Disclaimer –

All characters and dialogue present in the PS2 game Dark Cloud are registered trademarks and copyright of SCEE and Level 5. I do not own it in any shape or form.

A/N: The part about Patina Bog Forest is indeed true, not just my own invention. There's a whole wealth of info in this game, just by talking to the NPCs.


Matataki Village Part I – The Silence of an Empty World

Adventure Day Thirty-Three

Koramar Road

Afternoon

They had been travelling for a few hours on the road between Nolun Valley and Wise Owl Forest, before the thrill of the road began to wear thin. The sight of the dusty path stretching into the distance before them was almost disheartening, Toan thought as he trudged onwards, Xiao scuffing along behind him. The road was surrounded at both sides by densely forested hills, sometimes alternating for steep, rocky cliffs.

Not exactly the most exciting scenery. No wonder most stories leave this part out.

Xiao heaved out another huge sigh – her second in as many minutes. Clearly, her excitement was wearing off now that the familiar buzz of Nolun Village had been left a few miles behind them and the only thing interesting now was the next oddly shaped rock on the side of the road. He knew exactly how she felt…

"Xiao." He wiped a gloved hand across his face. The day had certainly heated up following their departure. Had late spring ever been this Terra-cursed hot? Still, he continued on doggedly, "What's on your mind?"

"Master forgot to mention how boring this would be," Xiao muttered reproachfully, her ears flickering as the call of a bird sounded in the trees on their left. She sniffed the air, moving on in front of him, picking up the pace as she forced them onwards.

"I did ask if you really wanted to come," Toan pointed out as he jogged to catch up, shifting his pack to a more comfortable spot. If felt as though the straps were rubbing him raw, right through his poncho…

She heaved a big, fake-sounding sigh. "Xiao supposes Master is right." A big-toothed grin was shot his way. "Xiao must insist that it's time to stop for food, though."

He snorted softly. Oh, she hadn't been working up to that for hours, had she? He gave her a quick nod, watching with a wry smile as that grin cracked even wider and she ran into the trees to their right side, flitting between the old trunks and was swiftly out of sight. Toan frowned for a moment, waiting for her to pop back into view. The undergrowth rustled. With a start, he realized that she'd just made off with half their supplies and had no concept of how to ration properly.

She would devour their entire supply of chicken and fish candy in minutes-

"H-hey, wait up!" Toan shouted, scrambling after her. He heard her laugh to his left, a rustle to his right - he looked up. She sat atop the branch of the tallest tree she could find, a triumphant look on her face and the pack on her lap, the entire bag of fish candy in one of her clawed hands.

He took a deep breath.

Calm, Toan. She'll devour them just to spite you, if you yell at her.

Yes, there were really times when he wondered; just who was the master in their odd friendship?

"When are you coming down?" He tried to make his voice as nonchalant as he could manage – he knew he failed as the grin widened even further on her small, pointed face.

"When is Master coming up?" she questioned, tossing the packet of fish candy up and down in that clawed hand. Toan sighed, sliding his pack from his shoulders. He opened it, grabbing the packet of bread and cheese and lurching to his feet. Shooting Xiao a determined look, he took a firm hold on the nearest branch to his level and made his way to the top of the tree.

After all, he'd spent most of his childhood climbing Nolun's trees, he was hardly going to let his upstart cat get the better of him in this.

He seated himself on a branch slightly below Xiao, not quite trusting himself with the extra weight of his swords. He unwrapped the paper around his bread and cheese, taking the first bite in silence. To his left, there was a distinctive crunch as Xiao bit into her fish candy.

Toan sighed.

"Two more days of this," he said, speaking to the air in front of him, leaning against the trunk of the tree, looking at the mirror surface of Atlamillia. The insistent urge to travel, to get out of Nolun, seemed to be gone for now. Right now, he wasn't sure if it was a good or a bad thing. Maybe a bit of extra driving force behind him might make the journey a little faster.

The mixed blues of the gem swirled slowly in the sunlight, drawing him in with the subtle beauty.

