4. A War Without End
Ryu’s practiced hands took little time to apply the stitches to Peter’s head. Fortunately none of the cuts the boy had sustained had been too serious, although he had been a little woozy from blood loss. Now that he was bandaged up he would recover with a little rest.
Sam was napping in the corner, having collapsed shortly after arriving. He was physically unharmed but completely exhausted after his trip through the void. Arthur watched him and reflected on their journey. A normal trip through the void was a struggle to keep his physical self from being pulled apart in every direction by the elemental flows. Taking another person required not only maintaining his own form but the form of his passenger. To have the power to make the trip with two passengers he had ‘borrowed’ power from the fragment inside of Sam. What resulted was a chaotic struggle as the power of the Dark God threatened to consume them all. It was a stern reminder to Arthur of just how great the threat they faced was.
“It’s only going to get tougher from here, isn’t it?” Arthur said at last, breaking an uncomfortable silence that had reigned ever since he had finished recounting the events at the school.
This had only been his first encounter with the enemies he had prepared his whole life for, and while he had succeeded in bringing the kid back alive, if it had not been for the sudden intervention of that strange ice-wielding woman things likely would have ended differently. He was not confident about his chances with even stronger opponents.
Ryu’s troubled expression was all the answer he needed. “Hopefully, the next fragment will not make itself known until Ai has returned.”
Ai wasn’t able to traverse the void yet (Arthur was only able to because of the boost of power his fragment granted him) and thus had to travel through more conventional means. Depending on where exactly in the world she was and the availability of commercial air travel it could be days, or even weeks, before her return.
“By fragment, you mean the thing inside Fariman?” Peter asked. He had been struggling to put together what his two hosts had been talking about since he arrived, but he was finding it very hard to follow their conversation. Something about fragments that appeared inside of people, and a dark god’, and elementalists. They kept promising to explain it all when Sam woke but Peter was getting impatient.
Ryu nodded but didn’t speak further. Peter grumbled but didn’t press it. He instead put his energy into trying to reason things out for himself. The trip through the void had been very confusing. At first he thought that he had gotten himself involved in some kind of ‘other world’ anime plot, that they would pop out in a mystical world filled with dragons and magic. The rural farmhouse that they arrived at broke that theory. He was pretty sure they were still on Earth. Teleportation, then.
But where exactly had they been taken? Peter had traveled a little, sometimes to accompany his father on his business trips, sometimes as part of his obligations to the school’s baseball team. He had very little experience with rural America, however.
Arthur again broke the silence, “That woman who used ice, Ica. Do you think you can contact her?”
Ryu scratched his chin. “Perhaps. Depends on her connection to the void.”
“She was very powerful,” Arthur said. “And she helped us once. If we could make her an ally, our chances would be much better.”
“I’m not so certain.” Ryu rose and took to pace, a habit of his when he was thinking over a problem. “The forces of the Dark God are not the only ones who will be interested in the fragments. Some will be looking to protect them, like us, but others will be looking to use them for their own purposes. Until we know more, we should approach other elementalists with caution.”
“It seemed like she knew Fariman,” Peter chimed in, hoping the contribution would help. “She called him by name and everything.”
“That was particularly unsettling,” Sam said as he awoke from his nap. He sat up and tried to wipe the exhaustion from his eyes. “And considering a flying woman had just tried to kidnap me with wind powers, that’s saying something.”
Ryu rushed over to Sam and put a hand on his forehead. It seemed like the old man’s body gave off a faint glow. “You’re still exhausted. You should rest some more.”
Sam brushed his hand off. “I’m fine. I can rest later. First, I think you guys owe me some answers.”
Peter walked over to Sam and took a protective position beside him. “Damn right they do. I think it’s time we learned why we’re any better off here than with the crazy wind-witch.”
Ryu and Arthur exchanged glances. They knew this was coming sooner or later, but telling someone their life was changed forever due to no fault but their own was never going to be easy.
“Very well,” Ryu conceded. Over the next few minutes Ryu explained about the flow of the elements, the connection to an element that every person is born with that helps define them, how Elementalists learn how to command that element and use it as a weapon.
Sam and Peter whispered excitedly to each other during the explanation about which games this magic system most closely resembled. Ryu had no idea what they were saying, but they seemed to be understanding.
“So, what does all this have to do with me?” Sam asked. “Why are all these Elementalists after me, specifically?”
