Chapter 20 - Lost and Found
When I next opened my eyes, it was daylight and Terra was gone.
I sat up and rubbed my eyes, ignoring the strange sense of emptiness in the pit of my stomach.
“Ah, Jimmy! You’re awake.”
I turned quickly, but it was just Jenna. “Oh … hi, Jenna.” I said, trying (and failing) to sound upbeat.
“Are you feeling okay?” Jenna asked, looking concerned. She raised a hand already partially converted into scanning mode, but I caught it and forced it down.
“I’m fine. I just … I’m a little confused.”
“I’m not surprised.” She sat down beside me, saying, “Terra wanted me to tell you she was sorry th-”
“That she left again?” I shook my head. “Without so much as a word? Thanks, Jenna, I noticed.”
“She apologized,” Jenna continued, a hurt look on her face, “for accidentally putting you to sleep last night. She didn’t intend to, and she tried for hours to undo the spell to no avail. As for her ‘disappearing’, we spoke this morning, and agreed that she should go ahead to Wukice to help your friend Casey. She’s faster than you, and less likely to cause a scene than me.”
Feeling monumentally stupid, I said quietly, “You’re right ... both of you were right. I’m sorry for snapping at you like that, Jenna, it’s just …” My hand fell to my chest. “It hurts when she’s not nearby.”
Jenna’s expression softened. “It’s more than the bond, isn’t it? You must care a great deal for her.”
“How could I not? I mean, she’s beautiful, she worries about me, and she even puts up with all the silliness I seem to attract. When I even consider that one day we might get married, I can’t help but feel that I’ve got more luck than anyone in the world.”
“Except for One, you mean.”
“Luck and One generally go hand in hand.” I said, allowing myself a small grin.
Patting me on the shoulder, she said, “Don’t worry, Jimmy. I’ll keep your little outburst secret, cross my heartstone.”
We cut through the forest as we continued on. The trees here were different from those of the forests near the Saybaro. Those were mostly transplanted trees from Earth; oak, pine, cedar ... anything that didn’t die in transit. These woods, however, were chronoan; while not yet as large as the ancient trees of Ircandesta, these trees still towered over our heads. It felt strange to walk along the shaded paths, tiny beams of light shining through the leaves of the trees. I listened with interest at the sound of birds chirping, squirrels and other small wildlife scurrying about their business.
There wasn’t really a path, but it wasn’t like we were cutting our way through a jungle, either. We mostly stayed by the river that fed off of the lake where we’d rested the previous night.
About mid-day, we stopped for a break. Jenna napped beneath a tree as I sat beside the river and took out the One doll. It had been inactive since we met the Seed. I half-expected to see the doll come to life, but it just sat in my hands and looked at me silently with its button eyes.
I dipped my hand into the river and splashed the cool water onto my sweating face and chest.
Something hit me in the back. It wasn’t a strong kick; I barely rocked forward on my knees. Still, I was certain it had been a kick.
I turned to see the One doll hopping around, holding its foot. “Owowowowowow! That’s no fair, being all solid and heavy and stuff! You were supposed to do this!”
He waved his hand at me. I instantly flew backwards, did a double somersault in the air, and landed face down in the water. It was as though an invisible hand was manipulating me like some sort of puppet.
As I gasped for breath, One started laughing his tiny head off. “Dude, I totally scared you!”
I glared at the doll as I climbed out of the river. “Yes, One, very funny. Now dry me off.”
My hakama promptly caught fire. One started laughing again as I slapped the flames futilely for a few moments before diving into the river again.
As I climbed out again, I saw him raise his hand again. “No! No, don’t bother drying me off. I’ll be fine.”
I didn’t have another change of clothes (with the exception of the adventurer clothes, which I didn’t consider an option), so I pulled off my keikogi and hakama and left them to dry in the sun. Wearing nothing more than my underwear, I turned back to the doll and said severely. “If you’re quite done having fun at my expense-”
“Oh, Jimmy! You’re stealing the happiness from the world!”