Ghe sei karan go klevra soran aa…

He shook himself, blinking rapidly and looking over at Xiao. She had one ear pricked towards him, staring at the gem in his hand. The cat's look deepened into a frown, and suddenly she was next to him, unceremoniously fishing a piece of cheese from his lunch.

Fighting a smile in spite of his outrage, Toan pulled it back from her reach and finished the last of it off.

"So," he said quietly.

Xiao nodded. She seemed as eager as he was, to break the odd silence that had fallen between them in the past few hours.

"What do you remember…? Before I…?" Toan began to fold the oilpaper. It would be good to reuse this.

"Before Master changed Xiao?" She lifted her chin, her brown eyes looking to the green canopy. "A lot of darkness, fear. Scentless Ones. Divine Beast. Skeletons. Before that, Xiao was born in the forest. Like this."

"So how did you get into the Divine Beast Cave? If you were born here…?"

She shrugged, but her eyes looked thoughtful. "Xiao went exploring around the forest without her litter-mates. Found one of the smaller entrances to the Divine Beast Cave. Those ones are not so easy for humans to fit in, though," Xiao explained hastily at the look on Toan's face.

He smiled ruefully. He'd been foolish to think Xiao knew a shortcut to Dran, and hadn't told him. She was a better friend than that.

"Xiao fell in, and couldn't find her way out. She was able to survive on rodents – there was lots of water in the caves. Very dark, but no monsters. Not until the Dark Genie. The air was different – Xiao could smell the evil in the air, and knew she had to hide or she would die."

If he craned his neck, he thought he could make out the dusty road through the trees.

"Dran protected you, until the Dark Genie came?" Toan asked, curious. It might have been indirect, but it did seem as though Dran had allowed her survival.

"Something like that," Xiao replied, non-committal. "The monsters drove away Xiao's food, gathered at the water. They waited for the other creatures to come for water," she explained. "Xiao wasn't expecting to survive much longer when she first met Master."

"I remember that. You ran away."

"Master was new, and if the monsters thought he was dangerous…" She sniffed the air. "Xiao kept clear, but it seemed to Xiao that Master was the monster's enemy, but not hers'."

"The enemy of my enemy is my friend," Toan mused as he plucked a leaf from the branch above him. For her to have the presence of mind, even as a young cat in a dangerous place… it was astonishing. "You were a smart cat."

"Master's not so stupid, himself," Xiao taunted with a grin. "A little slow, though."

He snorted, amused and slightly annoyed at the same time. "So why did you come, when I was fighting Seda?"

"Seda." Xiao muttered darkly. "Xiao smelt evil on him, and went to see if Master would need help. Xiao didn't expect to get caught up in the fight."

"Lucky for us, you did."

"Very lucky for Master," she agreed, flashing him that big-toothed grin. "Xiao promised to watch his back, and will see to it that Master survives. Xiao promised. But Master should not pursue danger, nor obsess over him so."

Toan knew she wasn't talking about the monsters or the Genie now. Fishing around for a topic change, he stretched.

"How old are you, Xiao?" He'd never really had a chance to ask before. Why not now?

She swung down from the branch, causing it to rock wildly as she dropped to the ground lightly.

"By Xiao's guess, she was born in spring, and this was her second spring." She dusted her black shorts off as Toan gaped.

"…wait, you're one year old?"


The travelling duo continued on until red began to streak the late afternoon sky, the initial awkwardness melted by Xiao's relentless questioning and exploration of everything Toan knew about the world, and then some. Finally, he looked up at the sky, rolling his sore shoulders as he slowed to a stop.

Way past time to stop, he mused silently. His body had acquired a whole new kind of ache, it seemed, and blisters on top of his blisters. The thought of retiring to his blankets was seriously inviting right now…

Xiao cocked her head at him questioningly as Toan waved towards the side of the road, leading them from the main path and into the forest. There was a large patch of grass just beyond the initial treeline, a field of dust and weeds. There were the remains of a few charred campfires, nothing more than blackened patches of ground.