“To understand, you need some historical context. A long time ago, there was a master of the Dark Element who grew so powerful that he became one with the flow. Him and the Darkness were inseparably bound. He was the Dark God, Adaghast. His reign was one of terror and genocide, such that it would make a modern dictator blush. It took a gathering of Elementalists from throughout the world to finally vanquish him. Adaghast could not be killed, though, not completely; he was too connected to the flow of the Darkness. So his power was shattered and sent scattering across the elemental flows.
“Such power seeks to one day return. The fragments of this power surface from time to time inside of ‘carriers’. You are one such carrier, Sam.”
“Fariman,” Sam corrected. “Only my mom calls me Sam. So basically, I got evil god bits inside me. Got it. So that wind chick, she was trying to kill me cause of it?”
“Not exactly.” Ryu noticed that he had been unintentionally clenching his fists. He tried to force himself to relax. “The Dark God is attempting to return. He reaches out for the power that was once his, trying to draw it to himself so that he may be restored. There are those who serve him, fools who believe they will be rewarded upon his return. The Wind Elementalist who came for you was one of them. Their goal is to capture carriers so that the fragment inside them can be extracted and returned to their master.”
Peter was unconvinced. “So, let me guess, you’re the good guys, who protect carriers out of the goodness of your hearts.”
“Lins …” Sam began.
Peter cut him off, “I know, Fariman. This all sounds like some shit out of a video game and that makes you want to believe them. But we don’t know these people. All we know is they took off to the middle of nowhere, told us some story, and asked us to trust them. Maybe this Dark God does exist, but for all we know they’re just going to sell you out to him, too.”
Arthur came to stand by his teacher’s side. “How could you think that?”
“Well, can you give us one reason why we should trust you? Why we shouldn’t just make a run for civilization and ask the police, the military, whoever, to protect us?”
Ryu and Arthur exchanged glances. The old man nodded.
“I am also a carrier,” Arthur said. “My life is just as at stake here. The police are not equipped to deal with what is coming at us. We have got to look out for each other.”
Something about the way Arthur said it, an earnestness in his voice, made Peter believe him.
“So what now?” Sam asked. “How do we stop these guys from coming after me?”
“You will be safe here, for the most part,” Ryu explained. “I have warded this place from the eyes of our enemies, and I have a few other tricks besides should they manage to find it.”
“The plan is to hide until this all blows over?” Sam asked.
Arthur shook his head. “They will find this place one day. It is only a matter of time. We have to take measures to protect the fragments.”
“There are three options when dealing with a carrier,” Ryu continued. “The first, and simplest, is to simply kill the carrier. The fragment returns to the flows and is out of the reach of the Dark God for the time being.” He held out his hand to stall Peter’s predictable outburst. “Even if I did condone such actions, which I don’t, such a thing would only be a stopgap. As the Dark God’s reach has grown over the years, the will of the fragments to return has also grown. In the past, decades might go by before a carrier was found. Now it may only buy months, or even weeks.”
“The second is to extract the fragment ourselves. We could bury it, drop it in the ocean, seal it in a vault. Such a thing might buy us more time. Unfortunately, the act of extracting the fragment will almost certainly prove fatal to the carrier.”
“Not a big fan of how two of the three options here involve me dying,” Sam said.
Ryu nodded. “Which brings us to our only real option. Carriers have more powerful connection to their element than others, a result of having that fraction of the Dark God’s power inside of you. We make use of that, train you as an Elementalist, and you will be able to fight off any of his minions that come for you.”
To Ryu’s surprise, Sam was grinning. “You want to train me to use magic? Why didn’t you just say that from the start, skip all the foreplay? I’m in.”
“It will not be easy,” Ryu said, hoping to make the boy understand the gravity of his situation. “It will take time, and discipline. And when you do have control over your power, you will be thrust into the middle of a war that has been raging since …”
“I wonder which Element I am,” Sam said, completely ignoring Ryu’s warnings. “I hope it’s water! I’ll wash my enemies away with tidal waves.” He imitated (poorly) a stance used by water masters in an old cartoon series.
“It’s easy enough to find out,” Arthur said. “I’ll be right back.”
He left Peter and Ryu to watch over the excitable Sam as he went through one pose after another as he imagined what wielding his new powers would be like.
“So anyone can learn how to be an Elementalist?” Peter asked.