I narrowed my eyes at the little doll as realization swept over me. “You aren’t One, are you?”
“Jimmy, Jimmy, Jimmy.” said the doll, shaking his head, “Of course I’m One! I mean, who else would wear these ridiculous clothes?”
“Uh huh. Who are you?”
“I don’t know what you mean.”
Have you ever seen a plush doll trying to look innocent? Ever see one failing to do so badly? Both are quite entertaining and ultimately disarming.
“Fine. Will you at least tell me what you want?”
He shrugged. “The usual things: lots of friends, plenty of good food, and a seventeen foot chicken feather so I can tickle people from a distance.”
I glared at him.
Bursting into laughter again, the One doll said, “Seriously, you need to go to Erris. Totally.”
“Uh huh. And who’s in Erris? Emperor Calliban? The Burger King? Jack perhaps?” After the incident with ‘Ronisgald’ Mcdonald, I had familiarized myself with several fast food mascots, both Earth and Vinta-based.
That caught my attention. I leaned forward, “Really? I mean, you sure? We thought he was heading to Wukice.”
“Well, you were wrong then, weren’t you?”
It occurred to me that I had never heard of a town called Erris. I had heard of Brigsonstrat and Wukice before I had ever set foot in them, but the name Erris drew a complete blank. While it was possible I’d just never heard of it, I had to consider the source.
I crossed my arms and sat back against the tree. “Yeah, Erris. Right. I’ll get right on that.”
Apparently whoever was controlling the One doll didn’t notice my sarcasm. “Excellent! I knew I could count on you, you clever bean! Now, when you get there-”
“I’ll wait for further instructions.” I assured him.
He beamed widely at me before falling back to the ground, once again just a doll. The moment I picked him up, he shouted, “BOO!”
The sound reverberated through the forest, rustling the trees and scaring the Nocturnes out of me. I dropped the doll, which landed on its feet, and laughed at me for a few minutes before falling again to the ground. I started to pick it up again, but thought better of it and scooped it up with my still-damp hakama instead. There was some struggling and muffled conversation, but I ignored it as I took the doll to my pack and shoved him inside.
After putting on my still-damp clothes, I woke up Jenna.
“Mmm. Jimmy? Are you ready to keep moving?”
“Yeah.” I told her. “I think I’ve had more rest than I can take.”
“One moment, please.”
As she stood and stretched, I walked back to the river and knelt down again, a bit thirsty. As I reached to get a drink, I saw a face in the water staring back at me.
“Ack!” I said, falling backwards.
A slender form rose from the water. It was a girl, probably eight or nine years old appearance-wise, though as an elemental, she could have easily pre-dated the Glyche.
“How hard is it to not screw with my damn river?” She asked, a dangerous edge to her young voice.
“I beg your pardon, Miss. I didn’t realize you were there.” I bowed respectfully. “I’m Jimmy Saka …”
“Sakamota, I know”
“You do?” I asked curiously
“I’ve seen you and your big feet at the Saybaro a few times.” She gave me a teasing smile.
I muttered another apology, my face turning red.
Jenna glanced over at the elemental, a curious look on her face. “Oh, hello there. You’re an intriguing bio-form.”
“I’ll take that as a compliment, “She said with a crooked smile, “I’m an undine.”
Undines were water spirits, usually formed around specific bodies of water after centuries of low-level crystallic exposure. Though they couldn’t leave the water for more than a few minutes, they could travel anywhere along the same body. The knowledge that the river next to me connected to the Saybaro made be feel a little more relaxed.
The undine drew herself up and put her hands on her hips. “Now, let’s talk about how Jimmy can make it up to me.”
Believing it best to be nice, I replied, “What can I do to help?”
“Well, since you’re so keen on repaying your debt, please, follow me.”