He frowned, scanning the area. From the look of the fires and the growing grass, nobody had used this campsite since-

"Since the Dark Genie appeared thirty or so days ago,"Toan muttered, barely loud enough to hear himself over the rustle of the wind in the trees around them. Xiao's ears flickered towards him. She understood it, too.

He led them over to the campsite closest to the road, feeling the back of his neck prickle. Had he been expecting some travellers camping here? He wasn't sure, but now that he thought about it… There had been nobody on the road at all. They had not passed by a single soul, whether headed to Nolun or to Matataki. From what he'd heard from Laura's husband, Karlo, this road was meant to be very busy. It was a major trade route, yet…

Ghe sei karan go klevra soran aa…

He jerked at the sound, the inhuman voice seeming to be so loud in the silence. Rolling his shoulders to dispel the tension, he dropped his pack to the ground.

Just ignore it, he told himself forcefully. It's just your imagination.

Xiao flopped to the ground, staring up at the sun-streaked sky. Her pack fell next to her, thudding to the grassy dust and raising a cloud of dirt.

"Too much walking for Xiao," she told the sky loudly, laying a furry wrist across her eyes. Toan wasn't sure if it was for dramatic effect or to keep the sun out of them, but either way it didn't last long as she sat up suddenly.

"You keep saying that," he told her, with a small smile on his lips. "You're starting to sound like one of the Mayor's inventions – keeping on repeating the same thing over and over."

She gave him a lazy stare, looking like she was ready to flop to the grass again. "Xiao says what she thinks."

"Thank Blue Terra for that,"Toan muttered quietly, under his breath, as he slowly undid the buckles of his battle harness.

He rolled his shoulders again, feeling a lot lighter – the combined weight of the pack and the harness had been huge.

"Xiao, I'm going to get some firewood," he told his prone ally, moving stiffly off into the trees around the clearing. He limped a little from the stiffness and the blisters, and he knew with a grim certainty that it would only hurt worse tomorrow. His back cracked as he bent to gather up some of the larger sticks, stacking them in the crook of his arm as he carefully moved about the trees. He heard Xiao move off from where she'd dumped her pack, flitting along the edge of the clearing on lighter feet than what Toan could manage at that time.

By the looks of it, she was taking stock of their camp's perimeter.

Shrugging, he gathered the last, larger branches of wood and returned to their camp site. By the time Xiao was done with the extended scouting, Toan had the fire going and his blankets laid out next to it. He nodded to her as she flopped to the ground again – so long as she knew the site, he'd rest easy.

Xiao grinned at him suddenly, grabbing a heel of bread and tearing into it with relish.

"So," she said, her tone conversational as Toan took a long swig of water from his flask. "Master should tell Xiao a story."

Toan's mouth quirked into a smile. What a way to waste time… Unfortunately, he wasn't all that great at storytelling, so he wasn't really sure about how entertaining Xiao would find any stories he told.

"I'm not really sure that's a-" he began, before being ruthlessly overrode by his cat.

"Master should tell Xiao a story about Matataki," she told him, her tone brooking no nonsense as she began to gnaw on a chicken drumstick. They'd have to clear off the chicken today, before it completely spoiled. The cat seemed more than happy with the task as she finished off one drumstick and began on the other, filling the silence as Toan thought on what kind of story would meet his cat's demands.

A story about Matataki? Toan thought back. Karlo had been the most knowledgeable of Matataki's ways, often bringing back tales of the hunters that resided in the village. But Karlo hadn't been seen since before the Harvest Fest. A heavy lump formed in Toan's stomach as he dropped the bones of the chicken wing into the greased paper. He'd find Karlo at Matataki, surely – either as an Atla or unharmed.

Or dead.

He cleared his throat, his eyes drawn to first Atlamillia, then the flickering orange of the fire.

