Chapter Four: If it's Three People . . .

"Like I said, I'll leave whenever I want. I'm just tagging along because you guys insisted and I don't have anything better to do."

"Nice of you to keep reminding us, since you keep saying you'll leave at any time."

Kalas kept quiet and then shot Gibari an unamused look.

The four of them were packing away supplies after a night spent camping in and around the wagon. Xelha smiled as she glanced at Kalas, and then went back to rolling up a blanket. She, Gibari and Mizuti hardly insisted that Kalas accompany them. She had noticed Kalas's awed expression as she explained their (mainly her) reason for traveling. She then asked him if perhaps he would want to stay with them, even if only for a little while. He had repeated that he thought they were crazy, but mulled over it for a while. He then admitted that he wasn't going anywhere in particular and that he may as well travel with them for a time. After all, their "little caravan could use a Selkie," as he put it. He also emphasized that he could leave at any time, especially if they headed near the far northern Miasma stream.

Kalas was a gruff one, but Xelha saw that mix of wonder and curiosity in his eyes as she explained why she wanted to stop the Miasma. Something about their quest intrigued him, even if he didn't want to say it outright. He seemed to be a very private person, which was why she didn't ask him about his apparent change of heart. Xelha did consider herself to be a good judge of character, and felt that despite his bluntness, he was a good person. She couldn't say how much of his incivility was an act,though. Maybe through his apparent interest he would open up to the group and genuinely endeavor to search for the secrets of the Miasma with them. Or maybe he really would leave at the drop of a hat.

Xelha also had to admit to herself that something about the blue-haired Selkie fascinated her. While she didn't insist that Kalas join them, she inwardly hoped he would. She really didn't know why, either. He never did explain what he was doing at Conall Curach by himself, but that wasn't it. Whatever it was, Xelha was glad that he would be traveling with them, even if only a while.

"Hey, where are you going next anyway?" Kalas asked as he put away some cooking supplies.

The Clavat girl blinked to snap herself out of her thoughts.

"We're going to bring the rubbings and translation of the writings to the scholars at Shell-" she began to say before stopping abruptly.

"What's wrong?" Kalas asked.

Mizuti turned towards Kalas and said, "Xelha be trying to say that we are going to Shella."

Kalas gave the Yuke girl a fish-eyed stare. He finally said, "Huh? What's that supposed to mean?"

Blushing, Xelha finally spoke, wanting to clear things up before the boy got any more confused.

"Shella . . . is a Yuke town about five days south of here. Mizuti is from there, and it's where I studied magic."

"Xelha always be embarrassed her name and name of town be similar," Mizuti added. Xelha tried not to shoot her an annoyed look.

So . . . you're named after this town?" Kalas asked incredulously.

"No!" The blonde girl exclaimed, face red with embarrassment, "It's just a coincidence. They're not even spelled the same!" Still blushing, Xelha apologized for her outburst. She was reminded of when she first heard of Shella back in her home village. The Xelha/Shella "confusion" became a running joke among the children there for weeks.

"Sore subject, huh?" Kalas remarked as he smirked ever so slightly, "Well, guess we better get going to Shella soon." The Clavat sighed at his deliberate emphasis on the town's name.

Soon the four of them had begun the trek to the Yuke town in earnest. Gibari held the reins of the papaopamus while Kalas sat near him at the front of the wagon and Xelha and Mizuti stayed within. The landscape morphed slowly as the wagon rolled away from Conall Curach. Even outside the swamp proper there was a lot of fog and several small ponds. The fog lessened, then vanished altogether as marshland gave way to plains and shrubs. Kalas watched the landscape change in silence. Xelha was reading over the translation she transcribed and Mizuti sat with her back against one of the walls of the wagon, either looking out the back entrance or taking a nap. It was quiet save for a squeak of hunger coming from Xelha hood. Her pet greythrone Meemai poked out and the girl gave him a piece of bannock bread. Eventually, Kalas turned to look over his shoulder and asked,

"So do you know where you're going after Shella, or will you figure it out when you get there?"

Gibari smiled and said, "Want to know if you're going to bail on us early?"

"Something like that," the Selkie replied.

Xelha answered his question, "When we're done in Shella, we'll likely go to Alfitaria. The Royal Library there is supposed to have books found nowhere else, including many accounts of past expeditions to find the source of the Miasma."

"Huh, of course," Kalas replied in a scoffing tone.

"While we'll be there to find new leads, I have to admit that I'm excited to see the city," Xelha continued, ignoring Kalas's apparent indifference, "It was the capital of the old Lilty Empire and it's still the largest city in the world."

"You've never been to a city before?" Kalas asked.

"I've visited some, but not any as grand as Alfitaria is supposed to be," she replied.

"The Great Mizuti be excited, too, even if we have more important things to do!" the Yuke chimed.

"It's a huge place for sure, but it wasn't anything all that special," Kalas mused aloud, "Though, I guess I was only there for less than a day."

The blonde Clavat seemed to perk up. "You've been to Alfitaria before?"

"Yeah, about a year ago. I stopped there to pick up some supplies, so I didn't stay long."