She floated along the river, Jenna and me not far behind. After a few moments, she led us into an area where the river widened into a small lake. On the side of the river was my portable cabin.
I only recognized it because of the Sakamota crest painted on the side. Everything else was completely trashed; the windows were busted, the door was hanging on one hinge, and trash was everywhere.
“That little …” I muttered. The elemental looked at me curiously. Shaking my head, I told her, “I’ll clean this up, no problem.”
Jenna and I started cleaning the area up. I started in the house (which, believe it or not, was worse than the outside) while she focused on the windows and the doors. I had a few extra pairs of clothes hidden away inside the cabin, but Arc had found them and used them as plates; the hakamas and keikogis were covered with bits of food and smeared mayonnaise that had been there for a few days from the smell. Before I could figure out what to do with them, the elemental whisked them away and took them out of the cabin.
I went about cleaning up the inside of my cabin. It took the better part of an hour, but I finally got the place straight. The bathroom still smelled awful (as I unclogged the toilet and mopped up the spilled toilet water, I made a mental note to beat the Nocturnes out of Arc next time I saw him), so I left the window open to let it air out before going outside to help Jenna.
She was already finished. As I approached, She crouched down so two skrievers could crawl up her arm and reintegrate themselves into her chest. There was something downright unsettling about skrievers turning into secondary sexual characteristics, but I wisely kept my comments to myself.
The elemental came floating over with all my shirts and the sheets from the two beds clean, but wet. I took them from her, bowing my head. “Thank you, er …”
“Rydia. Rydia Faircastle.” She curtseyed. “And thank you for getting rid of that eyesore. It’s only been here a day … ever since I chased that little Galden away after he relieved himself in the river.”
“You must mean Arc.” Seeing her suspicious look, I added, “He’s the one who stole this from me.”
“Well, I’m glad I gave him the boot then. As if it’s not bad enough with random campers leaving their junk around.”
As we waited for the clothes and sheets to dry, Rydia continued complaining. Apparently, the forest’s close proximity to Naidyr, Wukice, and a small plains village just to the east called Krine made it a prime camping ground for nature lovers, hikers, and families looking for a nice vacation. From the sounds of it, most were kind enough not to leave a mess for the inhabitants, but not all.
Once the sheets were dry and back on their beds, I pressed what looked like a doorbell next to the front door. In moments, the cabin had folded itself back into a small cube no bigger than my fist.
As I attached a strap to the cabin and slung it over my shoulder, Rydia commented, “You know, if you’d like to help me out with something else …”
“No offence, Ms. Faircastle, but we are on an urgent mission; a renegade cyborg is-”
“Cyborg? You mean the guy with the metal arm?” Rydia asked curiously.
I nodded. To my great alarm, Rydia’s head began to steam. “Ooh, I’d like to get my hands on him! You know what he did? I just popped out to say hello, and he just walked through me! Through me! He didn’t even bother stepping around me. Do you have any idea how annoying it is when people walk through you?”
I didn’t, but that didn’t seem to be the right thing to say. “I’m very sorry. We were sent to stop him.”
Her cheery demeanor returned instantly. “Oh! Well, in that case, maybe you can help me after all. He was making pretty good speed southwards until the Cleftans caught him.”
“Cleftans?” I asked, startled. “In Wenapaj?”
“Yeah, they’ve got a little settlement a ways south of here called-”
Rydia raised a translucent eyebrow at me. “Yeah. I’m surprised you know the place; the Cleftans have gone to great pains to keep it secret. Anyway, they managed to put one of those freezy-fields on him and floated him southwards.”
“The Glyche have surprisingly little data on the Cleftans.” Jenna told me, tapping her bottom lip in a thoughtful manner. “What can you tell me about them?”
“Other than the fact they cover every inch of their bodies? Not a great deal. Visitors may be welcome, but the Cleftans are notoriously tight-lipped about their history.” Turning back to Rydia, I asked, “What do you want us to do?”