"Matataki Village isn't all that old," he began, and was then surprised at how easy the rest came. "Not nearly as old as Nolun, anyhow. The hunters lived on the outskirts of a forest in the north, called Patina Bog Forest. The game there was amazing, it was said. Birds as big as horses roamed the forests, the forest yielded a lot of food for the villagers."

"What happened?" Xiao questioned, drawing one of the longer sticks from Toan's pile of kindling and prodding the fire with it. Her ears were locked in his direction, though, so he was certain she was listening.

"The monster population in Patina Bog Forest grew huge, into plague proportions, and they killed or drove out all the forest game. The hunters had no choice but to move south, to the bigger and more dangerous Wise Owl Forest."

He leaned back, looking at the sky. It was darker now, the first stars appearing in the deep twilight.

"That was around fifty years ago, by the Mayor's estimation. They're not really sure when the move became official, but the hunter village has been there for a while. Wise Owl Forest provides food for them, but also provides food for many monsters. That's why monster hunters like Aga and Matataki's Fudoh became famous. They killed monsters and cleared corruption for a living, I suppose."

"Fudoh?" Xiao grabbed his flask of water, washing down the remains of her meal. "Who was Fudoh?"

"Fudoh was a great hunter – kind of renown in Nolun and Matataki for his incredible hunts. Almost as much as my father…" Toan ignored the twinge of pain in his heart. "I'm not really sure what happened to Fudoh, in the end. Maybe he just retired… I'm sure we'll find out when we get to Matataki Village." He yawned loudly, wide enough to nearly crack his jaw.

So tired…

Xiao nodded. "Xiao will take first watch. Master should take a rest."

He shrugged, only too happy to comply. He didn't even remember pulling the blankets up as darkness claimed him.

Ghe sei karan go klevra soran aa…


Adventure Day Thirty-Four

Koramar Road

Morning

They hadn't really expected trouble to crop up that night, but Toan was still relieved to see the sun rise over the treetops without any incidents. He wasn't sure why his stomach had been so tense with apprehension while he'd been on watch. Perhaps the eerie calm and quiet of the world had finally gotten to him; perhaps the lack of birds stirring in the trees had troubled him. Perhaps it was the certainty that someone was watching him…

His mouth tightened as he and Xiao began their new day's trek towards Matataki Village.

Xiao's ears kept flickering backwards and forwards, and Toan had to wonder if she strained for sound – for a hint of life – as he did. Though she'd probably deny it, the look in her eyes was clearly worried.

They travelled quickly and without much talk, several hours passing in silence as they tried to shake the feeling of eerie quiet from their minds. When they heard the occasional flap of a bird's wings in the forest next to the road, the sound felt unnaturally loud in their ears.

This is troubling, Toan thought anxiously as they approached a bend in the road.

Xiao stopped, dead in her tracks, next to him. Her eyes widened, and both ears were trained on something around the bend. She took a long breath, as if tasting the air.

"What is it?" Toan asked, in a low voice.

"Does Master not hear it?" Her voice was a quiet hiss, and she turned to him, her eyes intense. Toan shook his head, his ears straining. No, maybe there was something. Something shrill, he couldn't make it out well enough to decide what it was.

Xiao blew out the breath she was holding, jerking her head so as to continue. They rounded the bend in the road, and the sound became louder. Toan felt his stomach clench – the sound of crows. A lot of crows. He picked up the pace to a jog, rounding the final bend as the din grew almost deafening-

A caravan of burned out wagons littered the road, their goods spilled; empty, useless. The crows scattered into the wind, and suddenly there was silence.

Toan swallowed.

Xiao's ears were flat against her skull as she crept forwards, her nostrils flaring as she took in the scents. He could smell it too, now. Rotting death, charred remains, burned wood. He forced himself to look away from a burned shape that looked suspiciously human, his mind whirling.

"The Dark Genie," he whispered.

Xiao nodded. "The wagons reek of dark magic."

He felt physically sick as he walked past the abandoned wagons, the smell almost too much to handle.

They've been out here in the elements for a long while, the more rational part of his mind told him in disgust. Of course they're going to stink.