"Well, I hope you won't mind a return, then," Xelha said.

"As long as we're not going near that northern Miasma stream, then I don't care," Kalas remarked coolly.

The Clavat girl chuckled. She then looked passed Kalas, who had turned himself around to better talk to her, a thoughtful expression on her face. Mostly to herself she said, "I wonder how much the library has on pre-Miasma times in general? We know so little about them."

Mizuti suddenly interjected, "Lilties get bad reputation for conquering the world, but they at least preserve the past."

"Conquered the world, fought an endless war against the Yukes that ultimately did their empire in, kept the Clavats as virtual slaves, and gave us Selkies as bad reputation we've only recently been starting to shake off," Kalas added nonchalantly.

"Kalas!" Xelha said sternly. Did he enjoy provoking people like that? Gibari wasn't the type to get angry easily, but it was still rude. Her caution proved unnecessary, though, as Gibari said,

"It's not like he's lying. Oversimplifying things maybe, but the empire's done some terrible things."

"That's true," Xelha said, "But they weren't the evil empire some stories make them out to be, either. History is rarely black and white like that. For better or worse, the Lilty Empire did bring order to the world shortly after the Miasma came."

"Yeah, I know," Kalas interjected, "They also established the Crystal Caravans, built and maintained the roads we still use today and like you said, kept great records and histories. I don't really have an issue with Lilties. Heck, I'm glad to be alive now when most of thestigmatisms Selkies had are considered bad stereotypes."

"But sometimes older folks still believe in those stereotypes. I've known some geezers who still act like there's a Lilty Empire," Gibari said, despite himself.

"Eh, I don't let it get to me," Kalas said.

"All tribes be friends!" Mizuti exclaimed, "The past be in the past!"

Kalas didn't scoff at that statement, but he did turn back around. Xelha smiled to herself. The Selkie was becoming more willing to engage in conversations with them. She also wondered if his implied past experiences with discrimination colored his attitude more than he let on.

"Huh?" Kalas said suddenly. Gibari pulled on the reins as she shouted, "woah!" to stop the wagon.

"Why we be stopping?" Mizuti asked.

Gibari pointed out at the road, "There's someone calling out to us."

With the wagon stopped, the two inside the wagon could hear the voice of a young man shout "hey!" Kalas jumped down from the wagon and the girls moved closer to the front to see who it was. A teenage Selkie boy ran up to them. He didn't wear a shirt, but had a sort of fur collar around his neck that was attacked to thin straps that crossed his chest. These were attached to a metal choker around his neck and to an object around his waist. This held up a sort of split tan-colored waist cape. His leggings had horizontal dark purple and light purple stripes that ran into his furred-trimmed boots. Covering some of his short red hair was a large bandana in a similar color pattern to his leggings. It was an odd outfit to be sure.

"Hey, can you guys help a fellow traveler out?" He asked once he got close enough.

"What wrong?" Kalas inquired.

"It's our papaopamus. He injured his leg farther up the road," he replied, pointing. There was a wagon and a blue-furred creature in the distance, though too far away to make out any details, "Do you have any medicine, or know any healing magic?"

Xelha climbed out of the wagon, Mizuti not far behind her. She said, "We're mages and we both have Cure rings. We can help you."

The redhead clapped his hands together and smiled, "Oh thank you, thank you! I was afraid we'd be stranded here, that is my grandfather and I. He's back at the wagon. Thank the crystals you came along!"

"It not be big deal." Mizuti said, "You be doing the same for us, yes?"

"Well of course," he said rubbing the back of his head, "Gotta help each other out in these times of Miasma, right?"

Xelha turned to face Gibari and Kalas, "This shouldn't take too long, so you can wait here.

"We know. It's not like Shella is going to go anywhere. Kalas said. With a smirk he added, "I mean the town. You're obviously going somewhere."

The Clavat hid her annoyance, turning around to follow the stranded Selkie and Mizuti. She heard Gibari chuckle and say, "Don't tease her too much, kid."

When the girls arrived at the Selkie's wagon—Bal Dat was his name—they saw an elderly Selkie man near the papaopamus. The balding man had a full red beard, which was starting to grey, and wore a purple bandana like his grandson. His one piece fur-trimmed outfit was much less outlandish than Bal Dat's, but it was purple striped like the boy's leggings.

"Are these young ladies here to help us?" he asked in a tired but kindly voicec.

"We are, sir. My name is Xelha," she replied.

"And I be the Great Mizuti!"

The man bowed slightly, "I'm Meh Gat, Bal Dat's grandfather."

"I know I said this already, but I'm so glad you guys came along when you did!" Bal Dat exclaimed, "Grandpa here isn't in the best of health, and our wagon is pretty shabby. We wouldn't have stood a chance if any monsters came by."

Xelha glanced over at wagon. There was a large tear in the side of the yellow-with-age canvas. The wheels were terribly worn, too.

Mizuti seemed to voice Xelha's thoughts as she said, "How that thing can be moving?"

"Erm, that's why we really want to get going to the next town. This wagon on its last leg and we can finally afford a new one," Bal Dat replied quickly. Meh Gat nodded.