“One of the stream generators they use to provide power to the town is leaking into my river. No one seems to have noticed, and I can’t get close enough to tell them ’cause the leaking energy has clogged the river with crystallic.”
I glanced at the river. It did seem to be moving kind of slowly.
“No problem.” I told her. “Show us the way and I’ll make sure to let them know.”
As we followed Rydia down the river, Jenna said, “This is a most fortunate turn of events. The Cleftans must possess a significant amount of strength to have captured Zig.”
“Yeah. I was kinda wondering about that myself.”
There were a lot of mysteries concerning the Cleftans, and I wasn’t talking about their overt modesty. During Calliban’s Crusade, the siege of the Cleftan Region supposedly only lasted three hours. No one really knows what the Cleftans did to repel the Galden invasion force, but it had been most effective; no Galden soldier would even approach the Cleften region after the initial attempt, some even deserting when ordered to do so.
Some theorized that the Cleftans were an innately magical race, like the Vuestans, but had to wear clothing to keep their magic from dissipating from their bodies. Others claimed the clothing was due to the Cleftan region’s rapidly changing weather and form (from what I had heard, it could change from a snow-filled mountainous region to a desert in a matter of hours). Still others claimed that the Cleftans had a high-technology society, but a genetic experiment left their DNA scarred, leading them to cover themselves in clothing to hide their misshapen bodies.
There were some isolated cases of Cleftans marrying outside their species, but the spouses in such cases were tight-lipped as to what their mates looked like beneath the layers of cloth. It was the rare secret that was perfectly kept.
Rydia skated beside me, moving across the surface of the river as though it were ice. She questioned me intensely, mostly about the goings on at the Saybaro. Despite her early comment about my feet, it seemed that she stopped by my home on a regular basis.
“Why didn’t you ever say hello?” I asked curiously. “I would’ve loved to have someone with whom to speak while at my post.”
She shrugged. “Your little stream is kind of muddy too, and I didn’t want to look like a slob.”
“It’s about three feet deep now.” I told her, “It’s cleared out considerably since we got the hydro-power plant online.”
“Really? Well, I’ll definitely be stopping by sometime; it’ll be nice to spend more time on that side of Wenapaj.”
Rydia and Jenna conversed for a time about themselves and their lives. There was something to be said for a purely magical being conversing with a purely tech being. I listened for awhile, but my mind eventually wandered back to Terra. I couldn’t help but worry about her.
I didn’t notice Rydia stop until I almost walked through her.
“Aaagh! Jimmy!” She said, holding her clenched fists at her sides. “Watch it!”
I quickly stepped back, bowing. “Oh! I’m sorry, Rydia! I was …”
“Lost in thought, yes, I know. I’ve seen you staring off into space like that while watching your bridge.” She pointed to the river. “I can’t go any further than this.”
I glanced at the river. She wasn’t kidding about the crystallic being a problem; the water was filled with blue and green energy swirls indicative of a stream leak. Small crystal formations were beginning to form along the sides of the river, tightening the flow into a progressively narrower stream, which effectively kept our water-elemental friend from continuing, as there simply wasn’t enough water to sustain her form. Even if she could, that much rampant stream energy was no healthier for her than it was for me.
“Okay,” I told her, “It’s just down the river, right?”
She nodded. “Look for a Cleftan named Morwen. She’s usually the most colorful of the bunch, but if that doesn’t help, just look for the one with a violet beret; I used to see him around the generators a lot.”
“Couldn’t anyone be wearing a purple beret?” Jenna asked.
“Nah, Cleftans tend to stick to their hats. It’s about the only way to tell them apart.”
I bowed to Rydia once again, saying, “Thank you Rydia. Feel free to say hi if you see me on the bridge next time, okay?”
She smiled and curtseyed at both of us before merging with the river. I could hear her humming happily as the river carried her away.
“What a nice girl.” Jenna said, smiling.