The cold logic gave him no comfort as he desperately clawed back on the Fairy King's words. He said he'd saved the world, stored it in the Atla. Toan remembered it, he-

Maybe he was not able to save all of it, Toan realized in horror. Maybe he could only save a few places. Maybe these travellers were not as lucky as Nolun's villagers…

His eyes fell on the twisted hand clutching at the side of the wagon, clawed on the wood. It had been burned so badly that Toan could see the grey of bones exposed and charred. He nearly gagged. Xiao laid a hand on his shoulder.

"It was not Master's fault," she said quietly, but forcefully. "The sooner we leave, the sooner we get to Matataki. Master can send a few hunters back, to help bury them."

Toan nodded, turning away from the twisted hand gratefully. She was right. The sooner they left, the sooner they could give these people the proper burial they deserved. Anger smouldered in his chest, though. This was the Dark Genie's doing, he knew. This wanton destruction of innocent civilians was unforgivable – and would only continue if Toan did not attempt to face it down and defeat it.

I will win this, he swore silently to the dead. I will make this right.


Adventure Day Thirty-Five

Koramar Road

Morning

They did not see another burned out wagon convoy for the rest of the journey, nor another living person travelling in either direction. Even so, the grim air that had descended on Toan did not ease, only intensified as the silence and stillness of the world grew more noticeable. Toan trudged on, anxiety and anger boiling in his stomach as they crested a hill in the road. Xiao hadn't complained much, not since they'd encountered the wagons.

He supposed she had sensed that he was really, really not in the mood for her games, and had left him alone in his thoughts. Maybe it hadn't been a good idea – the anger and stress felt like it was festering inside him, devouring him.

There was nothing he could have done, Toan knew that. He just wished it wasn't so.

Xiao shot him a look, out of the corner of her eye. She was worried, but was clearly unsure of how to bridge the gap that had once again opened between them.

Toan fixed his eyes on the road before them, not looking up, not looking at Xiao. In his mind, he could still see the burned hand on the side of the wagon. It had been small, almost childlike in size – he squashed the thoughts brutally. He couldn't have done anything had he been there that night, other than die with them.

They travelled in silence, Toan resolutely staring at the ground. Xiao cleared her throat, but seemed at a loss as to what to say to him now. He felt his heart bleed. Compared to their easy banter a few days ago, the awkwardness stung him.

This can't go on, he thought miserably. It had not been her fault, either. She didn't deserve to be punished for this. He sighed, dragging his eyes up from the dusty road. He glanced at Xiao, who was studying the sky very intently now.

"W-we should be getting close to Matataki Village," he told her, his voice a little hoarse from disuse. Xiao's ears angled towards him, and she tilted her head.

"Good, Xiao is getting sick of walking." She grinned at him, and Toan felt a small part of his stress dissolve. He didn't smile, but he felt better. Lighter.

While there was no more talking, the silence between them felt companionable now, Toan decided as they crested the last hill on Toan's map of Blue Terra, and he looked up over Matataki Village.

Or, what used to be Matataki Village, he thought with a sinking dismay as he looked out over the empty, forest-ringed lot of land. There was nothing out there – no houses, no pens for animals. Pike had often talked of the village's Peanut Pond, but there was no sign of that either. No famed Matataki River, just a waterfall thundering into a pool of water at the far end of the village.

Toan swallowed unsteadily, vivid memories of Nolun's haunting emptiness surging. At least in Nolun, there had been someone who had survived the Harvest Festival night. The Mayor's help had proved invaluable, both in practice and in boosting Toan's failing morale. In Matataki, there was nothing. Nobody. The Baron that the Mayor had spoken of was gone.

"Empty," Xiao breathed to his left, walking forwards, her eyes wide. "The Fairy King was able to save them, then."

Toan nodded, and then realized that she was right. There was no wreckage here, no destruction and death, like what had happened to the ill-fated wagon convoy on Koramar Road. Just an empty lot, just an empty lot with some vital things missing.