They went over to the injured beast, which was lying down. Its left front leg didn't seem broken, but the poor creature couldn't move well. As Mizuti casted a Cure spell, Xelha noted that the redheaded Selkie boy seemed a little fidgety. Was he nervous about the spell not being able to heal the papaopamus? Then why did he keep glancing down the road, where the others waited?

The Yuke girl quickly finished the spell. The blue animal rose up, testing its leg and grunting in appreciation. This prompted Meemai, still in Xelha's hood, to squeak. Bal Dat quickly covered his anxiety with a smile and said,"

"Thank you so very much! I don't know how we'll ever repay you!"

"Yes, thank you," the older Selkie added.

"If only we weren't getting a new wagon, then we could give you something," the boy continued.

"You don't have to worry about it. We understand," Xelha said with a smile.

"Oh well, what can be done. Grandpa and I need to get to the nearest town, anyway," he said quickly.

The two Selkies thanked the girls again, and then set to work putting the wagon yoke back on the papaopamus. After saying their good-byes, Xelha and Mizuti started to walk back to their caravan.

"He looked be in hurry at end," Mizuti noted once they were out of the pair's earshot.

"You think so too? I thought maybe I was just overanalyzing things."

"Maybe we be keeping eye on them."

Xelha glanced over her shoulder, "They're already riding away. Whatever was bothering them, we probably won't know now."

Shortly before the mages reached their parked wagon, they heard an unfamiliar voice shout, "Leggo! Leggo of me, kupo!" They hurried over to the back of the wagon, where the voice came from. There, Kalas was holding a small furry armless creature with large ears, tiny wings, and a red ball attached to a sort of antenna on its forehead—a Moogle. This Moogel's fur was mostly purple with darker purple stripes on his body and the back of his head. His ears also had dark purple jagged patterns on them and the left one had a small notch in it. The Moogle struggled and kept demanding that Kalas release him.

"Kalas? Gibari? What's going on?" Xelha asked.

"Where Moogle be coming from?" Mizuti inquired.

As he stood cross-armed near Kalas, Gibari replied, "We caught him in the back of the wagon rifling through our stuff. Kalas managed to nab him before he could fly away."

"Hold still, will ya? And tell us what you were doing back there?" He demanded of the purple being.

"I said let—go!" he shouted as he flapped his wings rapidly. On the word "go" he managed to pry himself free from Kalas's grip. As the boy exclaimed, "hey!" the purple Moogle flew into a nearby patch of bushes.

"Bal Dat! Meh Gat! Looks like I picked the right bush, kupo!" he cheered.

"You idiot! Don't talk so loud!" a now familiar voice replied more quietly but still loud enough for the caravan to hear. At first they just stared dumb-founded at the bushes. Then they moved closer to them as the bickering continued.

"That was kind of loud, too," an older voice said.

"Never mind that! We need to get out of here now! Geez, I still can't believe that you not only didn't nab anything, but got caught, too, Artemicion!"

"It's not completely my fault! You should've gotten all four of them to come with you, kupo!"

"That would've been suspicious, stupid!"

"Uh, maybe we should go-"

Once the four of them reached the shrubs, their strong suspicions were confirmed. Behind the bushes were the two Selkies the girls just helped as well as the Moogle crouched on the ground. They looked up at the caravan members with similar fearful expressions on their faces.

"So, you were trying to rob us, huh?" Kalas said, glaring at them.

"That why Selkie boy act suspicious. Strange. Dubious," Mizuti said.

"And you almost got away with it, if it weren't for your noisy Moogle pal," Gibari added.

The two Selkie sprang up quickly and then dashed towards a small copse of trees. The purple Moogle trailed right behind them. Despite how he seemed earlier, Meh Gat managed to keep up with the redheaded boy.

"You haven't seen the last of the Striped Brigands, kupo!" Artemicion shouted.

"Don't say that, bannock-for-brains! Now they'll expect us!" Bal Dat yelled angrily.

"Uh, whoops!"

Xelha and the other stared at the fleeing thieves in bemusement. Kalas contemplated giving chase, but decided against it since they didn't steal anything. He did, however, break the silence,

"What . . . just happened?"

"We almost be robbed by those three," Mizuti said manner-of-factly. Either she didn't get that it was a rhetorical question, or she just felt like being obvious.

"What's stranger is that two of them were actually Selkies, even if they weren't good thieves," Gibari said

"I guess even bad stereotypes are true sometimes," Kalas said.

"I suppose . . ." Xelha trailed off.

With the distraction out of the way, the four of them continued on their way to Shella. Despite her suspicion, it somehow never occurred to Xelh that Bal Dat and Meh Gat were trying to steal from her and the others. She also wondered how they moved so quickly back to their caravan. Either way, they would all have to be more cautious in the future.

Wow, it took me about three months to get this chapter out and post it. Considering how I've been posting stories for the past four or so years, this is incredible! Maybe I can get the next chapter up even faster! I hope...

This chapter is a bit more talky. I hope you guys won't find it too dull. I can't have too many battle chapters. Actually for this story, there won't be battle scenes for some time. Whether you liked it, hated it, or thought it was kind of meh, please tell me in a review!