ircandesta to get away from work." One let out a sigh. "You think the universe could handle itself for a few days without bothering me, y'know?"
Elduran put his hand on One's shoulder. "I know Homestead isn't the Elsewhere, but you're more than welcome to put up your feet. The Trabi festival's only a month away."
One considered it. The Trabi Harvest festival (named for the trabi grain, a colorful variant of maize native to Vinta) was full of singing and drinking and excellent food, followed by a storytelling competition and the crowning of the Trabi King with the ceremonial crown, which would pop from the heat of the wearer and send the colorful popped trabi kernels flying in all directions.
Still, he was eager to get back to his little vacation. "Thanks for the offer, man, but I'm kinda wanting to head back to the Elsewhere before someone else falls out of the sky. I appreciate the offer, though."
Elduran smiled amicably at his old friend as they shook hands once again. "Well, if you change your mind, you know where to find me."
"You got it." With that, One vanished.