"Just like Nolun," he said, jerking his head. They'd better make their way into Matataki Village, because there was a lot of work to do before night fell that night. In the west, Toan could make out the dark sea of trees. That could only be the foreboding Wise Owl Forest, he noted grimly as he and Xiao walked down the final hill and into the empty valley.

"Master told Xiao about it. The emptiness. Xiao didn't really believe it," his cat admitted to him as they passed through the tall wooden gates, the gates that marked where Koramar Road ended and Matataki Village began. There were a few scorch marks on the wood, but nothing truly significant. Most of the area surrounding the village had escaped major damage from the Dark Genie's volleys.

Matataki Valley was long, narrower than Nolun's vale had been and surrounded by forested cliffs and hills. Toan shielded his eyes – at the far end of the valley, there was a large wooden gate. Behind the locked doors, he could see the dark, heavily wooded Wise Owl Forest begin. A chill went down his spine, and he shook himself to rid him of the feeling. Of course he'd have to venture into the dangerous, dark forest.

Chances were that the Atla would be scattered all the way through there…

The back of his neck continued to prickle, and he looked down at Atlamillia. The stone's surface was smooth, featureless for now. His mouth thinned – there was no danger near, but why did he fell like he was being watched? Toan paused, scanning the empty flat, his eyes searching the trees for any movement.

There was nothing. Xiao didn't seem to be bothered by the feeling of… immense dislike the way Toan was. She didn't notice anything. Shaking himself again, he resolved to ignore it. If it were unfriendly, he'd soon know…

But what to do first? Toan's mind cast back.

Oh, right. Dran asked me to check on Treant. He said his brother could help me with my quest.

He vaguely recalled one of Karlo's tales of Matataki. Treant, the guardian of Matataki Village, lived in a small grove at the end of the valley. He quickly scanned the area, spying a small tunnel of rock. Motioning for Xiao to follow, they set off down the empty vale. The feeling of unfriendly eyes watching vanished, much to Toan's relief as they moved up the valley.

They passed beneath the huge, over-hanging rock that marked the entrance to Treant's fabled domain, and into a cool grove beyond. There was a large tree growing in a dried up pond. The pond must have been fed by the scattered pieces of river, Toan decided as he examined the area around them. Maybe Treant wasn't in, he thought anxiously when no beast of Dran's size came into sight.

Maybe – his gaze locked on the sightless eyes of the tree.

Oh.

Toan wasn't sure what he was expecting Dran's brother to be like, but there was no way in Blue Terra that'd he'd have expected Treant to be a tree.

Xiao tilted her head, staring at the motionless Treant with a confused look. He was not much more than a pile of dry wood – no motion, no consciousness. Compared to Dran, Treant wasn't really much at all. Was something wrong, here?

"Smells like the Divine Beast," she mused. "Xiao can't see much family resemblance, though."

No kidding, Toan thought as light bloomed next to them. The Fairy King stepped out of the light, his blue eyes worried. The man rubbed a hand in his long beard, then nodded to himself.

"Treant, in its current state, is helpless without water. Treant is a Tree Fairy, that controls the water element. Without water, is seems like speaking is very difficult for it."

Toan found himself nodding along. He supposed that made sense, and revealed why Treant was growing in a pond meant to be fed by Matataki's famed river. Still, the lack of a greeting from the Fairy King almost annoyed him.

"Toan, you must reconnect the river that was cut off here at Matataki Village to revive Treant. Treant will then surely aid you in your quest. The Atla I preserved the village in are probably scattered around the Wise Owl Forest," the Fairy King said, pacing back and forth before the dormant tree. He looked concerned about something, Toan noted. His thoughts turned sour as he realized what the Fairy King had just said.

Of course. Toan looked at Atlamillia. First the Divine Beast Cave, now Wise Owl Forest. The Macho Brothers must be kicking themselves for missing this.

"You can enter the forest by opening Matataki's gate. It is normally barred, preventing random monsters from barging into the village. I will open the gate for you. Go and see what you can find." The Fairy King stopped pacing, seeming to debate with himself over something.