We walked along the river now, just Jenna and me. I tried to start a conversation a few times, but I just couldn’t think of much to say.
“Thinking about Terra, huh?” She asked after a lengthy stretch of silence.
I nodded in response.
“I have a few questions about the two of you, if you don’t mind.” She waited eagerly for my response.
“Sure. Ask away.”
“Well, she told me that you two are partially bonded. Is it true that you can sense her thoughts?”
“Yeah, I think I can.” I said, smiling. “It’s nothing as specific as words, but every now and then I feel what she feels.”
I wondered if it worked both ways. As if to answer me, that wonderful feeling of warmth spread through me again. I could almost feel her hand around mine.
“Fascinating. I’ve heard that fional stalk potential mates and create a partial bond so that he or she will form an instant attraction. Is that what happened to you?”
I thought about it a moment. “I caught glimpses of her at the Saybaro and in Iniagusville before meeting herher face to face in the palace, but it wasn’t until we bumped into each other after saving CIC Alaina that we had kissed … er, partially bonded.”
“Would you care for her even without the bond?”
“Without a doubt.” The certainty with which I said that surprised even me. It was the truth, though. “I had already fallen in love with her before we kissed. Getting to spend time with her has only strengthened that.”
Jenna nodded, but a sudden rustle in the bushes stopped her from asking another question. I quickly stepped in front of her, Glint already half-way out of the scabbard, but there was nothing there.
I spun about at the sound of another rustle, and caught a glimpse of something bright red. Unfortunately, it disappeared before I got a good look.
Jenna confirmed, “It looked like the end of a scarf.”
I called out, “I’m Jimmy Sakamota, and this is Jenna White. We aren’t here to cause any problems!”
There was no response, save the quiet whisperings of the tree leaves caught in the evening breeze.
“Let’s keep moving.” I said, sheathing Glint.
Jenna seemed worried. “Are you sure that’s a good idea?”
“Not much choice.” I admitted. “We need to get to Erris. Let’s go, but keep your eyes open.”
We continued on, our eyes peeled for signs of whoever was trailing us. A few times I caught another glimpse of red, but it always vanished just before I was able to get a better look.
We eventually stopped again as the suns set. I dug in my pack for the canteen only for Jenna to hold it out to me.
“Sorry.” She said, cheeks slightly gold. “I needed to cool off earlier.”
“Not a problem.” I said, taking it back. I raised it to my mouth but paused; something was wrong, something I couldn’t quite put my finger on. I glanced around, thinking that perhaps I’d caught a glimpse of our mysterious pursuer but just didn’t realize it.
“Jimmy?” Jenna asked, her eyes scanning the forest as well.
I shook my head. “Ugh. Our friend’s just got me paranoid, that’s all.”
I took a swig from the canteen. That’s when it hit me; it was nearly full. The last time I’d taken a drink had been shortly after we parted ways from Rydia, at which time the canteen was only half-full.
“Jenna.” I said, trying to ignore the world as it slowly swum in my vision. “Where ... where did you refill the canteen?”
“I topped it off in the river about fifteen minutes ago.” Her eyes widened as she realized her error. “But ... but it didn’t register as dangerous!”
I couldn’t respond; stream energy swum in my vision. I took a step toward my pack, but my sense of balance was completely gone; two steps forward and I found myself crashing to the ground. I stopped only inches away, stream energy radiating from my entire body and lifting me in the air.
“Jimmy?” Jenna asked, grabbing my hand to keep me from drifting away.. “Are you okay?”
I was too busy watching the colors swirling around me to reply. My sudden weighlessness was definitely far more interesting than the Cleftans who stepped out from the nearby bushes and surrounded us. Jenna tried to fight them off, but went limp at the wave of a Cleftan’s hand. Several Cleftans lifted her by her arms and carried her away.
The leader, a Cleftan wearing the red scarf, looked up at me and shook his or head before tying his scarf to my foot and pulling me along like a balloon as the world dissolved around me.