Ryu nodded. “We are all born with a connection to one of the elements. It is just a matter of learning how to control the flow of that element around you. It used to be a fairly common practice, actually, until the Dark God took over and began killing any who didn’t serve him.”
“Then I’m going to learn too. I might not be a carrier, but I’m not about to leave Fariman to do this on his own.” Peter’s tone brooked no argument and Ryu had none to give.
Arthur returned with a small box, about the size of a deck of playing cards. It gleamed a polished silver and was covered in etchings of interlapping circles.
“Hold out your left hand,” Arthur instructed. “Lay this down flat on it, then cover the top side of it with your right hand. Keep both hands extended, like you are trying to press it flat with your palms. Bend your elbows and hold it close to your chest.”
Sam did as he was instructed, riding a wave of giddiness. The box was oddly heavy for its size, and while the bottom was cool to the touch the top was strangely warm.
“Now close your eyes. Imagine yourself in an empty space. There is nothing around you, nothing in the distance, no boundary to the vast emptiness. It is cold, very cold, and deathly silent. But you feel something around you. A presence. It is watching you. It is pressing in on you. It wants to consume you. If you do not do something it will have you. You feel its pressure? Push out against it. Fight back. Push!”
Sam had always had something of an active imagination so it was not hard for him to picture Arthur’s scenario. He felt it all; the emptiness, the loneliness, the presence that threatened to consume him. He pushed back against it, as much in the reflexes of fear as following Arthur’s instructions.
The box burst into flames. Sam startled at the sudden heat in his hands and dropped it. It flickered out before it hit the floor, then lay there, shining silver as if nothing had happened.
“The Element of Fire,” Ryu said. He managed to keep the surprise out of his voice. That was an intense reaction for a very first contact with one’s element. The power of the carriers was frightening.
“Nice!” Sam exclaimed. “That would have been my second choice.”
“My turn,” Peter said. He reached down and gingerly touched the silver box, expecting it to be hot from the flames. It was not. In fact, the bottom side was cool.
“So was it like this?” he asked as he imitated the position Sam had taken.
When Arthur didn’t answer Peter looked to him. Arthur’s eyes were fixed on Sam, an intensity there that made Peter nervous. “Arthur?”
Arthur snapped out of whatever it was. “What? Oh, yes, bend your elbows a little more. That’s good. Now close your eyes.”
Peter repeated the scenario. Nothing seemed to happen. He tried again, forcing himself to really feel the pressure of the imaginary presence. Nothing.
“I don’t think it’s working,” he said.
“Look at the box,” Ryu answered.
Peter opened his hands. The top of the box was no longer silver but a grainy brown. He ran his fingers along it and felt a familiar texture. “Wood.” It only lasted a few moments before returning to its original silver.
“Wood,” Ryu agreed, nodding. “Your element.”
“Wood?” Peter repeated, this time incredulously. “What kind of lame element is that?”
“It is also known as the element of nature, or the element of life,” Ryu explained. “It is the element of living things. With its flows you can connect to living things such as plants and animals, and you can even use the connection to help the wounded.”
“So I’m a healer?” Peter asked.
“That’s not too bad,” Sam said.
“Oh, easy for you to say. You got fire. When you have you ever known me to play a support class? I’m always DPS, tank if I’m feeling bored. But I’m never the White Mage. How could this happen?”
While the two argued the merits of playing a support class in various video games, Arthur took his mentor aside to have a private conversation.
“We can’t train him,” he whispered. “You know as well as I do how dangerous Fire Elementalists are.”
“There is no choice in the matter,” Ryu said, sadly shaking his head. “We will just have to be careful how we proceed. Teach him the value of control.”
“And when we have a fragment-empowered Fire Elementalist running around, setting cities on fire, then what?”
Arthur rarely snapped at his teacher. Ryu couldn’t blame him in this instance. He knew Arthur’s history with Fire Elementalists.
Ryu looked over the red-headed boy who was now busy trading wood-related jabs with his friend. “An element should push on a person’s personality, whether they are trained or not, but this boy hardly seems like the violent type. If we are cautious in his training, introduce him to his power gradually, we should be able to keep him in control.”
“I hope you’re right,” Arthur said, sounding unconvinced.
“Oh shit!” Sam exclaimed so loudly and suddenly that Arthur thought for a second that their enemies may have found them already. “I never came home after school! My mom’s going to kill me!”