"Listen, Toan. Make the river your priority. Connect the river to save Treant. Got it? Good. Restore the village, but you must move on with your adventure. Do not try to seek justice, not when it will bog down your progress."

Toan and Xiao nodded, and in a bright burst of light, the Fairy King warped away.


Adventure Day Thirty-Five

Wise Owl Forest

Afternoon

Wise Owl Forest was just as dark, dangerous and packed full of monsters as Karlo and the Macho Brothers had always claimed, Toan decided wearily as he and Xiao trudged down a disused looking game path, chasing the ever-elusive Atla.

They travelled lightly – Toan only had his swords and battle pouch, Xiao her slingshots and the ration kit they'd made up before heading into the forest. Unsure of what kind of enemies would be lurking in the darkness, Toan had packed one of everything, but the need for a speedy Atla recovery took precedence over all others. The Fairy King's concern over the speed of their progress through the world was confusing.

What could he be worried about? That Treant might perish? Toan wondered as he followed Xiao down the small path, his skin crawling as the leaves rustled on the side of the path. Atlamillia glowed with a dangerous, red light almost permanently in this place. With Xiao focused on the search for Atla, he had to rely on his own wits and reflexes. He tightened his grip on the buster sword's hilt, rolling his shoulders so they cracked.

He'd already been badly surprised by a mob of pockles, not an hour ago. They'd only just recovered a fragment of river from the first Atla when the group had swarmed him and Xiao from above. He could see Xiao's arms already purpling with heavy bruising. The bruises and cuts down his face and arms still stung, and he wondered if pockles used any venom…

"Master," Xiao said sharply, and the rustling in the bushes next to the path stopped. "It's close."

Toan nodded. "Good. Just one last piece left." He didn't have to add that the darkness of this place made his skin crawl with fear. The Divine Beast Cave had nothing on this place. No wonder Macho and Komacho travelled here for their monster-hunting thrills.

He followed Xiao down an even fainter game trail, swallowing thickly. There were just so many places for thing to hide, Terra damn it all. He thought he caught sight of a spider, as big as his torso, in the canopy. He shuddered, silently urging Xiao to track even faster.

Xiao led him to a clearing a few metres off the game trail, a small spring of fairy-blessed water at one side, and a large, spherical Atla at the other. Toan blew out the breath he hadn't been aware he was holding. The last river Atla – the last Atla that'd he'd be going after that day, at least. Not until after he'd spoken to Treant. Xiao gave him a grin, obviously pleased with herself.

"Didn't Xiao tell Master that she knew the way?" she asked him in a teasing voice, running for the spring of water. Toan watched her go, smiling slightly. She'd earned the short break, certainly. How would he have ever done this without her and her keen nose? Sheathing the buster sword, he walked over to the Atla, feeling the red Atlamillia pulse powerfully as he drew near.

He frowned. That didn't feel right –

The werewolf burst from the cover of the scrub with a feral howl, huge, clawed paws locked around Toan's shoulders as the boy was shoved to the ground. The werewolf's slobbering jaws snapped next to Toan's ear, missing by less than an inch as Toan jerked his head to the side. His left hand scrabbled for a sword – any sword – as his right arm screamed to hold back the transformed man's jaws from his throat.

"XIAO!" he roared, trying to roll to the side as the werewolf's jaw nearly closed around his exposed throat. The beast snarled, drawing back one huge, clawed hand to deliver a slash to Toan's face that would either kill him or blind him. It was the opening Toan needed, bringing the buster sword slashing from its sheath. Crimson spattered Toan's poncho as the werewolf howled in pain, the huge claws reaching for Toan again.

The rock impacted with the werewolf's skull as Xiao launched herself into the air, firing a few shots from her slingshot and slamming into the werewolf. The beast was knocked clean off Toan, rolling to the ground a few feet away.

It steadied itself, its maddened, yellow eyes fixed on Toan. Blood dribbled down the creature's skull, from the cut Toan had opened up on its chest.

Xiao landed next to Toan in a wary crouch, her dark eyes darting between her master and the monster. She inclined her head a fraction, and suddenly Toan knew what she was going to do. It would be up to him to finish the deal, he realized, or the werewolf would gut her like a fish. He gritted his teeth, meeting her eyes.

He gave her a nod. She grinned.

She was a blur of brown and white, then, launching herself at the werewolf's face. It sidestepped her neatly, bringing those huge paws around for a double haymaker. Xiao grinned again, pivoting, ducking and launching herself, using their combined momentum and its lack of balance to topple them both to the ground. They landed hard, and suddenly Toan was sprinting. He had to make it before the thing just decided to kill Xiao, no matter who the original prey used to be-

There was a sickening crunch as the tip of the buster sword stabbed through the werewolf's eye and into the maddened brain behind it. The werewolf shuddered once, and then relaxed, releasing its vice-like grip on Xiao's throat.

Toan and Xiao breathed a collective sigh of relief.

That was too close, Toan thought, wiping the bloody sword on the werewolf's fur before straightening. Xiao was panting, but had the satisfied look of a successful hunt on her face. He wished he felt like that, right now. Instead, he walked over to the Atla, absorbing the light and the last of the river fragments into Atlamillia.


Adventure Day Thirty-Five

Matataki Village

Afternoon

It had been a relative simple process to reconnect the waterfall, the river fragments and Treant's pond. Or, at least it had been using the power Atlamillia gave him, Toan quickly amended as he and Xiao trekked back towards Treant's grove.

Oddly, though, when they had reconnected, two small figures had run out of the trees near the waterfall. Toan had braced himself, blade drawn, sure they were another mob of pockles out to get him but… they'd simply gone to the waterfall and opened the gates. Water had flooded back down the river again – and when he'd looked for those two small figures again, they were gone.

Toan wasn't sure what that was about, but those small people had the power to turn the village's water supply on and off. Why would Treant give that authority to outsiders?

Now, the river flowed deeply, and Toan and Xiao followed along the banks of the stream. Now that it broke the vastness of Matataki valley, the world didn't seem so silent and empty. Toan felt a small satisfaction at that, as Xiao nearly slipped into the river after leaning too far over the bank's edge.

They passed beneath the overhanging rock, into the cool shade of Treant's grove. A huge pair of yellow, bulbous eyes fixed on the pair as they made themselves known. No longer dried out and lifeless, Treant was green, moving, and organic. He wasn't like Dran, Toan decided, but Treant was certainly incredible in his own way.

Toan hastily sketched a bow to Treant, clearing his throat.

"Treant, my name is Toan," he started. When that was met with silence, he took that as his cue to continue. "Dran, the guardian of my home village, Nolun, sent me here in the hopes that you could help me in my quest to destroy the Dark Genie…"

Silence.

Toan shared a look with Xiao, confused.

Hreti oo so, ndarian o si?

He shook his head to clear it. Treant's eyes were fixed on them – kindly, but held a somewhat disappointed cast to them.

Toan's stomach sank in dismay. It wasn't that Treant couldn't or wouldn't talk to them – they just couldn't understand him.

Suddenly, it all seemed so unfair. His village had been destroyed by a giant, four-hundred-year-old evil, and he'd had to reconstruct the whole thing himself. After that, he had to leave his village on a mad hunt for Atla, only to find that the only one who could tell him where the Moon People were, was actually a tree and that they couldn't understand what he was saying. What the hell was he doing this for? His village was back to normal. All he had to do was go to the Moon People and find out what they did four hundred years ago.

The image of the blackened, destroyed wagons flashed before his eyes. The windmill falling on Paige. His mother vanishing in the Genie's destructive powers. His hand tightened into a fist. The wagons.

Xiao grabbed his arm. She was saying something about continuing anyhow, but he didn't hear it.

Toan swore and stalked off, leaving Xiao to deal with Treant and whatever Terra-damn alien language he used.